Go For a Walk
Posted by Virginia Hilliard
The practice of walking meditation is mindfulness in motion
“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
—Henry Miller, author
My favorite moments of my daughter’s childhood are when she learned to walk—both times. Her first steps, on the very day she turned one, occurred in a burst across the wooden floor toward my mother’s outstretched arms. She started slowly, built momentum, and then flew forward, laughing with delight. The second time she learned to walk was at the age of seven, when the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh gently took her hand in his and they walked slowly, gently, and peacefully through a sun-filled green meadow at the Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi. Ava Grace in her pale blue T-shirt, Thich Nhat Hanh in his brown robes. One step at a time, breathing in and breathing out naturally, in a walking meditation.
Walking meditation, or mindful walking, is a joyful way to practice mindfulness with movement, and an antidote to the frenetic pace that so many of us are used to these days. And it’s perhaps one of the simplest ways to play. Mindful walking is as easy as lifting your foot, breathing in, putting your foot down heel first, then toes, and finally breathing out. It is about arriving, again and again, in each moment, by bringing your attention to your breath and to your foot touching the ground. As with sitting meditation, your mind will wander, and you will become distracted — but you can always return your attention to each foot making contact. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “kissing the earth.”
During mindful walking, you discover the stable feeling of the ground that is always there supporting you. If you’re a person who always wants to do things “right,” you can relax: There is no single right way to do this form of moving meditation. You can walk at a very slow pace, concentrating on each movement of each foot and coordinating your breath. You can also walk at a regular pace, or even move with speed. You can walk a mountain path or stake out a stretch of ground. As with every mindfulness practice in this book, I encourage you to experiment in the laboratory of your own life, and find ways to practice that fit your style, schedule, and location—indoors at home or work, or outside on a sidewalk or in nature.
Mindful walking is a core part of the corporate mindfulness programs I teach because so many find it to be an especially practical, accessible way to train concentration. It allows fidgety people who are so used to doing to practice focusing their attention and to move at the same time. During a recent program at Google in Zurich, Switzerland, the group of employees went outside and walked at a fairly slow pace on a gravel, tree-lined path near the Limmat River. It was a sight I won’t forget—80 people moving slowly, intentionally, and with care for 15 minutes. Some walked back and forth in a line, others made a wide circle in the grass nearby, and others paced in one direction along the river. In this vibrant European city, passersby stopped and stared, trying to figure out what this unusual group exercise was all about.
A lively discussion always follows the mindful walking practice. One engineer told me that although he really struggles with sitting and meditating because he is so programmed to be in action all the time, he has found that mindful walking helps him quiet his mind and body through movement. A marketing manager described how she started out walking with a noisy mind, full of the usual work worries, as well as nervousness about what observers were thinking. After a few moments of practice, she realized that her racing mind had slowly started to settle, then she sensed her feelings of anxiety lessen. After a few more minutes she had a feeling of contentment and peace. From here, she could tune in to the world around her. She started to notice the beauty of the dark tree branches against the winter sky and the sound of the water moving in the river. During a Search Inside Yourself mindfulness program in Paris, a man came in on the second morning and told me, “I have lived in the same neighborhood for 20 years, and I never appreciated how beautiful it is until yesterday during my 15-minute mindful walk at dusk.” If you stay attentive, a familiar path can be freshly illuminated. “New” experiences are another unsung benefit of mindfulness.
Mindful walking is another form of awareness and attention training—and as my coaching client Jon describes it, a practice of renewing the mind and body during the workday. Going on mindful walks is also a brilliant way to engage with kids. Children love it anytime adults are truly present and paying attention, sharing in their natural curiosity, wonder, and delight. That’s why I treasure our evening family walks. My daughter likes to choose one of the senses, such as smell; we then stroll the street, bringing awareness to everything that hits our noses. You may recall from the entry on showering with awareness that the senses bring us right to the present, and you can apply that same principle on your mindful walks. Noticing smells, sights, and sounds trains your capacity to tune in to whatever is around you, effectively pulling you out of your head if you’re ruminating, daydreaming, or thinking about anything other than what’s happening in the moment.
Try to observe without getting lost in thought about what you’re observing. There’s a difference between noticing something and thinking about it. Can you simply see what is right there without your mind pivoting toward a stream of thoughts about what you are seeing (for example, seeing the apple tree without trying to recall all the ingredients in that apple pie recipe you love)? The same goes for your ability to directly experience the walk—can you feel the warm summer evening breeze on your face, the smell of honeysuckle as you walk by a blooming hedge, and if a memory of childhood is triggered, can you notice that you are becoming lost in thought and come right back to the scent or the breeze?
Another way to help you stay engaged in your direct experience is to look for ways that the season affects what you discover. In the spring, we find that the smell of our neighbors’ yards is sweet and floral; in the summer, we savor a honeysuckle aroma; and in autumn, we relish the magnificent scent of fallen leaves. Your mindfulness skills of attention and awareness, along with all five senses, are fully alive during a mindful walk. There’s a richness to life when we take in what’s in front of us instead of rushing from A to B. You are exactly where you should be: right here, in the moment.
1. Find a peaceful place to walk. It can be in a park, along your neighborhood sidewalk, in the hallway at work, or in your living room. You can just walk in one direction, say from the office to the gym, or pick a place about 15 feet long and walk back and forth, slowly and mindfully. Enjoy letting go of the natural tendency to hurry to get somewhere.
2. Begin by feeling your feet. Start with standing meditation. Notice the sensation of making contact with the floor or ground. Feel your center, the core of your body. Breathe deeply, in and out of your center.
3. Try slow, mindful walking. Lift your right foot with awareness as you inhale. Put it down, heel first, then toes down as you exhale. Shift your weight to the right foot. Now attend to the other side. Lift your left foot with awareness, breathing in. Put it down, heel first, then place toes down, breathing out. Shift your weight to the right foot. Repeat, walking slowly for at least 10 minutes. When time permits, take longer mindful walks.
4. Try mindful walking at a regular pace, using your senses. Walk outdoors with a steady, easy, relaxed pace. You can practice open awareness as you walk: Take in what is around you—sights, sounds, temperature, wind. Use your senses. Observe with an open, curious mind, without making up a story or explanation for whatever you notice.
5. Witness your mind as you walk. Notice where your attention goes. It’s natural for your mind to wander or get distracted while walking. Bring yourself back to walking with focus and open awareness.
6. Allow joy to arise. Try it and you’ll see: The practice of mindful walking, alone or with others, is an easy mindfulness activity that naturally cultivates a positive mood.
Excerpt adapted from The Mindful Day by Laurie J. Cameron, © 2018. Reprinted by arrangement with National Geographic Partners, LLC.