I practice a walking meditation on many of my hikes.
I walk it while hiking alone on stretches of smooth, level trails.
I must look zombie-like while entranced in meditation this way. So I try to do it where I am not likely to encounter other hikers.
This meditation helps me grasp, bits at a time, clearer understanding of an Upanishad I studied years ago.
I knew this of course, for in my first weeks studying Eastern philosophy the tutor mentioned that,
“If you can see it, you can’t be it.”
It is one thing though, to say this. It is quite another to experience it.
In the walking meditation we observe each foot as it lifts up off the ground, swings forward, and steps back down upon the path.
Then, the other foot. One after the other. Observing one foot, then the next.
I know of course, that myriad muscles and tendons in the legs and feet are at work without my instructing their movements.
And they do it with no further mental effort.
Observing the walking though, eventually gives me a detached presence — as though I am not moving the feet in the walking. They do just fine without my instructions for taking each new step.
The shadow observer
This walking meditation leads at times to my seeming to completely step away from myself, as a sort of shadow, aware of the body from behind and over the shoulders.
I’m able to observe Bill walking. And I slip into a bit of a trance.
No one has to teach me. It is not an intellectual activity at all.
It simply comes from observing the feet, as they walk.
It is similar to observing the sun rising in the East. I certainly do not feel that I am, in any way, the sun. I am just the observer.
The sun just rises. No one has to teach me to observe it. I simply stand there and observe it.
As I move along, observing Bill and his feet walking, it is just as detached as observing the sun rising.
The Taittiriya Upanishad
One summer, twenty-four years ago, I studied a short passage of an ancient East Indian text, the Taittiriya Upanishad.
There were eight of us studying it three hours a day, twenty-eight days in a row, one after the next, no time off for weekends.
Each of us was a leader of a philosophy school in eight different cities in North and South America.
Our schools ranged in size from the 1,000-student school in New York City on down to a twelve-student school in a small town in South America.
Part way through our third week of study the leader of the Boston School held out his upanishad book.
Shaking it, he said,
“It’s dawned to me! The Teaching is not in here! It is not in the book. Not in any book.”
He was a prominent physician, the director of a large Boston hospital.
I was impressed by his confession.
I say confession for a reason..
The doctor was saying that The Teaching was coming from deep within himself. Not from the words in the scriptural passage we were studying.
That was twenty-four years ago.
I believe we all learned a great deal from our study that summer.
Most of us also realized a few other truths as a result of John’s awakening.
I have continued reflection upon that portion of the upanishad and continue to get a bit wider and wider — or I should say deeper and deeper — understanding of myself.
The understanding, as John observed while shaking his Taittiriya, did not come from the book.
This sort of understanding comes from deep within. As John said that summer.
I find the English words much clearer than the Sanskrit words of the Upanishad,.
They help me reach into the depths of my inner Self for The Truths of the scripture.
Reflection upon the words carry me past their surface meaning to that deeper understanding.
Here are the key Sanskrit words:
Don’t be put off, or mesmerized by them.
In translation they are simply:
The “body” sheath
The “life forces” sheath
The “mind” sheath
The “intellect” sheath
The “bliss” sheath
These are five coverings of our true nature. They are the ideas of who we think we are. And they conceal our true essence.
That’s the intellectual meaning of the Upanishad.
It’s quite another thing to experience the truth of this meaning.
My Own Blindness to Who I Am
Reflection upon the sheaths’ role in our life, helped us begin to see past them.
By reflection we mean reminding ourselves, over and over, again and again, how they hide our True Self from us.
Finally, after long reflection, we then ask ourselves a simple question.
“If not this body (or one of the other sheaths), then who am I?”
We reflect upon each of the five sheaths, one after the other, in the same way.
I had difficulty accepting the truth of any of these claims.
The Study Was Not a Catechism
We actually were not studying to learn anything. Rather, we were trying to unlearn things about ourselves.
If you have ever done anything like this, you know how difficult it is to see what is meant by unlearning ideas we have held unchallenged for as long as we can recall.
Our entire educational perspective is about learning new ideas and acquiring even more.
So the idea of un-learning goes against the grain of all we’ve ever been taught.
If you’re meditating, you already have a glimpse of what it is like to ‘give up’ something. You give up the circling ideas that run through your head.
Reflection is much like that.
It’s about giving up preconceived ideas to which we have become wed throughout life.
First we try to see clearly what these ideas are of who we think we are.
And then to see how tightly we hold onto them.
We then go through the tough process of trying to let go of them.
And discover that it just can’t be done by strength of will. We can’t just decide to change our understanding.
We usually begin gradually to see through each of them — for a moment at least.
Reflection While Hiking
So while on my walking meditations, observing the feet moving one after the other, I ask myself,
“If I am not the body moving the legs and feet along the path, what then, am I?
The Deeper Awareness
My sitting meditation gives me similar insights.
For several years I meditated in the Burmese Buddhist tradition, right out of Abbot Sayadaw U Pandita’s teaching, watching the rising of the belly as I breathe in. And falling when exhaling.
It is vipassana, rather than mantra meditation. The focus is intently upon some aspect of being.
In my particular meditation I focused intently upon the breathing — the rise and fall of the belly while breathing.
Just as the walking meditation enabled me to let go of me doing the walking, the sitting mediation detached me from the bodily breathing.
Even when the mind wandered, I become able to observe it too. I was able to see that I am not the mind “thinking” the uninvited ideas that pop up in mind without my beckoning.
So, back to the premise: if I am not — the body moving the feet, not the breathing raising and lowering the belly, not the thoughts arising uninvited into the mind, then who am I?
I’m sure I’ve said more than I ought.
Spiritual Progress, Not Spiritual Perfection
I am satisfied though, that there is some spiritual progress in all of this.
Yet, it is also a long way from spiritual perfection, which I may never attain.
I’m not at all sure of what it all means or where it all goes or whether or not it is all that good for me.
It seems to be the right thing to do at the times I do it.
And it always seems better than anything else I might do at the those times.
Ah, well, perhaps . . .
But then, Don’t Do as I Say or Do
We are all different. And we all approach spirituality in our own way — or not.
And by trying to imitate another’s way, it often gets in our own way.
Then we make little to no progress.
So, if you want to study the Burmese way of sitting meditation or walking meditation, I suggest you get a book by the master.
Sayadaw U Pandita, In This Very Life : The Liberation Teachings of the Buddha
Better yet, find a vipassana teacher in your area — if possible.
Otherwise the book. Far better than trying to “get there” by doing what I do.
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