I had spiritual experiences while I was on a seven-month mountain climbing adventure.
I didn’t quite understand this at the time.
So, suddenly back in the city, I missed seeing the moon and getting up at sunrise in the brisk morning mountain air.
It wasn’t bad being back in town, for I was returning home to my old college friends.
Nonetheless, I had a haunting feeling something was missing that I’d had in the open mountains and forests, more than just the joy of the comradeship of my climbing friends.
At about that time, I found a small book by a British army lieutenant who had spent his military leave at a Buddhist monastery in Burma.
I read it because it had that “walking” hook.
From the beginning of the book, the lieutenant described his walking spiritually under the tutelage of the monks.
Spirituality Is About Attention
I was still naive about religion and spirituality.
But, I thought spirituality was about how to focus your attention and to keep it single-mindedly focused.
It was 1958 when I had taken off on my mountaineering “sabbatical” from a daily job.
The New Yorker magazine was running J.D. Salinger’s stories about “Franny” and “Zoey.”
They were topics being tossed about in booze-talk in the White Horse Tavern where I’d been spending my evenings.
In my youthful innocence I had already come to the opinion that each religious faith has its own liturgical means of directing its devotees in spirituality.
And, in doing so, each tradition — Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu — aimed at helping its followers gain control of their attention.
What fascinated me about the British lieutenant’s book was the practice he’d been taught by the Buddhist monks.
For one, he claimed the practice turned the more unpleasant side of his military duties, into not just tolerable activities. He actually found them becoming more pleasant as he was using this spiritual practice.
Back then, I’d never heard of physical benefits coming from spirituality.
Since back in the city I’d noticed how quickly my physical strength was waning, I wondered it the Brit’s walking practice might help me keep my physical stamina.
It also seemed easier than sitting meditation, which was difficult back in the midst of city noise.
So, in a half-assed way, back then, in 1958, I began to take my spiritual life a bit more seriously.
This enlightened period soon deteriorated into an abyss of self-indulgences though, for a few unpleasant years, when both my physical well-being, as well as my spiritual life took the dive with them.
I’ll go into that at a later time.
For now, I’ll skip on picking up my spiritual story as it was renewed with more fervor some years later and I again began my daily sitting meditation and got back to the woods. Of course, it was natural to be reminded of the lieutenant’s spiritual walking practice.
The “Walking” meditation
The other day I came across another book which goes into walking meditation. In some depth.
It’s author is Sayadaw U Pandita, the abbot of Panditarama Monastery and Meditation Center in Rangoon, Burma. He is one of the renowned teachers in the Burmese Buddhist tradition.
He explains that monks at his monastery regularly alternate periods of sitting with periods of walking meditation.
And he spends most of his book talking of the merits of this sacred routine.
They walk about twenty steps in one direction, turn and walk twenty steps back along the same path, turn again and walk the twenty steps as in the beginning — walking slowly back and forth for about an hour at a session.
Both the British army officer and Abbot Pandita pointed out, that this meditation is simple and you don’t have to be a monk to do it well.
it can practiced it at any time during the day, at any place where you find space to walk.
The aim is to pay strict attention to the walking, feeling the feet and legs moving throughout the practice.
Any wonder I found this a useful practice, especially while hiking?
While doing this practice monks allow their awareness to closely follow the feeling of each leg swinging forward, one after the other, followed by the feeling of the feet upon the floor.
Of course, as in sitting meditation, the mind begins to wander after short periods of concentration.
With this meditation, the object is to feel the heel touching down upon the floor, followed by the ball of the foot, then the other foot lifting up off the floor, heel first, followed by the ball then toes leaving the floor and the leg swinging forward.
When thoughts pop into mind, then bring the attention back to the feet, shifting the attention to one foot after the other, lifting each off the floor, moving it forward, placing down heel first and rolling forward onto the ball of the foot.
It is a simple practice, the point of which, is to keep the mind upon the sensations of walking.
We are not visualizing the feet going through the motions. Nor watching them.
But, simply following the feeling of the movements of legs and feet.
However, do not be worried about distractions. Make them part of the practice, observing them, allowing them to leave the mind as you prefer to bring the attention back again to the movement of the legs and feet, one after the other.
Do not fight the distractions. Just notice when they occur and as soon as possible to gently prefer to be fully aware of the walking.
Using Walking Meditation Outside the Monastery
I found it fascinating to discover the pure, bare perception of the physical act of walking — the lightness in the legs and feet, sometimes a mild tingle, and the feeling when the legs or feet are cool or warm.
Once I read that Brit’s little tome, I found it rewarding to observe my walking at many other times. In many other situations.
And I did challenge myself, “Why not give full attention to the walking?” Even when walking from one room to another at home. Or when grocery shopping, walking up and down the supermarket aisles. Walking to and from the car to the post office, dry cleaner, restaurant, wherever.
The opportunities seemed endless.
Especially on the trail. Hiking is the perfect place to practice this meditation.
Of course, more often than not, I forget to do it.
When I do think of it, I do it.
Five Benefits of Walking Meditation
The Rangoon Abbot pointed out in his book the practical benefits of walking meditation.
He goes back all the way to the Buddha as his source of these benefits:
- The Buddha said that walking meditation gives the meditator stamina to go on long journeys. (This of course was useful in the olden days, for the primary way of getting from one place to another was by walking. But clearly, for me, when I first read the British officer’s book, it was a perfect physical exercise I could practice to keep in shape for the trail.)
- According to the Buddha too, this meditation gives monks more stamina for their sitting meditation periods. The Buddha said that the walking meditation requires a double effort, that of giving attention to the walking as well as to focusing the mind in single-pointedness. (This also a great value for my hiking as well. I’ve made use of it repeatedly over my years on the trail.)
- Meditation, both the sitting as well as the walking, contribute to good health. The walking, though, is even more beneficial to health than the same amount of time sitting.
- The Buddha also said that walking meditation assists digestion. (Again, it doesn’t take rocket-science to see that even modest exercise is helpful to food digestion.)
- Finally, walking meditation builds our ability to concentrate.
The crême de la crême
I’ve repeatedly found that walking meditation adds a rich flavor to my hiking. It opens me to the essence of nature which I miss entirely when my mind is full of uninvited thoughts.
I’ve found it the most useful meditative practice I’ve ever tried in my decades of spiritual work.
I highly recommend taking a moment or two pause at the beginning of a hike, then begin the hike with a slow walking meditation for as long as is pleasant.
Oh, yes, let me add a sixth benefit of the walking meditation.
I am sure that this practice is one of the most useful in keeping our heart rate down to a healthy, healing range.
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