This week I try walking meditation
Back when I studied law, I’d climb trees. When my head got too frazzled from the insane logic that is torts, I would down pen, walk a few blocks to the bushland near my house, and clamber up a eucalypt. Then I’d sit. Bushwalkers passed beneath me, oblivious to the fully-grown woman suspended out on a limb above. Sometimes it took an hour for my head to clear. Once it did, I’d dismount and head back to my desk.
Law does crazy things to a lot of people; I think I got off rather lightly with this tree-climbing caper, all things considered. In fact, it kind of saved me. It was an appropriately odd release that got me out of my head fug. I’d always come back to earth far more grounded.
Nowadays I mostly walk. This column generally emerges from a walk around the block. Paragraph by paragraph, it unfurls as I lap the ‘hood.
As Nietzsche wrote: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking”.
Henry Thoreau once said: “Methinks the moment my legs being to move, my thoughts being to flow”.
Which is not to imply my column is a work of great thoughts. Just that it probably wouldn’t exist at all if I didn’t walk.
Why are walking and thinking such great bedfellows? One University of Minnesota study confirms that expansive environments – including high ceilings – inspire expansive thoughts. Another by the European Journal of Developmental Psychology earlier this year looked at why walking, specifically, gets us cerebrally fired up. Normally, multitasking results in weakened performance. But it found walking uses a separate “well” of attention to thinking, allowing our “thinking well” all the space and resources it needs to do its thing. It’s why driving and planning dinner go so well together. And taking a shower and remembering you need to call the mechanic back.
This week, however, I decided to up the ante on my inspired walking and overlay it with meditative mindfulness. Buddha was a fan and cognitive psychologists today extol its ability to help with focus and willpower.
There’s really no rulebook for it. But a dig around the Zen blogs, and a re-read of the works of Vietnamese monk and renowned activist Thich Nanh Hanh (who taught mindful walking to distraught villagers during the war) saw me arrive at this approach: step outside. You don’t need a lot of space; you could do this in jail, should this be a reality for you. Inside is OK, too.
Me, I went to the beach, for it’s expansive qualities. Next, inhale and step forward with my left foot; as I exhale, step forward with my right foot. And so on. To do this I have to walk reeeaaallllyy slowly. Which is the point.
It certainly cleared my head of the anxious chatter, mostly because all focus is shifted to the “breathing-and-staying-upright well”. It also felt like the rolling breath massaged my jumpy sympathetic nervous system.
Some suggest imagining with each step you’re kissing the earth with the sole of your foot. Nhat Hanh suggests placing your foot as “an emperor would place his seal on a royal decree” with dignity, grace and certitude, and “going without arriving”. When you walk meditatively, you walk meditatively. That’s it. That’s the point. This, too, slows the jerky race I run daily to some imagined finish line.
I liked this idea though: imagine drawing fresh energy up from the earth on my inhale and pushing the stale, toxic energy back down on my exhale. After a bit it feels like I’m a conductor, fuelled by the massive generator that is this rotating planet. My spine lengthens; I feel like I’m gliding. And my mind expands.
One contributor at Psychology Today does meditative running. Same as above, but at a trot. Towards the end of the week I gave this a crack and found my running took on a far more gentle, glidey pace. Mindful running sounds a little oxymoronic, right? But I found it suited me. Running is my natural pace sometimes (when I’m anxious and flighty). If this is my comfortable forum for accessing some expansive mindfulness, so be it.
Which reminds me of a story I heard of a monk preaching mindful eating. When you eat, you just eat, he lectured. He was sprung by students in the break eating and reading.
His response: “When you eat and read, you eat and read”.