Friday April 28, 2006


Walking meditation is one of those things that I have often found frustrating. I’m not sure what it is. It is partly, I think, temperamental, and partly because there seems to be an unwritten rule in some Buddhist circles that, with walking meditation, the slower you walk the more spiritual you somehow become. A room full of people engaged in walking meditation can often seem to be like a race in reverse, with the maximum prize for the person who covers the least distance in the greatest time. And whilst there is nothing wrong with walking slowly, temperamentally I’m not particularly suited to this slow, painstaking, microscopically attentive approach to walking meditation. I am often taken by the desire to add a little hop or a skip into the brew, a pirouette, a flourish, a few steps backward or to the side, just for the sake of variety.

In different traditions, its seems, walking is done at different speeds. In Japanese Zen, apparently walking is rather slow. In Chinese Ch’an it is faster – in some places they go at quite a trot, a run even. And when, a couple of months ago, I met up with Gareth, and asked him “What do you know about the Korean Son tradition?”, he said, “They walk faster.” They do. And on my recent retreat the faster pace suited me. It seemed to allow the attention to be broader, less focused upon every infinitesimally small movement of the body, less self-absorbed and more connected in to the wider world. More pleasurable. Far from wanting to add flourishes and pirouettes to spice up the walking, I found that the walking was sufficiently absorbing in itself.

I’d been thinking about walking for a while before going on retreat. When the sun came out in Birmingham – briefly! – in February, I decided that I should spend more time getting around on foot. This was partly the result of reading Rebecca Solnit’s excellent Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Solnit’s powerful linking of walking, thinking and place had a strong effect upon me:

When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains. (p. 13)

After reading Solnit’s book, I started walking instead of spending time on the bus (which is often late and, on the 11 route which I often take, muggy with cannabis fumes, even at 8 o’clock in the morning). It takes an hour to get from Bearwood to Selly Oak, where I work. It takes about an hour and a half, depending upon the route, to get into town, part of the route along the canals. And unlike sitting on the bus, cocooned in a book or in the free newspaper you have picked up from the front, when on foot you build relationships with the world, and with other people in the world. Yesterday when I walked home from the city centre, I must have said “Good afternoon” to at least three people. Not only this, but I noticed all kinds of things along the way: the afternoon sun touching my face, the cool breeze, the plastic bottles and the geese bobbing around on the water, the graffiti (“Can you justify your actions?” said one slogan) daubed on the wall.

So it’s a quarter past eight, and I need to leave for work. The day is overcast and grey. The air is still. It does not look as if it is going to rain. I think that I’ll walk.

I’ll finish with this quote from Wallace Stevens:

In my room, the world is beyond my understanding; But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.

Have a look at the walking meditation pages on Wildmind

# · CompanyCounselor

Recently, walking meditation was discussed at a retreat for lawyers in Woodacre, CA. Do you think walking meditation is a technique that can make attorneys better communicators?

# · Dave

I am finding the camera to be a great aid to slow, meditative walking. I don’t know if it teaches non-attachment – I rather doubt it – but it sure takes me outside my head for long stretches of time!

# · ruth

came to you via our 100 days site, and love this entry. the Wallace Stevens quote has made my day. I walk every day, and you have just enhanced my practice. Thank you.

# · Will

Thanks for your comments, folks. To start with the first comment, I’m no expert on attorneys… and I am suspect that walking meditation alone will not make them better communicators. But I think that the development of awareness is a good thing, and that it can help with communication indirectly, if not directly.

The use of a camera is interesting, Dave. I know that Stephen Batchelor is a fine photographer, and I think that photography can be a way of practising a closer attentiveness to the world. Your photographs on neithernor.blogspot.com are often things of beauty and act as a testimony to this fact.

Finally, Ruth, thanks for your kinds words, and happy walking!

All the best,


# · Sam W

In the book Illuminating Silence, Master Sheng Yen says:

“As with sitting, there are three levels of awareness in walking meditation. The first level of awareness is when you know very well that you are walking and you conciously direct your body in its movement….

The second level of awareness arises when you are no longer directing the movement. You simply contemplate and illuminate as you move, but you no longer need to adjust or direct movement conciously. The body simply flows forward in the mere awareness of flowing. There is no need to be doing anything about it….

The third level of awareness is when the body is no longer differentiated as apart from the environment. The body moves but there is no longer a watching of the movement. Movement and stillness have become the same. Outside and inside are not different. The moving body flows: this is neither a dead body nor a dead person, all is very much alive, yet there is neither the thought of movement nor of no movement. One could well say that, at this level, it is not the practitioner but the universe that is moving. Although the practitioner knows that the body is moving through the environment, she has no feeling of such movement. This is Silent Illumination.

We always start from the first level for you cannot move to the second directly. You cannot wilfully or deliberately move from the first to the second; you have to work up to it. Anything done from the ego fails to work. No amount of contriving, fabrication, imagining will do it. If you try to imagine the second level, the practice simply gets lost in the imagination. These changes come about naturally in their own way and in their own time when you persist in practising correctly. There is nothing else you can do about it.”

# · Cho

In Chinese Zen Buddhism, walking meditation is done with a wooden fish. One of the monks or perhaps a lay student holds a wooden fish (a type of percussion instrument) that is struck rhythmically. Each strike is a footstep. Everyone begins on the same foot which is the right foot. Therefore in Chinese Zen Buddhism, walking meditation is rhythmic and done in unison like a military march. There is absolutely no competition there and everyone walks the same amount and same speed.

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