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
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