Today, I want to share further instruction by another skillful Theravadan monk, Venerable Sujiva. This instruction is from an article called “For the Stilling of Volcanoes.” The article is an introduction to insight meditation, or vipassana, distributed freely by the Buddha Dharma Education Association.
Although walking meditation is simple, it does take practice to develop real concentration and mindfulness through observation of something as ordinary as walking. So, it’s helpful to hear different perspectives on how to develop mindfulness while using our steps as the focus of our concentration, rather than our breath.
As with all such instruction, you have to discover what is skillful for you, but at the same time, give some new skillful means a fair chance by practicing enough to get to the “hard place”—that is, the place where resistance arises to actually doing something new and challenging and perhaps difficult. It can be like learning how to play a musical instrument; at first it can seem so awkward, even frustrating but the rewards of pushing through the difficulties can be huge.
Here’s what Ven. Sujiva has to share:
Tips on Walking Meditation
Let me offer you a few tips to start off your walking meditation:
♥ To learn walking mindfully, you have to find a quiet spot with a fair distance, at least thirty feet. Preferably on a straight, clean and level path, without anyone around to stare at what you are about to do. Failing this, any distance of up to ten steps will also do.
♥ First, you must try to bring to mind the clear awareness of your own standing posture. It’s not visualization, but feeling one’s body as it is – the tension, firmness and maybe a bit of swaying. Make sure you are relaxed, with a straight posture. Hold or fold your hands together to help keep your composure. You may close your eyes and make the mind free, calm, relaxed and happy. Learn to let go of all your problems and thoughts. They are not worth clinging on to all the time. Give your mind a break. Just be with the present moment and be aware.
♥ Now, after having gathered your calm composure, start walking, keeping the attention at the lower part of the moving foot, below the calves. Walk freely (with eyes opened) at a pace you feel most comfortable and relaxed with. To help keep the mind at the feet you may mentally say right, left or walking, walking – or whichever word you prefer. And remember, don’t think, just keep the mind in the present moment.
♥ When it’s time to turn, be aware of the turning action.
♥ Whenever the attention runs to thoughts, you will then have to recall your awareness, noting mindfully: thinking, thinking – and then return to the footsteps. If tension or boredom creep up, you will again have to stop walking, to bring back your awareness in the way you did. While standing, note tension or boredom mindfully, before resuming the walking meditation.
♥ I would advise you to walk at a certain rhythm which the mind can catch on to. Once caught on, it will tend to flow along. Then, maintain that rhythm for the time being.
♥ When you feel much calmer or somewhat tired, then you can slow down your pace, and at the same time be even more relaxed mentally and physically. People who have gained concentration in this way can walk for an hour or more, and yet feel as if only a minute has passed. They feel weightless and seem to be walking on clouds. You can end up very blissful!
♥ There is, however, one thing to add. When you feel really relaxed, keep your mind keenly aware as it flows along with the footsteps. Try to feel or sense the sensations that flow along – the tension, pulling and pushing forces, the lightness or weight and, finally, the contact of the soles on the ground.
♥ To help the beginner gain a keener perception of this, teachers have devised a method breaking each step into various phases, starting from two to six. Although three phases are sufficient for most people, they can be increased progressively – but only when one is ready for it.
♥ The principle behind this is to gradually bring the mind to a more concentrated awareness, which can come about with slowing down, and a more thorough observation. As to the most suitable type of walking, it will be the type that arouses the most mindfulness.
Steve Goodheart Comment:
I’m interrupting the explanations to share some of my own helpful hints and things I learned when starting out. First: go slow! In the beginning, especially, don’t over-complicate your walking by trying to keep track of too many phases of a step! (See diagram below.) Starting out, you may find that it’s really quite an achievement just to stay mindful of the simple right/left of each step!
As in breath meditation, you will find your mind flying off to everything in the world except observing mindfully what’s at hand—the next step! Each time this happens, don’t be hard on yourself or judge yourself. Just note “thinking” or “daydreaming” or “feeling” and come back to your mindfulness of each step. Again and again again, just stay with the step, mindfully!
When I went on my first retreat and began practicing walking meditation, I at first thought, “Oh, this will be easy. I’m a pretty good meditator ‘on the cushion.’ How hard can it be to just be aware of each step? Piece of cake!” But I immediately found I had to slow way down—way, way down and walk very slowly and with real concentration in order to truly keep mindfulness of each step I was taking.
About halfway through the retreat, after hours and hours of walking meditation practice, I was finally able to stay mindfully with my steps a full thirty feet! It was a great feeling, and I felt a real sense of accomplishment! But as soon as I tried to add mindfulness of another phase of taking of step—like lifting the foot, or pushing it forward—I found myself having to develop a whole new level of concentration and mindfulness.
At times, I felt like a baby learning to walk all over again! I’d get so involved with trying to remember the next phase in a step, that I practically forget how to walk! I’d start a step, get to the “lifting” part, space out on some thought or feeling, and when I “came back,” I had no idea of where I was in the step, and I’d just freeze. And I’d stand there, like a statue, with my foot in the air, trying to remember where in heck I was in the process of observation!
I know I probably looked pretty funny, standing there with my foot in the air, but in the meditation hall, dozens of people where having the same problem. Some people actually lost their balance and fell stumbled, and some people just broke out into laughter or giggles from time to time. (But some seemed deadly grim, as if they were in a test they could not fail. I think these folks were missing the point!) Some people, in order to stay aware of the movement of their foot, were moving so slowly it would literally take them a minute to go from raising their heel off the floor and lifting it into the air!
In fact, we were all moving very, very slowly, which was good, actually. Even so, I’m sure someone in looking into the meditation hall from an outside window would have thought we were all doing some very strange and weird form of slow-motion line-dancing! Either that, or that we were a roomful of mimes!
Anyway, the point is—take it easy. And don’t take yourself or your “goofs” seriously. Everything teaches us. Just go slow. When you lose track of your step, don’t judge, or condemn, or get discouraged! As with sitting meditation, just stop. Breathe in. Relax. Smile to yourself. And then bring your attention back to the walking.
If you feel yourself all tensed up and nervous, just stand still for a while and get in touch with your breath. Note what’s going on. Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax! Smile to yourself. And go back to taking your next step. There’s really no right or wrong way to do walking meditation, so long as you pay attention. Just do it, but mindfully watch what you do. Now, on to those six phases! But remember, you have to find what level of detail works for you. Steve]
Back to Ven. Sujiva’s instruction:
♥ The phases of the steps, from one to six, are:
2. lifting, stepping
3. lifting, pushing, stepping
4. (heels) raising, lifting, pushing, stepping
5. raising, lifting, pushing, lowering, stepping
6. raising, lifting, pushing, lowering, treading, pressing.
♥ At each phase of a step, when observing closely, one will be able to perceive the sensations or forces that can be felt along with it. One can actually experience it as a flow of tension, thrusting forces, or a spread of hardness when stepping.
♥ To make the picture complete, the intentions that arise prior to each length of walking, the intentions to stop, to turn, are also mindfully noted.
♥ If you can do this, you may actually arrive at a point where you completely forget about yourself, and what is left is the process of awareness with its objects. Then you have begun the journey within, the path to realize the Nature of Who and What we really are. Then all conflicts with Reality, due to ignorance, which is the root problem of suffering, may finally see the end.
Ven. Sujiva, excerpted from “For the Stilling of Volcanoes.”