Walking meditation is a wonderful way to combine both mental and physical exercise, allowing you to kill two birds with one stone. (Let's just leave aside the question of why you want two dead birds in the first place).
Walking is also an especially accessible route to meditation for people like me, those folks with neurotic overactive thinky brains who struggle with more traditional forms. It's a great alternative method for achieving a lovely trancey surreal experience, and hell, if it doesn't work, at least you've gotten some exercise.
But if you've looked into it, traditional instructions for walking meditation seem to be aimed at people who already like to meditate. For me, they manage to take a means of exercise that isn't too odious in itself, and turn it into tedious effortful drudgery.
However, by wandering around totally ignoring traditional methods and just making shit up, I've stumbled on much more entertaining ways to do walking meditations. Which, once I got past the first page or so of google searches, I discovered I didn't actually invent, but whatever.
Yet I'm so not an expert at this stuff, who am I to be giving advice? You should probably ignore it. Plus, as you might imagine, some of my variations are quite a bit weirder than what you'll find elsewhere.
But first off..
What Is Meditation?
There are probably hundreds of ways to meditate and dozens of definitions. My understanding of the basic idea: You are trying to direct your attention onto some arbitrary focal point, gently guiding it back whenever your thoughts wander to other things.
Your focus could be your breath, a mantra, a concept like compassion, a candle, a mandala, or a pretty flower.
Hi there, pretty flower!
Can you really hold my attention for more than a few seconds?
This gentle refocusing supposedly does mysteriously wonderful things for your brain if you do it regularly.
The toughest part? You are also attempting to avoid excessive recrimination and self-flagellation when your thoughts wander.
And, well, good luck with that.
Since mind-wandering and frustration are inevitable, you get to practice trying to let go of getting mad at yourself for getting mad at yourself for getting distracted by thoughts. Or, you get to realize that you are congratulating yourself in an extensive train of thought for keeping your focus so steadily on that thing you are actually not paying attention to anymore, because you are so busy thinking about how awesome you are for doing what you're not actually doing.
The mind-fucking possibilities are infinite. Which is part of what makes the whole meditation thing so gosh-darned fun.
(And by the way, for more on getting started with meditation, I noticed that Sagan just posted some helpful tips over at Living Healthy in the Real World.)
Standard Instructions For Walking Meditation
Basic walking meditation tips can be found all over the web, for example, at Meditation Oasis, Wildmind, or Insight Meditation Online.
The bottom line seems to be: focus on your bodily experience of walking and breathing. I've also seen some that involve counting steps or tapping your fingers together with each step. And, I swear I read something about the need for a wooden fish, but there are no wooden fish retailers in our neighborhood so I didn't follow up on that. So you're on your own if you want a piscine companion on your ambulations.
Alternative Walking Meditations That Don't Suck Quite So Badly
The advantage of walking meditation is that since you are not sitting there in one place, you are presented with a huge variety of stimuli you can choose to focus on besides your endless thoughts.
Lately I've become strangely obsessed with tree bark.
I do not believe you have to ignore the environment around you and just concentrate on your body or your breath for it to count as meditation!
However, if you don't have some sort of focus, you will pretty much just be walking, not meditating. The trick is to find a balance between narrowing your focus enough to practice sustained attention, yet not turning the whole thing into a tiresome and boring mental chore.
1. Your focus can shift during the course of your walk. Again, it's a balance--the longer you stay with one focus, the more you are training your brain for sustained attention. But if you are someone who keeps sucking at, and then giving up on meditative practices, a minute or two at a time before switching to something else may be more optimal than an over-ambitious 30 minute focus on something you quickly get bored with.
For example: Until the end of this block, I'll notice all the colors I see. Then: Now I'll notice how the breeze and sun feel on my skin! Then: what sounds do I hear? Then: can I feel my feet hitting the ground with each step? Then: what shapes do I notice?
Shapes in Their Natural Habitat
2. Your focus can be wide or narrow, and it can be simply sensory or may include thoughts, emotions and abstract ideas. It was a great relief to me to discover that "thinking" is not totally verboten in meditation. For example, how can you do a compassion meditation without "thinking?"
But it is a softer, more contemplative, less analytical sort of thinking. It's more of a mindset or a lens to view the world through.
For example, a narrow sensory focus might be: I will notice all the colors and shapes I see as I walk in my neighborhood.
A broader, more abstract focus might be: I will appreciate. I will notice the tiniest details of the buildings and landscaping in this neighborhood, and imagine the work and care that went into building even the shittiest looking house. I will encourage myself to feel grateful towards the far-away workers who created the roof tiles, and the old lady who waters and weeds the flowers in her window box, and the stately jacarandas that keep putting down roots and sending out flowers year after year.
3. You Can Also Let Your Attention Focus Itself. Sometimes it's nice to just "notice what you notice." See what hits your senses and calls out to you, observe your own reactions, notice the thoughts and emotions come up with curiosity, but just let them flow through without latching onto them as you wait for the next sight or smell or feeling or whatever to hit.
This can be tricky though, because if you get too "permissive" with your attention for too long, you may find yourself writing imaginary blog posts in your head (if you are me) or going down whatever mental roadways you habitually travel. You need to remember to pull off that highway and park when you find that happening, and get out and hitchhike a ride with some new sensory input.
(For example, that kid-sized car above set off a lengthy free association about toys and income disparities and set loose a bunch of childhood memories of ridable toys and then had me pondering what humongous sort of batteries might be required and how fast it might go and whether kids would keep playing with it for long or if the brats who begged their parents for it incessantly would get tired of it within a couple days and start whining for something else).
4. You can take along music if it helps. I find that music designed for meditation, especially if it promises some sort of brainwave entrainment or subliminals or other possibly unscientific but hopeful enhancement, helps provide a soundtrack that immerses me more deeply in my sensory experience. I just take my earbuds out when I want to focus on natural sounds.
If it's particularly good music and I'm sufficiently caffeinated, the soundtrack can even start to magically interact with the environment, turning my walk into a surreal dreamlike experience. Butterflies dance in time to the music, the melody turns darker and it bit ominous just when a cloud passes over, then shifts back to a swelling crescendo which culminates in an ecstatic chord perfectly timed to a burst of sunlight, and then something unexpected and marvelous pops into view. Weird shit like that happens all the time.
5. You can Play. If you are mostly alone, you can be more interactive with your environment. Hug a tree, how does that feel? Crumple up a leaf, how does that smell? Jump up to see if you can touch a branch just out of reach and see how that movement feels. Or throw a rock or a stick with both your right and left hands and notice how the movements--and possibly even your emotions--differ.
Yes, I did indeed throw this stone.
But no, I did not kill one bird, let alone two with it.
6. You can Pretend...all kinds of strange things.
...That this is your last walk on earth, so you must appreciate everything you can notice before you are beamed to an entirely different existence in a different galaxy;
...That you are awaiting special signs and gifts meant only for you that the universe has planted, hoping you'll notice. A breeze comes up just when you realize you are hot and wish for one; a child turns and stares at you knowingly with eyes that seem as old as the pyramids; a flower catches the sunlight in a way that makes it look like it's on fire; a pinecone drops right when you walk by as though it were waiting for you; a friendly alien being appears around the corner and peers at you curiously before it retreats back into its disguise as a plant.
7. You can close your eyes as you walk, risking your dignity and possibly your life.
Doing this even for a few steps lets you experience your environment totally differently. With your eyes closed, you may feel anxious, or curious, or even a bit like you are in a waking dream. And then open your eyes and there's the world again! See how things have shifted a bit in the last few steps, then plunge back into darkness again.
I also find it's interesting to take a visual snapshot as I close my eyes, and appreciate a brief sense of continuity with the actual view that was in front of me before it fades. The "slipping away" process is so fast and subtle and it's kind of fascinating! How much of the image can you hold on to and for how long?
But obviously, don't be a total idiot about when and where you walk with your eyes closed. Busy urban environments or cliffside paths are not the place to try this. Sometimes you can only take a few steps, but other times in really safe flat deserted environments you can go for quite a while. I find it's a great way to "reawaken" over and over to what's around me. (Also a great way to look like a total ass when someone unexpectedly comes around the corner on a trail).
8. You can go to a park or some other pretty place where there are trees, creeks, fields or whatever to rest your eyes on and smell and listen to or touch.
9. Or not! Residential streets and urban sidewalks can also be sources of beauty and abstract art.
Just because something is "man-made" doesn't mean it can't be visually compelling.
I find the more I look for it, the more I find beauty everywhere. It's really freakin' trippy.
How about you guys, do you do anything like this? Does it seem like I'm cheating by calling this "meditation?