By Anne Heerdt
My walking/running meditation started when I was having a rough year.
I was unsettled and unable to sit for very long in any way, much less meditation. At that point it had been almost 20 years since I was introduced to, and began practicing, meditation. My practice had been very flexible throughout college, having children and balancing all of life, however formal sitting practice was the foundation over and over.
It felt very painful to not be able to sit, not to find that comfort and discipline.
I knew that more than ever I needed a practice that had some structure, discipline and support. I was running at the time, and with a certain pace I found my mind settling. I also found that when my mind was not focused during a run then I was more likely to stumble or over-do my limits. I started to run with an intentional focus as a meditation practice, and later with walking or running meditation, which has led to a rich and varied way to practice.
A few years later I was sitting with a local group. The yoga studio where we met was a block or so from a city park.
There were a few months during the year when it was light enough to go to the park for the meditation and then return to the yoga studio for our talk and discussion. We usually sat even at the park, but one evening we decided to do a walking meditation in the style of Thich Nhat Hanh.
We started from a central point and spread out with slow walking, eyes down and hands held at our middle. Imagine a group of about 10 people, all walking slowly through an urban park, watching the ground carefully.
A young girl ran over from the playground to one person in the group. She asked what we were looking for, and eagerly offered her help. It looked like we were all searching for a valuable object very intently. We adjusted how we were in public after that, and didn’t worry anyone again.
I kept on practicing some version of walking meditation, but also being aware of my surroundings more.
During retreats my fellow practitioners did the very traditional slow walking and so I tried to slow down. I felt I was being disruptive by wanting to walk quicker, yet it was so difficult to slow down. Speaking with my teacher during the retreat, he assured me that keeping mindful and aware with the intention of it being a movement meditation was the key, not the speed. Later this same teacher gave me the most valuable walking meditation instructions.
In the meantime however I learned more about myself and how my brain worked. I found that there was a “real cause” to how it functioned and between medical and therapy treatments I made a lot of improvement in my life. It also helped me discern if a quicker walking speed was supportive, or an avoidance. I found that although I was able to do more slow walking that often a quicker speed was not a distraction.
As a result of my discovery of my “real cause” I started to really look at the instructions for meditation and mindfulness. I found the keys were intention and continued concentration. The one intention that keeps shining through is the “intention of awakening.”
Many mindfulness programs and techniques are available that have the intention of stress relief or being aware, but not all have the intention of the Buddha for full awakening. If my intention at that moment is simply to be in that moment that is perfectly fine. I do still want to continue to bring my intention back to full awakening.
The other guideline I use is continued concentration.
Just like in sitting we return to the breath, in moving meditation I return to the breath and the body. The directions I have collected from many wise sources come together in these instructions I offer for your consideration.
1. First of all, don’t be creepy. I learned that from the group we had in the park but also from my dear teacher. He held day long retreats in the studio behind his home, and the walking meditation was in his neighborhood. Even though his home was in super liberal Boulder he still didn’t want to be too weird in the neighborhood. When walking in public areas the point is not to stand out unnecessarily.
2. Along with don’t be creepy, remember the basics of being in the space you choose. I often would meditate on a break during work at the park across the street. This was an urban area of Denver, with the variety of people at a park during the day. A certain amount of awareness is really important, including eyes open.
3. Use your meditation to be in deep equanimity, aware of everything around and able to respond, yet not caught up in it. In a movement meditation this may be that you work with the ground being uneven or the temperature as it is rather than getting too caught in thinking it should be different.
Using a meditation mindset towards posture while walking is very important. One reason that walking meditation is traditionally slow is so we move out of automatic and unconscious movement. I use a stretchy string visualization when I teach all ages, and it works for sitting, standing or walking.
The stretchy string goes from the top of your head to your tailbone. You can always tug that stretchy string and bring your body into alignment. Since it is stretchy it also works with any physical differences you may have, you just pull into the most stable posture. From that central posture the rest of your body moves, the muscles and bones in a coordinated fashion.
When I was running I imagined my skeleton often, and moved back and forth from skeleton to my feet. I focused on different aspects of the running or walking process as I felt I was losing mindfulness.
The last suggestion I would offer is to use the unique aspects of walking or running, which is more sensory input than a sitting meditation. You use sight, touch, hearing, and even smelling during a movement meditation outside. All these senses can be experienced with no more added story.
Since most of our life is spent around multiple sensory inputs this can be a great practice. While we ground in the breath much of the time, you can ground in any sense. The visual field can be a focus, or the sounds around you. I hope you take this invitation to try a walking or running practice in your own meditation life.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Anne Heerdt has been meditating since college, which was a very long time ago. Her practice follows a Theravadan tradition with former nuns as teachers. She has three grown kids and one granddaughter. She loves to teach meditation and mindfulness to all ages, and has volunteered to teach children in school for several years. You can find her in Denver, usually crocheting something unique.
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