From pilgrimage to walking meditation

Inspired by the resurgence of modern pilgrimages, Justina talks about how to bring more mindfulness into your daily lives through walking meditations.

walking meditation forest

Wanderer, your footsteps are the road and nothing more;
Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road and upon glancing behind
One sees the path that never will be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road. Only wake upon the sea. – Antonio Machado

A pilgrimage is a journey or search of spiritual significance, often to a shrine or other place of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith. Typically, this is a physical journey – often on foot, walking, done in solitude, but also in a group, moving through one space together.

As I see it now, becoming a pilgrim and walking for hundreds of miles is having a resurgence. For instance, Camino de Santiago in Spain has become a highway of people marching, all with their own reasons why they are doing it. Be it faith, spirituality, the physical challenge, escapism – you name it.

It is not surprising why people decide to challenge themselves and traverse long distances on foot: it has become a luxury these days to slow down. Most of us, because of the speed of modern life, lose the connection with ourselves, our surroundings, people, even our good old physical body. Technology, cars, sedentary lifestyles, working to be as productive as one possibly can be and more, demands placed by our society – all that makes us distant from our very own sense of being, being a living body who is part of the Earth.

It is not surprising why people decide to challenge themselves and traverse long distances on foot: it has become a luxury these days to slow down.

People take a week or two, a month or even more, leave their everyday life and just simply walk. Walking slows us down and slowing down is humbling. Days can extend to infinity and the rush to get somewhere can be left behind, we can observe what happens in and around us: darkness, light, shadows, sunshine, rain and sunshine again, all different sensations, feelings and emotions that come and go, fatigue, energy burst and again fatigue! All in one day. These are simple things but they make you realise on the very basic level how ever-changing everything is: everything is disappearing all the time and everything is appearing all the time, whether it is outside or inside of us.

It all begins to seem more equal, we are not the fastest anymore and there is no need to be, we can look at ourselves as part of a bigger picture, we are not simply moving on the Earth, we are moving IN the Earth.

I write this after having done my “pilgrimage” on the Via Francigena in Italy. Why did I walk? Honestly, for some fun and for the sake of an adventure – that would have been my answer before I took off. Now it is finished, I do not think that one can answer properly at the start why they are doing it. It all clears up on the road. It fascinates me now how a simple act of walking made me go through so many phases of experiencing myself and my relationship with the environment I was in. There are not many distractions on the road – you walk all day fulfilling your basic needs for water, food and sleep. The rest is left to observe.

The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it.– Rebecca Solnit

From my experience, I noticed that I came into a meditative state of mind during the walk and it doesn’t come deliberately, it comes unnoticed. It does not happen all the time and you do not stay in such a state all day but there is a good chance that you will step there accidentally and there the magic will begin: your steps begin to synchronize with your breathing, you observe your changing thoughts, emotions, bodily state, you become really aware of your surroundings, of the ground underneath your feet which is always there to hold you even if you fall! One can start noticing many little things happening during the day, within and outside ourselves and time starts to seem endless.

The experience of this booming phenomenon of being a modern pilgrim inspired me to explore the method of walking meditation used in the Buddhist tradition. It does not require hiking boots and walking sticks, long holidays from work, being able to read maps or being fit. It can be practised every day going home from a bus stop, climbing up and down the stairs and even pacing around a room.

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What is walking meditation?

Walking meditation is one of the most widespread forms of Buddhist practice and can be done anytime while walking – it is a form of meditation in action. It is sometimes used as a way to break up periods of sitting meditation to give the body a rest but is frequently done as a meditation practice in its own right where the experience of walking is the focus.

The Buddha described 5 benefits from doing a walking meditation:

1. One is fit for long journeys;

2. One is fit for striving;

3. One has little disease;

4. That which is eaten, drunk, chewed, tasted goes through proper digestion;

5. The composure attained from walking up and down is long lasting.

Historically, Buddhist monks in India would make walking an important part of their daily practice, remaining mindful as they walked around performing the daily tasks. It was natural for them to make the simple act of walking into an opportunity to develop mindfulness and loving kindness. Walking meditation also became a scheduled activity in which practitioners would walk for a given period of time, just as they would have fixed periods of sitting meditation.

How is it different from seated meditation?

Walking meditation is an opportunity to experience the body in action – the fundamental thing is to be conscious and totally present in the act of walking.

For most people, it is easier to be more intensely aware of their bodies during walking meditation: as the body moves it produces stronger and more easily observed sensations. While practising we keep our eyes open so we are not withdrawing our attention from the outside world to the same extent as in sitting meditation – we have to be aware of things outside of ourselves: objects, wind, sun, sounds, other people.

Types of walking meditation

  • Outdoor walkTaking a walk outside allows you to connect with your surroundings. One can set an intention at the beginning of a walk – to have more peace, strength, to be mindful, to be more compassionate etc. During the practice, we have to be mindful of that intention while looking at things usually left unnoticed – flowers, leaves, clouds, shapes of objects, taking in the sounds, smells and visuals.
  • Circle walk. A walking meditation at times is less about where you are going and more about turning inward and listening to yourself. Walking in a circle allows concentration on practising mindfulness as there is no destination. The focus on arriving somewhere drops and walking in a circle creates a state of meditative awareness.
  • Labyrinth walk.  A labyrinth is a circle that creates spiral paths that fold back on themselves. It has long been used as a creative or spiritual tool as well as decoration or art. As a walking meditation tool consisting of a walkable single line path, a labyrinth can be a source of solace and can quieten an agitated mind. The metaphorical symbolism of the labyrinth as a pathway on a journey can help people to let go of something as they travel inward to the centre of the spiral and the centre of themselves.

How to do a walking meditation

First of all, we connect to the body, then we focus on the outside world otherwise it can be easy to get distracted. Being more aware of our inner world makes us more aware of the outside one: when we are distracted we tend to get wrapped up in ourselves and hardly notice what is happening around us.

Once we feel grounded we can start walking slowly but naturally and try to register as much information about the sensation in each foot as it moves. We break the movement into distinct components and note each one:

  • Lifting of the foot
  • Moving or pushing the foot forward
  • Putting the foot down
  • Touching or pressing it on the ground

As concentration grows stronger, one can observe more and more different stages in one step: So the lifting movement is distinct from the moving forward movement, and the moving forward movement is not mixed with either the lifting or putting down movement. We stay aware of the way the body moves in space, how it feels while placing a step forward and what effect the placement of the foot has on the rest of the body. It brings clearer comprehension to the mind which means the correct understanding of what one observes. To correctly understand what is observed one must gain concentration and in order to gain it, we must apply mindfulness.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Walking meditation has a logical sequence to the practice and it is rooted in a traditional formulation called The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These are 4 levels of experience in which we can anchor our minds to prevent them from being fragmented. The levels are:

Our physical sensations.

  • Paying attention to those parts of the body that are in contact with the ground so it helps to stabilize the mind, making it calmer and less likely to wander. The aim is to notice physical sensations and to relax each part of the body as we become conscious of it.

Our feelings.

  • The basic sense of liking/disliking, comfort/discomfort, pleasure/displeasure – these feelings are gut-level responses that are less developed than emotions like anger, joy sadness. So feelings often stand between sensations and emotions. We experience feelings in relation to just about every sensation we perceive. During walking meditation, there are feelings arising which are associated with the body, with the things that we see, hear and sense. The important thing here is to simply notice feelings without clinging or pushing them away. The goal is to try to be more aware of how an experience moves from sensation, to feeling, to emotion so it is clear why we experience it.

Our mental and emotional states.

  • They often change quite rapidly depending upon the way we think, the habitual emotional patterns that we allow to unfold, the speech and physical activity we engage in. Once we are aware of the effects of our inner and outer actions we have more choice not to pursue a negative trade of thought.

Objects of consciousness.

  • Becoming aware of the specific contents of our emotions and of our thoughts and being able to categorize them – whether we want to encourage them or discourage. The more one is able to do it, the more ability one will have to choose to alter their experience in order to get greater fulfilment.

So where do we arrive?

Putting one foot in front of the other can be a spiritual practice that enables you to be in the moment and connect with yourself. It can happen on a long pilgrimage, it can happen on the way from the grocery store if we bring our undivided focus to our walk.

Great men have walked for what they believed – Gandhi leading The Salt March, Martin Luther King and the marches of the Civil Rights Movement. One can not underestimate the power of walking: it is powerful in the world creating social change and it is powerful in our individual lives to change them for the better. Each mindful breath, each mindful step reminds us that we are alive on this beautiful planet. We do not need anything else. It is amazing enough just to be alive, to breathe in, and to make one step arriving in the here and now.

When you walk you need to truly walk. Everywhere I go, I practise walking meditation. Why don’t you practise as well? You will see, in few weeks you will feel the progress. You will become able to enjoy every step you make. And it is possible. – Thich Nhat Hanh

Namaste,

Justina Paliusyte

For more on the topic of mindfulness, read: 

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