Sunday, May 16, 2010

In Praise of Walking Meditation

For many meditation practitioners, walking meditation can be a real challenge. I don't know many, if any, meditators who include walking as part of their daily practice with any regularity. I must admit that I have to include myself in this category as well.

Yet, whenever I practice it, whether with our Saturday afternoon sangha, or on retreats, it is always an extraordinarily rewarding practice. I am not alone in my praise for walking meditation. Many students have had their most profound insights during walking practice while on retreat. 

For example, just yesterday I was leading a silent retreat as part of a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy class (MBCT) at Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades. During the inquiry period after we broke silence, one of the class members told about an insight she had during walking meditation regarding her lifelong experience with depression (MBCT is designed to help prevent depressive relapse). "I've known for a long time that I've been stuck in my depression, and I've always seen it as this 'other being' inside me who is very powerful. While I was walking, I realized that it all comes from within me - that these feelings are me - and so that means I'm the one who is powerful."

All of us at the retreat recognized this as a significant shift in how she relates to her depression. Armed with this insight, she can now view her situation from a new perspective and can make choices that will help her reduce her suffering in the future. All this is hers, simply from walking very slowly and feeling each step as it happened.

The paradox is that in walking practice (as in vipassana meditation) we are not trying to get anywhere. We usually pick out a lane about 10 or 12 paces long. Then we feel ourselves standing. Just standing and knowing that we are standing. When the intention arises, we feel the weight shift to one foot, then we feel the other foot lifting, and then we feel it placing itself on the ground. Then the weight shifts again, and the other foot lifts and is placed. And on and on it goes: shifting, lifting, and placing, usually moving very slowly so we can feel every movement as it is happening. When we get to the end of our lane we feel ourselves stop, then we feel ourselves turning mindfully, and then we repeat the process again.

The wonderful thing about walking practice is that you have the embodied experience of being "here" all the time. Each step is an expression of "here." You understand rather quickly that what you thought was "there" is really only another expression of "here" once you get there. This experience of being so totally present in the body allows the mind to move into a non-fixing mode of being, rather than continuing its analytical mode of doing, which is its normal day-to-day setting. 

The MBCT participant at yesterday's retreat had tried for decades to figure out her depression and to think it through, but this has only resulted in her staying stuck in it. When she devoted her attention to a present moment task, such as feeling each step, her "doing" mind disengaged and she was able to access a kind of "wise mind" that could actually tell her what she needed to know. 

Dwelling in this kind of "being" mode, where we are not concerned with reaching a specific destination or outcome, is one of the most powerful - and empowering - components of vipassana meditation. When we allow ourselves to just breathe and feel the breath, or just walk and feel the walking, we arrive at a destination that we would never have found through our old ways of doing things. If we are awake and present upon arrival, through the cultivation of mindful awareness, we can then receive the gifts of insight that this destination offers us.



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