Outdoor Walking Meditation
Taken with gratitude from the wonderful UK Order of Interbeing Website
Outdoor walking meditation is a wonderful way to renew our contact with nature. On retreat we often practise walking meditation together after a dharma talk, before we eat lunch. It gives us a chance to refresh the body, to dwell in and appreciate all the aspects of our environment; the earth, the air, trees, sunshine, each other and even sometimes the rain. More generally, we can enjoy this meditation at any time while we are walking on retreat or in our daily lives.
The key to the practice of walking meditation is mindfulness. Dwelling in the present moment we are fully aware of our surroundings, of our breath, and the precious contact of our feet with the earth. Our lives often seem to be bound up in getting somewhere and reaching some future goal. In walking meditation there is no destination. We walk in order to walk; we have already reached our destination; it is the here and now; we can move slowly, relax and smile. “Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment. Breathing out, I know this is the only moment.”
The practice of outdoor walking meditation is very simple and very profound. As with Kinh Hanh (indoor walking meditation) we coordinate our steps with our breathing, but this time we take several steps for each breath. The number of steps we make depends on what we find comfortable. Many people find three paces for each in and each out breath works well. As we step we can silently recite a short gatha to help us. This can be as simple as: “in-in-in: out-out-out”, each word representing one step. There are many such mindfulness verses that we might find useful. We may wish to compose our own to help us. Another example is “With-every-step: I kiss-the-earth.”If we are conducting walking meditation as a group then periodically there will be a sound of a hand bell. This is the signal for us to stop walking and breath in and out at least three times. We look around us, breathe, and appreciate our surroundings.
Walking meditation is a very versatile practice. It may be practised in cities and built up areas as well as in the country. Although it maybe more difficult in polluted or noisy environments, it is an invaluable mindfulness practice. On one retreat in New York, participants travelled to Central Park to practise walking meditation. They invented ‘Subway Meditation’ so that they could practise whilst on the city’s underground system. In the UK Pennine Sangha, walking meditation is sometimes integrated into hill walking mindfulness days. Periods are given over to slow silent walking meditation, these are announced with a small hand bell. After two sounds of the bell these periods finish. The rest of the day’s walking and particularly our communications can profit greatly from these periods of silent walking. Outdoor walking meditation is one of many opportunities Thây (Thay, meaning "teacher" is the affectionate nickname Thich Nhat Hanh's students refer to him by) offers us to practise mindfulness in our everyday life.
The length of outdoor walking meditation can vary depending on conditions. Often we walk for an hour or more. On retreat it is good to find a pleasant route suitable for the practice. We may also wish to stop and practise mindful movements or another form of practice at some point during the walk.
The following passage by Thây describes walking meditation:
In our daily lives, we usually feel pressured to move ahead. We have to hurry. We seldom ask ourselves where it is that we must hurry to. When you practise walking meditation, you go for a stroll. You have no purpose or direction in space or time. The purpose of walking meditation is walking meditation itself. Going is important, not arriving. Walking meditation is not a means to an end; it is an end. Each step is life; each step is peace and joy. That is why we don’t have to hurry. That is why we slow down. We seem to move forward, but we don’t go anywhere; we are not being drawn by a goal. Thus we smile while we are walking.
Walking meditation is learning to walk again with ease. When you were about a year old, you began to walk with tottering steps. Now in practising walking meditation you are learning to walk again. However, after a few weeks of practice, you will be able to step solidly in peace and comfort.
Choose a nice road or your practice, along the shore of a river, in a park, on the flat roof of a building, in the woods, or along a bamboo fence. Such places are ideal, but they are not essential. I know there are people who practise walking meditation in reformation camps, even in small prison cells. It is best if the road is not too rough or too steep. Slow down and concentrate on your steps. Be aware of
each move. Walk straight ahead with dignity, calm, and comfort. Consciously make an imprint on the ground as you step. Walk as the Buddha would. Place your foot on the surface of the earth the way an emperor would place his seal on a royal decree. A royal decree can bring happiness or misery to people. It can shower grace on them or it can ruin their lives. Your steps can do the same. If your steps are peaceful, the world will have peace. If you can take one peaceful step, you can take two. You can take one hundred and eight peaceful
I suggest that you should walk like a Buddha, taking steps as the Buddha did. Each step leaves the imprint of peace, joy and innocence on the surface of the earth, and the earth becomes the Pure Land. It is not by preaching or expounding the sutras (scriptures) that you fulfil the task of awakening others to self-realisation; it is rather by the way you walk, the way you stand, the way you sit and the way you see things.