Question: Thank you for your informative answer about meditation. I find that it is difficult to sit or kneel in one position for very long because my joints become stiff and it can be painful. You mention walking meditation, which might be better for me. I find when I’m walking that I do a lot of thinking. Can you say something more about walking meditation?
Frank answers: Before I answer about walking meditation, let me comment about meditation while sitting. In the Yoga-sutras of Patanjali the posture (asana) serves the purpose of stilling the body so that meditation can take place. The posture must be one that can be sustained for the duration of the time of meditation.
The breath (prana) aids the body in its posture and helps to focus the mind. Yoga teachers are always reminding us to breathe (inhale/exhale) when we are moving into and out of poses or holding them. But yoga teachers are always reminding us to continue breathing in and out while we are in a pose. If you are sitting in some version of the lotus pose (padmasana), remember that the seated pose is as much an asana as a standing pose like warrior 2. Remember too that pain in your body is somehow tied up with your mind. Very often the physical pain we experience is a reflection of our mental state— a mental state characterized by ambition and aggression toward our body. I may think to myself, “By God, I’m going to hold this pose as long as I can just to prove to myself (and maybe to the teacher) that I can do it.” My mental attitude is defeating me. In meditation we are told to focus on the breath when we become distracted. We can become distracted by our thoughts, but also by the pain of sitting in one position for too long. The answer to both bothersome interferences with meditation is to return to the breath. But pain is a warning signal. If focusing on the breath cannot ease our physical posture, we need to change the posture.
padmasana (actually half lotus pose, which is easier for most people than full lotus)
Preparing for Walking Meditation
Now about walking meditation. Like sitting meditation it is based on a posture—the standing pose or mountain pose (tadasana). Before setting off on a walk, just stand in the mountain pose. Feel the sensation of standing with your feet planted onto the ground parallel with each other. It would be good to remove footwear and stand barefoot to feel the earth beneath the feet and also to practice balancing on uneven surfaces. The feet have built-in flexibility to negotiate uneven surfaces. Some walking meditations are actually done barefoot. Once the feet are firmly grounded in the earth let the rest of the body rise up from the feet and the legs. The spine should be straight, following its natural curvatures. but the shoulders should be at ease with the arms hanging down the sides of the body or in prayer position over the heart. Lift up the right foot, placing the weight on the left; then lift up the left foot, placing the weight on the right. Return to a balanced center. It might also be a good idea to stretch the body sideways with a half moon pose on either side since the body might tilt in sideways directions while walking on uneven ground. Before setting off on your walk you should feel any areas of tension or tightness and, if you do feel them, try breathing into them. Remember as you set off that you are in a moving mountain pose.
Tadasana (mountain pose)
You will be meditating while walking. The usual practices of meditation pertain: focusing on the breath, noticing what comes into the mind without making judgments about it, and returning to the breath if the mind becomes too distracted. It’s just that you are moving rather than sitting still. You can walk at any pace. Walking meditation does not require only a slow walk. You could walk briskly, as if marching—or walk at your normal pace. The idea is to walk mindfully. That requires quieting the mind. You could do that by focusing on the walking—thinking “left/right, left/right” as you take your steps. You could focus on the breath while walking. How many steps can you take while inhaling/exhaling? You could swing your arms in opposite directions while taking steps and focus on coordinating steps with arm swings and breathing. After a while you can just let the body continue moving on its own and focus on the object of your meditation.
Walking barefoot on the grass
You can quicken your speed into running. Runners have told me that running is a form of meditation. Runners even more than walkers need to prepare their body through breathing techniques and stretching exercises. They notice the same kind of physical and mental sensations as walkers and use the same techniques for focusing on the breath in coordination with the movement of the body. In addition to being mindful about the body, runners can lightly take in the surrounding landscape and human activities as they run and also focus their thoughts.
Walking Meditations with a Destination
You can walk for the sake of walking, without going anywhere in particular. Like the questioner I also find that I can resolve mental issues while walking. I can also clear my mind of all issues and focus just on walking and being alive. You can also walk in order to get somewhere. I will mention three walking meditations that have a destination while at the same time allowing you to focus on your subjective thoughts: the labyrinth, the stations of the cross, and pilgrimage.
The spiral of the labyrinth is a time-honored tool for meditation. Medieval cathedrals like Chartres had labyrinths. They have been popular on retreat center grounds. The labyrinth is not a maze, where you can get lost. It has one way in and one way out. The object is to get to the center and out again. Start at the starting point by getting into your standing pose, folding your hands over your heart, and making an intention. Walk slowly through the labyrinth until you arrive at center. What is this center to you? What is the center of your life? Christians would think that the center of our lives, our devotion, is God. Pause at the center to consider what your center is? Then walk the path that gets you out of the labyrinth. Again pause to ask where the experience of coming to your center will lead you as you go out again into the world. How will that center hold as you return to your everyday life.
Labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral
Stations of the Cross
The popular Catholic devotion known as the Stations of the Cross is also a body-focused walking meditation. But the body is Christ’s, traditionally portrayed in 14 scenes depicting his way of the cross, crucifixion, and death. Pope John Paul II added a 15th station for the resurrection. These scenes may be erected along the aisles of a church building or strung out along a path or a road. The way of the cross can be like a pilgrimage. One walks from station to station alone or in a group. In a group stanzas of the hymn Stabat mater (“At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last”) are sung between stations and a Gospel text and prayers are read at each station. The focus of this meditation is the suffering body of Christ, which he offers for the redemption of humanity. Prayers and devotional readings may be offered at each station.
Stations of the cross St. Joseph Catholic Church, Apple Creek, Missouri
Pilgrimages are practiced in all religions. They are a body-focused walking meditation. Christians have been going on pilgrimages since the early centuries of Christianity, drawn to visit the sites of the life of Christ in the Holy Land. The destination is a holy site. You have to walk to get to that destination. Sometimes you are walking for days. You may walk alone or with a group. Chances are that even if you are walking alone you will end up in a group and bonding with fellow pilgrims will take place. On the way you may chant psalms and sing hymns and stop for prayers as well as meals, rest, or sleep. As you reach the destination pilgrims will often walk barefoot to the final site. Walking barefoot is a expression of humility. It has also been a sign of penitence.
Many people have undertaken pilgrimage as a penance. It has been the custom of the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage in Ireland to climb Ireland’s holiest mountain barefoot, which is certainly a penitential act since the trail itself has been degraded over time by so many people using it. Might pilgrims be thinking of their sins and preparing to make a confession when they reach the chapel on top?
One of the most popular pilgrimages today, drawing pilgrims from around the world, is the Camino to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. The destination is believed to be the final burial site of the Apostle St. James the Elder, whose day of commemoration is July 25. People begin from various starting points. Some Europeans begin from their homes and walk for months. I’ve known people who have walked the Camino. Many do it just for the hike and the adventure, but that has also been a part of pilgrimages. I think part of the lure of this pilgrimage is that so many people have done it for so many centuries. One could feel a part of those who undertook this journey and wonder what would have caused people to set out on such a long walk. (Some did it to earn indulgences.) Is this pilgrimage analogous to the journey through life which we all undertake as part of common humanity but which we also do on our own?
A local pilgrimage has been developed in Iceland by Pastor Floki Kristinsson that involves a six-day walk to the shrine of St. Thorlak in Skalholt where there is a modern little cathedral. He tells me that the pilgrimage helps people to discover themselves when they are removed from the ordinary routines and pressures of their lives, bond with others on the pilgrim way, and deepen their spirituality. This tends to be a more intentional pilgrimage since it occurs with a smaller group of people who have devotions along the way. The pilgrims travel the last mile barefoot and end the pilgrimage with the Eucharist in the Skalholt church.
An idea I encountered in Iceland was a climbing meditation. Pastor Thorgrimur Danielsson takes people mountain climbing on Sundays. Climbing is a form of walking, but it is an uphill walk and sometimes straight up. The more arduous the climb, the more it focuses the mind and brings it into awareness of the earth itself. Mind and body have to work together while climbing. And there is the reward of the view when one reaches the top, which can inspire thoughts of God’s grandeur and our place in creation.
Most walking meditations take us outdoors. They are opportunities to reconnect with the natural world. The Buddhist teacher of meditation Reginald Ray sees the root cause of the global environmental crisis today “as a crisis of disembodiment” “…we have completely lost our connection with our bodies and our physical existence” (see Reginald A. Ray, Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body [Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2008, 2014], pp. 22-23). As a result, we see nature and other people as objects to be used —exploited—rather than as subjects with whom we are deeply connected. If we are able to regard the natural world as part of who we are, we are less likely to exploit it. We need to come to an awareness that our bodies are part of the earth. In a climbing meditation we literally need to be connected with the earth in a very focused way.
Final Earth Meditation
In any event, whether walking or climbing, we need to absorb what we have done in the body by resting and engaging in a meditation that absorbs the experience. This may mean just sitting or even laying down on the ground. This is an opportunity to reconnect with the earth which has supported our sit, our walk, or our climb. Reginald Ray has developed an earth meditation in which we experience the solidity of the earth in our own bodies. This meditation consists of visualizing ourselves dissolving into the earth beneath us, going down, down, down. If we return to that sitting posture (padmasana) discussed at the top of this post, note that it is our perineum that is connecting with the earth. This is the most earthy part of the human anatomy—dealing with procreation, child birth, and elimination. Ray alerts us that there’s often a lot of tension in this part of the body since it includes the anus and sexual organs; we may not want to be connected with the earth. So we also have to employ the breath to assist us in relaxing and letting go.
Many Westerners assume that meditation is a “spiritual” phenomenon, which is usually taken to mean that it somehow has to do with getting beyond the physical into the mind. or spirit. As Christianity recovers its inherent incarnational spirituality and as yoga practitioners claim the Tantric roots of Hatha Yoga, meditation should lead us into a deeper engagement with our physical bodies and with the physical world of which we are a part. The mind and spirit are not disembodied.
Pastor Frank Senn