Taking Mindfulness in Stride: Walking Meditation May Be Your Path to Serenity

April 30th, 2014 by

Looking for a way to quiet your mind that doesn’t involve sitting still and following
your breath? Walking meditation may be for you. It is just as beneficial as sitting
meditation, with some differences. Obviously you’re walking instead of sitting, but
the focus of your attention is also a bit different. Rather than attending to each
breath, in walking meditation you gently attend to the experience of each step.
When the mind wanders away from the feeling of walking, the practice is to
patiently bring it back.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare,
and Society at the University of Massachusetts, and the pioneer of Mindfulness-
Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), explains that mindful walking differs from
regular walking in that, “you’re not going anywhere.” It’s an opportunity to bring
awareness to an aspect of life, like so many others, that has become quite
automatic or “mindless.

A Little Background

Walking meditation shares the same 2500-year-old tradition as sitting meditation.
Ancient texts state the Buddha himself taught that meditation should be practiced
in four different “postures” – sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. The idea
seems clear – train the mind to abide in the present moment in a variety of
contexts, and become “present” for the whole of your life.

The practice of mindful or meditative walking can be found in numerous traditions
and cultures. Each year thousands of people worldwide learn the practice of
walking meditation, as well as other mindfulness practices such as sitting
meditation and gentle yoga, as part of the 8-week MBSR program. The health
benefits of mindfulness are well documented. Studies show reductions in stress,
anxiety, blood pressure, back pain, and insomnia, and stronger immune systems,
speedier healing, and longer cell life.

For even more of a beneficial boost, take your walking practice outside.
Research from Japan has shown that walks in nature, compared with urban
walks, produced a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven
percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity (“fight or flight”), a 1.4 percent
decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate.
Participants had better moods and less anxiety.

How Do I Practice Walking Meditation?

In MBSR, walking meditation is done very slowly in a “lane” in which one walks
back and forth. Remember, you’re not going anywhere. Beginners often like to
use the phrase “lifting, moving, placing, landing” to help them focus their attention
on the four components of each step. To try it, find a place where you’ll be
undisturbed and unobserved, as walking meditation can look a bit odd to people
who are unfamiliar with it.

A great way to practice is on a walking labyrinth – a winding, circular pattern of
ancient Greek origin, used throughout the ages for contemplative walking. This is
my preference, as there’s nothing odd about walking slow on a labyrinth.

Walking Meditation: Some Simple Steps

1. Start by Standing: Feel your feet on the ground, noticing the body’s gentle
sway as it balances itself. Place one foot slightly in front of the other, shifting your
weight to one foot, and then the other, staying attentive to the experience. Shift
back and forth a few times.

2. Lifting: Focus on the sensation created as you lift your back foot. If you find it
helpful, silently say the word “lifting”

3. Moving: Stay attentive to the feeling of the foot moving forward through
space. If you like, saying the word “moving” to yourself as you move the foot.

4. Placing: Stay attentive to the moment the heel contacts the ground, as well as
the sensation of the entire sole as it meets the earth. You might mentally say the
word “placing” as you do this, but make sure the word and your action are

5. Landing: Feel your weight shifting into the front foot, saying the word “landing”
as you experience this shift.

Continue sensing the physical experience of each step, repeating the four-part
“mantra” if you like. Your mind will naturally wander into thinking many times. You
will likely find yourself thinking about walking! When you notice this, you are
instantly “present” again. Simply note when you discover the mind has wandered
into “thinking” and gently escort it back to the sensations of walking.