What Is Walking Meditation?

By Shell Fischer

*You can listen to a talk and guided practice on walking meditation from Shell here.

Walking meditation is an integral part of the formal practice, and can not only help the body refresh and rejuvenate between meditation periods, but can help you “take your practice off the cushion” and into every single moment of your life, so that you are fully embodied, experiencing the whole of your life through all your wonderful senses.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Wherever you go, there you are.” If you don’t love it or understand it the first time you try it, no worries! It’s a practice that deepens and becomes more rich with time.

Here are the basics:

  1. Begin with standing meditation.
  • Close your eyes, stand still, and simply sense the breath – the expansion, & contraction. Let this calm you.
  • Don’t lock the knees, and let your hands rest easily at your sides, or fold them gently in front of you, or at your back. Whatever you choose, allow your whole body to relax as best as you can.
  • Sense the weight of your body at the very bottom of you feet, and notice that your body is never completely still, but always balancing itself. This can feel fluid, or … like a candle flame, flickering.
  • Sense the shape of your skeleton, right from the bottom of your feet up to your head, imagining the white rounded bones, all the connections, and in this way, sense your posture, and even your muscles.
  • With your eyes still closed, you can practice slooooowly noticing how the body distributes weight during walking … you might think of a beanbag, shifting the beans from one hand to the other. For instance, try slowly shifting all your weight to one leg, feeling how heavy it gets, and how the other leg is now light – it now has “less beans” in it. You can shift the weight forward, then backward, too, to get a subtle sense of how the body distributes weight.
  • Sense the earth elements of your body, your deep connection with the earth, and your groundedness. You might even imagine that you are walking on paws, rather than “feet” – remembering your animal nature.
  1. Open your eyes, and begin walking.
  • Keep your gaze soft and slightly in front of you and down, towards your goal – a stopping place about 6-10 paces ahead. You are aware of your surroundings, but your focus is inward, focused on the act of walking, on the body in movement.
  • Your focus during walking meditation is specifically the very bottom of your feet! So, instead of returning to the breath, as we do with seated meditation, whenever thoughts take you away you can remind yourself “feet, feet, feet” to bring yourself back to the present moment, and to your body.
  • Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn likens the way we place our feet on the earth during walking meditation as like an emperor, pressing his seal onto a wax stamp. We very slowly press each part of our foot onto the earth this way, heel first, then roll to the toes, so that we can sense each part of this action, like we’re imprinting the wrinkles at the bottom of our feet into the soil. As you walk, pay particular attention to the sensations in your feet and legs: heaviness, lightness, pressure, tingling, energy, even pain if it’s present, without judgment.
  • Walk for 6-10 paces in a straight path, and when you reach your chosen stopping point, stop for standing meditation for as long as you’d like, then, consciously knowing, “I’m ready to turn now,” intentionally turn around, and resume walking back in the opposite direction.
  • You might practice altering your pace, seeking a speed that allows you to be most mindful of your experience. In this way, you’ll move back and forth on your pathway, discovering that you are not really going anywhere, but are arriving again and again in the aliveness that is right here.
  • Make sure if you are practicing walking meditation in a group setting that you refrain from the very slow, formal practice if you are in front of someone … for instance if you are walking in an aisle in the meditation hall, or maybe in a hallway where people can’t easily pass you. In these cases, you might mindfully walk at a regular pace until there is space for the slower walking, or … If there is enough room for people to pass you, you might kindly and mindfully move into the “slow lane” and allow them to pass. If not, you may be unintentionally holding someone hostage behind you.
  • During group practice, a bell will be rung at the end of the walking meditation

Common questions:

How should I be walking? This is just regular, old-fashioned walking – albeit very slowly. It doesn’t involve walking backwards, pretending you’re on a tightrope, or showing off your cool Michael Jackson moves. 🙂

What if a strong experience arises as I’m walking? In these moments, it’s helpful to stop for a moment and practice standing meditation, giving your full attention to the experience that is calling you. You might mentally note with a soft whisper—fear, awe, sorrow. You can even close the eyes, and put a hand to the heart. When the experience is no longer as compelling, resume your walking practice.

What is Looking Meditation? If something beautiful or intriguing catches your eye, especially outside, you can stop and practice just seeing – watching and observing movement, light, shadow, color, texture – absorbing yourself in this experience with openness and curiosity, without the layering of thought, until you are ready to walk again. For instance, if a bright caterpillar walking on a branch catches your eye, spend some time with it.

How do I practice in my regular life? There are so many times and ways to do this … You can remember to practice when you are walking to and from your car, when you are at home, or when at work. Consciously remembering to focus on your walking and your body during these times can greatly increase your experience of presence. It can also really help during those times when you find your mind and body rushing, to consciously Slow. Down. your steps and all your movements. Try it, and see what happens!