Walking Meditation – Mindfulness on the Move

person in black jacket walking in the woods
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Meditation has been a regular and permanent fixture in my daily life for a number of years. It has evolved over time into a practice that works for me and the knock on effects are significant.

concentrated woman with aromatic coffee on balcony at home

For those who’d like to read more on my journey into meditation and mindfulness check out these 3 articles:

How I finally learnt to meditate

Zazen – Sitting meditation

My meditation practice – 2 years on

And whilst I love the stillness that comes with a sitting meditation, sometimes it’s nice to get out and get moving.

I’ve talked before about the importance of including the simple art of walking into your healthy movement practice. It’s kind of our default setting. We were built for walking and as a result we are really good at it, and in return it does wonders for our health.

unrecognizable traveler standing on mountain top and admiring landscape

Now I do love a good ruck and enjoy getting a swift pace on, but as a result my mind becomes very narrowed. I’m focused on the effort, and the sensations (often a little unpleasant) in my body as I’m moving as fast as possible through the terrain. This often means I am taking very little notice of the terrain I’m traversing, until I stop for a break.

I also love some contemplatory time in nature. The research expounding the benefits of nature exposure for both physical and mental health is vast and often cited.

It’s a time for me to reconnect to the source code of life; to feel that I am part of something far bigger than myself.

So for the last year or so I have made a regular habit of combining walking in nature with mindfulness meditation, in the form of walking meditations. And I bloody love it!

The point to any mindfulness practice is to build ones own awareness; awareness of self and awareness of the world around you. Many would argue that through a mindfulness practice we realise that there is no real separation between the self and the rest of the world, but that’s a heavier chat for another day.

One way we can build awareness is by using some kind of object of focus.

For example, in Vedic meditation one would use a mantra; a recited (silently or out loud) word, sound or phrase as the object of focus.

In Vipassana meditation, the breath entering the tip of the nose is sometimes used. And in Zazen it may be counting ones breaths or the sensation of the diaphragm rising and falling that becomes the focus.

The point is not to ‘clear the mind’ but to offer an anchor to return to when the mind starts to wander and thoughts begin to flood in, which they will.

The very act of noticing that you have lost your focus IS the act of mindfulness. Over time you get better at noticing these wanderings and as a result you are able to spend longer in the state of focused concentration.

How to use walking as a form of mindfulness.

person pouring water on clear drinking glass

Anything can be used as a mindfulness practice. Cooking dinner, washing up, cutting your toenails. Anything. As long as you strive to be in the moment doing the activity with as much awareness and focus as possible, it all counts.

Sadly, we do much of our daily activities on autopilot. Take driving to work for example. How often do you arrive at your destination with absolutely no recollection of the twists and turns, the people you have passed or the even what was on the radio? Far too often, right?

Walking is a great, low risk activity that is perfect to practice mindfulness.

There are many studies that have shown walking meditation practices to have a positive effects on stress and anxiety, neuronal regeneration, and even be helpful in increasing bone density in elderly woman (although I’d imagine this to be more due to the walking aspect).

Walking meditation practices are used in many traditions as an accompaniment to sitting meditation, or as a practice in their own right, and there are many different ways to do it.

Some of the most common practices are to combining walking with breath.

For a really slow walking meditation you can take a step for each inhalation and exhalation.

For a slow walking meditation you can count 3-4 steps for each in breath and 4-7 steps for each out breath (depending on what feels comfortable to you).

My preference is to focus on the action of walking itself and the world around me, rather than my breath. This allows me to cover a bit more ground while still being able to stay mindful. Just to be clear, this is still a slow walk.

How I do it..

First off it’s worth noting that you can do walking meditations pretty much anywhere. I’ve been known to do them around our kitchen island unit whilst waiting for the kettle to boil. For extra Wild points though, I prefer to do it in as natural a surrounding as possible. Partly for the Vitamin N(ature) hit and partly for the ever-changing topography that helps to give feedback to my feet and make it easier to focus.

Thich Nhat Hanh during a Day of Mindfulness at Deer Park Monastery. Photo Courtney : by Don Farber

I have learnt a great deal about mindfulness from the late, great Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, a big proponent of walking meditations. I particularly like his use of gathas; short poetic verses used to aid mindfulness. These are recited to help keep the focus on the practice in hand.

I wrote the following gatha for walking meditations:

I am walking, I am walking

I feel the ground beneath my feet

I feel the rise and fall of the landscape

I am here, I am now

Before I start walking I take a moment just to centre myself by focusing into my five senses. What can I see? What can I hear? What can I smell? Feel? Taste?

I then take three good deep and focused breaths and start silently reciting my gatha as I slowly walk.

I am walking, I am walking

Here, I am feeling into my body. Which muscles are moving me? What effort am I putting in? Can I feel my clothes as I move? Are there any aches or niggles?

I feel the ground beneath my feet

I literally become aware of the sensation of my feet on the ground. Is it hard or soft? Hot or cool? Dry or wet? Smooth or stony? This becomes easier if you wear minimalist shoes and even easier if you are barefoot.

I feel the rise and fall of the landscape

Am I going uphill or downhill? Does the ground slope to my left or my right? Am I in a dip or on a rise?

I am here, I am now

This is the time to move out of my body and discover what is around me. I look deeply into and through the vegetation. I notice the myriad colours around me. I look up, I look down, I look behind me. What can I hear? Which way is the wind blowing? Where is the sun or the moon? Is it warm or cool? I might taste some handy wild snacks and really focus on whereabouts on my tongue the taste triggers.

I take a good deep breath and feel gratitude for being part of this wonderous existence.

And then I repeat the process over and over until I’ve completed the designated time or distance, or until I feel I’m done.

The amount of extra detail that I notice on these walks is remarkable, as is the real sense of connection I feel to the nature around me.

To aid me in my mindful endeavours I utilise the excellent, free app from Thich Nhat Hanh’s own Plum Village Monastery, in particular the Bell of Mindfulness. I have this bell set to go off every 5 minutes as a gentle reminder to bring my attention back to the task at hand.

As with any other form of mindful meditation, as soon as I realise that my mind has wandered, I simply bring my attention back to the gatha and the walking.

This simple practice is a fantastic way to up the volume of mindfulness practice you do each day/week. It somehow feels more doable to include this at different times of the day and be used in conjunction with any walking task you have, like taking the dog for a walk.

Give it a go and let us know what you think.

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