Don’t Just Sit There: An Introduction to Walking Meditation

Jay Michaelson
March 13, 2019

When meditation is depicted visually, it’s almost always in a picture of someone sitting down, usually with eyes closed. And, it’s true, sitting and paying attention to your breath is probably the most common form of meditation today.

But sitting has a serious downside: it takes time and space to do it. Whether you’re devoting five minutes or forty-five minutes to meditation, that’s time you’ve got to carve out of your day. And then you’ve got to have a place to do it in, preferably with some peace and quiet but at the very least without interruption.

Just those two factors alone make regular sitting meditation extremely difficult for lots of folks.

Fortunately, you don’t have to sit down to meditate. You don’t need to carve time out of your day. You don’t need peace and quiet. You can bring mindfulness to eating, going to sleep, speaking with friends, speaking with non-friends – just about anything can be done mindfully.

One of the simplest non-sitting contexts for meditation is walking, which most of us do, without thinking about it, every single day. (“Walking” meditation can also be done by folks in wheelchairs; just substitute the motions you’re making for the motions of walking around.)

How does it work? Here are three ways to do it.

1. Mindful walking

First, whenever you’re walking, you can bring some care and sensitivity to what you’re doing. The Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (that’s pronounced “Tick Not Han”) recommends taking every step as if you’re reverently walking in a sacred place. “Each mindful step reminds us that we are alive on this beautiful planet,” he says.

You don’t have to change your pace, though you could slow down a little bit. The real shift is internal. Take one step at a time. Of course, you’re probably headed to a destination, but try to make each step the destination. Here you are.

Next, notice you’re breathing; you might notice that you take around two or three steps on each inhale, three or four steps on each exhale. The exact number doesn’t matter; just notice that you’re breathing, you’re walking, and you’re alive. Simple, yet beautiful.

Finally, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests adding a simple phrase, like “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I bring peace into my body” in synch with your breath. Probably to do this you will want to slow down a little, as if you’re taking an afternoon stroll. But you can do it even walking back and forth on a train platform or at the mall. Just cultivate a little dose of mindfulness, and your walk becomes your meditation.

2. Extra mindful walking

A second form of walking meditation involves cultivating close attention to the physical movements of walking: lifting each foot, moving forward, placing the foot down, and so on. Unlike Thich Nhat Hanh’s walking practice, this does require slowing down somewhat so that you can calmly attend to each of these movements as they happen.

Some people slow down so much that they look like zombies, walking very, very slowly, or like sleepwalkers. Internally, though, they’re anything but asleep. They’re actually more awake and more aware of these bodily movements we usually take for granted.

There’s no limit to how attentive you can be. If you really zone in, you might notice a dozen movements or more in each step. It can get pretty intense, in a good way: each step can feel delicious, the pressure on the foot, the movement forward. It’s a great example of how meditation can make the ordinary feel extraordinary.

Like seated meditation, the point is not to analyze walking for its own sake. It doesn’t matter what your breath feels like or what your feet feel like on some micro level. Rather, the point is to let go of your usual trains of thought, calm and center the mind, and build what meditators call “witness consciousness,” just noticing things without being pushed or pulled by them.

Admittedly, zombie walking can look a little weird at the mall. But if you have a backyard, you could try it there. Or in a hallway of your apartment. Or you could just look weird at the mall

and not worry about it.

3. Less mindful walking

Now, walking slowly and mindfully may sound great, but they may also feel way out of reach, if you’re a busy person in 2019. Not much easier than sitting, even.

Fortunately, it’s even possible to be mindful when you’re walking quickly and trying to get somewhere fast. You can’t zoom in on every micro-movement, but you can shift your mind away from stressful stories (like “I’m late!!!”) to the physical sensations of movement. Step, step, step. Breath, breath, breath. When you catch your mind fast-forwarding to the meeting you’re late to, just let go of that and come back to where you are: taking fast steps, rushing along.

I probably do “less mindful walking” more often than any other kind of mindfulness meditation. Even when I’m moving fast, I can rest my mind by giving it a break from discursive thought. Sometimes the body is moving fast and the mind is moving slow. It can really be quite delightful.

You can give these three walking meditations a try anytime, and make use of the guided walking meditations in the 10% Happier App. Either way, you don’t have to make time to sit in order to get the benefits of meditation. You can meditate how and wherever you are, even if you’re running late to work or to pick up the kids at school. After all, wherever you are, you’re right here, right?

Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and the brand new "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".

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