Most people think of meditation as a purely mental exercise, with a few added spiritual benefits thrown in for good measure. But believe it or not, meditation can actually be a very physical experience. This is especially true when one is engaged in a practice such as walking meditation. The art of walking meditation works more or less the way it sounds, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t need a little bit of guidance if you wish to get the most out of it.
A practice such as walking meditation can be a great tool for those who wish to stay sober. As you practice walking meditation more and more, you will learn to clear your mind of cluttered thoughts. This will allow you to become more mindful of your body, as well as your mental state. The following guide will explore some of the benefits of walking meditation, as well as some of the best meditative approaches and advice to help you practice walking meditation to the best of your ability.
Benefits of Walking Meditation
As stated above, many of the benefits of walking meditation are mental and spiritual. When one develops the heightened state of awareness associated with meditation in general, they are able to navigate their thoughts with greater ease. For those who struggle with substance dependency, this can help them to battle the restlessness and irritability that often plague the recovering addict in daily life. They are more able to live in the moment, which is integral to the practice of taking life one day at a time and learning to become more content with oneself. The style of living developed by those who regularly practice any form of meditation is more likely to be one that is happy, joyous, and free.
But exercise is exercise, even when it’s something as mild as walking, so it probably won’t surprise you to hear that there are a few physical benefits to walking meditation as well. Not only is mild exercise such as walking good for weight loss, but it can also help with serious issues such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain blood abnormalities. It does not take very rigorous exercise to yield these benefits, and those who lived sedentary lifestyles while in their addiction will find their health improving through such mild exercise.
The exercise involved in walking meditation also lends a hand in some of its mental and emotional benefits. Those who suffer from mild (or possibly even severe) depression will find that, as long as they stay motivated, mild exercise will help to improve their mood immensely. In fact, a study by Harvard shows that walking can cure symptoms of depression with almost the exact same success rate as the drug Zoloft. Some people don’t like to rely too heavily on medications while in recovery from addiction (especially those who took prescription drugs and would like to avoid the physical reminders), so this makes walking meditation extraordinarily useful.
By the way, don’t think that these health benefits are only associated with walking meditation due to the mild exercise involved. On the contrary, studies have shown that meditation itself has the capacity to yield such physical benefits as reduced blood pressure. These effects were great enough that meditation was actually determined to help decrease a person’s risk of developing hypertension. This study was primarily conducted on young adults (about the same age as the average college student), but it might be presumed that most people would still benefit from the regular practice of meditation in general.
With so many physical and psychological benefits, it seems reasonable to suggest that anyone who is able to try walking meditation should do so. This just leaves the question of how a person should go about it. There are three approaches we’d like to examine. The first is the easiest, and should be adopted by those who have never tried meditation before. The second will be a little more difficult, but may yield greater psychological benefits. The third is more advanced, and will be the hardest for the average person to do well. Nonetheless, all three of these approaches should produce many of the benefits mentioned above.
Method #1: The Basic Approach
As one might surmise from the sheer name of this exercise—“walking meditation”—there are two primary aspects that make up the basic approach. The first one is walking, and we won’t be so patronizing as to explain to you how this is accomplished. There’s no trick to it whatsoever. Simply walk the same way you always do. Don’t try to change it up at all, because that really isn’t the point of this exercise.
The meditation aspect, however, is where these approaches begin to differ. For the basic approach, we’re not going to ask too much of you. All you need to focus on is the walking itself. But when we say “focus,” that’s exactly what we mean. Try to clear your mind of all other thoughts and feelings. Do not think about where you are going, because you likely shouldn’t have a destination. For the purposes of walking meditation, all that matters is the journey. That means that you can do this anywhere, and for any length of time.
You also shouldn’t really be looking around too much (we’ll handle that in the sensory approach). All you need to look at is the path in front of you, to make sure that you don’t trip or wander out into traffic. As you’re walking, try to focus on each individual step. When you’re first starting out, this will be much harder than you might expect. It will be a true test of your awareness, given that walking isn’t something most people spend a lot of time thinking about.
For proof of this, try timing yourself. Bring along a watch, cell phone, stopwatch, or other time-keeping device. One which allows you to count seconds rather than minutes would be best. Check the time before you start, and then again as soon as your thoughts stray onto anything other than your steps. You’ll be surprised at how long just ten or twenty seconds may feel like at first. In fact, when you’re first starting, some of your best attempts at walking meditation might be well under a minute long. They should, however, get longer as you continue to practice. If walking meditation were as simple as it sounds, we wouldn’t be starting you off with such a basic approach in the first place.
Method #2: The Sensory Approach
The sensory approach to walking meditation is a bit more complicated. Luckily, there are five aspects to it, so you can begin to incorporate them one at a time if you would like. You should start with feeling, since it’s an easy transition from the basic approach. You’re still going to be focusing on the steps themselves, but now your focus will be geared toward micro-movements.
Don’t think of each step as an isolated movement, but rather a series of movements which combine to make something bigger. You probably never realized this, but walking is technically a complicated action. The hips, thighs, calves, knees, heels, and even the toes are to an extent all involved in the process. As one foot raises, the other bears more weight. Muscles in the legs contract as the foot swings forward, and then weight shifts as the foot lands and the process is repeated with the other side. When you first start to focus on this, you’ll probably find yourself walking very, very slowly so that your mind can keep up.
The sight and sound aspects of the sensory approach to walking meditation are very similar in the sense that there are two ways to practice them. The first is to try and focus on them. Appreciate the sounds of the birds outside, or the cars on the street. Take in the sunshine, factoring it into your sense of touch as you appreciate its warmth (as well as the relief you receive from the occasional breeze). Most people appreciate these kinds of things when they are simply taking a walk in general, but you are going to want to focus on the details without forgetting to monitor the movement of each step you take.
This can be hard, which is why the other approach to this step is to try and block these senses out entirely. Now, obviously you can’t just shut your eyes and walk blindly. But, much like in the basic approach, you may choose to only focus on where your steps are immediately taking you. And this time, you’re going to do the same with your hearing. Focus on nothing but the sound of your own steps. If you are distracted by another sound (which is likely to happen in certain settings), then start over. You might hate this at first, since your best time will probably be shorter than your last stab at the basic approach. But keep at it.
Now, you might be wondering how to factor in taste and smell. And again, you have the choice of trying to block them out. Unless you made the implausible decision to practice walking meditation in a landfill, you won’t encounter much trouble with this. But, if you really want to try a “sensory” approach, then you should try to notice them. These senses are linked, and while you won’t technically “taste” very much while just walking around, you should at least try to take as much stock as possible of the various smells surrounding you.
There are more than you think. Grass, flowers, trees, cars, asphalt…all of these things have smells. You probably don’t usually notice them, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t reached your nose. Try to clear your mind, and you’ll see just how prevalent these smells can actually be. And some of them, such as pine trees, will likely trigger your sense of taste on a subtle level as well.
Some of you are probably asking if there’s a sixth sense that can be factored into your walking meditation. The short answer is yes. In fact, it’s the primary component of the third and final approach we will examine in this guide.
Method #3: The Metaphysical Approach
“Metaphysical” may or may not be the best word to describe this approach, but one thing is for certain: it will not be easy. That said, if you managed to focus on all of your senses in the above approach while still focusing on each individual step, then your capacity for mindfulness has progressed to the point at which you are ready to begin expanding your focus even more. But before we address that “sixth sense” business, let’s talk more about your body.
When we discussed the “touch” portion of the sensory approach, we focused on your legs and feet because they play the biggest role in walking and, therefore, in walking meditation. But we also mentioned the warmth of the sun, because the rest of your body is naturally still going to accompany you on your walk. And while you may not technically use your entire body to walk, it is still going to be affected by your walking meditation. So start by becoming more mindful of the rest of your body. Your hands, waist, chest, neck, head…focus on how each of these things feels while you walk. Try to become as aware of your own body as possible.
Once you have that under control, it’s time to focus on your mind. More specifically, your emotions. Even if you’ve been doing a good job of keeping your mind clear, that doesn’t mean you aren’t feeling anything. Your emotions don’t simply dissipate just because you stopped focusing on them. This step of the process is where you will learn the most about yourself. Are you sad? Angry? Lonely? Tired? Walking meditation didn’t cause your current emotional state. What it did do, however, was clear your mind and develop your awareness so that you could recognize the emotions that were already lurking in the background. And now that you know what they are, you can deal with them accordingly. Or, if you cannot identify a reason for your feelings, then you can attempt to simply let them go.
It’s hard to get to this point. You may have to practice walking meditation for quite some time before you are able to develop this sense of true self-awareness. But the good news is that once you’ve done it, it will be easier the next time. And just like that, you have developed walking meditation into a useful tool that will help you increase your awareness of your own mind, body and spirit. If any of these things is not as it should be, then it is better to learn so now, before it becomes a bigger issue. This is an especially important tool for those who struggle with addiction, as we’ve usually spent quite some time trying to kill our sense of self-awareness through intoxication. It can take some time to develop this type of “sixth sense” again, but doing so is a fantastic boon to those in recovery.
Other Tips and Things to Remember
Some people like to do more than the above steps. For instance, one visualization-based approach advocates the practice of walking meditation while imagining a ball of light in the center of the body. If you get something out of this method, then there’s no reason for you not to try it. One of the reasons we discussed differing options in the sensory approach was because people are different. Your preferred method of walking meditation may not be the same as your best friend’s. The goal is to develop a keener sense of mental, physical, and spiritual awareness while simultaneously reaping the benefits we discussed at the beginning of this article.
Also remember that walking meditation is simply a tool, not a panacea. It does not replace cognitive behavioral therapy, 12-step meetings, or other recovery tools used by those who have wreaked havoc on their body and mind throughout the course of active addiction. We hope that it will benefit you, and that it will help you to relieve some stress if nothing else. But if you need treatment for substance dependency, then that should be priority number one. You can incorporate walking meditation into your aftercare regimen once you have completed a program.
Either way, we hope that you find something through the practice of walking meditation which is useful to you. As always, feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comments below.