On first glance, walking meditation can seem almost like un-meditating. You're in motion. There's a lot that might catch your eye and distract you. If there are others around, there can be awkward social dynamics. When I was a beginning meditator, there were many times I questioned the value of the practice. How could slowly walking, back and forth, step by step, bring the same benefits as stillness? What in the world is so special about walking meditation? I’ll share my experience.
I’ve had many opportunities to experience walking meditation during long meditation retreats lasting 7-10 days. During these (generally vipassana or “insight”) retreats, the general sequence of practice is 30-45 minutes of sitting meditation and an equal amount of walking meditation. During the recent retreat I attended, this amounted to about 3 hours a day. When I first started attending retreats, about 90 retreat days ago, walking meditation periods almost seemed like a kind of “break time.” This changed very quickly as I became keenly aware that the feedback in the walking practice provides some unique benefits.
While walking meditation could feel almost hypnotic or trancelike, it also offered a practical kind of structure that allowed me to consciously witness the activity of my own mind. The physicality could be very grounding or invigorating, but it was also informative. Sometimes when I would aim to stay focused for the duration of a relatively short walking path of 10 to 20 paces, my mind would flit off somewhere in the middle, or even after just a few steps. In these instances, the beginning and end of the walking path offered a physical anchor that easily got my attention. The end of a walking path is not subtle.
Because I was more alert and aware, I was then increasingly in a position to respond skillfully to any challenges arising. This could be as simple as noting a sense of presence and recollecting to “be here now.” Another time, it might be self-compassion or inviting patience. Sometimes it's an opportunity to tell the mind, "Not right now." These opportunities are present in all forms of meditation, however, the physical feedback shows you exactly where you are, literally and figuratively. One simply does not accidentally drift off the walking path and get lost until the bell rings as one might during a particularly sleepy period of sitting meditation.
There was a challenging time during one particular retreat, when it dawned on me that a repetitive thought I was resisting had meaning to me in a way I had not previously recognized. I literally could not go more than a couple of steps without becoming distracted by it. What arose for me next was a melting into self-compassion that was directly related to comprehending the meaning behind my mental state. Acceptance of the thought transformed it. Self-compassion as a response made so much sense, and yet, had I not that degree of conscious witnessing, it may have slipped past me. Had I just been drinking tea in the dining hall, I would have missed it.
Incidentally, after that insight, the retreat was changed for me. There is some mystery here, but during the next sitting session, without any effort, I was able to drop in to a greater degree of stillness than was available to me just hours before. This was the experience that truly catalyzed my appreciation for walking meditation and also an understanding that thoughts are an intrinsic and valuable component of meditation practice.
There are a variety of ways to practice walking meditation. For the last three years, I’ve been dedicating myself to a different type of retreat that could be called “concentration” based practice, rather than “insight” based. These retreats are particularly oriented toward using awareness of the breath as simple focal point that can lead to a lot of serenity. Walking meditation on a concentration retreat is significantly different. One uses the breath as one might use a hand line or a stair rail to stay consciously connected within all moments, including walking. I find this type of walking meditation to be my favorite and it translates very easily to walking in other contexts.
How do I feel after walking meditation, compared to sitting? After walking practice, at times I may feel a pleasant sense of physical vibration, almost like a buzzing sensation, that comes from the cultivation of concentration while staying mindfully physically present. Mentally, I frequently feel greater calm, no matter the content of my thoughts. If I've been restless or agitated in some way, there is likely a shift of some kind that will occur. At home, I frequently do 5-10 minutes of walking practice before sitting for 20-30 minutes. Sometimes the walking feels so helpful that I extend the time. It can easily become the whole of my mediation session.
There is certainly nothing comparable to the stillness of sitting meditation for experiencing a very refined type of awareness of subtle mental states. And yet, personally and practically, I find the walking practice is what gives me the grounding focus to then meet myself in sitting practice. It also helps me attain certain degrees of focus or calm that would probably take much longer when my mind is particularly active.
As far as I know, there is not much research data on walking meditation benefits compared to sitting meditation. I once heard a meditation teacher, also a psychotherapist, say that the effects of walking meditation may potentially be similar to a psychotherapy practice called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) because of the aspects of bilaterality and the way they may influence the brain. I hope that more meditation studies start including walking meditation because the general public, understandably, values the practices that are supported by scientific data. I believe that walking practice may ultimately be a more accessible modality of meditation practice for people who find it so hard to calm and settle that they give up on sitting practice almost before they begin. Additional research could give validity to the practice and perhaps make it more accessible to even those very new to meditation. That is my wish.
Recording: Guided Walking Meditation with Breath Focus by Denise Dempsey
The video below is of a recent beloved walking meditation path, taken after a 10-day silent retreat.