Walk Your Worries Away: Make Your Daily Constitutional a Time of Reflection and Mindfulness
How- To: Walking Meditation
Walking is a gentle and accessible form of exercise that is as good for the body as it is nourishing for the spirit. Here are a handful of tips you can use to make your own walks a restorative time of presence and gratitude.
I know of few things more essential to my well-being than daily walks. Yesterday afternoon my boyfriend went out biking with his friend, leaving me with expanse of a few hours that were unscheduled, and an unseasonably warm October afternoon to do anything I wanted with. We had eaten a large meal earlier in the day, so I needed time to digest. I also had some things scratching at the sides of my mind, so I knew I could benefit from the time to quiet my thoughts.
I had been feeling a little contemplative over the past couple days. Perhaps this was due to the change of seasons. Fall always manages to break my heart in small, innocent ways. As we watch the trees burst forth in their final glory before dormancy; as we see the sumac redden and wither on the vine, as we hear the wild geese fly south above — we are reminded of the great impermanence of all things, the mortality of our own lives, and the beauty and grace that can be found in letting it all go.
I walked for a long time. I didn't bring my watch with me. I didn't look at my phone. I wasn't worried about the time, I wasn't worried about where I was going. I wanted to wander — within range, of course. As I walked, I tried to mull over a couple questions I had been holding in my mind over the last week. I had on my tiger-eye mala, and during parts of the walk I held it in my hand, touching a single bead as I meditated on each question I asked myself.
Invariably, as I walked and tried to be as present in my body as possible, It was easier to notice when my thoughts turned away from a sense of presence and well-being, and towards samsara. As I experienced regret about the past or worry about the future I tried my best to be a gentle steward toward these thoughts, without fighting them or internalizing them too much. "Ah, here is my old friend uncertainty," I would say to myself as my mind created future scenarios to worry about. "Why, hello there, doubt," I said to myself as my mind reminded me of my own limitations. "Good afternoon, disappointment," I said as thoughts of painful past memories floated by. I tried to imagine myself as a tall and stoic mountain, and my passing thoughts as clouds that were part of the emotional weather around me that would eventually float away.
After a certain point, I stopped thinking. By that I mean I stopped having thoughts that meant much of anything at all and instead I tried to let them float by as best I could I walked. I made an effort to pay attention, to be as awake as possible to my physical surroundings and to the present moment.
I made a point to notice, and to really be awake to the experience of walking. I tried to take note of the incredible beauty I saw around me. To be alive on a beautiful October afternoon, with the agency and good health to walk — and even to run if I wanted to — filled me with a sense of immense gratitude and well-being.
As a runner, I know the benefits that gentle exercise can have on the body and mind. And yet what struck me after this particular constitutional yesterday was how much calmer I felt afterwards, and how incredibly long-lasting the restorative effects of my contemplative walk alone continued to have on my psyche well into the late hours of the evening.
Walk Your Worries Away
Get started with a simple walking meditation practice you can use any time, anywhere with my handful of tips below.
Wear comfortable clothing.
The swedes say that there is no such thing as bad weather — just bad clothing. Now, I may disagree slightly with this trope, but what is at the center of this idea is very true — good clothing can make the difference between an enjoyable outing and one that is a bear to slog through. When starting out on your walk, the most important things to have are comfortable shoes and appropriate clothing for the weather. You cannot be fully in the present moment if your heel is constantly slipping out of your shoe or if you're sweating bullets in a jacket that is simply too warm for the weather. During Minnesota falls and winters it is imperative that one dresses for inclement weather and not only for reasons of comfort, but for safety as well. Good gloves, a hat, and insulated boots are key if you want to keep your appendages after walks on exceedingly cold days.
Be Aware of Your Body.
As you begin your walk, really take stock of the sensations that are arising in your body. Bring your attention to your feet, and knees. Notice the sensation of walking. Take a moment to appreciate the complex biological and physical
tasks your body is accomplishing with such dignity that gets you from point A to point B. Breathe deeply, and spend some time focusing on your breath, of your chest and diaphragm as they rise and fall. Go deep into your breath, but without too much strident effort. Let your arms fall easily at your side, notice how they gently sway as they help to keep you balanced and powerful in your stride. If you are experiencing any pain, discomfort or stiffness in the body, notice it. Breathe in to this place of discomfort. Love your stiffness or pain as you would a troubled friend. Perhaps you are a little tense in your shoulder or back. As you breathe in, imagine the restorative fresh air reaching that place in your body, loosening up the muscles and tendons and nerves. As you breathe out, breathe out from that same place in your body. Let the pain or discomfort "air itself out" as you take in the natural beauty around you.
Take a moment to appreciate the complex biological and physiological
tasks your body is accomplishing with such dignity as it gets you from point A to point B.
Go deep with your breath, but without too much strident effort. Let your arms fall easily at your side, notice how they gently sway as they help to keep you balanced and powerful in your stride.
If you want, you can also carry an object in your hand or in your practice that keeps you connected to your intention. Some people go on walks to let the answer to a complicated problem stew in their head. Others like to say a simple mantra or prayer as they walk. In either case, having an object with you that you can feel in your pocket or hold in your hand as you walk can help keep you centered and focused as you walk. For myself, I sometimes use my tiger-eye mala as a way to keep focused on my mantra, or focused on some essential task or question. As I utter the mantra or think of each question, I will hold the mala in my hand, touching a single bead. When I finish the mantra and am ready to repeat it, or when I think I can move on to asking myself another question, I move on to another bead.
Repeat a Mantra.
You can also choose a mantra to repeat in your head as you walk. Mantras are something we can talk about later in a different post, but the most essential thing is to repeat a mantra that resonates with you. For some people, their mantra may be 'Om' or 'Rama.' For others, it may be "Om mani padme hum." Others may prefer a short prayer. A great way to feel better is to repeat the lovingkindness prayer, over and over again. I love this one as it fosters a sense of well-being both for oneself as well as for others. It goes like this:
"May I be protected and safe
May I be contented and pleased
May my body be healthy and strong
May my life unfold smoothly and with ease."
You start with yourself, and then repeat it for everyone you can think of, starting with those closest to you, and then extending outwards, outwards, and further outwards until you finish with:
"May all beings be protected and safe
May all beings be contented and pleased"
May all beings have bodies that are healthy and strong
May the lives of all beings unfold smoothly and with ease."
Studies have shown that taking new routes and paths along familiar locations shakes up our brain, gets us out of mental ruts, activates our sense of creativity, even improves our intelligence
If you're usually a trail runner, try walking a busy city street. If you've been exploring the river road a lot, why not try a nearby creek? Being in slightly unfamiliar territory wakes up our senses and makes us more present.
Take a New Path.
Studies have shown that taking new routes and paths along familiar locations shakes up our brain, gets us out of mental ruts, activates our sense of creativity, even improves our intelligence. So when you set out, try mixing up your usual route. If you always turn left at the lake, turn right. If you see what looks like an interesting landmark ahead but you've never been that way, walk on. If you're usually a trail runner, try walking a busy city street. If you've been exploring the river road a lot, why not try a nearby creek? Being in slightly unfamiliar territory wakes up our senses and makes us more present. It also inspires a sense of novelty and play, which keeps your walk fun and exciting.
Stop When You Feel Like It.
This is your life to live — so breathe it in. If a beautiful scarlet red tree takes your breath away as it stands tall against a clear fall sky, stop to admire it. If the sun dancing across the water is mesmerizing you, stop by the edge of the pond and take it in. These are not trivial wonders, but the wonders that make up the sum of our life. They are yours to enjoy, and this moment is now. You have nowhere to be other than right here.
Master Your Thoughts with Creative Visualization.
The mind wanders. It worries. It vexes and stews. It runs away from you with fantasies and terrors and concerns. This is, unfortunately, what our minds are best at. And as you walk your mind is no different. A great way to corral your thoughts is with creative visualization. As I mentioned before, I sometimes like to think of myself as a great mountain, who stands tall and still against the passing clouds of my emotions, worries, or fears. Or you can think of yourself as a shepherd of your thoughts. As your herd begins to wander into dangerous territory, follow your flock and get them back to the safe pasture of the present moment. Other times, if you are dealing with difficult emotions, it can be good to imagine yourself at the dinner table. When your friend anger or sadness comes through and rings your doorbell, invite them in for supper. Sit with your feelings and let them just be, and then let them pass on.
Notice What is Around You.
As you begin to walk and hit your stride of being present in your body, begin to notice what is around you. Really look. Let your gaze relax naturally in front of you, taking in as much periphery as possible. When I walk around the lakes here in Minneapolis, there is so much beauty, so much to look at! When I walk around Lake of the Isles as I did yesterday, I love to really notice the beauty of the historic and unique homes that dot the edges of the boulevard. I love taking in their uniqueness, their turrets and unique french doors, their boxwood hedges and whatever happens to be growing in their planters. Other times and on other paths, I focus on the trees — their beauty and majesty. When you really look at a tree, it is easy to be in awe. Here is something that just IS, something that lives on, year, after year, season after season in all it's tall, strong, and colorful glory. When you can notice how beautiful the light is as it passes through the yellow trees of a maple, or see a smiling baby in a carriage, or a happy dog with it's tongue wagging out, you can really appreciate the richness that is all around you.
Don’t Walk with Earbuds In
I love listening to podcasts as I walk. Music while I run is essential. But if you are really trying to reach a more meditative state, I recommend walking without earbuds, and instead using all of your senses to experience and connect with the world around you. The wind passing though the branches in the fall softly rustling the leaves, is calming and restorative. The wind as it whistles sharply around the bend in the winter is mesmerizing. Hearing squirrels as they scurry up the trees, the passing conversations of couples as they walk past you, the shrieks and calls of children as they play— these are all a part of the soundtrack of your walk, and having these different sounds as your backdrop can put you in a greater place of presence and gratitude.
To reach a more meditative state, walk without earbuds, and instead use all of your senses to connect with the world around you.
Hearing squirrels as they scurry up the trees, the passing conversations of couples as they walk past you, the crunching of snow beneath your feet— these are all a part of the soundtrack of your walk, and having these different sounds as your backdrop can put you in a greater place of presence and gratitude.
An essential part of a walking meditation practice is gratitude. The strength and good health of your body, the beauty of a fall afternoon, the comfort of a safe home to come back to — these are sublime gifts. Hell — just being on this earth, today, is a miracle. What are you going to use your surplus for?