A Buddhist slogan goes ‘When walking, just walk’ or in other words, ‘Pay attention to the ever-changing sensations of your body as you walk.’ This principle can be equally extended to other activities: ‘When eating, just eat. When cooking, just cook. When standing, getting dressed, going to the toilet, doing the shopping, just pay attention to what you are doing.’ In theory, you could spend most of your day in this fashion.
But why would we bother to do it? Part of the answer lies in the ‘just.’ By ‘just’ walking, a small miracle happens. By deliberately focusing on the present, our thoughts about the past and future inevitably fade into the background. For a few seconds at least, the other people in our lives vanish. The problems at work disappear. Stupid politicians and global warming are all brieﬂy eclipsed by the sensations of the now. If we are alone, the present moment is usually a safe, pleasant and undemanding place to inhabit, quite unlike the world we carry in our heads.
To consciously focus on the present moment can give us a welcome respite from compulsive thought and painful rumination, which is why it is often touted as a way to alleviate anxiety and depression. As the neuroscientist Sam Harris said “Our habitual identiﬁcation with the ﬂow of thought – that is our failure to recognise thoughts as transient appearances in consciousness – is a primary source of human suffering.” For most of us, however, this is hardly an adequate reason to be in the present. Our states of mind are not painful enough to warrant it.
Huang Po, the Zen master, gave us another angle on ‘just walking.’ Enlightenment, he said, is nothing more than ‘chopping wood and drawing water.’ Instead of trying to escape thought, Huang Po suggests being present as a way of connecting more intimately with the natural world.
When he chops wood, we can imagine him doing so in a serene, focused, fully conscious fashion. He is a Zen master, after all! He strips the rotting bark from the pine logs. He shakes off the ants and feels the heft of his axe. Just before he strikes the log, he feels a breeze on his face and hears the rain approaching through the distant hills. Is that enlightenment? Even if it is not, it would seem to be a marvelous way to live if we could do it.
This is the ‘don’t forget to smell the roses’ version of ‘being present.’ The assumption is that the miasma of compulsive thought, our rehashing of the past and fears for the future, prevents us from seeing the astonishing beauty of the everyday world.
Unfortunately the present moment, even when we see it with total clarity, is just as likely to be dull, repetitive and quite lacking in poetry. To add to the paradox, we can even have beauty and drudgery at the same time. If we adapted Huang Po’s aphorism about chopping wood and drawing water to the modern day, we would have to say something like ‘switching on the stove, turning on the tap.’ It just doesn’t have the same mystical ring to it!
Being present to escape the tyranny of thought is rather fearful and pessimistic in intention. Being present to smell the roses is also limited in scope, if more appealing. There is, however, another far more compelling reason. If we pay attention to anything that we do, we soon start to do it so much better. ‘Being present’ – the art of being fully attuned to what we are doing – is always likely to bring a quantum leap in efﬁciency and satisfaction. Let’s look at how this applies to walking.
When we walk and worry, we are bound to walk in a stiff, jerky manner that compounds the accumulating tensions of the day. Walking takes a certain amount of energy, and worry takes even more. If we shed the worry and just pay attention to how we are walking, we will soon start to move in a more easy, ﬂowing fashion. This happens because attention enhances the self-regulatory, feedback mechanisms in the body and mind that are always striving for optimal efﬁciency and comfort. We can usually make any physical action more smooth and pleasant just by paying attention to it.
We can’t underestimate the value of good walking. It is possibly the very best exercise we can do for our long term health. By consciously walking, we can even start to reverse the effects of ageing. The bodies of old people are typically stiff and inﬂexible. Muscles atrophy and lose their range of movement. Lung capacity shrinks steadily each year. Arteries get lined with concrete, and bones become brittle. The variation in heart rate between arousal and rest narrows. As we get older, all our movements become progressively stiffer, shorter and more jerky.
Children on the other hand have supple muscles that easily contract and relax to their full extent. They breathe with all of their lungs. Their bones will bend further before they snap. Their heart rate has high variability. They can go from 200 beats a minute to rest in almost no time at all. Their movements have an easy, rhythmic ﬂow and bounce to them. Unlike old people, they exude a bodily sense of happiness and good health.
We tend to take our ability to walk for granted, which partly explains why old people are so shocked by the prospect of the zimmer frame or the wheelchair. In fact, walking on two feet is a remarkably complicated skill. It takes split-second coordination involving hundreds of muscles simultaneously. We forget that it takes infants a least a year to learn how to do it.
Even the action of a single muscle group is complicated enough. To contract the biceps smoothly requires that the triceps counteract that movement by making exquisitely ﬁne adjustments of tension within individual muscle ﬁbres, microsecond by microsecond. Furthermore, both triceps and biceps are supported by deeper muscles in the chest and back, which also need to adjust appropriately. To smoothly contract the biceps even involves the core abdominal muscles that hold us upright, and the action of breathing.
Walking is a hundred times more complicated than tensing the biceps, so it is not surprising that we can lose the knack of moving in a graceful, easy fashion as we age. Fortunately, we can slow that decline or reverse it if we walk consciously.
When we are anxious, we will walk in a somewhat rigid, automatic fashion with our minds elsewhere. We are also likely to be holding our breaths, knotting up in the stomach and frowning. If we habitually think and walk like this, year after year, the tensions will become so embedded that we will never relax completely, not even in sleep. Once we lose that childlike sense of ease and ﬂow in the body, we grow old fast.
Walking consciously can reverse this process, and there are many ways to go about it. Walking is a traditional meditation ‘posture’ in the East. Thai forest monks amble to and fro along a 20-pace walking track in front of their huts. Zen practitioners walk in step in a circle around the room between sitting meditations. On one Zen retreat I attended, we were instead expected to run, rather than walk, up and down the little mountain nearby.
On one Burmese-style retreat, we perfected the art of walking extremely slowly, taking half an hour to cross the hall. Similarly, Tai Ch’i is being based on the standing and walking meditations of ancient Chinese culture.
But there is need to be so fancy. We all walk every day – across the room, up or down stairs, dawdling or hurrying. To ‘just walk’ means to pay attention to what we are doing. This alone will make the action more efﬁcient and satisfying, which in turn has a balancing effect on the mind.
Nonetheless, it wouldn’t hurt to sigh a few times as we start to walk. Or breathe deeply as we stride through the park. Or systematically scan the body to release unnecessary tension. Or cultivate a smooth, ﬂowing quality of movement. Or to listen, or look, or smell as we walk, since the outer sensory world is also part of the experience of walking. All of these options will augment the therapeutic effect of conscious walking. My book The 5-Minute Meditator contains 12 different walking meditations, and that is just the start.
In the ﬁrst few seconds of ‘just walking,’ we may realise that it is a pleasant diversion from our usual thoughts. We may also realise the street we are walking down has many small charms, but we are unlikely to continue ‘just walking’ for these reasons alone.
The real advantage is that the stiff, jerky, restless quality of automatic walking soon fades away. Even an old man with his gammy knee can still walk in either a tense or a relaxed fashion. He can be unconsciously at odds with his body, or comfortably at ease within it. If he ‘just walks’ while he walk, he may not be walking perfectly, but the movement is likely to become smoother and more satisfying. As an extra beneﬁt, whatever is good for his body is also like to be good for his state of mind.
Whoever we are, at whatever age, regardless of our war-wounds, we can still consciously develop our innate sense of balance, muscle coordination and ﬂow. We don’t need to go to a gym or a yoga instructor. It is quite sufﬁcient to ‘just walk’ whenever we walk, and let our minds do the rest.