My wife is taking the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program. As a mindfulness instructor I’ve avoided trying to influence her to do so and I’ve resisted the temptation to ask her “how is it going?” Yesterday was her all-day retreat and I did ask afterward what she thought of the training. She answered that it was quite helpful, and she was grateful for getting the instruction. She complained mildly, however, about the walking meditation. “I just don’t care for it because my mind wanders a lot.”
Ironically walking meditation is my most favored form of meditating. Each meditator tends to have a favored form of meditation and, to some extent, our own way of being mindful. As a teacher I know that meditation is a simple practice, but also that it is difficult to convey to people what exactly it is we are doing in the moment that we are being mindful. Since it is a felt experience rather than a cognitive construct, mindfulness instructors turn to metaphors and analogies, always giving guidance and encouragement to our students to persist in the practice.
It is simple to instruct a student in walking meditation if you only focus on the form. “Walk slowly, deliberately. Notice all of the sensations. Start with your feet. Notice how they feel when they touch the ground and when they balance as you very slowly roll from heel to toe…..”
Today I spent an hour walking mindfully on a path near my home that winds its way through a wooded area. The trees were festooned with garlands of orange and yellow and green autumnal beauty. The sweet smell of organic matter decomposing and rotting filled my senses, and made me yearn for my walk to be slower and even more attentive. Then, with great swiftness and surprise, a flash of white brought my attention to the periphery of my vision. I stopped and peered through the trees and spotted a white-tailed deer, a doe, about 40 yards from me. She, too, had stopped and was gazing at me, equally attentive. I lowered myself to a squatting posture, and returned her gaze. Our eyes were locked together, and all I could feel was a desire to be as non-threatening to her as I could be, in hopes that she would feel as calm and mindful as I felt. Our locked gazes lasted for a minute, and then she lowered her head and began to forage in the brush for food.
I began to walk again, still very slowly, but my walking took on a renewed intention. I was walking in a direction parallel to the doe, as she walked slowly, continuing to forage. I began to walk with the spirit of ahimsa, the Sanskrit word usually translated as “non-injury.” I wanted each step to convey to the doe that I was no threat to her. I wanted my breath and my pulse to be calmed, my heartbeat filled with compassion and warmth. I wanted to walk as if I could approach her in a clearing in the woods, and she would know I presented no threat, and would only help her if she needed help and I could do so in some way. As I walked I could feel every fiber of my body, in a way of my being, having the sincere desire to be a source of safety and compassion for this doe in the woods.
After a few minutes she trotted off, probably to find another area with more abundant feed. I continued to walk, noticing the residual of feeling in my body from my experience of caring for this lovely creature. And I realized that when we walk in meditation we should imagine that we are walking toward some person or some being that we treasure, who needs to know that we present no threat. We need to walk with hearts filled with felt-compassion for all creatures, intending to be a source of ahimsa for the world. If you walk in this way your meditation will bring great peace to your heart and mind, and your life will be filled with great comfort and ease.