Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Walk Like No Other

Monk Descending Temple Steps by Okinawa Soba

When was the last time you learned how to walk?

If this question prompts you to sit back and try to recall, chances are that it was when you were a toddler.

Of course, there are exceptions. Those of us who were unfortunate enough to sustain knee or leg injuries, the author included, may recall a more recent training during recuperation period.

Either case, learning how to walk is never easy. But once we think we have mastered it, we tend to take it for granted. That is, as we go about doing things in a typical day in our life, we tend to shift ourselves into an “auto-pilot” mode whenever we walk.

Not that we do not recognize the benefits of walking. In every culture there are ancient proverbs related to a good walk. An Arab proverb says, “After lunch, rest. After dinner, walk a mile.” The Roman says, “If you can’t solve a problem, go take a walk.”

In our contemporary living, dog owners know that they have to do their canine friends a favor by walking them. But, isn’t it a bit ironic that, while we consciously take our dogs out for a walk everyday, we never quite did the same thing with our own mind? Your mind needs the exercise that a good walk can provide, too.

“Wait,” you may ask, “Doesn’t our mind automatically get the workout it needs if we make sure we get some physical exercise?”

Well, not exactly. While it is true scientifically that the right amount of aerobics exercise could trigger the release of some happiness-inducing hormone in our brain, it is only just a part of the whole equation. For the vigilant, it is not too difficult to realize that this kind of “high” is something that is very short-lived.

The kind of mental exercise we really need is one whose benefits would remain with us for life. And, yes, it can be cultivated from a good walk.

At this point, the author could not help but think about a book by the late Ven. Buddhadasa, titled, “Handbook for Mankind.”

The title of his book reminds us that, unlike gadgets, we did not come into this world in a neat box, complete with “owner’s manual.” Admittedly, we could learn how to survive, more or less, by trials-and-errors. But if you really want to go for the really “good stuff,” you need some guidelines.

The author used to read somewhere that today’s computer games also have hidden gimmicks or secret functions that only people with the proper code could unlock and enjoy. The same can be said of our body and mind. If we learn how to unlock the code, we would be able to access the hidden treasures that are already there, waiting for us to retrieve. In other words, we already walk around with them, but we do not know how to access and make use of them.

Don’t pull all your hairs off in frustration just yet. For you, too, could learn how unlock the code. Today, we would try to access our built-in, hidden treasure by learning how to walk mindfully.

The first thing you need for a session of walking meditation is not the space, but a ready mind. Unlike common walk that you do everyday in your auto-pilot mode, mindful walking requires a passion from within. It has to start with your desire to walk this walk. Look into your mind and find it.

In some meditation retreat, they may recommend you to say “desire to walk” in your mind prior to actual walking. The purpose of this mental exercise is to familiarize you with how your body and mind work in a cause-and-effect process. Note that we are not using “I” as in “I want to walk.” The idea is that you are just an observer of what happens to the body and mind in your present. Let your “knowing mind” observes and feels your own physical and mental action as if it is watching a stranger from outside. Once your mind understands how this cause-and –effect works, this mental narration can stop.

You might notice right here at the very first step that, with a ready mind, a mind that is brimmed with purpose, there seems to be an inner energy that is ready to “drive” you through the task at hand. This is a very handy skill in itself. Try setting aside a moment of quiet contemplation to prep up your mind before embarking on any task and see the difference.

Initially, it is better to cover a very short distance, preferably in the tranquility of your bedroom, living room or garden. Select a clutter-free path where you could walk a few metres, stop, and turn back. While the ultimate goal is that you should be able to do mindful walking everywhere and anywhere you go, the first stage still has to be limited, just like when you were a toddler.

Start by your standing posture. Be comfortably relaxed and aware of how you stand. Exhale deeply. Notice how your body (and/or mind) changes during and after you exhaled. Do not need to rush or force your breathing. Just continue your regular rhythm for a breath or two and look into your mind for a desire to walk. Once you have located it, note it, and let go.

Then, move your mind as if it is an x-ray machine to your right foot. Don’t look down. Use your feeling only, but intently. Note how your sole touches the floor/grass. Does it feel hot or cold? Is the surface soft or hard? Then, mindfully lift your right foot up while note “up” in your mind. Hold it in the air for a fraction of a second to really feel how your foot is like up in the air. After that brief, mid-air suspension, bring the foot down to complete your step and note “down.” Note your foot’s movement through the moment of impact. Note the changes in the feeling of your foot as your body shifts your weight forward. Note everything. Note it as it is, in that particular moment only. Don’t use your imagination or try to be creative here. Just observe.

Do not continue the next step yet. Pause again for that nano-second to shift your mind to you left foot. Then, repeat the process. Try to keep your feet and body relaxed. Be natural, but deliberately slow.

Frustrating, isn’t it? Note that frustration in your mind, and let go. Wonder why you have to go through all these troubles? Note the doubt and let go. Finding that your mind wandering out to the kitchen, or to a favorite TV program? Note the thought and let go. Once you reach the end of your pre-designated path. Consciously tell yourself you want to stop before you actually stop.

Don’t turn back abruptly. Make an attempt to consciously stand still there first to note how your body is. Use your mind as if it is an MRI machine to scan your body from your head till toe, then back again to head. Repeat at least 3 times. If you find it difficult to concentrate, pair up your “mental scanning” with your breathing rhythm. Then, and only then, tell yourself you want to turn and slowly turn back, one step after another, until you face the other direction. Then, repeat the process again by finding the desire to walk in your mind.

Do not punish yourself in your first walk. Just go for a few laps. You may find that these are the most exhausting steps you have ever taken in your life. Well, probably the most exhausting since you were 11 months’ old! “Where are the benefits?…,” your mind may scream. Note that impatience, too, and let go. Continue this mindful walking experiment once a day for a week. Up next, the benefits of mindful walking, how to successfully incorporate it in your daily life, and how you can use it to advance your overall meditation training.

Hey, we were not saying your first mindful walking experiment would be fun. The title said, “A Walk Like No Other.” Now, it is up to you to discover what “like no other” means! All it takes is your ready mind!

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