The Practice of Walking

Learning to make mindfulness part of our everyday life can deepen and enhance the range of benefits we experience: greater well-being, increased resilience, stronger attention, self-regulation, to name a few.

While we can aim to be mindful in all of our daily activities, the project can seem daunting or overwhelming without some stepping stones along the way. In order to integrate mindfulness into our lives, it’s helpful to have clear, discrete practices to create this habit of presence. I’ve written elsewhere about how we can use our formal seated mindfulness to develop a natural awareness that permeates our days. Mindful walking is another favorite way to bring more awareness to life.

flagstone pathWhy Walk Mindfully?
Modern life in the digital age tends to be fast, and for many, mostly indoors. Walking mindfully allows us to connect with and receive the richness of the world around us, and grounds us in the rhythm of organic time: day and night, seasons and tides. It takes time to walk, one foot after the other. The steady rhythm of our walking strengthens mindfulness naturally, and reminds our nervous system of a more patient, steadier way of life.

Humans tend to walk a lot. While we may do it less than we used to (evolutionary biologists estimate our ancestors took between 5,000 and 10,000 steps a day!), for most of us, it’s still a primary means of getting around – from one room to another; from home to  . . .  the store, work, the bike, car, or public transit.

I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown,
for going out, I found, was really going in.
– John Muir, The Unpublished Journals of John Muir

Most of the time walking is utilitarian: we go from point A to B. Our mind is focused on our destination, what we aim to do when we get there, or various other concerns. Even when out for a stroll in the park or nature, we can find our attention captured by thoughts, engrossed in conversation, or lost in planning. How often do we miss hearing the birdsong, or seeing a tree in bloom, because we are absorbed in something else?

When we can learn to walk with full awareness, our locomotion becomes a field for soothing our hearts and training our minds to dwell more completely in the present. In fact, mindful walking confers a pretty wide range of benefits:

  • It strengthens concentration and focus.
  • It can help release worries or concerns about the past and future.
  • It can support creativity and new ideas.
  • Mindful walking can calm difficult emotions.
  • It increases mindfulness and all of its positive effects.
  • Walking is great for physical health and digestion.
  • And, you can do it almost anywhere.

A Taste for Walking
Most of us learn how to walk in the first year or two of life. Yet once the muscles and proprioceptive system learn how to do this peculiar trick of moving as an upright biped (from a physics perspective, it’s actually quite a feat!), walking becomes a largely unconscious process. In a certain sense, to walk mindfully is to relearn how to walk: how to move the body through space in full awareness.

The key to mindful walking is allowing the attention to rest on the sensations and coordinated rhythm of walking. In the beginning, it’s helpful to practice mindful walking in a structured way. (See the instructions below, at the end of this article).

It can take time to develop a taste for the simple pleasure of mindful walking. In fact, I nearly hated the practice at first; it seemed pointless and boring! Yet once we discover how to walk mindfully, it can become a great support for living, allowing us to set aside the thoughts, concerns and dramas of life. Instead, we can relax into the easy, rhythmic movement of limbs and torso wherever we go.

Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.
– Wallace Stevens

Instructions for Mindful Walking
Here are some of the basics to get started. (You can also check out this guided audio).

  • Choose a relatively quiet and undisturbed place to practice. (If you live in a busy urban setting, don’t worry: whatever you’ve got will do).
  • Choose a flat, open path of 10-20 paces. Stand still at one end of your path, taking a few moments to feel your body. Can you relax into the simplicity of standing? Nothing to do, nowhere to go. Get a feel for this kind of natural, easy presence.
  • Walk at a pace that is comfortable, perhaps slightly slower than normal; choose a pace that allows you to feel the direct sensations of your feet and legs moving.
  • Feel the changing sensations in your feet as you walk: heaviness, pressure, movement, temperature. With each step, feel the steady contact with the earth or ground.
  • Keep your attention mostly inward, without looking around too much. When you notice your mind engaged in thoughts or stories, allow it to return to the sensations of walking.
  • When you reach the end of your walking path, stop and stand still again. Take a few moments to feel the body standing in a neutral state of rest.
  • When you’re ready to turn around, include the movements of turning in your awareness. Take another break to stand before beginning to walk in the other direction.
  • Try this for a period of 10-15 minutes, increasing the time as you like.

As you practice, try labeling, or using mental noting to help your attention stay connected with the sensations of walking. At a normal pace, you might try using just one word per stride, like “stepping” or “right” then “left.” If your pace is slower, you could break each step down into two or more parts, “lifting, moving, placing.”

You can also experiment with varying your pace:

  • Walk slowly or quickly, depending on how you feel and what helps you stay present.
  • When tired or groggy, faster walking can help bring energy and alertness.
  • When agitated or overstimulated, a steady, even pace may settle and soothe.

Finally, vary where you place your attention. At first, place your attention wherever it’s easiest to feel the sensations of walking. The soles of the feet are the most common place to begin. Then, try feeling the changing sensations in each leg and your lower body as you move. Finally, you might explore the sensations of the whole body as you walk. Connect with the syncopated rhythm between leg, hip, shoulder and arm as the body counter-balances its weight.

As you become more familiar with staying aware of the body moving, you can practice this informally during your day whenever you are walking.

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