On Your Marks, Get Set... Stand?
Cultivating an awareness of physical sensations is the starting point for many mindfulness practices, and for most people this is much easier to achieve when the body is in motion rather than sitting still. Having said that, some teachers of walking meditation begin the exercise with the moment before you start walking, when you're simply standing.
Standing upright is something we take completely for granted, but it took our species a tremendously long time to achieve this feat, and it took us as individuals a couple of years in infancy to get it down pat. Becoming aware of the complex balancing act involved, and how your body feels, requires a shift in focus from the usual mental chatter. Of course, you will probably tell yourself that this is silly, but becoming aware that these judgments are just thoughts - and being able to simply watch them come and go - is itself part of the mindfulness we seek to attain.
To walk in a mindful way, you must obviously retain a baseline awareness of your physical surroundings in order to ensure your safety, especially if you're walking in an urban area or around traffic. (Yes, it would be nice to do this on the beach or through a grove of Giant Sequoias, but we can be mindful between the car and the office, too.) Over time, you will find a balance point between inner and outer awareness, but you should start with focusing on your body.
Steps Towards Mental Freedom
Starting from the ground up - meaning your feet - become aware of the physical sensations of every part of your body as you walk. Just experience the movements; don't analyze them. Relax each part of your body in turn: let your calf muscles relax; let your hands and arms swing freely by your sides. If you have any feelings in your body that are pleasant or unpleasant, just notice them but don't allow your attention to linger on them. Similarly, if you have an emotional response - either to what you are doing or to something else that you start thinking about - just observe the emotion without getting caught up in it.
Focusing on your body and mind in the present moment reduces the tendency for thoughts to wander off into the past or future. And by observing the effect of different thoughts on your emotions, you become aware of both positive and negative consequences - an essential step that ultimately enables you to make better choices in your mind. I find this particularly valuable at times of great stress, when the mind is most apt to fly off into worst-case scenarios. Grounding yourself in the present interrupts that destructive tendency and counteracts the corrosive effects of stress on your emotional and physical health.
Combining Walking Meditation with Loving-Kindness
One of the most beautiful practices in Buddhist traditions is to feel loving-kindness while walking. The Buddhist website, wildmind.org, has a nice way of expressing this. While walking, focus on your heart and imagine it to be a sun radiating light and warmth in every direction. Or repeat an affirmation such as, "May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be free from suffering." As we have discussed in a companion article on this website, you will find that cultivating loving-kindness is a spiritual investment that offers a very high rate of return in your own happiness and well-being. I cannot think of a better counterpart to all the other benefits - physical and mental - to be derived from something as simple as a walk.