(photo used with permission @davemclellan)
Walking Meditation Poem
I take refuge in Mother Earth.
Every breath, every step
manifests our love.
Every breath brings happiness.
Every step brings happiness.
I see the whole cosmos in the earth.
–Thich Nhat Hanh
Walking has long been a favorite activity in retirement. In my neighborhood, which is about 50% retired, I can always count on seeing a handful of walkers whenever I am outside. One of my neighbors has a border collie and she moves along at a fast clip, giving her active boy a workout. Another neighbor has a shih tzu, and she is always embarrassed when her little girl has twirling hysterics upon encountering me coming from the opposite direction. There are many other walkers, always friendly and smiling, with and without dogs. But, the most endearing walker, to me, is my next door neighbor, Mr. Ryan. Mr. Ryan is in his late 70’s and lives with his daughter. Despite his increasing dementia and frailty, he walks every day. I love watching Mr. Ryan as he embarks from his house. He moves slowly with intention. He stops every couple of steps, looks around, and often will pick up a leaf or a stone from his driveway. I’ve seen him pick up a newspaper at the edge of the driveway, slowly take it out of the plastic wrapper, and carefully turn it over and over, as if examining its size and weight. Sometimes, I will see Mr. Ryan blocks away from home. Usually, he is looking up into the trees or watching a neighbor’s yard activities. Yesterday, Mr. Ryan happened to be starting his walk when the mail lady arrived at my home to deliver a package. As I continued my bulb planting, Mr. Ryan made his way over to her mail truck and started a conversation. While I couldn’t hear his words, I did hear our always cheerful mail lady say, “Mr. Ryan, I’m so glad to see you but I need you to step back so my truck doesn’t hit you. You know, I’d have a heart attack. Be careful, don’t fall.”
As I think about walking, and about Mr. Ryan, I am struck by how walking can be so much more than just physical exercise. Yet, the benefits of walking for people over 60 are plentiful. I have arthritis in my knees, hips and hands and walking eases my joint pain. According to the Arthritis Foundation, the majority of our joint cartilage gets its nutrition from joint fluid that circulates as we move. Impact that comes from movement or compression, such as walking, “squishes” the cartilage, bringing oxygen and nutrients into the area. I can really feel the difference after a brisk walk.
Just as important is what walking does for my emotional and spiritual well-being. Usually, walking is a goal-oriented action that requires very little concentration on the actual experience of walking. It’s so easy to get distracted while walking. Our legs are moving but our minds are everywhere EXCEPT the present experience. We’re missing the beauty of the walking experience. I have two favorite places to walk, depending on the weather and my mood. One is a local park, where special paths made of cushioned cork wind through majestic oaks, maples and pines. The other is a nearby forest, where I can truly meditate upon the sounds, sights, and feel of my surroundings. Anytime is a great time for walking but my favorite time is the early morning. In mindful walking we can use the experience of walking as our focus. Below are some guidelines from Headspace.com, a digital service that provides guided meditation sessions and mindfulness training.
Observe. Without trying to change the way you’re walking, simply observe how it feels. Just take a moment to observe it, to notice it. There’s no need to actually think about what you’re observing – just see it and acknowledge it.
Notice. Notice what you see going on around you. It might be people walking by you, buildings, or cars. Or it might be falling leaves, chirping birds, or sunlight filtered through the trees. Notice the colors and shapes, movement, or even the stillness.
Listen. What sounds do you hear? Without getting caught up in thinking about the source of the sound, just take a moment to be aware of them. It’s amazing how many sounds escape our awareness until we focus on listening.
Smell. Turn your attention to smells around you, those that are pleasant as well as those that are unpleasant. Our minds may want to “explain” the smells, e.g. to remind you of somewhere, something or someone. When this happens, just notice the distraction and return to the present moment.
Feel. Notice your physical sensations or feelings. Perhaps it’s the feeling of warm sunshine on your arms, a cold breeze, or the sensation of your feet touching the ground with each step. As you continue to walk, don’t try to prevent any of these things from entering your present experience, simply notice as they come and go. Try not to artificially adjust your pace or rhythm. Instead, just observe the way you walk and what it feels like in the moment.
Of the many activities I’ve explored so far during my retirement journey, I believe mindful walking has provided me with the most serenity, peace, and satisfaction. Like the poem below, each walk presents a unique mindful experience. Enjoy!
All The Boys
by Martin Swords
Overcast but warm,
The day dry, unusually.
Walking the woods with the dogs
As many times before.
Lucy and Tig, away in the rough dark deep,
Yipping with the scent of deer, excited.
Ruby, river scrambling, biting
At the bogwater, wagging, from the shoulders back
Along the old familiar track, into
The clearing where the roads diverge.
I stopped and stood. Which way to go?
Think of another Poet, and roads not taken.
Yes, I’ve been here before. This way I came.
That way I saw a squirrel once.
And down that way a badger
Straight on, the Mill Pond where ducks dabble.
Behind me then a stag, stares my way, and
Startled, slips into the wood.
I think again of Robert Frost and look a different way.
I stand a while. I turn, retrace my steps, recall, relive,
I’ll write this down, and this will be
The road I’ve taken.