Over the past few years, I have become a walker, a hiker, a trekker, a wanderer, a rambler and, later in the day, a trudger and a plodder.
I have come to enjoy going off on long walks in various parts of the world, becoming a pilgrim, a peregrino, a pèlerin, a pellegrino and henro. The long training walks and the pilgrimage itself mean that I spend many day walking, not quite Forrest Gump but the miles do accumulate.
I’m not really sure why but I find it deeply satisfying. It is what I do.
My penchant for walking is relatively recent; age and circumstance play their part. I’ve retired from a decade of running, cycling has become inordinately dangerous here in Vancouver, swimming is too much trouble, triathlons are too complicated.
Walking has become the default exercise; minimal skill required, low cost gear, ample possibilities. I can head out my door and go in any direction to some of the best paths and parks in the world. At the end of every walk, there is cake – so I’m provided with ample inducements.
That seems to be an adequate rationale yet, whenever I try to explain to friends why I walk, it’s not enough.
They dig deeper; one of the most common questions is: “What do you think about over those long hours of walking?”
My answer is simple: “Nothing.”
That causes more befuddled looks, yet it is the essence of why I walk. I walk because it is calming; it is almost counterintuitive that vigorous movement is calming, yet it is the prize, the core of why I get up off the couch and go out the door.
I have been dabbling in yoga for a while now. My favorite part of every yoga class has always been the last moments – relaxation.
The actual yoga class was a struggle, I first approached it as a stretching exercise. I am not very flexible and my sense of balance and my capacity to precisely manage body movement is limited; It’s why I am a reluctant dancer.
“Do the best you can,” Sandra, my yoga instructor would say, “there is no judgement, no competition in yoga.” – which seemed to make it all the more important that I do well; just so as to not be not-judged. I know that no one judging me is the worst of all judgements.
But I digress, where was I….?
….the joys of relaxation. At the end of every session, we would lie quietly on our mats, sometimes warmed by our little blankets. We would close our eyes and Sandra would guide us through steps that led to total surrender, the bliss of an empty mind and a relaxed body.
I liked relaxation – the empty mind part was especially appealing.
Lately, in an effort to capture more of this empty-minded relaxation, this nothingness, I decided to try full-on meditation – imagine a whole hour of ‘end of yoga class relaxation bliss’! How much more satisfying!
Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked. My meditation attempts have not led to that ‘blissful nothing’ experience even after several sitting meditation classes.
The more I sat quietly trying to think of nothing, the more my mind resisted – leaping about like the much analyzed monkey brain.
It was quite frustrating. It’s hard to describe fighting with my own mind – especially to friends. They tend to slowly move sharp objects out of my reach while nodding agreeably.
Twice now, I have gone on meditation retreats; Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday at the Asian Studies Center at UBC. I work at this sitting meditation during these sessions, not thinking seems to be tougher for some of us.
Thankfully, it wasn’t all sitting; alternating sessions of walking meditation offered the chance to go outside and walk mindfully.
Walking mindfully, walking meditation is apparently not simple – any spiritual quasi-religious canon will be made complicated, especially if it has been around for a few thousand years.
There is even a highly recommended book, How to Walk by the renowned buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s small, with short statements that are either deeply profound or borderline banal.
“When you walk, arrive with every step. That is walking meditation. There’s nothing else to it.” is a typical enigmatic entry.
It was sunny, the weather was cool, the path meandered through a small grove of trees on the edge of the campus, I had a little piece of path to myself and it was quiet. I just walked slowly and enjoyed the experience.
At the end, it was clear to me that I struggled through the sitting meditation sessions and enjoyed the walking outside on my own.
Sometimes I miss insights; this one finally revealed itself as I castigated myself for somehow not learning how to sit and meditate. It wasn’t working but I had read so much about how we have to work to achieve this mindfulness, the nothingness.
Stories abound in Buddhist literature of others persisting for thousands of hours of sitting quietly seeking the fruits of meditation, they hung over me. I come by my guilt-driven personality honestly and I polish it up regularly. It must be me! I am deficient! I am not as smart, driven, committed, insightful, as thousands who achieve a measure of nirvana through meditation.
Self-flagellation in the pursuit of inner peace seemed a bit counterintuitive and, actually silly.
At this point, I went back to analyzing my walking experience and the calm and serenity that resulted. I thought about the exercise that preceded my brief bliss of post yoga relaxation. I recalled actually enjoying running for the same reasons – the glow of endorphin bliss that flushed through my system after the exercise.
It seems clear too that sitting meditation is not working for me. Maybe I’m not a sit still sort of person. Maybe I should just relax and keep it simple.
To quote Thich Nhat Hanh;
“When the Buddha walked, he didn’t seem to be practising meditation…
he just had two feet like the rest of us, and he enjoyed walking…
You don’t make any effort; you don’t struggle, you just enjoy walking.”
So, for now, I think I’ll stop chasing the elusive sitting meditation ‘Nothing’ and stick with the walking ‘Nothing’.
Sometimes more isn’t better, sometimes better isn’t more.
I think I’ll go for a walk and not think about all this for a while.