Mindfulness with Every Step

Rev. WonGong explains how a rushing mind can trip us up — literally.

Rev. Wow! (WonGong)
1 May 2024
Photo by Ihor N.

Recently, we noticed a stuffy smell in our dharma hall. This led me to check the crawlspace, where I found the air conditioner drip-pan filled with water. This moisture had created the musty smell.

While an engineer fixed the AC, I scooped the water into buckets and carried them from the crawlspace. Squatting and moving back and forth under the low ceiling made me super mindful not to bump my head. Over time, my legs grew tired, but I was glad to completely remove the water, bucket by bucket, without any injury. While keeping my head down in the crawlspace, I was mindful with every step.

Later that day, I went out to take a photo of the garden and saw cucumbers dangling from their vine, ready to be harvested. They looked overripe, so I felt I should pick them immediately. In a rush, I neglected to pay attention to my step. My legs and feet were already tired from crouching in the crawlspace, and before I knew it, I found myself falling to the ground.

“Wherever I go, I feel the connection between the soles of my feet and the ground.”

I’d tripped on a brick. I cried out in pain and could not move for a while; I could smell the chives crushed by my body. Thankfully I did not break any bones, but my foot was badly twisted, swollen, and bruised.

This accident was a huge lesson for me. My racing mind was the source of the accident. From here, my mind wanted to get there—before my feet could catch up. Since falling, I’ve not been able to do things very fast. Everything takes more time.

The perils of rushing while driving are similar to those of walking. In my car, if I speed up to get someplace fast, I may get pulled over by the traffic patrol and get delayed even more. My rushing mind can get me into trouble.

For me, being in the crawlspace was challenging, so I was careful with every movement—but once I was outside of the crawlspace, I dropped my mindfulness. Because picking cucumbers seemed like such an easy task, my focus slipped, and so did my foot!

Years ago, I learned while doing my Master’s in Social Work that one of the biggest dangers to our well-being—especially for elders—is falling. At the time, I didn’t fully understand why, but with age, I am beginning to understand. Now I thoroughly believe that mindful stepping directly affects our well-being.

Although my initial injury was limited to my left foot, my entire body has felt the impact of the fall. After hobbling around for several days, I’m now experiencing pressure on my knees and back, and I cannot exercise the way I’d like. Everything is connected.

In the days that followed my accident, I’ve become more aware of my every step. I’ve become aware of the sudden movements my feet are prone to make. I notice how muscles work together for each step and how each step connects with my knees and spine. 

With each step, I’m aware of how I distribute the weight of my body. Even while injured, I notice how my feet constantly want to travel. My mind and feet carefully detect whether the ground is even or bumpy. Wherever I go, I feel the connection between the soles of my feet and the ground.

So, wherever you are—in your temple, at home, outside in the garden, or on the street—practice mindful walking. Say to yourself:

One step at a time
Be mindful with every step
One step at a time
Be present with mind and body
One breath at a time
One thought at a time

When our minds are preoccupied with too many thoughts, every step can trip us up. Don’t let your distracted mind interfere with your step! Don’t trip over your thoughts! It is so easy to slip from the present moment.

One day, the founder of Won Buddhism, Sotaesan, was climbing over a steep mountain pass behind Chong-Nyon Hermitage with one of his students, Choon-Poong Lee. Sotaesan said, “Climbing a steep pass naturally enhances my practice in one-pointedness of mind. You rarely stumble on a steep trail. Actually, you are more prone to stumble on a level trail. So, too, you are more prone to make mistakes on an easy task than you areon a difficult one. A practitioner who maintains consistent awareness on either steep or level trails, or on easy or difficult tasks, will achieve the single-practice samadhi.”

Sotaesan said that a person’s mind is so extremely subtle that it exists when we take hold of it, but it slips away when we drop our mindfulness. So, without awareness, how can we cultivate our minds?

Master Sotaesan designed several practical methods that we can use to check our mindfulness. One of them is “The Essential Dharmas of Daily Practice,” which we often recite. He explained that these dharmas are not simply for recitation as a part of ritual, but are intended as a checklist for everyday life. For example, I could paraphrase the first point of the Essential Dharmas by saying: Our minds are originally free from any distractions and disturbances, but distractions and disturbances arise in response to the conditions around us. Let us maintain our calm and focused mind at all times—whether in a crawlspace or near a cucumber trellis!

This article was published in the May 2024 issue of Bodhi Leaves: The Asian American Buddhist Monthly.

Rev. Wow! (WonGong)

Rev. WonGong (affectionately known as Rev. Wow!Gong), a pioneering Won Buddhist priest, is head dharma teacher at the Won Buddhism Meditation Temples in Chapel Hill and Raleigh, North Carolina.