Walking: Meditation in Motion

With every step, says Brother Phap Hai, you can touch the Earth and the wonder of life. 

Brother Phap Hai
12 July 2014
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer

In the film Gravity, after hurtling through outer space, Sandra Bullock’s character takes slow, delicious steps on the Earth. For me, this simple scene was the most impactful of the whole movie. It reminded me of a teaching by the ninth-century Zen master Rinzai: “The great miracle is not to walk on the air or to walk on water or fire, but to be able to walk on the Earth.”  

When I started to ask what it meant to walk on the “Earth” of my own life, I realized that I spent most of my time walking on the “air” and “water” of the past, the future, my plans, fears, and hopes. In fact, it was rare for me to take steps on the “Earth” of my embodied experience.

An authentic practice life isn’t about seeking peak experiences but rather touching the wonder of the ordinary.

This is made clear in a conversation that the Buddha is said to have had with a prince. The prince asked, “What do
you and your monastics practice every day?”
The Buddha replied, “We sit, we walk, and we eat.”
The prince said, “We also do these things every day, so how are you different?”
The Buddha responded, “When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we
know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.”

We can practice walking meditation throughout the day, even when we only need to take a few steps. Usually in our daily lives, we’re habituated to physically and mentally going somewhere that’s not here. We’re sitting and we decide to open the window. The next thing we’re aware of is that we’re at the window; we haven’t been present for the time in-between. Walking meditation is an opportunity to bring awareness to the transition moments, which in fact make up the majority of our life.

Whenever I practice walking meditation, it’s new and different. At times I walk slowly, taking perhaps three steps for every in-breath and three steps for every out-breath, and at other times the situation is such that I need to move more quickly, but in any case I bring the same awareness to my steps. As I walk, I feel my feet on the Earth and bring my awareness to my breath. I become rooted in my body, established in time and place.

Walking meditation is a gift you offer yourself. When you walk, relax your whole body. Notice how many steps you take for each in-breath and out-breath. If you find that your mind is wandering, silently repeating a word or two can be helpful. One suggestion is to say, “Arrived, arrived” on the in-breath and “Home, home” on the out-breath.

The practice of meditation is about arriving with every breath, every step. When we settle into our lived experience, we have truly arrived.

Brother Phap Hai

Brother Phap Hai

Originally from Australia, Brother Phap Hai is a senior student of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Prior to becoming a monk, he trained as a chef. Brother Phap Hai is known for his ability to convey complex teachings in an accessible and humorous manner and leads retreats and workshops throughout the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, and Asia. He currently resides at Deer Park Monastery, in California, where he breathes, walks, and smiles on a regular basis. He is the author of Nothing to It: Ten Ways to Be at Home with Yourself.