Richard Kahn examines the practice, history, and delicate dance of walking meditation — a practice that connects us to ourselves, each other, and the multitude of motion in our everyday lives.
Walking meditation in Zen practice is simple, which is no doubt why I needed decades to figure it out. Once an opportunity to stretch and look around, to wander and rove, I now see walking meditation as a pilgrimage, a holy waltz, a march to save all beings. I just needed lots of practice and—critically—others to share the walk with. It took me a while, but eventually, I found my focused, meditative attention amidst others, with shared responsibility for the space and peace around us. Dorothy Fields lyrics to the 1930s standard, The Sunny Side of the Street, sums it up:
I used to walk in the shade
With blues on parade
But I’m not afraid
This rover has crossed over
I crossed over with both help and time. Practice and reflecting on motion led me to reading about nature walks, paleontology, neuroscience, a seldomly discussed side of civil rights marches, and practicing social dancing. The takeaway I discovered was the apparently simple walking meditation is a subtle, complex structure to help us access inner and outer reality. Walking meditation is a practice based not on interruption, exactly, but on receptivity to the new or unexpected. As Ken Kessel, Zen Master Jok Um, once told me, only delusion can be interrupted, not “the objective flow” of fundamentally un-interruptable concentration and attention.
Walking and sitting meditation are of course similar—most remarkably perhaps in the emphasis on repetition, as with breath and steps. Zen Master Wu Kwang, Richard Shrobe, has spoken of the spirit of repetition, by which he means maintaining a spark of renewal/newness in daily practice, not (as we might associate with the word “repetition”) anything like going through ritual motions. Repetition may seem boring and it is a passage to insight. However, generally in mainstream discussions of meditation, it is sitting on a cushion—not walking—that seems to merit the most attention. It wasn’t always so.
Who are the familiar and unfamiliar people who care and dance with me in the dharma room?
In Buddha’s day, walking meditation was regularly integrated into practice in three months of walking interspersed with three-month sitting periods. Somehow, over time, these three months of walking have been distilled into ten-minute “breaks” between sitting periods. However, if we think of walking meditation in this way, as I once did, we miss a lot. In his own teaching, Zen Master Wu Kwang highlights the vast distances walked by Zen monks in several koans. For example, while the details of these distances are usually left out of the koans and anecdotes we hear today, the monk Huirang had to walk nine hundred miles to meet with Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch. This distance, especially in the 9th century, means commitment. Matsuo Basho, the 17th century haiku master, described his own 1500-mile foot-borne journey in The Narrow Road to The Deep North as including fleas, government checkpoints, holy sites, inns of questionable quality, bouts of ill health, and various encounters of the human and natural worlds. You might say nothing was excluded.
Wu Kwang contrasts such months’ long walks to the ease of the few blocks, or bike, car, and subway rides that most of his students take to the Chogye International Zen Center in Manhattan’s East Village on East 14th Street. Pre-pandemic, he emphasized the importance of traversing those distances, however slight, to physically show up in person. Now, Zoom meetings mean we don’t even need to leave home to attend group practice, retreats, and dharma talks. Our “walk” can be no more vast than crossing the room to turn on a computer. When I show up in person to sit with my sangha, the subway takes me forty-five-minutes. One day, perhaps, I’ll walk the nine-mile walk (about three hours) from my uptown home on West 181st to East 14th Street.
I’ve long been accustomed to taking nature walks where they’re available around New York City, such as in some of its quite remarkable parks, and particularly in Inwood Park, Manhattan’s remaining forest. The inner stillness I found while roving about outside took a much longer time to develop during indoor zendo walks. Walking indoors, at first, was less relaxing and certainly not as engaging. James Austin, MD, a neurologist and Zen practitioner, offers an explanation for that. In Meditating Selflessly: Practical Neural Zen, he says that during indoor walking meditation, “You are temporarily setting aside a whole lifetime of casual automatic gait and mind-wandering habits.” Now, however, after much practice—and I mean decades—whether indoors or out, I can, sometimes, just walk when I remember to do so.
I didn’t ask for the first advice I received on indoor walking meditation. Genro Lee Milton, an American Rinzai monk in New York City’s Zen Studies Society, shared his reflection on Japanese Rinzai style walking meditation, called kinhin. In the very midst of the walking, he suddenly bellowed to the sangha: “KINHIN IS NOT A BREAK!” But for me, for years after that stunning outburst time after that, it remained so. I took necessary and unnecessary drinks, trips to the bathroom, stretched sore muscles and chatted surreptitiously. Circumambulating various dharma rooms, I looked out the windows, noticed the pictures and calligraphies on the walls, or gazed at the flowers. Paying attention to my steps got me nowhere. Looking back, though, I was building a foundation.
My first experience of significant indoor walking awareness arose no fewer than 20 years later. I was at Endless Mountain Zendo, in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, run now by Sensei Genro Lee Milton, NYC’s aforementioned bellowing monk, and his quieter partner, Yayoi Matsumoto. One day, I held the wood clappers, leading kinhin. I felt both alert and a keen sense of responsibility for the line. My attention, therefore, was focused on the task. I became aware of the line behind me. Suddenly, the 24-seat Zendo became new, as though I’d never been there before despite my decades of practice there.
Over time, leading walking meditation increasingly focused my attention. The space before me sometimes became challengingly new at my home Zen center. I was on my own, a trailblazer leading an apartment pilgrimage. On occasion, as it sometimes seems in this practice, there was no me and no line. I was developing walking attention in bits and pieces, learning along the way that attending to and being aware of others was a critical component.
A Very Brief History of Walking and Consciousness
The urge to walk lies very deep among all beings. One-celled animals make trails as do insects such as ants. Thousands of mule and pronghorn deer seasonally cross in and out of Yellowstone National Park. About one-and-a-half million wildebeest, among other migratory and companion species, helpers and predators, seasonally cross East Africa’s Serengeti plain.
Modern humans’ first fully bipedal ancestor is Nariokotome Boy, Homo erectus. His nearly two-million-year-old skeleton reveals developments connecting walking to meditative consciousness. To accommodate full bipedalism, Nariokotome boy’s brain jumped in size compared to earlier hominids. The leap accommodated the balance needed as weight as it shifted from foot to foot. Breathing changed — larynxes sank deeper in the throat to manage more complex breath control, part of the foundation for speech and conscious breathing. Walking and speech remain linked. Our first words and steps begin in tandem between 10 and 12 months.
Leaping millennia ahead, the historical record suggests that walking remained deeply connected to the inner and sacred life. Monotheist Abraham walked and talked with God so frequently that the Torah calls Abraham God’s friend. The most spectacular biblical walk is the 40-year pilgrimage led by Moses from Egypt to the Promised Land. Forty years turned a people born in slavery into a nation born in freedom. Imagine that walk! Imagine how many steps. It reminds me of a koan—case #16 from Zen Master Seung Sahn’s koan collection, The Whole World Is a Single Flower:
A monk visited Zen Master Kyong Bong and asked, “What is Truth?” “Where are you coming from?”
“Oh, that is very is far away,” Kyong Bong replied. “How many steps did you take to get here?”
As cities grew and became increasingly concentrated in human population, the importance of holy walking seemed to continue, if not grow. Zen’s ox herder—like Socrates, Christ, and all those who had eventually to descend the mountain, as it were—walked into busy marketplaces to teach. Why so? What is it that occurs on these walks that is, or seems, so intrinsically sacred? Many of us know someone even in our own lives who has made a popular pilgrimage to a holy site, such as Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and who has been transformed by it. Gretel Ehrlich says that such changes derive from departing from the familiar—not exactly what you’d expect of repetition! “A pilgrim knows that he must become a foreigner in his own life. Walking emulates spiritual progress; physical exertion is the literal way one can strip away personal armor, the disguises comfort and reference points provide.” And consider that fact that she is writing about the modern world, where the pilgrim’s effort in the long journey is safeguarded with good roads, police, and other protections. Ancient pilgrims faced bandits, injury, thirst, and other unexpected events. If you’re really walking, you must be attentive, receptive, responsive, ready for anything. Indeed, think of the dangers some notable historical “walkers” encountered at every step of their pilgrimages and/or marches. Danger threatened a brave modern pilgrim, Maha Ghosananda (1913–2007), the late patriarch of Cambodia. He led mass pilgrimages across Cambodia, covered with mine fields, to further peace. Overcoming or at least continually facing fear must be one factor that transforms people.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s peacemaking and walking meditation resonate here. He first came to the US leading a Buddhist peace delegation hoping to end our invasion of his country. Assisting him was Christian pacifist James Forest, who found walking with Nhat Hanh made him “aware that walking with attention to breathing provided opportunities to repair the damaged connection between the physical and the spiritual.” Forest tried hurrying the monk to his appointments, but Nhat Hanh resisted: “Better to be late than breathless. What is most important is to be in the present moment.” Thich Nhat Hanh’s interest in peace through non-violence led him to a relationship with civil rights marcher (that is, walker) Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Civil rights marches of the 1950s and 1960s in the US South were pilgrimages for all beings. An African American student of Gandhi, James Lawson, a Christian minister, is a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement and its marches. He was a pacifist who spent time in prison rather than fight in the Korean War. He also helped form part of a little-known stream of Black civil rights leaders sojourning in India to learn from Gandhi. Over three years Gandhi’s teachings made an enormous impact on Lawson, who returned to the US aiming to transform civil rights workers into satyagrahis, Gandhi’s word for those who engaged in “passive resistance.” Gandhi held that non-violence is a type of power that can transform enemies into friends and resolve issues of injustice and oppression.
Among those Lawson taught was the late politician and non-violence advocate John Lewis. Lewis describes his life-changing encounter with Lawson when was eighteen while attending a small, Tennessee Bible college in the 1950s. “I truly felt—and I still feel today—that he was God-sent. There was something mystic about him, something holy, so gathered, about his manner…” Lewis links Lawson’s teaching to Jesus’ incarnation, “This was the word made real, made flesh. It was something I was searching for my whole life.”
“We discussed and debated every aspect of Gandhi’s principles….[including] satyagraha—literally, ‘steadfastness in truth,’ a grounding foundation of non-violent civil-disobedience, of active pacifism.” Lewis recounts his own incarnation, “I always understood the idea of the ultimate redeemer. Christ on the cross. But now I was beginning to see that this something that is carried out in every one of us, that the purity of unearned suffering is a holy and affective thing.” Lawson taught Lewis and others a visualization technique aiding the toughest marchers to generate compassion during times of extreme pain. Lewis describes enacting the visualization as someone who received a near fatal clubbing to his head:
“One method of practicing this approach, when faced with a hateful, angry aggressive, even despicable person, is to imagine that person—actually visualize him or her—as an infant, as a baby. If you can see this full-grown attacker who faces you as the pure, innocent child that he or she once was—that we all once were—-it is not hard to find compassion in your heart. It is not hard to find forgiveness. And this, Jim Lawson taught us, is at the essence of the nonviolent way of life—the capacity to forgive….[I]f you can understand and feel even in the midst of those critical and often painful physical moments that your attacker is as much a victim as you are, that he is a victim of the forces that have shaped and fed anger and fury, then you are well on your way to the nonviolent life.”
While the stakes are not as immediately high and the dangers far from physically END threatening in the way Lewis describes his own marching, we can conceive of walking meditation in the Zendo as embodying the same deeply connecting, nonviolent principles, and even as a form of training in nonviolence. There’s a compelling scientific explanation for why this might be. Psycho-physiologist and neuroscientist Marcelo Bagliassi conducted a study of mindful walking. In it, 24 walkers listened to recordings of either guided “mindful” meditation or recordings designed to induce “mindless” meditation, while tasked with walking 200 meters at their own pace. Electrical activity in the brain was measured using a portable electroencephalography (EEG) system during walking. The findings indicated that mindful walking kept individuals engaged, with attention focused on their task and surroundings, including others. By contrast, the other group of walkers experienced increased dissociative thoughts, less awareness of their physical sensations and emotions, and a more negative affective state. In other words, brain scans revealed that the mindful group had greater connections between left temporo-parietal and right frontal lobe, the parts of the brain associated with meditative states, and greater self-awareness and greater awareness of other’s mental states. And again, these so-called “others” are key in walking meditation—and not, I’ve come to understand in my individual experience.
In Shaun O’Mara’s 2019 book, In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration, he explains that motor neurons, the nerve cells that generate unconscious mimicry, provide internal cues when we see others walk. Walking in organized groups with intention gets us into our brain’s calming frontal lobes. According to O’Mara, entrainment is a physiological connection generated by synchronizing individual circadian rhythms, the body’s daily time cycles. Further, effervescent assembly defines the calming effect experienced by groups moving together even during the gravity and danger of non-violent marches or any gathering serving a collective purpose. Finally and remarkably, he says, the greater the frequency of any social assembly, the longer we are likely to live. Such findings support showing up at the Zen center.
Martin Luther King Jr. knew that effervescent assembly could convert anger into purposeful action. His own teaching on walking rhythm helped determine a decision to march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the day now called Bloody Sunday. Local leaders disagreed on marching towards Birmingham that day. One side was legitimately afraid. The other side wanted to march. John Lewis put it like this, “The people of Selma were hurting. They were angry. They needed to march. It didn’t matter to me who led it. They needed to march.” His decision to march toward the impending violence was based on a comment from Dr. King, “…[T]here is nothing more powerful than the rhythm of marching feet, and that’s what this was, the marching feet of a determined people. That was the only sound you could hear.”
Make no mistake, group walking affects individual consciousness. In a recent study using functional MRIs that capture brain activity in action, scientists Miiamaaria Saarela and Riitta Hari found that the sound of one person’s footsteps activated the motor parts of the brain in others. The sound of two sets of footsteps involves a wider brain network that moves people to socialize and to walk. As Dorothy Fields asks in her jazz standard: Can’t you hear a pitter-pat? / And that happy tune is in your step.
In the Zendo, we are practicing becoming increasingly more aware of our own body in relation to the others in the room once we start walking. There is improvised choreography. Walking meditation in the Zendo is like a dance. During walking meditation, the meditation line slows when someone enters and parts of the line speed up when someone leaves. We are attentive, receptive, responsive. Experienced meditators slow their pace without leadership to create space for someone to enter the line with little fuss. Everyone must know everyone’s place in the line in order to support a correct return to their own cushion. Otherwise, people may scramble and jostle each other upon returning to their designated cushion, possibly creating an unnecessary distraction.
Here’s another kind of walking practice that has helped me along my way. Naturalist Jon Young, in What the Robin Knows, details what he calls “fox walking”, which he learned in working with Native American and Indigenous hunters around the world. Instructions focus on birds’ acute hearing, the partner sense of their singing. Noisy steps alert birds to flee. Softer steps allow us to near closer. Fox-walking requires awareness to how we step. Weight is kept on the back foot while raising the front foot slowly, then, intentionally, stepping down slowly with little weight. The weightless foot attends to the step before a twig cracks or leaves rustle. Birds chirping in The Clove section of Inwood Hill Park, the park’s deepest wooded area, grade my fox walking. An ‘A’ means I get very, very close.
Why the neuroscience and naturalists? Why the attention on Civil Rights marches? We moderns — East and West — adapt, appropriate, deconstruct, reconstruct, learn and struggle finding renewal and the new with East Asia’s heritage, alongside our own extant and emerging cultural values. We, too, need all the help we can get and be attentive and responsive to allowing new practices and even concepts and teaching into our experience as human beings. I am never sure how much to make of the differences between the past of the world and our contemporary scientific view. I can’t help wondering upon noticing that the questions posed by Zen students of the past to ancient Zen masters, such as Ta Hui, are the same questions we modern students ask.
The Dance that Saves All Beings
Physically interactive activities, like walking meditation, dancing and tag, require simultaneous attention to the other and self: allocentric and enteroceptive attention. The need to attend to the inner and outer worlds at the same time is another reason walking meditation may have been hard for me. For me, social dancing is a fun place to practice inner and outer awareness. Social dance partners have to communicate with each other while moving, usually wordlessly. Each pair’s awareness must also include the movements of the other pairs. Sometimes, couples bump into each other when no one is paying enough attention. I mark my breath and rhythm with my partner’s breath and rhythm in the kind of awareness I am seeking in walking meditation — dance rhythm helps.
A square dance showed poet and writer Tess Taylor how social dancing saves all beings. Taylor’s story starts in Northern Ireland where she went on a writing assignment observing non-sectarian art and writing classes organized by peace activists. The classes increased comity between Catholics and Protestants. The second part of her story finds her attending a square dance in America’s blue grass music capitol, Crooked Road, for another assignment. She did not want to dance. The dance hall, for her, was a hostile, right-wing, rural trench in the culture wars. Her progressive hackles went up. No square-dancing Democrats lived near Crooked Road. Ostracizing herself, she became a cultural stepchild in her own country. She might have examined the region’s votes in the 2020 presidential election, where sixty-six percent of votes went for Trump; thirty-two percent for Biden.
Taylor relented and joined the dance. Communal movement with rhythmic footfalls moved her from egocentric to allocentric thinking of others. The metered steps had the same effect on her as Dr. King predicted for civil rights marchers. Her aversions vanished during the dance, experiencing firsthand how communal motion changes minds. Her feelings toward Trump supporting Americans transmuted as she became entrained in the dance. She, like John Lewis, included the enemy in a compassionate manner. She experienced effervescent assembly, saved all beings, and became Cinderella at the ball:
I took a breath and threw myself in. I began circling the room and tapping my feet. What I felt then was something extraordinary. It was not about the people, but about the form. I knew that as I danced, I would have to touch many people in the ring, that I would have to switch partners several times. The shapes we danced were complicated. Everyone had to take a turn swinging and being swung. No one was left out. When I was done, I realized that I could be angry or I could dance, but I could not do both at the same time. I did not lose my resolve to fight for the things I care about, but I also noticed how the dance invited a small mountain community into a social contract: dancing together was a way of agreeing to care for one another. I knew my politics very well, but this bit of art surprised me.
Everyone is a follower in a square dance. The caller announces the moves to the squares, four pairs of dancers make the square. Patterns can be complex or intentionally tricky, just like the complicated patterns of some Zendo walks. Dancers must cooperate. All partner social dancing, ballroom, Latin, square, swing, and waltz, requires practice. Practice helps us develop sensitivity to others and trust. I have experienced this kind of joint immanence/transcendence with a dance even though dances are usually indoors. The person in front of you, extends my happy, socializing frontal lobes.
Feet, pace, partners, marking steps and pathway become objects of a kaleidoscopic attention. Dancers’ attention also may wander. Returning to counting is just as valuable on the dance floor as the mediation hall. Some dancers are inattentive to others, including their partners. Protections come from alert dancers’ silent gestures like light pushing on a partner’s back or pulling on their upright arm. Pushes and pulls are cooperative push hands. Warnings heighten connection: I care for you. You care for me. We care for each other. Dancing or line walking is caring in motion. The wordless mountain of me recognizes the silent mountain of you, often with smiles.
Who are the familiar and unfamiliar people who care and dance with me in the dharma room? What are these calligraphies, pictures, and plants? What have I not seen before or see anew? Absent-minded or present?
Take a hike, go to a social dance or meditative walk. Go with a friend or a loved one. Connections might deepen or a problem resolve. Something surprising might arise. Your walk may end in the way Fields’ ends her song:
If I never have a cent
I’d be rich as Rockefeller.
Gold dust at my feet,
On the sunny side of the street.