Meditating on the Move

Walking meditation offers mindfulness without the physical and mental costs of sitting.

Photo by Getty Images/smartboy10.

I took up walking years ago as an intentional goal when I was stuck in my completely unwalkable upstate New York community and struggling with debilitating chronic pain. At that time, when my children were small and intense and the days felt impossibly long and emotionally charged, I began walking out of the dual desperation of early motherhood and chronic back pain. We walked and looked at red-winged blackbirds swaying on cattails, euphorbia hiding pale green among the field grasses, the goose poop along the driveway. I shifted my feet while watching my toddlers throw pebbles into the tiny stream running through our front field. We couldn’t walk far because our semirural road was busy and had no sidewalk, but even that little bit down the driveway and into the field made a difference. We went back in for lunch or naptime or some silly craft project calmer, gentler, quieter.

Slowly, without realizing it, I was developing a habit of walking meditation. Forced to walk at a toddler’s pace, and before that with the back-bent waddle imposed by a well-fed infant in an Ergobaby carrier, I got very bored walking. The first iPhone was released the year my first child was born, but I wouldn’t own one for several years after that, so I couldn’t escape by listening to a podcast or talking on the phone as I walked. There was truly nothing to do but either let my attention wander off to nowhere or land like a moth on the swamp grasses, the cattails, the strong, hairy vines of the poison ivy that seemed to sucker onto every tree in every forest where we lived. I was bored, I was walking, I was bored, I was walking.

I remember the feel of the air during those now long-ago walks and the sound of the wind through tree branches far better than I remember the feel or sound of more recent walks, when I was listening to an audiobook or had just paused to check a text message or was looking for photo opportunities for instagram. I don’t, though, remember what I was thinking about. Which is the point. Meditation is partly about letting go of your thoughts, or letting go of your attachment to them. Inside, with my first infant, and then a toddler and another newborn, my thoughts sometimes drove me wild. I couldn’t meditate inside, and with my back pain ever-present, I hated to meditate sitting down at all. But at those inching little paces, my mind finally learned to rest.

Mediation is often advised, or even prescribed, as a way for us to reduce stress, to stop feeling overwhelmed in our lives, to build more patience and mindfulness into our parenting, to improve health, to help us form good eating habits and strong relationships. Whether it’s a cure-all or not, meditation has been shown to be beneficial for many aspects of human life.

But most meditation is performed while sitting. And sitting itself is harmful. Not sitting for a few minutes or sitting for the duration of a meal. No, the kind of sitting that damages our health is the kind far too many of us accept as an immutable aspect of our lives. Sitting in a car, often stuck in traffic, to drive to work for an hour, maybe more.

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