Walking Meditation: A Calming Practice for Stressful Times

Anthony Damiani, ~1969

In the American Brahman Bookstore in Ithaca, NY in the late 1960s, a group drawn to the store and teacher learned meditation sitting on lumpy mismatched cushions. At home, Vic and I committed to sitting in meditation for 15 minutes a day. We opened the window a crack to hear the sounds of splashing water and singing birds.

Soon, we meditated 45 minutes a day on firm cushions made for meditation. Sometimes we sat many hours a day during meditation weekends with our teacher Anthony Damiani, the philosopher and meditation master who taught at the bookstore. When Vic and I traveled, we meditated wherever we were.

In those days, meditation meant sitting.

Venerable Bohm Hyu Sunim, 2006

We were introduced to walking meditation by many teachers, especially Tibetan Buddhists and a Korean Zen abbot Venerable Bohm Hyu Sunim, but walking meditation didn’t click with me. I liked sitting on my round cushion with folded legs and no back support. Everything changed when Vic was sick.

In 2007, as I accompanied Vic through cancer treatments, my calmest meditation wasn’t sitting in my room at the American Cancer Society Lodge or in Vic’s quarantined hospital room, but during long walks in Mount Hope Cemetery across the road from the hospital. In January, I pulled on snow pants and insulated boots while Vic napped in his room.

I walked mindfully, aware of my surroundings. I watched bare branches of oaks and maples reaching to the sky while crows called from the roofs of mausoleums. As I walked, I noticed the dusting of lake effect snow and followed my breath until my worried mind quieted. I often visited the grave of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, activist, author, speaker, and prominent abolitionist who died in 1895. I circumambulated his stone.

Frederick Douglas grave with peace hat

After Vic’s death in 2008, I walked two or three times a day to soothe grief. I noticed the living, blooming, and dying plants and the changing angle of the sun. I noticed my breath as I repeated the mantra taught by many teachers, including Anthony and the Dalai Lama.

Om Mani Padme Hum.

This mantra accompanied me on political and environmental marches to Albany, NY, Washington, DC, and more local protests. I struggled with vertigo by then, but inner prayer made political action sacred and necessary.

Now, more than twelve years after Vic’s death, I need meditation more than ever, but my body and mind are anxious in these alarming times. So, I return to walking meditation, noticing beauty and changing nature as I walk the trails. I watch my breath and offer prayers for the world and my country as COVID-19 continues on and violence erupts. We’ve neglected racism, inequality, and public health far too long.

On Sunday, I join a gathering for peace in Lafayette Park in Watkins Glen, NY organized by people under 20. About 200 people come to support justice and listen to speakers. Many carry signs. Social distancing and masks are requested and make me feel safe for my first public outing since March. As I stand and walk, I watch my breath and repeat an inner prayer for peace. My heart opens and anxiety stills as I stand with others who want positive change.

May we remember we are sisters and brothers. May we listen rather than harm. May there be peace, justice, and love.

***

How are you managing these challenging times? Have you stayed at home or worn a mask in public? Are you on the front lines of healthcare or political action? There are many videos, often showing excruciating anger and police violence, but this video of protesters singing together at a large Washington DC protest moved me: “At the DC protests, a ‘Lean on Me’ Singalong Offered a Moment of Solace.” I wish I’d asked the name of the woman who made this wonderful sign and held it up for a photograph.

Vic and I joined nonviolent political protests before we were married. The first was a walking protest with a Quaker group. I wrote about that in Civil Disobedience against the Vietnam War at Peace Bridge: 1967. I wrote about the Women’s March in January 2017 in Giving Hope and Peace a Seat between Anxiety and Grief: Women’s March on Washington, DC.

23 Comments
  1. Walking meditations are simply the best, especially when taken in a beautiful landscape. I can’t recommend going outdoors and sharing in Mother Nature’s beauty and healing effects high enough. You’re a woman and a walker of my own heart! This afternoon I’m planning on visiting our favourite ancient woodland, which will be my first trip there since lockdown began in the UK 12 weeks ago. I’m incredibly excited and no doubt we’ll be walking and weeping at the same time together!

    Having somewhere to walk is so important and thankfully, when you needed that place and space, Mount Hope Cemetery was to enter and explore. Its name speaks volumes! And speaking of names, I don’t know if you’ve realise but you’ve named Anthony surname as Mansfield not Damiani? Your heart has its reasons I’m sure!

    Hmm, you know maybe Jeanie’s onto something in her recent comment re: “Homespun” book idea. Weaving together family memories could produce a second book for you. What a gift that would be for your family, yourself and all us readers! If not, no worries there will always be your wonderful blog for us to come back to again and again.

    As always, beautiful, soulful writing my dear friend! I’m so pleased to read that you’ll be joining others on Sunday for another peaceful protest. Lastly, in answer to your question, yes I do wear a mask when visiting shops but not when out walking or cycling. Love and light, Deborah.

    • Thanks for catching my mistake about Anthony’s surname in the photo. My son Anthony is named after him, so there’s an Anthony Mansfield in my life, too. My sons were both close to Anthony D as children.

      I hope you have a glorious time in the forest today. I don’t forget my good fortune as I walk in the woods and meet no one on the trails except a butterfly or bird. The dogs are always with me, and occasionally I walk with a friend or with my son Anthony who lives nearby. I love being spoiled in this particular way. When I’m alone, it’s more of a walking meditation and less a social experience. I hear Jeannie’s idea, but don’t have the necessary vision at the moment to bring a book project to completion. I hold the possibility in the back of my mind, but feel the need to stop pushing against the resistance inherent in this planetary time. It will happen because I’m inspired inwardly or it won’t happen at all. I keep writing my stories and keep expectations low because it’s a time to heal, stay calm, and take care of the world. I’m finding myself more handicapped in an online auditory world and it makes me more reclusive and less inclined to listen on line. I stay with my writing group now on Zoom and my dream therapist.

      The protest happened on June 7–and it was peaceful and inspiring. The organizers and most who attended were young. I’m used to white haired protest crowds, but I think the latest crisis and atrocities in the US awakened the young ones. Without them, we’re sunk. My mask made by a friend has butterfly material, plus I saw my first Monarch butterfly yesterday. There is more hope in my heart than I’ve felt in years. Love and light back to you.

  2. God bless you Elaine. I enjoy walking meditation – good for the soul and the brai. May you be protected in protest, and bring gloves too. Stay safe. 🙂

    • The protest happened on Sunday–a cool breezy day with lots of space in the park and everyone wearing masks and keeping a distance. It was organized by people under 20 and they did a spectacular job. I didn’t touch anything, but had hand sanitizer in my bag just in case. We had a great turnout. I hope we’re finally waking up. You stay safe, too.

      • Glad to hear. And yes I’m so proud of the smart Americans standing up and speaking out finally. This needed to happen, as awful as the whole situation is. Change will come!

        • I hope so, Debby. We have a long way to go and now a growing disaster as covid flares because wearing a mask became a political issue. It’s a sad time to have such an awful heartless human being for president, not to mention those who support him, but I think the US population is waking up to the need to take responsibility for what we’ve done and right some wrongs. I hope and pray.

  3. Very soothing post, Elaine!

    I walk in nature too, I pray, and I wear a mask in public. It’s been raining for almost a week, which ironically makes it challenging to do some forest bathing. This week I’ve had to seek and find a new provider to continue with eye treatments. Stressful, but in the scheme of things nothing compared to the pain of the George Floyd family – or the stress of voters in Georgia yesterday.

    Routine is helpful: meditation every morning, writing blog posts, and measuring out tiny doses of local, state, and world news. Our mayor and sheriff are marching with protestors, most of them young, a good sign I think.

    I’m happy that you are taking care of yourself and have sighted a monarch recently. 🙂

    • I imagined you praying as you walk. A week of rain is something to ponder as we seem to be heading into a drought. I’m watering the thirsty plants today.

      I hope you found a new provider you like for your eye treatments–and I don’t think many of us understand the stresses faced by black citizens and families. I hope this is changing and was encouraged with the step back from violence in the protests, but Georgia’s primaries were discouraging. I love that your mayor and sheriff are marching with the protesters. This is what we need. It’s the first time I remember attending a protest with so many young people (all masked and keeping a distance). Keeping a peaceful hopeful mind is the best way I know to take care of myself right now, Marian–and walking while praying/meditating. I’m grateful the dogs keep an eye on me so I don’t have to worry about where they are. They focus on smells while I watch my breath. We took a beautiful walk before breakfast this morning. May the sun shine and may peace prevail. Be safe.

  4. My mask is a handmade one from a home-based business I found online, and the fabric is a Day of the Dead sugar skull pattern, with a rectangle of clear plastic shower curtain liner over the mouth. I was delighted to find it because it addresses 2 areas of interest for me. I’m sure people are taken aback, especially when there are so many solid/opaque masks. I hope it makes them think. I’ve even started signing back at masked people who try to talk to me, just to see their reaction. I view it as less a tit-for-tat and more a reminder that each of us has a barrier in life to deal with, be it communication, color, creed, or what-have-you. Sometimes that barrier is immediately visible. Often it’s not.

    Like you I noticed the tilt in generational attendance at peace rallies, as well as the riots here now that surveillance video and screenshots are showing up, with glimpses of the arsonists and looters. What strikes me more is the relatively even distribution of color/complexion in the crowds who showed up in daylight to push back, to reclaim the city, to clean up the damage, in the days afterward.

    • I love hearing about your mask, Joe. Last night I looked for a dream-like youtube video I once shared about the Day of the Dead (made in Mexico, I think), but couldn’t find it. I’ll look again because it’s full of Monarchs as symbols of returning souls and new life. It’s a good time to know how to sign–which I don’t know. I can’t read lips when people are masked, but can usually hear unless the background noise is roaring. Our local protest was quiet. With warmer weather here and my wide trails, I take occasional walks with friends who are being careful and staying home.

      When violence began, I saw horrifying footage of young white teenagers busting windows and destroying property in black neighborhoods. That along with tear gas and riot police made me fear the worst, but then there was this grace-filled step back. The kneeling began and voices of reason and love broke through the mayhem, even as our president encouraged violence and harm. I am incredibly grateful for the de-escalation and most of what has occurred since (other than the Georgia primaries). I pray we’ll stay calm, learn from each other, look at our part in racism, and make the big changes needed.

  5. I try to walk in nature every day. Perhaps not as mindfully as I could be. But I notice that these days I can stand on my porch or look out the window and just watch a rabbit eating grass–it seems amazing and sacred.

    Thank you as always, Elaine, for your insight and artful way of expressing it.

    • Lynne, I hope walking and paying attention to my surroundings is enough. I tend to focus on breath when I’m anxious, so I’m trying to remember to do that all the time. I love the image of you standing still and watching–mindfulness at its best. That’s one of the best things about this stay at home period in my life. I spend more time watching and honoring nature. Five bluebirds fledged yesterday. I watch a wren going in and out of a nesting box outside my kitchen window. The tree swallow mama is incubating her 6 eggs, and another bluebird box has 4 babies. They give me hope. Be well and safe.

  6. Walking is my best thing Elaine, I like to notice. Shadows, the wind playing, birds, insects, stones. When we’re allowed to stroll on the beach (still in lockdown) nothing gives me greater pleasure than the movement of the waves.

    Om Mani Padme Hum is a meditation I play on my computer when I’m on it – it’s accessible on google, the one I play is about 3 hours long and is very soothing.

    I reckon one can meditate no matter the circumstances, walking, driving, sitting. I was introduced to TM in my early 20’s so that’s been my go to for many years though sometimes I find others on you tube. Deepak Chopra does some lovely shortish one – 10 to 15 mins. For me a way of finding that quiet still place within that is linked to the infinite ,,

    • Susan, those waves are their own mantra and breathing exercise. They absorb our anxieties. I haven’t been on an ocean beach for a few years, but there’s nothing like it. My first meditation teacher Anthony suggested Om Mani Padme Hum in the late 1960. When Anthony died, he’d asked the Dalai Lama to be the spiritual head of our group (even though we weren’t a Buddhist group). The Dalai Lama suggested we continue meditating together using Om Mani Padme Hum during Anthony’s passage time.

      I agree we can meditate any time, any where. In the 1970s, Vic and I stayed with the philosopher Paul Brunton for 6 weeks in Switzerland. We missed our train one afternoon and Vic and I felt terrible because PB was frail by then. He quietly smiled and said, “Let’s think of this as a time to meditate.” So that’s what we did for an hour in the train station. (I’m not good at listening to guided meditation or music, but thankfully I enjoy bird songs this time of year.)

  7. If you have 10 minutes to spare would you join me on this virtual meditation walk from my garden/allotment . The garden has held me during these difficult times and been healing for my wife Sue following a major operation. The birdsong is so healing.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBGlftGUe24&t=8s

    • I will join you, Gary. Thank you. I’ll listen and watch later today. My office door and window open on a porch with a hummingbird feeder and off the porch a black oil sunflower feeder in a clump of trees. Birds serenade me in the front of the house, too, and it’s a sound I truly enjoy. It’s been a challenging year for gardening here, because of erratic temperatures and dry weather, but I’m enjoying greens, flowers, and butterflies, plus many birds. Nature gets me through these hard days. Be well and safe.

    • Gary, I just took your garden tour. What a great place for all kinds of wildlife and for your wife’s healing. May all be well for Sue, for you, and for all the beings you shelter in your garden.

      • Here is another poem that goes with the walk.

        Where the birds dream me. (10th June 2020)

        Here where the birds
        sing me back
        from
        a land of shadows

        where the scent of rose
        washes my face
        and the yellow Iris
        reaches out to me
        as I step
        slowly
        by

        Here I am dreamed
        into being
        and drawn
        out of
        my stupor

        and shown
        for a moment
        the secret
        of life and death
        and told in a whisper
        the truth
        of passing and beginning

        Here
        now
        the flowers
        some fading
        some in full bloom
        tomorrow’s fruits
        are forming
        the birds are in the trees

        I am here
        walking

        • Thank you, Gary. Such exquisite words about nature’s teaching. I imagine myself walking in your garden–and now I’m heading outside to deal with mine.

  8. We have cardinals in our back yard at the feeder every morning. They move to the trees in the front yard and across the street where the owls and woodpeckers come and go as evening comes on. We move out to the front porch to watch and listen to them.

    Last night a cardinal flitted around my head in a dream, asking for my attention. When I held out my hand to him (it was a male) he alit on my hand. I held him gently and talked soothingly as I went to open the door to let him outdoors.

    Spring and flowers and birds…and butterflies! Food for meditation for sure, whether walking or sitting!

    • Are you seeing cardinals and owls in NC or FL, Jeanie? I imagine you in the NC mountains as you paint this scene, but don’t know for sure. I’m grateful for the colors of summer. How lovely to have a cardinal in your dream house–and to release him. I have to search my files, but don’t remember a bird dream since one about releasing a hummingbird. The butterflies have been spectacular so far, but no Monarch sightings. They come later than the swallowtails that winter over here. The milkweed in the fields is preparing for them and so am I.

  9. Thank you for this lovely post, Elaine. While I can no longer take the long walks in nature that I used to, I still can get out for at least a short walk most days. Your words are a wonderful reminder that walking slowly can be more of a walking meditation. Lately I have been reciting the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra as I walk, and now it will also make me feel connected to you. And a big YES to the way you ended your post: “May we remember we are sisters and brothers. May we listen rather than harm. May there be peace, justice, and love.”

    • Anne, I’m glad you can take short walks most of the time. For me,walking is a chance to focus on beauty and mantra, but also to loosen my tight often shallow breath. When I’m anxious, I use a pattern of short deep inhalations and long exhalations–twice as long exhaling as inhaling–to calm the fight-or-flight reflex. Last night, I lifted my arms toward the sky on the inhalation and slowly lowered them toward earth, at my sides, during exhalation. This movement, seated or standing, made the exhalation smoother and easier. I need to practice breathing exercises in every body position, because I won’t always be walking on my trails. I’m glad we can connect with that universal mantra. It connects us to many in this world including the Dalai Lama. What could be better than that?

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