How many steps have you taken in your life? How many steps do you take in a day? How many of them are you aware of? Walking every day is a way to take care of the body and it also is a great way to care of the spirit and the heart that cares for the world and all who share it with us.
The Buddha walked everywhere. Except during the rains retreat, the bulk of his teaching was done walking from place to place and then stopping, meditating, discussing with the people of his community their life conditions and how to respond to them with thoughtfulness, patience, accuracy, skill. Twenty-six hundred years ago, the pace of his life was a walking pace. Now of course, it isn’t. Unless we make a concerted effort, we don’t spend a lot of time walking. Speeding from one thing to the next can leave us careless and anxious.
If we are always driven and anticipating what’s next, it’s hard to appreciate our immediate experience and receive the intimate guidance that we get by minutely paying attention to what’s going on right now. If I don’t pay attention to my experience, I take so many things for granted and I make many inaccurate assumptions. I might not really take in the full humanity of others, and this is the kind of problem that is permeating the social spaces these days. So, walking at the speed of life allows me to listen more carefully. And when I do that, I connect better and respond to a broader field of information, with more heart.
A chant that we use in Zen practice includes the line, This step, this step, which prompts us to remember that it is only “this step” that we have to work with in our life. We only do live step by step. Remembering this can help to center us and keep us balanced.
In Zen we also do a formal practice of walking meditation, step by mindful step. The beauty of meditating in this way is that it carries over. It can help us carry the same open attitude into our walking anytime we put one foot in front of the other — while walking the dog, walking to the kitchen to get a drink of water. Being present while walking restores vitality to each moment of this life.
It can be hard for us to find relief now from the mental epidemic of public contention and private worry — about COVID, election, climate change, economic uncertainties, family relationships. Are even those who are expressing views different from my own any less concerned about the conditions we are facing altogether? I don’t think so. We are all swept up in it, we’re all worried, but our narratives and our solutions vary according to what we pay attention to.
I can meet uncertainty and fear about our next collective steps with wisdom and patience if I’m are able to cultivate a modicum of calm consideration for others. When I can tap the wisdom of my grounded, step-by-step presence, I can contribute a measure of steadiness to the great wobble of change that we find ourselves in the midst of.
Especially now, when our social world is so limited by the viral load, walking meditation on this miracle of an Earth is calming and provides a refuge that restores our own balance in this moment. This step can restore us to wholeness. This step is always the first step.
Abby Terris is senior teacher of the Sangha Jewel Zen Center. She has been practicing Zen Buddhism for 45 years and teaching it for nearly 20. She also co-leads Buddhist retreats at Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie and at ZenWest-Empty Field Zendo in Eugene. She is a psychotherapist in private practice in Corvallis and mother of two grown daughters.
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