Walking through a beautiful forest reserve the other day, I felt the invigoration of the cool morning air on my skin and observed the Beauty of a pale-blue sky welcoming a rising sun. The forest understorey was emblazoned with startling yellow, white and purple splashes of brilliance amid the greenery. I noticed the myriad brown scribbles on the silvery-white bark of a Scribbly Gum tree and the pink-purple dimpled bark of twisting Angophora trees. I observed a red-bellied black snake lying in a patch of sunlit mulch just off the track, resting in the warming sunshine. It was a forest inviting me to pay attention, to revel in the sights and sounds of its offerings and allow me to leave behind the burdens of domestic living.
When we go for a walk, especially in nature, we often take our domestic minds with us — chattering minds and vacant gazing — paying scant attention to the less obvious aspects of our surrounds. I often observe people walking in pairs, chatting with heads down, animated hands gesticulating, caught up in gossip and opinion. Others I observe walking quickly with headphones on, sunglasses wrapped, tuning out and tuning into whatever music is blaring into their ears. Yet others are slowly walking with a mobile phone pressed against their ear, chatting and listening, caught up in another world, barely noticing the world through which they are walking.
I, too, often walk without noticing, walk without paying much attention to less obvious aspects of my surrounds. I know I miss much of what’s around me because I am consumed by thoughts, feelings or fantasies, or I may just have a blank mindlessness. Too often we tend to drown in the streams of thoughts and feelings that flood our awareness.
In short, we often mindlessly walk from A to B, consumed by thoughts, fantasies or getting to a destination without being mentally present to the here and now. In being mentally absent or busy, we fail to be attentive and thus compromise our capacity to perceive what is actually around us, thereby limiting our awareness and the experience of fully present living. We may have left our normal domestic or work situations, put aside our normal roles and responsibilities, yet brought along our normal mental chatter.
We often tend to be disembodied in the sense that our bodies may be in one place but our minds and hearts elsewhere. As 19th century American environmentalist Henry Thoreau observed: “Of course it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit … But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is. I am out of my senses.”
While many people walk for recreation and exercise, few do it mindfully. Walking becomes increasingly therapeutic and meaningful as you pay more attention to what is around and within you, to the flow of experience. To get more benefits out of walking, you need to put in a bit of mental effort to become more aware or mindful of what you are doing rather than tuning out or chatting, planning and imagining future happenings.
In being fully present, you will become more aware of not just what is happening around you but also the constant flow of thoughts and sensations. In mindfully walking, every step can bring you to the here and now because it focuses your attention on what is actually happening without getting distracted or even lost to your senses, as Thoreau expressed above.
What is mindfulness?
When in normal states of awareness, we tend to be hijacked or consumed by the mental flow of inner experience: thoughts, feelings, emotions, judgements, imaginings and sensations. But when we simply observe the flow of these inner experiences without reacting to or judging them, then we are entering the territory of mindfulness. In switching the focus from, say, your daily job list or fear of some future possible happening or resentment of past grievances to just observing the flow of current experience, you create a sense of detachment from the past, the future and mental chatter. What evolves is a sense of spaciousness in which to observe the flow of your inner experience and realise the impermanence of everything. It is not simply an observational, accepting awareness but a purposeful awareness of your moment-to-moment experience.
Mindfulness is both healing and empowering because, in part, it creates a more detached mental perspective that reduces reacting to outer and inner events that tend to hijack our minds, perspectives and actions. If you can mentally observe your thoughts, feelings and actions, you will notice just how caught up you tend to be in these for the great majority of your waking life. You will observe just how temporary they are — indeed everything is, including life.
When being mindful, you are freed to be more in control of your responses, thinking and actions. The key idea for mindfulness is attention — paying attention to what is happening in the outer and inner landscapes in each moment without becoming swept up in them, without judging and reacting habitually to them. The essence of this is learning to let go and be fully attentive — to be.
Given the mental effort and ongoing practice needed to become proficient in mindfulness, you could ask, “Why bother? Why not just walk and enjoy the scenery or company of others as I normally do?” You can! Walking “normally” is fine; there is much enjoyment to be had. Mindful walking is just another way of walking that offers different experiences and benefits.
In a nutshell, we are creatures of comfort, routine and habit, often unaware of much of what is happening within and around us. Thus, to be mindful is to wake up to the fullness of experience in each moment. It is to let go of mental chatter, negativity of past events, wild imaginings, fears, assumptions and expectations, plans, deadlines and responsibilities and habitual reactions. In the letting go and emptying of all this “stuff”, an invigorated perspective towards living, self and experience arises. The benefits of this include revitalised experiences, increased self-understanding, inner peace and clarity, and a sense of greater self-control over your life.
Mindful walking: a beginner’s guide
Mindful walking differs from regular walking in that you focus primarily on the act of walking rather than just on the scene before you or getting to a particular location. Mindful walking is all about the journey rather than the destination. It is about bringing your attention to the act of breathing, walking and perception, being a witness to your sensations or responses as you walk, rather than being lost or absent to mental chatter and sensations or just being mentally blank. So how do you become mindful when walking?
The first thing is to schedule time aside to do a mindful walk; otherwise it won’t happen. It doesn’t have to be a whole walk but perhaps, to begin with, one small part of your normal daily walk. You might begin by being mindful for five minutes during a walk and then build it up. You should view it as a practice like any activity you want to become proficient in. You could make it a daily or weekly ritual. Literally and metaphorically, it’s about taking small, slow steps and building up the duration and momentum of being mindful. It also helps to find pleasant, quiet, natural places to do it in.
Before you begin to walk, establish a deep breathing rhythm and awareness of your body state. The purpose of establishing a deep breathing rhythm is to create a mental focus or anchor point for grounding your awareness to the present moment and your body. In creating a deep breathing rhythm, you bring attention back to your breathing, which invariably situates awareness both in your body and in the present moment. If you lose your focus, you can return to your slow breathing rhythm.
Maintain a relaxed but upright posture, straight spine, chin level, shoulders relaxed, hands on lap or, if walking, by your sides. Breathe slowly in through your nose for around five seconds, feeling your chest and diaphragm gradually rise. Then, when you can no longer breathe in, you are filled to capacity, hold your breath for two seconds, feel the sensation of diaphragmatic “fullness”, and then slowly exhale for five seconds or so through your mouth. Hold for two seconds and then begin the process again. Keeping your attention on this breathing rhythm during the walk will also help to clear your mind. Whenever you notice your mind wandering away, bring your awareness back to this breathing rhythm.
Begin to walk in a slow, purposeful manner. Become aware of the act of walking: how your feet contact the earth; the movement of your legs, arms and body; and your posture and balance. Be aware of the feel of the path your feet encounter. Walking barefoot on grass, soft earth and sand helps to expand the sensations of walking and feeling connected to the earth. As you walk at a moderate pace along a track or path, maintain your awareness on body and breathing, while being aware of your mental activity.
It’s critical to exert some level of control over the sensorial input that streams into your awareness. As you walk, scan your surrounds but don’t focus on any one thing for more than a couple of seconds. Use a soft, spacious gaze — that is, slightly lower your eyelids, do not keep your vision sharply on anything and use your peripheral vision more. The aim is to get an overall impression of your surrounds without risking getting lost or fixated on any one sensation, such as a beautiful sunset or flower.
Look at things but don’t label them or think about them. Rather than maintain your usual habit of labelling things, whether it be “tree”, “flower” or “bird”, just rest your mind in what Buddhists call “non-conceptual awareness”. We often use our preconceived ideas, including labelling things, when encountering our world without realising that this process limits our experience. If you do find yourself getting lost in labelling or thinking, as Thoreau once opined, bring your focus back to your breathing rhythm.
After a little practice, it will become easier to walk mindfully. First, try to be fully aware of your breathing rhythm and the act of walking over increasing periods or distances. Once you can maintain this, then include being mindful of your thoughts and sensations. Aim to achieve consistent mindfulness for the first two factors before you attempt all four.
Mindfulness in nature is, in my experience, a pulsating rhythmic awareness of being in tune with different aspects of your experience. At one moment I will be mindfully focused on my breathing and walking; at other times this will fade and my awareness will be more on observing my inner states, my thoughts, reflections and emotions. However, in whatever context you are mindful, it will help you be more calm, less stressed, and content in being present and simply being, rather than existing in your state of normal “doing” busyness.
You will find, after enough practice, that to go out for a mindful walk will lead you into your inner landscape where renewal and reinvigoration of your sense of self is to be found. As naturalist John Muir stated in The Wilderness World of John Muir, to go outside, from this mindful perspective, is to really go within: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown; for going out, I found, was really going in.”
Mindfulness is an open, curious and accepting state of consciousness that arises in non-judgmentally observing moment-to-moment experience. It is the practice of neutrally observing your surrounds, the flow of inner states, or both, without judgement, denial or attachment.
“People sacrifice the present for the future. But life is available only in the present. That is why we should walk in such a way that every step can bring us to the here and now.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Peter White’s book In the Presence of Nature: A Guide for Connecting and Healing in a Climate of Change is available at your local bookstore and online bookstores.