Any honest look back at my personal history with taking steps would render me utterly unqualified to be up here evangelizing about their benefits, indeed their spiritual value.
A look at my pink baby book — that is, if anyone still remembers where it is kept — would reveal that I didn’t bother to try to walk until I was almost two years old. Nor did my twin brother. We, apparently, were talky little things, content, in my case, to bounce along efficiently on my bottom through much of what is usually the stepping-out phase of toddlerhood.
Called so because it is the time when babies get up on two legs and toddle around, exploring their universes. Taking a huge step also in independence.
When I finally bothered to stop talking long enough to concentrate on the fundamentals of upright mobility, I also discovered quickly enough that I was a suburban kid. And with all those dead end cul de sacs and what would soon become the Washington Beltway roaring by at the end of our subdivision, there was not a lot of places an older child could walk. At least safely. In fact, my twin nearly had one foot mangled by a milk truck (or was it a mail truck?) when he darted into the very sleepy street.
Nonetheless, those developmentally delayed feet of mine found places to walk, to hike, to march, even, and memories of downtown window shopping, up and down crowded and colorful streets, river walks, beach walks. Hikes with my father and brother up easy trails in national parks, and then harder ones — in those years when my post-polio-syndrome father could still walk without canes or walkers. I can’t even remember now the last time he could take a step by himself, unaided.
Marches with my Unitarian church youth group to oppose nuclear bomb testing and in favor of civil rights. Marches to oppose several wars now and one with all the women in my family to support family planning and reproductive freedoms.
I have walked as a student at a large and hilly university campus, a young wife and mother in a city neighborhood, a divorced woman on a windy November pier, steps heavy with responsibility and uncertainty. Over my adult life, I have pushed three babies in strollers, walked five different dogs of all sizes, a couple of them heavier than me.
My husband and I have walked almost daily together for almost twenty years, when the weather was manageable and we were both able.
I have taken a couple of falls and been in a couple of car crashes.
He has been gravely ill and hospitalized twice. And there were weeks and even months we could not walk. Walking then, had been a regular part of my life, in some form or another. Yet I had rarely gone on a Walk — a capital W walk, those charity benefits where you agree to walk a certain number of miles, for which sponsors pay fifty cents or even five dollars a mile. I have never race walked, never seen it as a competitive sport at all.
Not even, really, as exercise.
Something I would have to practice, correct my stance, for example, correct my stride. Be coached on or taught, like practicing the piano, which I stopped doing a long time ago. Or a goal I would have to meet, like running five miles a day, or in the case of walking, reaching the arbitrary goal of 10,000 steps a day.
That’s right. 10,000 steps. In places like Colorado and in other states around the country participating in what is being called American on the Move, people are being encouraged to walk an additional 2,000 steps a day to fight the battle of the bulge, to help prevent diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
This assumes that, in the course of everyday living, we take about 8,000 steps: walking around our houses, getting in and out of cars and buildings, walking to school or to appointments, taking the garbage out, bringing our pets in, or even walking them.
My husband and I smugly took the 10,000 step challenge last year. We strapped on our new step pedometers and went about our normal routines, which included taking our two large dogs on a daily outing, and going up and down a fair number of interior stairs.
After a couple of days, it is fair to say we were both discouraged, humbled anyway. We barely clocked 5,000 steps. Our much touted daily spin around a few blocks only added up to about 1,800 steps. Our weekend longer route was maybe 2,500. The rest of our activity made up the difference, only half as many steps as we were supposed to take.
Even with walking while talking on the phone, parking on the far side of the lot and walking, walking up and down stairs in buildings with up to five stories, walking around the kitchen while beating eggs, I couldn’t seem to get the count much above 6,500.
We became compulsive; okay, we became obsessive. We thought our pedometers were mis-calibrated so we bought new, fancier ones.
We walked longer, further, got up and down out of our office chairs more, wouldn’t be discouraged. But it wasn’t until we walked 12 miles a day in New York City, that we even began to make this daily goal on a regular basis.
It was sometimes fun in a hyper-competitive kind of way, I am sure it had immeasurable health benefits, but my feet hurt and we were long past the point where we were noticing where we were walking at all. City sidewalks, ocean boardwalks, country roads, it was all just steps to us, no different than circling the kitchen at 9 o’clock at night to make a few more steps before bedtime.
I felt like I was in a track meet. I felt like I was in the short program for figure skating. It was all good, as they say, but I was losing my soul to a compulsory step count.
Sitting down forever was sounding pretty good.
And then, the notion of daily spiritual practice re-entered my world. Described in seminary and on Oprah. Things like prayer, things like yoga, things like silent contemplation and meditation. Long periods of sitting still. A real challenge for me, and for millions of others of us who wiggle.
It is hard to plant both feet on the ground and be aware only of our breath, when our urge is to swing our legs instead, or get up and move around.
I, for one, considered myself as having failed the practice of meditation, finding it impossible to stay in what I thought of as the requisite state of silent stillness for more than maybe ten minutes at a time, tops. Mind racing, body twitching.
And then, the rebirth in talk about, and examples of, another kind of meditation, a more active one. Walking meditation, mindfully moving a step at a time, for those who are able, fulfills the same function. The kind that we find in virtually all religious traditions, from ancient and modern pilgrimages, including the annual one to Jerusalem that gave us the psalms, the prayers that were sung while walking towards the holy city. The labyrinth tradition, the Christian prayer walking tradition where traditional prayers are spoken while being in the rhythm of walk. The Buddhist walking meditation, such as those taught by Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn, the one we practiced earlier this morning.
Across religions and cultures, there are people who dislike sitting meditation — sitting still, trying to coax their minds to be blank, writes dancer, meditation teacher, and body therapist Camille Maurine, in her book, Meditation Secrets for Women.
Maurine tells the story of a woman who attended one of her meditation lectures. The woman criticized herself for being unable to meditate “the right way,” sitting still and rigid. Yet when she related her passion for, and indeed practice of, walking, Maurine pointed out that walking itself could be meditative. The woman described a day in the woods when she came upon a crane poised on a rock. She said she stopped in her tracks and was drawn into a rapturous state watching the bird.
And yet, before meeting Maurine, she had never considered her walks were meditations — upright and moving ones.
When you open yourself up to the environment, heighten your sensory awareness, and experience joy and presence in the moment, that’s meditation. According to this meditation practitioner and teacher, it is the process of walking that’s important, not the speed or destination.
The slower we go, she says, the more detailed our awareness.
But if you feel like walking more briskly, she says, whatever you do, the spiritual part of it is to observe your own body and become curious and delighted by your body in motion.
And be mindful. Which means having the freedom not just to turn your attention inward, as so much of silent sitting meditation does, but also outward. Concentrating on being part of the whole environment. Seeing the colors, noticing the movement of branches and leaves in the wind. Smelling the fragrance of the earth, feeling the air on your skin.
To turn your attention inward, gaze down, just slightly ahead of your feet, becoming aware of your body’s movements, and listening to your thoughts and emotions.
The path of walking teaches us to stay centered and aware in the midst of other activities so that we are less influenced by the chaos around us in other situations.
It helps us to develop a deep meditative awareness of motion, something we often take for granted. It integrates exercise and our emotional state. The purpose of a walking meditation is simply to be, not to reach a destination or improve our health, although it may have that benefit. It increases our sense of joy, in knowing that walking is good for our bodies and spirits.
Because of the nature of meditative walking, we are told, fear and sadness and anxiety flows through us and moves out as we simply walk and breathe.
Nothing is ever that simple, of course. We have the debilitating aches and pains of aging, some of us, and some of us are not able to walk on our own at all, so it is possible to do this walking as a guided meditation. Not all of us can walk in fresh air and sunlight. Some live in ugly, wretched places, where pollution and debris makes it harder, if not impossible, to walk meditatively. So we walk indoors until justice comes.
For some people, and in some places, walking brings up memories of terror and deprivation: the Trail of Tears, the forced walks to prisoner-of-war camps and internment camps. Walks in chains, walks barefoot in the cold.
So when we walk of our own free will, we remember these people and these places. We pray that someday all will walk on trails of beauty.
With beauty before us, with beauty above us, with beauty all around us.
May it be so.