Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.
~Thich Nhat Hanh
One of my favorite ways to clear my head in between writing sessions is through walking meditation. It’s a great way to re-energize myself if I’ve been sitting for a while, giving me a chance to get back into my body, where all that good emotion I draw on as I write my books lives. I also find that it can help with flow, as well, as it activates that “in the zone” part of me. I don’t know about you, but sometimes if I’ve been intensely writing for a while, I begin to experience diminishing returns. My head gets fuzzy, the power zaps out. Taking a break to stretch and do some walking meditation has been a great way to keep the fires burning.
Walking meditation is a totally legit form of meditation, as it’s one of the four postures recommended by the Buddha (the others are sitting, standing, and lying down–although this last one is tricky in terms of staying awake, so I don’t generally recommend it unless you’re doing a highly guided visualization meditation). You don’t need loads of space or a fancy Zen garden or medieval labyrinth, though if you do have those, bonus! I live in a tiny Brooklyn apartment and I manage just fine, though I think my dog is still confused. Subway platforms and big porches are also rad. All you need is enough space for twenty or so paces (about ten feet), ideally in a straight line, with no obstructions.
And then? You walk back and forth. Walk those twenty paces (choose a visual place to stop – you’re not actually counting them). Stop. Breathe and be present. Turn. Walk the next twenty paces. And so on, for as long as you wish. Don’t switch up your path. Just keep to what you’ve decided on (some people do switch it up and that’s fine, it’s just distracting for me to do that, so see what works for you). When I’m doing walking meditation as my actual daily meditation practice, I do this for thirty minutes. But mostly I just do it in five minute spurts in between writing sessions or when I’m in an upset or overwhelm and just need to get re-aligned and present.
The Nitty Gritty
Posture: I like to hold myself in a posture of noble dignity. First it just feels really good to walk with my head held high and with a sense of unhurried purpose. I feel like my jinni protagonist Nalia from Exquisite Captive–regal and focused. My back is straight and shoulders slightly back, but the position is relaxed. We’re not ballerinas here. Ideally your shoulders and hips are in alignment. This is not rocket science, so don’t get hung up at this first step. Just, you know, walk like you’re the Mother of Dragons and you’ll be good.
Hands: Your hands can be however you want them, though I recommend putting them behind you and holding onto one of your wrists or elbows, or letting them hang naturally at your side. There’s also a nice little traditional hand-clasping you can do where you make a fist with your left hand (thumb inside), then place your right hand over the fist so that your right thumb rests gently on top (see image to your left). Then you would hold this hand position at or just above your belly. But, really, it’s about what works for you. Sometimes I walk with my hands in my pockets or my arms crossed.
Feet: The key, in my opinion, to really getting the most from this style of meditation is to walk barefoot. First, it gives you an anchor so you can keep your focus. In sitting meditation, we often use the breath or a mantra as an anchor so that when we realize our mind has wandered, we can gently bring it back to a point of focus. In walking meditation, the anchor is the feel of your foot slowly stepping forward. You can absolutely do this in socks or comfortable shoes, so don’t let the barefoot thing deter you if your only space is a parking garage. But if you can manage to be barefoot, you’ll find that it’s extremely grounding and really helps you concentrate on the steps. Energetically, the act of connecting intimately with the earth will automatically have a calming, centering effect.
Pace: When you’re doing walking meditation, you usually focus on your steps. The pace you take is up to you, but there are three nice ones that I like to use and that are often introduced in walking meditation sessions. The first is a moderate pace–not New York fast walking, but an unhurried browsing kind of walk, where you walk naturally. The second pace is my favorite. You walk slowly, concentrating on each part of the step you take. So, I would place my right heel down, then the arch, then the ball of the foot, then the toes and be very present and aware of that whole process before I move on to the left foot. The third pace is glacially slow. You very slowly pick up your foot, let it land on the heel, then follow through the rest of the step (similar to the second version, but slower. Like, reallllllly slow).
Soundtrack: You should do this in silence. So, no recorded nature sounds or music. You can – and should – be aware of your environment. If you hear a sound, acknowledge it. Don’t dwell on it or start thinking about how you want to murder your neighbor for her music taste or let it take you down a rabbit hole about how you danced to that song with your ex in Bali. Just note it and move on. Thoughts will come and they are not the enemy, but in meditation we don’t fixate on them. We note them (as in, “Thinking” or “Planning” or “Imagining”) and move on. The best analogy I’ve heard for this is the Tibetan idea of “sky mind.” Your mind is the unchanging sky, your thoughts clouds that pass by. You notice the clouds, but you don’t grab onto them. The clouds do what clouds do–move on, dissipate.
To mantra or not to mantra?: In sitting meditation we are often very focused on the breath, but in walking meditation, just breathe naturally. If you have a mettā (lovingkindness) practice, you might dig doing this as you walk. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can read a little bit about mettā in this post I wrote a while back. If you’re into affirmations, you might enjoy doing those as you walk, too. However, for the purposes of using this to assist with flow during writing, I don’t recommend mantras or lovingkindness or anything of the sort because you really want to be giving your mind a rest during this time. Recharging for the next bout of writing. But play around and make this practice your own. Mantras are great if you’re being hard on yourself and feeling like the shittiest writer who has ever graced the earth, or you’re deep into publishing fears. See what the moment needs.
Path: Some people will tell you that they go on long, rambling walks and that they consider these walking meditation. I’m not in their heads, so maybe this is the case. However, meditation tends to work best with structure. We sit on a cushion in a specific way, for a pre-determined amount of time etc. If you go on a long walk, you are likely to lose the focus that walking meditation affords you. You’re also likely to get distracted by all manner of things–other people, a neighbor’s intriguing box of free stuff…If you want to talk a walk, take a walk! But if you want to do walking meditation, then I personally recommend you stick to your ten-foot path.
Duration: As I mentioned before, you can do this for as long as you wish, but it’s important that you commit to the time and you don’t deviate. If you get a great idea, no you can’t quick write it down. All my meditation teachers and the great sages will tell you this. You don’t interrupt your meditation for anything non-emergency related. You will never find the equilibrium, insight, peace, and the host of other things meditation can give you if you don’t commit to your seat (or, in this case, your feet). I have my own addition to this: if the idea is a worthy one, one that you actually need to pursue right now, the universe will make sure you don’t forget it. Okay, I also recently discovered a cheat: when I get a great idea, I turn my ring around so that when I’m done and see my ring is facing the wrong way, this triggers my memory.
As with any style of meditation, if you do get a great story idea, you can’t put the meditation on hold and play that out in your head. Meditating is for meditating. Writing time is for writing. However, I do have some tweaks to this below.
How To Use This Practice As A Writing Hack
Unravelling Snarls and Other Issues
Walking meditation can be an excellent way to brainstorm the shit out of your novel. That being said, it’s not really meditation anymore if you do this–we’ll call it very focused thinking.
Let’s say you’re feeling stuck. You don’t really know what your protagonist wants or you’re not quite sure what do about this corner you’ve backed yourself into with your magic system. Set the timer for five or ten minutes. Choose your path for walking, then walk and start unravelling the snarls. The act of walking really does help produce flow. In the excellent Daily Rituals, there are countless examples of artists and thinkers who get great ideas or solve problems while walking. Many of them schedule daily, uninterrupted walks (so, no podcasts or music). I can attest to this. My entire path of coaching came to me gradually over several walks with my dog. Stories problems with stories have been solved, new ideas conjured. So, it stands to reason that walking meditation can also produce these results.
Again, don’t stop to write things down. Just keep working in your mind, walking, breathing, stopping, turning, walking again. When you’re done, grab your notebook and journal a bit about what came up for you.
Interviewing Your Characters
A great way to get to the heart of your protagonist in order to discover their wants and needs is to interview them. I traditionally have done this on my computer, writing as they speak to me, but the same can be done in writing meditation.
Before you start, think of some questions you want to ask, but once you get started, just let the conversation flow as natural, in-real-life conversations do. Again, don’t stop to write things down, but when you’re finished, grab your notebook or computer and have at it.
I hope walking meditation helps you get the space you need in your work and gets those creative juices flowing. Feel free to reach out if you have questions, or other ways of doing walking meditation that work for you. Post a comment below and tell us how it went if you tried it out!
Happy writing, friends.
I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.
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