On the last morning of a retreat at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Deer Park Monastery in Southern California, I was late in getting my gear packed and ready for pick up. While everyone was congregating for our final day together, alone I slowly walked my suitcase on its flimsy rollers down the long, steep, mountain trail to the parking lot. Slowly, slowly, step by step, staying with my breathing, not dissipating my mindfulness. The Pacific Ocean fog had lifted, revealing a beautiful Southern California morning, as if the air itself was radiant with the fulsome early autumn sunlight. The luxurious vegetation all seemed to have awoken, as if this morning were their common birthday, each leaf reaching out in gladness.
Then, heading back uphill, I knew I might be late for the morning talk if I didn’t hurry. Yet I didn’t hurry; I dropped my worry—and practiced further walking meditation. Like mounting stairs, climbing up a hill is always a good challenge for a walking meditator. Aimless. Breath by breath. I was about halfway up when I noticed three others on the road ahead, also not hurrying. Not hurrying, I veered towards them, came closer, and walked alongside. We soon walked together as one.
Twenty paces further on, I glanced to see whom I was walking with. Two young monks. . . and the third, Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. My spiritual teacher. A pleasant surprise, indeed. Without a word, we four continued walking as one. Slowly, slowly, step by step. Another twenty paces on, without missing a beat, my teacher pointed to a newly transplanted bush, flowering, off to the left. Fresh as the dew. Total silence. Vast space. The solidity of Mother Earth beneath us, and within us. Moving as one body. Breath by breath. Slowly. Peace in every breath.
His demeanor, as light as a butterfly. His steps, strong as a water buffalo. His joy, as palpable as the awakening morning.
Fully alive. His life, a teaching.
It’s interesting, too, how the chance encounter wound up. The path came to a steep bend up to the left, near the big hall. As we turned and slowly mounted the steep curve, slowly, step by step, a thousand people who were gathered up ahead suddenly all saw Thich Nhat Hanh coming their way. In a flash, conversations stopped mid-sentence. A guitarist and several dozen singers trailed off into silence.
Two thousand palms joined in the gesture of a lotus in front of a thousand hearts. The crowd parted into two sides to make way.
Eventually, my place near the Master of Non-attainment was taken by others; many others; a thousand others. But I still walk with Thich Nhat Hanh. In deep joy and perfect silence. Slowly, slowly, step by step.
Thus have I learned. Outside of books and talks, the greatest sermon is lived, not written. His presence is his message. I count my lucky stars to have personally experienced this teaching, in my bones, at my core, irrevocably, a few times in my life. Once, when he ordained me, with the commitment to make the practice available. Once, more recently, when about a dozen members of the Northern California core community were invited to visit him at what we called the Healing Hamlet, where he was recuperating from a nearly fatal stroke. After walking meditation together, we lined up and each communicated one-on-one with him. Only one or two persons said anything aloud, such as a gal who’s transcribed his talks for decades. Even then, their special exchange was outside of words.
When my turn came, I paused. . . breathed. . . smiled. . . and in the time that took, we’d fallen into a gaze, looking at each other through earthen eyes. Eyes of boundless love. In mutual reverence for life. The eyes through which I saw him were the eyes through which he saw me. I was already very happy to know he was still a supremely spiritual being, still indomitably strong, still happy—and still with a great sense of humor. In an instant, briefer than the pulse in my heart, I could look deeply and see our pain and joy as not separate; he and I not separate. I bowed my head and turned to join his other spiritual descendants, my dear brothers and sisters on the Path. As I went past his wheelchair in the sunlight, I too was walking for him, as his second body, as that morning all two dozen of us were too. As I am today.
Breath by breath. Step by step: the long path turns to joy.
Walking Meditation Is Meditation Walking
Slowly, slowly, step by step, each step is a meditation, each step is a prayer.
— Maha Ghosananda
Decide upon where to practice: somewhere clear and level, indoors or out. Center yourself in your breathing. Relax.
Ground down, in your connection with the earth. Notice you are standing on your mother, Earth. See if you can feel your soles planting kisses. Recognize, too, how you contain Mother Earth.
Give yourself the gift of a smile.
Slowly, lovingly, feel one foot lifting. . . placing (if even one inch ahead). . . and setting down.
Feel the other leg releasing, that foot lifting, placing, setting down (even if only as far as a toe’s length ahead—after all, you’re not trying to get anywhere).
Drop all sense of “hurry” whatsoever.
Allow mind and body and breath to find each other. Notice they’re aligning together.
Slowly, slowly, step by step.
In formal walking meditation, my left step follows my in-breath; my right, my out-. Give yourself 20 minutes for consciousness to adapt to that shift of coordinating steps to breathing, rather than vice-versa. . . and awaken.
In informal walking meditation, as on the street, I begin counting how many breaths is an in-breath; how many, an out-, and continue that way. . . perhaps slowing my pace just slightly. . . focusing my concentration on now and here.
Practicing with a group: “Go as a river.”
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