For many of us, our early experiences with the Shambhala teachings and meditation practice are powerful. Brian Renner vividly captures moments of inspiration and insight during an outdoor walking meditation.
In a recent walking meditation session, a rather pronounced realization came over me. I had set up my timer in a shaded spot, a little off the regular path in a nice, quiet arboretum on a typical sunny afternoon in Southern California. I had just finished a short sitting meditation and was moving on to the walking portion of my practice.
My timer was set and I leaned it up against the rather large tree I was to walk circles around. I started my timer and began walking in a large circle around this tree. With walking meditation in particular, it’s very easy to lose that focus on the feet. It’s so easy to think about what we’re seeing as we walk, especially when the walking meditation is done outside. I quickly started noticing how I was being distracted by watching where I’m walking and picking my route rather than the feeling of the ground under my feet with each step. Right there became the work for me this time, keeping myself brought back to that feeling of the grass beneath my feet. I kept bringing myself back to how it felt as my foot was coming down onto it, how it felt as my weight fully transferred onto it, and what it felt like as my foot was lifting off the grass. My focus became staying present with each and every step and noticing all of these aspects of the sensation. I pause here as if I was telling this story in person and I know that you know that I certainly wasn’t able to maintain this with every single step! Ha!
However, as this was my work, I started finding myself being able to better and better feel and recognize each of these sensations. I was able to notice all of these feelings, perhaps only about one time per trip around the tree! But I noticed it. I started realizing how much more complex the simple act of walking could be than what my routine experiences were. Every single step had it’s own complex array of feelings.
As I started relaxing with these sensations and opening up to them, I became very aware that no step ever actually felt the same. Each step felt different than the previous step, and no step actually felt the same even as I would come back around to the same part of my path. During some parts of my circle I would step on roots of the tree. Sometimes I would step on dried leaves which had fallen from nearby trees. Some parts of my route included mostly dirt with a sparse collection of dead leaves. My steps, although nearly the same place each time around the circle, still felt different. Some steps in the grass felt soft and seemed to hug the bottoms of my feet, while some of them were a little uncomfortable as I stepped on roots, small rocks, or sticks. However, whether pleasant or unpleasant, I knew the sensation was only temporary. When I took that next step it was gone. Gone, forever.
Having recognized the temporary nature of my sensations, I started seeing how the tendency was there and how easy it would be to just find that comfortable place to step and stay there, how easy it would be to not seek that next step because this one is comfortable. “This one feels good. I’ll just stay here with it.” We have obviously been trained to keep walking. We certainly can’t stand in one place for the rest of our lives! But the subtle feeling was still there that felt like “Oooo, that didn’t feel good. Let me try and not walk right there again.” It became quite clear that I have felt this feeling before, outside of the feeling on the sole of my foot. I have noticed this very same feeling in life.
I already knew that there was nothing truly threatening about where I was walking, so it was unnecessary to have any concern about injuring my feet. With that, I was able to walk and simply feel what my foot was experiencing with each step. Whether pleasant or unpleasant, I could let it go and wait to see what the next step was going to feel like. I was able to feel the pleasant and unpleasant without an attempt to avoid any of the experience, and even in some ways I was able to find some enthusiasm towards feeling that next step’s array of sensations. It allowed me to recognize how we can find ourselves in life “buying thicker soled shoes” to protect ourselves from the harsh things we’re walking around in, which also prevents us from feeling the pleasant parts of the journey. And along with that, I could see how we can find ourselves clinging to the pleasant and avoiding or even shunning the unpleasant, all the while struggling to find the enthusiasm and joy in our current situation.
How often do we forget about our footsteps and twist an ankle, just to go searching for shoes that offer better support? I wonder then, what would happen if we took the “shoes” off completely and instead walked around paying full attention to our steps, feeling each one fully and staying present with each one? What would happen if we were able to be truly mindful of our steps, or our “steps” in life? What would it be like to be able to relax and let each step come, experience it for what it is, and let it go without clinging to it or pushing it away?
How likely it is that we will stumble or even trip when we do this! I don’t think I have had a session of walking meditation yet where I didn’t stumble, unless I was having a particularly difficult time keeping my focus on staying present with my steps. However, with the stumbling, or tripping even, there is value in the entire experience. There is value in feeling and opening up to heightened sensation. There is value in tripping, falling, and getting back up even. I believe this might be a time in which Pema Chodron might say that we have an opportunity to get closer to finding true courage. This entire experience brought on a powerfully clear realization of how seeing our difficulties, our patterns of avoiding displeasure and “like a moth to a flame” seeking pleasure, we continue our suffering. It brought on a deep realization of how being fully open and experiencing things just as they are brings on what Pema might call Unconditional Confidence.
Brian Renner is a doctor of chiropractic who transplanted to Southern California 7 years ago to practice chiropractic and to work in the film industry. He has been attending the Orange County Shambhala center since June, 2013 after learning about Shambhala through books by Pema Chodron and Chogyam Trungpa. Recently he has been spending most of his time working in medical imaging, teaching classes at a college in Anaheim, and enjoying outdoor activities such as standup paddle boarding, kayaking, hiking, wine tasting trips, and pretty much anything that takes him outdoors.