In May I went to Ireland to go on a Buddhist meditation retreat with Buddhist meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, who runs the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Throughout the retreat we had to honour the Buddhist tradition of “noble silence”, which means that we had no communication or eye contact with anybody else for the duration of the retreat. This also includes no TV, radio, IPods or texts! The idea of noble silence is that it sends your awareness inwards when it is freed from the usual stimuli of the outside world. What happens initially is that the inner workings of your mind speed up when free of these stimuli, but after a while your mind relaxes and accepts this quieter, more internal way of being, making it much easier to meditate.
Sharon placed a lot of emphasis on the value of walking meditation, so for every meditation we did inside, we were then sent outside, often into the rain, to practice meditation with movement. (This was a little embarrassing at times as there were a lot of boys turning up for football training, walking through the area where we were doing this, who would stop and watch us and then try to copy us, with much hilarity…but of course I wasn’t distracted from my walking meditation by them at all!) Walking meditation helps to develop mindfulness – the ability to keep one’s mind in the present moment and aware of your thoughts/words/actions – and is using the physical action of your body to create greater concentration and focus.
Walking meditation has to be done with really precise awareness of the movement of each foot as it moves from heel to toe across the ground, through the air and back down again. You find yourself doing this action very slowly, picking up each foot quite high off the ground to help with this awareness (which looked especially funny, I am sure) but it can also be done at a more normal speed too. The important thing is to keep your focus in the present moment feeling the movement of each foot on the ground and ideally, timing it with your breath. As with all meditation, when your mind wanders, you have to gently bring it back to that point of focus.
What you come to realise doing this walking meditation is that you are often not “in” your body when you walk. I know I tend to be a bit in front of my body whenever I have the opportunity, so I have to keep bringing my energy back into my body whenever I get in advance of myself. It is amazing how much easier and more relaxed things feel when you are fully in your body and I have used this awareness a lot in my training for Kilimanjaro. If you practice some walking meditation, you can quite easily intuit where your energy is in relation to your body, and for some people they may be behind or slightly above their body. The key is to bring your energy into alignment so you are fully connected with your body’s energy and therefore with all the awareness that this brings.
With any training or indeed, anything you are doing it is so vital to have only the necessary amount of muscle tension in your body and yet we often move and exercise with much more tension in areas we are often not aware of. With greater body awareness you can scan your body while you are exercising and relax the areas that are tense and zapping your energy, that do not need to hold tension. I know that when climbing Kilimanjaro this awareness is going to be invaluable to me. We have to do up to 8 hours climbing a day and with the high altitude, we cannot afford to be wasting energy with unnecessary tension in the muscles. I know that by staying present, connected fully into my body I am much more likely to be able to last that distance.
So even when I am practicing on the treadmill in the gym, I use these techniques, to keep me present and relaxed. I also place my awareness in my dantien, my centre, so I stay out of my head…but more of that in my next blog.