Iris. Daffodil. Iris. Daffodil. Stilling the mind with walking meditation

If you’re nervous about a presentation, an important meeting or an upcoming performance, walking meditation might help. When your brain’s gone into overdrive, the simple act of walking slowly can help still your mind and bring your body back to earth.

Walking meditation in New Mexico

How do you learn how to do walking meditation? I began by putting one foot in front of the other, wearing a pair of the shoes you see here. They’re by Camper, from the brand’s deliberately mismatched ‘twins’ range. The left foot has a leather cut-out of a purple iris stitched onto it. The right foot features a cluster of three daffodils.*

My first memories of walking meditation are of looking down and seeing first the iris sandal, then, maybe a minute later, the daffodil sandal. Iris … pause … daffodil … pause … iris … pause … daffodil.

I was at a writing retreat run by Natalie Goldberg, the author of Writing down the Bones, who has written extensively about ‘Zen writing’. Her teaching method combines meditation with uncensored, free-flowing writing practice to help you dodge your inner critic and write more powerfully and truthfully.

Picture of mountains and a river in New Mexico

Typical New Mexico landscape: sagebrush and big skies

The retreat happened aeons ago, last century. The reason for writing about it now is that I just attended an inspiring workshop on Mindfulness and Creative Writing run by Vanessa King and Elise Valmorbida. Writing down the Bones was on the reading list and, on seeing Natalie’s name, I was suddenly transported from a dark January evening in Farringdon to the dazzling high summer light of Taos, New Mexico.

The venue was Mabel Dodge Luhan House, a historic adobe building that offers artistic, literary and personal growth workshops. It was originally home to a wealthy patron of the arts who encouraged visitors such as Georgia O’Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams and Martha Graham. In the 70s, Dennis Hopper bought the house and brought his own Hollywood counterculture vibe to the town. Apparently he set up machine-gun nests and rifles on the rooftop of the house during one particularly paranoid moment.

Putting one foot in front of the other

Back on that summer day, with the heat haze rising from the paved walkways, there were no guns. Just a dovecote off to the side, and the scent of cedar trees and sagebrush all around.

Walking meditation is, simply, walking extremely slowly. The joy of it lies in feeling your mind relax as your body acclimatises to the new slow-motion pace. Here’s how it works.

Standing with both feet together, transfer your weight onto your right leg and let your left heel peel off the ground a millimetre at a time. Keep it steady, bend your right knee infinitesimally until your left heel is a few centimetres off the ground and all your weight is on your right leg. Keep your balance, focus and stay steady. Your left sole is just gently touching the earth. Try not to wobble.

Transfer the weight of your left foot from the ball of your foot to your little toe, then to the rest of your toes and through to your big toe. Before long, it’s going to be inevitable that your left foot will leave the ground, but not yet. Hold it there. You’re just rolling the weight onto the big toe of your left foot, pointing your foot then, balancing, using your thigh muscles to lift your left leg. Extend your leg and put the ball of your left foot down. Feel it connect with the floor and start transferring your weight over to the left, bending your left knee. Gradually, push up from your right heel and the right foot embarks on its own slow-motion journey.

Picture of a relaxed tortoiseshell cat on a sofa

Desired state: tortoiseshell cat relaxing on sofa

The physical focus on moving your feet so slowly takes up every ounce of your concentration, reducing the brain’s frantic racing to a crawl until it feels as though your synapses have almost ceased to fire. If your brain is a lava lamp, your thoughts are now floating upwards, soft, jelly-like, amorphous, of no concern to you at all.

After 10 or 15 minutes of walking meditation, your natural pace has stilled itself to somewhere between ‘tortoiseshell cat lying on sunny patch on the sofa’ and Zen monk. Treacled, your body refuses to return to its previous state of rush and hurry. Reluctantly, you leave your walking meditation patch and take the path back to the real world, silence humming in your ears, only now spreading your awareness beyond your feet and the tranquil rhythm of iris … daffodil… iris … daffodil.

What’s wonderful about walking meditation is that you can do it pretty much anywhere. So next time you’re stressed about that tricky meeting or presentation, why not give it a go? If I’m nervous before a concert, I often take a few minutes to calm my nerves with walking meditation. So if you see me walking slowly in circles in a church hall, you’ll know why.

Find out more

I’m no expert on walking meditation – this post is just me sharing my experiences. If you want to find out more, try these links:


Photo credit:

*Thanks to Cathy from Chez L’Abeille for the photo of her shoes seen here. My pair are long gone, but they looked just like this.