I used to walk, once upon a time. I walked just because I felt like walking. Too often now it seems I walk because something needs to be accomplished. Today I thought of how I used to walk when I was a younger man. I thought of the awareness hiding just beneath the exterior of life and the world, which comes bubbling to the surface when I walk slowly, with intention, and allow my analytical mind to recede into stillness. “If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk,” (1) it was once said by author Raymond Inmon. I encountered this saying years ago, and it often comes back to me at times when my life seems to be at a crossroads.
This afternoon, I decided: “I can walk like that today. I haven’t forgotten how. I’m just out of practice.” So I started out, just walking with no other idea than going for a walk, and paying attention to the act of walking itself. Having recently moved to a new home, it seemed natural to use this opportunity to connect with the sights and sounds of my new home in the Montavilla neighborhood. The area’s name originated as a contraction of Mount Tabor Village back in the 1890’s, when it was a stopping point for travelers going from Hood River into Portland. Here, rows of warm family houses lie back to back with the seeming disconnectedness of traffic and commerce. As I began to walk, my mind was chattering away with all these details as it often does, so I kept on walking until this interior commentary began to subside or at least, become slower, more purposeful. Paying attention to each step, each breath, the wet chill of this steel grey day, whose exposed grit somehow felt like a raw window into something more real.
Mind dissolving into silence, breathing into each step… simple experience began to reveal a world in which the pavement, the pawn shop, the railroad tracks, coffee shop, bordering neighborhoods and sky were merely outward expressions of some silent deep unity lying just beyond the world of outward appearance, just behind the veil of the senses.
I ask myself: “What are they thinking and where are they going as they drive by me in their cars?” All these people with a single purpose, rushing down side streets and highways. They are indistinct: melded into streaming capillaries and rivers that cut deep furrows banked on either side by cement walkways and electric street lights, flowing together into streams of conscious, circulating life, movement and energy. Where are they all going? Are the people real, or only temporary containers of the collective energy of life as it moves from place to place, from one form to another and yet another?
Is it coincidental that the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ most well-known saying survives to this day, but so few have even heard of him? “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” (2) Heraclitus considered fire to be the origin of all things, and said that permanence is an illusion as all things are in perpetual flux. (3) Today gives me pause to wonder: is there some cognitive archetype that a mind may at times enter, revealing aspects of the phenomenal world that normally lie hidden beneath the veil? In my own small way, has this mind merged however momentarily – in this super-sensuous sphere which the philosopher once knew so intimately?
And what is Mind that we suppose it to be assigned to this or that discrete locus of body-mind identity? Is it a living, universal Creative Fire which moves from one personality to the next as it transcends and envelops them all, emerging in full awareness only when the vehicles are properly refined through fullness of experience? (4)
Questions subside. Heraclitus’ river surges around me, flowing on in infinitely varied forms which I recognize as my everyday world. One of it’s many currents and eddies diverges to the right and I follow, swept along.
I enter a large antique mall that’s in my neighborhood. Most of the people leaving or arriving in their cars are older and drive well-maintained cars that are more expensive than the ones driven by my neighbors. It seems that for some of them, this isn’t about purchasing antiques or furniture for their homes. They are dressed as if to go to church on Sunday, and their entry and exit from this place seems rehearsed, as if meant to be seen and understood by others as badges of wealth, refinement, respectability. Others who aren’t worried with signs of privilege bring grandparents on this pilgrimage, if only for the sake of some variety, some exercise, or even an opportunity for elderly mothers and fathers to stroll the aisles as they mix with those of their own generation. Inside this warm, well-lit cathedral, the same universal life pulsates, circulating down aisles, rushing at a slower pace past worn painted baubles, books, curios from bygone times, engaging in conversations with kindly strangers, other kinds of traffic lights.
I’m struck by the contrast of this daily life with its habitual rituals and expectations, and moments of the quiet alertness that are absent in the mix of such activity. It’s not that I find no meaning in the world of mundane activity and convention, only it seems that once upon a time there was greater importance given to a balance of activity and repose in one’s life. To be up and doing is surely of great importance, I believe, but in the world of continuous, unchecked movement, where is there room for meaning, for simple being? Or is there insight to be drawn from the sharper contrast seen in their juxtaposition? These are the questions I ask myself as I’m swept along in the current.
A shift: The pervasive cacophony of mindless chitchat that surrounds me blends together, symphonic. It is surging like waves, causing my mind to dissociate, entering a state of quiet detachment. The river beckons, telling me that it’s time to release myself into the current. I hit the street once again.
The same life that moves the cars along their byways, senior citizens and their families down their aisles of longing remembrance, must surely move planets, stars and galaxies. I’ll allow it to carry me along to the next place, the next experience, questioning whether it’s this movement of life or my personal volition that’s determining where I’ll end up next. Who’s planning this walk anyway? I smile quietly at the absurdity of this metaphysical indulgence…
I decide I’ll take a different direction away from the business district. Just a block away it’s a different place entirely, as I stroll through past houses in an unfamiliar neighborhood. I see that here also, some people don’t yet feel ready to take down their Christmas lights. What is it they’re holding onto? Now away from the traffic and the noise my gait becomes slower and I rediscover the thread of breath that drives my steps with more deliberation. Months before the customary start of Spring, there are signs of life and color all around me, blooming out of season. The trees are covered with buds that strain to burst out into verdant green, but with a certain reserve. Do they know that it’s not yet time, what to speak of global climate change? I think of friends who constantly say: “The weather is unusual this year” and understanding people’s longing for a sense of permanence in their world, my own response: “Perhaps this isn’t unusual anymore. Perhaps this is our new Spring.”
The only one thing has remained constant in my life is change. The body blooms with youth for a while, colors are vivid, hints of meaning hide behind everything, though without depth of insight. Nothing I once knew remains, all dissolving in the acid waves of oncoming years. It occurs to me that if nothing ever remains the same, then this idea of “blooming out of season” is a strange one indeed. What indeed is there, that is not natural?
I ask myself: “Is this impermanence really so terrible?” In one of his poems, the mystic philosopher Mevlânâ Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī says:
Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.
God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
From cell to cell. As rainwater, down into flower bed.
As roses, up from ground.
Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
Now a cliff covered with vines,
Now a horse being saddled.
It hides within these,
Till one day it cracks them open (5) – Rumi, “Ode #1937: Unmarked Boxes”
(Translated by Coleman Barks.)
What is this livingness that moves within and around me, hiding in a myriad of unmarked boxes? Of what are the boxes constructed? With what are they filled? Perhaps on the most fundamental level, it is Heraclitus’ universal creative fire of which they consist, in which they live, and with which they are filled. And what if one day – like a line drawn with a stick on water (6) — these seeming lines of demarcation all simultaneously ceased to exist?
Would the word religion pass from human memory? Would individuated ego still exist? There are times when I feel like I’m an ant crawling on the surface of an existence whose exterior conceals something vast. Beneath this outward crust… infinitude.
1 – “By the Way: 100 Reflections on the Spiritual Life” ~ Melannie Svoboda, SND
2 – Heraclitus, quoted: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/h/heraclitus.html
3 – Artha: the Open Thesaurus
4 – Paraphrase of Sri Aurobindo: in “Indian Philosophy: an Introduction” ~ M. Ram Murty
5– “A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings” ~ translations by Coleman Barks
6 – Sri Ramakrishna’s Thoughts on Man, World and God” ~ Swami Tapasyananda
What if every step you took deepened your connection with all of life and imprinted peace, joy, and serenity on the earth? With Walking Meditation, you will enjoy the first in-depth instructional program in this serene spiritual practice to help you walk with presence and peace of mind whether in nature or on a busy city street.
Walking Meditation features esteemed Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh along with one of his principle students, Nguyen Anh-Huong, as together they illuminate the central tenets of this powerful meditative art, including:
- How to recognize the miracle in simply walking-not as a means to an end, but as the opportunity to touch the fullness of life.
- Reversing habit energy through the unification of body and mind.
- Using walking meditation to work with difficult emotions such as anger and anxiety, and much more.
There is a Buddhist concept known as Apranihita, or the spirit of wishlessness, in which one neither pursues desires nor flees from discomforts. With Walking Meditation, practitioners from every spiritual tradition will rediscover our home in the here and now, as the long road we all must walk turns to quiet joy.