Walking Meditation (Gatha Walking)

Here are instructions for a wonderful form of walking meditation, reproduced from Ezra Bayda’s book Zen Heart (Ezra originally learned this practice from Thich Nhat Hanh). This is one of my absolute favorite practices, and I often do it while walking around campus. I recommend it warmly to you.

Gatha Walking

I learned gatha walking, a form of outdoor walking meditation, from the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in the early 1980s, and I’ve continued doing it (with some lapses) for over twenty-five years. The term gatha means “verse,” and in gatha walking we silently repeat the gatha as we walk. Unlike affirmations, the gatha is not meant to change our emotional state; rather it is used to direct our attention in specific ways. Gatha walking was once described as the ambrosia of meditations, in part because it requires much less effort than most sitting meditations, but also because it is almost always delightful to do.

The instructions are fairly simple: In an outdoor space, walk at a very relaxed pace, as if you were walking casually through a park. Unlike sitting meditation, where the focus is inward, gatha walking encourages us to engage the senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, touching. To help avoid getting lost in daydreams, we silently repeat a verse, or gatha, over and over. The gatha is usually very short and simple, but the words are meaningful, and help keep the focus on really being here.

The gatha that I’ve been using for some time has four lines:

When I walk, the mind will wander. 
With each sound the mind returns.
With each breath the heart is open.
With each step I touch this earth.

It is best to repeat the verse for the duration of the walk, even if you start feeling very open and spacious; otherwise, it’s easy to become more spacey than spacious. As we walk, we bring awareness to the environment, using the lines to direct our attention. For example, the first line—“When I walk, the mind will wander”—is a way of simply acknowledging the fact that our mind constantly wanders. There’s no judgment that the mind’s wandering is bad; it’s just an objective acknowledgment.

With the second line—“With each sound the mind returns”—we direct attention to the sounds, to help bring us back to present-moment reality. I live close to the ocean, so I have the good fortune to be able to regularly walk along the beach, where I not only use the sounds of the ocean and the gulls but also the presence of wind, the feeling of the sun on my face, the smell of salt water, and whatever other sensory input arises. Being in a beautiful place such as the beach provides a very rich sensory world to take in and appreciate, but we don’t have to be at the ocean or in the woods for gatha walking to be a rich experience; I have also had wonderful experiences gatha walking on the busy streets of New York City.

With the third line—“With each breath the heart is open”—we are not trying to maintain a disciplined focus on the breath. Rather, the breath is very lightly held as it is felt in the center of the chest. Sometimes, it feels as if the breeze goes right through me, with a felt sense that each breath provides food for Being Awareness. With this line, as with the others, we stay with it for the duration of a few breaths before moving on to the next.

On the last line—“With each step I touch this earth”—we can feel the experience of literally walking on the earth, feeling appreciation for the preciousness of the opportunity to be alive. There is an unmistakable sense of presence, of “hereness,” that is the essence of Being Awareness.

While gatha walking can be a delightful experience, the purpose of this practice is not simply to make us feel good. In fact, there is no “purpose” in the ordinary sense. In gatha walking, we are not trying to get something, nor are we walking toward a particular destination; rather, each step is complete in itself. Each step is of ultimate value. At the same time, with each step, we are cultivating a much larger sense of what life is.

In our normal walking, with the mind full of thoughts, we see the world only through the filter of our thoughts. In gatha walking, as the mind awakens, the shimmering pulse of life is revealed.

Looking to do a meditation retreat?

I’ve been getting inquiries from folks who are looking for recommendations for a good place to do a meditation retreat this summer. I’m delighted that so many people are considering doing a retreat! Retreats are an invaluable complement to a consistent daily practice. If you haven’t yet established a regular daily sitting practice, work on that first. But once you’ve been sitting daily for a while, consider adding a retreat into the practice mix. One or two multi-day meditation retreats a year will do wonders for your practice. And Williams College students: believe it or not, there are ways to get funding from the College to attend retreats! Both during the summer and during Winter Study. It’s probably too late to get funding for a retreat this summer, but contact me if you’d like some tips on how to get College funding to attend a retreat next Winter Study or the following summer.

But where to go? There are many good places around the country (and around the world) where one can do a retreat, but I don’t feel comfortable recommending a place unless either (1) I have some personal familiarity with the place and the people who teach and practice there or (2) I have heard good things about the place from other practitioners whom I know and trust. Given those criteria, below is a short list of places I feel comfortable recommending. If you know of a place that you think should be added to the list, please let me know.

Stephen Levine: Soft Belly Practice

During last night’s Intro to Zen class, I incorporated a bit of “soft belly” practice into the opening guided meditation. For anyone who’d like to know more about soft belly practice, check out this text by Stephen Levine. It includes some introductory remarks about the practice and a guided “soft belly” meditation. I’ve also made an audio recording of the guided meditation for anyone who’d like to give it a try.

Guided Soft Belly Meditation

Ezra Bayda on Student-Teacher Relationship

During last night’s Intro to Zen class, I mentioned in passing that anyone who is serious about meditation practice will want, at some point, to find a teacher to work with. I also reiterated that I myself am not a Zen teacher. I have been encouraged by my own teacher, Ezra Bayda, to run this practice group (as part of my own ongoing Zen training), but I do not have authorization to take on students. For those who feel they might want to think about finding a teacher to work closely with, I wanted to share some pages that Ezra wrote (in his book Zen Heart) on the student-teacher relationship. This text will give you a sense of why that relationship can be so important to one’s spiritual development. It also offers some advice about how to go about finding a teacher and discusses some of the difficulties you might encounter in your relationship with a teacher. It’s good stuff, and I recommend it.

May 14 Guided Meditation (soft belly, dual awareness, loving-kindness)

Here is the guided meditation from tonight’s “Intro to Zen” class. It has four parts. After some minutes of (1) settling in and basic breath following to focus the mind, it moves into (2) soft belly practice (bringing awareness to the belly region, softening around the sensations there), then transitions to (3) dual awareness practice (focusing on the breath and sounds in the environment), and ends with a few minutes of (4) loving-kindness practice.

Guided Meditation from May 14