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.