For twenty days, my Yoga Teacher Training assignment has been to complete a daily twenty-minute walking meditation, outdoors, rain or shine… or as the case actually was for a couple of days, arctic blast. Last Thursday it was 15°F when I went out for my walk. Rio was even willing to wear her fancy down doggy-jacket without complaint.
I occasionally practiced walking meditation before this, but my experience was a little different than the guidelines for this current assignment. My previous experience was more formal and structured, and I’d only practiced in physical spaces that were a bit removed from the busy-ness of daily life. I also love practicing in labyrinths. It’s a goal of mine to build a labyrinth on the property of our forever house, once we find it.
This assignment permitted us to practice wherever we could, including in the context of our neighborhoods, and even with our dogs. I’ve struggled a bit with that freedom. I know that I’m prone to sensory overload in busy situations – whether the busy-ness is movement, visual clutter, loud or competing noises, etc., and this proved challenging for me. It asked us to bring our full awareness to our sensory experience in the environments we practiced in.
On the first day, I realized how much I tune out on my regular morning walks with Rio. I’m usually aware of the sky – sometimes the sunrise – of the trees and flowers – of neighbors and neighbor-dogs, and of course, of Rio. It’s a selective awareness – one or two things at a time. During these practices over the past three weeks I became hyper-aware of the roar of the Northway, louder now that the trees are now mostly bare, competing with the traffic on Route 9 a block away. The neighborhood fire alarm went off. Dogs barked. The air smelled of bacon and decomposing leaves. Rio tugged at the leash to stop and sniff again and again. The texture of the road was uneven, then even again. The repetitive patterns of lines of lawn refuse bags was never ending. Birds were singing, smoke was curling from chimneys, cars rolled by, neighbors waved. Aaaaaahhh!!!! It was mental cacophony! I take this walk almost daily, but never had it been quite so overwhelming!
But meditation – at least mindfulness meditation – does not aspire to calmness. It aspires to presence with whatever is. But still, I felt a resentment of the practice – of taking my regularly peaceful walk with Rio from me. And I missed my sitting practice.
On a relatively warm early day of the assignment, I had to be at an event away from my office very early in the morning, so I planned to stop somewhere to complete my walk before I returned to my office at lunchtime. I checked Google Maps for a convenient green space on my route back to my office, and discovered the Rensselaer Rural Cemetery. Of all the walking meditations I practiced over these three weeks, this felt the most natural. My mind was focused. I was alone in the quiet, and as I walked through the cemetery, I saw that many of the plots were unkempt. Flags and figurines were toppled, and many of the flush stones were matted with wet and rotting leaves. My meditation that day was a quiet practice of tidying graves. Uprighting the flags and figurines, and uncovering stones. As much as I hate to say it, I think not having Rio with me contributed to my capacity to be fully present in that experience. I was also able to take a few walks on the Mohawk-Hudson Bike Path during this assignment, and those walks were easier than the neighborhood, but still not quite as immersive as that day in the cemetery.
A weekend spent in Long Island brought new challenges. There were no nearby green spaces that allowed dogs, so I practiced on walks with Rio in my mother-in-law’s neighborhood of tightly packed homes and postage stamp yards. It was no more overwhelming than practicing in my own neighborhood, but on my first practice there on a Saturday afternoon, I noticed (and began to fixate on) the smell of dryer sheets. It seemed like I couldn’t escape it. There must’ve been someone doing laundry at every third house! And I caught myself judging the inhabitants for the toxic chemicals they were spewing into the neighborhood. I kept trying to bring my mind back to my feet, but I struggled with that judgment, and my guilt for being judgmental, throughout that walk.
Within a week I’d started trying to squeeze in a sitting practice in addition to the walking meditation. I was missing the sense of equanimity it brought me, and the walking meditations were bringing up anxiety. While getting back to my sitting practice helped me to feel more grounded, I also felt some resentment of the additional time it required.
And then came the arctic blast. I’d been dreaded going out on that first unseasonably cold morning for days – since I’d first seen the weather report. It was the last thing I wanted to do. I bundled up in lots of layers, and dressed Rio in her warmest winter coat, and we stepped outside. By the time we got to the end of the driveway, it was pretty apparent that it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the situation I’d been imagining. (Thoughts are just thoughts – they are not real.) I’d been creating a situation in my mind that simply wasn’t reality. To be fair, by the time we finished our neighborhood lap that morning, I was walking with a mittened hand over my nose because it really was pretty darn cold – but it wasn’t awful.
Today was the final day of the walking meditation assignment, and in truth, I’m looking forward to getting back to my sitting practice. While I was able to double up on quite a few days, there were more when I struggled to find the time amidst other responsibilities.
I’m grateful for the way this assignment challenged me, though – making me step outside of my comfort zone to practice in public – to have the opportunity to consciously practice the lessons of the sitting practice in the external world.