Am I Doing This Right: Walking Meditation

The latest installment in our ongoing series of helpful answers to common meditator questions.

There seem to be so many different types of meditation. How do I know if mindfulness is the right one?

Why does that question make me think of a newcomer to online dating asking “How will I know if he’s the one?” In that case I would say that a good clue will be how you feel when you are with him, and whether his personal grooming habits are up to your standards. In the case of mindfulness med- itation, it will be what you feel when you are practicing, what you are feeling between peri- ods of practice, what you have typically felt prior to meditat- ing, and your grooming habits probably don’t figure into this particular equation.

I’m not suggesting that “what you feel” equates to how you feel, but literally what you feel. The practice of mindfulness is about asking yourself “what” and not “how” or “why.” It’s about letting go of the story about practicing, about how you should feel a certain way (relaxed, enlight- ened, happy) or about trying

to analyze why you are feeling what you are feeling. Just what. Can you bring curiosity to your experience? Do you observe over time that you derive some particular benefit or find yourself more present and equanimous?

But all of this requires some patience and a willingness to let go of needing anything to be any different, because this is the paradox of mindfulness practice. It is only when we

let go of needing anything to change, that anything might actually change. Try it and
see what you think. If you are still left wondering whether mindfulness is for you, then it probably is and you should get your tush back on the cush and sit some more.

If you’re looking for some- thing else, like everlasting peace, levitation, more hair on a balding head, or your lost youth, you’ve come to the wrong place. Be sure to mention those things in your profile, and for heaven’s sake, wash your hair and iron your shirt before you show up for that coffee date!

I find it hard to sit still. should I just do walking meditation?

I’m a huge fan of walking meditation and highly recommend it as a wonderful contrast to the stillness of sitting, offering a world of opportunity to tend to the continuous flow of sensation that unfolds with each mindful step.

But sometimes I’m a little wobbly, and when I pause or turn I find just a moment of teetering uncertainty. I try to see what it’s like to experience that. Rather than drop to the floor in a heap and, in the immortal words of Elmer Fudd, “hold vewwwwy, vewwwy still,” I let my attention drift to the unsteady sensations in my body, the activity of my mind, whatever arises.

The same can apply to sitting still. If I sit down on a cushion and find myself jittery and twitchy, I try to explore that feeling a bit. I might even be amused by my choice of language. Is it really “hard” to sit still? Am I really concerned that I will spring up and start moonwalking crazily across the room out of sheer agitation? Or is it more like a kind of running commentary inside my head telling me that I can’t sit still and I might explode if I don’t act on this thought? Could I possibly thank my brain for that concept, that simple brain secretion, and notice what’s here next? Who knows what I might discover on the other side of the thought that sitting is hard. Maybe it will be whatever is supposed to be next in this damnable practice of meditation.

But remember: Nothing happens next. This is it.

I see some people meditating with their eyes open and some with their eyes closed. Does it make a difference?

This is a terrific question, because the difference between eyes open meditation and eyes closed meditation is huge! One is significantly darker than the other. I imagine you can figure out which is which.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one! There are traditions in which people are encouraged to meditate with the eyes open, holding a soft, generally unfocused gaze that provides a certain steadiness and calm they don’t experience with eyes closed. For many who have difficult histories

of mistreatment or trauma, having the eyes closed can create too much anxiety and fear to tolerate, in which case I would strongly advise trying the eyes open approach.

If you do decide to practice with your eyes open, make sure you’re not doing it just so you can look around. Are you really wanting to check out the cute guy across the room in your meditation group? Anyway, if you do practice with eyes open, you’ll need to be prepared to be mindful of visual distractions, and learn to cultivate a soft, loose gaze

I get sleepy a lot when I meditate. Is it oK to take a nap for a while? or should I do something else when I’m nodding off?

Of course you get sleepy, you work 65 hours a week, answer emails at midnight, change diapers at the crack of dawn and commute an hour each way through horrific, post-apocalyptic traffic. I’d be tired too. As a matter of fact, I’m feeling a little sleepy just reading your question!

But sometimes what we notice when we slow down, tune in, and let our attention rest gently onour bodies, is that, lo and behold, this old bag of bones is…wait for it…tired!

So here’s the crucial point: Upon making this discov- ery, do you think you could stay present for the unfold- ing of it in your body, mind, and heart long enough to let yourself really feel what it’s like to be tired? How do you actually know you are tired? Can you notice sensations in your body? Could you actually befriend tired long enough to know it directly and unequivocally? Because that in itself is mindfulness practice, and that could lead to a bit of discernment about what you really need in that moment. It might be a warm, juicy, yummy nap! Or it might just be a rising and receding wave that you could surf with awareness and stay present as you meditate, letting tired be the actual object of your attention. Let this be a fully mindful decision, and then you can’t go wrong.