Remembering How to Consciously Walk Again23 March 2021
Angelica Attard, PsyD :
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, walking has taken on a newfound place in our lives. However, walking can also become another thing to 'do' that is taken for granted. We forget that there is such a thing as mindful walking.
Here I explore how we can find our path back to connecting intimately with walking through mindfulness and compassion. For those who have never heard of mindful walking, I am excited for you to find out what it is.
What type of walker are you?
First things first. Figure out what type of walking are you doing. Do you relate to any of these 'walkers'? I am sometimes that 'walker' who:
Is speeding along to get my daily steps in, talking to a friend, and typing notes on my phone about a work project. If I had a dog, I would probably be walking it at the same time too.
Squeezes in a walk at the last minute 'because I should' and I walk feeling burdened; I am only doing it because I have to.
Walks to arrive somewhere; in fact, walking is a real inconvenience because all that matters is getting to the destination to complete my errands quickly, so that I can get to the next thing on my to-do list.
Is so tired after the demands of the day that I walk feeling empty, with my head down and oblivious to what is around me.
Is totally consumed by worries about future challenges or regrets about what went wrong that day. I could have been walking in the clouds for all I knew.
It is not always like this. I have other walks where I am not caught in these trances. I am more in the moment, connected with my body and the environment. This brings a sense of calm and even enjoyment. There is still usually some negative stuff around, like worries from my day however, they do not tarnish and take over my experience.
What does mindful walking look like?
Mindful walking is conscious walking. We walk with awareness that we are walking in this present moment, that we are breathing, that we are here. As we walk, we pay attention to the external world around us. We also notice that there is a lot going on in the internal world within us with all our thoughts, feelings and body sensations. When we are mindful we accept all of this as part of our reality without getting lost in it or trying to get rid of it.
What follows is an outline of some core components of mindful walking.
1. Congratulate yourself on getting out
It is not always easy to take ourselves out for a walk in the first place so if you have managed to, well done. You have made it. You have landed from the world of doing, demands, and busy-ness. Now pause for a moment and purposely bring an intention to walk consciously today. Even if you manage this for just a couple of minutes it is a great start.
2. Connect with your breath
We are always breathing but we do not pay attention to it because it is (thankfully) automatic for most of us.
Take a moment to check you are breathing. Are you?
If you have noticed that you are breathing right now then you have become present- all your focus shifted to what is going on right now and you have connected with your body. Noticing that we are breathing can remind us that we are alive. Another thing we can easily take for granted. So, the first step in mindful walking is to consciously breathe.
Breathe in and be aware that you are breathing in. You can say to yourself: "I am breathing in, I am here, I have arrived". Then breathe out. Breathe out as though you are sighing a sigh of relief after having faced a big challenge (e.g. resolving an argument, going for an interview). On every out-breath, breathe a sigh of relief, relax your shoulders, your facial muscles, and connect with the sense of ease that can come with this.
3. Connect with the movement of your body
Start to become aware of every step you make. Have you ever seen a baby as they take their first steps and figure out how their body parts move together? Bring this focus to your steps. Feel your feet rolling onto the ground, one part of the foot at a time; the heel, the arch, the balls of your foot, the toes. You make notice the muscles of your calves moving too, the creaks and cracks in your knees and back after being indoors or sitting down all day. Just notice this. Notice with wonder without judging your body.
4. Connect your breathing with your body movement
Notice your natural breathing rate as you walk without trying to change or force anything. Notice how many steps you take as you breathe in. And how many steps you take as you breathe out. For instance, you may take 3 steps on your in-breathe and 3 steps on your out-breath. We can then use this to start counting our steps. For instance, as you breathe in count 1, 2, 3 steps, and as you breathe out take 1, 2, 3, steps. If this sounds tricky to coordinate give yourself a chance to play around with it. It may take some time if you are not used to it.
By doing this we start to create alignment between our breath, body movement, and focus of attention. This contrasts to the disharmony we experience during periods of stress where our heart is beating fast, our breathing struggles to keep up because it is shallow, and our mind is all over the place. Alignment can generate a sense of cohesion that can help our body to calm down, our mind to slow down, and our attention to become more focused as we walk.
5. Imprint your footsteps on the earth
"Your foot is like a seal. When you put the seal on a piece of paper, the seal makes an impression.", Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk, global spiritual leader, peace activist
Have you or your children ever done that activity where you paint your hands and print your hand mark on a paper? On your mindful walk imagine that you have painted your feet and that with each step you take, you are leaving a footprint. With each footprint we can also imagine imprinting a message; I was here in this spot, I am free, I am grateful, I am alive, I am experiencing joy in this moment, I am connected with the earth. Leaving a trail of these messages can be a lovely offering to ourselves.
6. Take your pain along on the walk
As we walk, we may be aware that we are in pain. We may be holding internal pain (negative emotions and thoughts patterns) and physical pain. We cannot get rid of our physical and psychological pain; it may be there for a good and important reason and reflect that something needs to be attended to. However, this pain may also distract us away from our footprints, our breath, and our walk, and pull us powerfully into an abyss of suffering.
Sometimes it can help to imagine taking our pain on the walk with us. This does not mean that we have to like our pain. However, you will be surprised that if we do not fight it, our pain may settle slightly, and we may start to suffer less.
So, as you breathe in, connect with where you feel the physical and psychological pain in your body and say 'hello' to it. As you breathe out imagine reaching out your hand and telling it 'come, please join me for the walk'. Just like a caregiver reaches out a hand to a child who is upset. By doing this we are acknowledging that parts of us are in pain and not judging them as wrong or pushing them away. We are guiding ourselves to walk even as we hold pain, because we know that this is nourishing and nurturing for us.
If connecting with internal pain triggers difficult, past memories, then please exercise caution and seek support from a psychologist or psychotherapist who can explore your experiences with you in greater depth.
7. Connect with your environment
You can also extend your attention to fully connect with the sensory experience of the walk. Have you had those moments when you are totally absorbed in the beauty of the environment around you? Just like you may marvel at Niagara Falls, the African Savana, or a Californian beach, bring this attitude of marvel and curiosity to your walk, wherever you are, by connecting with all your senses. Notice the obvious things and the subtleties too:
Sight: notice the play of light and shadows on the leaves, the different shades of brown and grey on the pavement.
Sound: notice the silence when cars stop passing by, the different types of birdsong.
Smell: notice the change of how the air smells after it rains, the grass, car fumes.
Touch: notice the movement of your hair against the breeze, the texture of your clothes.
Taste: notice the taste of the last thing you ate or drank, the dryness or lack of taste in your mouth.
8. Manage the mind's attention
Without even realising you may get distracted and carried away with your thoughts about the future or the past. We have a mind that has evolved to focus on and do something about past or future threats that can cause us pain. This is not our fault. However, if this thinking becomes circular and unregulated, we can find ourselves lost down a rabbit hole and disconnected from the present.
We need to train ourselves to land back on earth again; out of our head back into the moment. How do we do this? Breathe in- as you breathe in remind yourself that 'I am here, I am back'. Then breathe out that sigh of relief. And re-focus your attention on your feet imprinting stamps on the earth, on the pace of your breathing, or on your senses as you connect with the environment around you. You can choose a protected time to come back to your problem to think about how and whether it can be resolved.
Walk on forward consciously
We are walking all the time, to the fridge, to the toilet. When we are conscious of our breath, our body, and our environment as we walk, we no longer live in the world of the past or future. Rather, we land back into the present which is where living is actually taking place.
(Angelica Attard, Psy.D., is a Clinical Psychologist who trained and works in London, United Kindgom. She specializes in working with professionals who struggle with depression, anxiety, burnout, perfectionism, self-criticism, shame, and relationship problems).