Sunday, September 23, 2012

Walking Meditation and the Principles of T'ai Chi

Most people, I suspect, need no convincing regarding the potentially meditative qualities of walking. We discover them easily enough on our own just as soon as we’re old enough to take our first long and solitary stroll. We come to realize quite naturally that the repetitive rhythm of breath and step has a way of inducing stillness of mind, deep contemplation, and an appreciation of the present moment.

Labyrinth walking at Chartes Cathedral, France
Notwithstanding the fact that the meditative qualities of walking arise quite spontaneously, many practices have arisen that either utilize those qualities or serve to deepen them. We might refer to these practices as forms of walking meditation in order to differentiate them from the much more informal practice of “going for a walk.” Perhaps some readers are already familiar with the benefits of walking meditation after having been introduced to it via the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, for
T. N. Hanh & A. H. Nguyen
instance. Others might have been introduced to the deep contemplative quality of labyrinth walking – a form of walking meditation largely considered to be rooted in medieval Christianity (but which might be much older). Muslims, as well, culminate their pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca with a prayerful circumambulation of the Kaaba.
Circumambulation of the Kaaba
My own first experience with walking meditation was within the context of prolonged Zen practice, as a “break” between periods of seated meditation – though not a break in meditation – allowing for the rejuvenating effects of physical activity even as the meditative stillness of seated meditation is maintained.


Kinhin at Kanzeon Zen Center

Spinning prayer wheels during circumambulation of Lhagong monastery 
A full accounting of the varieties of Buddhist walking meditation should probably include the undertaking of pilgrimages to distant holy places as well as the circumambulation of stupas, monasteries, and mountains. For all practical purposes, though, at least in the West, there seem to be just two primary forms of Buddhist walking meditation – the kinhin of Zen practice and the “mindfulness” approach usually associated with the practice of Vipassana. The latter approach often involves – within an enclosed space, anyway – selecting a spot where one might walk to and fro without obstruction, while noting to oneself: “I am lifting my foot. I am moving my foot. I am placing my foot.” And so on. The interested reader might enjoy Venerable Silananda's exposition of this Vipassana-style of walking meditation. 
Hands in shashu
The former, kinhin, is usually performed in the same room as seated meditation, zazen. Upon hearing the appropriate signal, practitioners rise from zazen and orient themselves in a clockwise direction, holding their hands in shashu, described by the official Soto Zen website as follows: "Put the thumb of your left hand in the middle of the palm and make a fist around it. Place the fist in front of your chest. Cover the fist with your right hand. Keep your elbows away from your body forming a straight line with both forearms." Kinhin practitioners then proceed clockwise, half step by half step, one breath per half step, until the end of kinhin is signaled. Reverend Shikai Zuiko's exposition of the Soto Zen-style of walking meditation provides an interesting contrast to the Vipassana-style that Venerable Silananda describes.
Walking Meditation and the Principles of T'ai Chi
I’m certainly not the only Zen practitioner to have also studied t'ai chi. For some reason, however, there seems to be an utter absence of information related to how one may bring the principles of t'ai chi to bear upon the practice of kinhin. Consider what follows, then, to be just such a guide. It is my contention that if you put forth the effort to understand and apply these principles as you go about the practice of kinhin, you will find your practice becoming more fluid, more deeply meditative, and more enjoyable.
It has been said that walking is a process of falling forward and catching oneself over and over again. Laurie Anderson articulated this in Walking and Falling, one of the songs from her groundbreaking Big Science release. Ernest Trova implied it some twenty years earlier with the inception of his Falling Man series. Perhaps others have said or thought as much over the course of human history. After all, it is true. And the reason it is true, as we shall see, is that we almost never walk in accord with the principles of t'ai chi.
I first learned the principles of t'ai chi from one who learned them from Benjamin Lo. Benjamin Lo, in turn, learned them from Cheng Man-ch'ing. These principles are given a more in-depth treatment in an interview with Benjamin Lo, but I will state them briefly here:

The Principles of T'ai Chi
1.      Relax, relax, relax.
2.      Separate the weight.
3.      Initiate movement from the waist.
4.      Maintain upright posture.
5.      Maintain "beautiful lady’s hands."
Relaxation is a principle that permeates all others. You can always be more relaxed. Become aware of where and how your body stores tension and learn to allow that tension to dissolve as soon as it arises into awareness. Separating the weight is a simplification of what Benjamin Lo refers to as “separating ying from yang.” For our current purposes we can think of this as a focus on alternating between having 100% of our weight on the left foot (left foot “full”) and 0% on the right (right foot “empty”), to having 100% of our weight on the right foot and 0% on the left. Initiating movements from the waist refers to the fact that any shifting of weight begins in the pelvic area, with the upper body “going along for the ride.” This is as if you were sliding a stack of dominoes across a table by moving the bottom one (the pelvis) and allowing all those stacked above (the torso) to move along with it. Facilitate this by keeping the knees slightly bent and the tailbone tucked in – relax. Notice how this tips the bowl of the pelvis back somewhat, which facilitates upright posture. Keep your wrists in line with your forearms. The t’ai chi form would have us keeping our fingers extended and together, as well, but that would potentially conflict with the positioning of hands in shashu (see above). Okay, we’re ready for a simple exercise:

Simple Standing Exercise

1.      Stand upright with feet shoulder width apart and arms at your sides or in shashu.
2.      Begin with weight equally supported by both feet.
3.      Keep your knees slightly bent and your tailbone tucked in.
4.      Take a moment to be still – breathing with your diaphragm and allowing tension to dissolve.
5.      Inhale slowly and evenly.
6.      Slowly shift weight to your left foot – initiating the movement from the waist.
7.      Exhale slowly as you shift your weight – as if the exhalation of your breath were driving a pneumatic piston supporting the increasing weight supported by your left foot.
8.      Continue until your right foot is “empty” – supporting 0% of your weight. Note that once your foot is empty you can pick it up and move it without having to move your torso in order to compensate.
9.      With your left foot “full”, inhale at the same rate as you just exhaled.
10.  Slowly shift weight to your right foot – initiating the movement from the waist and exhaling slowly as you do.
11.  Repeat for as long as you would like.

The astute reader might have already realized that the standing exercise described above can become the practice of kinhin simply by taking a half step forward with whatever foot happens to become “empty”. In fact, there have been times when I’ve been practicing kinhin in a crowded zendo and have essentially walked in place due to the slow pace of movement. It is possible to receive the full rejuvenating benefits of walking even while standing in place by practicing kinhin in this way – never losing meditative awareness all the while.

As simple as this is, not everybody has the same kinesthetic intelligence. Let me then present this in a more diagrammatic form. The following diagrams show how the standing exercise outlined above becomes the forward movement of kinhin.
Steps 1-3 above describe movement from the standing posture to the initiation of the first step.
Steps 1-4 above describe the completion of the first step and the initiation of the second step.

As you work your way through these various components of the overall form, focus on the evenness and fluidity of both breath and step, and your awareness thereof. Be patient with yourself as you learn this new regimen. Though it is ultimately a very simple process it might not become fluid for you the first time that you try it. Please stay with it, though. I think you will come to agree that it provides an excellent vehicle for the experience of the seamless integration of body, breath, mind, and environment.
Thank you for staying with me for the duration of this detail-oriented post! I hope that the information conveyed herein allows you to deepen your practice of kinhin, or whatever other form of walking meditation you might practice.


Image Credits

Walking the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France via:
Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh & Anh Huong Nguyen via:
The Muslim circumambulation of Kaaba on the last day of Hajj by Omar Chatriwala via:
Members of Kanzeon Zen Center during kinhin by Kanzeon Zen Center via:
Tibetan pilgrims spinning prayer wheels during the circumambulation of Lhagong monastery by alsalama via:
Monk with hands in shashu from Soto Zen website via:
Labyrinth diagram by Nordisk familjebok via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

1 comment:

  1. I often do walking meditation and it is really helpful for each and everyone. I would suggest that you also try this.