Joy in Walking

May 31st, 2008

Footprints on beachPeace is every step.
The shining red sun is my heart.
Each flower smiles with me.
How green, how fresh all that grows.
How cool the wind blows.
Peace is every step.
It turns the endless path to joy.
- Thich Nhat Hanh

As a follow up to my last post, I thought I would look at feet and stepping from a different viewpoint. The last blog post looked at our feet in terms of shoes and orthopedic health. In addition to numbing our proprioceptive abilities, shoe overuse makes us liable to just mindlessly ignore our feet. Not only do we forget how to walk properly, but we also lose the ability to just pay attention to our feet.

A core tenet of Zen is the idea of being present. It’s a very simple principle: just bring your mental focus and awareness into the here and now. As simple as that sounds, it’s not something that a lot of people can actually do, particularly given the hustle and bustle of modern life. The mind will naturally wander, dwelling on the past, conjecturing about the future, and latching on to the host of random thoughts that arise. Learning to not let those thoughts control your attention is an important step in truly bringing yourself into the moment and developing mindfulness.

A common method of developing mental focus (meditation) and bringing your attention to the present is to pay attention to one’s breathing. Another is to pay attention to the process of walking. Walking, much like breathing, may seem like a very simple act, but if you really pay attention, the superficially simple process becomes complex and multifaceted. The body’s weight falls to the heels and rolls towards the balls of the feet and toes. The arch of the foot helps flexibly transfer force from heel to toe. The toes grip the ground, and the muscles of the feet help stabilize the foot and adjust to transfer force efficiently. The ankles flex to mobilize the foot and keep the body stable relative the foot. The simple act of bipedal walking is complex enough to require lots of robotics engineering research to replicate, but most people take it for granted.

Just paying attention to the feet while standing and stepping is very perceptually rich. Like paying attention to breathing, standing and walking meditations also provide methods of mental focus to bring the mind into the present. Noticing the feet (and eventually other parts of the body) shifts the mental focus away from random distracting thoughts and brings attention to a moment by moment process. Even the simple act of learning to perceive your feet helps develop mindfulness. Paying attention to your feet can be a first step towards mindfulness, mental clarity, and maybe even a bit of inner peace.

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