Do You Sit All Day? A Walking Meditation May Be Just What You Need

Image by Brent Hill / Stocksy

We hear a lot about the benefits of meditation, but it's not always easy to sit down and get still. Fortunately, there is a way to get the meditative experience without having to sit in silence—a walking meditation. Antonia Malchik, the author of A Walking Life, explores the incredible mental, physical, and emotional health benefits of walking and shares how we can incorporate more walking into our daily lives. In this excerpt from her new book, you'll learn about how a walking meditation could work for you and why it's essential to continue moving in a society where we spend a lot of time sitting.

Meditation is often advised, or even prescribed, as a way for us to reduce stress, to stop feeling overwhelmed in our lives, to build more patience and mindfulness into our parenting, to improve health, to help us form good eating habits and strong relationships. Whether it's a cure-all or not, meditation has been shown to be beneficial for many aspects of human life.

The research on sitting's damage is extensive. James Levine, M.D., who was the first to say that "sitting is the new smoking," wrote in Get Up! that "for every hour we sit, two hours of our lives walk away." His conclusions, and his book, are based on over three decades of researching sitting's detrimental effects on our health, including circulation, blood pressure, obesity, creativity, clinical depression, stress, and cholesterol levels.

One of Levine's most thought-provoking findings revolves around an uncomplicated emotion we can all relate to: sadness. Sitting too much, Levine wrote, forces the brain to adapt to lack of movement. It—the brain, or the mind, or simply "you"—becomes sluggish and sad, a fascinating and sobering finding when thinking, also, about the necessity of walking and other vestibular movement to stimulate the brains of infants, toddlers, and older children. Because sadness, and its companion depression, leads to anhedonia (a lack of desire to do anything, particularly move or exercise), the brain then adapts to sit more the sadder we get. "The chair," he wrote, “is the inevitable home of the sad... The chair becomes the depressive's sanctuary."

A finding echoed (unconsciously, perhaps) in Geoff Nicholson's tongue-in-cheek book The Lost Art of Walking. A pervading theme in his book, which covers literature, music, art, and walking's relationship to our human selves, is his own discovery of simple walks around Los Angeles as effective treatment for his depression.

From childhood to adolescence through adulthood and old age, wrote Levine, "movement is not only the essence of life; it is the rhythm that defines our stage of living." Not just our bodies but our minds, too, evolved to move. We think with our feet; we solve problems through wandering; we walk to come to terms with our depression and our prayers. We walk to remind ourselves that we are free.

Here was a question I presented to researcher after researcher: If sitting is so damaging for our bodies, how beneficial is it for your average commuting office worker to come home after a long day and sit for another 10 to 30 minutes to clear his mind? Consider Levine's findings that "the average American sits 13 hours per day; 86% of Americans sit all day at work and 68% hate it"—and more from Public Health England, which found that sedentary behavior accounts for around 60 percent of British workers' total waking hours, and 70 percent for those at high risk of chronic disease.

How does sitting meditation stack up, mental healthwise, against a walk through a park, or along a tree-lined street, or simply downtown or down the road? Assuming said office worker has access to a walkable space for 30 minutes to an hour, wouldn’t getting off of his butt for that period of time (leaving the cellphone behind, preferably) and taking a mindful, meditative walk be even more beneficial?

It is an interesting question. It seems obvious that sitting meditation would be far better for us than sitting answering mind-numbing emails or making 20 annoying phone calls, but considering the health benefits of bringing walking more fully into our lives, a walking practice like kinhin or a medicine walk akin to those practiced in some Native American cultures might heal and enrich our lives in ways that we can't predict.

Could every walk, every pilgrimage, every mindless turning of the foot in response to grief be a kind of walking meditation? Was that not where the Salish and Kootenai tribes ended up when they walked back to the land their ancestors were forced off of? Or Peace Pilgrim as she walked the world yearning for peace? If we walk every day with intention and presence, even for 30 minutes, or 10, are we not, in this kind of walking, treading the paths of our hearts and our souls, all the while healing our minds and bodies?

The way she described that first week to me sounded like a river in flood season, scooping away banked earth, washing rocks, leaving a lot of detritus behind. After her meeting at Canterbury Cathedral, Davies' mind began to carve out its own channels. She walked those narrow English lanes with their high field hedges, listening to music or to an audiobook she'd downloaded about Peace Pilgrim's life, or sometimes just to the silence of the air, processing many things, including the recent deaths of her parents. "Getting to the edge of England, thinking about them, that grieving was a big piece I had to move." The space she was given to truly grieve for her parents was, she said, "magnificent."

These days, to be given time to mourn a loved one, a friend, a parent, a child, a teacher is almost unheard of. Space for mourning has become a luxury rarer than a day of paid sick leave.

Pilgrimage and walking out personal pain are parallel quests: searching for ourselves, or for spiritual guidance, and our connections to the wider, deeper meanings of human existence. In this way, walking as a spiritual practice reflects its physical place in our evolution. Walking for long periods settles the mind, redirect ideas, loosens solidified thought patterns, keeps us from brooding in dark places. We are rebalanced, emerging in a new relationship with gravity and the planet and the whirling intricacies of existence.

Based on excerpts from A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time by Antonia Malchik. Copyright © 2019.

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