LLEWELLYN VAUGHAN-LEE & HILARY HART explore the contemplative, spiritual value of walking in Nature, and share with us a simple walking practice.
In the busy-ness of our contemporary life, we are drawn into ceaseless activity that often separates us from the deeper dimension of ourselves. With our smartphones and computer screens, we often remain caught on the surface of our lives amidst the noise and chatter that continually distract us, that stops us from being rooted in our true nature. Unaware we are drowned deeper and deeper in a culture of soulless materialism.
At this time I find it more and more important to have outer activities that can connect us to what is more natural and help us live in relationship to the deep root of our being, and in an awareness of the moment which alone can give real meaning to our everyday existence. Over the years I have developed a number of simple practices that bring together action and a quality of heart-centered attention, or deepening awareness, that can nourish our lives in hidden ways. These activities, like walking, cooking with love and attention, can reconnect us with the web of life, our natural interconnection with life in its beauty and wonder. They can help us ‘declutter’ our outer life and instead become rooted in what is simple and real. One of these practices, which combines action with awareness, is walking.
Walk as if you are kissing
the Earth with your feet.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
I have always loved to walk early in the morning, to sense the Earth at the beginning of a day, to feel Her pulse, Her beauty and magic, before thoughts and demands clutter my day. Waking early, I have a hot cup of tea, meditate in silence, and then, as soon as the first light comes, I walk down the hill to the road beside the wetlands where I live. Sometimes the frost is sparkling around me, sometimes the water is clouded with fog, an egret appearing white against the reeds. This is another time of silent meditation, walking, breathing, feeling the Earth. I try to be as empty as possible, just to be present in the half-light, aware of what is around me. Prayer, meditation, presence, awareness – these are just words for a practice that immerses me in a mystery we call nature. Here the sacred speaks to me in its own language, and I try to listen.
Now I live beside the wetlands, and the tidal water is part of this meeting, this communion. Other times, in other landscapes, it has been rivers and streams, the sounds of waterfowls’ wings, the dawn rising across meadows. Or in forests, a different bird chorus, animals skittering across the path, a deer and her young. Always it is a listening awareness, a deep receptivity to what is around me, an honoring of a world other than people. It is a remembrance of what is essential, elemental, and its nourishment carries me through the day. It is a return to the sacred, sensed and felt, without words or thoughts – a primal consciousness as if of the first day.
This is a practice that has been with me since my teens – when I first started to meditate I also needed to walk. It was not taught or learned, but came as a need, a way to be, an antidote to much of the world around me – a world of people and problems, demands and desires. When one foot follows the other and the day has hardly begun, it seems these demands cannot touch me, as if I am immersed in something simpler, more essential. Placing each foot on the earth is a practice, but a practice that comes from my own roots, not a book or a teacher. Later I came to hear it called “walking in a sacred manner,” and it is sacred, a return to what is sacred. But it also is deeper or more primal than any purpose. Nature speaks to me and I listen. Nature calls and something deep within me responds, and I just need to give it space. I am part of a life far greater than any ‘me’.
The Earth gives us sustenance: the air we breathe, the food we eat. She is generous in so many ways, even as we forget Her and abuse Her. But there is also this deeper nourishment, this invisible, intangible giving. My early morning walk is a communion – if I am receptive, it is a wine drunk deeply. It comes through Her landscape, moss dripping from the trees, white and pink blossoms welcoming spring, the cry of a sea bird. Those first rays of sunrise are always a blessing. I do not understand this with my mind, but my soul feels it, needs it. Once again we are back at the beginning, in that elemental world we never truly leave. Our present culture may have forgotten it, disowned it, covered it over, may pretend we no longer need this communion, but my soul and my feet know otherwise. This is the landscape of the soul as much as it is the wetlands stretching towards the ocean. But it is also any landscape we walk. A walk on city streets is made of the same elements: feet touching ground, the rhythm of walking, breathing, the same sky overhead, the wind touching the face.
I would like to say it is easy, but so often I have to remember to reconnect, to empty the clutter of the coming day from my mind, my everyday thoughts. I have to stay in a place of awareness, sense my feet, feel the air, listen. I have to remember that I am not separate but part of everything around me. I have to push aside this great myth of separation, the great untruth. We are the air we breathe, the earth we touch, the same one life, alive in so many ways. We are the Earth awakening in the early morning, just as we are the buds breaking into color in the spring. To be fully alive is to feel how we are part of this embracing mystery. My morning walk is a remembrance, a reconnection, experienced in the body and felt in the soul.
So often I have to remember to reconnect,
to empty the clutter of the coming day from my mind,
my everyday thoughts.
I have to stay in a place of awareness,
sense my feet, feel the air, listen.
I have to remember that I am not separate
but part of everything around me.
Walking reinforces our connection to the Earth, one step at a time. Attuning to the rhythms of one’s feet, the swaying of one’s arms, the in and out of breath, the ways walking moves us through time and space, helps develop this relationship, reminding us consciously and unconsciously just how much a part of nature we are. Nature is cyclic and rhythmic, and walking – when we are not focused on where we are going – attunes us to this non-linear reality.
Walking practice is perhaps best begun alone, when the intimacy of nature’s communication can be sensed without distraction. Just as when we meet a lover in the early part of a relationship, we do not want to share that meeting with others. Choose a time when you can be alone, when listening, hearing, and sensing can take place. Perhaps the start or the end of the day, before life’s clamoring takes hold or after it lets go. Lunchtime or an afternoon break from work might be more difficult, but if that is the time available, then make sure the walk is long enough for you to let go of work thoughts or tensions of the day.
Turn off the cell phone, or better yet, leave it at home or the office. There is a way that the vulnerabilities that come with being alive have been squelched by our daily-life safety tools, like cell phones. If you can be without the protection and constant access they provide, try it. Social media will not miss documentation from your walk.
Find a park or a path through quiet woods if you can. Let the rhythm of your steps soothe your mind and create a space for listening. Feel how your feet connect with the earth, how the air moves through your lungs. Follow your attention as it is drawn inward and outward both – to the inner movements of your body and to the feeling of warmth or cold, the sight of birds, the sound of a distant plane. Let your thoughts and impressions move through and out, as part of the natural rhythm of walking. Just as we come back to the breath in silent meditation, return your attention to your feet and their meeting and letting go of the ground.
Commit to walking every day if you can. Walk without expectation, with an attitude of openness and gratitude. If you feel a longing inside you – a need to connect, a desire to be closer to nature – let it motivate and guide you.
The nineteenth-century existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote in a letter to his niece, “Every day, I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”
This is the first of the practices from Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee & Hilary Hart’s Spiritual Ecology: 10 Practices to Reawaken the Sacred in Everyday Life, 2017. It is reprinted with written permission from the authors.
Article by LLEWELLYN VAUGHAN-LEE & HILARY HART