10 steps to mindful walking
Mindful walking is done with deliberate intention, focus and attitude to help better manage the internal and external distractions that clog our path to mental happiness. Psychologist, author and former army officer Hugh O’Donovan talks about how to use walking to achieve peace and wellbeing
1 What is Mindful Walking?
A mindful walk is made up of three elements — walking, talking and mindfulness.
“This style of walking is first about slowing down, both your thoughts and your pace, to deliberately meet and greet the present moment of your unfolding experience in a focused, observant , but non-judgemental way,” says O’Donovan.
In this context, walking with someone else can bring all three elements together — as long as everyone understands that this is a mindful, meditative experience and not a brisk power-walk or gossipy amble.
Talking with someone as you walk can help you share some of your concerns and challenges, he says. However walking alone brings just two of these three elements together, so in this context, it’s crucial for the solitary walker to emphasise a mindful focus. “Slow movement in itself is intrinsically contemplative,” says O’Donovan.
Whether we walk alone or in company, the mindfulness element is about bringing focus and observation together and helping us to notice and do things which we may miss out on in the busy-ness of daily life.
Before you begin to walk, prepare for the experience by focusing on your breathing.
The only time you are fully present to your experience is when you are aware of your breath, explains O’Donovan. Focus on the rhythmic coming and going of the breath.
“It can be helpful,” he adds, “to acknowledge the power of the in-breath, as it gives energy and life, and to observe the out-breath as a letting-go of any concerns or stresses that you may be experiencing.”
Remember that the mind can take off into the past or future and not allow you to stay in the present, so focus on the breath, which can be used as an anchor for focusing your attention. Bring this slower sense of things to the walk you are about to undertake.
Pace is an important element of mindful walking. It is important to adopt a pace that allows you to notice the physical experience of walking and the breath, so take it step by step, not too slow and not too fast. As you walk, bring your attention to the body. Recall your breath. Listen to the rhythm of your exhalations and inhalations.
Focus on your steps. Go back to the most primitive steps, says O’Donovan, and move forward at a slow, even and relaxed pace. Begin with the right foot and take one step forward: “Lift leg, place foot, set foot solidly, deliberately straighten the knee (especially if climbing) and follow through.
“When you walk, imagine that this is a marathon, not a sprint, Take it easy. That way, as you go, you can focus on the full-body sensations of walking and notice your surroundings.”
As you stand, become aware of your feet in contact with your shoes and the ground. Feel the weight of your body down through your torso, legs, heels and toes. Gently move your neck, arms and shoulders. Bend your knees slightly.
Notice any stiffness, tension or other sensations in the body. Notice your mood now, positive or negative. Try making a mental note on a scale of one to 10, where one is poor, and 10 is very good.
Now you’re ready to begin the walk.
“As children, we have a natural curiosity, but somewhere along the way we lose that wonder and that ability to be curious,” says O’Donovan. “In our rush to get where we’re going, we’re everywhere except the present.”
On your mindful walk, focus closely on what you see around you — the people, the surroundings, the buildings. Look up. Notice the colours, the light and the shadows. Welcome each new view as if you are seeing it for the first time. Periodically bring your attention back to the breath. Become aware of any thoughts and judgements that arise. Notice them coming and going with each step. Take time to stop if you wish to notice something that captures your attention, then move on.
Before and during the walk, make it your intention to focus on hearing, and to do it without judging. Focus on hearing. What sounds, if any, are coming into your awareness? Are they close or distant? Perhaps people are talking. You may hear the sounds of the city or the neighbourhood, or the countryside through which you are passing.
Are you aware of your thoughts as the mind processes all of the information? Are they positive, negative or neutral? The mind will inevitably wander to the most interesting and obvious aspects of your surroundings, so make an effort to come back to the breathing.
This is about bringing your awareness to a sense which is central to our rich experiencing of the world. To notice what is happening around you in terms of smell, you have to slow down, and stop and focus on what is attracting your attention — you may, for example, catch the scent of honeysuckle in a hedgerow on a summer’s evening. You may slow down to savour the scent and pause to find and appreciate the flower by seeing something different in it.
Appreciate it with an element of gratitude. Does a particular fragrance or odour remind you of anything? Do the smells you notice arouse any reactions in your body? Likes or dislikes?
Touching is about developing a greater awareness of the world around us. We rarely slow down enough to touch and feel what we see in our environment, says O’Donovan.“On one mindfulness walking group I guided, people were surprised by the experience of stopping and feeling the sensation of touching different kinds of plants and trees.
“Touching lifts the mood by revealing the wonder of the world around us in the simplest of things. Think of the poetry of the fingers as they fold around a door handle.
“This is something that is so automatic that we normally fail to appreciate how wondrous it is,” he explains.
In life, we continually experience positive, negative and neutral thoughts and emotions. “We tend to become hooked on the negative emotions, and overlaying that, on distorted thinking, and it all becomes a kind of negative ruminative cycle,” says O’Donovan.
We often become ‘hooked’ on a particular anxiety, and find ourselves continually thinking of ways to deal with it. However, he says, we can choose whether to carry these negative emotions with us or simply accept them and let them go. Mindfulness encourages us to simply observe it and let it pass — try observing your moods and emotions in a non-judgemental way on the basis that they will inevitably pass, he recommends.
Thoughts are like waves coming in to shore — some come in with great energy, but they will inevitably subside again in the huge body of water from which they come, he says. “It’s a bit like standing at the bus stop. Your thoughts and emotions are like the passing buses. “Some people try to get on every bus by seeing every slight or worrisome issue as something that must be dealt with.”
However the mindfulness approach encourages you to actually decide which bus to get on. You are accepting and letting go, and you are also acknowledging that there may be a bus you may need to get on, but also that this is for another time. “In that sense, you don’t react immediately, but create a space for an appropriate response later.”
When you have completed your walk, and before returning to whatever you must attend to for the rest of the day, focus your attention and notice where you are now. What are your thoughts now? How does your body feel now? How would you rate your mood now on that scale of one to10?
“Real learning is about experiencing things and about reflecting on that experience,” says O’Donovan, who adds that mindful walking is ultimately about making some new meanings for yourself. “I like to use the acronym FORM to explain this aspect of mindful walking. You focus, you observe, you reflect and you make new meaning that you might bring with you into the rest of the day.
Throughout the rest of the day, there may be activity of all sorts involved and focus is no less important. In this instance, I like to use the acronym FARM.
In this sense you focus, act, reflect and also make new meaning. “In taking a mindful approach to the walk and the world you live and work in, it is as it were a process of FORMing the present to FARM the future. Mindful attention is brought to everything you do as best you can.
* ‘Mindful Walking — Walk your Way to Mental and Physical Well-Being’ by Hugh O’Donovan, Hachette Ireland €19.