I used to have a lot of interesting ideas about what meditation was going to be like when I finally got the hang of it. No doubt my views were coloured by my Christian upbringing because I used to think there would be these ‘road to Damascus’ type moments when I would suddenly be overcome by a revelation or thunderbolts would come out of the sky and all of a sudden I would just know what it all meant. I was always expecting these big moments to happen, and I assumed that was what I was meant to be looking for. The reality I found was much more mundane, rather than big moments what I really needed to learn to look out for was the little moments. The little moment when your mind says ‘I don’t want to’, or the split second it takes for the mind to see a thought and then take possession of it – this is my thought, I am thinking this.
I would imagine that a really good sitting meditation would mean that all your thoughts stopped and you sat timeless in a haze, like a post orgasmic bliss for 3 hours. Some people might have this kind of experience through watching the breath but really most of us don’t; yes you can experience bliss in your meditations but it’s not a hazy sensation, you will still be very alert and aware while it is happening. Most of your good meditation sessions will involve you putting in effort to stop your mind from wandering off and sometimes your reward will be a bit of bliss, most of the time though it’s mostly effort.
Walking meditation was an entirely new activity for me, I knew nothing about it until I started the practice. But I brought some of the same dramatic expectations with me as I had for sitting meditation. I thought that when I had finally got my thoughts to stop and I was somehow completely and utterly focused on each step that my whole perspective on the world would change and I would see everything in glorious Technicolor widescreen, a sweeping panoramic shot like a scene from a movie; I would be able to see everything around me in spectacular colour and detail. I thought my senses would become heightened and I would see the world in a glorious new way; reality when I finally got to see it, I thought, would look incredible.
It was on my first retreat that I got that first glimpse of what walking meditation could really reveal. It was on a leafy lane down in Devon one sunny afternoon that I had applied myself to doing some walking meditation, the retreat had 3 sitting meditation sessions a day but no walking so I made some time to do it myself. As I walked up and down that lane I got more focused and relaxed. Eventually I felt my perspective shift, and what I saw completely changed how I understood myself and my place in the world. In a split second I suddenly saw how small I was compared to the vastness of the fields around me, to the trees towering over me, to the sky rising endlessly above me. I saw that compared to the landscape around me I was like an ant, a tiny little being surrounded by millions of acres of space. And amongst those millions of acres of space I saw that there were thousands of other tiny beings, birds, animals, insects, and humans; I was just one of them.
For me this experience was awe inspiring and incredibly humbling; I lost any sense of myself as being special in anyway because I was human, that I had any kind of dominion over the earth,any kind of super powers or special place in the world – I was just another little being surrounded by little beings. I saw how big the world is and how little of it my human senses can perceive at any one time. Rather than become all seeing I became less seeing, the reality of the limitations of my human senses became very apparent to me and I saw that human eyes do not see in beautifully composed widescreen panorama shots but actually only take in a fairly small picture at any one time.
What I felt though was an incredible sense of connection, I didn’t have an illusions that I was anything other than a part of nature; I saw my place as a human in the world was on the same tier the other animals, I was just another little being in an enormous world – flesh and blood, small and vulnerable. I use the word connection but really my experience of it is more like not-separateness, I see very clearly that I am not separate from anything around me, neither the living landscape nor the animals, my actions impact on them and their actions impact on me.
It was an article that I saw in a newspaper recently that got me thinking about this experience that comes up in walking meditation. It had never occurred to me that this kind of experience could be anything other than amazing, but the article made me see that actually this kind of experience could be quite terrifying. It was a short article about open water swimming which even included in its headline “be prepared for the heebie-jeebies”. The writer says:
“There’s something else, though: what about the heebie-jeebies? Looking out at the unending space and then longing for land? Even proper swimmers get this: Asante tells me about a swim in Croatia when they went out at 5.30am. “I was swimming along naturally and then the sun came up,” she says. “As soon as I saw how clear the water was, I noticed how deep it was. I’m a confident swimmer, but usually the water’s murky and I never think about it. Suddenly, I could see fish. It made me realise how small I was, how insignificant, a stranger in someone else’s territory.””
When I read this swimmer’s experience of how when they saw how deep the water was and saw how small and insignificant they were I recognised the experience immediately as the one you get when you do walking meditation outdoors. But I was fascinated that this type of experience was a scary one for both the person who wrote the article and the swimmer who had the experience. It got me thinking about why for those people that change in perspective was scary and yet for me, and most meditators I know, the same experience in walking meditation is joyous.
What you see in walking meditation, and in open water swimming too it would seem, when you suddenly see how small you are compared to the world around you is reality. In reality you are very small, very insignificant, soft and fleshy, and easily broken. You are vulnerable, the world is enormous compared to you. For someone following Buddhist practice any insight into reality, the true nature of things, creates an incredible sense of peace. We practice to encourage our minds to let go of their wrong ideas about us, to let go of their senses of self, to stop seeing us as something we are not, so when we do finally see some reality it is a glorious experience.
But why would meditators be delighted by this experience and everyone else would be terrified? The answer lies with the mind, the part of the mind that churns out thoughts. As meditators we develop our faculties to get to the point where our understanding of the world and the situation we are in becomes experiential, that means we no longer have to think about our situation to understand it – we simply just experience it as it happens to us in real time with no additional narrative from the mind. When you experience how small you are compared to the world and you just inhabit that experience without any mental analysis or attempts to conceptualise it the experience is fantastically peaceful.
However if you experience how small you are compared to the world and then let your mind in on it then suddenly you will become scared by it. “But” says the mind “but if I’m so small how can I ever protect myself? How can I feel safe? I could get hurt, eaten, I could fall over and break my leg, I could…” Your smallness and vulnerability is terrifying to your mind because your mind is terrified of not existing, when your mind sees just how precarious your human existence really is it gets into a panic and scrambles around desperately trying to logic its way out of this harsh reality. The one thing your mind cannot imagine is not existing so when it comes face to face with a scenario that might lead to it not existing it just can’t handle it. This is the gift of the practice though, we learn that the mind is just another facet of our experience and that we don’t need to listen to it. In fact it is usually better not to.
So we open ourselves to these feelings that others find so scary, to our smallness, to our vulnerability, which allows us to see deeply into them. By learning to experience the world through being and not through thinking we gain access to knowledge that is lost to the mind, such as how peaceful one can feel knowing exactly how insignificant we are compared to the vastness of the earth and sky. This is the source of peace in a harsh and dangerous world, by turning down the noise of the mind and tapping into the experience of just being we learn how to take everything as it is; when you just are there is nothing to fear. And the more you connect with just being and having no fear, the less convincing the stories of the mind become, and this shift opens the door to even greater peace. Think less, be more, it will change everything.