A Zen master explains how to walk more mindfully—without looking like a weirdo

Home is everywhere.
Home is everywhere.
Image: Reuters/Danish Ismail
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Mindfulness is by now a tired buzzword bandied about by corporations, employers, insurers, life coaches, and wellness gurus. So you can’t be blamed if the notion of advice on “being here now” makes you break out in hives.

But the original masters of this practice—Zen monks like Thich Nhat Hanh—really do know something about cultivating peace and happiness. And to understand their wisdom, you needn’t follow the steps of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and retreat into silence in a monastery in Myanmar. Nor must you attend a Goopy wellness conference with New Age types. Instead, you can read Walking Meditation: Easy Steps to Mindfulness, a slender tome to be released in paperback this month, by Vietnamese peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh and ordained Zen Buddhist teacher Nguyen Anh-Huoing.

The book makes enlightenment sound refreshingly easy, attainable, and straightforward. All you have to do to become illuminated is pay attention when you breathe and walk … and try not be too awkward about it, so that you don’t make everyone uncomfortable with your consciousness-cultivating endeavors. Walking Meditation, which is a very sincere and sweet book, replete with charming poems about peace, is surprisingly funny in one regard. The Zen masters repeatedly advise mindfulness practitioners to not act like weirdos. For example, they write:

When practicing mindful walking in public places, always breathe normally. Walk slowly, but not too slowly, because you do not want others to think you are too unusual. Walk a little slower than your normal pace, a little faster than indoor walking. In this way you can enjoy peace and serenity as you walk without making the people around you uncomfortable.

However, much of the guidance in the book is about getting comfortable with yourself—your suffering, your speed, your breath, your steps. The authors repeatedly emphasize that mindfulness is an easy and gradual process that can eventually seep into and inform your every moment. But also, you can do it whenever and wherever, and every time you remember, you’re being enlightened.

And that is the point. The idea isn’t to achieve some ultimate happiness, but to develop the skills to continually deal with and heal the psychic and physical pain that is an inevitable aspect of existence. “We do not practice mindful walking to eradicate our pain. We use the energy of mindfulness to be in better contact with our feelings and emotions and to learn how to accept them,” the book explains. “By practicing mindful breathing and walking, both your mind and body will naturally become lighter, calmer, and clearer.”

The authors suggest starting with a very simple exercise. Every night, when lying down in bed, try to take 10 conscious breaths. Simply breathe in and out and count. You may find it’s difficult at first to stay focused for even such a short period, in which case you start again. At every point when you notice that your thoughts are straying from your breath, you return to the count. Then, do it again when you wake up in the morning. That’s mindfulness meditation.

From there, you can begin to integrate your meditation into all aspects of daily life. You don’t have to sit for a long time or in a special place. You don’t have to sit at all. You can stand up or lie down or walk around or even jog, according to the authors. Awareness of your breath is sufficient to cultivate mindfulness; it’s a tool that roots you in the present.

We’re not aware of it, but our minds are racing all the time. By simply linking your breath to the steps you take, you become aware of the wholeness of the moment, according to Thich That Hanh. Mostly, we spend much of our time fearing for the future or musing about and regretting the past. But when we stop to pay attention to our breath and the steps we take, suddenly we can also see and hear what’s working right now, the unification of mind and body, the way we fit in to this big, busy world with singing birds and leafing trees and the drone of traffic and people in action.

In Walking Meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh reveals that he likes to meditate in airports, for example. He arrives early for flights just so he can walk around, slowly but not too strangely, paying attention to and breathing in the hustle and bustle. He suggests that we can all do this, whether walking from the parking lot to a shop, taking 10 steps to another desk across an office, or wandering through the woods.

Every time we remember to pay attention to our breath and our steps while going through daily life, he says, we create a temporal and physical space of tranquility. And with this trick, we’re healing ourselves and the world a little bit.