“If you grasp the point, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains. For you must know that the true dharma appears of itself, so that from the start dullness and distraction are struck aside.” –Dogen
I have a fascination with walking. I don’t mean powerwalking or speedwalking like you see people doing dressed in too-tight colorful spandex every morning at 7 wondering why they aren’t getting in better shape. I mean walking – just wandering somewhere, one foot in front of the other, going nowhere in particular, for a long time. If I want exercise, I’ll run. But when I’m running I miss so many things – whether it’s because I’m going too fast (hah) or i’m overly engrossed in the pain in my knees or the loud music blaring in my ears. I try to look around, take in the sights, but truly, I can’t, because I have to keep most of my focus on how fast I’m going and on how ‘exercised’ I feel.
So when I want to really ‘see’ – what’s around me, or what’s going on inside my head – I walk. Any walk is good but some are better than others. If I only have time for a short walk around the block or through the fairgrounds near my house then that’s fine, I’ll take it. I might stroll around aimlessly trying to find killdeer pretending to be hurt to lure me away from their chicks or old abandoned cellar holes from bygone times. Or I’ll walk with a purpose – not of getting anywhere, but of drilling into my brain and examining what I find. When I am feeling stress or exhaustion – or happiness – a walk is the perfect way to delve into my emotions and feelings. Walking by myself, even through crowded areas, allows me to exist in my environment without any unwanted distractions and I dissolve down to my core, my innermost self. Only when I’m walking can I examine my surroundings and my self with total attention.
If I have the time, though, I will go on a long walk. These become an all-day adventure, and once or twice have spanned multiple days. For such undertakings, the mentality is not nearly as initially spiritual – I must have a goal or a location to reach, something to drive me forward as my legs and my willpower begin to falter. Earlier this summer, I hiked two separate times a nearly 60-mile ‘ultrasomethingorother’ in under twenty-four hours. I still can’t say what compelled me to do this but I can say with certainty that both times I had among the best and worst experiences of my life. Never have I felt as drained, as purely exhausted, as I did at the end of both hikes – I was worn down to the bone (mentally, at least – thank goodness, not physically) and my mind was empty of thought. As this feeling arose, it felt terrible – the pain of my swollen feet, the insatiable hunger pangs, sleep deprivation – but the wave reached its crest and, at a specific point, I felt the beginnings of a calming slide back to calm waters. Pain washed away, replaced by nary a realization of its presence, and I became nothing but a mist – thoughtless, devoid of feeling, simply flitting from place to place without any worldly connections.
During my time in Japan, I meditated every morning, and sometimes in the afternoon and at night, and never fully reached this point. Occasionally I felt like I was close, but a runny nose or a devious thought would jolt me back to the pain in my knees and back or the humid heat of the zen-dō. I also took the Shikoku Henro, an 88-temple, 1,200 km (746 miles) meander around the southern Japanese island of Shikoku (I didn’t do the entire thing due to time constraints, but I got a bit more than halfway). This pilgrimage is done mostly by old retirees, and because all the temples can be reached by bus, car, and sometimes gondola (!) it can be done in the span of a week. I was among a select few walkers, and an even smaller select few of foreign walkers, so I was a bit of a surprise for the Japanese people I happened across (essentially everyone, because I was in Japan). All pilgrims must wear very specific garb: a white shirt with a waistline tie to hold it shut, white pants, straw sandals (these are not often used in the modern era), a sugegasa (awesome pointy straw hat), and an assortment of religious trinkets. These clothes are not built for fast walking or high heat – both things I dealt with. Because of my time restraints, I had to move rather quickly, anywhere between 40 and 50 km each day. My feet quickly fell to pieces and by the end of the pilgrimage my special clothes were a mess and I was developing tonsillitis (I blame it on malnutrition – eating rice and clementines nearly exclusively will do that). But even at this point I still hadn’t reached the state of no-mind that eluded me during meditation. Something about the walks I did this summer bumped me into the nonthinking I was searching for. I think the key is not-searching – coming to a state of zazen without consciously looking for it at all. Once one has done this, returning becomes more and more simple.
Walking – such a dull activity on the surface – holds more than anyone could know. Discovery of one’s surroundings, an understanding of one’s deepest thoughts and feelings, and, at its most powerful, a doorway to true awakening. I encourage every person to walk more – really walk – and see where you end up.