I subscribe to a weekly newsletter from the Greater Good Science Center, Berkeley. It’s an informative and inspiring read which usually has some useful tips that I feel like trying. Last week, on a lark, I signed up for an experiment with the intriguing title of “Pathway to Happiness”.
Given my current effort to not increase the load on my slowly recovering-from-burnout body, I should not have done it. But the premise of the experiment was interesting. Once I signed up and filled out relevant information in the survey. I would receive a customized path to happiness – one practice to try each week and fill out a response form when done. At the end of a month, I would have tried four ways to enhance my wellbeing. Sounds easy, right? Not surprisingly, I signed up without a doubt. Until the first email arrived.
The difficulty of walking mindfully
My first assignment was to do a walking meditation. The instructions were simple.
- Set a timer for 10 mins
- Find a place where I could walk 10-15 paces without being distrubed or interrupted
- Walk slowly, literally putting one foot in front of the other
- Reach the end. Breathe. Turn around
- Repeat. Continue until the timer rings
On the first day, I decided to try it at home. After the work day was done, I stepped into the narrow balcony outside my bedroom which seemed to be of the right length and isolated at one end of the apartment. It was getting dark. A gentle breeze ruffled the curtains.I moved the plants to one end.
I positioned myself at one end and took a deep breath. Then I lifted my right foot. As I held it in the air deliberately, I wobbled on the other foot which seemed confused about why I wasn’t putting the other one down. Then it was time to pick the left one off the floor. The bones in my ankle creaked in protest. My right hip swayed dangerously and breathed a sigh of relief when both feet were on the ground.
Had I not learned the mechanics of walking in childhood? Even during the painful weeks in October when I had experienced excruciating agony while walking, I knew how to put one foot in front of the other. Now I felt like I had to relearn it. Walking mindfully at this slow pace was like saying the alphabets very slowly – you are surely going to stumble.
I kept my focus on the legs and hips and ankles and feet and toes (who knew so many parts were involved in walking) for each step. Once the body figured out that it was not an aberration but a deliberate action, it got the hang of it.
Balance was restored.
A new rhythm was established.
Building awareness by slowing down
The next day I decided to turn up the experiment a notch. In the past I had found walking barefoot on grass to be incredibly soothing. How about walking slowly on the lawn downstairs?
Now my body knew the drill. I took off my shoes beside a green patch of grass, set the timer on a nearby bench and began walking. My arms fell softly by my side and I looked ahead while holding one foot up in the air. Again I wobbled. The glades of grass felt rough and ticklish under my foot. The surface was uneven unlike my balcony. I quickly put both feet down and stood unsteadily for a few seconds allowing my soles to get familiar with the sensation of cool earth.
Soon I began to enjoy this slow pace. The breeze blew the heliconia flowers sideways in a gentle sway. Someone upstairs played the piano. Children squealed in the pool. The smells and sounds of dinner being cooked wafted around me. I saw an elderly lady walking in my direction. Although she was about 50 m away, I moved at a snail’s pace as instructed. As she passed me by with a quizzical expression in her eyes, I was thankful that we were both wearing masks and I did not have to explain my funny-looking slow walk to a stranger.
Just slowing the pace made me aware of my surroundings in a way that multiple rounds at higher speeds would not have allowed.
Of stones, sand and rock
By day four of the experiment, I looked forward to my little break and took it earlier in the day. Walking on the wooden floor of my bedroom felt very different from the carpet in the living room. Looking ahead at bright sunshine one day and outward to a wet view on another day led to completely different experiences. Even when not walking, I felt more alert. I noticed the completely camouflaged bright green parrots that perched on a tree below my window. Instead of looking at my phone, I silently observed their movements and chirping for a few minutes, feeling rejuvenated by that tiny pause.
Today I went to the nature reserve behind my home. Dark rain clouds had emptied their contents during the day. The grass was heavy with moisture. I decided to try my walking experiment on the acupressure stones laid out besides the sandy children’s playground. The stones felt cool and refreshing. I chose the flat ones, not the sharp ones that ran in a circle and made me cry out in pain every time I tried them. Later I stepped into the sand which was wet but not waterlogged.
The lake was calm, with just a few people stretching or taking photos. I stood on a rock and took a short video. I saw tiny turtles floating peacefully, unaware of the cameras turned on them. As I headed back home, I found a family of chickens by the roadside oblivious to walkers and joggers. The monkeys were conspicuously absent.
Every surface my feet touched seemed to awaken another level of observation within me.
By walking slowly, I may have moved a smaller distance, but I had gained leaps in terms of keen observation.
My week of walking meditation comes to an end tomorrow. I am looking forward to the next practice. Who knows what else I will learn about myself and the world around me?