Much has been written about the spiritual aspects of running – getting into a “zone”, overcoming physical challenges, somatically exploring places in our lives. I suggest that, in our 21st century haste, we may be running past another, more ancient spiritual practice called walking.
Walking is one of the most basic of human activities, like breathing air or drinking water. As people search for meaning in life or connection with the Transcendent, they discover that walking is one of the simplest and most rewarding of paths.
Buddhists have practiced meditative walking for centuries. Created for people who have difficulty adjusting to sitting meditation, walking becomes meditation in action. The walker is to be mindful of the experience of walking, aware of their actions and their surroundings. There are a number of different kinds of walking meditation in Buddhism, each with its own style and intent.
Some Buddhist walks have turned into pilgrimages, like the pilgrimage tour of the island of Shikoku. Created by the great Buddhist master Kobu-Daishi in the 9th century, it is a 750 mile trek around Shikoku, visiting 88 separate shines and temples. Taken over a 45 day period, it leads the walker through the virtues of awakening, austerity, discipline, enlightenment, and nirvana.
Walking figures prominently in the Christian faith, as well. Christ regularly walked the byways of Palestine, teaching his disciples along the way. In fact, early Christians called the teachings of Jesus “The Way”. One of the great passages of the New Testament which illustrates the life of the faith community is the Walk to Emmaus. In Luke 24: 13-45, the writer describes in 12 verses the nature of the Christian life as one of pilgrimage together, travelers on the road of life where they encounter Jesus among them, who teaches them along the way as he had taught his apostles: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (Verse 27, NRSV)
Christianity has several versions of its own pilgrimage of Shikoku. The best known is the Camino de Santiago in Europe. It has various routes throughout France, Portugal, and Spain, ranging from 800 km long to an “easy” 227 km, but all the paths lead to the city of Santiago de Compestolo and its cathedral, where the remains of the apostle St. James is reputed to be buried.
But, as formative as these pilgrimages are, they are but walking-writ-large, all based on the notion of walking as spiritual journey, walking as a way to disconnect from the thousand and one distractions of everyday life and walk to a place where we connect to the Infinite, even if it is on the sidewalk of our neighborhood.
Some people walk with the intent of simple mindfulness, to experience the act of putting one foot in front of the other and breathing, taking in and considering whatever comes to their attention.
Some people walk with a specific prayer in mind, like repeating the Jesus Prayer to the cadence of their own steps, or repeating a simple phrase like “God and I are becoming one.”
Thomas Merton described in his biography, The Seven Story Mountain, how the monks would walk back to the monastery from the fields praying the rosary in unison, beads swaying to their steps. The Trappists would not waste even a moment on the road, but use it as a means of prayer and unity.
I myself often walk with an Anglican rosary in hand, reciting the seven prayers of each section for specific intentions – my family, my faith, my community. I soon disappear into that “thin place” of daily life, where I and the God of Creation are in communion.
Of all the people who have written or spoken about walking, be it Ovid or Thoreau or Basho or Muir, one quote that continually comes to mind for me arises from a surprising source: it is Bilbo Baggins from Lord of the Rings, who says:
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
In its own way, that is a perfect description of walking as spiritual practice. Walking as a spiritual practice is precisely not to keep your feet; it is to allow the Spirit to take us where She leads and not where we wish to go. There is no telling where we might be swept off to, like Bilbo.
Bilbo went “There and Back Again”, as was the subtitle of The Hobbit, and he did not return as the same hobbit he was when he set out on his adventure. The journey will change us. T.S. Eliot put it well in his poem Four Quartets – Little Giddings V when he wrote,
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
We cannot be open to the mind of God if we stay safe on the path and keep our feet. We must take that single, dangerous step in order to lose our feet. Hopefully, we will come to know our beginning better at the end of our walk.
Look out your window. Out there is a sidewalk or lane, and it is a world whereby, with a single step, we can encounter God’s Own Self. All we need do is step out the door.