Walking meditation is a step toward calm
In March 2020, like so many lawyers, my husband (who is also a lawyer) and I began to work from home while balancing parenthood. Our daughter was 10 months old. We’ve been figuring out how to do two full-time jobs in half the time, constantly weighing whose Zoom meeting is more important and truly cannot involve a crying child. It’s exhausting learning how to do everything—conducting meetings, mediations, depositions, trials and kids’ birthday parties—remotely.
The hours and days blend together, punctuated by the never-ending news cycle. With the toll on the nervous system caused by all that is happening in the world, it is easy to fall into despair.
Grief. This is the word that feels most prominent as I reflect on the past 16 months. The grief from the loss of loved ones, colleagues and friends to COVID-19. The grief from not seeing people I care about. The grief for those missing from the holiday dinner table.
Having a strong mindfulness practice as a foundation has helped me get through these difficulties. This isn’t to suggest that mindfulness has somehow shielded me from experiencing grief or trauma. What it has allowed is a way for me to process it so that the grief isn’t the only experience my mind is paying attention to.
One meditation practice that I found to be particularly soothing and calming is walking meditation.
Walking meditation is targeting the parasympathetic nervous system
Before I explain how to do this practice, it’s useful to understand the science behind it.
Our autonomic nervous system controls involuntary functions that largely operate below consciousness. There are two important subsystems of the ANS: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. These are commonly referred to, respectively, as the “fight-or-flight” system and “rest-and-digest” system.
When we experience a stressful event, it triggers the fight-or-flight response. This response is very useful in acute stress, such as running to grab my daughter’s hand as she’s falling. However, the overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to long-term negative impacts on the body, such as heart disease and hypertension.
When the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, it inhibits the parasympathetic nervous system—meaning, your ANS cannot recover and return to homeostasis. It leads to a vicious cycle where stress negatively impacts your well-being, and because your sympathetic nervous system is constantly “on,” you are less able to recover from stress. This is especially true during long periods of ongoing stress with increased heart rate, elevated levels of stress hormones and blood pressure. You may notice a decline in your cognitive ability to respond skillfully. Your sleep, appetite and digestion may also be affected, which leaves you even less able to cope.
Walking meditation is a simple but powerful tool you can use to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. It combines the benefits of sitting meditation and physical exercise. The practice is simple and does not require any special equipment. Unlike going for a walk, there is no destination during walking meditation. You are practicing paying close attention to the body, intentionally slowing down and giving your nervous system a chance to rest and reset.
How to start your walking meditation
Walking meditation can be practiced just about anywhere, both indoors and outdoors. Find a space where you can take 10-15 steps. It’s helpful to find a relatively quiet place with minimal distractions and where you’re unlikely to be interrupted. However, don’t fall into the trap of looking for the perfect environment; inevitably, there will be interruptions. But you may notice that in time, your reaction to these distractions shifts, and you may feel less irritated or bothered.
Start the walking meditation practice by grounding yourself. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, lengthen through your spine and pay attention to how the weight of your body is distributed. Does it feel even on both feet? Are you able to notice the weight more on one foot?
Take a few slow breaths, in and out. Next, lift your right foot off the ground. As you are lifting your right foot, notice the weight of your body shifting to your left foot. As you move forward, you’ll naturally notice that the weight shifts to the right foot as you take a step. You may find it helpful to walk slower than your natural pace. Continue to walk, paying attention to the physical experience of walking. It is possible that as you do the walking meditation, you may occasionally lose your balance because you are walking more slowly than usual. Don’t be alarmed; this is very normal. Once you’ve taken 10-15 steps, pause for a moment and feel both feet on the ground. Remember, there’s no destination you are hurrying to get to. And when you feel ready, turn around and walk back in the same direction.
As you are practicing the walking meditation, it’s natural for the mind to drift away. You may notice that you’re worrying, planning, rehearsing a conversation, reliving an event from the past or simply lost in rumination. This is also very normal and not something to get upset about.
Despite popular belief that meditation should be free of distractions (both internal and external), in fact, we are practicing to be more skillful when the mind is engaging in familiar patterns of worrying or imagining the worst. You can observe how these thoughts trigger the fight-or-flight response.
For example, when you catch yourself thinking about an upsetting conversation with an opposing counsel, you might notice your shoulders tensing, your heart rate rising or feeling your face turn red. If that happens, you can gently remind yourself, “I am safe, and in this moment, I am just walking.” Allow the walking practice to become an anchor for the mind.
I suggest setting a timer for 5-10 minutes before you start the practice so there is a set end time. Set an easily achievable goal, such as 5 minutes per day for 31 days, to create a microhabit. It can be extremely difficult to carve out time for yourself, especially when the to-do list feels endless and you’re constantly multitasking.
Remember, though, that your ability to do these tasks skillfully and meet the challenges in each moment is dependent on your ability to stay calm, process all the information and make the best decision possible. However, this isn’t possible without the ability to calm the nervous system. So make your well-being a priority, and give yourself a few minutes to unplug and engage the parasympathetic nervous system every day.
This story was originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Need a Mental Rest and Reset? Walking meditation is a step toward calm.”
Jeena Cho consults with law firms on stress management and mindfulness. She co-wrote The Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with the JC Law Group in San Francisco.