Note: This essay is categorized under ‘One Way To’, my ongoing series of ways to accomplish things simply, in this case, to spend some time quieting your mind.
As a young boy I was fascinated with descriptions of how Native Americans could travel silently through the northeastern forests, their moccasins making no noise and their passage never announced by a snapping stick or rustling leaves. I was fortunate to join an unconventional Boy Scout troop whose entire focus was on camping year round rather than badges and achievements. As a result I grew up in the woods in spite of being a suburban boy. And one of the games I’d play with myself was attempting to emulate the silent walking of those nearly mythological Native American warriors.
Silent walking becomes a way of marvelously concentrating your attention, both mental and physical. The mind is emptied as your energy is focused on moving quietly through the environment. Your breathing must be settled and controlled- no huffing and puffing. Emotional outbursts are throttled (though a persistent deerfly can destroy any semblance of calm on my part!) and your range of movement is extended as you look for quiet places to step. Silent walking is meditation in motion.
The beauty of this practice is that you all need is access to a walkway and an hour or so of time. It is not seasonal and the practice of moving silently is so engaging that distractions are far less likely to grab your attention than with many other forms of meditation. This is because you are engaged both physically and mentally. You can do it with a partner or a group (it can be a magical feeling to pass through the woods in single file, each moving in silence) or solo.
The practice of silent walking requires us to break the rhythms we create unconsciously because rhythmic movements are not natural and stand out against the asymmetric motion of nature. There are rhythms in nature- the beat of wings and the wash of waves come to mind, but in the woods to be rhythmic is to be a target, to stand out. The hunter or warrior who travels through the woods cannot stand out, they must meld in. In his environmental sci-fi classic Dune, Frank Herbert sets a scene in the desert where his protagonist Paul and his mother must cross treacherous sands silently to evade a monstrous predator. Walking in a broken rhythm is critical for any steady beat will stand out in the randomness of the natural dune environment:
“We must walk without rhythm,” Paul said and he called up the memory of men walking the sand…both prescient memory and real memory.
“Watch how I do it,” he said, “This is how Fremen walk the sand.”
He stepped out onto the windward face of the dune, following the curve of it, moved with a dragging pace.
Jessica studied his progress for ten steps, followed, imitating him. She saw the sense of it: They must sound like the natural shifting of the sand…like the wind. But muscles protested this unnatural, broken pattern: Step…drag…drag…step…step…wait…drag…step…”
-Dune, Frank Herbert (Penguin)
Though we don’t typically face predators in our walking we can learn discipline, discipline that helps us filter our thoughts and increase our awareness of the world we move through. Meditation helps us experience the time we are in and silent walking helps us experience the place we are in at every step. Like any meditation there is technique, which provides us with a framework for silencing our subconscious chatter. The technique is movement and breathing coupled with the mental challenge of staying focused and making incremental decisions. These actions are complex, yet they don’t require time-related thinking so they occupy our subconscious and allow us to clear our minds. Time-related thinking is thinking about things that are yet to come, and thus not real, or things that have already taken place, and thus a part of history. By filling ourselves with a real-time task or puzzle like the practice of silent walking, we free ourselves of conscious thought tied to times other than now.
What is the technique? The physical technique is to respond to the environment and constantly adapt. In fall we walk softly around the dry leaves, on windy days we match our sounds to the natural rustle, in snow we avoid the squeaking of packed snow and splashing of slush. Our breathing is relaxed, we slow our pace if the effort forces us to breath harder and we develop a cadence that is a more improvisational and unpredictable rhythm. We don’t speak. If we need to communicate we do so silently, with a gesture. The entire physical technique becomes a dance in concert with the environment.
Mentally, we initially stay focused on being quiet. Eventually there is a fugue state where all comes together and we are in silent motion. At this point the place we are in is not separate from us at all. We move with it.
There is a technique associated with T’ai Chi known as y-chi (ee-chee). In y-chi you use your eyes to pull you towards a distant object by focusing on that object and feeling it pull you towards it. Your motion comes from your core, your torso is pulled and your legs and arms move naturally with it.
In his book Chi Running (Fireside/Simon and Schuster 2009), running teacher Danny Dreyer describes this technique:
“It is best to understand y-chi with the example of a cat hunting its prey. I’m sure you’ve seen a cat that has spotted a nearby bird. The cat fixes its gaze on the bird and seems to become frozen in place. Then, without breaking its gaze, the cat begins to slowly and quietly creep towards the the bird in a motion that can only be described as “a cat doing T’ai Chi.” Its limbs are soft and its feet seem to be touching the ground ever so softly so as not to make a sound. The one thing that doesn’t change is the visual contact the cat keeps with the bird. That’s y-chi. The visual focus of the cat is informing the cat’s body how to move. It’s not a thought process for the cat. The cat’s y-chi is what is “pulling” the cat toward the bird.”
[Chi Running page 44]
The cat is silent. In fact any cat moving outdoors is silent unless they are seeking our attention (food dish is empty!). Their ability to move silently is innate- as ours once was. We originated in grasslands and we became both hunter and prey. Silent motion is our natural state in nature. It was necessary for self-preservation. Only when we were in a protected area did we talk and make noise. Though millions of years have passed we can still recapture that ability. It is hardwired into our bodies and minds. However that recapture requires practice- and meditation is practice.
The ability to silence ourselves, both physically and mentally, brings many benefits. We relieve stress as those stressful thoughts diminish. Our ability to listen is greatly enhanced after our silent walking practice. We can retrieve that listening state and apply it whether we are in an important meeting, enjoying a concert or listening to a loved one. The physical action of walking is the most natural form of exercise we have. It is also the least competitive- we simply walk and enter the world. Silent walking takes us far back to our roots while helping us cut through the incredible noise of our society. For me it takes me back to a childhood in the woods, a place unchanged where my friends and I took to the idea of silent walking without discussion, as a game, a game that silenced 10 year-old boys for hours!
Any kind of meditation practice gives us the ability to transcend time. If my practice can take me a valued place long gone or simply bring me back to a state of mind long forgotten then it is a success. Silent walking is a simple meditation, a game we play with ourselves that silences our mind and focuses our bodies. Take a walk in the woods, along a beach or even on a busy urban sidewalk and focus on blending into the audio environment. You’ll hear that environment expand around you.