A Contemplative Walking Practice

Roadside Musings

A Contemplative Walking Practice

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“When I walk, I am most Jewish.” A contemplative walking practice is a catalyst for fresh thinking and fresh seeing.

If I had to abandon all my contemplative practices but one, the one I would save is walking.

Walking is my foundational practice. I walk and chant. I walk and repeat my mantra. I walk and pour my heart out to Chochma/Sophia, the Divine Mother. I walk and greet God in many forms: trees, plants, rocks, people, dogs, cats, squirrels, skunks, turtles, deer, and flowing streams. When I walk my body works with gravity and in harmony with the universe. And when I walk, I am most Jewish.

Two caveats here: First, not everyone can walk or walk safely. I am not saying walking is THE spiritual practice, only my spiritual practice. Second, for most Jews (and even for me most of the time) study of sacred texts (Torah, Talmud, Zohar, Tanya, Buber, Kafka, and Edmond Jabes are all holy to me) is at the heart of Jewish spirituality followed closely by prayer, though in my case prayer follows at a great distance.

When I walk, I am most Jewish.

If you are a Jew, Christian, Muslim, or Baha’i who sees Abraham as the founding father of your faith, walking is in your spiritual DNA. The first commandment given by God to Abraham was to walk: lech lecha (Genesis 12:1). The Hebrew carries a dual meaning. Not only is Abraham, and by extension all of us who claim Abraham and Sarah or Abraham and Hagar as our spiritual godparents, commanded to walk toward an unnamed land God will reveal to him, but he is to walk inward (the literal meaning of lech/walk lecha/toward yourself) to find an unnamable Place God-realization (HaMakom/The Place is another name for God in Hebrew).

[Read: “Mindful Walking.”]

God’s first command to Abraham and Sarah wasn’t to keep kosher, or make Shabbat, or even to pray; God commanded them to walk. And as Judaism expands over the centuries to include 613 commandments, we link them all in a catch-all term: halacha, the way we walk (halacha, like lech, comes from the verb halach which means walk). And, lest you imagine the Jewish link to walking is mere metaphor, the Musar School of Judaism promotes a literal walking practice where one paces back and forth reciting verses of holy text.

Of course, Judaism isn’t the only religion that recognizes walking as a spiritual practice. Both Christianity and Islam honor pilgrimage as a powerful spiritual technology. And Buddhism, especially Zen, makes kinhin/walking meditation the companion practice to zazen/sitting meditation. And Hinduism and Buddhism both make use of circumambulation: walking around a sacred shrine or object. I have practiced kinhin during Zen retreats, and I have walked around Buddhist and Hindu shrines in Japan and India, and I can attest that walking in all these forms is powerful and transformative.

My only suggestion regarding walking as a spiritual practice is to carry a pen, notebook, and a camera with you. A smartphone can do the work of all three. I suggest this because my experience shows me that walking is a catalyst for fresh thinking and fresh seeing.

I don’t want to mull over a new idea as I walk as this distracts me from the physicality of walking, so I jot down notes that I can revisit after my walk is concluded. And I don’t want to get mesmerized by something I see, so I take a photo of it so I can record it and move to see what’s next.

Given the centrality of walking in my life as a wisdom seeker, I was excited to have a conversation with Annabel Streets about her new book 52 Ways to Walk. Please listen to the Spirituality & Health Podcast on the player below or wherever you get your podcasts.

Want more on walking? Read: “Walking the Tree Labyrinth.”

Roadside Musings

In Roadside Musings, Rabbi Rami draws from the well of the world's religious and spiritual...
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