extracts from Buddhist Meditation
Just Sitting and Walking meditation supplement the two basic meditations, so in terms of daily practice they are secondary. Yet mindfulness is even more fundamental, even more essential to both concentration and love. So practice mindfulness all the time, and do some mindfulness of breathing or metta bhavana daily.
[A mindfulness course for experienced students is available here]
Just sitting means exactly that: the practice just entails sitting there. There is no cultivation of anything. However you don’t sit passively like a sack of potatoes. There is a method, which is to maintain attention in the present moment as constantly as possible, fully facing every aspect of experience as it arises, and opening to it. Have a strong commitment to being open, trusting that in each moment there is more to feel and perceive than you currently realise. Each time you sense that you’ve lost that openness, stop and return attention to your present experience – especially to the body, since its sensations are tangible and definite. This stopping and starting again is in the spirit of Just Sitting; however apart from the continual adjustment to maintain basic openness, the practice should be fluid and relaxed with no other effort to make things happen.
This attitude is embodied in the posture, too: the eyes are open. The gaze is soft, relaxed and still, settled upon the floor a few feet away. This expresses a naturalness and receptivity to the activity of the senses. In the same way, in the seated posture you should have the arms open and the hands resting on the knees, rather than palms held together in the lap as is more usual. In terms of body language, this indicates confidence and an open heart.
It is a good idea to set a time for the session: anything from 15 to 30 minutes is fine as a start. That may seem short, but Just Sitting can be quite an intense practice and shorter sessions are easiest to sustain at first. Later, sessions can be as long as one wishes.
You just sit there, naturally aware and receptive, not trying to do anything special, and not trying to suppress anything, allowing thoughts, feelings and emotions to come and go freely as they like. Take the attitude that you are ready to welcome anything that may arise in your experience with an equally open, detached mindfulness, and to let it change and pass on unobstructedly.
Open eyes are a way to participate very actively: closed eyes are normally associated either with sleepy, dreamy states, or with deliberate concentration and withdrawal from the senses. It may be necessary to remind yourself that you are not meditating in the usual way, by withdrawing the attention from sensory input. That method is helpful for concentrating attention, but Just Sitting is not a meditation practice in this sense: it is a direct application of mindfulness. Since you are not trying to avoid or change experience, but to look directly and non-analytically into its nature, the mood is one of openness to experience and not withdrawal. Everything is viewed as interesting and significant – including the experiences you dread, or find painful or tedious. So in the end you can’t insist too much on Just Sitting being purely a receptive process, even if that is its defining quality. Being open can become something very active – you are confidently opening into a positive sense of reality.
Sooner or later, Just Sitting becomes a doorway to insight. As the mind settles into the mood of this practice it becomes possible to observe in a very direct way the impermanence of each perception and each momentary transformation of ‘you,’ the perceiver. Seeing the impermanence of both starts dissolving the distinction conventionally made between the subject and the object of experience. Generally, by relaxing into an experience of things prior to the labelling process, you start seeing their real nature. In this way Just Sitting can combine a very simple, direct mindfulness with the long-term aim of perceiving reality in accordance with the teaching of Perfect Wisdom, the Prajnaparamita.
As well as being a practice in its own right, Just Sitting works well as a preparation for meditation. Just sitting quietly for five, ten or more minutes, tuning in and becoming more relaxed and sensitive helps to disengage from the mood of previous activity, and to take proper stock of the present mental state. A short period of Just Sitting can also be a good way to end a meditation and absorb its impact. Simply sit on, without trying to concentrate any more, just remaining mindful of the body and the feeling tone of the meditation that has just ended. This allows its effects to be properly incorporated, a gentler disengagement from meditation and a smoother transition to ordinary activities.
When the sitting practice you are doing comes to an end, whether it’s Just Sitting, Metta Bhavana, or Mindfulness of breathing, it’s a good idea to get up from the cushion and take that experience out for a walk. Generally, it is important that you find ways to take the awareness of body, feeling, mood and attention that are generated in meditation into the main, active part of your life. Walking meditation is a way to experiment with that transition as well as being an effective practice in its own right.
The Buddha spent the greater part of his life in the open air, and mindful walking was a significant aspect of his personal practice. Though it can also be done indoors, walking meditation is a very useful complement to sitting practice, and an important method in its own right. It is an excellent support for all other practices (not just Just Sitting), especially useful for breaks between sessions of meditation or at times when you can’t do sitting meditation. Because it supports reflection very well it is also a way to clarify your ideas and find perspective on the spiritual path.
The recommended way of practising is to find a straight path on a flat piece of ground (ideally outdoors, but of course this works indoors as well) and walk mindfully up and down. The attention is absorbed in a general practice of mindfulness, in a way rather similar to the Just Sitting meditation. That is, your attention should rest in the body and its movements, while facing into the present experience and acknowledging whatever feeling, emotion, thought or other perception comes up – as you walk. The pace you choose must allow you to maintain mindfulness. Because walking will dissipate the attention, to some extent it helps to retain some awareness of the breathing: not focusing exclusively on the breath, but noticing its touch as a continuous, relatively stable aspect of the overall experience. I find it helpful to absorb myself in the relation between the breathing and the walking by noticing the way the breaths rise and fall within each step. I normally find there are three breaths between each, which can extend to four as the body-mind starts stilling and relaxing. Those numbers aren’t important at all, and my lung capacity is less than average, but I find this a good way to rest attention more thoroughly in the experience.
I favour the up-and-down method because the periodic pause and turn at the end of the walking path creates a natural moment for refocusing and re-collecting oneself. However, you can also walk in a continuous circle, as is often done in group meditation sessions, or in any other walking pattern you find suitable (the up-and-down route can be adapted to a curved path, for example).
Because it is body-based, walking up and down is a good way of relaxing and clarifying your thoughts. Any excess of energy in the head is brought down into the body. This can function as a way of absorbing any experience, such as some reading or a session of meditation; or it can be preparation for meditation or some other activity. It is ideal at times when sitting meditation would be difficult, for example if you are tired or emotionally unsettled. You should not expect walking meditation to support a very focused concentration, though more focus will come with practice. The quality of concentration tends to be more generalised due to the body’s constant movement and the need to stay aware of the environment. Concentration also requires a certain amount of time to build up: you may need to allow even fifteen or twenty minutes for concentration to be established in any kind of continuity. Some people will find this initial period too boring or distracted for their patience, but perseverance pays off; with continued body awareness, a concentrated mindfulness will emerge over time along with the inspiration normally associated with meditation.
The walking speed should be chosen to match the current state of mind. If you are dull you can walk more briskly, or move slowly if restless. On the whole the pace should be fairly slow and measured, though it usually works to walk a little faster at first and gradually slow the pace as the mind harmonises with the body and becomes concentrated. The effect as more vivid mindfulness arises is to expand the experience of walking so that you perceive far more of the detail of tiny body movements like the foot lifting. In these circumstances it may feel natural to slow right down to a pace whose movements might be hardly perceptible to an observer. But the right pace is the one that to you feels most comfortable as you deepen into mindfulness. Walking very slowly and deliberately can induce a deeper concentration in itself, though that won't come completely automatically; if you try to force it, the concentration will be narrow and unfeeling. The key is to maintain a breadth of mindfulness. Movement can be as slow as you like so long as you are physically relaxed and able to walk, if at snail's pace, in a free, natural manner. If you feel tense, it may help to walk faster for a while and let the tension dispel itself. (There is no virtue in slow walking in itself, apart from as a means to cultivating awareness.)
Walking meditation is also a good use of time when you feel like meditating but don’t have a quiet room immediately available. At work, for example, if you have some time spare during a lunch break, try using it for walking up and down a quiet street or a park. The best practice to choose would probably be a general run through the four fields of mindfulness; or if you are agitated, with a lot on your mind, perhaps include a gentle Metta Bhavana or simply 'just walk' up and down. Once it has become fairly familiar, you’ll find walking meditation is a very useful method to have available. It is excellent when you don’t feel like meditating but know you need to, for example when very agitated or very restless. It can also break up and invigorate dull mental states. Walking meditation generally has a smoothing, integrating effect on whatever you bring to it.
In conclusion, the open enquiry that is mindfulness – whether it is applied to walking meditation, Just Sitting or in the general training in mindfulness – is central, in each situation, to cultivating the overall path of your development.