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There is a scene in the movie “Forrest Gump” that I conjure in my mind whenever I go for a walk.
No, it is not the one where we learn that “life is like a box of chocolates,” neither is it, “Run, Forrest, run!”
Though they are great scenes, I’m talking about the one where he finds himself abandoned by the love of his life, orphaned, and completely alone in his childhood home, with too many memories to make sense of his predicament.
He’s sitting on his porch, paralyzed, more ghost than man, wearing the running shoes Jenny had given him. When finally he snaps out of it, he puts on his red Bubba-Gump cap, gets up, and just like that, walks off.
“That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run.”
And that is a powerful scene for me. Not only because he is able to find it in himself to leave that place of stupor, but because afterward, when he reaches the end of the street, he thinks maybe he’ll run to the end of town. And when the end of town comes and goes, he decides to run across the state, and then another state, and when he has run to the other side of the country, he figures since he’s gone this far, he decides he might as well turn around and keep on going.
How many of us find ourselves in that place of numbness and forgetfulness of our purpose?
And for a long time, health experts around the world have agreed that exercise, even as simple as a stroll to the grocery store, can help with depression, anxiety, and stress. We’ve all heard it.
But of course that—putting on your red cap, getting up, and just walking off—isn’t so easy. It can take longer than the three-minute film roll Forrest Gump took to find his motivation to start. But it can be a worthwhile beginning, no matter how long it takes for you to take that first step.
When I started walking with purpose and a plan, even the shortest path I’d picked (down the road and back), gave me the strength to keep going and fight that daily numbness and anxiety. Like Forrest, I’d think to myself, “I’ve gone this far, so I might as well keep going.”
Take your own time to start, and find the right support system that works for you.
Anxiety can manifest differently from person to person. In my experience, it was complete numbness. The most suffocating aspect of it was not being able to sleep. It felt like the day would start all over again way too soon, so I wanted to prolong that period of the night when I didn’t have to talk to anyone or worry about anything. Then, my feelings of numbness would be easier to hide from those I interacted with on a day-to-day basis.
A quick look at my Kindle history showed I was reading about a book a night during the worst of it. That’s when doing the most straightforward task during the day became a monumental exercise in willpower. I was exhausted.
A dear friend finally saw right through my weight loss, my state of dishevelment, and in her own words, “that dullness in your eyes.” She recognized something wasn’t right and it’s what pushed me to find an alternative to deal with my anxiety, lest I had a breakdown.
Put on those running shoes, even if it’s just to sit on your porch.
There were countless days when I would put on comfortable clothes and shoes to go for a walk and, though poised to go out the door, I never did.
I believe now that this routine of getting dressed and getting ready helped me to walk out the door eventually.
I was already used to walking every day to go back and forth from work, but it was the kind of walking that involved my eyes being stuck to my phone, watching the latest YouTube meme. That type of walking wasn’t helping.
During one of those moments when I got ready for a walk but instead stayed on the couch, I received a link to a video of Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh (Thầy) about mindful walking.
I was intrigued and decided to try it.
“In walking meditation, every step brings you home to the here and now.” ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh
At the time, I had tried meditation in earnest to fend off anxiety. And although I could do it from time to time, it was impossible to sit down and practice it when I had already spent more than 12 hours of my day either sitting down in an office or sitting down on the couch at home.
When I discovered walking meditation through mindful walking, something clicked.
I found a plan, and I was about to put it into practice.
Mindful walking and mindful movement are about your breath and all the other senses you use to navigate your surroundings. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, not rushing, and matching my steps with my breath. With mindful walking, you have to notice each step, slowly. Once I got that part covered, I started to become aware of and pay attention to every part of my body that was walking me to the direction I had set out to go. It reminded me that I am still alive and in the present moment. As the Thầy puts it, “Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.”
Although walking meditation is not a fitness exercise, it is an exercise in bringing the mind and body together. That in itself helped me in my fight against anxiety.
I’ve come this far, so I might as well keep going.
When you start practicing mindful walking, you realize we are not separate from the earth. It gives us purpose.
Each time I went out for walking meditation and got better at it, I started to notice the world around me, the earth and the sky, the plants and animals, the air going into my lungs. I, unconsciously at first, started to apply it to my walk to work. And even though I wasn’t able to sustain it long enough or often enough, I craved more of it each time I did it.
That is how I started to look for further and farther destinations so that I could have more moments of mindful walking.
Suddenly, I was going on six-mile walks around the neighborhood. And when the neighborhood was not big enough, I joined charity long walks that took a whole day, offering many opportunities to meditate, with and without my friends. And when that wasn’t long enough, I looked for day-long hikes so I could spend even more time mindful walking in wonderful nature or wonderful culture.
It is a privilege to walk.
I still have moments when I fall back to old habits, when the numbness starts to creep in again. And it only takes me a few mental exercises to remind me what awaits for me outside.
However, after practicing mindful walking for almost five years now, and trying to do it all around the world, I realized that having the freedom to walk outside or even walk at all is a privilege.
As Thích Nhất Hạnh teaches, let the Buddha walk for us if we are not able to.
If, on the outside, you are caught up in a “prison,” on the inside, you still can be completely free. Mindful walking is the mindful movement that you are already doing in that moment.