Combining Zen and Vipassana in walking meditation
“Buddhism originated in South Asia around the 5th century B.C.E. with Siddhartha Gautama, and over the next millennia it spread across Asia and the rest of the world. Buddhists believe that the human life is one of suffering, and that meditation, spiritual and physical labor, and good behavior are the ways to achieve enlightenment, or nirvana.”(Nat. Geo.)
Zen Buddhism, which is generally the practice of monastics in the East, came to the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from Japan. It became popular in the 1950s with the Beat Generation and is well established around the country, including Upaya and Mountain Cloud zen centers in New Mexico. Vipassana or Insight Meditation which has its roots in Theravada came to the US in the 1970s with the founders of the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts.
In this month’s column, we will compare Zen meditation with Vipassana, which is the style that I guide in the classes and workshops of my meditation studio, Mindful Frontiers. Both traditions are grounded in mindful awareness of the present moment. “The main emphasis in Vipassana is on using mindfulness in such a way that we develop insight, wisdom, and, ultimately, inner freedom. In Zen, the primary emphasis is on being present for the sake of being present — their perspective is that inner freedom is found right here, so we should just focus on the actual act [of what] we’re doing”. (pathofsincerity.com)
The fundamental difference between these two styles is the attitude that we bring to meditation practice. Using a daily routine such as driving, one may understand the difference. “The purpose of driving is to get from point A to point B. The purpose of driving is to drive.” (pathofsincerity.com). Both Zen and Vipassana agree that you need to have a sense of direction, but you also need to be present for the ride. Taking these concepts further, “Zen driving” would emphasize being present for the ride, which helps you increase your capacity to be in the moment, just driving the car. “Vipassana driving” emphasizes the practice of driving during which we acknowledge that there are many possible routes as well as being open to any potential complications along the way. We are still just focusing on the drive but we also realize there could be a traffic jam, a flat tire, and so forth. Vipassana driving would help us tap into the process of driving and be aware of what is actually happening; it’s like the process of driving from A to B while also enjoying the ride.
In the following meditation practice, we will use both styles to deepen our awareness of walking. This can be done on a long or short walk or even just walking around the house.
Zen and Vipassana Style Walking Meditation
- Gather up your family or group in an area that allows enough room for each person to have a clear path on which to walk. If you are walking indoors, it may be nice to remove shoes and walk either bare-footed or sock-footed. The basic practice is to walk without a goal or destination. Just walk forward until you need to turn around, or walk in a circle so you are walking without having to change directions.
- The beginning practice is to simply notice that we are walking (Zen style). Notice the foot coming off the ground behind you and then stepping in front. Each foot is doing the same motion, alternatively.
- Traditional Zen walking meditation asks us to synchronize the breath with the feet movements. We breathe in as the footsteps off the ground, and we breathe out as the foot settles in front of the body and the weight shifts to the other foot. The movement of the feet with the breath continues as slowly as is comfortable and for as long as possible.
- Vipassana walking meditation adds another dimension. As we synchronize the breath to the walking movement, we may also notice how the body feels, and what sounds are around us, and when the mind starts to analyze what we are doing, we bring our awareness back to walking and breathing.
- Taking the insight further, we can notice the feeling of the floor in contact with the feet, the texture, and the temperature of the flooring. Maybe we also notice the color of the flooring and whether it is carpet, wood, or tile.
- We can also bring awareness to the rest of the body. What are the arms doing? Can we relax our shoulders? Is my back straight? What if I closed my eyes while walking?
- In both styles, we also notice when the mind takes over. When we catch ourselves contemplating what’s for dinner, where we would rather be right now, we come back to the movement of the breath and the feet.
- Some people have told me that walking, hiking, and biking are their meditation practice. That is wonderful! For these activities to be truly meditative, we need to be aware of disconnecting the mind from the movement so that we are in the present moment, engaged in the act of just moving and breathing.
Originally published in The Taos News, March 14, 2023
Photo credit: Photo by Alberto Casetta on Unsplash