Walking Meditation: Druidic Being in the World
By Moine, Druid Companion, AODA
“Most people are on the world, not in it—have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them—undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.”
—John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (1979)
“I find that even an act as stimulating as walking through New York City can be a profound meditative experience. For as I walk down the street, if I stay quiet inside – either through mantra or watching my breath – I can see my consciousness being pulled this way and that by the things along the street. Each time my consciousness is pulled, it reflects some desire system. . . Each time I notice this, I let it be, let it stay or leave as it chooses. As I do, I remain in the meditative space. . . In this way I can walk through the city, staying quiet inside, despite the incredible panoply of stimuli that impinges upon my every sense.” –Ram Das, “Meditation in Action” (n.d.)
Thoreau begins his treatise on “Walking,” with a provocation: “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking” (2006, p. 1). For Thoreau, who purported to walk at least four hours each day, the artful practice of walking entailed something akin to what most of us would recognize as “being in the moment” or “mindfulness.” He writes:
In my afternoon walk, I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is—I am out of my senses. What business have I in the woods if I am thinking of something out of the woods? (p. 6)
Thoreau’s words, marked as they are by his era, yet ring with an interesting truth. I have been a long time at practicing the contemplative arts myself, walking, sitting, and noticing in various forms of meditation as my primary spiritual practice. But, as someone who has found deep solace in solitary moments of “sink time” in the forest, the simple act of being in the here and now during these walks can sometimes be difficult to achieve.
And yet, this first step—intentional presence, or what I call “Druidic being in the world”—is the threshold to much deeper meditative states that have allowed me and others to explore their personal and spiritual connections to nature in truly life altering ways. Meditative practices (exercises that encourage stillness and increased sensory awareness) are, indeed, one of the centers of AODA-based druidry, from practicing “breath work” to “discursive” (or “themed”) meditation as described and advocated by John Michael Greer, Dana O’Driscoll, and other leaders of the organization in many of their writings.[i] Movement meditations are but one example of the sorts of spiritual practices that allow initiates to focus and re-orient a Druid’s greatest tool: the mind. When engaged purposefully, with practice and intent, the simple act of walking can become an important element of the Druid’s energetic and spiritual practice. As Adam Robersmith wrote in “An Introduction to the Nine Hazels Quigong,” in the 2016 Trilithon, movement- and postured-based spiritual practices:
offer us a way other than ritual or spell craft to develop our energetic and magical awareness. By choosing movements and postures that relate to specific kinds of magic/energy work, we can practice these skills in a way that becomes natural in mind and body and has the added benefit of supporting bodily health. Not every Druid practices magic, of course, but all of us engage with calas, gwyar, and nwyfre simply as embodied beings. We are connected to the material and spiritual worlds—to heaven and earth—as a part of the flow of life. (33)
The Druidic walking meditation is similarly an exercise of experiencing presence in the natural world—at one with it, inspired by it, flowing with it, and grounded in it.
Druids are not the only people to sense the power of walking in the woods, of course; the benefits of meditative walking practice are well documented. Walking meditation and labyrinth walking have been shown to decrease the acuteness of a number of health risks and to provide a number of emotional health benefits (see Bigard, 2009; Sandor, 2005; Sandor & Froman, 2006 or Gainey, Himathongkam, Tanaka, & Suksom, 2016). Moreover, recent scientific evidence supports the Druidic belief in the restorative powers of the deep woods. The Japanese recognize the therapeutic potential of the deep forest with the word shinrin-yoku, literally “forest bathing” (Tsunetsugu, Park, & Miyazaki, 2010). When a person “bathes” in the forest, they give themselves up to the many-layered experience of the forest to be healed, nurtured, and refreshed. As cited in the New York Times, researchers at Stanford University recently found that a 90-minute walk in a quiet and leafy area improves mood and quiets areas of the brain related to stress and anxiety (Robbins, 2012). Herbalists and nontraditional healers remind us that the spiritual and natural properties of plants can have a dramatic impact upon our physical, energetic, and emotional states. Slowing down, mediating, finding a state of mindful being in forested settings have all been shown to have dramatic impacts on brain chemistry, emotional balance, and wellbeing (Ambrose-Oji, 2013). Aside from the possible health benefits, surrounding ourselves with the living wood and finding quietude as a means to more fully experience our surroundings offers the opportunity to ground, rest, and refresh our physical, emotional, and mental states—a means of opening to spiritual possibilities that our hurried minds may foreclose.
This essay synthesizes and reflects on a series of techniques from different traditions to help those who would engage more deeply in the art of meditative walking. Practiced frequently, with intent and focus, the process of developing Druidic being in the world through walking mediation complements and extends the other energetic and meditative workings of the Druidic path. (For additional resources about meditation practice, see the AODA’s web page on mediation techniques referenced above; this page hosts a substantial reading list and other strategies to establish a mediation practice.)
Opening Space for Druidic Being
There are many different methods for walking mediation. The practice often begins with becoming aware of the breath and the body (particularly where posture can be aligned and tensions immediately released). Some leaders in contemplative traditions encourage the practitioner to open all of their senses simultaneously (as a means of developing the sixth and spiritual sense). Others focus the walking meditator on a particular sense—the feeling of the breath entering and leaving the nostrils, the heartbeat/pulse in the wrist, or awareness of the sensations on the skin, for instance. Others echo overtly Buddhist traditions, with the goal of simply being present in the here and now, feeling each movement, treading lightly, moving with purpose. Some forms ask the walking meditator to focus on the mechanics of movement or to rhythmically repeat a simple phrase to set time, motion, and breath to sound. All encourage the Druid to explore their own way of being unique in the world, exploring the ways that awareness of self and world is fed by the senses.
Choose a method that speaks to you and try it out. If at any time you find your attention has wandered, simply guide it back to your chosen focus and/or chose a new technique if the first has not worked for you. It may take a bit of experimentation for those new to walking mediation to sink into a meditative state. The best advice anyone may give a new practitioner is to relax into the flow of the chosen movement and to simply let yourself sink into that sense of the now. The walking Druid will know that they are finding these sacred spaces and the unique benefits of a walking practice, when they have begun to literally feel time and space slow down and the chattering flow of thought that often fills our minds to quiet. As with any meditative practice, walking meditation asks for repeated practice in order to access it depths and truest gains.
The following approaches to walking mediation have been helpful to me over the past ten years of my own practice (a practice which preceded my turn to Druidry). A synthesis of a number of years of reading and personal experimentation, these example approaches are offered as starting points for further thought and conversation among those who value contemplative practices as one center of their Druidic path. (I have cited where I may.)
Mindful walking—This approach to walking mediation begins with paying attention (in your own chosen order) to the flow of the body moving in space and time you walk. Can you feel the weight of your body on the soles of your feet? How the earth rises to meet you as you place each foot? Can you feel your feet in your shoes? Is there a breeze in your hair? A lovely smell? The sunlight’s warmth on your face? Can you feel how you are moving in time—the way the wind ebbs and flows, the leaves shiver, and the clouds scud by above? Let yourself feel it all and relax into it—relax into movement, relax into the flow of outer sensations, be alive and present in/to the world around you.
Slow motion steps—Intentionally exacting, this approach has the meditator moving as slowly as possible, while remaining graceful and balanced. Think of a mime or a slow-motion movie: the meditator will slowly, slowly, slowly lift their foot and move it forward, place that foot with precise intent, letting the foot meet the earth in slight increments (top of toes, toes, ball of foot, arch, heal). Then, the walker will slowly shift the weight of the body forward, and pause. The goal here is to go as gradually as possible to cause the mind and body to focus on the simple act of moving through time and space alone. Over time, the meditator will become more aware of many sensations and experiences that can be overrun by the normal speed of life. Some practitioners recommend going barefoot for additional grounding and presence with this technique.
Attention to Rhythm—Some, like a contributor to James Nicol’s Contemplative Druidry (2014) named Katy, may find that the rhythm of walking is all they need to help propel them into a meditative state. “A steady walking pace provides a rhythmic focus, and the changing scene around—experienced by all senses or each in turn—is anchored by the steady walking pace” (90).
Circling, Spiraling, Walking the Pentagram, or Re-Tracing: Walk slowly in a circle of about 30 paces (or alternately in a straight line of about 20 to 30 paces). Stop as you begin the circle again (or pause when you need to turn around). Keep your eyes focused on the earth just before your feet. Focus on the sensations of placing your feet. Deep work can also be carried out by walking a pentagram shape and invoking the elements at each arm of the star. A similar effect can be achieved by slowly walking from point to point within a pentagram form, imagining the elements giving way to one another as you progress. Spiraling slowly in and out of a central area can also be used as a pattern for meditative walking.
General Noticing—What do you see as you walk? Do you know the names of the plants? Can you see the structure of that leaf as you move? Does the sunshine on the trees dapple the earth below? Where do you see darkness and contract? Where does the bark of a tree seem to breathe? This approach is about opening all of your senses so that you may find a focus on small details that you would otherwise miss. Unlike mindfulness, where the goal is flow with the senses, “noticing” is about recognizing what you see, so as to focus the senses and capture more of what you might otherwise miss. Focusing intensively on the details that surround you can bring a sense of awe, humility, and connection to your practice.
Focused Noticing—Julie, describing her practice in Contemplative Druidry (2014), notes that she often focuses specifically on a single small item she has found to begin her meditative practice:
I pick up some small natural object and use the four stages of lectio [a traditional monastic practice that entails reading, mediation, and prayer about scripture] with that. The first is to just simply be present with the object. The second stage is discursive thought; noticing and deliberately acknowledging the object and its features; whatever you notice about it. The third stage is prayer; how the object inspires you to consciously pray. And the fourth stage is moving into wordless contemplation. These stages can run into each other. . . The technique can be used with a landscape instead of a natural object. (87)
Focused Breathing—As many Druid authors have noted, breathing is one way to connect quickly to the power of nwyfre embodied. To tap into this current, begin by syncing your breath and your steps. Try, for instance, inhaling for three steps and exhaling for three steps. Listen to the sound of your breath as you walk. Feel every aspect of your breath—the coolness of your inhale, the rhythm, the rise and fall of it, as you walk. Where does your breath seem strained? When does it come easy and natural? How does the environment around you change your breath? Can you breathe to a count as you walk? How does this rhythm change your sensation of breath and being?
John Michael Greer describes a number of different breathing practices—the cleansing breathe, the rhythmic breathe, the silent breathe, and color breathing—in The Druidry Handbook (2006, pp. 213-219). Any of these can be adapted and used in tandem with walking to achieve different experiences of Druidic being in the world.
Energy Work—Here, the energy work you may choose to do is as boundless as your imagination and your focus. As you walk, imagine yourself carrying a white light between your upheld palms. Imagine your body as the light body or that you are surrounded by a shimmering golden shield. You can imagine the organs in your body humming and healthy. You can shroud yourself in healing light or image your blood flowing to heal a wound.
Counting—Some might enjoy repeating a particular count of steps. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine—pause—nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two one. Or, one, two, three, one, tow, three, four, one, two, three, four, five, etc. The purpose of counting is to get the mind to focus.
Chanting—Thich Nhat Hanh recommends a chant with an in breath and a different chant with an exhale. His suggestions: “(In) I have arrived. (Out) I am home” (Hanh & Anh-Huong, 2006, p. 8). These chants can easily be rewritten to focus on the elements or other Druidic principles, such as: “(In) I am air and earth. (Out) I am water and fire.” “(In) In all things. (Out) Peace. (In) In me, as in all things. (Out) Peace.”
Beyond the Veil/Bi-Furcated Consciousness—Imagine that you have crossed or are able to see through the veil and are walking in the land of the present and the realm of spirit simultaneously. What do you see? Who do you see? How do you see it? Do you hear anything? Would anyone like to speak to you? What lives just beyond our mundane sight and what is its message for you? Stay with this double vision as you walk. Let it feed you. In natural sites, you may be called to go on a journey, seeing a realm that otherwise unknown full of natural features, beings, and stories that will be told only to you. This is also a truly profound experience at a historical site when it can be mastered—allowing you to imagine and/or see the imprint of history, our ancestors, and spirit upon the here and now.
Receptive meditation—John Michael Greer notes that at some point, many meditators begin to need to “widen their focus instead of narrowing it” (2006 p.229). At this stage of a meditation, the Druid “let[s] the entire universe enter into your awareness. . . bring[ing] your attention back to the totality of the world round you” (p.229-230.)
Deepening Your Walking Practice
“I breathe in the soft, saturated exhalations of cedar trees and salmonberry bushes, fireweed and wood fern, marsh hawks and meadow voles, marten and harbor seal and blacktail deer. I breathe in the same particles of air that made songs in the throats of hermit thrushes and gave voices to humpback whales, the same particles of air that lifted the wings of bald eagles and buzzed in the flight of hummingbirds, the same particles of air that rushed over the sea in storms, whirled in high mountain snows, whistled across the poles, and whispered through lush equatorial gardens…air that has passed continually through life on earth. I breathe it in, pass it on, share it in equal measure with billions of other living things, endlessly, infinitely.”
—Richard Nelson, The Island Within (1989)
As Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, reminding ourselves that “we have arrived” (2015, p. 12) is key to the deep magic of walking. “When you walk, only walk,” he writes. “Don’t think. Don’t talk” (p. 37). Many of us know the profound depths that can be encountered in the simple practice of mindful walking, but the work, emotional undercurrents, and outside influences of our lives pose constant distractions and mufflers to our ability to rest in calm, centered being. So often we end up sleepwalking, or running, or daydreaming, or being anything other than present to the world around us, the world of our bodies, the multiverse of breathe and heartbeat that carries us through it all. Our inner landscape and our bodies inform each other—and so, it is crucial for many people to seek to align them.
It is not quite right to say that there is no right or wrong for this practice. More precisely, your goals and methods can be adapted to your spiritual path, needs, and personal insights/self-knowledge. Luckily for the seeker and initiate, many spiritual teachers have offered important teachings on different forms of mediation and mindfulness. These may be helpful to those new to walking meditations as they experiment with incorporating Druidic walking mediation into their path-work.
Some final thoughts about helpful strategies:
- It may be useful to set an intention for each walking practice to help engage the experience. An intention can be a blessing (“I bless all beings that share my path today”), a reminder (“Earth, Air, Water, Fire, Spirit—in me united”), and affirmation (“I love, I am loved, I love”).
- Focus on touching or “kissing” the earth with your feet in love, gratitude, and tenderness with each step. You might imagine your feet leaving an energetic imprint or shape (a pentagram, the Awen symbol, a triskelian form, or personal sigil) as you walk.
- If you notice that your focus has slipped from your original intent, gently guide it back to your intention, your mantra, your chosen focus on a sense or senses.
- Pema Chödrön reminds us to “notice the gaps” that naturally occur in our ongoing experiences—the “fleeting moments of no-big-deal me, no internal conversations, no frozen opinions” (2008, p. 13)). We can invite more and more of these gaps into our waking world by pausing to let the beauty of a moment or our intention to be in the world orient our awareness.
- As you begin (and at points throughout your practice), it is often helpful to pause with feet evenly planted, to breathe deeply or focus on your breathing, and to scan the full body. Notice where you feel tension, looseness, warmth, coldness. Breathe into and send any necessary energy to these places.
- You may also wish to being by grounding and centering in any manner of your choosing: visualizing yourself as the earth tree, bending to touch the earth with your palms, raising your arms into the magical posture of your choice, or by flowing through any number of chosen movements that open your body or release excess energy.
- You might also start with the Sphere of Protection exercise—feeling the energy of the elements all around you and the earth below your feet as you begin. (Let the powers you call up from the elements fill you, dissolving notions of where you end and the natural world begins.)
- Earthing, removing your shoes and placing your bare feet on the dirt or grass below you, is also a powerful way to ground. Many people practice walking mediation with bare feet.
- Where is your center of gravity? It may be helpful to focus on “being led” as you walk by your solar plexis or lower abdomen. Many people walk with their heads down or chins forward—to ground and re-align the body think about what your body is telling you it needs. A straighter spine? Released shoulders? Adjust your posture to stay in the moment and to increase your sense of being grounded.
- A walking meditation need not be consistently slow; proceed at any pace that feels mindful. The pace should allow you to be both fully present in your body and aware of your body in the natural world. In fact, some people may benefit from walking strenuously without trying to focus at all, at first. This approach allows people to burn of excess energy and for the body’s natural systems to begin to kick in—more oxygen, more blood flow, a little sweat, a few endorphins—all are conducive to a deeper meditative state for many people.
- Stop wherever you feel called to do so. Place your hands on the earth, on stones or trees, notice the details of a leaf, the soil, the moss, the ecosystem. Let the earth, the trees, the stones, the waters, speak back to you with their many mysteries and voices.
On a final note, I also recommend finding a supportive network of people who want to build a contemplative nature practice. The fellowship that comes from a common goal can lend an extra boost to (and people to share strategies and experiences with) a developing practice. In recent months, I have often lead people in silent walks through local woods as a central practice in our home circle/study group san Fàsach/In the Wilderness. I begin these walks with a short discussion of our ground rules—we agree to walk silently together, to allow one another privacy and solitary space, and to each seek spirit or connection on our own terms. I often set the tone for deeper space and sense of the sacred to open for us all by leading the group through a series of deep breaths, asking attendees to open of each of the senses in turn, and through other guided meditation practices. At times, I call a circle and the elements to protect, bless, and guide us.
It is often remarkable the depth of unique sacred space this simple gathering can yield. “The forest is different every time I come here,” one attendee said to me at the end of our last silent twilight walk. “I feel like I can explore it over and over.” Others are excited to share the things they have noticed, seen, and felt—quite deeply—as they have discovered mushrooms, pawpaw trees, and the surprisingly simple depths that come of standing beneath winter-bare trees. Others simply remain silent as we come back together and move toward our cars. But, something in them has exhaled, stilled, released. They smile with a quieted sense of peacefulness. Many have returned to these walks for exactly this opportunity to connect to the deeper world.
Recently, the scheduled evening for a silent walk saw a wind storm blowing itself out in our region. My worries that no one would come to our walk because of the weather were waylaid, however, as two others joined me—undaunted by the brewing storm. It was desolately cold as night fell and the winds quickly chapped my cheeks and ears as we found ourselves beginning our quiet time, with a shorter than usual circle and opening meditation. All during the walk, the winds roared and bent the trees around us. I occasionally slipped out of my meditative state to look above for widow makers and other possible dangers from the wind. Someone else might have had the good sense to be a little afraid. Instead, I opened myself to the wind and the forest as usual—and found the sweet still spot of calm inside my mind’s eye and body that echoes with and then becomes the still center of my energetic consciousness during my walks toward Druidic being. For moments here and there, I could feel the wind sweeping around me physically, but also energetically—I drew log breathes to welcome its energies into my deep tissues. Yes! Sweep through me. . . I called to it in my mind. May I have the freedom and boundlessness of the winds!
And, when the schedule time for our walk came to an end, even though the winds were still raging in the highest tree tops, making the trees gyrate wildly against the darkening sky, the three of us stood fast and watched for several more long moments in a continuing silence. It was as if we had fallen into the spell of the beauty of the woods—the power of the natural world that fuels our spiritual pursuits. As we watched the trees bend and flow and shimmy, I felt such rightness of time and place, such depth of being. It is a state I very rarely find in my home, at my alters or hearth. It is a sense readily available to me, however, when I take to walking in the wild wood.
The path of Druid walking, Druidic being in the world, is so simple—and available to all who would seek it—but also amazingly profound in that simplicity. May you, too, find its undeniable rewards.
Moine is a contemplative Druid, poet, and Scottish Gaelic learner currently living in the DC area. There is nothing she likes better than spending time in the woods. In her day job, she is an ethnographer, research writer, and writing teacher who teaches other writers to love every stage of the writing process. She occasionally publishes to her blog: “TreeofManyFeathers.wordpress.com.”
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Gainey, A., Himathongkam, T., Tanaka, H., & Suksom, D. (2016). Effects of Buddhist walking meditation on glycemic control and vascular function in patients with type 2 diabetes. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 26, 92–97.
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—–. (2004). “A Druid Meditation Primer.” Retrieved February 11, 2017, from http://aoda.org/Articles/A_Druid_Meditation_Primer.html
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Hanh, T. N., & Anh-Huong, N. (2006). Walking meditation. Sounds True.
Meditation in Action – Ram Dass. (n.d.). Retrieved December 24, 2016, from https://www.ramdass.org/meditation-action/
Muir, J., & Wolfe, L. M. (1979). John of the mountains: The unpublished journals of John Muir. Univ of Wisconsin Press.
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O’Driscoll, D. (2017). The Druid’s Garden: Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living. Retrieved February 11, 2017 from https://druidgarden.wordpress.com/.
Robbins, J. (2012, April 11). Why Trees Matter. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/12/opinion/why-trees-matter.html
Sandor, M. K. (2005). The labyrinth: A walking meditation for healing and self-care. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 1(6), 480–483.
Sandor, M. K., & Froman, R. D. (2006). Exploring the effects of walking the labyrinth. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 24(2), 103–110.
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[i] See, for instance, John Michael Greer’s essay on mediation (2004); Greer’s writing on meditation and breath work in The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth. Dana O’Driscoll’s work on the “inner landscape” posted on her blog The Druid’s Garden provide numerous discussions and examples of meditative practices, including walking, healing, and deep reflection on walking the earth gently: https://druidgarden.wordpress.com/tag/meditation/ .