Walk as if you are kissing
the earth with your feet.
—THICH NHAT HANH
Peace Is Every Step
I WAS LOOKING FORWARD to sitting with my meditation group the Sunday after we returned from Hot Creek. We met at Gordon Smith’s house in Mount Washington, an area just north of downtown Los Angeles. Gordon shared his love for Buddhism and meditation by inviting us into his home on Tuesday nights and Sunday afternoons.
His home was simple and sparsely furnished in a 1970s style, with olive-colored couches and a deep red Oriental rug on wood flooring. Authentic Japanese scrolls hung on the dark wood walls, and a large library of Buddhist writings and Japanese art books took up one side of the living room. Large bay windows overlooked a big wooden deck. It was a perfect place for a meditation retreat. Additionally, it was graced by the presence of Gordon’s cat, who occasionally would do one of us the great honor of sitting on our lap during meditation.
The house was built on the side of a hill and looked out on a small forest of pine and eucalyptus trees. I would often sit outside on the deck to meditate so I could enjoy the smell of the pines and the breeze gently caressing my face. Our first of three sittings was always short, just twenty minutes, and I was so happy to be back with the group that it was easy for me to let go of my thoughts. My sitting reflected my peaceful, happy state of mind. The bell rang to signify the end of the sitting, and we all went inside for discussion. My life is really blessed, I thought, as I listened to the others describe their meditation experiences to Jason.
It was getting a little cold outside, so we took our wraps out with us for the second sitting. I settled into the chair I liked to use when no one else claimed it first, and felt very pleased that I got it this time. After wrapping my shawl around me, I closed my eyes, relaxed my spine, and looked forward to a deep and profound meditation.
And then I began to squirm. And fidget. I could not keep still. My thoughts were all over the place. The noise of the leaves being swept across the deck by the wind was deafening. The traffic sounds from beyond the trees were like Times Square at rush hour. I felt like ants were crawling on me. My sitting became the longest sitting recorded in the history of mankind.
Finally, the bell rang.
Exhausted and despondent, I went to the kitchen to get a cup of tea. I told Jacquelin how disappointed I was. She smiled and said that when we come to the practice of meditation depressed and in pain, we are often more receptive to sitting because it is easier to be still when we are tired and depressed. Now that I was feeling better, she said, it would be more of a struggle. Learning to sit in the active Western world, with an active Western mind, was not a particularly easy path.
Poohbear was awake when I came home, and I shared my frustration with him. “Gee, Pooh, you’d think getting out of depression would be a good thing. Now here I am not doing well in my meditation group because I can feel again.”
“I am not surprised that you are having some trouble,” he said. “You should be aware by now that you often have expectations about your sittings. This sitting will be hard, you think. This sitting will be peaceful. This sitting will be—whatever it is you create in your mind.”
I went over to sit down beside him on the couch. It felt good to be on my comfortable sofa instead of the hard couches at Gordon’s house. “I suppose I do have expectations about my sittings, Pooh, but this was different. I began the sitting with a feeling of well-being, and then I just couldn’t sit still. I don’t think my mind was causing it. My body wanted action.” I told him what Jacquelin said about how it was often difficult sitting in the busyness of the Western world.
“Yes, this makes sense to me,” Pooh said with a Buddhalike nod. “I do not have the opportunity to get out much, but I often watch your friends and neighbors down by the pool in the courtyard from our roof garden. They are so agitated, and they talk all the time. I can see how it would be difficult for them to sit and meditate for more than a few seconds, much less minutes. I suspect that since you have more energy now, you are becoming a little more like them. If this is the case, of course you will find it harder to sit. Your body and mind want action.”
I moved some of the pillows aside to get more comfortable—now that I wasn’t “sitting” I was quite focused on my physical comfort. “I don’t expect this path to be easy, Pooh. But every time I make progress I’m beset with new problems—often, it seems, caused by the very progress I am making. I started to feel better, and then all hell broke loose as thoughts and feelings I’d been suppressing came flooding in. Now I’m beginning to have more energy and even a little joy in my life—and my ability to sit seems to have vanished.”
Pooh smiled a knowing smile. “All of this is to be expected, Kat. Instead of being disappointed by what you call setbacks, look for the deeper meaning. With each setback, it means you are ready to develop the skill and capacity to take the next step. If you look at these passages as opportunities to take your practice to a new level, you will find a way to move through them. You must be open to new solutions.”
Then, having given me the benefit of his wisdom, Pooh tucked his head under his paw to block the light from his eyes and promptly went to sleep, leaving me to reflect on what he had said.
I realized he was right. When I looked back over my progress as a meditator, I could see how each setback led to my next lesson, and then on to further progress. I decided I would try to keep an open mind.
Later that day, Michael and I drove to West Los Angeles to visit his family. On the way back we stopped at a health food store, and I noticed a flyer on the bulletin board for a one-day walking meditation seminar. It was to be held that weekend at a retreat center in the hills above Malibu. I thought about what Pooh had said about keeping an open mind and decided this might be one of the new solutions he had spoken about.
Early Saturday I made the drive to Malibu. It really did feel good to be getting out in the world again. I looked forward to learning another aspect of meditation and appreciated the opportunity to get out of downtown and back into nature.
The setting was incredibly beautiful. The center was an old wooden lodge that had been restored and turned into a retreat house. The meditation room had several large windows that brought the beauty of the forest inside. There were many species of tall trees: eucalyptus, pines, oaks, sycamores, and some I couldn’t name. A winding gravel path led to the edge of the mountain and overlooked the Pacific Ocean. I was up so high I imagined that I could almost see the curve of the ocean at the horizon.
There were smaller paths leading to several different gardens, some filled with herbs and others with succulent plants, all with benches and arbors inviting one to rest and reflect.
Our instructions were simple. We were to walk the paths and be aware each time we lifted and placed each foot. If our thoughts wandered, we were to return to the lifting and placing, or to our breathing. We would do this for a set amount of time and then come back to listen to the teacher talk about meditation and discuss our experiences. Then we’d have time to practice walking again and apply what we had learned from the discussion.
I liked having the ability to move while meditating because then I wasn’t distracted by any restlessness my body might feel. I was able to pay more attention to watching my thoughts and letting them go. A light breeze cooled the air, and following the gravel paths, I didn’t have to think about where I was going. Every now and then I would intersect with another path and see some of my fellow meditators walking as precisely as I was. How comforting it was to be walking the paths with them!
At the end of the day I drove home with renewed confidence and enthusiasm for my meditation practice.
The next morning, I decided to try doing a walking meditation in our loft. Though it was separated into dining, living, and sleeping areas, the loft was so large it still had long open spaces. There was plenty of room to walk without running into anything. I stood, took a few deep breaths to center myself, and began walking, concentrating on lifting and placing my feet just as we had done in Malibu.
All was well and good except for the fact that Catzenbear had not been in Malibu.
He found my new behavior quite interesting. First he followed me. Then he ran ahead of me. And then he pounced. Every time I took a step, he’d jump on my foot. I could clearly see this was not going to work in the peaceful meditative way it had in Malibu. Since locking Catzenbear in the bathroom didn’t seem a Buddha-like solution, I decided to go out to the roof garden to practice.
Again I centered and concentrated on lifting and placing my feet. This worked for one walk around the garden, and then it stopped as, surprise, surprise, I became lost in my thoughts. Worries about money. What kind of work could I do to help out financially? Should I work in a bookstore? That probably wouldn’t be a good idea because I was still so affected by chemicals and other substances. I had recently spent an hour in a bookstore and found the newly printed material gave me a terrific headache.
Then I realized how lost in thought I was—like when you’re driving and suddenly realize you have driven miles without knowing it. Okay. Stop. Center. Start again.
Now I began having trouble keeping my breathing in sync with the lifting and placing. Breathe in for three steps, out for three steps. Come on, Kat, you can do it, I thought as I struggled on. Between figuring out how many lift-and-places I had done so I could breathe, and bringing my mind back from whatever distant financial land it was in, I was not having what one might call a peak meditation experience. I decided to call it quits for the day.
Pooh was sleeping on the long beige couch in the living room, so I sat down with a thump, hoping to wake him. I sighed loudly, expecting him to ask me how my practice had gone. He said nothing. I sighed again. Still nothing. I went over to the kitchen and got out the container of cat food, shaking it a little as I poured a small amount into his dish. That did it. He bounded over.
I sipped a drink of water waiting for him to finish, and then we went back to the couch. I explained to him what had happened. “It was so difficult to keep everything in sync while I was practicing the walking meditation, Pooh. I kept losing my place.”
Just then Catzenbear hopped up onto the glass-covered dining room table and walked across it. Pooh and I watched, and Pooh asked me what I saw.
“Well,” I said, “Catzenbear is walking. It is a pleasure to watch him move.”
“There is more to it than that. You see, cats do not get lost in thought. Catzenbear is an empty vessel. Look, he is walking back the other way now. Just watch what he is doing.”
“He is walking on his toes,” I said, “and he seems to be placing each paw with intention.” I watched his paws and laughed. “He is doing paw-paw-paw-paw. He’s aware of the placement of his paws without making it look like work.”
“Right. Now go out and do what he is doing. Empty your mind and imitate him.”
So I went back out to the roof. Smiling, I closed my eyes and imagined Catzenbear walking. I opened my eyes, took a deep breath, and began.
This time I placed my feet as though they were paws instead of leading with my heels. I tried saying lift and place each time I lifted and placed my foot, the way I had learned at the seminar. That was too confusing, so I decided to just say paw each time I put my foot down.
So there I was in my roof garden, walking and saying pawpaw-paw-paw. I breathed in with two paws and out with two paws. After one round, I started breathing more deeply: in with four paws and out with four paws.
I settled into the rhythm of it. And then I started thinking about the bookstore and how I would have enjoyed working there. How hard it was going to be for me to get back out into the world now that I was so affected by perfumes and chemicals. Whoops. Paw-paw-paw-paw.
Maybe I could find a writing project or some sort of part-time consulting work. But I no longer had the business contacts to make that happen, and besides, I wasn’t sure I could concentrate well enough to take something like that on. Paw-paw-paw-paw. Another ripple about money. Paw-paw-paw-paw. Anxiety about how I would know when I was really well enough to get back out there without suffering a relapse. Paw-paw-paw-paw.
Settle down. Follow my breath and my paws. Just walk. Pawpaw-paw-paw.
When I stopped, I was delighted that I had been able to become aware of my thoughts—to feel emotions coming up, catch them, and let them go. I found Poohbear and told him how well my practice had gone. Then I went to find Catz and gave him a big hug to thank him for helping so much. We went over to the couch to join Pooh, who pointed out it was not really Catzenbear who helped me—Catz was just being himself.
“Of course, Pooh,” I said quickly. “And you were wise enough to teach me how to do this walking meditation by having me watch what Catzenbear did.”
Later that day, Michael and I were out in the garden, tying up the tomatoes. The roof garden was built on wooden planks and was surrounded by long planter boxes, each filled with different crops: raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries in the berry section; asparagus, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, and green onions in the vegetable section; and a wide variety of herbs in a third section. The area along the parapet at the edge of the roof was covered with netting to protect Michael’s collection of orchids, and there were several boxes along the back of the garden filled with flowers that I cultivated to pick for inside the house.
We had left the door open so Catzenbear and Pooh could join us. I told Michael about how helpful it had been for me to watch the way Catzenbear walked. He laughed when I told him about paw-paw-paw-paw.
Just then I turned around and saw Catzenbear jump up to walk along the two-foot-wide parapet. He really is quite focused when he moves.
At that moment a butterfly went by, and Catzenbear instinctively leaped for it, landing nimbly back in place but getting way too close to the fifty-foot drop for my comfort.
My heart thumping, I scooped him up and said to Michael that perhaps Catz was not quite ready to be out in the garden.
I sat down next to Poohbear with Catz on my lap. Out of Michael’s earshot, Pooh said, “This is a perfect example of what I have been telling you, Kat, about the difference between attention and wisdom. At this stage in his development, Catzenbear focuses only on the butterfly. He must develop wisdom to know how to broaden his awareness to include his surroundings. This will come with experience and training.”
“I can see how this applies to Catzenbear, but how does it apply to my meditation practice, Pooh?”
“Excellent question, Kat. You are at the same stage in your practice that Catzenbear is with the butterfly. As you learn to reach deeper levels of concentration, you will experience euphoric states that will be very appealing. Instead of leaping for them, you must understand they are only a small part of a much larger picture. This is why I am here, to help you understand the larger picture.”
And then Pooh strolled over to sit on the parapet and enjoy the sunset, while I took Catzenbear back inside.
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