“How can you explain that you need to know that the trees are still there, and the hills and the sky? Anyone knows they are. How can you say it is time your pulse responded to another rhythm, the rhythm of the day and the season instead of the hour and the minute? No, you cannot explain. So you walk“. ~Author unknown, from New York Times editorial, “The Walk,” 25 October 1967
I’ve recently spent 4 days walking back and forth on a straight line, 25 or so steps at a time before turning around, 4 hours non-stop. You might be asking “why would anyone do such a thing?” Huumm, to change one’s life maybe? It doesn’t sound very convincing, I know but bear with me and you will get it.
What I wrote above are the premises for Inner Walk, a beautiful initiative created by Prah Orlan, a Buddhist monk living on Koh Phangan. Each Monday, he and a couple of facilitators welcome a new group of walkers who spend the week walking next to each other and learning a new way to handle the relentless waves of thoughts that usually overwhelm the human mind. There is a short lecture at noon before we start walking and a sharing circle at the end of the day. Their website explains the goal and the dynamics of the process beautifully, so I will not get into details here, but I had such a transformative experience that I felt I had to put it all in writing (although as they tell us and as in the quote above, words cannot really express the depth of the process, to really understand it you need to walk the walk).
Every day brought a different insight, each building on the previous one, until the last day when everything came together beautifully, at least for me. At the end of each session, the group would share their experiences and it was so interesting to hear the stories, all so different but at the same time, so similar. Here’s what I managed to put into writing:
Day 1: the girl with the bell
First day, there was a sense of expectation in the air. We are a big group, so big that we do not fit comfortably into the purpose-built platform, so a few us went to the temple (where the walk was originally happening) to have more space. As soon as started to walk, I noticed that the girl right next to me was wearing an anklet with a bell that made noise at every step she took. It brought me a lot of distress right at the beginning, and I was already suffering in anticipation, thinking how I would endure that noise for the next four hours. The noise would come and go in my field of awareness, sometimes it would annoy me, sometimes it would be pleasant, sometimes I would not even hear it, just to then come back as loud as ever, confirming what I already knew about the impermanence of all things.
When my attention was not on the bell sound, I was trying hard to be in the present by paying attention to the sensations in my body, observing the physical sensations and little imbalances I could notice while walking, similar to the way we do in Vipassana meditation. It worked well for while but after some time, this became quite daunting, my head was exhausted so I decided to stop doing it. I then realised how much I was trying to control the whole process of just walking, how I was forcefully trying to submit my thoughts into surrender. They fought back with a vengeance, resisting, pretending to leave then coming back stronger than ever. With all this and the bell and eventually a guy cutting grass right next to where we were, I finished the first day tired, overwhelmed and slightly confused about how this whole thing would evolve in the next three days.
Day 2: The return of the girl with the bell
I wanted to avoid being close to the bell again, so I decided to stay on site instead of going to the temple, as I thought the bell girl would go there again. I started walking slowly, reflecting on the issue of control and how much we try, although we actually cannot control much in our lives anyway, when 20 minutes in, right when I was used to the quietness of the space, the girl with the bell suddenly showed up and guess what? Started walking right next to me again, as if just to prove my point.
Surprisingly, this time it didn’t bother me. Same girl, same bell, same noise, but what had provoked such strong reactions in my mind yesterday was not affecting it the same way today. The bell was such a non-issue that it became part of all the background noises, the gentle shuffle of the feet on the floor, birds, motorbikes on the road, sounds that would anchor me to the reality of the present moment. When I started hearing them clearly, it meant that I got out of the “dream’, the state when we get so caught up in our thoughts and internal battle that we forget where we are and what we are actually doing. Most of all, we forget who we are. I settled into a gentle, regular pace, observing my thoughts, then catching the moments when I started to daydream and tried to stop the thinking right away. Eventually, I realised that I was still controlling all the process, still too caught up in the mind. So the next time I caught myself in the “dream”, the moment I “came back” to reality I didn’t try to stop the thoughts. I allowed them to continue if they so wished, and the most incredible thing happened: they stopped completely! For a while, I was walking back and forth with this ease, this lightness of having no thoughts, it felt like a huge relief. But then, just when the thought of “oh yes, I’ve finally got this” came up, I was forced to confront the reality of the moment I was in. Pain. Physical pain. Suddenly, I began to feel my back very heavy, my feet incredibly sore. It got me thinking that physical pain is a great aid to keep us in the present, as from the moment I noticed my pain, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else, all daydream ceased and that lightness from before vanished completely. I didn’t want to take a break, so I continued to push myself despite the discomfort I was feeling. I finally gave in and sat down for a bit, and then I heard the gong signalling the end of the day. I felt so frustrated for not having managed to finish without stopping, until I realised the ridiculousness of this thought. No one was forcing me to do anything, there was no prize or benefit for not stopping, just my conditioned mind, making me to be competitive with myself, me against nothing. I experienced the concept of Pain vs Suffering very strongly – during my “unconscious” moments I chose to suffer, out of habit I guess, pure ego gratification for achieving something and I really wanted to give myself a reward. If I failed, frustration would set in. Of course this can be useful at times in order to give us motivation, but when it becomes a pattern and we use it obsessively, it robs us of our peace of mind, we lose all the compassion for ourselves and the goal becomes more important than the being. It is not easy to figure out when we are making excuses and getting into lazy mode and when we are genuinely being kind to ourselves. Brutal honesty and discernment is necessary and it requires practice. As I am finding out, walking can provide the perfect background for this practice.
Day 3: She lost control
Coming back to walk today felt like coming home. There was this comforting familiarity with the group, the space, the technique, I quickly picked a place in the platform, not thinking about bells anymore, and just started walking. The control theme came back strongly, bringing some interesting insights. I’ve realised I am a very controlling person. Despite all the teachings of letting go and surrender provided by the oh so many practices, techniques, substances and all that I have tried over the years, I still feel like I need to control everything. Why? Because of FEAR. When I was in India earlier this year, this was a topic that was coming frequently to me during meditation and yoga. How much fear I still have in me, how much I still do (or rather don’t do) because of fear. What am I afraid of? I realised, of everything: of being rejected and also of commitment. Of becoming invisible and also of being seen. Of feeling trapped and stuck and also of being free. And all this translates in my fear of losing control of my actions, feelings and thoughts, as if this is going to save me from suffering, but ultimately it makes me suffer more. It makes me overthink, it leads me to suppression, it makes me hide and keeps me trapped in this sad place where I can control everything. And amidst all this I realised my biggest confusion in all these years: I was mistaken being in the moment with my ability to control what is happening in the moment, instead of just observing it. Suddenly, all was clear: being in the moment is not the same as controlling the moment. This clarity just opened up a huge space in my head, and for the first time ever I got to experiment with just being with my thoughts, without trying to direct where they should go, when they should stop, without trying to replace or repress anything. All this without getting involved, just watching where they were going, watching them taking the most terrible, the most magnificent, the most absurd forms and then one by one, disappearing into themselves, leaving nothing behind apart from a sensation in the body here and there, that would also eventually disappear. I smiled when the Joy Division song “She lost control” came to my mind. I finally lost it, and contrary to what the song says, it wasn’t bad at all. Instead of despair, I felt peace. The day ended with me feeling a lightness I hadn’t felt in a very long time, as if I had been cleansed from within. I went home looking forward to the next day, that would be our last.
Day 4: The true nature of the heart
Despite the lightness of the day before, I woke up with my body feeling quite sore and stiff and I felt very tired in the morning. I arrived in the centre not feeling like walking at all and started in a very slow pace, trying to overcome the tiredness on my legs and back. In my head I was running through all the teachings from the past three days, the idea of letting go of control, of stopping trying to stop the control, who is observing the thoughts, is there anyone observing who is observing and so on, all these thoughts going one on top of another, until it was completely chaos in my mind. As part of the practice I let this chaos run free for a while, getting overwhelmed but still not trying to stop it. The only thing I did was to watch and keep walking. Then without warning, the observation point shifted. It left my head, my brain, and dropped to my heart. I was astonished, I never thought about trying that (and funny that I write “thought” and “trying” as this happened without any thought process or trying involved). It was so quiet there in my heart, so peaceful. It didn’t want to talk over anything, to be right, to convince, to have the last word. It was purely, truly just watching. The embodiment of all this helped so much, as the heart is physically far from the head, so it was easier to get distance from the madness going up there in my mind. I began to test this new vantage point, what it feels like to look from the heart, so memories came up, memories of people that hurt me, of events that made me suffer, of situations that caused me so much sadness, and to my surprise, the heart was still. The mind got all agitated, but the heart, it just smiled. I then realised that all the “heart” breaks I’ve ever had were actually mental breaks, those stories were all built and destroyed in my mind, with all its tendencies, conditionings, cravings and aversions. I understood that the term “heart broken” is incorrect, because THE HEART IS UNBREAKABLE. Wow. That was a tremendous realisation. I started crying, a whole universe opened up inside me, a silent universe, so empty that it was full, so full that it was empty, I felt this peaceful vibration running through my whole being and I didn’t want to be anywhere else, or rather, I didn’t want to be anyone else.
This realisation came quite early in the walk, so I thought that at some point something was going to happen to disprove it, to make me doubt it, to offer another alternative or solution. But no, during the remaining three hours, I stayed in this pleasant state, every time my mind got jumbled with thoughts, I dropped the awareness to the heart and I could easily stay there. The thoughts kept going, it is not that they miraculously stop, it is just that I was no longer going with them. The great thing about this is that amongst all the junk that comes up relentlessly, eventually great insights and useful ideas come up. And because I was just truly watching, I could easily spot and sort these thoughts from the useless ones and store them for later.
Eventually I had to take a break because my back was very sore. I lied down in the little bamboo gazebo, had a little stretch, a mini savasana and then sat up. As I closed my eyes to meditate, I felt really high, a rush of strong energy in all my body that made me even a bit dizzy, as if I had taken something. I was enjoying this sensation, it felt like a very good trip, but then I remembered to observe it from the heart. Yes, because the super high moments are like the super low moments, they are all a creation/interpretation of the mind and if we are not careful and allow them, they will take us to places that are not sustainable, causing suffering on the way down.
I went back to walking and time went by very quickly. We finished the day with our usual sharing circle, some feeling elated as I was, a few disappointments, but the consensus was that a huge shift has happened in 4 days for most or us. As I finish writing this, a week or so after having completed the process, I still have a faint vibration in my being coming from my heart, when I pay attention I can feel it is always there and if I sit still, I can access this energy and it becomes stronger, deeper, bringing me a sense of calm and peace of mind that I didn’t have before.
The whole thing is so simple that is genius. It is accessible to everyone that is healthy and mobile, it can be done anywhere, it doesn’t require any equipment or preparation. I am so glad that now I know what to do. As that famous whisky brand always knew, “KEEP WALKING”.