Walking Meditations

Thoreau did not invent the leitmotif of walking meditation — the idea was not uncommon in romantic literature.  But he renews it with quiet vigor. It’s a fruitful frame for thinking, as I’ve discovered yet again.

Roberto Unger, the author of The Religion of the Future, asks us not to “squander our supreme good lifewith its surfeit, spontaneity and surprise.” The threat and reality of a bad life is one of deprivation, deadening routine, and numbness. So how do we awaken our capacity for “surfeit, spontaneity, and surprise?”

For several years – it’s going on decades — I’ve passed out Kathleen Norris’ book, A Cloister Walk, to my students. They’re meant to walk with her narrative, to discover what it might mean for them.  It’s something like a diary or journal of a middle-aged woman who has been teaching poetry to high school kids in New York City. She finds her world falling apart and seeks a lengthy retreat to collect herself. What better place than a Benedictine Cloister in Minnesota?

Most of us would be numbed by the thought of a stifling monastic routine: early rising, too much prayer, doing the dishes for dozens, not having a single old friend in sight, no movies, TV, restaurants, concerts. Not even drives in the countryside or to the ocean.

It sounds like numbness and deprivation. Where’s the overflow, the surfeit, the spontaneity, the surprise?

She gets to walk in the cloister, and a meditative walk is surely good for the soul; its flow encourages spontaneity and surprise. Partly the spontaneity comes from freedom to read at will through poetry and psalms, through the lives of the saints, and to have time to remember family and the stark beauty of the Great Plains. And she has daily walks that suspend ordinary time and let her enter a spontaneous stream of fullness and surprise.

She has imagination in gear.

She’s rich in imagination, not in the sense of making things up, or slipping into fantasy but in an opposite sense. Imagination lets her dive into reality, bring things alive. It raises the dead. Benedictine ways of living and praying, singing and walking, come alive. And the soft smell of late summer gardens and a comforting sky come alive.

She had gone numb in the impersonal bustle of New York City. Her world went missing. The city and her personal life there were stripped of the renewals and replaced by cycles of anxiety, anger, banality. The monastery feeds her imagination, her spirit, and lets the world – a world overflowing with surprise — be raised from the dead.

The Benedictine life and liturgy, its beliefs, customs, dress, prayers, walks, and hymns, bring her alive. She doesn’t convert to Catholicism or seek life-membership. At the start, she’s barely a believer in anything. But she seeks spiritual cleansing and renewal. She needs to strip down. (Her lasting impression of her native protestantism is having to dress up Sundays and paint on a smile.)

To my ear, she has a vaguely spiritual or religious craving awaiting to be shaped. Her time reading poetry, religious and otherwise, and the lives of the saints and the psalms, provide grist for an imagination on the way to a religious way of life. She walks a life of mysteries: the mystery of love, of spring daffodils, of kids at play.

Imagination both gives her access to their elusiveness and access to possible schemes of interpretation.

What do daffodils, love, and playful kids tell me about the world’s fullness, spontaneity, and surprise? What do St Francis, Benedict, or Jeremiah tell me about fullness, spontaneity, and surprise? What do prayer, chants and psalms — what do Dickinson and swaying boughs — tell me of excess and wonder?

Where have all the flowers gone? Where has the voice of God gone? She brings them back from the dead, in part through prayer, in part through quiet imagination, in part through walking meditation, in part through singing.

**   **

When I began teaching in California in the late sixties a friend sent me a book titled The Inward Morning: Philosophical Reflections in Journal Form.  Twenty years later I brought the book back from the dead, getting it reissued. The author, a Harvard Professor, had moved to Montana to save his soul.  He defined philosophy as “A Walking Meditation of the Place.” He was not a Benedictine but he was a meditative walker bringing fullness, spontaneity, and surprise to his soul – and his fullness, spontaneity, and surprise was contagious.

I devoured the book having very little sense of where I was going, or where the author was going — or coming from. It was a walk into wilderness. Here’s how he enticed me to follow.

He had been reflecting on music’s power to awaken him to reality, and his struggle to make sense of that awakening. And then he shifts. He reflects on his time in the Canadian Rockies before being called to War in the Pacific. Here is his walking meditation:

I remember that this walking in the presence of things came to a definitive stage.  It was in the fall of ‘41, October and November, while late autumn prevailed throughout the northern Canadian Rockies, restoring everything in that vast region to a native wildness. Some part of each day or night, for forty days, flurries of snow were flying.

I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified in the racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, solidified in the presence of rocks, spelled syllable by syllable by waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality. 

The aspens and larches took on a yellow so vivid, so pure and trembling in the air, as to fairly cry out that they were as they were, limitlessly.

And it was there in attending to this wildness, with unremitting alertness and attentiveness, yes, even as I slept, that I knew myself to have been instructed for life, though I was at a loss to say what instruction I had received.

Job was accosted by the wild of the whirlwind’s creation. Then he put his hand upon his mouth and said, “I knew not what I was saying; I’m quieted, I melt away.” His is a silence of fullness, not of deprivation.

Bugbee too is immersed in wild creation. Like Job, after the whirlwind, he knows that life is full, bountiful, spontaneous, an overflowing surprise. But none of that gives specific instruction about what specifically to do in life. No ten commandments follow from such religious, wilderness experience.

The message is – be alert to such moments; don’t rule them out; embrace their wonder. When it arrives, welcome fullness, spontaneity, and surprise.

The agents of wonder are the bountiful things of creation – clouds, hawks, rocks, waters, snow. There is the Biblical motif in this passage.  “Forty days into the Rockies” mimics Jesus’ forty days of wilderness fast. The retreat of each, like Norris’ retreat to the cloister, is a prelude to new life. The 40 day retreat to the Rockies” mimics Jesus’ forty days of wilderness fast. Like Norris’ retreat to the cloister, each is a prelude to new life.

We can seek out wilderness and cloister walks. And sometimes wildness is thrust upon us, unhappily, and is anything but a choice. Yet it can carry latent religious goods, nonetheless.

Creation can be terrible, horrific, life depleting: think of typhoons or forest fires. And yet to a willing spirit it can carry religious opportunity.

The Pacific War interrupted Bugbee’s work for a PhD at Berkeley. He suddenly became captain of a small mine sweeper and then was dive-bombed by a kamikaze. As his crew fires skyward, desperately, the plane keeps coming, and comes close enough for Henry to see the pilot’s eyes from the ship’s bridge. It’s deadly mission is thwarted.

The ship lowers in the deep trough of the waves. The plane slams into the side of the sea just yards away. Bugbee recounts this episode and adds that he knew in his bones that he could have been the pilot and the pilot could have been him. Their common humanity, even in battle, lay deeper than their nations or the war that called them enemies.

In a sense this is to lose one’s distinctive difference. Stripped away is the weight of wearing this uniform rather than that, of firing at this plane rather than aiming to sink that ship. In imagining this transposition of social and national and military position, my true glory is, for the moment, to slip into a supernatural landscape where such differences among persons disappears.

If Bugbee becomes a radiant beacon – as he does for me in this moment of transcendence – in that moment he loses everything that particularizes him. He loses his language, his uniform, his being a PhD candidate, his being captain of a ship. He undergoes a  moment of resurrection from the war as the war dies away and humans meet without differentiation, as pure souls, as it were.

This is his imagination bringing a new world alive. He is, in a sense, everything good and pure — and in ordinary terms, nothing, without pretense and without differentiation.  Perhaps Jesus on the cross is everything and nothing.

Sometimes the psalms pass on this sense of losing oneself, of being ecstatic in joy and contentment, melting into landscape: “I lay me down before still waters, my cup runneth over.” This is a quiet, non-walking meditation, a sort of lying down reverie, or, as Thoreau would say, “dreaming awake.”

And sometimes, in stark contrast, the psalms exalt the movement of warriors, not least a warrior God who leads armies against the wicked. But we also have, say in Psalm 68, a God who protects widows, not as a warrior but as a compassionate defender. And also lies behind or brings about the fullness and surprise of nature:

O God, when thou went forth before thy people, when you marched through the wilderness; The earth shook, the heavens dropped in the presence of God: even Mount Sinai itself was moved, shook, in his mighty presence.

The quiet of a walking meditation might wall us off from the terror of a warrior God, and the surprise of earthquakes. On the other hand the quiet of walking might conceal tumult within.

Meditating on battles might not be apt in time of war – there’s dangerous work to be done, demanding one’s full attention. You can’t meditate while walking under fire. But Bugbee remembers battles as if from the middle of them – or at least has insights then that could later sprout into meditations in a contemplative – if still terrifying — vein.

He imagines exchanging places with the Kamikaze pilot, as if to say “this is a war with no enemies, with no victors.” The warrior Lord is out to vanquish the enemy but it’s also a Biblical theme that there are no enemies, that we are brothers and sisters. It’s like the Captain of a US mine sweeper, in the midst of deadly sea battle, being brother to a Japanese Kamikaze pilot.

There were men for the moment alone on patrol in the forests in WWII suddenly encountering a single enemy, also on patrol. Each pauses, and seems to offer a pledge to a common humanity over a pledge to kill.

Each turns away, granting life to the other, turns his back on the other, as if privy to some extraordinary revelation just then descended. This might be merely prudent, a self-interested — and by good fortune, shared — calculation. Then again they might have miraculously become, at that moment, non-warriors, vessels of a sacred humanity.

Walking meditations seldom give us single answers: Are there enemies or only brother and sisters? Is God a Warrior for warrior peoples and something else more gentle for gentle people? Does a God of Love love those who hate and are hateful?

Perhaps it is asking too much of humans to love the very being of those who are hateful killers, especially if they have tortured us or our kin.  Perhaps it is asking too much to lower our rifles and turn away.

I think of the world as opening to minor and major ecstasies – minor and major salvations. I think of this as just a fact of life and also an awesome truth that can come to us in walking meditation.

A surplus of truths seems to accost us here, raising many more questions than answers.  Surely, more questions than answers.

Yet we can woo the faith that our walking meditations lead us away from deprivation and numbness and into gardens of fullness and surprise.


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