Walking: A Small Meditation on Thoreau’s Sauntering as Meditation

Walking: A Small Meditation on Thoreau’s Sauntering as Meditation December 1, 2017

Thoreau walking







I have friends who suggest anything they really like doing is a spiritual practice.

When they’re not just being cute or ironic, as some of my friends do, the principle they seem to rely upon for this assertion is that such things as knitting, bowling, cooking, all involve concentration and at best, perhaps, an achieving of a sense of “oneness” with the object of their concentration.

I have little argument with such observations, and indeed many of the so-called Zen arts such as tea ceremony and archery are just such joining of action and attention.

But there is another spiritual practice that has no goal, no purpose other than just being. In my life this is mainly encountered on the meditation pillow. And I know it can take many forms, possibly even in knitting, cooking, and bowling.

One must be careful, however. It’s easy to miss the real value in the practice. The difference between what might best be called a “concentration meditation” and what might be called “objectless meditation” might at first seem subtly different spiritual practices. Maybe even too subtle. But its not.

Our Zen ancestor Eihei Dogen addressed this in his “Genjo koan” essay, where he says “When the self advances toward the ten thousand things, is delusion. When the ten thousand things advance to the self, that’s awakening.” If we mix our self up too much into the matter, it taints our experience. If we’re open, many doors also open.

So, an open hearted knitting or bowling or cooking can do the trick. But, it may be a little more difficult than just sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention. Or, just walking. And here I’m more thinking about how well objectless meditation works with walking.

The great Unitarian Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s primary spiritual discipline appears to have been “sauntering.” It sure looks a lot like this openness to reality that is at the heart of Zen sitting, an authentic objectless meditation practice. In his essay “Walking” printed in the Autumn of 1862 in the Atlantic, not long after his death we are given Thoreau’s focused reflection on sauntering as a spiritual discipline.

There he points out what comes to us when we let go of our expectations, hopes and fears. Near the end of that essay Thoreau writes “We walked in so pure and bright a light, gilding the withered grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright, I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or a murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of Elysium, and the sun on our backs seemed like a gentle herdsman driving us home at evening.”

And at the end he sums it all up, returning to the metaphor of walking toward the Holy Land. “So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than e’er he has done, shall perchance shine into tour minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.”

For Thoreau’s full essay on Walking, go here.

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