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‘A step into Sunyatta’ by Maurice Shokatsu George

I need to walk in the fresh air. Every Monday I go walking with my good friend Ian. He never tells me in advance where we’re going; it could be a trip round our home town; or the local university; or far away in the open countryside. It will always be a proper walk – at least five miles, maybe ten. Ian enjoys talking and so do I. We often cover the latest political events. He always tries to persuade me to go with him to a cricket match. (That’s his religion.) We never stray into matters of faith or belief. This is partly because Ian is immune to these areas and partly because I wouldn’t want to appear as a preacher or a proselytiser. We’ve been walking companions for over thirty years and we’ve never had a serious disagreement.

​Walking is a spiritual activity for me (but not for Ian). While I wouldn’t claim to be a naturalist or any other kind of ‘green’ expert, I certainly know a lot more about the natural world – for example the difference between a bluebell and a forget-me-not. So what’s so ‘spiritual’ about the open country? This is partly due to the marvellous passing of the seasons in England. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. The perfect tetrad. Perhaps there’s also an atavistic urge at work here: an ingrained response to the elemental experiences of our forefathers and mothers.

​So now let’s jump to Nepal, if you don’t mind. Is there any spiritual connection? Most of this country is around 4,000 or 5,000 metres high and this, to me, helps to explain the connection. Looking at an immense, high, blue-black sky, a snow-covered mountain peak or a vast ravine, who could not be lifted into a higher state of consciousness? It’s no accident that Shakyamuni Buddha was born in this area. The transcendental is never far away.

​There’s a limit to these comparisons, of course. The Internet has eliminated distance but not physical obstacles. While working in Africa, I could walk for days and never reach an end. I would walk only out of harsh necessity simply to reach point B.  Every mile would be exactly like the last one. Monotony, heat and disorientation would numb the senses, But what other reasons are there for walking? To get to ‘another place’; to enjoy the exercise; to learn more about the physical world; to protest against injustice. Or perhaps to reach a higher state of consciousness, Does this sound rather fanciful? This is quite different from a walk in the park.

​Consider meditation. In one Japanese Buddhist tradition, zazen is sitting meditation. Kinhin, walking meditation, can be fast or slow. First, move extremely slowly; relate each breath to each step; concentrate the mind; keep the gaze on the space in front of you; move clockwise; balance your body; place the heel firmly on the ground, tilt forward and put your weight on the ball of your foot, lift the other heel and move in a straight line. Fast walking meditation is totally different yet almost the same. Whether fast or slow, the mind can wander; it may be hard to keep one’s balance; the breath may be too fast or too slow; the mind can go into automatic. This sounds so simple yet it may take years to realise. Accept whatever happens.

Next: pay not the slightest attention to the instructions above. Just walk.

​When I first tried these types of meditation, I found myself completely lost. How could ‘just walking’ take me to a transcendental state? I tried too hard, I couldn’t co-ordinate my steps with my breaths, I lost my balance, the clapper made me jump, my mind was elsewhere and ‘nothing happened.’ At a deeper level, for quite some time, my experience of meditation was fearful. I was afraid of losing control, of ego-loss. I eventually found a way of confronting this fear – but that’s another story. You must find your own way.

​What happens to the mind when we meditate? No-one seems to know. One crude ‘explanation’ is that it’s a form of self-hypnosis. Medics have discovered unique electrical activity in the brain during meditation. But this simply swaps one enigma for another. I know of no convincing explanation of the change of mindset which can accompany meditation – walking or sitting, All we do know is that the capacity for meditation is inherent in every aware being. The tragedy is that so few are aware of this amazing talent.

​Enough of these hypotheses. Last Wednesday in the zendo, I wasn’t in the mood. My awareness was feeble. My chair felt uncomfortable. I was too hot, there wasn’t enough air, I was going nowhere. So many excuses. This wasn’t a ‘wasted’ meditation, however; no meditation is ever wasted, I am told. Anyhow, I left at half-time. I needed to walk in the fresh air.

Maurice Shokatsu George

* The photographs are by Edward Muybridge, an eminent 19th century pioneer of high-speed studies of movement.