I know you. You wake up early to get in a good workout. You work hard at your job, and you’re proud of your success. You manage to tick every box on your list each week. Now you’re exhausted, perhaps burned out.
People tell you, “just meditate.” You’ve tried to, but you know you can’t sit still. You’d much rather put in a solid workout than sit quietly with yourself.
I know you because I am you. I know the mantra of “go hard or go home.” I know what it’s like to dig your heels into something until it’s done. I also know what it feels like to burn out.
For me, it took back surgery to realize how much my Type-A personality got out of balance. I was always looking for a new PR in a race, or at least besting a rival for a temporary boost in self-esteem. I had exhausted my Type-A self to the point of exhaustion, and my back surgery was my reckoning to find equanimity.
A little Type A is necessary to get things going, but some Type B is important to sustain us over time.
We all have a little Type A and Type B within us, but one might dominate in particular areas of our lives. We can visualize this in the Chinese symbol of yin and yang, which represents two opposites as part of a whole. It’s not like one is “better” than the other. In fact, both are important. A little Type A is necessary to get things going, but some Type B is important to sustain us over time. Even in the body, the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system will be more pronounced during certain moments in our lives.
More simply, the harder you go in life, the more time you’ll need to “go soft.” If you spend each day at Level 10, you shouldn’t be surprised if one day you’ve burned yourself to 0. It’s not that Level 10 is bad, per se, especially if you’re pursuing a goal. However, it’s important to recognize when to dial things back to a Level 1 or 2 to recharge your battery. Meditation can help you find balance.
If your experience with seated meditation has been futile, this meditation involves the effort and ease of walking. It’s a little different from walking meditations described by Thich Nhat Hanh or Eknath Easwaran, although it incorporates ideas from both. This meditation calls for you to become mindful of how your body and mind respond as you move through different paces. Let’s “walk” through the process.
Find a mantra
First, you’ll find a mantra — or mantram, according to Easwaran. The mantra you choose will be with you for a while, so be sure it doesn’t contain any emotional or affective undertones that might hurtle you down a stream of thoughts. You’ll want to avoid affirmations such as “I’m a winner,” because these affirmations tend to point to goal-specific thoughts. We want to focus on process here. Easwaran has this list of mantras that are rooted in several religious traditions.
My suggestion is for you to find a phrase that has four syllables or words to sync with your steps. Mine is “sa-ta-na-ma,” which is a chant used in Kirtan Kriya. Keep it simple. Your mantra could be as simple as “left, right, left, right” or “1,2,3,4.” The mantra serves to steer your mind, similar to a line on the road.
Find a place to walk outdoors, preferably away from excessive noise or traffic. It could be a short loop around your neighborhood that you do 10 times. It’s less about the atmosphere and more about what’s going on in your body and mind. A treadmill isn’t as effective because you’re forced to enter a specific speed, which doesn’t allow for you to get a feel for your natural pace.
You’ll also need a device with a stopwatch so you can see the ticking seconds. The first time you engage here will be 20 minutes. Be sure that you’ve built this into your schedule so you’re not thinking about rushing back. You don’t need any trendy outfit, but you’ll need to wear footwear to protect your feet, so no flip-flops or heels.
The biggest rule here might be difficult for you to follow — no headphones or speakers. Music might be motivational, but it can also pull you into an emotional experience, which can sidetrack this meditation. It’s much safer without headphones because you want to be aware of any potential hazards, such as a bike whipping past you.
You can have your phone or GPS device with you for security purposes, but be sure to put it on airplane mode or a mode where you won’t receive any notifications — ANY notifications — aside from emergencies. Trust me, you can survive 20 minutes without phone notifications. If you think you can’t, you need this more than you might know.
The 4-minute block
Start your watch and walk for one minute at a normal pace, saying the mantra to yourself. It will take a few moments to get your words to sync with your steps, so this is why you walk at a pace that doesn’t require effort.
When the second minute arrives, stay with your mantra, but now increase your speed slightly. Your speed is only slightly faster than the first minute, which is all relative given the terrain in front of you. You’re not trying to achieve a certain pace. In fact, if you are physically unable to walk faster, make your adjustments to be slower than original pace.
Your mind will want to wander, thinking about how stupid this feels or how much you’d love to bust into a run. That’s your monkey mind desperate to jump to the next branch. Stay on this branch until the third minute.
In minute #3, you’ll increase the speed a little more. This might be a pace where you’re feeling a little hurried, like maybe when you’re in a rush to the bathroom. My pace makes me look like I’m cross country skiing. It takes a little more physical effort to walk at this pace, but stay with the mantra. The mantra will anchor your mind in place.
Now comes the fourth minute, which is the “fastest” — and that’s a relative term — you’d like to go at that moment. What’s important here is that you don’t go too hard, because you want to stay with your mantra. This represents how stress in your life can easily throw your mind out of equanimity. Even though the fourth minute might be difficult, you know that it’s only one minute, and relief is just a few seconds away.
When the fourth minute is done, you back off to your relaxed pace. Notice the immediate relief that comes. Stay with your mantra, and repeat these four-minute blocks four more times for a total of 20 minutes.
After a few sessions, the mantra might become your background music, but it still serves to anchor your mind. Now it’s time to add a little more mind-body awareness.
During the first minute, your mind, body, and spirit are at rest. You breathe deep into your belly, and become aware of your surroundings. Notice what “ease” feels like in your body.
When things begin to pick up during the second minute, it takes a moment to adjust. You can still take in your surroundings, but you’re also called a little more to what your body is doing. You observe how your weight shifts with each step. You notice how various terrain causes you to adjust the length of your steps.
The so-called “progress” in this meditation is how it results in managing the various “paces” of your life.
The third minute might introduce a slight bit of pressure, but it’s still manageable. Your mantra allows you to stay focused. You might pay less attention to your environment, but you’re still aware of any potential hazards. You’re called to be a little more mindful of what’s going on inside your body, observing if you’re putting more weight on one foot than the other. You also feel your hips and chest leaning a little more forward. Your breath might become centered a little more in your chest than in your abdomen.
You’re most focused on your body in the fourth minute. You’re pumping your arms a little faster, and your hips swing a little more vigorously. Listen to the cadence of each foot landing on the path. You might be tempted to introduce thoughts of pride or even objection, but keep repeating your mantra.
If it suits you, you can continue with your 20-minute sessions a few days a week, or you can add a four-minute block to your sessions each week. However, it’s more important to establish consistency in your practice than to increase the duration of your sessions.
You’ll want to avoid “tracking your progress” in this meditation. As a Type-A person, it might be tempting to see if you can go faster or further each time, but that’s not the purpose. The purpose of this meditation — and most types of meditation — is to train in harnessing your thoughts.
Eventually, you’ll notice how the varying paces in this practice translate to the different paces in your life. The so-called “progress” in this meditation is how your mind and body adjust to the various “paces” of your life. You’ll find that your mantra can always bring you back to your center.
Meditation is the practice, and the “game” is your own life.