Walk of Life


Turning prayer wheels while walking the grounds of Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India


Over the weekend, I got a very strong dose of the “Together Action” that I feared was missing from the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the UMass School of Medicine.  Close to 100 participants sat a day-long retreat together at the Stress Reduction Clinic.  The experience was different from any of the retreats I’ve done in the Kwan Um School of Zen.  As with Zen retreats, the retreatants all spent the day in silence, but the five women leading the retreat spoke extensively, guiding us through all of the practices that we’ve been learning over the past eight weeks: body scans, standing yoga, lying down postures, sitting meditation, and walking meditation.  My favorite of these by far was the walking meditation. I’ve tried it by myself at home, and it’s never really grabbed me.  This practice seems to come alive only in the company of other practitioners, and to engage in this activity with so many people was truly a singular experience.

Walking meditation as practiced in the context of MBSR is rather different than the traditional Zen walking that typically punctuates periods of sitting meditation on long retreats.  Here, it was presented as a much longer practice, free-form in nature, different from the in-step, single-file Zen style.  We were invited to walk at a pace that felt natural and comfortable, in a pattern or direction that suited us, and even to leave the room and walk through the lobby and adjacent spaces if we so desired.  The overall effect looked rather like a school of fish moving more or less intuitively as a unit, yet not in unison.  The motion could only be described as “organic,” and what little thinking mind I still paid attention to marveled at the fact that no one bumped into each other despite the fact that most eyes seemed to be cast downward.  This was truly Together Action: I felt not only completely in body, but completely in collective body.  I’m wondering if the prescribed ritual of Zen-style walking meditation frees the mind up to do some thinking while the body does some walking… if perhaps engaging in a more spontaneous, symbiotic experience of group walking meditation more effectively invites the synthesis of mind and body…

I had originally enrolled in the MBSR course in order to see first-hand how meditation instruction was presented in a clinical setting, detached from its association with Eastern spiritual beliefs and from the strong sense of form and ritual that is the backbone of the Korean Zen tradition.  In the past, I’ve helped to facilitate prison meditation groups in the Kwan Um style, but we had a captive audience… literally.  The inmates weren’t deterred by a little bit of chanting or by the grey robes that we wore.  Now that I’m working as an addictions counselor in an outpatient program, it’s imperative that I present mindfulness as a possible tool for the clients’ own recovery without the bias of my own spiritual leanings.  Admittedly, this feels like a betrayal of the tradition I’ve been practicing in for close to ten years.  It felt good to walk into a prison, don the robe and kasa of the Chogye Order, and lead traditional Korean chanting in a place of such confusion and suffering; but a different situation calls for different action.  True mindfulness is recognizing this and responding appropriately.

Together Action is the hallmark of sustained recovery.  As I write, I’m envisioning my clients in the outpatient program mindfully meandering about a room like a school of fish with a single intention and many bodies, and it makes me smile.  It’s a tall order, I know, but I witnessed a huge group of people from all walks of life doing exactly that last weekend, so stranger things have happened…


Footprints of the Buddha, Mahabodhi Temple

Without Attachment

Prayer wheels at Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India

Zen is a practice of 100% doing. It is about responding to each situation spontaneously, appropriately, and without attachment. This seems, like many teachings in this non-intellectual practice, paradoxical; how can I possibly do anything 100% unless I’m completely attached to it? Paradox, as any zen practitioner knows, doesn’t exist in nature. It exists only in our minds, specifically in our mind’s inability to conceive of reality, which is, by definition, inconceivable. We tend to think things ought to be different than they are in order to fit into our existing mental constructs. Or at least I do.

For me, the paradox of acting completely yet without attachment stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of non-attachment. This idea has eluded me more than any other tenet of Buddhism with the exception of “no self,” which is, interestingly, basically the same idea.

It goes like this: I’ve always thought that this business of “non-attachment” sounds like indifference. It sounds like not caring. In reality, it’s about caring so much, so completely, so 100% about others that there’s no room for “I.” Ego is removed from the situation. Without the delusion of a separate self, there can be no attachment. Only doing for others.

Non-attachment, then, is the practice of no-self. If I sit around and think about these ideas of non-attachment and no-self, I’m not going to get very far… When I act selflessly and completely, however, they’re no longer ideas. They’re simply reality as it is.