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How to Master the Ancient Art of Walking Meditation in Modern Life: A Field Guide from the Pioneering Buddhist Teacher Sylvia Boorstein

“Slow is not better than fast. It’s just different. Everything changes, regardless of pace, and direct firsthand experience of temporality can happen while you are strolling just as much as while you are stepping deliberately and slowly.”

How to Master the Ancient Art of Walking Meditation in Modern Life: A Field Guide from the Pioneering Buddhist Teacher Sylvia Boorstein

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his classic manifesto for the spirit of sauntering, before proclaiming that “every walk is a sort of crusade.” A century and a half later, Rebecca Solnit picked up the subject in her ambulatory classic: “I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” Perched partway in time between Thoreau and Solnit, Thomas Bernhard twined these sentiments in his exquisite meditation on walking, thinking, and the paradox of self-reflection: “There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking.”

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

But what if the peripatetic body could be an instrument not of moving the mind but of stilling the mind in order to apprehend reality, internal and external, more clearly? What if walking could be not a crusade but a consecration?

That, of course, is what Eastern traditions have been doing for millennia. How to do it — how to master the ancient art of walking meditation and incorporate it into a modern life, into your regular rhythm of being — is what the great Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Sylvia Boorstein details in a portion of her funny, poignant, wholly revelatory 1996 field guide to mindfulness practice, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There (public library).

Sylvia Boorstein

Boorstein — who arrived at Buddhism through the portal of political activism in the 1960s and went on to help pioneer the ancient Eastern tradition as a spiritual and psychotherapeutic practice in the West, and whose teachings have transformed my own life — outlines the basic mental and material framework of walking meditation:

Pick a place to walk back and forth that is private and uncomplicated — one where the walking path can be ten to twenty feet long. If you walk outdoors, find a secluded spot so that you won’t feel self-conscious. If you walk indoors, find a furniture-free section of your room or an empty hallway. Then you can devote all your attention to the feelings in your feet as you walk.

Keep in mind that this is attentiveness practice and tranquillity practice, not specialty walking practice. You don’t need to walk in any unusual way. No special balance is needed, no special gracefulness. This is just plain walking. Perhaps at a slower pace than normal, but otherwise, quite ordinary.

Begin your period of practice by standing still for a few moments at one end of your walking path. Close your eyes. Feel your whole body standing. Some people start by focusing their attention on the top of the head, then move their attention along the body through the head, shoulders, arms, torso, and legs, and end by feeling the sensations of the feet connecting with the earth. Allow your attention to rest on the sensations in the soles of the feet. This is likely to be the feeling of pressure on the feet and perhaps a sense of “soft” or “hard,” depending on where you are standing.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

From this mental launchpad commences the actual movement, the intention of which Boorstein takes care to protect from the momentum of our everyday biped habits:

Begin to walk forward. Keep your eyes open so that you stay balanced. I often begin with a normal strolling pace and expect that the limited scope of the walk, and its repetitious regularity, will naturally ease my body into a slower pace. Slowing down happens all by itself. I think it happens because the mind, with less stimuli to process, shifts into a lower gear. Probably the greed impulse, ever on the lookout for something novel to play with, surrenders when it realizes you’re serious about not going anywhere.

When you walk at a strolling pace, the view is panoramic and descriptive. When your walking slows, the view is more localized and subjective. If we could see running readouts, like subtitles, of the mental notes that accompany walking, they might look like this:

Strolling pace: “Step . . . step . . . step . . . step . . .

arms moving . . . head moving . . . smiling . . . looking . . .

stopping . . . turning . . . bird chirping . . .

stepping . . . stepping . . . wondering what time it is . . .

thinking this is boring . . . stepping . . . stepping . . .

swinging arms . . . feeling warm . . .

feeling cool . . . I’m glad I’m in the shade . . .

deciding to stay in the shade . . . smiling . . . stepping . . .”

Slower pace: “Pressure on feet . . . pressure . . . pressure disappearing . . .

pressure reappearing . . . pressure shifting . . .

lightness . . . heaviness . . . lightness . . . heaviness . . . lightness . . .

Hey! Now I’ve got it! Now I’m finally present!. . .

Whoops, I’ve been distracted . . . Start again . . .

Pressure on feet . . . pressure shifting . . . lightness . . .

heaviness . . . lightness . . . heaviness . . .

hearing . . . warm . . . cool . . .”

“Go out and walk. It is the glory of life.” Art by Maira Kalman from My Favorite Things.

Boorstein adds an essential disclaimer — a disclaimer and an assurance, necessary for us human animals so conditioned by modern life to overdo, so anxious to overachieve:

Slow is not better than fast. It’s just different. Everything changes, regardless of pace, and direct firsthand experience of temporality can happen while you are strolling just as much as while you are stepping deliberately and slowly. The speed-limit guide for mindful walking is to select the speed at which you are most likely to maintain attention. Shift up or down as necessary.

Aware, with Borges, that time is the substance we are made of, Boorstein ends with a similar antidote to our temporal anxiety:

Start with thirty minutes… Set the timer and begin… As you walk note how many times the impulse to check the time arises. Don’t do it. Just walk. This way, in addition to composure and attentiveness, you get to practice renunciation, a fundamental factor in awakening.

Complement with The Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame’s century-old meditation on walking as creative fuel and Lauren Elkin’s marvelous modern-day manifesto for peripatetic empowerment, then revisit the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to do hugging meditation and savor Sylvia Boorstein’s reading of Pablo Neruda’s splendid ode to silence.

BP

Keeping Quiet: Sylvia Boorstein Reads Pablo Neruda’s Beautiful Ode to Silence

A lyrical reminder to break the momentum of busyness that fuels “the sadness of never understanding ourselves.”

“Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet…” So begins Wendell Berry’s “How to Be a Poet,” tucked into which is tremendous sagacity on how to be a good human being. “The impulse to create begins… in a tunnel of silence,” wrote Adrienne Rich in her tremendous lecture on art and freedom. “Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence.”

No poet breaks the silence with silence, nor slices through its vitalizing, clarifying, and transcendent power, with more piercing elegance than Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904–September 23, 1973) in a poem titled “Keeping Quiet,” written in the 1950s and posthumously published in the 1974 bilingual collection Extravagaria (public library), translated by Alastair Reid.

The only thing to lend Neruda’s words and wisdom more mesmerism is this beautiful reading by the venerable Jewish-Buddhist teacher and prolific author Sylvia Boorstein, excerpted from the closing moments of her conversation with Krista Tippett on one of the finest podcasts for a fuller life.

Please enjoy.

KEEPING QUIET
by Pablo Neruda

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Every single poem in Extravagaria is rewarding beyond words, beyond time. Complement it with Neruda’s beautiful metaphor of the hand through the fence and the story of his extraordinary life adapted in an illustrated love letter to language, then revisit Paul Goodman on the nine types of silence and the lovely The Quiet Book.

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Meryl Streep Reads “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath

A paean and requiem for new parenthood — the love, the strangeness, the surreal and magnetic disorientation of it.

Meryl Streep Reads “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath

In contemplating the parallels between being an artist and being a parent, the psychologist turned pioneering sculptor Anne Truitt wrote of “an understanding deeper than my own of what it is to be human, and a mysterious revelation of a radiant order.”

A decade earlier, another trailblazing artist contemplated the shock and splendor of new parenthood in her own art. In February of 1961, shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Frieda, Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) penned one of her most unusual poems. “Morning Song,” later included in the posthumously published 1965 classic Ariel (public library), is both paean and requiem for new motherhood — the love, the strangeness, the surreal and magnetic disorientation of it.

In this beautiful performance from The Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry & the Creative Mind celebration, Meryl Streep brings Plath’s masterpiece to life with uncommon sensitivity to the innumerable nuances it holds:

MORNING SONG

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Sylvia Plath with her children, Frieda and Nicholas. Photograph by Siv Arb, from One Life: Sylvia Plath

Complement with Plath on what makes us who we are, the little-known children’s book she wrote for her own kids, her recently revealed visual art, and her own haunting reading of her poem “Spinster,” then revisit other great readings of great poems: Amanda Palmer reads “Having It Out with Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, Cynthia Nixon reads “While I Was Fearing It, It Came” by Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Boorstein reads “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda, and Rosanne Cash reads “Power” by Adrienne Rich.

Should you find yourself in New York City, The Academy of American Poets’ Poetry & the Creative Mind — which also gave us Regina Spektor’s enchanting reading of “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — takes place every April at Lincoln Center and is consistently magnificent, featuring readings of beloved poems by inspiring cultural figures who love them, ranging from artists to astrophysicists.

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Esperanza Spalding Performs William Blake’s Short Existential Poem “The Fly”

A centuries-old, timeless meditation on chance, suffering, and the improbable glory of life.

Esperanza Spalding Performs William Blake’s Short Existential Poem “The Fly”

All artists know that the deeply personal is the only real gateway to the universal; that we are only free to see to the farthest horizons after we have closely examined our most intimate landscapes. Some swing these doors of perception with virtuosity orders of magnitude greater than others, as did William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827). “It is the mark of a genius like Blake,” Alfred Kazin wrote, “that what is purest and most consistent in his thought burns away his own suffering and fanaticism, while his art speaks to what is most deeply human in us.”

Is it any wonder that the man who saw the universe in a grain of sand should see the improbable beauty and tragedy of human existence in the ephemeral life of a fly?

In this beautiful performance from The Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry & the Creative Mind — which also gave us Meryl Streep reading “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath and Regina Spektor reading “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — musician extraordinaire Esperanza Spalding performs Blake’s poem “The Fly,” originally published in his 1794 masterpiece Songs of Experience and later included in his indispensable Complete Poems (public library).

THE FLY
by William Blake

Little fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

Spalding’s performance of “The Fly”” also appears on her album Chamber Music Society.

William Blake’s original illustration for “The Fly” from Songs of Experience, 1794 (Yale Center for British Art)

Complement with Blake’s most beautiful letter — a spirited defense of the imagination and the creative spirit — and his haunting illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost, then revisit other great performances of great poems: Amanda Palmer reads “Having It Out with Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, Janna Levin reads “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Cynthia Nixon reads “While I Was Fearing It, It Came” by Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Boorstein reads “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda, and Rosanne Cash reads “Power” by Adrienne Rich.

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