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Spiritual Practices: Contemplative Walking – Shawna R. B. Atteberry
May 172012

I decided to start this series on spiritual practices with a fairly new practice in my life: contemplative walking. Christine Valters Paintner introduced me to this practice in her book The Artist’s Rule.

The contemplative dimension of walking comes through my presence to the world around me and to what is moving through me as I walk. I listen for the ways the divine is speaking through the world. I listen to my own heart beating more loudly because of the vigor of my movement. I listen for the ways new ideas arise in this space (p. 17).

I was already experimenting with this as I do a lot of walking. We live in Chicago and don’t have a car, so I do a lot of walking. It is so easy to always be in a hurry and walk fast with the rest of the crowd, brushing by people and not really noticing anything around you. Even when I’d take walks through Grant Park down to Lake Michigan, I was more interested in keeping my heart rate up. I’d notice the beautiful plants and trees around me but just in passing.

See if you can walk without needing to get anywhere in particular. As you take each step listen for the next invitation. Is there a tree or a crow calling for some attention? Allow time to simply be present to the way the world in inviting you into deeper attention to the gifts of this moment in time (p. 17).

One day a little bunny rabbit ran across my path into a hiding place in the bushes. I crouched down and looked in to see the rabbit holding very still then disappearing as it sensed me. I stopped at plants I found particularly beautiful and admired them. I found Chicago’s best keep secret–Northerly Island–by walking “without needing to get anywhere in particular.” After living for almost six years on this gem’s doorstop, I couldn’t believe that I never wandered this way before. But I had always had my route, and the time I wanted to make it in before. My walks became longer and slower. My 40 minute fast walked turned into a 1.5 slower walk being much more aware of what was around me and connecting with Godde through her marvelous creation.

At the beginning of Lent these walks helped me with my Lenten discipline of letting go what isn’t mine. Right before Lent I read this question in a book: What do you need to let go of that isn’t yours? Godde told me that’s what I needed to spend Lent doing. Letting go of what I should have never grabbed, what I should’ve never worried about, and problems that were never mine to begin with. In late February and early March we had these incredible winds blowing through Chicago (I grew up in Oklahoma: I love sunny, windy days). I love how wild the winds in spring and fall feel: blowing in every direction, and literally blowing one season out and another in. I love the wild feel the wind has in these transitional seasons. I used that wind to let go of what I had taken on that wasn’t mine. As I took these long walks, when I’d start thinking and worrying about something that was not my problem and I could do nothing about, I consciously let it go and let the wind blow it away. I literally let many things that were never mine to begin with blow off of me on Northerly Island. I also found two of my favorite refuges.

First the weeping willow trees.

I love weeping willow trees.

I have since I was a kid, and I was convinced that walking through their branches would take me into another world. (Yes, I was looking for Narnia after wearing out all of the closets in the house.)  I now visit this beautiful grove of seven trees on a fairly regular basis, and they are still enchanted trees for me. I love walking through the branches and smelling their distinct green smell and sitting under their branches hidden from everybody. I feel eight years old. This grove became a natural stopping place on my walks for mediation where I listened to the wind blow through the trees and the lake lap onto the beach and barriers near by.

After finding the willow trees and continuing south I discovered Chicago’s best kept secret: The Daphne statues.

I cannot tell you how beautiful these statues are. I will have to show you.

Aren’t they incredible? I know they have a story to tell. I think it’s a fairy tale. I will write this fairy tale or myth of why these beautiful goddesses dance on Northerly Island watching over Chicago. (You can found out the historical story of The Daphnes here.) So now my creativity is sparking because of The Daphnes.

Sometimes I take a verse with me on my walk (another idea from The Artist’s Rule). On Holy Saturday I took Matthew 27:61 with  me: “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb (DFV).” I meditated on this holy day of waiting on the Marys waiting and sitting opposite of the tomb. How long did they hold their vigil? Did they stay through the  night and Sabbath, only leaving when they needed to go buy the spices to complete his burial? What was it like to sit opposite of the tomb, remaining there, bearing witness of Jesus’ death and crucifixion, with no knowledge of the coming resurrection? As I walked I felt a deep sense of silence and a deep sense of Godde’s presence. Of that unshakeable presence and love that not even death could overcome. It was a holy walk.

I find myself praying, meditating and contemplating on my walks. I find myself listening for Godde–especially in the wind. The wind has always represented the Holy Spirit for me. I listen for Godde’s voice on the wind, and as the wind blows through the trees. Other times I find myself playing, taking off my shoes to splash through Lake Michigan then collapsing under the willow trees, wondering what world I will find myself in under their branches. I think both extremes bring me closer to Godde. Make me more like Christ. Make more of the woman Godde created me to be and helps me let go of the masks and disguises I’ve worn for years to conform to what the church said I should be. These walks have become one of my favorite spiritual practices.

What do you think of contemplative walking? Have you done this? What was your experience of walking to be in the present moment and with Godde in that moment? What things did you notice? What things did you let go of? Is this a practice you would be interested in trying?

If you do go on a contemplative walk this week, please let me know what you experienced and how you felt in the comments.

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  3 Responses to “Spiritual Practices: Contemplative Walking”

  1. This has become one of my favorite practices, though I don’t make time for it nearly often enough, ever since I participated in a Labyrinth retreat in March of 2011. The phrase “solvitur ambulando” (it is solved through walking) has become part of my spiritual vernacular.

    The next silent retreat I attended after the labyrinth retreat, I tried to incorporate some of what walking provides – rather than finding a quiet, secluded spot to rest, I spent most of my time on the hiking trails. I walked slowly, observing rocks and moss, trees and wind, brooks and roots and flowers and scuttling creatures. I listened deeply and I did not rush. I sat and meditated on what I was perceiving & receiving, I did some journaling, and then I got up and meandered some more. It was lovely and it was life-giving.

    I often forget to bring this into my daily, commonplace life. But whenever I’m at a function that allows time for prayer and reflection, I’ve gotten in the practice of leaving the room and finding a place to walk around (often taking a token or icon with me to center on) rather than trying to force my body to unnaturally sit still in a chair and focus. Your post has inspired me to create some normal, everyday space this week to do a walkabout and spend some simple listening time. Thank you.

    • Kimberly, it sounds like you’ve had some fabulous contemplative walks. I find I meditate better outdoors as well. Not only walking but sitting or even lying down. I love lying under the willow trees and meditating to the sound of the wind blowing through their branches. The sounds of nature really help me fall into a meditative state. When I do meditate in doors, I’ve started using meditative music with outdoor sounds and not being so stiff in my posture, but make my position a more comfortable and normal position for me. But outside is definitely best.

  2. […] in the USA (and a three day weekend to boot), those of you in America can try out last week’s spiritual discipline, contemplative walking on this long weekend, if you didn’t get a chance to practice it this […]

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