Walk Slowly an interview with Dennis Reffner

 How to Meditate, Interview – March 3, 2010

HTM: What exactly is walking meditation?

Dennis: Usually, when we walk, we are focused on getting someplace, with very little attention to the actual walking. In walking meditation, we drop the intention to be anywhere other than where we are. Our intention is just to walk, with awareness... each step taken with mindfulness…with peace...with openness to the present moment. It is meditation combined with a simple activity, and it works very naturally.

HTM: It sounds as if you have some experience with it.

Dennis: I have practiced walking meditation for some time now. After college I moved to Hawaii to study and practice at the Diamond Sangha Zen Center, which is on Oahu. They used a 2 hour block of meditation, which was broken up like this: sit Zazen for 20 minutes, walking meditation for 10 minutes...repeat! The Zen center was in a big, old house up in Manoa Valley, and it often rained in the evenings...so it was just beautiful... to sit, and walk, and become quiet, the bells, and incense, and the gentle sound of rain...very peaceful.

HTM: It sounds peaceful. I get a clear image from your description. While you are in walking meditation, are you thinking?

Dennis: Thoughts do continue to rise up, and so you gently bring your attention back to the physical sensations of walking. The feel of your feet touching the floor— the movement of your legs, the sensation of breath moving in and out, the sound of a car going by.

HTM: I remember falling into this sort of thing during a daily walk I used to take. This was years ago. I did a little experiment where I tried to retrain myself to walk in the most efficient and simple manner. I believe I had read about Buddha walking very slowly and consciously. I had adopted it as a mindfulness practice. I remember the incredible visceral urge to get going faster or move out of such conscious walking-- almost to avoid the level of awareness I was getting in touch with. Did you have similar experiences of "get me out of here—I'm growing conscious" or any other strong resistances?

Dennis: I have definitely felt that urge, although not so much with walking meditation. Usually when I'm late for work and the traffic won't move! Then the anger wells up, and off we go! My walking meditation has mostly been in a structured environment. The great advantage, is when you know that for the next hour, you are not going to do anything else, well then, you can just relax and go with it. You can devote yourself!

Raising my level of awareness has almost always been an enjoyable experience, at least for me! Kind of like, Ah-ha! How wonderful! It's when I lose my awareness, and sink back into my personal drama, that's what feels narrow and restricted, but it's also so familiar! It's what delusion feels like to me. The wheels are just spinning away, and so much goes by unnoticed. And I can go on that way for quite some time!

HTM: Would you say that over time throughout your life as you continue to spend time meditating, regardless of the posture or method, that these episodes of anger lessen? In short, do you feel that there are significant benefits of meditation that carry-over into your daily activities... that there is less sinking back into "personal drama" as you put it?

Dennis: Yes, there is a carry-over into daily life. Instead of finding yourself smack dab in the middle of a storm, you can start to see it approaching in the distance. So you have a little time to make a conscious decision...do I want to go down this path of anger....again? Maybe I have other choices! It's very empowering to actually choose not to get swept away, to react with a little more compassion for yourself, and for others. It feels like growing up a bit, you know?

HTM: I love the image of the storm. It is a great metaphor. Do you see a progression in terms of skill as far as this storm goes? I believe one graduates in skill from being able to temper it to being able to alter it and then to finally be able to stop it altogether and turn it into something positive. Do you find this to be true for yourself? Have your storm-transforming skills advanced and improved as you continue to meditate?

Dennis: There is a progression, but sometimes it's two steps forward, one step back! Algebra may be linear, but life isn't! I used to argue a lot with my ex-wife, usually when she had been in the whiskey patch, and it was pretty good training...at first, I was angry within about 2 seconds, then after a while, I would get angry in about 5 minutes, then, later on, I could sit and listen to her rant and rave for almost an hour....but still, I always did lose it eventually. I also learned to just get up and quietly walk away, and—eventually... I never came back. So, yes, you do improve, although it may not always feel like it!

HTM: The benefits of meditation. How do you suppose it does this? Is it because by meditating we develop mindfulness? Are we just more alert in the present moment that we can witness our emotional lives so much more readily? Is it that we see the scope of our beings more fully? And what name would you give this skill—mindful relating?

Dennis: One way to view it is by thinking about how are nervous system functions. There are two complimentary systems, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is related to our "fight or flight response" to stress. When engaged, the heart rate and blood pressure go up, we stop digesting food, our pupils dilate, and we get ready to fight, or run away. It's an ancient response to threats, built into our bodies. The parasympathetic is the "rest and digest" response. Now, the pulse is slower, blood pressure is lower, muscles are relaxed. It's a physically peaceful mode.

Meditation and mindfulness practices keep us more engaged with the parasympathetic mode of our nervous system, and much more able to respond to situations using a higher level of consciousness. The two systems work synergistically, but it seems that meditation allows the parasympathetic system to have a greater influence. I don't understand it all well enough to give more information, but there is a book called "The Buddha's Brain", that goes into all in detail. The name for this skill— mindful relating sounds about right.

HTM: Wow. I am so impressed. This is such great stuff. Our nervous systems are tied into the chakra system and energy centers. Perhaps when we develop mindfulness leads or corresponds to our chakra development. This has been great. Thank you so much for doing the interview. I have really enjoyed it. Perhaps we can do another one on another subject related to meditation at some point.

Dennis: You're welcome! I enjoyed it as well!