Saturday, July 2, 2011

Mindful Labyrinth Walking

I recently returned from a week-long tai chi workshop in Terre Haute, Indiana. We stayed and practiced at the College of St. Mary-of-the-Wood. This is a pastoral campus in a rural area on the edge of a small city. There were no houses in sight from the main campus. It was a beautiful place to get away the hustle and bustle for a few days.

I habitually rise fairly early. Sleeping in a strange place certainly didn't change that. I decided to take advantage of that early morning time and walk around the campus. On Tuesday morning during my walk, I discovered that there was a large labyrinth on campus. I decided to walk the labyrinth.

I started to walk the labyrinth with the intention to have an enjoyable start to my day. I quickly discovered the gnats. Millions of them. They were swarming all over every living thing within sight. They were buzzing around my head, landing and crawling all over me. I spent the walk swatting at them. I let the gnats interfere with the enjoyment of my walk.

My dharma teacher, Carl, often says that one reason we have so much stress in our lives is because we make up stories to interpret our sensory inputs. In other words, when we have input from one of our senses or when we have a thought, we tell ourselves stories to explain the meaning of that input. The stories help us react to the world based on previous experiences.

The story I have in my head is that having "bugs crawling on me" is a "bad thing." It is unpleasant and potentially dangerous. Therefore, I "know" that walking a labyrinth while bugs are crawling on me is an unpleasant situation. However, stories are not reality. Creepy-crawly bugs are just a story we tell ourselves.

That evening, I thought of another story, The Buffalo and the Monkey. Blessings to Dr. Tom for sharing this story with me. Here is an abbreviated version.

Many years ago (presumably in the time of talking animals), there was a buffalo living on the edge of the forest. The buffalo was large, fast, and powerful. All of the animals, even the tigers, stayed out of its way. All except one. A monkey regularly tormented the buffalo. The monkey pulled the buffalo's ears, hit it with sticks, poked it in the eyes, and did any other deviltry that the monkey could think of.

The wise owl asked the buffalo why he put up with the torment from the monkey when he, the buffalo, was such a large and strong animal. The buffalo replied, "All the animals have a purpose here. Even the monkey has a purpose. He is here to teach me patience."
I decided that I wanted to rewrite my story about the gnats. Gnats are not dangerous. They are not going to bite me. They are not going to spread disease. My new story is that gnats are just gnats. They are not important. I can ignore them.

One of my tai chi teachers, Caroline, said that in order to learn, we need intention, attention, practice, and a teacher. So the next day I walked to the labyrinth with a different intention in mind. My intention was to pay attention to my walking practice based on direction from my teachers Caroline and Carl. I decided to walk mindfully.

What is mindfulness? I posted a similar question recently on one my LinkedIn groups. I had 24 comments. Comments included " … the natural interactions between our conscious thoughts and the subconscious physiological responses that occur", "… a way to control the autonomic nervous system", and "… using the power of the mind to control pain". Let me give you my definition here. Mindfulness is being aware of your body, thoughts, and emotions at all times.

Following the direction from my teachers, I decided my intention was to use tai chi walking to walk the labyrinth. I wanted to enjoy the walk and continue to practice mindfulness. I brought my attention to my feet and my shifting weight. I focused on the path and how I was placing my feet. I focused on the feeling of my feet on the ground and how my feet felt as I shifted my weight from one foot to another.

I ignored the gnats and walked. They landed on my face. They crawled in my hair, around my ears, and down my neck. I noticed them, but I didn't worry about it.

I do have to admit that there were a few times when I had to shift my attention from my walking to removing the gnats from my ears. That was a little too much for me that morning. But I quickly brought my attention back to my walking.

During my walk, I met someone else walking the labyrinth. We passed silently and shared energy. Thanks to my new friend, Donna, for sharing that experience with me. That was truly a mindful, spiritual morning for me. It was truly meditation in motion.

© 2011 Eric Borreson