Mindful Walking: Take a ‘Walkabout’ in Recovery
Mindful walking was introduced to the Western world by the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese writer and teacher who first brought his unique brand of Buddhism, known as mindfulness, to the U.S. in the early 1960s. Hanh defines mindfulness as “our ability to be aware of what is going on both inside us and around us. It is the continuous awareness of our bodies, emotions and thoughts.” The goal of mindful walking is to quiet the mind, to focus on the breath and fully appreciate the present moment in all of its beauty.
However, the Buddhist tradition Hahn brought to the U.S. decades ago did not have an exclusive claim on the idea of walking with a spiritual purpose. It was also alive and well far away in a rather surprising place: Australia. Soon after the English colonized Australia in the 18th century, they were dismayed to find that many of the original inhabitants of the continent—mainly the adolescents—would suddenly disappear for days, weeks or even months on end for no apparent reason, only to return just as suddenly, as if nothing had happened. When their friends or relatives were asked where they’d gone, they’d simply reply, “Oh, he’s gone walkabout.”
The English came to understand that “gone walkabout” meant the person had taken a solo pilgrimage back into the deep bush in order to reconnect with their original way of life and access their innermost spirituality through communion with tradition and nature. Much like a “vision quest” in the shamanic traditions of the Americas, a walkabout was a rite of passage, and symbolized a transition from youth to adulthood.
In this article, I’ll talk about how to combine these two wonderful traditions—mindful walking and walkabout—into a simple mindfulness exercise that can be used while in addiction recovery.
Mindful Recovery Exercise: Walk About a Topic
Don’t worry—unlike a traditional Australian aboriginal walkabout, you won’t need days, weeks or months to do this exercise; and you won’t need prior training in Buddhism, mindfulness or meditation. All you need is 30 minutes, a specific recovery topic you’d like to address, a place to go take a walk and the willingness to bring yourself fully into the present moment.
Ready? Here’s how to do it:
- Set aside about 30 minutes for a walk. Your walk can be in a park, in your neighborhood, or anywhere you choose. It does not matter if you are in the city, the country, or the suburbs; however, it must be out in the world, and not on a track, a treadmill or on a walking track in an indoor gym.
- For the first five minutes, simply walk. Bring your attention into your body: your feet on the ground, the muscles of your legs—all of your immediate physical sensations. Do a head-to-toe physical inventory, without judgment. How does your body feel? Your neck? Shoulders? Your spine and back? Your legs? If you’re stiff, loosen up. Roll your shoulders; stretch your arms. Don’t worry about what people think—just get loose.
- For the next five minutes, bring your attention to the world around you. Start paying very close attention to everything you see. During these five minutes, try to notice things you’ve never seen before. Even if you’re in a place that’s very familiar to you, it’s still possible. Notice the trees and bushes in your neighbors’ yards. Notice the buildings on your block. It does not matter what you notice: just keep your attention outside of yourself, and see things you’ve never before.
- The first three steps of this exercise were designed to ground you in the present moment and get you out of your head. First you brought your mind to your body, then you brought your mind to the world around you. Now, it’s time to shift your focus inward; not to your body, but to your inner life and the topic at hand: recovery.
- For the next 10 minutes, or longer if you are so inclined, bring your mind to your recovery topic of choice. IMPORTANT NOTE: it does not matter if or how often your mind wanders from your topic. It only matters that you bring it back, kindly and gently, every time. If you’re in a 12-step program such as AA or NA, this is the perfect time to work one of your steps. Many of the initial steps ask you to make lists of things. This is a great opportunity to choose one list, work it, and commit it to memory. If you’re worried that you don’t have a great memory, here’s a trick: start at the beginning and build your list cumulatively. As you progress through your list, start from the beginning each time, until you get to the spot where you left off. This repetition will cement the list in your mind. For instance, a step may ask you to list five people who are related to your addiction. Start with the first person. In your mind, do what the step asks you to do, related to that person. If your mind wanders, just bring it back. Then, move on to the second person on the list, and repeat the process. Before moving to the third person, go back to the first person, and make sure you remember your thoughts related to that person and that step. It does not matter if you don’t remember every single detail; just bring your mind back to that person and your thoughts will come.
- Repeat this process for all five people in your list. If it takes more than 10 minutes, that’s great. Not only have you taken a longer walk, which in itself is a healthy, top-line behavior, but you’ve also spent quality time working your steps.
- When you reach the end of your list, tell yourself you’re done. Get closure on the list; wrap it up. You’ve accomplished your task; you’ve done the work you promised yourself to do. Without judgment, set it aside. It will be there for you when you need it.
- Now, take a minute or two to reconnect with the world around you, just as in step (3) above.
- Next, take another minute or two to bring your attention back to your body, just as you did in the first five minutes. Do another head-to-toe physical inventory. Does anything feel different? Anything feel the same? Just observe your body without judgment, and let everything be right where it is.
- At this point, you should have about five minutes left in your walk. Take this time to just walk. Let your mind go where it will—to the outside world, to your body, to issues other than recovery. Enjoy the fact that you’ve set aside the time to work on yourself, to take a walk and to accomplish something proactive and healthy.
Three Birds With One Stone
Congratulations, you’re done! Now you’re equipped with a very helpful recovery tool, which is based in two time-honored traditions—the Australian walkabout and Buddhist mindfulness practices—and accomplishes three things at once. First, you’ve taken a walk, which is good for your body. Second, you’ve completed a mindfulness exercise, which is good for your mind. Third, and finally, you’ve worked on your recovery, which is the ultimate goal.