Learning How to Walk
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
I have fallen twice in the last month. Neither fall seems to have caused serious damage, but their proximity to each other is alarming. I must belong to the Frequent Fallers Club, although no one has sent me a membership card nor offered a discount code to use when shopping online for anti-fall gear.
I have not kept count of my falls, although I believe two dozen would be a good estimate. Oh, it must be more than that, spread over at least a dozen years. They have been far less frequent since I started using a cane six or seven years ago. And until last month, I had fallen only twice while using a cane (and twice while carrying—but not using—one).
I had noticed that almost every time I went to Harborview (where appointments are hard to get, with months of lead time, so you’d better not cancel!), I felt sick or anxious.
These falls came in wholly different circumstances. In the first, I was at Harborview, the regional medical center, looking for a tiny lab to conduct a “carotid duplex,” an ultrasound test to determine how extensively my carotid arteries were blocked (less than 50 percent, no immediate action required, was the eventual reading). I was going along the corridor, examining the signs on each door, when a large man clad in scrubs offered to escort me. I was grateful. Yet, as we proceeded down the corridor, I suddenly and inexplicitly fell. I could sense immediately there was no serious damage. I didn’t hit my head. Later, I would find a contusion below my right elbow. My guide, who turned out to be a nurse, helped me up and asked if wanted to go to the emergency room. I wanted to get on with the test.
This fall came at an explicitly hazardous moment. Over the past year, I had noticed that almost every time I went to Harborview (where appointments are hard to get, with months of lead time, so you’d better not cancel!), I felt sick or anxious. And on this visit, I had noticed a vulnerability to falling when I arrived at the hospital, though I had put it out of my mind when searching for my destination.
The other fall had no ominous prelude. My wife and I were at the seashore, having breakfast at a favorite haunt. After going to the restroom, I stumbled and fell. There was a change of texture in the flooring. I wasn’t being mindful, and so paid a price. This left me with some minor aches, but back at home my legs felt wooden, and my balance precarious. I already had regular appointments scheduled with my physical therapist and Feldenkrais teacher, and I’ll make another with one of my chiropractors. Plus, I turned to the great Buddhist master from Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh, and one of his booklets, How to Walk. Clearly, I should be doing more than trying to follow his vital first maxim: Arrive with Every Step. You’d think that would be enough, but my mind wanders, losing its fullness.
I took this little book to bed last night, imagining I would browse through, reviewing, but I found a small section at the end—not yet perused—offering a variety of walking meditations. Astonishingly enough, some of them offer approaches that speak to my desire to find a safe harbor. Talk about synchronicity!
Nhat Hanh prescribes walking in rhythm to short poems. I’m struck by the idea of taking refuge in the isle of oneself. My favorite:
Breathing in, I go back
to the island within myself.
There are beautiful trees
within the island.
There are clear streams of water.
There are birds,
sunshine and fresh air.
Breathing out, I feel safe.
I enjoy going back
to my island.
I would almost say I feel chastised. The vision of the inner self in these poems is so gentle—such a far cry from the seething cauldron I have pictured raging deep in my wounded, pre-conscious self. I’m willing to embark with on this path Thich Nhat Hanh. A stubborn part of me clings to reservations, prepared to pass judgment. It must be related to that aspect of my mind that first approached loving-kindness with deep skepticism—that feared it would prove to be a refuge for self-absorption. But that hasn’t been my experience. As my practice grows, it is focused increasingly on the welfare of other people.
In writing these essays, I generally have written about meditations that I know well. This one feels different, but we will see, won’t we? I’ve learned enough about Thich Nhat Hanh to trust him. I also trust the intuitive, synchronistic flash that calls me to embrace it.
May this approach to walking meditation prove useful, and through diligence may I discover its vast potential.