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  • Karl Thunemann

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.

You can bet these monks know how to walk.

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.


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