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Choosing to Be: Lessons in Living from a Feline Zen Master

Lesson Five: Walking on Our Toes, by Poohbear Degoonacoon, the Feline Zen Master

by Kat Tansey


Twenty years ago, our heroine, Kat Tansey, was a successful business consultant. Everything she ever wanted was coming true – fulfilling work, success, recognition, love – “the works” as you humans like to say. Then Kat was struck down by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and had to spend years on her couch, learning how to get well. I arrived in her life and on her couch at that point.

In Lesson One, I introduced you to the concept of your Ordinary Mind, and asked you to spend a few minutes each day observing the chaotic and flea-like nature of your mind, as this often provides excellent motivation for learning to meditate. In Lesson Two we discussed the importance of building your support team and finding a teacher, and in Lesson Three we covered the basics of learning how to sit. We looked at finding joy in your meditation practice in Lesson Four, and today I will address the practice of Walking Meditation as an adjunct to your sitting practice.

As you make progress in your meditation practice, you may find, as Kat did, that it is sometimes very difficult to sit still. This is when it might be very helpful to introduce walking meditation into your practice.

Kat was fortunate to find a one-day Walking Meditation retreat where she received the basic instructions. However, after she came home and started to practice what she had learned, she ran into several impediments, not the least of which was her kitten, Catzenbear. If you have a playful small animal in your household, you will probably need to find a place to practice without their “help.” Catzenbear’s help consisted of stalking Kat and then attacking her foot, hanging on to her ankle as she dragged him along the floor.

The next obstacle Kat encountered was that she found it difficult to concentrate on her breath, while at the same time observing the “lifting” and “placing” of each foot, as she had been instructed to do at the retreat. Her mind would wander off, just as it does in sitting meditation, and when she returned to her walking, she would have difficulty coordinating the breathing and the footwork.

When she became discouraged about her ability to make progress with her walking meditation practice, she sought me out to describe what was happening and ask for advice. While we were sitting on the couch discussing her dilemma, Catzenbear jumped up on the long table situated across the room and walked the length of it. When he turned to walk back, I told Kat to watch him as he walked and tell me what she saw.

She said that he was walking on his toes and seemed to be placing each paw with intention. Then she laughed and said he seemed to be doing paw-paw-paw-paw, being aware of the placement of his paws without making it seem like work. I instructed her to go back outside to try the walking meditation again, and this time to imitate what she had seen Catzenbear doing.

When she did this, she found that instead of saying “lifting” and “placing” it worked better to just say “paw” every time she stepped. Soon she was saying paw-paw-paw-paw, and breathing naturally after 4 “paws.” Her mind still wandered off, but it was easy for her to return to saying “paw” on her next step. And, as an added benefit, using Catzenbear as a model and saying “paw” provided an air of lightness to her practice, and put a smile on her face.

Now, I am not recommending that you have to practice Walking Meditation the way Kat did. Saying paw-paw-paw-paw is not the magic answer. The point is to find a method that works for you. I suggest that you find a space that allows you to walk at least 30 feet in one direction, and then turn around and walk back. This will allow you to repeat this many times without having to think about where are you are going. Focus on your steps and allow yourself to find the right cadence for your breath. Keep your eyes focused slightly in front of you as you walk.

You might try feeling your way into this. As you walk, pay attention to what you notice about the walking. Is it the way you foot feels when it hits the ground? Is it the way your leg feels as you lift your foot? Find out where the point of awareness is for you, and use a word to define that point of contact. Kat was taught to say “lift” and “place” – but these words meant nothing to her. Work with your own experience, not what someone else tells you to do.

Also, pay attention to how you prepare for the walking itself. Stand quietly, feel the sensation of your feet on the ground, and then take a few deep breaths. Begin to walk at a pace that is comfortable for you. Don’t worry when your mind wanders off. Just observe where it was and bring it back to your walking, using whatever words work for you.

I believe you will find this practice of walking meditation to be a valuable addition to your seated meditation practice. It can be helpful when you feel sluggish, or stressed, or restless. There is no need to punish yourself by trying to sit while in these states, when you have a walking meditation practice you can use instead.

Once you have developed a level of awareness during your walking meditation, try to expand this awareness to the walking you do in other places. You will find that you can learn to be more present in many settings. This is mindfulness in everyday living, and it is a natural outgrowth of your continued commitment to your meditation practice.

Next Lesson: Dealing with Dogs

Choosing to Be is a deceptively simple story that delivers a powerful message for all who are better at “doing” than “being.” Drawn from the deeply personal reflections of a formerly depressed person, this lively, magical, and enlightening book revolves around a wise Maine Coon cat, his kitten muse, and the author Kat Tansey. They take the reader on a challenging and often amusing journey as Kat moves through the disorienting haze of depression to the freedom and clarity of her Buddha mind. Kat Tansey is an award-winning author and innovative educator who believes in the power of a well-told tale to teach while it entertains. After twenty years in a high-pressure career, her active life was derailed by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Her journey to regain her physical, emotional, and spiritual health was the genesis for Choosing to Be. www.choosingtobe.com

Kat Tansey

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