Slowly, slowly, more slowly than I have ever dreamed I could move, I extend my foot and, fully conscious of my of toes, heel, shin, knee, thigh, buttock, stomach, chest, neck, head, arms, hands, I take a step. I concentrate on my back foot first. It starts flat on the path with all my weight on it, then the heel tips up, the arch starts to bend, the toes stretch as they are squashed against the earth. I am conscious of when, with the lifting of the foot, the mild pain-pressure-ache of this stretch stops, and also aware, at the same time, that the heel of the other foot, all by itself, unobserved, is already bending, stretching, lifting. I note my breathing: in -- out; in -- a pause; out -- a pause; in through the nose -- the pause of nothingness -- out through the mouth -- nothingness. My lungs move up and down, expanding, contracting.
First one foot moves and then the other. In my mind's eye I follow each foot through all its levering motions, its skimming flight, its setting down. My concentration is centered on my shifting weight, my hanging hands, my breath.
My gaze has lifted, I notice, from the path on which I walk to the world around me. A grassy knoll to my right and the brilliant undergrowth of green beneath trees to my left, moves past me as slowly as the world must move past the perceptions of a caterpillar.
I walk for twenty minutes and cover, perhaps, no more than forty yards, heel arching up over the toes, lifting, swinging, setting down. I walk through the sunshine, which feels like a veil of gold on the skin of my face and my hands. I know the wonder it would be to walk naked with the sunshine veiling my whole body. And slowly I begin to know why a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.
As I walk, I know that I -- who have for many years wanted to walk around the world, who have known, for more years than that, the sacredness of pilgrimage -- I know that I have found my vocation. I set out on it minutes ago. It isn't that I feel enlightenment descending on me, my feeling of vocational certainty exists simply in my movement, in my existence slowed down to a snail's pace. No wonder a snail leaves a silver trail.
With my "antennae" alerted to fever pitch by restraint of speed, I see the blades of grass, millions of them. Even with my eyes five feet above the ground, each grass blade appears distinct, one from another. I see a drop of dew here, a minute green bug there, an ant emerging from the forest of the grass onto the plain of the path. I see one blade that has, no doubt, been bent by a previous careless-of-the-path walker. Its neighbors are already straightening up. I notice the leaves on the trees -- un-countable. But I know, too, that I could count them if I slowed down just a little more. If I slowed down just a little more, the slight bounce of leaves in the almost imperceptible breeze would not make me lose track of that single leaf tipped, even in June, with red.
In the slowness of my Zen walking I can see the sunlight lying on the dark green leaves like a layer of cream, rich cream that has been there and oozed off, so that I don't actually see glossy white particles of cream, but its once-was-there-presence. The air as it moves in and out of my lungs is the essence of nothingness, not warm, not cool. It takes on, at times, from one breath to another a sweet unidentifiable scent. The smell of the grass? The odor of flowers concealed within the trees? Over a cycle of maybe twenty breaths, the scent grows fainter and fainter as I advanced not more than twenty steps.
My heart beats faster than it should. I feel energy surging through me. Zen teachers say that mediation takes a lot of energy, but I have never known it to. I most often feel sleepy or bored, or curious about why I am meditating at all. But now -- energy! And, even though my clothes are cool enough -- warmth! It's as if I am as intoxicated as a bee might be on some too potent pollen. Yet I am also calm. Underneath the tingling, I am calm. I walk slowly, a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly.
Zen walking left me with the knowledge that all I have to do is step into nature and glide no faster than a turtle to start the process of "enlightenment" again. But for now it seems enough to know that -- without doing it.
Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Other travel stories by Jan Haag include HOW I FELL IN LOVE WITH INDIA, TERROR, ZEN WALKING, SPAIN, and MISSION WALK which was first published in Travelers' Tales, A Woman's World.
Jan Haag is a writer, poet, painter, textile artist, and former Director of National Production Programs for the American Film Institute.
INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO