To reach enlightenment, the Buddha sat and meditated for forty-nine days under a fig tree, later called the bodhi tree. My meditation group now has its own version of the bodhi, a big, scaly-barked, winter-bare sycamore. And instead of sitting under it, we walk around it.
For the last five years, the group met in one of the buildings in our retirement community. We would gather there two mornings a week for meditation stripped to its bare essentials: other than the chime that I rang to signal the beginning and the end of twenty-five minutes of sitting, there was no ritual: no reading, chanting, or even a candle. Just a silence that felt full rather than empty.
The corona virus put an end to that, at a time when we needed meditation more than ever. But since we’re still allowed to go outdoors, we decided to give walking meditation a try.
Yesterday morning, we met by the sycamore. The weather was brisk, but my fellow meditators are hardy Vermonters, and they showed up booted, coated, gloved and hatted. We spread out around the tree, at six –foot intervals. Feeling slightly foolish, I rang my chime and started walking. How, I wondered, would we find the right pace, not too fast but not too slow? Obviously we couldn’t shut our eyes, but where should we look? And what about the breath?
Somehow, by the time we’d gone around once, all these questions had answered themselves. There is something self-regulating about the rhythm that walking imposes on the legs, the arms, the breath. Without thinking about it we managed to keep our distance from each other. Nobody tripped or got dizzy, and we spontaneously matched each other’s pace.
I kept my eyes on the ground, put one foot in front of the other, and felt more focused than I do during sitting meditation. Also: I have never in my life either talked to a tree or been addressed by one. But this time, circling the sycamore like a planet, I became subtly aware of its presence. Was it saying something? Probably not. But I was feeling something, and that is what matters.
I kept the walk to fifteen minutes, and when it was over people thought that we should increase it to twenty minutes and add a third day, because it felt good and we are all in such need to be in each other’s presence.
We dispersed until the next time, but before leaving I went to the sycamore and , disobeying the six-foot rule, put my hand on its scaly bark.