FEET WALKING Judith Allen* www.DesMoinesMeditation.org judith.allen@drake.

edu From the moment we left the tearoom in Lukla I loved the walking. I never tired of our long treks. My passion for walking in woods and hills developed early. Some of my best early memories are of hiking and exploring woods, rivers and hills in Arkansas with my father and younger brother. Gratitude for the opportunity to be part of this team on this spiritual journey to Nepal swept over me. At the same time, knowing my diagnosis of cancer was in large part responsible for bringing me to Nepal did not escape me. That this disease could take my life yet cause much that is good to come my way was something I frequently thought about. However, on this first day of our trekking journey I turned from those thoughts, choosing instead to enjoy walking in the beauty of new friends and changing landscapes. Walking and talking for hours with new friends was a special pleasure. Often our lively or sometimes poignant conversations paused as our attention was drawn to surrounding mountains, the milky-green river, the silver waterfalls rushing down mountainsides across the river, sparkling rocks and multicolored foliage and flowers. Sometimes we knelt down on our hands and knees to more closely examine hillsides on which stunning miniature wild gardens grew. Some of the most complex and beautiful tiny wild gardens I saw were scattered over the hillside about midway up or higher on the mountain, Nangkar Tshang Ri, the first mountain we climbed together. These miniature gardens were filled with what seemed to us to be perfectly arranged, vivid, tiny clusters of flowers of multiple bright colors and shapes. On the second afternoon, shortly after lunch I suddenly began to feel sick. Within a few hours my nausea became increasingly intense. As the path became very steep in the afternoon, I began to throw up periodically on the side of the path. Almost immediately friends nearby slowed to walk by my side and several Sherpas offered to take my pack. Upon arriving at our lodge in Namche Bazaar, I was helped to my room. Dr. Dick quickly brought an anti-nausea pill, sick bowl and 7-Up for sipping to combat dehydration. Dr. Charlie also brought nausea meds. Off and on throughout that evening each of our four physicians, Drs. Dick, Charlie, Laura, and Leah continued to check in several times, one at a time, to see how they could help, bringing medicine, liquids and wonderful care. My roommate, Yasmina, emptied my sick bowl with good cheer. Although I continued to be sick into early morning, by daybreak I felt well enough to walk to the next village. This experience of being cared for so well by so many touched me deeply. After several days, a slightly different pattern of walking developed for me, initially without intention. Each day I found that I walked with others for periods of 1

time and walked alone for periods of time. Both the experience of walking with others and walking alone were wonderful and quite different. Sometimes when walking alone, my attention focused only on the walking itself. This was especially the case when the path was more difficult. When negotiating landings on round rocks, pointed rocks, wet slippery rocks or any old rock on more difficult up and down mountain paths, I was very alert and aware of my feet landing on the rock or path. Without intention my awareness eventually seemed to focus in my feet. My experience at those times could be described simply as "feet walking." However, my walking feet were not separate from the path upon which they landed. Similarly the path was not separate from the mountain; the mountain is the path. Sometimes my experience became one of the interconnection of feet walking, path and mountain: all were one. During times of feet walking, peace slowly settled in. After a few of these experiences it came to me that "feet walking" was simply walking meditation or meditation in motion. Walking meditations are widely practiced. In fact I have practiced and taught them. In addition, awareness while walking essentially is the same as the experience I sometimes have when practicing Tai Chi with awareness. When meditating, people often sit but may lie down, stand, or walk while holding their awareness on an object. Often, the chosen object of awareness is one’s breath. During those times of walking on more difficult parts of the path without talking, thinking or daydreaming, the object of my awareness became feet walking. Upon my return from Nepal, friends Sandie and Fred Nelson invited me to dinner to talk about my journey. After I described my experience of "feet walking," Fred dashed to his study to grab a book. Flipping the pages to find what he wanted to share, he showed me a poem entitled Walking, written by Nagerjuna, a second century (CE) Buddhist philosopher and monk. Here is the poem. Walking I do not walk between The step already taken And the one I’m yet to take, Which both are motionless. Is walking not the motion Between one step and the next? What moves between them? Could I not move as I walk? If I move when I walk, There would be two motions: One moving me and one my feet – Two of us stroll by. 2

There is no walking without walkers, And no walkers without walking. Can I say that walkers walk? Couldn’t I say they don’t? Walking does not start In steps taken or to come Or in the act itself. Where does it begin? Before I raise a foot, Is there motion, A step taken or to come What has gone? What moves? What is to come? Can I speak of walkers? When neither walking? Steps taken nor to come ever end? Were walking and walker one, I would be unable to tell them apart; Were they different, There would be walkers who do not walk. These moving feet reveal a walker But did not start him on his way. There was no walker prior to departure. Who was going where? For me this poem invites curiosity, confusion, and delight in trying to understand clearly what Nagarjuna was communicating. I identify with much of this poem in terms of my "feet walking" experiences. The poem interests me as it suggests there is no separate or independent "I" or “self” moving during the walking. The third stanza below illustrates this clearly. "If I move when I walk, There would be two motions: One moving me and one my feet – Two of us stroll by." For many years while in my 20’s and 30’s I had a recurrent dream. In my dream I am a participant in a spiritual community of men and women who have learned to fly using the mind. I never knew what spiritual beliefs were practiced in my dream. Women in this community lived in quarters separate from the men on 3

different sides of a mountain. The men of the community invited the women to join them for a spiritual ceremony and celebratory meal on their side of the mountain. In the next moment, the other women and I are flying higher and higher to go over the mountain and down to the other side to join the celebration. At this point in my dream I always begin falling. I am falling because I have lost mental focus or awareness that was sustaining my flight. As I plummet toward the ground, I panic and try thinking harder. That does not work. I’m terrified, falling faster and faster. I then remind myself in my dream that trying to think harder is not the key to flying. I remind myself that the key to flying is correct mental focus and awareness. Though still terrified, I redirect my mind to engage my awareness correctly (though I never had any idea what correct mental focus and awareness were when I woke up!). My falling slows, then ends. I slowly begin moving upward and forward again and then I wake up. Never did I get to the other side of the mountain! Each time I realized I had dreamed this story again, I wondered what constituted correct mental focus and awareness that I understood in my dream but not when awake. What was I trying to teach myself over those many years? When I first learned to meditate, I was taught to stay or live in the present rather than living in or daydreaming about the past or worrying or daydreaming about the future. I have found meditation to be an extraordinary adventure. In meditation I observe and learn about my inner landscape much the way I observed and explored landscapes of Nepal. It is an intimate experience of learning about my own mind; in part, of learning how quickly and easily I get caught up in daydreaming, worrying, or strong emotional states in thinking about the past or the future. Perhaps all along my dream was telling me to stay rooted in the present, a concept that has become commonplace knowledge in our culture but is more difficult to do than it might seem. That is, I have wondered whether the correct mental focus or awareness that I needed to recapture but was not defined for me in my dream was to stay present. Staying in the present can be difficult when I find myself thinking about the implications of my cancer diagnosis for my life. Each of my doctors indicated I have a type of cancer that likes to come back. I am not alone in this regard; many cancer survivors live with similar statistical possibilities. This reality is sometimes frightening and difficult. At the same time, much that is wonderful and good has come to me as a result of this illness. That paradoxical reality tends to undermine what otherwise is my commonsensical view that having cancer fundamentally is a bad thing. Sometimes I think to myself, “Judith, don’t make this a big deal! Like anything else, cancer can facilitate both good and bad things in one’s life.” The old well-known Taoist folktale of which there are many similar versions illustrates the problem of assuming something is good or bad:

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"Near China’s northern borders lived an old man, whose horse ran away. His neighbors came to comfort him, but he said, 'How do you know it isn’t a good thing?' A few days later, his horse came back, bringing a fine wild horse with it. His neighbors came to congratulate the old man, who said, 'How do you know it isn’t a bad thing?' A few weeks later, the old man’s son tried to ride on the new horse and fell off, breaking his leg. Again, the neighbors came to comfort the old man, who said, 'How do you know it isn’t a good thing?' Some months later, a war broke out. All able-bodied young men were recruited for the war and many of them died as a result. The old man’s son did not have to join the war due to his broken leg and survived with his father.” I love this story that speaks to the wisdom of not assuming events are good or bad, and over the years my personal views have been influenced by it. However, in this story, although the son was hurt, he does not die. How would the story have worked if the son had died? Would the wise old father in the story say about his son’s death, “How do you know if this is bad?” Perhaps, but perhaps not. Insights regarding questions around death are found in all major spiritual traditions, both East and West. The spiritual traditions I study provide descriptions, metaphors, and mythological wisdom for what happens at death. These descriptions can be understood in different ways depending on whether one’s spiritual path is secular or religious. I respect and learn from both the secular and the religious. For example, it is said that when the Buddha was asked if people cease to exist when they die, he replied, “We are not annihilated.” When asked whether people live forever after they die, he indicated, “… there is no permanent self.” Paradoxical, non-dual answers such as these reveal insight and understanding that cannot be grasped by intellect alone, similar to the questions posed by Nagarjuna’s poem, Walking. Perceptions of duality are perceptions based on beliefs that people or objects can be labeled as “this” or “that.” Dualistic thinking leads to perceptions that each person or object has intrinsic, fundamental, essential characteristics or qualities that make the person or object what they are. To ascribe essential, permanent qualities to a person or an object as good or bad, or to states such as life and death as good and bad, respectively, is to think in dualistic terms. Though not necessarily accurate, dualistic thinking and language are practical ways to succinctly understand and communicate thoughts and feelings to others and ourselves in everyday life. That cancer has been and is a source of new insight, new friends, opportunities that nurture and bring joy to my life, and enormous challenges that have pushed me to grow and develop, yet simultaneously imperils my life, is my reality. Some might say it should be easy for me to understand that if I had not developed cancer, other good things would have come into my life without simultaneously imperiling my life. However, working with my life experience as it is rather than engaging in counterfactual thinking about a non-cancer life scenario is most useful to me. 5

Cancer has become a spiritual path and teacher, assigning me this provocative, living koan (or paradox) regarding the nature of existence to solve sooner than expected. Greater insight into the nature of existence is important for me in coming to terms with this cancer. I have not fully or directly realized an understanding of non-duality and the non-dual nature of existence. However, I once again learned something important in those brief periods of being present, experiencing the interconnection of feet walking on mountain paths in Nepal. There was peace. ______________ *This essay is one of a collection of essays written by cancer survivors and caretakers regarding our spiritual journey to Nepal in fall 2012, led by Dr. Richard Deming, founder of the nonprofit organization, AboveAndBeyondCancer.org. ______________ 1 Nagarjuna, Verses From the Center," translated by Steven Batchelor (2000). Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime. New York: Riverhead Books. 2 Thich Nhat Hanh (1999, 2010). Our Appointment With Life: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press. From a Buddhist perspective, seeing, facing and working with our past is important; however, it is most effective when one is at the same time firmly rooted in the present. Similarly, planning for the future is important and effective when keeping oneself rooted in the present at the same time in order to prevent getting hooked into daydreams or anxiety about the future. 3 Li-Jun, J. (2005). Culture and Lay Theories of Change. In Sorrentino, R. M., Olson, D., & Zanna, M. P. (Eds.), Culture and Social Behavior: The Ontario Symposium," Vol. 10, pp. 117-135. New Jersey: Erlbaum Associates, Inc. 4 Singh, P. In Preface to Thich Nhat Hanh (2002). No Death, No Fear. New York: Riverhead Books.

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