LEARNING TO WALK
Walking Meditation in the Thick Heat of Bangkok
By Emily Weitz
March 28, 2021
When I was 22 years old, I moved to Bangkok, Thailand, alone. I worked at a school where I was the only American in sight, and lived in a neighborhood that tourists had never heard of. It took me weeks before I could even pronounce my address to my tuk tuk drivers. It was in that place of complete unknowing, that I discovered meditation.
It was another lonely Saturday – my 5th graders were at home with their families, and the other women who lived in my apartment building were busy visiting relatives outside the city, or shopping at the new mall that had popped up a short bus ride away. I sat on my balcony with a cup of instant coffee, looking through my Let’s Go Bangkok book to figure out a plan.
There were dozens of wats (temples) listed as destinations, for those with an interest in Buddhism. But one in particular, with golden spires and dripping adornments, caught my eye. And according to the guidebook, foreigners were welcome to come for free meditation classes in English. I threw my journal, Discman, and pocket Thai translation book into my backpack, and headed out the door.
The usual clump of motorbike drivers were waiting outside my apartment, and I climbed on the back of one for my 5 baht ride to the end of the Soi (block). From there, I caught the downtown bus and stared out the window, listening to the Be Good Tanyas sing about the brightness of the road, as Bangkok’s striking collision of traditional wats, and modern cement shopping centers zipped by.
The fumes of Bangkok, through the half-open bus window, were a thick, hot soup of exhaust fumes, fish oil, sewage, and lemongrass. The ride was long, with many stops where people spilled off and piled on to the crowded bus. A woman was pressed up against me, but I kept my eyes to the window and my headphones on.
We finally arrived at the stop, and as I tumbled off the bus with the masses, I saw the golden spire rising from the patchwork of red roofing below it. I pushed along the crowded sidewalk to the entrance and knocked on the red door.
There was a pause, and I took out my Let’s Go book and double-checked the address. The directions specifically stated to knock on the red door. I tried to look inconspicuous, which I knew, by then, was impossible. I had learned to keep my feet and shoulders covered, to keep the thin veil of a smile across my face, and to walk gently on the earth. But I couldn’t shrink 5 feet and 9 inches of white skin into something that blended into this world. So I turned up the volume on my Discman and watched the crowds lumber past.
Finally, the door opened. The virtue of patience is valued, along with a cool heart, above all else in Thailand, and I was rewarded with the deep smile of a monk in an orange robe. It took him a moment to drink me in, but once he had, his smile widened and he gestured to enter.
Meditation class in English? I tried to explain, and he looked uncertain. I took out my Let’s Go guidebook, and pointed to the passage that advertised these services, and the monk began to nod vigorously.
“You are first!” he said.
“Like, the first to arrive today?” I asked.
“No – the first ever to come!” he said.
Wait – what?
He led me through the dim temple, passed golden Buddhas, towards a back chamber.
“You want tea?” he asked, and disappeared to an even deeper chamber, only to emerge moments later with a pot of green tea and a small ceramic cup.
“What about you?” I asked, as he poured the steaming hot liquid into the cup.
“I do not eat or drink after 11,” he explained. I imagined all those hours from 11am to the time he went to sleep, putting nothing in his body. What did it mean, to have no inputs, except the experiences the world was handing you? What did it mean, to give yourself 20 hours every day to process not food or drink, but thoughts and experience?
“I am going to teach you walking meditation,” he said, and jumped onto the table. It was a large rectangle made of wood, that reminded me of a castle door from medieval times. His bare feet, tickled by the hem of his orange robe, stood before me. I looked up at him, and saw his eyelids were heavy. His feet, though, were wide awake. The toes were lifting, as the balls and heels connected to the table. Then I heard his deep rumbling voice.
“I….. AM…. WALKING.”
At first, I thought, he wasn’t walking at all. He was most certainly standing still. But then I noticed, so subtle that I had to keep all my attention fixed to his feet, that there was movement. A fraction of a centimeter at first, as the ball of one foot lifted off the table. Slowly, slowly, slowly, the heel lifted as well and his foot was moving, as if through thick mud, through the air. And his voice rolled on, “I… AM…. WALKING.”
Time dissolved. There was a voice in my head that beckoned me away from the moment, and it sounded a lot like Jerry Seinfeld. “I get it, you’re walking,” he said from a booth in a diner, at the back of my mind. But I ignored him, because this monk was doing something holy and sacred, and I was the only person there to witness it. To honor it.
Finally, his heel arrived back at the wooden table, each skin cell making contact and having its moment of attention, before the ball of his foot touched down. “I…AM…WALKING.” His other foot began its ascent.
I have no idea how long I sat there, silent, watching him make his patient journey across the length of the table, repeating those three words, as if they were the only words that mattered. All I knew, was that my job was to be in this space with him, as he had invited me in. I sat, and breathed, and watched. When he finally arrived at the end of the table, he slowly rotated back to face me.
“I…AM…WALKING…” he began the return journey.
What other things existed in this monk’s world? He had a mother, somewhere, and he had a childhood behind him, in which he was not always a monk. Maybe he had loved someone. Maybe he had taken up smoking. He was a man that must have ties to the world. But in this moment, he was none of those things, and none of those things was in this moment. In this moment, he…was…walking.
By the time he arrived back where he started, I noticed my breathing had slowed. My eyes felt like they had sunk deeper into their sockets. After taking that journey with him, I too, was moved. I bowed deeply in gratitude, and he bowed back to me with a soft smile. I left the temple with my mind on my steps, on the way my hip flexor engaged, as I bent my knee to lift my foot. As I made my way through the smoggy crowds and onto the bus, I felt completely focused inward, and the buzz of the world around me held none of its previous chaotic din. Instead, all was quiet.
I was walking, until I arrived at a seat, and a woman with a bag of fish smiled up at me and made room. Then, I was sitting. I… was… sitting.
A Step by Step Guide to Walking Meditation
The Benefits of Walking Meditation