I would believe only in a God who knows how to dance
The Enigma of Self-Moving
Of all the things that inhabit this vast universe, nothing is more enigmatic than what is closest to us – our own nature. We know ourselves to be conscious beings, capable of both abstract thought and complicated emotions. But as soon as we try to say what consciousness is or how it exists, we quickly find ourselves embroiled in a morass of philosophical confusion. Things are not much different in our attempts to understand our emotions. But perhaps the most surprising capability that slips through our fingers when we try to grasp it is our ability to move. Everything moves. But we are self-movers who have no idea how it is that we move.
For the most part, we move through space, appropriating gravity, each movement flowing freely into the next, without ever giving it a thought. Generally we do not have to think about how we move, we just move when and where we want to. But have you ever wondered how you move your body, how you actually experience moving your body? To answer this question you must contemplate how you experience your movement as you live, breathe, and accomplish it. The question is asking for your point of view as the one who is moving, not for the point of view of an observer who is watching you move. Hence, for example, a neurological explanation of how you move is not an answer to the question.
This question is surprisingly difficult to answer. When we make the attempt, we discover that not only do we have difficulty describing how we move our bodies; we are also at a complete loss as to where to find the mover. We say with great confidence, “I move my body.” What could be more self-evident than the knowledge that you are the mover of your body? But where is this mover? Can you locate the self that moves your body? If you cannot locate the mover, is it even possible to describe how you move your body?
Upon first hearing these questions, we are frustrated and have little idea how to answer. But if you stay with your initial puzzlement, drop your thinking mind, and open yourself to really experiencing who moves and how you move, you could experience something truly remarkable. Like similar numinous questions, their answers have to do with realizing our freedom – not through words, but in direct experience. There are many ways to experience true freedom. But, as we are about to see, one of the more surprising ways is found in the Buddhist practice of walking meditation.
Since Zen Buddhism is not a form of faith-based monotheism, strictly speaking it is not a religion. It can better be understood as a practice or discipline designed to awaken us to the true nature of what is. The fact that Buddhism is a practice and not a religion means that it tends not to be subject to religiosity, filled with unverifiable claims, or steeped in dogma. As a result, an examination of the Buddhist practice of walking meditation (in Japanese Zen, kinhin) is especially well-suited for understanding how freedom can arise during the simple act of walking. If we want to catch a glimpse of the extraordinary in the ordinary, we need only recognize what is always and already so: right here, right now, as we are moving through our world, in the always ongoing free flow of one movement into the next, the simple act of walking can become a portal through which we come to realize our freedom and place in all of this.
How to Run Down a Mountain
In order to catch our first glimpse how liberation can arise from the simple moment-to-moment free flow of everyday movement, let’s look at a familiar experience. The following description of running down a mountain comes from a person who was just beginning to explore Zen. The simplicity of his experience reminds us of other similar kinds of experiences. The universality of these experiences also suggests that we are closer to realizing our freedom than we might have suspected. This description of running also provides us with just a hint of what is possible when we are able to transcend the confines of our limited human self.
The first time I saw the Colorado Rockies, I was an out-of-shape graduate student. A friend took me on a hike into the mountains. When we finally reached the top, my legs ached and my throat was on fire with my breath. After a short rest, we started down. To my surprise, my friend began running down the mountain. Being so uncertain on my feet and unsteady on the sliding gravel, I cautiously, and with what I thought was great care, placed one foot in front of the other, simultaneously probing each rock and pebble to make certain it would not slide. As a result, I repeatedly fell down. Finally, I gave up all caution and decided to follow my friend’s example. With complete abandon and at the same time perfect precision, I ran down the mountain. When a rock slipped under my foot, I was able to leap in precisely the right direction so as to never fall or break my stride. Without there being time for calculation, my body knew exactly, with unerring awareness, what to do. When I reached the foothills, my legs no longer ached and my throat and lungs were no longer on fire. I was exhilarated. A few years later, when I began jogging, I was able to find again this joyful freedom that resulted from abandoning myself to movement.
Although this example is a somewhat shallow experience of how freedom can arise in the mundane activity of running, it does give us a tantalizing taste of what is possible. Notice, the more the student thought about how to move, the more he fell. His thinking-self was too present. Finally when he let go of all caution, he simultaneously let go of the confines of his self. He stopped thinking, and just ran. He was suddenly free of self. He was no longer running – he was being run.
Looking more closely at the description, we also discover two ways of moving: one that is bound up with thinking too much and another that is free of the self and its fixations. The transformation from thinking too much to dropping the self is the transformation of the one who moves, or, what is the same thing, the realization of freedom. What is the difference between these two ways of running? Who moves?
Uf o r t ua tl y, t hm o s t c o m m ounderstanding of how we move our bodies does little more than confuse an already confusing topic. It turns out to be much too narrowly conceived to grasp how liberation can arise from the simple moment-to-moment free flow of everyday movement. Since the most common answer is the most confused, we need to see through how it informs our thinking before we try to understand walking meditation.
I Will It to Move and It Moves
When asked, most people say that moving is simply a matter of willing yourself to move and then moving. This answer amounts to saying that all movement occurs in two phases: first, willing our body to move and then moving it. For the purposes of our discussion, we can call this answer the I-will-it-to-move theory.
To see why this description does not apply to all movement and why it cannot grasp the appearance of freedom in walking meditation, let’s look at a simple example. Imagine we are eating a meal together. With your first bite you notice that your food is in need of salt. You have the idea, or perhaps just feel the urge, for more salt. You ask me to pass the salt. My decision to pass the salt and the act of passing it occur simultaneously as one and the same movement. Without thinking about what I am doing, my eyes find the salt and my hand follows. Without giving it any thought whatsoever, without first willing my arm to move, my whole body participates in a fusion of flesh and intention as I simply move my arm to pass the salt. Without first willing your arm to move or thinking about it, saturated with the intention to receive the salt, your whole body participates in the movement of your arm. Your intention to receive the salt and the act of receiving it occur at the same time in the same movement.
As our example clearly demonstrates, our typical everyday way of moving does not take place in two phases. At the moment of receiving the salt, your reaching for it and your intention to receive it are one and the same action. In actuality, intention, flesh, and movement are not separate. Rather, they are fused together in one unified action involving the entire body in our attempt to achieve a certain result. The decision to act and the resulting action occur at the same time in the same movement. In our everyday way of moving, the two phases of the I-will-it-to-move theory are collapsed into one unified activity in which the will to move and the act of moving occur at the same time as the same action.
As a way of adding authority to their view, some are tempted to dress up their account with a little neuroscience and claim, “First, I desire to move my arm. Then the brain and nervous system take over and move my body.” But no matter how much detail you fill in about how the brain and nervous system take over, you cannot escape the fact that this answer is just a slightly more complicated variation of the I-will-it-to-move theory we just looked at. Throwing a little science into the mix adds nothing to its explanatory power, because the theory is based on the very same one-sided description.
Not convinced by the I-will-it-to-move answer but unable to say why, many people defiantly throw their hands up and declare, “I just move!” While such a response is not really an answer, it often expresses the suspicion that there is more to moving than is stated by the I-will-it-to-move description and the frustration that comes from trying to describe a whole-body orientation and movement in which intention and flesh are somehow fused into an inseparable unity.
The I-will-it-to-move view probably seems suspicious to many because it also suffers from the unspoken assumptions of metaphysical dualism: mind and body are two separate and distinct entities and that moving our body can be understood on the model of moving an object. Nothing could be further from the truth. For example, picking up our arm is nothing like picking up a shovel. When we move an arm, we do not experience it as picking up and moving a separate isolated object. Rather, our entire body participates in the movement and we experience the arm’s moving as both the fulfillment and manifestation of our intention. Our arm moves in such a way that it orients our whole body unified in an action saturated with the intention to accomplish something. We clearly do not experience our arm as an isolated mere thing that we mysteriously sling into moving by means of our will. Movement, flesh, and intention occur simultaneously as one unified action involving the entire body as it orients toward accomplishing something. Movement is the visible activity of mind.
But when all is said and done, the most telling argument against the I-will-it-to-move description comes from the simple recognition that it ignores our typical experience. Our experience shows us, again and again, that the way we typically move minute-to-minute is not a matter of first willing our body or some part of our body to move and then moving it. We simply do not always find two distinct phases: an act of will and then an action that follows. Just think how peculiar we would look if our walking were dominated by having to first will each step and then moving. We would look like some sort of herky-jerky marionette. Or perhaps an even better example is Jacques Tati’s lovable character, Mr. Hulot, whose stop-and-go, haltingly indecisive walking seems to go in multiple directions at once, as if he were being driven by seemingly contradictory intentions.
Thinking about Moving
Normally, our minute-to-minute ways of moving are performed as a seamless fusion of intention and flesh where the desire to move and the resulting act is one and the same movement, and where each movement flows freely into the next. This way of moving only happens when we are not attending to it or not trying to make ourselves move in new ways. The exquisite free flow of movement disappears the minute you think about it. Furthermore, attending to our movement while moving is usually an indication that something is wrong or that a movement is new to us. Consider how much we have to think about what we are going to do before we do it when we are recovering from injury or learning a new dance step.
Thus, the kind of movements partially captured by the I-will-it-to-move theory are, for the most part, performance difficulties that require our thought before movement. What the I-will-it-to-move description also brings to light is that movements that involve performance difficulties have two phases. The first phase is about the intention to move in a new way, and it usually involves planning and thinking about how we are going to move. Although there is a tendency to construe the first phase as the cause of movement, a moment’s reflection reveals that it is actually the reason for it. The second phase is practicing and trying to move in the new way.
Oddly, even though the moment-to-moment, free flow of one movement into another is our most common experience of movement and the one closest to us, it is also the movement we have the most trouble recognizing and describing. Part of the reason we have trouble getting a handle on it is because it is the kind of movement that only appears when we are not attending to it. You cannot think about this kind of movement and do it. You can only live it. The moment we attend to it, it disappears and becomes an object of scrutiny for reflective thought, and the more we think about it, the less free our movement becomes. Unlike performance difficulties (such as learning how to dance or walk after an injury) that require thinking about how we are going to move, the ubiquitous free flow of movement that fills our days requires just the opposite – that we do not think about it. For the most part, however, we are only vaguely aware of the unified free flow of the whole body in movement. As a result, we tend to miss just how exquisite our moment-to-moment flow of movement can be and how much of our days are alive with it.
It’s Not Unconscious Either
Interestingly, our rather circuitous investigation into the experience of self-movement has revealed two ways of moving. One way requires thinking about how we are going to move before we actually move, and the other more ubiquitous way of moving occurs in the absence of reflective thought. The observation that our free minute-to-minute movement does not involve thinking suggests to some that it is unconscious. But as it turns out, the reflective/pre-reflective distinction from the discipline of phenomenology is much more suited to the job of understanding these two forms of movement.
Consider some examples. Suppose you are completely engrossed in a game of basketball, or in the midst of giving an inspired performance of a piece of music, or lost in the beauty of a flower, or frightened by a loud noise. In each of these experiences you are orienting pre-reflectively. You are not thinking about what you are doing, yet you are not unconscious. You are conscious and aware and can easily recall your experience. Even though you are not thinking, you are consciously participating with what is unfolding.
Later, in reflection, when you separate from lived-experience, your self appears and you think about what happened. Your descriptions usually take place in the past tense and the words “I” or “me” typically show up in your descriptions. Reflecting on your experience, you might say, “That was the best performance I have ever given. Did you hear the quality of tone I was able to achieve?” About appreciating the beauty of the flower, you might comment on its color or fragrance. You might describe in some detail the most exciting moments in the basketball game. When you think about or reflect on pre-reflective experience, you step out of the flow of lived experience and objectify it.
The word “object” means “that which is thrown before” and the word “subject” means “that which is thrown under.” In reflection we become a subject contemplating an object. We find ourselves no longer participating with what is unfolding, but rather separate from and thinking about our experience. We find ourselves “thrown under” the dominion of an object that is “thrown before” us. Pre-reflective experience, therefore, is both pre-subjective and pre-objective. In reflection as we separate ourselves from lived-experience, the participatory understanding of pre-reflection falls apart into the subjective and the objective.
The pre-reflective/reflective distinction is a philosophical distinction. It is not, therefore, the same as the psychological distinction between the unconscious and conscious. The pre-reflective is not the unconscious mind and the reflective is not the conscious mind. The psychological distinction is more narrowly conceived than the philosophical. The unconscious is that aspect of our pre-reflective experience that we, either through self-deception or lack of interpretive skill, misinterpret to ourselves and others in reflection. Self-deception is a willful reflective misinterpretation of pre-reflective experience that we convince ourselves to be true over time.
The pre-reflective/reflective distinction does not just apply to what we call mind. Properly considered, it applies to the orientation of our whole being, body and all. We can reflectively think and act on our experience. We can also pre-reflectively assess our present situation and move toward or away from whatever is coming our way, and never give it even one thought – except later when we reflect on what happened.
At this point in our discussion, it is probably already clear how the pre-reflective/reflective distinction applies to our two forms of movement. Our ubiquitous experience of the free flow of moment-to-moment movement is properly understood as a pre-reflective experience. The two-phased movement that we uncovered through investigating performance difficulties is a clear example of reflective experience.
Moving without Self
Many of us spend so much of our days thinking about this and that that we completely miss the flow of pre-reflective moment-to-moment freedom of movement that is, for the most part, our constant experience. If you dig yet deeper into the kind of movement that does not involve thinking, you will also discover that there is no enduring self or entity that moves your body. As we make our way through the world dealing with the obstacles and difficulties along the way, nothing seems more certain than that I am the mover of my body. But if you try to locate the mover of your body, you cannot find it. The more we consider this question about who moves the body, the more ridiculous it seems. How can it be that there is no self that moves my body when it is so obvious that I am the mover of my body? Who is the mover, after all, if not me?
Even when faced with the inability to find a continuous self-subsisting self, the claim that there is no continuous self that moves the body still seems wildly counterintuitive. But look again. Nowhere in your pre-reflective experience of the free flow of moment-to-moment movement do you find a continuous self-entity that moves your body. There is just the pre-reflective orientation of your body, fully aware, assessing and negotiating its way through the obstacles, joys, and difficulties of its world. There is no separate self-subsisting self doing the movement. There is only the inseparability of intention and flesh, where the intention to move and the act of moving are simultaneously manifesting in one and the same movement.
Our movement mostly occurs at a pre-reflective level where the intention to move and the actual movement are experienced as one and the same action. At the pre-reflective level, there is no reflective self in play: there is only pre-reflectively conscious, intelligent, purposeful moving. Later when you think about or report on what you were pre-reflectively doing, you introject a self into your experience. You say, “I moved,” and falsely believe your reflective self was there all along. But clearly, a reflective self cannot be present in pre-reflective movement.
Your self is neither continuous nor any kind of entity. Other than where your body is, your self has no specific location. There is no internal control center where it sits and moves your body. Instead, your body is saturated with mind and intention. Mind and body are implicated in each other. Even at the pre-reflective level your bodily orientation and movement is infused with an awareness of your surroundings as you make your way through our shared world.
Thus, the answer to the question “Who moves?” becomes more transparent. On the one hand, if you mean by “self” a continuous self-subsisting entity, then there is no such thing that moves your body. On the other hand, if all you mean by “self” is the non-continuous sense of identity that only appears when we reflect on our movement or experience, then the manifestation of a reflective self when we are having performance difficulties or thinking about our movement is how self primarily appears in movement. Otherwise, there is very little in the way of a reflective self involved in moving our bodies.
We easily recognize how we structure our day-to-day activities by means of reflective thought, but are mostly oblivious to the role the pre-reflective plays in our day-to-day activities. As a result, we almost entirely overlook the kind of bodily intelligence that is always at work in our daily life. Although we do not normally associate thinking with the body, our body is a psychobiological intentional whole. It is not a thing we inhabit, but a condition for inhabiting things. Because it is deliquescently graced with mind it is capable of assessing, negotiating, and making its way through the world without engaging in reflective thought or presupposing a self-entity. When all is said and done, you are not other than your body. And, of course, it is you who moves your body – it’s just not by means of a self-entity or any kind of continuous self.
With the recognition that there is no self-entity moving our body, we seem to have arrived at a fundamental insight of Buddhism concerning the existence of the self. But let’s look more closely. The Buddha’s discovery actually goes to the very origin of self and world and, hence, to the origin of the pre-reflective and the reflective. As a result, pre-reflective experience and the Buddha’s experience cannot be the same. But, as we are coming to see, sometimes something as simple as pre-reflective walking can transform itself into a numinous experience of the source, thus demonstrating how pre-reflective activity can be a gateway to freedom.
Whether we realize it or not, we and the totality of what is are always returning to zero, dissolving into oneness, and being reborn. Imagine you are leisurely walking down the street. Suddenly and without warning, a car backfires behind you. KABOOM! For an instant, you and the kaboom, time and space, subject and object, become one. At zero, there is no self in place to record the passage of time. Then, just as suddenly as everything became one, your self reappears and you begin thinking about what just happened. “Oh man! I thought that was a gun being fired.”
In the same way you died and resurrected with kaboom, throughout your day, in the very first moment of meeting the things and people of your world, you instantly become one with them and then just as quickly separate. When you were strolling down the street you were sometimes orienting pre-reflectively and sometimes reflectively. But when the car backfired, all sense of self, identity, as well as your pre-reflective world simply disappeared in oneness and love.
Whether we realize it or not, it is the same when we first meet anything. For example, in the very first moment you see a tree, you and the tree become one. As a result, there is no distance and no difference between you and the tree, and there is no pre-reflective or reflective orientation. But, in the next instant when your self resurrects commenting on the magnificence of the tree, a distance and a difference manifests between you and the tree. Even when you are looking at the tree pre-reflectively, a sense of a distance and a difference still exists between you and the tree. But when we return to zero, we are completely one with the tree, the reflective and pre-reflective have disappeared, and there is neither distance nor difference.
Unfortunately, we all too easily lose track of how we become one with everything and mistakenly believe that our self is an enduring entity that is the essence, center, and foundation of what we are. Just as we mistakenly perceive our self to be an entity having duration, we also we mistakenly perceive our body and all existing things as having a self-subsisting nature that endures. This mistake is at the heart of our suffering.
Why Did Bodhidarma Walk to China?
When our everyday pre-reflective movement is practiced as a form of meditation, it can grant us access to the Zen experience of freedom and allow us to know that we are dying and resurrecting in love moment by moment. Zen Buddhism is not a faith-based religion or a philosophical system. Since it is a non-dogmatic, practice-based discipline that emphasizes first-hand experiential verifiability, it is an ideal practice for studying walking meditation. Zen is an intense course of study involving a number of practices, including long hours of sitting meditation (zazen) punctuated with walking meditation.
The practice of Zen is not designed to provide the practitioner with a comforting set of beliefs or an alternative explanation of the nature of reality. Rather, it is designed to offer an alternative to explanation by allowing the practitioner to solve the riddle of life based on his own direct experience of reality.1 In a sense, the practitioner wakes up to the way things truly are and his place in all of this. The practitioner develops the ability to know the love that permeates the cosmos and manifest the wisdom that knows the activity of the source. He knows it not because he believes it or has theory about it, but because he has a direct experience of it. This kind of knowing sets him free.
Walking meditation is an important part of everyday practice in the Zen monastery, and was also incorporated by the Buddha into his daily practice. How far back before the time of the Buddha this practice goes, nobody knows. What we do know is that this simple practice can often have profound results, especially when it is combined with other practices, such as sitting meditation.
There are many benefits that come from walking meditation. Zen retreats are usually seven days long, with each day often beginning at three o’clock in the morning and ending around nine or ten o’clock at night. After a few days of this daunting schedule your legs, back, and other structures can start to ache, spasm, or fixate. Walking can help to alleviate or ameliorate these kinds of problems. It also can help keep the joints of the low back (lumbar spine and sacroiliac joints) mobile and free of pain. But one of the more important purposes of walking meditation is to bring the experience of sitting meditation into action.
As a way to take our second tentative step toward understanding how freedom can manifest through walking, let’s look at how it showed up for a beginning Zen student:
After twenty five hours of travel and a sleepless plane flight, I arrived in Japan at seven o’clock in the morning dead tired. My good friend was there to meet me. We had to run errands all over Tokyo and arrived at my friend’s house late that night. I was so depleted that I could not form words anymore. I fell in bed totally exhausted.
We rested the next day and on the following day set off for my first Zen retreat. I was still quite exhausted and somewhat worried by the thought of getting up at three o’clock in the morning for seven days. The retreat turned out to be more difficult than I had ever imagined possible. The pain in my legs from sitting cross-legged was intense and it was all I could do to stay awake.
Even walking meditation was difficult. This particular temple supplied straw sandals that we were required to wear during walking meditation and walking in the temple. Unfortunately for me, the largest were half the size of my foot. Walking in them was quite painful and awkward. As a result, I had trouble staying in step with the kinhin line. Exhausted and in pain, I kept at it.
On the morning of the third day during walking meditation, quietly and without warning, something shifted in me. Up until that moment I felt as if I were confined in a completely oppressive space, burdened with numerous aches and pains and emotional traumas and so exhausted that I could barely see straight. Then, suddenly I was wide awake, feeling as though I were completely at home, unburdened and alive, full of peaceful clarity, and luxuriating in the expansiveness of the softest, most spacious energy imaginable. I felt free for the first time in my life. My mind was like the great expanse of the sky. My consciousness was no longer dominated by thinking. There was no me doing the walking. It was as if something much vaster had taken over and was doing the walking. I was enraptured by the mere act of walking. I was not walking – I was being walked. How could I have passed over this way of walking in my day to day life? I remembered similar experiences when jogging. But that was nothing compared to the freedom I was experiencing now.
Walking free of the fixations of my self brought with it the most delicious sense of freedom I had ever experienced. Moment by moment, step by step, the in-here and the out-there turned out to be the same here. Step after step I was being walked free of all cares and troubles at every level of my being. I felt clear and bright, as if my entire being had undergone a profound cleaning, and was subsequently filled with the greatest sense of freedom imaginable. Instead of resting during the breaks, I spent every remaining rest period in walking meditation, allowing myself to be carried away by being walked.
Right here, within our everyday way of moving, is an ever-arising, utterly simple way to realize our freedom and place in all of this. Even though this experience was just the beginning for this Zen student, it rather dramatically demonstrates how the mundane activity of walking can be transformed into a profound experience of freedom. He had the advantage of beginning his retreat exhausted, and at the end of his rope. The retreat pushed him beyond his limits, he held on until he couldn’t any longer, and then he simply let go and surrendered his limited human perspective – thus demonstrating how something as simple as walking can profoundly open the doors of freedom.
It is useful and instructive to realize how this description differs from our usual ways of walking. Clearly, the I-will-it-to-move description does not even begin to capture being-walked. But even our pre-reflective consciousness can be so swamped with feeling that it obscures the potential for freedom that lives in the heart of our everyday ways of moving. To make the point with an extreme example, consider the plight of a paranoid person who is condemned to feeling his paranoia pre-reflectively.
Whether we walk by ourselves or with others, whether in the city or hiking a mountain trail, instead of just being walked, we find ourselves occupied with endless concerns, ideas, plans, worries, anticipations, and random thoughts. We are often so caught up by the flow of thoughts and concerns that we barely even register the fact that we are moving with utter freedom as each movement flows unencumbered into the next. Whether we realize it or not, moment by moment, one step after another, we are appearing and disappearing, dying and resurrecting with the totality of what is in the free flow of one movement into another.
It is possible to wake up to the wonder of what is always happening – provided you are willing to surrender to your everyday way of walking so completely that you perceive how the true state of affairs comes to presence in the ordinary. You will not find this freedom in pre-reflective action alone. But as we have repeatedly seen, pre-reflective action can be a gateway to the freedom of being-walked. If you give yourself over completely to pre-reflective action, then, right here, right now, in the simple act of walking you can become the effortless peace of being-walked and know the boundless freedom and unencumbered love that appears when you become one with the numinous activity of the source.