Feet Walking - A Spiritual Journey by Judith Allen

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Judy Allen's essay about her spiritual journey mountain climbing in Nepal with other cancer survivors


FEET WALKINGJudith Allen*www.DesMoinesMeditation.orgjudith.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 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 ones 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.WalkingI do not walk betweenThe step already takenAnd the one Im yet to take,Which both are motionless.

Is walking not the motionBetween 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.

There is no walking without walkers,And no walkers without walking.Can I say that walkers walk?Couldnt I say they dont?

Walking does not startIn steps taken or to comeOr 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 walkerBut 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 20s and 30s 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 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. Im 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, dont make this a big deal! Like anything else, cancer can facilitate both good and bad things in ones life.The old well-known Taoist folktale of which there are many similar versions illustrates the problem of assuming something is good or bad:"Near Chinas northern borders lived an old man, whose horse ran away. His neighbors came to comfort him, but he said, 'How do you know it isnt a good thing?' A few days later, his horse came back, bringing a fine wild horse with it. His neigh