Walking and Time

“Thank God I won’t be driving for a while!” It was with some relief I said to myself before heading off for a five month stay in Beijing. I’ve been driving since turning 16, which translates to over 40 years of that activity. I suppose that doing something for that length of time should guarantee one a measure of skill at that task. Over the same length of time, I’ve become very solid at shaving my face for example. However, by the time I left for China, thirty years of driving in the Garden State had become a burden I was happy to give up. Driving felt like it was a large contributor to a life which felt too fast. Racing from place to place felt as if I was passing “over” life rather than as a part of it.

I also didn’t like the sense of self-righteous entitlement which came over me while driving. I often had to remind myself that the pedestrians walking across the street, the cars in front of me, etc all had just as much right to be on the road as I did. What’s more, they had a right to move at their own pace as well instead of following an imaginary self-serving rule that everyone should be moving along at a pace which suited my need to rush everywhere. But my own anxiety, coupled with 26 years of commuting in one of the most densely populated areas of the country had fostered attitudes which were becoming more and more unwanted. I didn’t like feeling angry at slower drivers, or competitive with people driving fast. So that’s why I felt so relieved to abandon an activity which is so, “American.”

The reality of life without driving took on a very different meaning upon my arrival in Beijing. I had rented an apartment in an older section of Beijing. My 5th floor rental was spacious and equidistant between White Cloud Temple, a Daoist temple where my “shifu” or teacher lived and the #2 subway line. There was even a grocery story in the basement of my building! Everything was within arms reach. What I discovered after settling into my routine is that a life of walking can be exhausting! No need to attend spinning classes now, I walk anywhere between 2-3 hours every day. My morning commute alone consists of a 15 minute walk to the closest subway, a 10 minute walk within the subway when I change lines, and then another 15 minute walk to Beijing Language and Culture University from the subway. Add to that all of the stairs, particularly the final killer five flights back up to my apartment and I’m practicing my own version of Jane Fonda’s old workout, “Thighs of Steel.”

While walking that much every day is a daunting task, it’s helped reset my approach to time which in turn has developed inside me a deeper sense of quietness. As my teacher, Meng Zhiling, has said, when driving, one’s focus is outside of yourself. Your intention, your self, is outside of this body thus causing one to be out of balance. I’ve found that the act of walking is even more of a natural activity than driving. that in my daily movement from one place to another, I am able to lower my consciousness to what the Daoist call one’s Lower Dantian. I’m not able to maintain this for long periods of time, but the practice helps keep my focus internal instead of external. The problem with driving is that my focus became more and more towards the outside-quite naturally. If I were to focus on my Dantian while driving the outcome wouldn’t be pretty.

I remember hearing something which has stayed with me for almost 20 years during a sermon at a Congregational church I used to attend in NJ. The minister said that we had to eliminate those things in our daily lives which filled up the time we could be using to listen to God. My first action after the sermon was to stop listening to the radio during commuting time. I liked the effect. Now, without the availability of a car to solve my transportation difficulties, I’m finding not a chance to talk with God, but to practice a moving meditation which may be close to prayer. My focus, my intention is more and more internal. Whatever else I gain from my time in China, the moments alone with myself may be the greatest treasures.

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