Why People Walk, Part 4: Meditative and Spiritual Walking

More in this series: Art, Psychogeography, Car-free

When you live somewhere most or all of your life, it’s easy to get to a place where you think you are familiar with long-running events in your community. Earlier this summer I was thinking about how I had probably been to just about all of the street fairs, festivals, and other regular summer events that take place annually in the Bay Area. And if I hadn’t been to some of them, at least I was aware of their existence. I was thinking about this in the larger context of this walk of Berkeley, and how it has slowly made me aware of how exploring and learning about a place and its history, customs, people, geography, etc., have shown just how much more there is to discover about the place where I live.

A few weeks ago I ran across the book Opening the Mountain: Circumambulating Mount Tamalpais, A Ritual Walk. Published last year, the book describes an all-day walk (about 15 miles) that circles Mt. Tamalpais (for readers outside of the area — this is a mountain in Marin County, north of San Francisco) with stops along the way for chanting, poems, etc. The ritual was started in 1965 by Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen, and was inspired by Eastern practices of walking clockwise around a mountain, rock, or some other venerated object or person. I surprised to learn that circumambulation continues to this today, with groups doing the walk on the Sundays nearest the equinoxes and solstices. Of course, I immediately decided that I want to do the walk soon myself — hopefully on around my birthday in a couple of weeks. But how did I miss this? My range of reading and interests covers the Bay Area, hiking, walking, Beat literature, Eastern religion, etc., but I had never run across this particular ritual until now. Doing a bit of searching online, I noticed that most everything I found was book reviews and bookstores selling the title. It was both re-assuring to find an example of something I hadn’t heard about before, and exciting to think about what else is out there that I have yet to discover.

What comes to mind immediately in thinking further about spiritual walking is pilgrimages. Pilgrimages, of course, have been part of many religions — and often take the form of walking (sometimes very long distances) to religious sites. Walking can also be spiritual without a final destination, where the walking alone is the spiritual practice. A typical image of meditation is of someone sitting quietly in one place for a length of time. But meditation can also take the form of walking, in practices such as circumambulation, and with a combination of walking and breath awareness. In A Guide to Walking Meditation, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh notes:

Choose a nice road for your practice, along the shore of a river, in a park, on the flat roof of a building, in the woods, or along a bamboo fence. Such places are ideal, but they are not essential. I know there are people who practice walking meditation in reformation camps, even in small prison cells.

Willard Labyrinth

Another form that spiritual walking can take is walking a labyrinth. A number of labyrinths can be found at churches, the best known of which in the Bay Area are probably the at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. In Berkeley, an outdoor labyrinth can be found at Willard Middle School (Telegraph between Derby and Parker). The East Bay Labyrinth Project holds monthly walks at the labyrinth, but anyone can walk it on their own during non-school hours. The group is also hoping to bring a much larger labyrinth to the Berkeley Marina. Also in the East Bay, labyrinths can be found at Sibley Volcanic Preserve. I was particularly interested to find that labyrinth walking is mainstream enough to be described by the American Cancer Society as a “complementary method to decrease stress and create a state of relaxation.”


  1. Eric Fischer said

    Another labyrinth that was installed just a couple of months ago is at the top of Duboce Park in San Francisco.

    Thanks for the nice comment in my blog! Your walking project has been a big inspiration for me.


  2. Laurie said

    Thank you for all your really informative posts! I’ve been reading your blog for awhile – I’m sure I’ve used other info as well, but especially wanted to thank you for this one, because in looking further into the Mt. Tam info, found that there’s a great group that does Wednesday group hikes [see: http://home.earthlink.net/~mullerosborn/HIKETAM.html ] and that they have an east bay offshoot group and I went hiking with them this morning and it was great! So thanks again.


  3. Georgia said

    Unfortunately the EB Labyrinth Project at the Marina was not funded in this year’s round of UC-Community Grants, but hopefully other resources can be found to design and install a labyrinth at the marina. I watched the making of a beach sand labyrinth on a KTVE program this weekend. It was restorative via the television, I can only imagine the effect in person.

  4. […] my series about Why People Walk, I covered exercise in general and spiritual and meditative walking, but Andy’s correspondence made me realize that it would be great to talk about walking and […]

  5. You might like my photograph of the heart at Sibley:


    I have another view of the labyrinth in my gallery there, but Walking Into the Sky is my favorite. There are rumored to be 5 labyrinths in those quarries, but I’ve only found 4, each special in its own way, but the heart is the most special of all: tiny yet spacious.

    I’m delighted to stumble over looping paths in various parks here, and hope that the Berkeley Marina project can get some momentum. It would be great if it was something other than the stereotypical Chartres form, given the rich variety of patterns developed over thousands of years.


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