A friend unfamiliar with my Zen practice once asked if I do formal walking meditation when I walk my dog, and out of courtesy I refrained from exclaiming my gut response: “Good lord, no!” The question was genuine, as my friend had read some things about Zen, but my instinctive response was equally sincere. Formal Zen practice–whether done while sitting or walking–is about consciously training your mind, and my dog-walking, for good or ill, is about leaving my mind alone.
I’ve come to crave my day-end dog-walks as much as some folks probably crave their after-work cocktail. After my last class ends at 5:45, I walk home, drop off my bag, and change clothes, shedding my teaching persona along with my outfit. Wrestling a leash onto an ecstatic and wriggling Reggie, I leave my apartment mere moments after having entered it, heading back onto the same streets where we’d walked before sun-up.
This is how my teaching days are framed, with mirror-image dog-walks at 6:00 am and 6:00 pm. At 6:00 am, my mind is groggily rehearsing the day’s to-do’s, wondering where I’ll find the time to do everything; at 6:00 pm, I’m ready to call it a day, content to put off until tomorrow that which I didn’t get around to today. At 6:00 pm, I feel tired, satisfied, and grateful for another productive day; at 6:00 pm, I feel like I’ve put in an honest day’s work and deserve to spend the rest of the evening on the couch with my feet up. But first, I walk.
In the past, I’ve skipped this after-work walk, heading straight from school to couch. But these days, I relish the chance to Unwind before I unwind. Settling into a leisurely stroll as Reggie and I take a quick walk downtown and back, I feel today’s to-do’s fall away with each step. Some people say they enjoy walking, jogging, or other forms of exercise because these activities give them time to think; for me, I enjoy walking for the opposite reason. Teaching requires your mind to be constantly “on”: even when you aren’t physically in the classroom, you’re reviewing materials, mentally preparing in-class activities, or reading student work. On either teaching or grading days, you’re constantly thinking, planning, and juggling. When I come home, change out of my teaching clothes, and grab Reggie’s leash, I’m taking my own brain for a breather.
I’m still surprised at how deeply I crave these walks, and at how quickly they bring respite. Once I’m no longer “on,” I can leave my mind alone, letting it relax, renew, and wander wherever it will. Tomorrow morning, after I’ve just woken up, I’ll drag my groggy body onto my meditation mat to sit before I walk: a chance to Unwind before I unwind. But on an evening after teaching, my brain is like an antsy dog that doesn’t want to Sit and Stay but instead wants to Roam, unleashed and unrestrained.