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How to Calm Your Mind Without Sitting to Meditate

“Our way to practice is one step at a time, one breath at a time.” ~Shunryu Suzuki

Sitting meditation has always been challenging for me; practicing mindfulness, even harder.

As a self-confessed worrywart who has contended with constant ruminations, flashbacks, and nightmares for most of my life (more on this later), all prior attempts at being fully present and not thinking merely served as reminders of how little control I had over my mind. Then I took up hiking and stumbled upon a form of meditation that literally transformed my life.

Initially, just being out in nature on scenic trails cultivated calmness and cleared my head. Almost immediately, I realized that hiking provided a respite from intrusive thoughts that have plagued me since I was a tyke.

They include flashbacks of my mother’s numerous suicide attempts in our decrepit Chinatown apartment, my father’s drunken rages, and recurring images of shootings, savage beatings, and other gory crime scenes from my gangbanging days.

Ruminations include the sound of gunfire along with the replaying in my head of toxic utterances in Cantonese that translate to “Giving birth to you was my biggest mistake,” “I wish you were never born,” and my own father yelling “You bastard!”

Somehow, walking in nature enabled my mind to slow down and rest, which felt liberating.

Unfortunately, the novelty soon wore out. Merely walking and hiking wasn’t enough to prevent symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress from returning. I reverted to rehashing the past and worrying obsessively about the future.

However, I had gotten a taste of the benefits of mindfulness meditation and discovered that it can be practiced while engaging in an activity I enjoyed. These revelations motivated me to keep at it.

After reading what was available on walking meditation, which typically advise focusing on the flow of our “in” and “out” breaths, I developed my own techniques for practicing mindful walking and hiking.

My favorite is to look ahead and select a destination point or object and stay focused on it. It can be a shadow on the ground, boulder, bush, tree, manhole cover, light pole, store awning, mailbox, and so on. Once I reached it, I chose another landmark or object, usually a little further away.

Rough or uneven trails forced me to concentrate on each step for safety reasons. My brain automatically blocked out discursive thoughts; otherwise I could slip, trip, or fall. Other techniques I came up with include fully feeling the ground of each step, following the flight pattern of birds and insects, observing cloud patterns, and being conscious of sounds and scents—moment to moment.

Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, often called “Thay,” which means “teacher” in Vietnamese, is revered throughout the world for his teachings and writings on mindfulness and peace.

He has brought the practice into institutions, including maximum-security prisons, helping inmates attain calmness and inner peace while being confined up to twenty-four hours daily. Many of them have professed that mindfulness meditation is the most difficult endeavor they have ever engaged in.

We live in a culture where many of us want quick results with as little effort as possible. This applies to how we approach our work, health, pastimes, social interactions, and problems. This mindset is the antithesis of mindfulness.

In my opinion, it is virtually impossible to tackle mindfulness meditation without patience and discipline. Fortunately, these attributes can be enhanced by engaging in the art itself.

When I started mindful walking and hiking, my ability to stay present was measured in feet and seconds.

As a highly competitive, emotionally undisciplined, and impatient person, I could have easily succumbed to my frustrations and given up. But the short periods of calmness and inner peace I attained—supplemented by my stubbornness—provided the necessary resolve for me to stick with the program.

As I continued my mindfulness “training,” catching my mind when it wandered occurred sooner, and the ability to refocus took less effort. Using kind, positive messages such as “rest” and “focus” was more effective than phrases such as “don’t wander” and “don’t think.”

Insight and mindfulness meditation are usually practiced separately. Personally, when I am procrastinating about something or seeking a solution to a problem, ideas and answers usually emerge effortlessly during or immediately following my walks and hikes.

These epiphanies and aha moments tend to be inspired by kindness and compassion, as opposed to ego.

I was severely beaten by a rival gang member as a teen. For over forty years, I suffered nightmares, flashbacks, and ruminations of the attack. Both conventional and unconventional modalities of therapy failed to provide much relief.

One morning, I was enjoying a relaxing hike when the familiar image of my attacker suddenly appeared. For the very first time, I remained calm and found myself viewing my lifelong enemy as a kindred spirit. I saw him as someone like me, most likely abused as a child, who desperately sought empowerment by joining gangs.

This awakening, along with my spiritual practice, enabled me to cultivate compassion and forgiveness. The nightmares and flashes of the attack ceased at that point and have not returned.

Mindfulness can be practiced pretty much anywhere and at any time. I do it first thing in the morning when I wake up while still lying in bed, in the kitchen, in the shower, at my desk, and most recently while getting dental work done.

Whether I devote a few seconds by pausing and taking a deep belly breath—or hiking for several hours—benefits are reaped.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, practicing mindfulness has transformed my life. With a family history of mental illness and a violent upbringing, I have been diagnosed and treated for multiple mood disorders, including manic depression, post-traumatic stress, addiction, and rage.

My mindfulness practice has empowered me to rest and calm my mind, as well as intercept and suppress negative thoughts. It serves as a powerful coping mechanism for me.

For the majority of my life, I was at the mercy of gambling urges and other cravings. When I encounter them now, I pause, acknowledge what is happening, take a few deep breaths, focus on my surroundings, and allow the urges to pass.

Staying relaxed enables me to respond instead of react, which places me in a better position to reflect and gain insight into the underlying issues that triggered the desire to self-medicate.

My mood is much more stable and I have better control of my emotions. The benefits I received from mindful walking and hiking has inspired me to practice it throughout the day.

I used to loathe driving because of my road rage. I was terrified of myself, often wondering when I left the house if I would end up in jail or the morgue. My level of stress rose in proportion to the amount of traffic I encountered.

Practicing mindfulness meditation in the car keeps me mellow as well as alert. I have become a patient and compassionate driver, smiling at other motorists and limiting use of the horn for safety purposes. Another insight I gained is that my past aggressive behavior on and off the road attracted like-minded people.

The mental discipline I gained also enabled me to embrace Buddhism, which has interested, yet eluded me for many years. All of this empowers me to attain and maintain equanimity. Now, I can even sit and meditate for long periods without feeling restless or irritable.

So for those who find sitting meditation challenging, or for individuals seeking different ways to practice mindfulness, I recommend mindful walking and hiking.

Not only is it a fun way to quiet the mind while getting some exercise, but it can be life-changing—helping us let go of worries, stress, tension, and even the most painful memories from the past.

About Bill Lee

Bill Lee is a second-generation Chinese American who grew up in the Chinese underworld. He is the author of three memoirs. In his new book, Born-Again Buddhist: My Path to Living Mindfully and Compassionately with Mood Disorders, he describes in detail the positive impact that mindful walking and hiking has made in his life. Visit facebook.com/Bill.Lee.author.

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  • Chad Haynes

    Amazing post my man. I was totally engaged throughout. I’ve always found it easy to be mindful and present while walking, especially in nature. Thanks for sharing your story and I’m stoked that you’ve found peace after all of the trauma you’ve experienced!

  • M.

    Hey Bill, what an inspiring blog. I too have troubles with sitting meditation, for many times I can’t stand the restlessness inside. That’s why I decided to dance it all out, just as you decided to go hiking. Just as you describe, there’s still practice to do. Some days I’m totally in the flow and some days I can’t stop thinking. I set my standards really low: showing up is the only ‘have to’. As long as I don’t give up, I will eventually learn how to calm my mind and hear my inner voice. Thanks again for sharing!

  • tamsin

    anyone know how to attach an image for this one to pin on pinterest? this one doesn’t have it…thanks for any help you can offer!

  • Peace Within

    Hi Bill, your story really hit my heart. You have been through so much in your life, it has only made you stronger. It’s not easy to open up about our lives, but the way you did it was beautiful and honest. Manic depression runs in my family. Watching my loved ones suffer has made me so depressed, but I have learned about it. As much as I can. I am so happy that I discovered “Thich Nhat Hanh”, ironically, I discovered him at a very bad time in my life. Through his readings, I found peace in my life. I also practice my own form of mindfulness. Like you, I love mindfulness walking in nature. I feel like it is an escape of my life, I look at the bigger picture. I wish you the best on your journey. Take care. <3

  • Shel

    One of the very best posts I have read on the site (and I’ve read MANY). Thank you.

  • Bill Lee

    Chad. Your kind words are much appreciated. We are kindred spirits in our path out in nature. Much peace and blessings to you. Bill

  • Bill Lee

    You’re welcome, M. I applaud your creativity in discovering mindful dancing. I admire your resolve and commitment. Peace & Joy to you. Bill

  • Bill Lee

    Hello PW. I am touched that my story resonates with you. It sounds like your loved ones’ illness awakened your true nature, cultivating compassionate for them. Please practice loving-kindness for yourself as well, my friend. Peaceful breathing, Bill

  • Bill Lee

    Dear Shel. I am humbled by your kind words. I am grateful to Lori and Tiny Buddha for enabling us to connect and support one another. Be Well, Bill _/_ :):

  • Mikey

    This post kept my eyes glued to the screen. I have gone through tough times in my life too (probably not as tough as you) and I kinda see a bit of me in you. Buddhism has always interested me, and from your post, I wanna know more!
    Thanks for sharing your challenges, and most of all your TRIUMPHS!
    Wishing you all the best for each and every moment.
    Thank you!

  • Bill Lee

    Hi Mikey. Thanks for sharing a little about yourself. I wish you well on your path and sincerely hope you attain inner peace. Be Well. Bill

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    As someone who also struggles with a number of mental disorders & post-traumatic stress; your story is quite inspiring & gives me HOPE esp with a lot of the emotions that’s been building up lately…Thank you for sharing your story & CONGRATS on getting to where you are today…:)

    By the way; I have quite the ‘road rage’ as well, though I like to think that it has gotten much better lately; though I still have my outbursts at times..:P, Is there any specific MINDFULNESS MEDITATION that you suggest while driving esp during times when you feel someone has wronged & your emotions seems to be getting the better of you..??

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Hey Peace, as always..really enjoy reading your comments/feedbacks… By the way, is there any specific books from Thich Nhat Hanh that you suggest for reading..??

  • Akash Bothra

    Thank you so much for this post. After reading “The Power Of Now” by Eckhart Tolle, I have started practicing mindfulness, and I also try to do it while doing anything. I used to talk too much, without listening to others. But now slowly my behavior is changing from more talking to more listening, and my power to understand the other person has improved. This is all because practicing mindfulness every now and then, while doing any work. You are doing a great job, All The Very Best To You….

  • Bill Lee

    Thanks, Akash Bothra. Below is my favorite quote on (compassionate) listening. I hope it resonates with you. Blessings to you. Bill _/_
    “If it is your partner who is angry, just listen. Listen and do not
    react. Do your best to practice compassionate listening. Do not
    listen for the purpose of judging, criticizing, or analyzing.
    Listen only to help the other person express himself and find some
    relief from his [or her] suffering.”
    ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Zen Monk

  • Bill Lee

    Hello Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt. Thanks for the kind words. I devote a chapter to road rage in “Born-Again Buddhist.” If you like, I will cut & paste the chapter and email it to you. Just message me at: mail@chineseplayground.com. Peace & Serenity, Bill.

  • Peace Within

    Bill, thank you so much. Those were the sweetest words ever. You have an amazing soul. Keep shinin’ <3

  • Peace Within

    Hi. I am glad you like reading my comments. The people on here are amazing. I will have to check which ones I have. Off the top of my head, check out “Peace Is Every Step”. He has an incredible way with words. Makes you think and makes you understand.

  • Peace Within

    People don’t wrong us on purpose. People act out how they feel inside. Can’t let it get the best of you, especially if you don’t even know the person. Ten deep breaths help with overwhelming emotions. At least for me! Hope this helps =)

  • Bill Lee

    I hope we can stay in touch, Peace Within. Peace & Blessings, Bill

  • TheycallmeJordan

    Good post Bill, I will try hiking to clear my mind from now on. I never thought about the mindfulness needed to just walk up a trail. I can see how it would help innately like that.
    Thank you.

  • Peace Within

    We sure will! Take care =)

  • Pixie5

    This isn’t a meditation but one thing that has helped me is to simply remember all the stupid mistakes that I have made while driving. No one is a perfect driver and most of the time they are not doing anything on purpose. I have found that having a little humility helps me calm down.
    Now if I could just apply that same concept to other stuff as well! It is difficult to do that but I am working on it. ;=)

  • Pixie5

    Wow, easy to say but hard to do! But isn’t that what we always want from others? The “Golden Rule” in action.
    From the little I know about Buddhism it seems like it goes deeper than just the commandment from the Bible as it gets into techniques of HOW to do it. The “Golden Rule” of course is present in most religions and predates Christianity. But the challenge is to change your heart, not just your behavior. I suppose they work together, but by just legalistically following a commandment I doubt will get you there.
    I can “listen” but not “listen”, if that makes any sense. I “hear” through my perceptions, rather than what is really being said. Having bipolar disorder makes it even worse, since it skews reality. But part of that seems to just be the human condition. People without mental illnesses still see everything through their perceptions of reality, rather than reality itself.
    We are all screaming to be heard, but all anyone “hears” is the screaming…
    .

  • Pixie5

    Hi Bill. This article really touched me and I was both surprised and pleased when I saw that you wrote it. You have left a couple of comments on my blog Bipolar Lessons.

    Edit: It seems like disqus won’t let me post the addy, otherwise I would. But just add the “dot com” to it to look it up.

    I also read your recent article on Om Times and reblogged it on my site. But I have to say that this article is way, way better as it has the personal touch. I am intrigued enough that I have decided to buy your book.

    I too, am plagued by obsessive negative thoughts, although thankfully I do not have PTSD. If someone like you who has gone through so much can recover from that, certainly I can as well. While I cannot “walk it out” as you describe because I am disabled, I am certainly interested in learning mindfulness techniques that will help me. I have had mixed results trying meditating as it actually much of the time intensifies those thoughts although I guess that is a common problem. I take heavy duty medication to sleep partially because those thoughts plague me at night when everything becomes quiet. I have been trying part of the time to either focus on the sensations of being in bed, the feeling of the mattress, the temperature of the air, ect. Also I have tried the loving-kindness meditation. Both are difficult but when they work I feel better. I know that you are not supposed to use meditation to go to sleep but for me this seems like a good therapeutic tool.

    I am going to share this article with my readers and please feel free to come back to visit my blog anytime! Thanks again!

  • Elate Life YH

    Bill, thank you for your sharing.
    You are the first one who writes the experience which is the same as I do – solution pops up in my mind during walking meditation too and I saw the negative side of me during my first walking meditation so I reminded myself to eliminate the negative side.
    Keep it UP!!! Bill.
    Please inspire more people to transform their life through meditation and compassion.

  • Bill Lee

    You’re welcome, Jordan. Thanks for the comment. I hope being mindful on the trail enhances your hiking experience. Please let me know if it helps. Peaceful Hiking. Bill

  • Bill Lee

    Great comment, Pixie. Very profound and insightful. The beauty of mindfulness meditation is developing the ability to intercept and block intrusive thoughts, while quieting the mind. The calmness and insight that follow stabilizes our “active” minds. Joy & Serenity, Bill. :):

  • Bill Lee

    I am grateful that my words resonate with you. With mindfulness, we can choose when to address the negativity that emerges instead of letting them intrude and disrupt our equanimity. I applaud your courage to address your “negative side.” Please cultivate loving-kindness and compassion for yourself during the process. Peace and strength to you. Bill

  • Bill Lee

    Hello Pixie. Thanks for much for your support. I sent you a message yesterday via your site regarding my book. I appreciate your patronage.

    There are many creative ways to practice mindfulness: knitting, sewing, sketching, painting, and so on. As long as the individual is fully alert, engaged, and not thinking. Hence, a caveat to the above statement is that someone just learning to knit, sew, sketch, or paint and has to follow instructions or think about what they’re doing would not be advised to practice mindfulness and their craft simultaneously. However, an experienced hobbyist can integrate mindfulness into their activity. The key is to engage the “right” (creative) brain.

    By the way, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using meditation techniques to fall asleep. Many, many practitioners do it including yours truly. The issue comes about when individuals adopt a meditation practice whereby they choose to lie down to meditate and fall asleep when they don’t intend to. 🙂

    Please stay in touch and thanks again for all your support. Your blog is awesome. Bill _/_ :):

  • Mara

    Thank you very much for this post! It comes just at the right time for me, unbelieviable.
    For me its still impossible to sit dowhn for meditation. Only with a guided meditation I can calm down a little bit but i think thats not really enough for me and it doesnt really help me to find a better way dealing with my depression and ptbs symptoms. But I really enjoy it very much to go for a walk, I feel so right when Im outdoors and can accept the thoughts come and go there. Ive heard about walking meditation before but always like a way which is not as good or as helpfull as sitting meditation.
    And so Im really glad to read your post and see now this kind of meditation as an equal one.
    I wish you the very best for your life and thank you so much for sharing your experiences!

  • Bill Lee

    Hello Mara. Your kindness is appreciated. I’m hopeful that as you continue to integrate mindfulness into your walking sessions — that you will notice an improvement with your symptoms. Research have shown that the most effective ways to boost the neurotransmitter, serotonin, is through exercise, sunlight, and sleep. Exercise also increases dopamine and epinephrine.

    And as I mentioned to Pixie5, there are many ways to practice mindfulness meditation. There’s a good chance an activity or hobby that you enjoy can be done mindfully. Wishing you the very best as well in your path of healing. Bill _/_

  • Jason Holborn

    Well, this is really something.

    I must say, this is an essay and a personal relating which has definitely changed and formed my whole concept of the word “mindfulness”. Thank you, and namaste.

    This is really fascinating food for thought.

    A day later, I’ve come to realize that reading is probably for me a “mindfulness” task; it keeps me “present” (in the pages, at least) and focused away from anything unhealthy to think about. I feel healthier and clearer when I get up from reading, and I realize now, thanks to your sharing, that it’s because I am thinking about what I’ve just read (as opposed to thinking about unhappy things).

    Friend, when I used to work in Alaska, I trekked up mountain trails every single day that I could — usually 3-4 times a week if I was able to. You are absolutely right, and I see so only now… it was very good for my thinking.

    Your insight here in this writing has been valuable, and much appreciated. I honor you as my teacher. Thank you for sharing this knowledge. Be well.

  • Shane

    I find hiking alone just ends up driving me towards fixating on the damned thoughts I should be leaving behind. I’m really glad it works for you, but it’s definitely not for everyone. Personally, I actually find socializing works pretty good to disengage me from destructive thoughts.

  • Mahesh Sahu

    This is one of the best article, i have read in the website.
    I am a scientist and when i find that my mind is struck and feel restless. I just go for walking and try to practice mindfulness.
    I find that many scientific doubts are cleared and mental clarity are increased. I find myself rejuvenated for further work.

  • Bill Lee

    Hi Mahesh. I totally agree with you regarding the clarity and rejuvenation. Many practitioners practice mindfulness and insight meditations separately, but I discovered that simply training in mindfulness enables the insights and solutions I’m seeking to emerge effortlessly.

  • Bill Lee

    Hi Jason. I thank YOU for sharing your experience and self-awareness. I’m grateful that my story resonated with you. I”m sure others here will benefit from your comments. With Gratitude_/_

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Totally agree; BREATHING IS KEY & everyone is dealing with their own personal problems…& I been really trying to remind myself that more often in such situations the past year or two… But, I have a really short temper since childhood (though cool off just as quickly), in those few min. or even few sec, it can leave things messy for everyone; to say the least…:P

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Let me know when you remember them or even any similar worthwhile books for that matter… He sure does, Dalai Lama is my personal fav though; his wisdom coupled with his sense of humor is like none other! Looked it up in Amazon..did you mean, “Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life?”

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Haha…funny; & appreciate your honesty! :). HUMILITY; need to remember that more often. The part about oneself making mistakes while driving has actually helped me to see through the other person’s shoes a little better at times as well. Then again, I have also noticed more & more…the pattern in myself whereas a majority of my negative reactions in such situations has a lot to do with my overall mood/mindset during those days/moments as well.

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Thank you, just emailed you!

  • Peace Within

    Hi! Yes, that’s the one I meant. I like how you brought up Dalai Lama, it’s good to be humorous! Most people forget as they grow older. It’s good for the soul though! 🙂

  • Peace Within

    I used to have anger issues. Over the last few years I met all different types of people. I met some people that have no type of control over there anger. It was actually kind of scary. In an odd way seeing all of that calmed me down. I just learned how to deal with things differently because I never want my temper to control me. Also, my dad taught me that people don’t think when they are angry, the worst things come out of there mouths. It is true. Give yourself time and you’re good!

  • Bill Lee

    I hope the information I sent is useful, Jeevan.

  • Bill Lee

    Hi Shane. Yes, there are many ways to practice mindfulness. As long as you identify something that helps you cope with negative, intrusive thoughts — that’s what matters. _/_

  • Bill Lee

    Hello Jeevan and Peace. I hope it’s okay to jump in here. Jeevan, since
    you mentioned issues with road rage and your temper, my favorite book by
    Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) is “Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames.”

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Its totally fine Bill..actually, appreciate you jumping in & making a suggestion! I’ll take a look at it right now, thank you. 🙂

  • Stephanie Crowley

    Thank you for being so open, so honest with your experience. As a child sexual abuse survivor, I experienced many of the same things you did — and yoga, and walking meditation, were the beginnings of real healing and peace. Bless you for sharing.

  • Bill Lee

    You’re welcome, Stephanie. I wish you peace and joy in your path of healing. _/_

  • Sarah Somewhere

    I agree, this is a fantastic post. So good, I just bought your book! Wishing you much peace Bill!

  • matthewwtoler

    my best friends sister got a very cool Audi S5 Coupe only from working off a laptop. read the full info here x.vu/TP1V8l

  • Samantha

    Simply an amazing post!

  • AL

    Thank you so much for posting this and sharing your experience

  • Geet

    Thank you Bill Lee for sharing such an inspirational story, definitely it solves me understand why I loved hiking in the past and that I should resume it now. Wish you all the love and luck ahead!!!!

  • Tanya

    What a raw, powerful, inspiring story, Bill. I’m so glad you’re shedding a light on your past and helping others in the process. Thank you so much for sharing. This is the best post I’ve read from Tiny Buddha so far.

  • DB Hoster

    Bill, thanks so much for letting me know what mindful walking/hiking was all about. Having a violent family upbringing and ptsd issues, I am extremely interested in getting involved in it. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I hope to read your book in the coming year as well. Peaceful vibes to you!

  • Peter

    A truly inspiring post.. Thank you for sharing your story and re-igniting my desire to improve how I live.

  • This has to be one of my favorite posts.

  • Michael Clarke

    I second shel’s opinion. What a fantastic post! Thank you Bill.

    I come to this website everyday to read the new post. This ranks among the best I have read.

  • Flower

    Thank you Mr. Lee. I had given up on mindfulness. You give me hope.

  • Ang

    Very inspiring. There are many variations of meditation and I believe everyone can benefit from them. I’m glad to hear that you are healing.

  • Yeah. Hefty story. I work with people as a mentoring partner. And for the last two months I have been working with a young guy who had some really shitty days from when he was a kid. Beating and phycological warfare. I had both brothers as Taekwon-Do students for a long time.

    He’s been following my lifestyle for a while, and have done an amazing job with himself. It wasn’t until I lead him into regular mediation that his mind started to calm down and he could be more present. He also found nature to be a very important ingredient. Lots of new healthy impressions and a load of negative IONS in the air.

    What I have found as a disconnecting practice the last two months is traditional intuitive archery. Good stuff to practice out in nature:

    https://www.instagram.com/p/BVHnuMRg-pl/

    Thank you for sharing your story! Motivating to see your methods and progress

  • Great post, Bill!

    While I do habitually meditate, I use journaling as another tactic for building mindfulness. A quick 5-10 minute stream of consciousness frees my mind of everything that’s currently stressing me out.