Monday, May 4, 2015

The Walking Cure 3: Circumambulation

Mecca -- Pilgrims at the Kaaba
-- By Tom Phillips

Circumambulation is the simplest and easiest form of spiritual exercise. It means walking around, usually around something, often a holy object or site. Every religion practices some form of it.

Hindus walk around the inner sanctum of their temples in concentric circles; Zen monks walk in a circle between meditative sittings.  A Jewish bride circumambulates the groom. Catholic priests walk around the altar, shaking incense from a thurible.  Even Protestants will walk a labyrinth.

The most circumambulated place in the world is the Kaaba in the Muslim holy city of Mecca.  During the annual Hajj, pilgrims circle en masse, symbolizing the unity of believers.

Anyone can circumamabulate.  Even a child can do it,  and get something out of it.  Walking in a circle focuses the mind, creates a center.  Centering is the same as meditation -- the words mean the same thing.   And almost anything can be circumambulated.   The very act of circling creates a sacred space, marked off for contemplation.

Pulpit Garden -- Cathedral of St. John the Divine 
My wife thinks I am developing an OCD, but it's actually a spiritual practice. I circumambulate parks, ponds, gardens, reservoirs, whatever offers a path around it.  I like to start the day by walking around the little community garden at the end of our block. Later I cross the street to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and walk around the towering pulpit in the garden.  It hasn't been used as a pulpit in years, since the days when the cathedral was a center for political rallies.  ("That's where they talk about anti-nuclear war," explained a security guard, back in the day.) Now it's just a centerpiece, an object for meditation.

In Leonia, New Jersey, I like to walk around an elephant.  This is a beautifully rusted steel sculpture, installed outside the Leonia Library -- a witty mashup of nature and civilization, our animal and industrial natures in one. Walking around it always produces an admiring chuckle, to see what God and humankind hath wrought.

Cicumambulation is easy, but it can be made more challenging.   The Taoist discipline of Tai-Chi is based on circular movements -- including walking the circle, an elaborate dance-like exercise.  In the Himalayas in northern India, I walked around the mountain home of the Dalai Lama, and met a young Buddhist nun who was circumambulating on her face.  Instead of walking she was diving into one prostration after another, going around the mile-long path like an inchworm, her face and clothes smeared with mud.

In some traditions, circumambulation is clockwise.  In others it's counter-clockwise.  I prefer counter-clockwise -- somehow it takes a little more effort and will to go against the prevailing psychic wind.  In baseball, you circle the bases counter-clockwise, with somebody trying to get you out at every turn.  Getting home is the challenge.

Still, walking about is easy, in any direction.   And circumambulation carries a message of liberation -- from seeking answers, from striving after goals.  It says, in the most literal way, that the path is the goal.  We end where we began, and begin again.

-- Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips
Leonia Elephant -- Frederick Prescott, sculptor 

For my book, "A Beginner's Life," click here 



  1. This seems like circular reasoning to me. ;-)

  2. When David and I were in Fatima, Portugal, we observed people on their knees circling the cathedral that is built where the three shepherds saw the Virgin Mary. Some had knee pads on, some did not. The cathedral itself was pristine and holy feeling, but facing the cathedral square and everywhere else it was like a circus. Shops promoting the event. Paradox.