Walking as meditation or how to walk in places of emergency | ANNA TZAKOU

Walking is a process through which one repetitively ‘aligns’ one’s body with the environment in the present moment. It uncovers and re-orders the ‘creative tension of self and world’ (Wylie, 2013: 62). As an outdoor performance deviser from Athens, Greece, I have been wandering through sites of calamity, anger and despair. The changes in the social and cultural fabric of this specific geographical place have caused shock and emotional pain disclosing different kinds of collective wounds in situ. With this text I would like to argue for a walking performance practice founded in the discipline of mindfulness. I indicate how, within an environment of ‘crisis’, such a walking practice psychophysically opens up the participant and encourages her to actualise an event of interrelationship with the place. I disclose how it formulates a performance container within which the spectator is enabled to process and re-examine her political, perceptual and emotional present.

Performance Topophilia (2013). Photo by Elli Vassallou

The Geopoetics Project (2013). Photo by elli vassallou

Walking has been a dynamic form of site-specific performance[1]. By requesting audiences to walk, outdoor performances are liberated from the authority of a specific site and evolve into movable participatory structures. The ‘journey motif’ (2008: 99) as Wilkie discloses it, arms both performers and spectators with experiences of free playing with place and the conviction that the city is an alive breathing organism which affects and equally is being affected by the dreams, impulses, hopes and fears of its individuals.

The walking dramaturgy provides two advantages to the field of the outdoor performance. Firstly, it offers an understanding of space through the body. Secondly, it detaches and suspends sites from their embedded national, cultural and political narratives. Places are possible to be experienced on a slow walking-pace, unmediated and in a fully sensorial way. They are examined as an interwoven fabric made by intentions, memories, facts and landscapes. The established reality becomes apparent as a specific ‘storyline’ in parallel where alternative hierarchies are possible to happen. Walking dramaturgy narrates the ways, pragmatic or dream-like, through which we enact and experience places. It ‘makes us aware of the mechanisms of communication and the artificial construction of imaginary (real) worlds even while we are moved and engaged by them’ (Turner and Behrndt, 2008: 193).

In my site-specific performance practice, I see the outdoor space as an accessible arena of culture where I can question narratives of identity, home and belongingness. I apply my performance training in situ to investigate site as a somatic event, as sense, feeling, impulse, association, image and action, prior to the processes of its conceptualization[2]. Cultural geographer, Mitch Rose claims that the bodily experience in situ discloses the body’s ‘effort to dream the world as a whole’ (2006: 549). It manifests reality as a ‘body-landscape co-emergence’ (op. cit. p.538). Rose argues that in order for one to embody the landscape one needs to build an in situ practice of “attaching materialities to affectivities, and perceptions to places” (op. cit. p.549) narrating the current cultural event like a ‘dream of presence’ (ibid.). In my own training, it was the practice of walking as meditation which enabled me to explore place as the presence of self, other and space in the given moment and as an interrelationship between the material and the affect.

Walking was already part of my training in the studio space. In the American post-modern dance lineage, this specific activity constitutes one of the postures of its movement vocabulary that includes lying, sitting, crawling and standing. Movement here is neither stylised nor technique-based. According to Anna Halrpin, it operates as a vehicle of listening to its ‘kinesthetic sense’ (Worth and Poynor, 2004: 149). It is about ‘“inhabiting the body” …turning the attention to the physical sensation of everyday movements’ (op. cit. p.148). Dance artist Barbara Dilley ascribes such a vocabulary as ‘elegant pedestrian’ (2015: 49). She recongnises it as an apparatus of a being at home with the body, ‘a place to stay and seek variations’ (op. cit. p.55).

Furthermore, walking was introduced to me as a meditation technique of the Buddhist samatha vipashyana practice. The word samatha signifies ‘inner stillness’ and vipashyana “‘insight’ into the nature of things” (Rahula, 1974:68). Samatha facilitates a bare witnessing of the present moment and creates a platform of concentration where upon vipashyana as awareness arises and is cultivated. Samatha vipashyana are complementary qualities practiced through different techniques. Each technique has a specific point of attention; when the mind wonders it uses the focus point as an anchor to return back to the present moment. A much-known point is that of the breath, walking is another one.

In the Satipatthana Sutta (The Discourse of Establishing Mindfulness), a Buddhist 2,500-year-old script, the objects of contemplation are organized into Four Foundations of Mindfulness: body, feeling, mind and mental objects. The First Foundation includes the four postures of lying, sitting, standing and walking, breathing, bodily activities, anatomical parts, the four elements (earth, water, fire, and air) and the corpse in decay (Anālayo, 2003: 17). Based on the Shambhala tradition, walking meditation practice has the following instructions[3]:

walk at a normal pace;

place your hands on your solar plexus;

keep your eyes opened with a soft focus on the horizontal level;

notice the moments when the foot touches the ground as it arrives and departs from it;

each time that the mind wonders bring your mind back to the feet connecting with the earth.

 Buddhist monk Bhante Gunaratana explains:

[Walking meditation] is not an athletic exercise or dance. It is an exercise in awareness…. Just register the sensations as they flow…There is no need for a sense of self. There is only the sweep of tactile and kinesthetic sensation, an endless and ever-changing flood of raw experience. We are learning here to escape into reality rather than from it. …The goal of our practice is to become fully aware of all facets of our experience in an unbroken, moment –to- moment flow… [this is] another way to make the unconscious, conscious (2002: 161,162).

In my artistic practice, walking meditation enables me to deconstruct the social self, open up the sensed perceptions, and amplify the dialogue between inner life and outer landscape. Walking meditation disintegrates the living experience of the environment labelling and therefore discriminating mental and physical patterns, sensations, feelings and impulses. By coming back to an on foot traversing-the-landscape sense, walking becomes an experiential platform of inquisitiveness. It constructs a liminal zone for the practitioner not to be identified with her own interpretation of the place’s experience and at the same time expand her in situ perception.

The Geopoetics Project (2013). Photo by elli vassallou

Contemplative walking cultivates the awareness of a non-segregated existence between the world and the I who perceives. Reality is seen as an unrestricted creation of the I while it experiences, and landscape is recognized as the consciousness of that reality. Place becomes a centerless circle, a meditative space in which the experiencer functions both as its seeds and expressive means. Physicality (outer) and vulnerability (inner) are interwoven into a secret territory which the walking experience unveils and ascribes the landscape’s perpetual becoming as a narrative. Chögyam Trungpa Rinproche teaches:

...[we] can see in two different ways. The ordinary way is characterized by the fact perception is always related to accomplishing some end other than the perception itself. It is created as a means rather than something in itself... [The other way] is a definite different when we just look at [things] as [they are] and enjoy the vast colors that are there in tremendous vividness. When we look like this we will immediately notice how free we become. The entire network of mental factors in which we usually labor just drops off (Gunter and Trunga, 1975: 17, 18).

In the following paragraphs I give two examples of the ways walking meditation have been integrated with my own outdoor performance practice. The first one derives from a solo practice and discloses how the contemplative technique actualises the body-landscape interrelationship as sense, feeling, image and association. The second example comes from a site-specific walking performance and depicts the ways through which the instructions of walking meditation were integrated with a dramaturgy of an audience participation event.

The Geopoetics Project (2013). Photo by elli vassallou

The Geopoetics Project (2013). Photo by elli vassallou

The Geopoetics project (2013) was a body-landscape performance practice residency take in place in Nisyros island in the eastern part of the south Aegean Sea. The island constitutes the youngest active volcano of Greece and holds in its centre a 4 km in diameter caldera. The caldera includes several craters. Amongst them, the biggest and most imposing, Stephanos, expands up to 300 meters and it is dated 3000 years old. Caldera became one of the main working sites of the project.

Contemplative walking started as a transitional tool for entering the practice and was developed into an action of sinking as dwelling into the landscape’s presence. Walking became a movement container where everything considered as known (or unknown) was enabled to be suspended. My walking meditation practice in the caldera resulted into the following imagery:

…walking the caldera feels as if I am walking the landscape of my inner body…organs and fluids…this crater is my heart…the other one is my pancreas… the dents and valleys are my veins… this is a map of my most inner unspoken experience… I walked on it, I move with it… it is healing... (personal journal, May 2013).

Alongside the crater walking became a somatic object of attention (samatha) through which a new understanding of the site (vipashyana) arisen as an image between body mind and site. The walking practice made evident an intermediate zone where the outer physical space met with my inner experiential one. The traversing of the land operated as a medium of interconnection between the crater and my body mind. Hidden relational-ities between the ‘I’ and the landscape articulated what dance practitioner Anna Halprin designates, as ‘personal mythology’ (in Worth and Poynor, 2004:89), a living meaning, and content experienced as place.

Performance Topophilia took place in the Athens in 2013[4]. During that period of time the city has been in humanitarian crisis and its transformation rapid and irrevocable. As an Athenian, its sight was devastating. It directly affected my personal experience evoking a sense of displacement. In this context, creating an event of interrelationship with Athens became essential. It signified a way of re-discovering where the city and I/we could become (or are) connected. To underline the creative motive of the project, I titled the performance using the neologism ‘topophilia’. The notion of topophilia, ‘the manifestation of the human love of place’ (Tuan, 1974: 92), aimed to reassess the degraded landscape of the Athenian ‘crisis’ through an open heart and mind and devise from that experience an event of interrelationship.

Performance Topophilia (2013). Photo by Elli Vassallou

Performance Topophilia was a ten-station route alongside Heridanos, a buried river situated in the centre of Athens. From station to station the audience members had to walk in silence using their eyes and ears as ‘camera’. Based on Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s analogy of the body mind synchronization where the body is the camera and the mind is the film of the camera (1984: 39) this metaphor was used for introducing walking meditation instructions to the audience. The word ‘camera’ offered a reachable image through which the participants could concentrate in the received stimulus of the outer environment and soften their mind (film) process on projecting meaning.

During the period of 2012-2014, different kinds of social anxieties and struggles were manifested in its streets of Athens. Most of the spectators of the performance had nothing loving to state about their life in the Athenian city. The place was perceived as ‘hectic and unpleasant’ (aud. feed.1) causing feelings of ‘disappointment’ (aud. feed. 10) and ‘pain’ (aud. feed. 7). Explicitly a participant confessed that he was feeling as if the city was looking for ways to ‘dismiss and crush’ (ibid.) him. The walking instructions cultivated a contemplative and physical engagement with the place. It formulated a zone of trust and proximity within which the process of perceiving the city was shifted: ‘I discovered [the city] …in emotional and intellectual ways... [and] in communion with other co-citizens and this was also very important that it was not a solitary experience’ (aud. feed. 13).

Performance Topophilia (2013). Photo by Elli Vassallou

Performance Topophilia (2013). Photo by Elli Vassallou

The enactment of the samatha vipashyana structure of Topophilia performance resulted in re-examining the ‘significance to our existence’ (Halprin, 1995: 4) in situ. In the Athenian landscape, it evolved into a practice of discovering loveliness amidst distress. The conditionality of the city in relation to the performance structure and material formulated the narrative of Topophilia:

[The perforamnce] was a journey through time and space like a memorial service in the name of a good friend and at the same time an invocation to the city, to water, to the self and to each other for life [and] not for survival. The love for the ancient stone and the sleeping beauty [of the city] were interweaved with…the emotion of the present time and deepened. This hidden beauty which we forget and which makes every day more human was valuable [to experience again] (aud. feed.4).

The contemplative walking frame of performance Topophilia operated as a container of mindfulness (samatha) enabling little acts of interrelationship between the participants and the city to take place. It managed to relate the individual and collective experience with its encompassing space and create re-conceptualisations of what has been claimed as critical in the Athenian landscape. The meditative performance structure evoked an understanding of the place anew, a vipashyana seeing. It offered us the physical and emotional space to delve into our experience in the present moment and redefine or re-evaluate the meaning of our encompassing space.

In geographer Mitch Rose's system of thought, culture as a ‘dream of presence’ becomes a system of ‘moving towards’ and not of ‘arriving’. He claims for a research of the ways individuals and communities strive to be fully present in the world. In conceiving of cultural investigation as an inquiry of becoming, landscape stands as the manifestation of such a process. It inscribes our ways of attending with and to our bodies and at the same time it “orients ‘a way’ of living’ them” (ibid.). In this context, a practice of landscape includes an interrogation of the modes via which ‘landscape initiate[s] and provoke[s] a way of seeing ourselves’ (op. cit. p. 550) and of the ways ‘we cultivate those visions through nurturing and investing [them back] in the landscape’ (ibid.). It becomes an exploration of the processes through which experience and space relate to each other to formulate the perception of the present moment as presence. Either in rural or in urban setting walking meditation turns the moving body into an experiential inquiring platform of the present moment and according to Rose of landscape and culture. At the same, it operates as a container where bodies and places are being interrelated and emerged as the narratives of the landscape’s perpetual becoming.



Analayo (2003) Satipatthana: the Direct Path to Realization, Birmingham: Windhorse Publications Brown.

Dilley, B. (2015) This Very Moment: teaching, thinking, dancing, CO: Naropa University Press.

Gunaratana Bhante (2002) Meditation in plain English, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Guenther, H. V. and Trungpa, C. R. (1975) The dawn of Tantra, MA: Shambhala Publications.

Lavery, C. (2009) ‘Mourning Walk and Pedestrian Performance: History, Aesthetics and Ethics’ in Mock, R. (ed.) Walking, writing and performance: autobiographical texts by Deirdre Heddon, Carl Lavery and Phil Smith, Bristol: Intellect.

Pearson, M. (2013) Marking Time: performance, archaeology and the city, Exeter: University Press.

Rahula, W. (1974) What the Buddha Taught, Oxford: Oneworld Publications.

Rose, M. (2006) “Gathering ‘dreams of presence’: a project for the cultural landscape” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 24, pp. 537-554.

Trungpa, C. R. (1984) Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Boston, MA: Shambhala.

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Turner, C. and Behrndt, S. (2008) Dramaturgy and performance, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tzakou, A. (2013) personal journal, Nisyros, [2 May- 12 June].

Wilkie, F. (2008) “The presence of ‘site’” In Holdsworth, N. and Luckhurst, M. (ed.) A concise companion to contemporary British and Irish drama, Oxford: Imprint Blackwell.

Worth, L. and Poynor, H. (2004) Anna Halprin, London: Routledge.

Wylie, J. (2013) ‘Landscape and Phenomenology’ in Howard, P., Thompson, I.,   Waterson, E. (ed.) The Routledge companion in Landscape Studies, NY: Routledge


Anna Tzakou is a theatre deviser, performer, and practitioner from Athens, Greece. She holds an MFA in Contemporary Performance (CO, 2010) and a PhD in Performance Practice (UK, 2017). She has been affiliating cultural geography with Mahayanian Buddhism and site-specific performance. Her training is organized by methods of somatic movement, psychophysical actor training, dance improvisation and mindfulness (sati) practices focusing on Anna Halprin’ s notion of living myth and Grotowksi’s Paratheatrical principles. Anna is interested in devising scores of physicality which investigate place as a performance site and as an aggregation of narratives of identity, home and belongingness. As a freelancer theatre practitioner and artist, Anna has facilitated performance residencies in rural environments, and worked in site-specific performances, ensemble projects and festivals (Greek Festival, Onassis Cultural Center, Ancient Drama Festival of Athens, and Athens Biennale 3). Anna has been awarded by the scholarships of Fulbright and Onassis Foundations. 
More info: http://eprofile.exeter.ac.uk/annatzakou/


[1] The field is also found as ‘pedestrian’ (Lavery, 2080:45) or ‘peripatic’ (Pearson, 2013: 8) performance.

[2] I am a Greek theater artist affiliated with post-modern performance practices of American and European lineages as well as Buddhist meditation. The sitting meditation practice discloses the process of performing as an interrelationship between the bodily experience and the thinking mind. The somatic and psychophysical training outlines the self as a physical instrument mapped by emotional patterns, personal histories and cultural associations. The improvisational and compositional disciplines reveal the creative potential of a non-linear narrative. These performance practices enable  a creative process of working without knowing, exploring the hidden as well as the impulsive and performing from a place of responding rather than doing.

[3] Shambhala is a secular Tibetan Buddhist meditation lineage founded by Chӧgyam Trungpa Rinpoche

[4] Performance Topophilia signed by the Performance Group Geopoetics was repeated for the exhibition OUT [TOPIAS]: performance and outdoor/ public space for Benaki Museum in October 2016.