30 Mar On Walking
I walk to be still. Walking generates clarity, creates peace, brings silence. It is one of the most basic of all human activities, but one we take most for granted. I believe that this simple physical action can be our most direct path to happiness, the most powerful form of protest, the most effective form of psychological therapy, efficient form of physical exercise, mental decompression and powerful meditation. Walking is what we were designed to do – it is the way we evolved to move.
In our atomised and homogenised modern culture, amidst the social, economic and ecological meltdown we see around us, I believe that walking is more important for humanity than ever before. Indeed, the more I walk, the more I believe that it could be the most effective way to engage with the rising tide of positive change that is now required for the survival of our species and much of life on earth.
The relationship between walking and thinking, between body and mind, is subtle and ambiguous. On the one hand, as so many quotes that follow will show, there is an obvious correlation between walking and creative thought, as expressed by writers and philosophers from Thoreau to Dickens, Wordsworth, Thomas Mann, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.
However, at the same time as fuelling a well-spring of inspired and creative thought, we all know how the process of walking can also ‘still the mind’, empty it of thought, even generate a clarity and a presence which only arises in the absence of thought. Is this plenum of pure awareness perhaps the very basis for the type of thinking that arises from walking? What happens to the body-mind, on a purely bio-chemical level, when we are walking? Why does this basic activity generate such a sense of wellbeing? Why does the Latin maxim, ambulando solvitur, or ‘walking solves the problem’, seem to be so valid? Why does walking stimulate the creative process, inspire new thinking, generate such peace?
From the moment early hominids took their first steps as homo erectus, to Neil Armstrong’s ‘one giant leap for mankind’ and the advent of Masaai Barefoot Technology (MBT), walking has been hardwired to human evolution.
Like sleeping, dreaming, eating and talking, walking seems as natural to most of us as breathing, a universal shared activity. Environmental factors seemingly forced us to walk, despite the fact that our evolutionary blueprints were derived from four-legged animals. Alongside our capacity for self-reflective consciousness, of being conscious of consciousness, and the dubious gift of the human ego, walking both unites us with, and separates us from, the rest of nature. It is part of what makes us human and a capacity that we generally take for granted.
From ancient cultures, through to the present day, many of the great thinkers, philosophers, artists, scientists, writers and politicians of human history, have also been notably ‘great pedestrians’. Greek philosophers, from Socrates to Aristotle, advocated the ‘peripatetic university’, teaching their students while ‘on the hoof’, the premise being that, if one wants to learn about commerce, then one should walk through the market. Want to learn about nature? Then go walk in the woods.
Centuries later, Nietzsche concurred, claiming that ‘Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value.’ The last words of the dying Buddha were to urge his disciples to ‘Walk on!’, while Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching famously noted that ‘the longest journey begins with a single step’. Like many poets in the Romantic tradition, Wordsworth’s work was woven in his walking, while Charles Dickens dramatically maintained that ‘If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should explode and perish.’
From the original wandering haiku poet Basho, through to Robert Louis Stevenson, Laurie Lee, or modern travel writers like Bruce Chatwin and maverick film-maker Werner Herzog, walking has never lost its appeal, as a source of creative inspiration, intellectual discovery, political statement, romantic escapism, or philosophical insight and psychological healing. In an interview about his decision to stand as Tory MP for Cumbria before the last UK election, the travel writer Rory Stewart confessed that ‘I am only really happy when I am walking.’ There is something about this basic form of human self-propulsion that reconnects us with our core. Walking not only makes us healthier, it makes us happier, more inspired, more alive.
Many of history’s great walkers are more obscure, more unlikely, even surreal. The Elizabethan traveller, Thomas Coryate, famed for first introducing the fork to England, walked through Turkey, Persia and Moghul India in the early seventeenth century. Francis Kilvert, an eccentric 19th century curate, roamed the Welsh border hills, drinking flagons of mead and writing his diaries. In the 1890s, Ewart Stuart Grogan, a young Scot with few prospects, took it upon himself to walk from Cape Town to Cairo in a bid to secure the hand of a wealthy bride. When his malarial odyssey concluded five years later, he found that she had long since married another. And now, as I write, Arthur Blessitt continues his mission to haul a twelve foot, 40 pound cross around the globe, a feat which has been unfolding for over 40 years, has taken him over 38,000 miles to more than 315 countries, territories and islands and seen him arrested 24 times.
It has been said that a man’s health can be judged by which he takes two at a time – pills or stairs. Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that ‘When you have worn out your shoes, the strength of the shoe leather has passed into the fibre of your body’ and would ‘measure your health by the number of shoes and hats and clothes you have worn out.’ The historian GM Trevelyan referred to having two doctors – ‘my left leg and my right.’
We all know how good walking is for us, but are all too happy to head for the lift, the escalator, or the ‘travelator’, which must rank as one of our most absurd inventions ever. We have in fact educated ourselves to walk as little as possible. Every day, thousands of people drive to gyms to go for a walk – an effectively stationary walk where you watch mindless advertising, media propaganda and mind-numbing TV, instead of drifting through a shifting landscape that brings incessant interaction with your community and the natural world. As the writer Bill Vaughan observed in the US, ‘As a nation we are dedicated to keeping physically fit – and parking as close to the stadium as possible’, while his compatriot, the humourist Evan Esar, maintained that ‘Walking isn’t a lost art’, since ‘one must, by some means, get to the garage.’ Or, as professional ‘gentleman’ wrestler Chris Adams once pointed out, ‘People say that losing weight is no walk in the park. When I hear that I think, yeah, that’s the problem.’
By walking more, we reduce our ‘footprint’. It allows us to ‘tread lightly’. It gets us out of cars, away from TVs and computer screens, ‘off-grid’ and ‘unplugged’ from the insanity and speed of the modern world, reducing our fossil fuel addiction. It brings interaction with friends, family, neighbours and the community, diffusing social tensions and building relationships. It lowers blood pressure, drains the lymphatic system, reduces stress, regulates blood-sugar and cholesterol, improves agility and stamina, overcomes depression and makes us sleep better, thus lowering our dependence on drugs, the use of stimulants and the associated healthcare costs. Paul Dudley White, a US physician and cardiologist, once claimed that ‘A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world.’ It is one of the basic operating systems of human evolution and directly connects us to the biological processes of the planet.
Walking is romantic, poetic, melancholic, nostalgic. It can be heroic, as a form of protest, subversive revolution, conquest or escape from confinement. Walking is free therapy, cleansing us from psychological stagnation, allowing us to gain altitude and perspective. We become more emotionally settled, intellectually expansive, philosophically penetrating. It is the ultimate brand of ‘brain shampoo’ – and it’s free. The physical action filters the subconscious, helps us find solutions, academically, mentally, spiritually. ‘Above all, do not lose your desire to walk’, urged Kierkegaard. ‘Every day I walk myself into a state of wellbeing and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.’
Walking can be mundane, or adventurous, an integral part of the most epic feats of human exploration and endurance: ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’. It can be exhilarating and energizing; elevating and exhausting; inspirational, uplifting and hypnotic. The repetitive process can induce a trance-like state, preparing us for a more dynamic mode of meditation, enabling us to ‘think like a mountain’. Aurobindo walked eight hours every day, up and down his veranda, ‘driving consciousness into matter’ and leaving a channel engraved in the wooden floor that remains to this day.
Sitting still in meditation can direct us solely to ‘in-terior’ space and thereby be ‘ex-clusive’. Walking meditation, on the other hand, takes us to the ‘ex-terior’, but is ‘in-clusive’. Our egoic sense of separation is eroded. Consciousness expands to absorb the shifting senses, sounds and smells of our surroundings – birdsong, the perfume of a rose, passing patterns in the clouds above. We become part of the flow, the fluid evolving whole, engaged with natural rhythms, harmonising mind, body and spirit with Nature and the landscape. Nothing connects us to the soil, the air, the wind, rain and snow, indeed the very earth itself, more than walking. No human activity is so liberating, so innocently subversive, so overlooked. It is as much a part of our birthright as the act of breathing itself and could well be just as important for our survival as a species.
There may be something sacred about walking, but there is also something subversive. The simple, basic freedom we exercise by walking disengages us from the rails of the state. Along with breathing, it remains one of the few things we do not have to pay for – yet. This gives walking a certain power. Nobody can really object to one walking, wherever you are, in comparison to travelling by vehicle, or even by bicycle, rollerblades or on a Segway. Many of the random interactions that have evolved when I have been on long walks, either in the deserts of Sudan, on dusty paths in rural India, or amidst the rolling hills of southern England, have been attributable to walking. Social barriers are instantly dispensed with, since one is immediately on common ground, both literally and metaphorically.
Whether it has been Gandhi’s ‘salt march’, the ‘peasant’s revolt’, the uprising of Spartacus, or demonstrations against the Iraq War, walking has long been identified with clashes against the state. Be it tens, hundreds, or many thousands of people, all walking under one banner, the power of walking together is undeniable, reminiscent of the ‘swarming instinct’ within us. Often, the ‘pied piper’ effect, of people joining a crusade in ever increasing numbers, is a prime example of historical social change – in ‘chaos theory’, this could be likened to a ‘dissipative structure’, a disruptive, destabilising process which precedes a quantum jump from one steady state to another.
Inspired by Bertrand Russell’s nuclear protests, Satish Kumar, Editor of Resurgence magazine, spent five years walking 8,000 miles from India in the 1960s, delivering packets of ‘peace tea’ to the leaders of the four nuclear powers. His mentor, Vinoba Bhave, a Gandhian land reformer, spent years walking through rural India, persuading rich zamandari landlords to give portions of their land to the poor. Tamsin Ormond, leader of the Climate Rush activist camp and one of the Ambassadors within ‘999 It’s Time’, travelled through the southern UK during the summer of 2009, walking with horses and two gypsy caravans. At the same time, I was walking the St Mary and Michael ‘ley lines’, connecting the ancient sacred sites of southern Britain. Walking has always been an activist tool, reconnecting us with our heritage and the sacred landscape, while making a statement outside of the political mainstream. By all walking together, massive change becomes possible.