Walk Your Way Into a Deeper Life
How I lost my walking practice and discovered it again...
I built the Art of Paying Attention around the idea that attention is not for a select few. Mary Oliver said, “… it’s our proper and endless work.” Paying attention is not an elective for an easy grade in a subject we care nothing about. Attention-collecting is essential for a deeper creative life, spiritual life, and life in general.
So what practices will help in our pursuit of attention? I’m going to nominate walking, being one of my nonnegotiable embodied practices in pursuing a healthier soul, and a deeper creative life.
This hasn't always been the case. In fact, two things happened a couple of years ago which invigorated my walking practice.
First, a Global Pandemic forced people outside because, well, there’s a limit on how many Zoom calls one human can endure. My family included. Second, our beloved 2003 Chevy Tahoe kicked the bucket. My wife and I bought our Ta-Ta new in our second year of marriage and served us well for 17 years. Then she went to the SUV graveyard in the sky.
I found myself without a car and dusted off my walking-sea-legs. I'd take the bus, walk, or ride my bike until we determined the next steps for a vehicle. What I discovered was the richness of walking and what it did for my soul, health, and creativity.
This little practice, habit, necessity, and perhaps call it a ritual, became life giving. Walking created a new perspective. A new angle by which I saw my neighborhood, a tree in the yard, local shops, people, and my soul. The typical sights I encountered in my daily commute were altered with every step around my city.
I noticed neighbors, I’m certain, didn’t live in our neighborhood until my daily walks. Cracks on the sidewalk were fresh revelations, unidentified red birds and brown rabbits, all in the same hood I’d lived for years. All because of the simple practice of placing one foot after the other.
Then I wondered why I didn’t walk more than I do? Was it because of my car-dependency? Something formed in the streets of LA where everyone is car-dependent. Did I buy into the idea that time is a precious commodity and can’t be wasted hoofing it to my next meeting? What would I have missed if I never experienced my daily jaunt to the bus stop and chats with local neighbors? I certainly would have never heard about Charlie’s story of a marriage gone sideways.
Yes, walking is limiting, and not ideal for a kids soccer game thirty miles away in the suburbs. But my work is only a couple of miles away. Our grocery store less, and a friend's house, even closer. What stories had I told myself about walking that created an aversion to the practice?
What was the cost to my health, soul, and creativity by eliminating walking from my daily routines?
I don’t have any hard data, but I’m sure the losses outweigh the gains. And we could talk about the health benefits of walking. The dangers of sedentary lifestyles becoming the new smoking. I'm no walkologist. But observing my grandparents that walked and biked well into their eighties until dementia caught up with them serve as a substantial positive case study in the power of walking.
Despite the multiple benefits of regular walking, I want to focus on one in particular.
Most of my life is shackled to a calendar. Get here, be there, don’t forget the kids at three. Much of my lack of walking is because time won’t allow for it. Too inefficient, to time consuming, not practical (at least that's what I tell myself).
But in a good long walk, everything slows down. There is no agenda and only you and the ground and your beating heart. Space to breathe. Walking creates a pace most of us, including myself, rarely achieve.
When do we get this kind of silence, pace, and moments of reflection? Rarely. When do you do anything that is inefficient, not for compensation, or not to win a prize? Not often.
Sadly, most of our decisions in life are based on economic principles. Will this make money? Will it benefit me? What is the ROI (return on investment), if I walk to the store instead of driving?
In the fall, I took a trip to Scotland and England. One day, not knowing my way around Edinburgh, Scotland, I walked with no agenda. No maps, GPS, just me and my short Italian legs.
I stumbled upon the Holyrood Palace where the Queen died. A place she cherished and spent much time. I walked past the Edinburgh Castle, cafes, and churches. I don’t say this as hyperbole, or for effect, it was one of the best days of my life. Walking with no agenda, no time constraints, and no particular goal in mind.
Later in the trip, we explored the Lake District and learned about the poet William Wordsworth. One practice of William and his wife Mary was long walks. Mary used to walk eight miles to get mail and food on a weekly basis. These were necessary pilgrimages for the family, but they also saw them as opportunities to connect with each other, God, and nature. Not to mention cooking up hundreds of poems during these walks.
Hard to know, but some estimate Wordsworth walked 180,000 miles in his life. He wrote a poem about it:
“Sweet was the walk along the narrow lane
At noon, the bank and hedge-rows all the way
Shagged with wild pale green tufts of fragrant hay,
Caught by the hawthorns from the loaded wain,
Which Age with many a slow stoop strove to gain;
And childhood, seeming still most busy, took
His little rake; with cunning side-long look,
Sauntering to pluck the strawberries wild, unseen.
Now, too, on melancholy’s idle dreams
Musing, the lone spot with my soul agrees,
Quiet and dark; for through the thick wove trees
Scarce peeps the curious star till solemn gleams
The clouded moon, and calls me forth to stray
Thro’ tall, green, silent woods and ruins grey.”
-Sweet Was the Walk by William Wordsworth
It’s not a far stretch to say walking and spirituality and art go together. William Wordsworth, his wife, and a plethora of other artists, thinkers, and spiritual leaders walked and noticed and reflected on life and family and the culture and nature while on long walks. Could Wordsworth have been the productive writer and poet without his walking practice? Hard to say.
Frederick Nietzsche believed walking and great thinking were dance partners:
“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
Let me also mention the elephant in the room. You can’t do great thinking and art and loving neighbors and have a healthy soul with a screen in your face. You can try. But walking untangles our dependence on the endless information and images and doom scrolling of the internet and social media. Walking unhindered by these modern technologies forces us to think for ourselves. Forces us to deal with ourselves if we dare.
Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows, said this about our dependence on screens, and the internet in our ability to think:
“[Patricia Greenfield] concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” Our growing use of the Net and other screen-based technologies has led to the “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills.” We can, for example, rotate objects in our minds better than we used to be able to. But our “new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence” go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacities for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”
― Nicholas G. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
When we walk and turn off the endless noise of screens, we're developing new cognitive skills. Better thinking and imagination. The ability to experience the gifts of listening to our lives, contemplation, and sometimes connecting with a friend or partner in deep conversation.
The beauty of walking is it doesn’t require any special gear. Maybe some comfortable shoes. You can be young, old, or middle aged. You can live anywhere and you can do it in silence or with earbuds. Walk alone, or with a friend or a dog. It doesn’t matter.
Walking is the great equalizer. It doesn’t care about your ethnicity or creed or even if you’re in great health. Walking can be a gift for all.
A gift for deeper art, and a deeper soul. Who doesn’t want that?
Still hesitant about cultivating a walking habit? Let me leave you with the prophet/comedian Steven Wright and a last word on walking:
“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.”
― Steven Wright