Walking is the most natural, the most liberating, the most creative thing we can ever do. And I don't mean walking in the sense that we normally engage in it; striding purposefully to work; rushing to catch the tram; shuffling along with eyes scanning the screen of the smartphone. To go for a walk, a genuine walk, means to go outside and pay attention. Outside is where we can engage with the world: we can breathe the cool air, feel the warm summer sun on our faces, notice the changing perspectives of buildings and trees, hear the wonderful symphony of sounds that make up the world. It's also how we may best liberate our minds to engage in trully creative thought. Walking, and by that I mean walking outside, is mindfulness practice at it's most accessible. If you are fixed on your destination, hurrying to get from one place to another or just lost inside your head, you are not walking. Not really.
There are lots of words in the English language to describe real walking in the open air; ambling, wandering, sauntering, rambling, strolling, meandering. The essence of this sort of walking is that the destination is not the point. It is, first and foremost, done slowly, or at least it's not done in a hurry. If you have ever attended one of our 8-week mindfulness courses you will be familiar with the kind of slow, ever so slow, walking meditation that we teach in our classes. We walk in a circle with absolutely no place to go and nothing to do except pay attention to the very act of walking itself. You can carry that feeling of being fully present when you go outside. Whether it's in the heart of a big city , a public park or a forest path, you can always pay attention. Here's a few ideas to guide you:
- Make some time, every day, to go outside and walk. Ten minutes is fine but go outside. Don't bother about where you're going. When something catches your attention, stop and notice it. When your mind wanders into worry or rumination (as it will) just remember what you're doing and return to the moment.
- Pay attention to the whole world of experience. You don't need to pick or choose; things will come to you without you needing to do anything - birdsong, diesel fumes, sunlight, trees, passing strangers - just allow them to do so.
- Slow down. After all, you're not going anywhere, it's the walk that matters not the destination.
- Do it alone. This is an activity best done in silence. The presence of other people, unless you agree in advance to walk mindfully together, can be a distraction. In any case, solitude is a great gift we so seldom give ourselves. Walking is the perfect way to experience it.
- Be curious. The world is full of unexpected treasures. I've talked about this before in previous posts about haiku walks or mindful photography, but there is nothing like walking to reveal the everyday magic in the mundane world around us.
- When you return, spend a few moments to reflect on what you've discovered. Sometimes you may be surprised just how much clearer some intractible problem has become or how a nagging worry seems to have receded in importance.
Quite a few writers have described the joys of walking, among them Henry David Thoreau, Robert Macfarlane and Bruce Chatwin. I particularly like "The Art of Mindful Walking" by Adam Ford (2011, Leaping Hare Press) and "The Philosophy of Walking" by Frédéric Gros (2014, Verso).
We often organise mindful walks in the Peak District and I would thoroughly recommend an organisation called Street Wisdom which has regular city based events in Sheffield. We may do similar events in Barnsley in the near future.
So go outside. Slow down, enjoy your solitude, discover the everyday magic.
Until next month.