As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I walk every day.
When I don’t walk as much as I like to daily, I get antsy, anxious, antisocial — not to mention a lot of other unpleasant words not beginning with a.
As someone who spends far far too much time in my head, now that we are all glued to some “smart” device feeding us far more useless drivel than any of us could possibly claim to need, my daily existence feels like a constant stream of words, trivia, news, information, misinformation, and junk. I seem to have less and less idea how to tune it out, let alone turn it off. Most nights I don’t sleep well, and during the day my body feels like it’s plugged into some electrical current that is burning up my peace of mind from the inside out.
We have all heard the benefits of meditation. But for some of us sitting isn’t the best way to unplug from the messy world and connect with our souls.
For me, when I finally stop, I really stop. In other words, almost as soon as I sit down, I fall asleep. So unless I am meditating in a group, every single sit ends in a snooze. Which is fine, and sometimes the best thing I could do. But aside from feeling a little respite from the buzz of daily life and my usual sleep deprivation, I don’t feel anywhere as cleansed and connected as I do during and after my daily walks.
Walking is my core meditation practice. Whether it’s a long walk, a contemplative walk, a walk to get lost, a photographic walk, a labyrinth walk — walking quiets my soul and cracks open my heart and stills my mind.
It also just feels great! There is never a time when after I walk I don’t feel better mentally, physically, psychically or emotionally than when I began.
Sitting, it is now said, is the new cancer. We are an obese sedentary society — and we are suffering the consequences. The more we sit, the harder it is to get out and walk. The more we don’t move, the more laborious movement feels. It’s a nasty Catch-22.
Climate change isn’t helping any. As someone who almost never misses a walk, I know how challenging it can be to get out and walk when it’s either too hot and humid to do anything outside after 8AM or when it’s so bitterly cold and icy that going around the block is an Arctic expedition.
One day this week I walked seven treacherous miles on black ice, ridgy ice, cracking ice, crunchy snow and slick asphalt. But I had to do it! I hadn’t had a good long walk in days, and I was suffering the consequences. A few times the footing got so bad that I had to carry my 22 pound dog, who looked up at me as if to say, “Remind me why we’re doing this again?” A few times I thought, “If I’m going to live as a nomad, why don’t I pick nicer climates?” But the majority of the time, I was just overjoyed to be outside in fresh air enjoying feeling seeing being in my surroundings — and grateful to be alive and able to walk the way I do.
To people who live in other parts of the world, walking is a way of life. Last week when I was leaving London to come back to the US, I took a cab to Paddington Station — then from the taxi stand to the airplane gate was 5,500 steps! That was just a regular morning of travel overseas.
On some days in England and Europe on the trips I lead, I walk 15 or more miles a day. The Americans who come on these trips are always a bit shocked at how much walking is required to really see Europe. That’s why cruises and hop-on, hop-off buses have become so popular. But there’s only so much you can really see from a moving vehicle. To really experience the world, you have to walk through it!
Thirty years ago, my friend Bonnie told me that whenever she visited a new city, she would run its streets every morning to really get to know her new surroundings. I think of her every time I walk in a new place, which is often these days. It’s true. When I walk, I really see a place, get to know it and its people and its smells and its energy. I feel connected and present — which is a kind of meditation in itself.
My personal favorite walking practice is getting lost. Now of course I always have my phone with me, so I know that I can find my way back to where I started from almost everywhere. So I’m never really “lost”. But you’d be surprised how disconcerting it can feel to feel like you don’t know where you are. And the longer you let yourself wander into unfamiliar territory, the more the anxiety can sometimes crop up. But once you learn to soothe yourself and let yourself know that you can be found just as easily as you can be lost, something extraordinary happens. You suddenly become absolutely present to right where you are.
Instead of moving through the world in the haze in which we often experience life — how often have you driven or walked blocks and realized you have no memory of it? — you suddenly start to see and hear and feel and be right where you are in ways that connect you to your heart, your heart connects to the people or plants or animals or aromas around you — and suddenly you are actually experiencing that goal of all meditation: being fully present in the now.
I have let myself get lost so often now that I rarely feel the anxiety I used to feel at the prospect. Now getting lost feels a little like Christmas. I always know there’s going to be a surprise under that day’s tree of life.
A few weeks ago in London I walked 20 miles one day. I started in the canals and from there went out into the streets. I hopped a train and got off and walked some more. I found myself at one point someplace I’d never been — the site of one of the most famous “walks” in the world.
I had to smile. Something in the way I had let myself move through the world made me feel like everything was coming together indeed!
From there I walked across Regents Park and chatted with people and their dogs and then hopped a train to head to my favorite healthy market. From there I walked back through darkened streets past soccer fields and shuttered shops through the hustle of Camden Town and back to where I was staying.
I have had the great good fortune to live in London for multiple long stretches and to visit the city times too numerous to count. But until this last trip, I realized I had often returned the same places over and over again.
Letting myself get lost in a city I love was the greatest gift I could have given myself. And I let myself do it over and over again over my two weeks in England. I had some extraordinary experiences — and even made a few new friends.
I felt the truth of Rebecca Solnit’s observation in her wonderful book on the history of walking: “Walkers are 'practitioners of the city,' for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.”
Walking is my core daily practice of joy — as is photographing what I see as I walk and sharing it on social media. To say I am grateful for my walks would be an understatement.
But sometimes, just sometimes, I wish I could share them. I got to do that on the ESC Tour that Peter Fuller and I led my last weekend in England. I even got to share some of what I have learned after having been trained to lead contemplative walks by Jonathan Stalls of Walk2Connect.
What does contemplative walking look like?
When our ESC group found ourselves at Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk, England, we first walked all through the ruins of this gorgeous ancient monastery in the golden light of sunset. But before we left, I asked everyone to walk out by themselves and get quiet enough to feel the presence of the place — its history, its past, its present. So that’s what we all did, for about 10 minutes.
When we came back together, we shared what we had felt and experienced —and it was so powerful to hear what everyone had felt. The presence of the past, the connection to the animals, the quality of the light. A few of us even heard voices that seemed very real. Others of us just enjoyed the quietness to really appreciate all the beauty around us.
I loved sharing this experience with others — and it made me wish I could do more of it.
A few years ago my old friend Bonnie and her best friend Diana started a group to combat the sedentary lifestyles of Americans. It’s called EverWalk — and they lead amazing walks where hundreds of people commit to walking 150 miles in a week. So far my schedule has prevented me joining them in person, so I have just created my own virtual EverWalk experience wherever I go. But since I mostly walk alone, it doesn’t have quite the same impact as sharing the experience with a group of people all pushing themselves out of their comfort zones.
So imagine my joy this week being chosen to be an EverWalk Ambassador — to lead regular walks with people as I move about the country. I am overjoyed.
Starting in 2019, I will be leading group walks wherever I am on the first Saturday of each month. Since I know my schedule for my first three months of the year, I will be leading walks in Cleveland OH, Santa Fe NM, and Portland OR in January, February and March respectively.
I will also be setting up walks as I travel — in the hopes of connecting with as many of my fellow walkers wherever I go. I hope to walk in New Orleans LA, Albuquerque NM, and Bend OR in the first months of 2019.
If you would like to be on my EverWalk list, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to be notified of upcoming walks in your area or about how to participate in virtual EverWalks with my nomadic group.
As this difficult year of 2018 comes to a close, most of us will find ourselves thinking about things we would like to experience differently in the coming year. May I humbly suggest walking?
I began as a dutiful walker and a dog walker. They had to go out, and so walking was the easiest way to get both me and the four legged our exercise. I ticked off steps on my pedometer and felt virtuous — and they got out of the house to stretch their legs and do their business. I never expected it to turn into the highlight of every day. But it has. Walking and hiking and putting one foot in front of the other and getting lost and learning to see have changed my life.
My fellow joy practitioners, heed the words of William Henry Davies and give walking a whirl: