One of my favourite things is a purposeless walk. A walk without an agenda, direction or a schedule can often provide some of the most rewarding and productive elements to my day. A recent article I read entitled ‘The slow death of purposeless walking‘ examines how the west’s approach and perspective towards walking has shifted over time. In today’s 24-hour society technology is increasingly offering alternative, more convenient and efficient ways of traversing our towns and cities. Walking is no longer seen as a viable or even fashionable means from which to travel from point a to b. Instead, our perspective towards walking has changed. In our increasingly hectic 21st century working week, walking has become more akin to a pleasant leisure activity preserved solely for the weekend, or to a prescribed course of treatment to aid our health and fitness. Walking however, has not always existed in this narrow field preserved exclusively for health or leisure. Instead, walking for many has provided an opportunity to think.
Having read the article I decided to take a walk – to reflect and ponder over these observations…
I have always walked, and for some time now been conscious of their being no coincidence between taking a walk and achieving the ‘eureka’ moment I have long been searching for. Only recently upon deeper reflection having read the article however, have I fully committed further thought to the strengths and benefits purposeless walking offers.
‘Mindfulness’ has become the latest buzz word directed toward self help and stress free living. The origins and connotations of ‘mindfulness’ are much deeper however than the latest Waterstones best seller will have you believe.
The act of mindfulness is synonymous with Zen Buddhism and many of its core principles. The Japanese aesthetic of ‘Wabi-Sabi’ relies upon the principle for its recognition of beauty in imperfection and impermanence. It is said that Buddhist monks spend their days meditating and sweeping. However, sweeping, when undertaken through the philosophy of mindfulness is a form of meditation in itself. Finding fulfilment from the texture of wicker bristles on an an uneven stone floor, and seeing beauty in rays of light illuminating clouds of erupting dust is a form of mindfulness. In this same way, walking can become a form of meditative practice also. Much like when sitting zazen, and the acknowledgement one makes of their breathing and posture, Walking, and the act of putting ones foot in front of the other requires a similar level of conscious thought, leaving the rest of the brain free to focus on something else – the textures under foot, a symphony of birdsong, or the speckled fall of light through foliage.
“There is something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that goes together. Walking requires a certain amount of attention but it leaves great parts of the time open to thinking”
Geoff Nicholson – ‘The Lost Art of Walking’
As Finlo Rohrer discusses in the article, many of our greatest creative minds extolled the virtues of walking. Charles Dickens it was said could; ‘easily rack up 20 miles, often at night. You can almost smell London’s atmosphere in his prose’. The ability of our surroundings to inspire and shape our thoughts is no more prolific than in the poetry of William Wordsworth, which is inextricably inspired by the landscapes he experienced during his many jaunts through the Lake District. Although not a walk as such, the artist JMW Turner is said to have famously tied himself to the mast of a ship in a great storm in search of inspiration. The resulting painting being one of his most famous – ‘Snow Storm at Sea’ 1842.
Other ways walking has been used as a tool to thought is in the work of the artist Peter Lanyon. Lanyon’s work was directly concerned with the experience of landscape, although not with traditional representations of it. He used walking not only as an environment to think about these concerns, but as a way of developing new experiences of the landscape too. He would record his walks in map form by drawing a line on a page in the direction he was walking. In other attempts, he would disorientate himself with new perspectives of the land by lying on his front peering over cliff faces, and viewing the landscape from upside down looking between his legs.
In contemporary society, full to the brim with smart phones and tablets, ones opportunities to ‘think’ are severely limited. In many cases one has to physically go in search of finding an environment conducive to thought and free from distractions. When facing assignments and deadlines I find myself needing to switch off the internet and smart phone to preserve some time free from the ‘chimes’ of email notifications, and the constant stream of ‘pop-up’ distractions social media offers. With the growing number of social media platforms and the younger average age of users, it is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve any time free from company for personal growth and reflection.
As Rebecca Solnit discuss in ‘Wonderlust: A History of Walking’, a generation of ‘smartphone zombies’ is beginning to take over. Coinciding with an attitude of ‘walking is dead time’ drawing away from busy schedules of work, home and pleasure – a generation is growing up who never need look away from their multi-purpose smart phones. A trend resulting in high increases in walking and texting injuries. Solnit continues;
“The way people in the West have started to look down on walking is detectable in the language. “When people say something is pedestrian they mean flat, limited in scope,”
For the writer C.S Lewis, also a keen walker to help aid creative thought and reflection, even talking or company was enough to spoil his walk. He said;
“The only friend to walk with is one who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared.”
My definitive tips for a productive and fulfilling walk are:
- Walk like a monk – Mindfulness
- ‘Listen’ for the soundtrack of your walk – (connected to point 1)
- Dont be a smartphone zombie!
- Walk alone
- Take a pen and sketch book / notebook – ‘Eureka’ moments