I recently heard a great Radio National program featuring English travel writer Robert Macfarlane.
His new book The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is the third in a trilogy about “landscape and the human heart”.
As mentioned on RN, “in it, Robert Macfarlane travels the ancient walking tracks of Britain” and he spoke of the many deep experiences he has had while travelling on foot.
I have always been a big fan of walking, for commuting and recreation. It has all manner of benefits, and in bioregional terms, is a necessary part of getting to know your place and region. But lately I have been getting more influenced by the thought that walking can have a spiritual benefit as well.
Partly this is just formed from many hours sitting on trams and trains, aware of everyone around me fiddling with their electronic gadgets. I love and appreciate the internet as much as anyone and have the need to be plugged in. But as our minds become ever more crowded with huge volumes of data and (often quite shallow) information, and as we get ever more dependent on electronic gadgets, many of us are becoming obsessive in our need to be online and ‘connected’.
To have what has been described as a ‘considered’ life, you need time for reflection. This means time simply being with yourself. Whether you have religious or spiritual beliefs or not is irrelevant to this observation. It strikes me as being obvious that people need time for inward reflection – as opposed to the external ‘reflection’ that happens on social media and ‘reality’ TV, which is essentially something crafted for consumption by others. If you cannot bear to just sit with yourself, then there is something wrong in your life.
But in this hyper consumerist world, few of us are encouraged to make that time just to be.
Having some quiet time in the day means we can think about life, and how we are going in our relationships: with ourselves, our loved ones, and our community. Walking brings this opportunity to me. You don’t need any fancy gear to actually do it, just a few minutes in your day, wherever and whenever you can fit it in.
The global connections available to us via the internet are amazing. And more and more this opportunity is spreading to the majority world. But this engagement is very much ‘front of brain’ interaction, generally not deep or reflective.
And while I love my bike, walking gets you to a different place, because you can get into the rhythm of walking rather than maintaining the need to be constantly scanning for danger, which is a requirement of riding a bike at any speed.
In recent weeks, Melbourne was rocked by the rape and murder of Jill Meagar. The huge marches held in Brunswick were a heartening testament that many in our society still hold to basic decency and the right of all people to feel and be safe on our streets at all times. I think there is a dimension here that also relates to walking and human presence on the street.
A street with many pedestrians always feels safer to me than a street with few people and many cars. Of course, Jill’s assailant was also on foot. I am not suggesting that busy streets equal safety. But generally I think that where there are many people on a street the likelihood of attack is reduced. How we plan our cities also comes into play, along with people’s willingness to intervene where something happens. But a good starting point in building safety is to have many people – and a diverse range of people – on the street, getting around under their own steam.
Walking clears my head. It lets me plan for my day and then to unpack whatever happened at work. Sometimes it just connects me to place, as I wander neighbourhoods and see how people live and interact. My life feels richer as I get to know the places around me, human and non-human, as you see a level of detail that cannot be discovered even from a push bike or car.
Then there is the deeper level. Sometimes I think its good to have an open mind as you walk. To consciously not think or plan, just to be open to what presents itself on that particular day. Some of my deepest revelations and connections have happened as I practise open mind walking, there is something to the movement of walking – a defining characteristic for humanity through the entirety of our existence – that takes me far further than sitting meditation has ever done. Being propelled through a landscape, the weather, our immediate surroundings, at the pace of the human body is inherently spiritual.
Yes, walking can be a drag, when you’re tired and want to get home, when its too hot or too wet or your destination is simply too far away. When you’re sick or tired or simply weary with life. But mostly its something that enriches our lives and gives authentic experience that is not gained from being plugged in or otherwise distracted in our lives.
To finish, I like this quote from Timothy Hull. His ‘companions’, transcendentalist poet uncle Walt Whitman and nature writer Mary Oliver may not resonate for us all. But the notion of walking out from home, into a rich landscape – busy or empty – flat or hilly – urban or rural – is something that we can all do. Who knows what we might find and who we might meet on the way.
Lets go walk out beyond the Wall
Across the land in the bright Fall
With the leaves fiery jewels
With Uncle Walt on the open road
Wonderful companions bright and clear