It isn’t that I’ve ever forgotten how to walk, only that I don’t ever take walking for granted anymore.
Part of the reason for this feeling about walking are the travails of enduring two separate surgical procedures on my lower legs and feet – one on the right foot (ankle tendon reconstruction), and later one on the left (Achilles tendon rupture) that put me in a state of weeks of rehabilitation – two different times – in order to get walking normally again (see the footnote, ha ha, for a key difference that specific shoes have made for me).
The other part of the equation for me is my desire to be present in what I’m experiencing as I walk. I’ve developed a deep need for walking in natural places to engage in the experience of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and yes sometimes tasting the natural world. My need to connect with nature is reliant on my ability to walk and to walk in a way that opens me to awe and wonder.
Just as to fly is a bird, or to swim is a fish, I have a strong sense that to walk is to be human. Humans have been walking and covering distances that no other land mammal can match during the course of the earth’s history. As James Levine, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine says, “Humans were designed to walk”. Our evolution as a species developing an upright stance and the ability to use our legs and feet propelled us out of our African motherland, and into all other lands on earth. Our ability to walk and run for long distances without stopping also eclipses all other land animals. This endurance to walk and run enabled us to track down animals and to be nomads chasing favorable seasons and foods.
Anthropologists that study such things report that humans living naturally as hunter-gatherers tend to walk seven miles a day for men and about 3.5-4 for women in order to provide for their basic needs of food, water, medicine, fire, and shelter.
In short, when we walk we are resilient. We are perhaps at our most human when walking.
We also know that there are important health benefits from frequent sustained walking. About five years ago, my wife and I embarked on our own fitness challenge of walking at least 10,000 steps a day. For me, this works out to 5 miles. I’ve mostly maintained this goal (winter is tougher) and it has made a huge difference in my health and wellbeing. JoAnn Manson, professor of medicine at Harvard University states that walking is the equivalent of gulping down magic pills that keep you in good health. A daily brisk walk has been shown to reduce risks of cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease, and diabetes.
So, what could make simple walking a revolutionary step beyond the fact that it is healthy?
A while back it dawned on me that there are many ways to walk. So often in our modern lives walking is simply a mindless way to get from one place to another. From your office to the bathroom and back. From your car to the restaurant and back. From your car to your house. Our modern lives have become a never-ending darting from one place to another with no thought about the actual walking or the journey itself. Even the brisk health walk mentioned above can easily fall into this category of being unaware of the journey. Thoreau understood this and wrote at length about a different way of walking.
“The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours …but it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walking
More and more I’ve been thinking about walking as my way of getting out into the world, into nature, allowing myself to have a walking meditation where my sense of awe and wonder come alive and my imagination and creativity can bubble forth. Native people of North America often refer to ‘walking in beauty’, and this is exactly the experience I often have on my walks. I started musing ‘what if we could all walk in a way that treated our lives and the earth as sacred?’. To walk in this way is revolutionary because it is in direct opposition to the status quo of mindlessly racing from one thing to the next acquiescing to the ever-present cultural voice in our heads that we must bow to the god of speed and efficiency.
I’ve discovered that there are ways of walking that truly equate with meditation. The Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh has for many years practiced and taught walking meditation. This is essentially mindful walking at its best. Breathe. Take a mindful step. Reconnect with Mother Earth, your true home.
As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “All of us are looking for our solid ground, our true home. The earth is our true home and it is always there, beneath us and around us. Breath, take a mindful step and arrive. We are already at home.”
If we learn to walk in this manner, mindfully and respectfully with the earth, we become peaceful and compassionate and unite our body and mind. This is healing energy. This healing, peaceful, compassionate energy comes directly from us. We each have the capacity to breathe, be mindful, and receive the wonders of the earth. Nhat Hanh explains the purpose and methods in his brilliant article on Walking Meditation that I highly recommend.
As I have made it part of my own meditative practice to walk in nature my love of the earth and life itself as grown. I’m reminded of what Mary Oliver movingly says in her poem “When I Am Among the Trees”:
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
Another way of walking in a contemplative manner is to traverse a labyrinth. The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual tool for meditative, even prayerful, walking. I became interested in labyrinths when I visited New Harmony, Indiana twenty years ago (a town of many labyrinths and mazes) and subsequently read Walking a Sacred Path – Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice by Lauren Artress.
Perhaps the most famous labyrinth in the world is the one located within Chartres Cathedral in France drawing pilgrims from all over the world to walk the carefully designed circuits painted on the floor of the cathedral. Dating back to the year 1205, the Chartres labyrinth and others like it offers a walking path that symbolizes the human journey. I’ve been fortunate to experience labyrinths in a number of places that I’ve located through the world-wide labyrinth locator. If you’ve never experienced walking a labyrinth, you owe it to yourself to seek a well-maintained public labyrinth and try it.
A creative and challenging way of walking is to learn to walk silently. You must trust in your sense of touch and hearing, direction, and center balance. You probably did this naturally without thinking too much about it when you were young and wanted to sneak out of your bedroom in the middle of the night to raid the refrigerator or watch T.V. The technique is known as stealth walking – also called by many other names such as fox walking.
Stealth walking has its history in a number of traditions including martial arts and Ninja warriors and aboriginal tracking and hunting. There are techniques that involve heel to toe, as well as toe to heel. Keeping your center of gravity low with a strong core center of balance is key. It is much easier to understand this by watching a short video. I recommend both of these short videos: the first is a hunting and tracking method that employs the outside forefoot rolling to the ball of the foot called Fox Walking. The second is a heel to toe Ninja method. You might be surprised by the wildlife you discover when taking some time to stealth walk in nature.
Taking silent walking up a notch is to perform this silent walking in the dark. I first purposefully experienced night walking during a new moon with cloudy skies deep within a national forest where no artificial light, nor starlight, was present. It was so dark that I could not see my hands right in front of my face. I had to walk barefoot and very slowly in order to feel my way through the forest path with my feet and avoid downed branches, roots, trees, and boggy areas. It is an experience I will always remember. It took me a very long time to walk a relatively short distance to safely reach my campsite. It was an important reminder to me of how much I rely on my sense of sight, but also how much my other senses can come alive and guide me as well.
A much deeper commitment to walking with spiritual intent is to undertake a pilgrimage. One of the more famous routes of pilgrimage these days is the Camino de Santiago that begins in western France, crosses the Pyrenees and traverses northern Spain ending at the shrine of Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The Romans called this endpoint Finisterrae – literally “the end of the world”. The passage is about 500 miles in length and during the middle ages became one of the most important Christian pilgrimages. Although the trail was nearly lost to antiquity since 1990 a huge revival in the pilgrimage has taken place with hundreds of thousands of people walking the El Camino each year.
Well-known pilgrimages in the U.S. include the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail each of which takes around six months walking nearly every day to complete. I have not experienced such a pilgrimage yet. The closest I’ve come is more of a long hike of about 15 miles round trip when my family did a day-long pilgrimage to the top of Paul Cezanne’s mountain Mont Sainte-Victoire in southern France and then back down the mountain’s craggy spine to the beautiful Lac de Bimont at its base. At the peak, there are the remains of a priory that Carmelite monks built and pilgrimaged to in the 17th century.
A special kind of pilgrimage is walking peacefully in non-violent solidarity for social change, typically called a March. One of the most famous Marches in U.S. history was led by Martin Luther King, Jr. across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The start of a 50-mile march to the state capital of Montgomery, civil rights marchers were fighting for voter registration rights for African-American people. The march galvanized the nation and changed the course of the civil rights struggle.
More recently, the 500,000 strong Women’s March on Washington in 2017 that my wife and daughter participated in became a worldwide protest of an estimated seven million people the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump in solidarity that women’s rights are human rights.
Walking together peacefully and in solidarity with a message of change has been perhaps the most powerful public statement that citizens can make whether it is a hundred teachers from a rural county school system picketing for equal pay or 250,000 people marching on the nation’s capital for civil rights.
We each have our own path and journey to walk in this life, and who can predict what world-changing insights might be given to us as we prayerfully walk in a sacred manner, reconnecting with our home the earth?
As I think about the revolutionary and resurrecting act of walking meditation, to put my phone away and give myself permission to quiet my mind once a day and allow myself to move into a state of awe and wonder as I slowly move through this astounding mystery of life, I’m reminded of the advice of Wendell Berry:
“So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute…Ask the questions that have no answers…Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest. Say the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns…Laugh. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts…practice resurrection.” (from: Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front by Wendell Berry)
The material placed on the foot can greatly influence the way we walk. After extensive research, I eventually adopted and have worn for over three years now what are known as ‘zero-drop’ minimalist shoes and boots. As I slowly and gradually adjusted to wearing this type of footwear my feet and ankles grew stronger and my various foot pains went away. The plantar fasciitis left, as did the burning pain in my toes. The very flexible, flat, no arch support with wide toe-box shoes were mimicking a barefoot-style walking experience, while also protecting my feet from rocks, sticks, thorns, etc. This is a brief article referencing some research about the benefits of using this type of footwear for strengthening the foot overall.