Walking as daily practice

I was thinking about devotional practice as I went on one of my lunchtime walks recently. I was listening to Maira Kalman on On Being and apart from loving what she said, was struck by her thoughts on rituals and on walking:

“Sometimes, I’m spending too much time wandering around when I actually have work to do, but I always say that’s — “Oh, well, this must be the work that I need to do right now, before I do that other work.” And really, I think, the more that I work and the more that I see what my life is, the more simple it becomes — and very elemental”.

I have started walking during my lunch hours at work, just for half an hour. It started as part of a ‘steps challenge’ in the office, and I have simply continued. It breaks up the day, and ensures that I leave my desk for a while. It also exposes me to natural light, which I sorely miss at this time of year.

But it turns out, there is more to walking than simply, well, walking. Rebecca Solnit writes about walking in her book, Wanderlust:

I kept coming back to this route for respite from my work and for my work too, because thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking (p.5).”

I find it very hard, in my current role, to find time for thinking. There is so much pressure on the productivity of the job – making sure emails are replied to, things are organised, others are written – that it is unacceptable to not being doing something at any point. So thinking is very definitely out of the question, even though thinking is very much required. I have found that walking helps makes space for thoughts.

Charlotte Runcie, whose book Salt on Your Tongue I’ve reviewed here, writes about walking by the sea:

There was something about this walk, though, that made me realise in new detail that walking beside the sea was just the very thing to exercise the mind. Walking could be the route to something better, somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond, like the e e cummings poem, where there is power in the fragility of the new, and everyone’s a pilgrim” (p.44).

I like the idea of walking as an ‘exercise’ of the mind, a way of thinking. Solnit writes of it as “the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labour that produces nothing but thoughts, experiments, arrivals” (p.5).

As a daily practice, a half hour of attention to rhythms, my mind is free from the grind of answering emails. It can wander, leap, make connections. These are not necessarily bolts of enlightenment you understand, but small shuffles towards understanding or comprehension. Every step counts.