The way of the walker: walking mindfully


Children walk wonderfully. We ancients tend to get stuck. (Image Archie Somerville 1856)

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Post written in 2015, in which I offer more sage advice to myself about the simple pleasures of walking

Walking is one peg in the exercise programme that was part of my boot camp for old age, my year of looking intently at darn near every aspect of my life.  And there’s more to walking than mindless locomotion.

For example, do you generally amble, dawdle, glide, limp, lurch, march, meander, mince, pace, perambulate, plod, prance, prowl, ramble, saunter, shuffle, skulk, stagger, stalk, stride, strut, stumble, swagger, toddle, totter, tramp, trudge or waddle?

And how would you know?

Oops, is that the walking dead?

Have you caught your reflection in a shop window lately? Did it take you by surprise? Was that a reflection of the real you, a recognisable you, moving a familiar body along the footpath? Or did you catch a glimpse of someone much older than you feel?

Any way of walking is better than not walking, and your way is your way, unique and beautiful. Our walking style is an expression of who we are. If we can walk at all, we are blessed.

Yet we can tinker with our walking style. We are not doomed to continue with any habits we dislike. At least some of them can be modified, if we choose.

A comparatively new aim for me is to be mindful as I walk, to be aware that I’m walking. Trust me, I’m no model: my level of awareness varies hugely. And that’s fine: if mindfulness becomes a guilt trip, what’s the point? Do it your way, whenever, however. It’s not a competition and there’s no exam. Meditating as you walk or hurry on an errand or stride out in company or hike up a mountain or wander lonely through a host of golden daffodils? It’s all good. The thing is to be conscious of what you’re doing, at least some of the time: which is both simple and unusual.

Four ways of walking mindfully

1. Do a formal “walking meditation”: this practice formalises mindful walking to the nth degree. It usually involves walking slowly along a short path, totally focused on just one thing: walking. The subtle movements of muscles and joints from the soles of your feet to your neck, the quality of every sensation, the way your head balances on your neck, the touch of your clothing, the air you breathe, the way your spine moves, the sun or wind on your skin…

I’m no expert on walking meditation, so let’s move on.

2. Notice just one thing about your body. Go easy on yourself. You don’t need to plunge into a full monastic meditation: just check off one body part as you move along. You could focus on your thighs or shoulders or feet for a few steps, or just track the movement of air over your skin. You might be surprised at what you discover. Often, I consciously relax my jaw, because that’s a problem for me. I don’t need my jaw to walk, so relax, dammit!

3. Just look softly, and notice what you see. Sometimes I focus on something straight ahead, sometimes on the peripheral vision. The more you look around, the more there is to notice. Children to admire, paint squiggles on the pavement, fuschia buds begging to be popped…

4. Tread lightly on your thoughts. Mindfulness does not exclude thinking: rather, it means becoming aware of your thinking. Generally I try not to work earnestly on problems while walking—but again and again I’ll go for a walk and mysteriously, a problem will solve itself. A new thought pops up out of the blue, and quite unexpectedly you see that problem from a different angle. Such moments are common with writers: that’s why so many writers have a dog or live by the sea!

Do you already practise some of these habits?

Want to extend your repertoire a little? Take it softly, softly. This is not a duty. It will not make you rich or famous, but it may be rather enjoyable.

9 more tips for walking young, safe, and happy.


14 thoughts on “The way of the walker: walking mindfully

  1. I have just got myself involved with Living Streets Aotearoa, which aims to promote walking and protect pedestrians and their rights. So your comments on the pleasures of walking really caught my imagination. How easy would mindfulness be if you were on a footpath also frequented by cyclists (not all considerate) skate-boarders, segueists , scooterers and mobility device drivers? How can pedestrians be assured of calm and safe walking places?

    1. A highly relevant question. The mindfulness required would be looking around and being fully aware of all the hazards: outer, not inner. Yes, you need to pick your place for these practices.

    2. cedar51 says: – yes, I’m semi involved as well…

  2. bone&silver says:

    I just hiked for 4 days through the Tasmanian wilderness carrying a 15kg backpack: being mindful while negotiating ascents and declines was essential (all 4 of us over 50). Sometimes up the [many many ] steps, I tried to use a Feldenkrais technique of focusing on ‘swinging my bones’ rather than actually stepping with my muscles- this can be an interesting experience.

    1. Wow, how terrific! The Feldenkrais approach is so valuable.

  3. agshap says:

    Just got inspired to charge my Fitbit….

    1. So happy to hear this! Have fun.

  4. cedar51 says:

    Having no car, means “walking” even if it is just walking to the nearest bus stop or similar. I do often walk down to the village if it’s nice weather – I chat with people, yesterday I talked to an elderly man (walking slowly) because a young man coming up the hill, switched over to walking on the right which was funny because we were both on the left…we commented on how the man must have been from a right-hand drive country…

    I stopped off to look at a building site for a short few minutes…then watched a woman with a child, not even look both ways on a busy side street. They just marched across (okay there wasn’t a car, but by the time they got across one was turning in…) I thought that woman is not teaching that child to be mindful (school nearby…hence both heading towards it.

    I stepped onto a crossing – and stepped smartly back – car didn’t stop…the guy/car behind looked shocked…and waved me on (but I was jittery by then)

    the rest of the walk was fine…I was down in the village to do a number of things before I went by train to Newmarket to do something art-related things…

    It was just too hot to walk home…sun blazing down, high humidity – so onto my local bus…walked from stop to home which was very overheated indoors…

    1. And the walk becomes an adventure, which becomes a story…

  5. Trying out to see if my link is now the right one.,

    1. I’ve sent you a tip by email.

  6. joelseath says:

    Hello Rachel. Your writing here, and your recent photo-journal of the importance of noticing small things on your walk home, reminded me in tangential but linked ways of psychogeographic engagements with the built environment. I had to go dig out my writings on it on my other blog. So thank you.

    1. Oh please send me links to your own writing on the topic.

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