Write Into Life

The way of the walker: walking mindfully

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

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.