The Tao of Walking
I'm a former runner. In fact, running and competing in races was a large part of my identity for many years. Over the years I participated in races of various distances, ranging from 5Ks to Ultramarathons. As chronicled in my book, "Slow Your Roll" (chapter 7), I was a "streak runner" for the better part of three years- 922 days to be exact. This means that I ran at least one mile (usually more) for 922 days without missing a single day. In 2015, The New York Times ran a piece about this running streak I undertook with my friend, Coach Will Wade: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/23/sports/ncaabasketball/virginia-commonwealth-coach-leads-by-example-one-mile-at-a-time.html
A streak like this may seems extreme by some's standards, but there is an old maxim that resonates with me "One person's dedication is another's obsession."- anonymous
Due to osteoarthritis in my knees, I am not able to run anymore. Initially, I went through quite a mental funk adjusting to life without running. Not only was running a large part of my identity and daily routine, but in some regards, it enabled me to make sense of the world around me. Running held deep spiritual significance to me, as I considered my daily runs to be a part of meditation practice. I expressed this in my journal during the streak, "Running is a part of my daily meditation practice. It gets me focused and centered, and it also makes me feel one with the universe, because it put things into sync. I don't listen to music when I run. I focus on my breathing and my form. The rhythmic sound of my feet hitting the ground sometimes clears my mind. Other times it helps me to generate creative ideas."
One of the underlying principles of mindfulness is that it helps to integrate the body and the mind. I saw my running in a similar fashion. When my running days ended, Sakyong Mipham's quote, "The body benefits from movement, and the mind benefits from stillness," reminded me that I needed to find another form of daily exercise. I tried several forms of exercise to no avail. I just didn't like them as much as I did running. Swimming was a pain because I would have to find a pool, secure a lane, and shower and clean up each time afterwards. Cycling was ok, but I'm not a gear head. In other words, changing flat tires and dealing with the mechanical aspects was not for me. I really wanted to be good at yoga, but I sucked at it. After much trial and tribulation that went along with trying to find a means of regular exercise, I finally broke down and joined a gym. I am embarrassed to say that two years later, I still have not made the first visit there! (not to self: Cancel that membership.)
After not regularly exercising for about a year while I was trying to figure out what activity I wanted to engage in, I started walking for exercise. I don't think this was a conscious effort. My mind was getting a bit hazy from the lack of movement that my body was accustomed to, so I started walking every night and going on longer walks on the weekends. From a cardio perspective, my heart rate doesn't get up anywhere near where it did when I was running, but I noticed it helps my mind to break a sweat and to move. Initially, I felt bored walking compared to running. However, now I realize that when I am walking I notice a lot of things I missed when I was running, due to the fact that when I was running, I was often just trying to breathe!
For the past several years, I have attend a wonderful conference for educators called "Learning and The Brain": https://www.learningandthebrain.com/. This past May I had the pleasure of seeing Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel speak. Kandel, a spry 88 year-old with his mind still as sharp as a tack, is considered a living legend as a specialist in the field of neurobiology (learning and memory). He is an avid walker, as he walks to work every day and knocks out several miles on his strolls around his beloved NYC. One of his quotes resonated with me and reaffirmed my belief that walking is good for both our bodies and our brains, "If you walk two or three miles a day, you will release sufficient osteocalcin from your bones to combat non-Alzheimer's age-related memory loss."
Shane O'Mara has a book on the benefits of walking coming out soon called "In praise of Walking" in which he examines the physical and mental positives of putting one foot in front of the other. Some of the benefits he cites include:
1. It's good for our muscles and posture.
2. It helps protect and repair organs.
3. It can slow or turn back the ageing of our brains.
4. Motion helps facilitate creativity.
5. It improves moods.
6. It decreases stress levels.
I fell in love with the writing of Erling Kagge a few years ago when I read his powerful little book, "Silence- In the Age of Noise." Kagge, a Norwegian publisher, lawyer, and explorer is quite interesting. Being the first person to walk the three poles: North Pole, South Pole, and Mount Everest, he takes walking to a whole new level. In his spare time, he also walked through the underground sewers of NYC, and he trekked across the city of Los Angeles. His outstanding new book, "Walking- One Step at a Time," serves as a moving meditation on the subject, as he poetically expresses his philosophies, observations, and experiences on the art of walking. Of particular interest to me is his belief that in our technologically- drenched accelerated culture, the experience of walking actually slows down our lives and expands time.
My daily walks have become an important part of my daily routine. Similar to my mediation practice, there are days when my mind is all over the place when I am walking, and there are days when walking clears my mind. At the very least, the activity of walking enables me to see what is on my mind. There are days when I do not feel like walking, but I have never felt worse after a walking session. it's just the opposite. It always makes me feel better, as it refreshes my mind, body, and spirit. I prefer to walk outdoors. Not only is it more interesting than walking on a treadmill or at a mall, but I think it is important for us to spend time outdoors and get into sync with nature and our surroundings.
My friend, best selling author, Jon Gordon, uses his daily walks for more than just exercise, as he uses the activity to engage in what he calls a "gratitude walk." On these walks, Jon takes the time to reflect on all that he is grateful for in his life. When I asked him about the reasons for this daily routine he said, "You can't be stressed and thankful at the same time. It helps me take on the day with positivity and power. When I take a "thank you walk," I create a fertile mind that is ready for great things to happen."
Some of our greatest thinkers came up with some of their biggest and brightest ideas when walking. Individuals such as: Wordsworth, TS Eliot, Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Dickens used their daily strolls to facilitate thought, creativity, inspiration, and contemplation. In more recent years, Steve Jobs was a big fan of the walking meeting during brainstorming sessions. Richard Branson and President Barack Obama are also well-known fans of walking meetings. When you consider that the average American sits between seven and fifteen hours a day, it's no wonder that a little bit of putting one foot in front of the other can boost our creative flow. A recent study from Stanford University finds that a person'
s creative output is increased by sixty percent when they are walking.
One of the most beautiful aspects of my daily walk is when I remember to soak up the world around me. I make a conscious effort to fully utilize it as a sensory experience, as I try to touch, hear, see, and feel as much of the world as I can. When walking in this manner, the world opens up to me, and my problems seem to melt away, or at least they seem less daunting. I had the honor of participating in a walking mediation with Thich Nhat Hanh a few years ago. After the silent walk, he gave a dharma talk. It left an impression on me when he said, "Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet." That's what I'm trying to do.