Walking to my apartment after work one day, I saw an older man in front of me on the sidewalk acting a bit like a tourist, stopping to look at the old homes and apartment buildings, many from the turn of the century. We said hello and he added, "What a beautiful neighborhood." Since he seemed to be wandering (and chatty), I suggested he walk to a nearby stretch of inspiring Victorian homes. He thanked me and said, "I like these walks. They make me feel better." Then he said, "I just lost my wife."
This fascinating glimpse into his sad situation resonated with me on many levels—his decision to walk through an attractive neighborhood to boost his spirit speaks to the inherent value of architecture and history; the importance of maintaining lively, walkable neighborhoods in the city and beyond; and the psychological impact of the built environment that architects, designers and city planners need to keep in mind as they create the surroundings where we spend our time.
Since then I've also thought a lot about how walking always seems to calm my mind. But is it the repetitious motion of walking that has this meditative effect, or is it something else? Covering nearly all corners of my neighborhood, I've learned that walking with a certain amount of mindful intention elevates an average walk into an extraordinary event.
Just when I thought I was on to something unique, it turns out that there is already a name for this—"mindful walking" or a "mind-body walk." The magazine body + soul defines mindful walking as "a technique that uses awareness of the mind/body connection to improve the quality of your walking experience on all levels. You're working to get fit, and to improve your life as a whole." Also, a recent article at www.beliefnet.com claims, "Walking just happens to provide one of the greatest vehicles for melding mind with body."
This all sounds good, you say, but how exactly do I take a mindful walk? However you want to. Mindful walking is a highly personal physical activity adaptable to your situation or mood. You can be fun and instinctual or disciplined and meditative as you walk, as long as you engage your mind to positively influence your mental health.
One of my favorite passages from a novel, the opening scene of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, describes what I'll call the undisciplined approach to mindful walking. As the book opens, Clarissa Dalloway, the main character, is walking through busy London streets to buy flowers for a party she is throwing that night. With her first few steps into the city, she declares, "What a lark! What a plunge!"—and for the next thirty pages, we get to follow her wildly spiritual walk through the streets of London as she talks to people, sifts through her life, and interacts with the city's charms. While waiting to cross a busy street, she achieves a moment of clarity:
Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so. … In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging … in the triumph and the jingle and strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.
Walking mindfully connects Mrs. Dalloway to herself, her moment in time, and her surroundings. In the midst of the busy streets, she remembers and forgets herself at the same time.
I used to think that Mrs. Dalloway was comparing her own "plunge" into the city to the flight of a lark, but "lark" also refers to a merry adventure or a frolic. If you have ever felt spiritually energized by a city's surroundings as you walk, then you know what it is like to be a flâneur. Essentially, a flâneur (a French term from the end of the nineteenth century) is a mindful pedestrian who walks with appreciation for the diversity around him, a friendly and curious connoisseur of the urban fabric. At www.flaneur.org, a webzine "dedicated to the sanctification of the stroll," a flâneur is described as "one of those fin-de-siècle dandies who ambled through the crowds of European cities in search of bustle, gossip and beauty." The Flâneur by Edmund White describes it best:
A flâneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles through a city without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the place in search of adventure. The flâneur visits bookshops and boutiques, monuments and palaces, providing gossip and background to each site, looking through the blank walls past the proud edifices to glimpse the inner human drama.
While we don't always have monuments and palaces gracing our American neighborhoods, adopting the outgoing mindset of a flâneur will quicken your pace and turn down your mental chatter—leading to a healthy feeling of integrating your mind and body with your place. Whether you are walking in a city or on a quiet residential street, consider the following:
Find Your Roots
Another way to walk mindfully is to make an effort to understand the ecological landscape in which you live. We identify so strongly with the built environment that it is easy to forget about the land that existed long before any of us were here. Rediscovering your natural environment can renew your sense of identity as you walk and make you feel connected to the place where you live.
In Ecoshamanism, James Endredy reminds us that we have conquered and trivialized the earth, leading to a profound disconnect from the natural world that sustains us. Claiming "this preposterous situation is one of the underlying causes of the ecological crises of our times," he goes on to say:
The key to reclaiming an organic, primal sense of place … is to experience the soil, landscape and ecosystems of the places where we live and work at a level of reality much deeper than that imposed on us by political boundaries, zip codes and school districts.
To help us achieve this deep level of identification, Endredy encourages us to make the distinction between cognitive maps and organic maps. While both of these maps are products of our own experience with a place, cognitive maps are based on our understanding of the man-made environment and organic maps are based on a deeper appreciation of the natural landscape.
After reading Ecoshamanism, I've shifted my own map to include more "organic" thinking. St. Paul has the longest stretch of river bluff of any community along the Mississippi River, and my neighborhood is perched on the bluffs, a couple of miles away from where the river takes a steep turn to the southwest. When I walk, I have a better understanding of how the footpaths, city buildings, railroad tracks, and cafes fit like puzzle pieces into the original, impressive structure of the mythic river and stone bluffs.
Once you have made this distinction in your own neighborhood, Endredy suggests an exploratory walk to better understand your organic map. Walk around your neighborhood and begin to create a new map based on the organic reality of where you are. Notice and register all of the natural features of the landscape, such as hills, valleys, individual trees, shrubs, flowers, birds, puddles, insects, rocks, and so on. Now look up and realize that you are standing in the center of your local "home" circle—a circle inside many other larger ecological circles. What you find inside your immediate home circle will tell you a lot about yourself.
Move Your Mind-Body
I haven't forgotten about the most basic physiological elements of mindful walking—motion and breath. This is the "disciplined" side of mind-body walking to which I referred earlier. When you calm your mind, breathe deeply, and focus on the movement of your body, walking turns into a form of meditation. Conscientiously mix these ideas with an urban and ecological sense of adventure, and you are on your way to a healthy and fully integrated mind-body workout. As stated in body + soul, "Treat walking as a practice, and it will become not only something you do with your legs but also a way to bring your mind, body and spirit in balance."