‘Go out and walk. That is the glory of life’
“If you seek creative ideas go walking.
Angels whisper to a man when he goes for
Raymond I Myers
The glory of a walk
For me, walking is less of a pastime and more of a compulsion. As I step outside and close the door something lifts from my soul and I feel unshackled. As I catch my stride the tension lifts from my body, my head clears and my troubles seem to melt away. And rather like Christopher Robin, it doesn’t matter what the weather is like, just as long as I’m out in it.
Before the kids came along I’d frequently wake around 5:30 in summer and would head for the nearest green space; the morning light was so irresistible that I couldn’t bear to miss it. Even in winter I’d sometimes leave the house before it was light, hop on the tube and then walk across London from any direction for between 2 or 3 hours to arrive at my desk in the West End at 9:30. When on holiday I’d be up around dawn marching off to catch the sunrise with the dew still fresh on the grass.
We may not need walking to survive physically but the life of the spirit needs walking like our lungs crave air. My spiritual muscles seize up if I stay sitting, lying or just pootling around for too long. Travelling by car, train or plane might move me geographically but doesn’t engage the totality of my body, soul and spirit; I crave air on my skin, sun on my neck, and earth beneath my feet. My feet were made for walking and without it they, and the rest of me, simply aren’t doing what they were created to do.
Releasing our creativity
As far back as the ancient Greeks (who would wander while philosophising) walking has been associated with creativity. Dickens, Hugo and C.S. Lewis all found inspiration while they walked. Thoreau used to say: “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow” and many recent studies have confirmed this observation. Virginia Woolf described the creative energy of the London streets where she loved to walk as “being on the highest crest of the biggest wave, right in the centre & swim of things.”
Many of my ideas for blogs come to me as I wander across Wimbledon Common: I regularly stop and jot them down before they slip away. Even in a busy week I try and walk for an hour or so at least 3 or 4 times. I find it’s far more inspiring and rewarding to take an hour out of my workday than to huddle over a computer or stare at a TV late in the evening. Facebook, Strictly or Bake Off can wait: a walk definitely can’t.
Learning to Saunter
There is a story that the author Albert W Palmer tells about meeting the famous naturalist and author John Muir during a walk in the Californian Sierra’s. He’d heard that Muir didn’t think much of hiking and so he asked him if this was true. Muir replied: “I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains and not hike!” Muir claimed that the word saunter referred to pilgrims in the Middle Ages who had left everything to head for Jerusalem. When they were asked where they were heading they said “A la Sainte Terre”- to the Holy Land, so they became known as sainte-terrer-ers or saunterers. “Now these mountains are our Holy Land’ said Muir ‘and we ought to saunter through them and not ‘hike’ through them’.
The glory of walking is not about keeping fit or any number of health benefits, although there are no shortage of those. No, walking is about moving away from the stuff that bogs down our souls and stifles our imaginations. As we saunter forth we are embracing the dynamic, the unexpected and the wonder-full. There is a sense of journey and adventure- you never know quite whom you might encounter or what you might see. There is infinite space and a billion swirling galaxies above our head and unimaginable fire and terror deep down beneath our feet. There are marvels around every street corner and amazements hidden behind the most ordinary looking bush or tree. As Gandalf put it in Lord of the Rings: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Coming to our senses
Often when I begin a walk I can find my thoughts are stuck in some infuriating hamster wheel. I can sometimes waste whole hours of a walk trying to resolve some argument in my mind or ruminating over some conversation that has upset me. Henry David Thoreau describes this experience: “The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is—I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”
The first aim of any walk is to become fully present to all that surrounds me. I will try and focus on what sounds I can hear or will pay close attention to the shapes of clouds, the faces of children or the strength of the breeze. It often helps if I become aware of my breathing. As I breathe out I am pushing negative thoughts away. As I breathe in I am receiving Gods peace and his strength. I feel the earth beneath me and know I am supported by love. The air is his presence, within and all around. The aim is to pull ones mind into the present and the Presence. We want to feel more than think; experience more than analyse. This is soul time- deep time. Past, present and future meld together. We know we are loved, safe and secure.
I have found some prayers quite helpful. “Lord, help me to see what is really here”, or ”Lord, what are you saying to me through this street, this wood, this scene unfolding before me?” Thankfulness is always helpful: “Lord, thank you that you are walking with me, closer than my breath.” Or ‘Lord, thank you for your strength that I can feel in my legs and this amazing gift of a feeling and thinking and worshipping body”.
The act of walking and deliberately placing one’s foot upon the ground carries with it a mysterious power. In English law there are ‘squatters rights’ where anyone can obtain legal possession over a piece of land or property after many years of habitual use. There seems to be a spiritual parallel. God told Joshua on the border of the Promised Land: “I will give you every place you set your foot”. My habitual footfall along a street, a park or through a wood connects me, in a way I don’t completely understand, with that place. A drive or a ride in a bus or train disconnects me: I sense no ownership or responsibility. But when there is a constancy of connection over many years between earth and body, ground and feet; when my lungs have breathed in the air and my senses have enjoyed the smells, the sights and sounds: then that place becomes most truly mine in heart and soul. I can ask whatever I desire for it, confident that my Father has already granted my request.
Thomas Traherne captures well this sense of possession: ‘The streets were mine…the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine…The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine…’
Sole heirs of the world
So, whenever we can, let’s forsake the car the bus and the train. Let’s put our walking shoes on; grab a coat, a map and a water bottle. Let us then walk as a thousand generations of our forebears have walked. And as we walk we will find that the skies above and the earth beneath and all that is in them have become ours to enjoy, ours to bless and ours to command.
Maybe Traherne should have the last word: “You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world … Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.”