Walking and the Art of Emotional Maturation
Becoming Your Own Friend
One of the practices which has kept me sane and healthy over the years, is my habit of taking long walks. Even when living in some of the densest cityscapes on the planet, I have always found it possible to navigate my way toward a long, striding, refreshing march.
The human being was made to walk: our upright skeleton, our svelte musculature, our plantigrade feet, our bobbing oversized head all need to be exercised on long walks to make sense again. Without a daily walk, preferably through a pathless wild, I begin to lose my sanity, my sense of humor, and my good night’s sleep.
Yet I believe that many of you don’t know this. Much of the modern firstworld struggles with “exercise” as though it were something exotic and far away. There is no need to jog, no need for equipment, no need to get in your car: just use those legs and go somewhere, for the earth is large and round.
Moreover, one of the secrets of walking as opposed to all other forms of exercise, is that it tunes the mind. The human mind responds to a walking pace more than any other: just as 90 beats per minute is the central point around which human music revolves due to the temporal range of the human heartbeat, so is the best of human thinking centered around nearly the same rhythm: they call it an andantino for good reason.
Therefore I will outline for y’all, my approach to the maximally productive walk.
Leave your phone and all other distractions behind.
Establish a hardy rhythm and keep to it.
Challenge yourself to go a little further than you think you want to.
Early on, let your mind wander. Allow yourself to become chatty and distracted. If you find yourself talking aloud, don’t attempt to prevent it. However, don’t allow the thread to become a mere indulgent fantasy: you must really talk to yourself, not someone else. You must learn to take yourself aside, as it were, and consult with your soul: treat it respectfully but frankly, like a good friend.
Use free association during the early stage. This will allow you to discover what it is you need to talk about: once you discover a theme or a stronger emotional response, focus on this issue. Trace the difficulties, look for knots. Treat your emotional responses like tense musculature in need of massage.
Some of you may discover what seems like an endless need, or an inconsolable loss, or more reasons to be depressed. Many of you are already running from yourselves, and therefore cannot afford this kind of reflection: however, it’s possible to use walking as your grounding, your emotional safety, even your justification. The logic of depression says: “You’re hopeless, you’ve already lost, there’s nothing you can do.” But something as simple as a long walk in the fresh air can weaken this logic and make it seem pale and distant. If necessary, trick yourself: begin with a short walk, and see if you want more.
The simplicity and centrality of walking lends itself well to clearing out bullshit: even when nothing seems to make sense, even when you feel out of control or powerless, you do know how to walk. In this practice, there are times when your feelings will spiral and bubble, swirl and mock you: use the simplicity and reality of each stride to straighten and strengthen your attitude. Feel the solidity of the earth, the competence of your feet, the power of your heartbeat, the inevitability of your breath: these are gifts a billion years old and more, and they cannot be defeated by the breezes which wash away the sandcastles of your merely conscious mind. Consciousness is almost nothing, a mere plaything, mere epiphenomena, upon the great sea of your body and the biological forces which created your body. You are in fact the representative of your ancestors and a rivulet of the torrent of life reaching back to the beginning: you are related to everything which lives. You can never be alone, and we are each of us alone forever. This is the power of walking upon the earth as a native creature.
This practice is part of the burden and gift of solitude. Walking in this way is an excellent supplement for those beginning a meditation discipline - but it is no substitute. You must familiarize yourself with how loud and urgent the voices in your head really are: do not be ashamed, do not lie to yourself about it. You will not begin to quiet that noise until you learn to give each voice space, and deal with them one at a time.
The earth is everywhere and always with us. Even the dirtiest and narrowest alleyway is planet earth. Most of the earth is still thankfully “the outdoors”: do not lose sight of this.
Do not indulge the insecurity which wants to fuss with “gear”: this is only another means of preventing difficult feelings. Every year I see tourists pass through my desert wilderness burdened with a thousand toys, a hundred machinations, and grandiose expectations - but not once the humility to get out of the car, sit on the ground, and listen. Most of the “recreational” activity aiming at nature, seeks to obliterate the experience of nature: to make it into another tiring social event, another falsified story, another pointless toil, another lawn to mow.
Approach nature with humility and simplicity, and she will speak softly to you. She will gradually change you back into what you are supposed to be.
It may sound strange, but walking can be a form of spiritual activism. Walking is an excellent means of bending the rules and changing expectations. It is also a way of discovering how free you are and are not: can you walk through this guarded parking lot? What about this strange little concrete tract of riverfront? Will someone in this upper middle class gated community call the cops if you take a long stroll? If you walk through this lively neighborhood, will the racial tension be too much for you? Is it you or them who’s tense? What happens if you say hello?
Manufactured suburbia is the worst in this regard: there are millions of acres of prime North American farmland paved over with tract housing, in which the emotional repression is so tightly controlled that even walking on the sidewalk seems to constitute a misdemeanor. The tyranny of the automobile wants to annihilate simple freedoms. I watch people get into and out of their car like they were bowing in prayer: it is a ritual they love, because the automobile is a surrogate body. They love the moment of climbing in most, but they also enjoy the fussy self-importance of parking and getting out - but once they’re in it, their repressed feelings surge up again and so they must drive hastily. Once they’re out, the reality of the body oppresses them and they must hasten to cover over it again. The cycle of meaningless toil is not accidental.
The human spirit loves and needs stories. Every feeling is a little story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end which hints at a new beginning. You must learn to savor your feelings like a sommelier. Every feeling has a right to exist no matter how earthy, bitter, and forbidden. To draw out this innocence and develop a freedom from stagnant expectation, there are two interrelated methods: talking and walking.
Talk therapy works because language has special leverage which reaches deep into unconscious structure. As Lacan says, “the unconscious is structured like a language”: this also means it’s manipulable like a language, like a multidimensional spiderweb, like an instrument with a hundred million strings…
Walking is the muscular parallel. As my old analyst used to tell me, “Say the next thing”. In order to give your feelings this right to exist, keep the body in motion. Keeping the body in motion gently stirs the pool of the mind. Therefore while much of my technique is derived from psychoanalysis and the stargazing posture of lying flat on your back, wondering out loud to an invisible presence - there is an increasingly popular kind of conciliatory indulgence and half-therapized attitude toward emotional landscapes which would threaten to make what I’m saying into just another truism for those who want to mellow the human spirit into a cloudy kiddy pool at the spoilt brat’s birthday party, with too many presents and no genuine friends…
But I’m talking about evolving your feelings, about forcing them to develop into something actionable. I’m talking about finding a path of maturation despite all obstacles. I’m talking about doing something about your life. I’m talking about laying the foundation for a lifelong friendship with yourself.
Every walk should be a little story. Every landmark can be used as a point of association and thus a metaphor for your progression. If you stumble, pay attention to what you were thinking and feeling right before it happened: it was no accident, but an act of self-sabotage - why? If you find yourself going the wrong way, ask yourself why. What does this way mean to you?
You can use distant landmarks and difficult passages as a limiting point for any one thread. By giving yourself a limited domain in which to come to a minor conclusion, you stand a better chance of fooling yourself into doing so. Yet in all of this, one should not try too hard, and one should always allow the unconscious mind to take the lead. Don’t anticipate answers, find them. Strive to be honest with yourself: honesty does not come all at once in a moment, it is a long gradation and a lifelong task.
Inclement weather is no excuse. I love winter hiking. Your heart, your lungs, and your circulation will meet the challenge. One of the benefits of hiking through a snowstorm, is not just that you’ll have a chance to improve endurance - but that it offers the opportunity to expand your range of emotional control. Walking alone in a gloaming wilderness through a blizzard, will provide a concrete opportunity to expand the set of feelings which you can handle without panic. A little brush with mortality will make your petty anxieties seem - petty.
If you practice consistently, you’ll soon be walking many miles daily without straining yourself, and you may look back and wonder how you ever could have been so weak.
Although it’s important to assert that you already know how to walk, in another sense many of you have no idea what you’re doing. Some of you have never learned to walk over uneven ground - there are many adults who consider themselves fully competent and even the pinnacle of creation, perhaps even an example of universal aspiration itself, who cannot walk over anything but a perfectly graded, dry, paved surface: at which point the arrogance of civilized humanity looks more like a bad production of Punch and Judy than anything else.
If you want to know what masterly movement looks like, watch a film with Toshiro Mifune. He always moves with his knees wide, his weight low, his feet firmly planted, and his lower back activated. Or study Cary Grant: he was an acrobat, and it contributed greatly to that ineffable grace.
Do not take walking, or standing, or sitting for granted: these too can contribute to an athleticism, which when properly developed has the power to fundamentally change the experience of your body. It’s in the small things that power over yourself lies hidden.