Walking has saved my life and restored my serenity more times than I can count. When times have come that throw off life’s balance and inner peace, I know I have not walked enough.
Walking has always been part of my life’s journey, a way to constantly look around at the world each day, no matter where I am. Through it, I discover more about my surroundings as well as develop my inner self. It’s a crucial part of my spiritual practice. Recently, I realized again – and very intensely – how much walking means to my life and how much more I want to share this gift with others. Feeling the loss as I became off-track and didn’t walk as much as usual, I reflected on how walking came to be one of my pathways to peace and appreciation of life each day.
These insights came in the midst of a chaotic, demanding time this autumn, one that has brought both major disruptions and blessings. If you are a regular visitor to Mindful Walker, you may well have noticed an interruption and much longer time spans between postings this autumn. My walking and my writing so often go hand in hand.
Several occurrences happened that disrupted my life’s usual patterns. First, in mid-October one of my sisters had a life-threatening medical emergency, suffering a ruptured brain aneurysm. She could have died, and I rushed home to Pittsburgh as she was undergoing brain surgery. Fortunately, the quick actions of family members who were with her at the time that the aneurysm ruptured – taking her to the emergency room immediately – saved her life. We are blessed that the doctors and nurses at Allegheny General Hospital, where an ambulance transported her from a community hospital ER, were able to save her life and that she has come through the surgery as well as she did, though full recovery will take some time. Still, the entire event and my concerns over my sister’s health and recovery have left me shaken.
After I returned home from staying in Pittsburgh and being with my family there, other problems came up. One of my two beloved pet cats, who is a diabetic, suffered two hypoglycemic (dangerously low blood sugar) episodes within a month. He had to be hospitalized for a number of days each time, and the vets are treating him for pancreatitis, a difficult condition. The same time as his first episode we lost our electrical power for three days in the late-October snowstorm. Throughout this time period, my walking – and my writing – went totally off-track as I dealt with these emergencies, worked hard on deadlines in my other work, and then felt exhausted and unfocused.
Even after some routine has returned, I feel difficulty in focusing – and this is where walking comes in. In the fog that inhabited my brain, I realized that I had hardly walked in many weeks. It brought home the ways that walking creates serenity, solace, happiness, and absolute delight.
I’ve long been a walker, but I well remember the time in my life when walking went from pastime to a life-saving and affirming ritual and exercise – to spiritual and meditative practice as much as physical activity. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, after the break-up of my marriage (as I think of it since, as a gay couple, we could not get married then), I went through several tough, turbulent years. I dealt with a new-but-difficult love relationship that needed to end; lost my communications job with a large national nonprofit organization; and encountered major financial difficulties.
For a time, things got very bad. I faced the threat of foreclosure on my house and was trying to sell it and move from Trenton to New York City. My life was full of telephone calls with banks and lawyers. It was a time of learning that external realities in many ways controlled the pace of solving problems and moving on. Yet I learned I could have some say over the way I responded to the difficulties, be grateful for my blessings, and have peace in the midst of this turmoil. Specifically, the inability to just get out of a house that I could no longer afford and that was “under water” mortgage-wise controlled how quickly I could change my circumstances, move closer to where I was working in New York City, and create a new life. I’ve often described that challenging time as feeling like I was swimming through Jello-O, and I needed to develop much more patience.
So what did I do? I began to walk, usually every single day. So often in life, a particular place speaks to us, and it’s not always clear why at first. I discovered a quiet school campus, Mercer County Community College, about six miles from my home in Trenton. Nearly every day, in the evenings before sunset, I went walking there. I grew familiar with its beautiful trees of many varieties; many contained small labels identifying their species because of the college’s ornamental horticulture program. I enjoyed the birds and small animals I saw and watched the sunsets and developing twilight skies. Not too many people were around on weekends and certain evenings, and this attractive campus possessed a peacefulness allowing me to slow down my mind and hear my inner voice and wisdom. Its grounds felt like my private estate!
Nature’s order and beauty, close-up while walking
In this period of turbulence, loss, and uncertainty, walking became integral on so many days, an activity of discovery and being in the present moment. I couldn’t dwell on a financial worry when I looked closely at the amazing array of needles on a branch of an unusual evergreen tree or spotted a fox darting at the campus edge. I didn’t escape my responsibilities, but the walking helped me not to be consumed by them. It brought relief, solace, and joy in the midst of stress and sadness. It helped build my inner strength in times of self-doubt. Something about nature’s beauty or humankind’s great creations, partaking of it slowly and mindfully as we walk, sustains our inner being.
The “Print” of Our Steps
One book especially made a difference. Peace Is Every Step, by Buddhist monk, activist, and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, came into my life around that time. A gift from a friend, it changed my life with its beautiful, eloquent writing on the daily practice of mindfulness to be completely in touch with the present moment and heal our relationships and our world. In the book, Nhat Hanh’s thoughts on “walking meditation” taught me how to take mindful steps, breathe easily as I walk, and look around. Revelation!
We need to enjoy and savor walking, as Nhat Hanh explains, not just think of it as a means to get somewhere. Here I found a kindred spirit as I began to practice walking meditation. My own walks became more meaningful and enriching. (I plan to continue to write about various aspects of walking meditation in future posts.) “Although we walk all the time, our walking is more like running,” Nhat Hanh writes. “When we walk like that, we print anxiety and sorrow on the Earth. We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on the Earth.” How fitting and powerful to consider our steps as an interaction with the Earth.
In the years since, Nhat Hanh’s words consistently have called me back. Breathing and walking – slowing my steps just a bit in concert with my breathing – open my heart and spirit. Joys come. Tears come. Excitement comes. Grief comes. Whatever I am supposed to pay attention to in the moment occurs. I need only be open.
Hello, My Old Friend
In Central Park on a recent late afternoon at dusk, I met up with my walking spirit again. Central Park is one of those sacred, beautiful places to walk where one can never have seen it all. Walking without a particular destination, I found a sweet little playground that had a small bow bridge of stone, child-size. No children were there as dark was arriving, yet I smiled envisioning how boys and girls must love to play and run on this bridge. Leaves of cranberry red and light golden yellow were dazzling signs of life’s autumn cycling that would soon disappear as nature readies for winter’s rest. The blue sky of twilight deepened, with banks of white twinkling lights and the undulating shapes of bare silhouetted branches creating a serene pathway near the Central Park Zoo. Just a 45-minute walk, through the park’s east side, felt restorative.
Walking at dusk near the Central Park Zoo
It stuns and dismays me that we have built so many places that are hostile to walking. Thankfully, many people are increasingly favoring the towns, cities, trails, vistas, and other settings that welcome it. The places where no one can easily walk foster dissociation from our Earth, must like the distance I feel from myself when I forget the importance and wonder of walking in my life.
Walking brings intimacy and balance with the Earth and within us, as I came to see this autumn. Take a step, breathe, take another step, and follow your breath as you do. Renewed tranquility follows. As we walk, our inner world and our outer world come together powerfully in the present moment. These are the steps toward our soul’s peace.
What does walking mean in your life? Do you have a place you walk (or walked in the past) that has particular meaning? Share your thoughts with mindfulwalker.com.