'Much motion in the open air' -- In praise of walking (part 2)

by Rich Heffern

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Walking is an almost complete introductory course to a wholistic spirituality. Walking is complex, involving mind and body, heart and soul.—all working together, the very essence of good health. “I celebrate,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, “that fine intoxication that comes of much motion in the open air, that begins in a sort of dazzle and sluggishness of the brain, and ends in a peace that passes all understanding. Your muscles are so agreeably slack, you feel so clean and strong and so idle, that whether you move or sit still, what you do is done with pride and a kingly sort of pleasure.”

I am much addicted to walking in all its variety. In addition to the after-dinner stretch, and the Sunday afternoon promenade in the park, there is also sauntering, scrambling, vagabonding, hiking, snow-shoeing, pilgrimaging and trekking. I am a special fan of the common nature walk. Others are inveterate city explorers. I have sampled those pleasures, but for me nothing can match a hike up hill or down vale, far from the clatter, noise and beeping telephones of town. I like to hang around footpaths and trails wearing old clothes and good sturdy shoes. Gurgling brooks, pine-scented air, and songful meadowlarks and bluebirds perched on fenceposts send me reeling off into ecstasy.

For me, an afternoon’s walk down a woodland trail is often a helpful lesson in the fine art of contemplation. It doesn’t always work. I am still a novice in many ways. But when things come together and I am able to cast off my careworn discontent and city-bred frantic hurry, when I can slow down and when things click, then I am able to enter more deeply into a centering experience that pays dividends elsewhere in my life.

Attentive but relaxed, I walk just to hear the simple candor of the everyday, well lost and adrift on the meandering currents of the afternoon. If I am out just to discover, to see how spring or autumn is coming along, then a moment-by-moment waking up will take place. The way the sunlight shines through the oak leaves overhead as they dance and flutter in the winds, the feel of breezes across my neck and face, the honeysuckle smells mingled with the damp earth aroma, the magic music of a wood thrush heard in the distance, the broad blue skies and puffy clouds overhead – these are the cues that prompt the awakening. Called insistently beyond myself, I am invited to open my eyes wider and wider to the world.

If I am out to think something through or in a meditative frame of mind, then slowly my thoughts will ripen like the blackberries on the bushes alongside the trail. For an instant maybe I feel as though I have realized something extremely important. Then it escapes me as quickly as it came. But it doesn’t matter. As the hours and miles slip by I am beginning to feel more and more at home in the universe. I really belong here. A kind of sturdy and durable hope begins to arise in me. I see shiny flecks of what may, further down the path, turn out to be nuggets of real wisdom.

My senses all stimulated by the plain joy of walking, a quiet exuberance flows within. I am beginning – to some extent – to feel in tune with the wide wavelengths of the here and now. And there is some real centering going on within, the kind the spiritual directors and gurus talk of. My center of gravity is lowered. Interior shiftings and relocations are taking place. I am somehow restored to a sense of intimacy with my own inner life. The resources and strengths contained therein seem more accessible.

This experience of centering, I think, has its roots in both the cultivation of simplicity that goes with walking and the wide-awake contemplative way in which we become intimate with the world and our own interiors. On a nature walk, my body feeling alive and good, my heart pierced by the beauty of the woodlands. I am emptied, ready for anything, and able for a few moments at least to look at things with wonder-seeing eyes. When I am walking, before the workaday world once again beckons, I feel myself to be an intrepid explorer, a tireless hunter of the real treasures of life. To locate these treasures we must be both simple and wise. And we can walk.

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