I often go on walks to clear my head, but they didn’t always work as well for me as they do now. At first I struggled to truly relax. I became aware of a certain breathless blurriness pervading my walks. No matter how calm and centered I tried to be, I couldn’t rid them of this subtle sensation of agitated semi-presence. I spent a while thinking about walking and mental states, and eventually developed a specific way of moving to clear my head. This might all sound a bit silly and abstract, but it’s brought me some genuinely interesting experiences so I thought I’d share.
Let’s start with the physical nature of walking itself. For a bipedal animal, walking consists of vaulting the body over alternating limbs. A continuous gait relies on inertia, effectively a continual state of falling. I believe there is a mental analogue to this inertia; a sort of psychological momentum. Our mental resources stretch forward to occupy the space designated for our future selves. Maybe, in some psychological echo of Heisenberg’s Principle, it is impossible to fully occupy a place while simultaneously intending to travel elsewhere. The irritating restlessness I felt might then be a symptom of the act of walking itself, some part of me always refusing to be in the moment as I charted my course.
I reasoned that one solution to my problem would be to come to a complete physical and mental standstill. I reached this conclusion as I was crossing a street, with a 30 second countdown in my favor. So I tried it. I stopped dead in the middle of the crosswalk, facing down the waiting cars and a lifetime of conditioning. I fought the urge to keep walking immediately, and then the urge to turn back as if in error, until I truly had no intention to regain the safety of either curb. Having removed myself from the psychogeographical riptide of this crosswalk, which had swept me past so many times before, I felt that it was the first time I had really been there. I was wholly immersed in that street, in standing and feeling it around me.
I won’t recommend stopping in crosswalks, but for me this affirmed the power of intention over experience. I had won a fresh view of a place I had thought myself familiar with, simply by altering my intended path. Having felt this power, I began to recognize its more subtle effects during my regular walks. Though I might pause somewhere to enjoy flowers or take in a view, my experiences were just that – pauses rather than habitations. Mentally I was passing through. Some element of me would be drifting onwards, beckoning, leaving me in a haze of transience until I gave in to its pull and moved on. My suggestion to combat this attitude is simple, but difficult – walking very, very slowly.
You must move so slowly, each step becomes a complete journey. Stand where you are with no intentions to travel. Take in the sensations around you. Your mind will occasionally lurch forwards in anticipation, ready to catch you as you fall into your next step. Let it go, then bring it gently back. You have nowhere else to be; you’ve already arrived. Eventually, if you’d like, decide to take a step. This step will take you to a new place – again to be inhabited for its own sake rather than in service of any distant goal – and you start the process over.
After some practice, you should be able to maintain this inertia-free state of mind while walking at a normal pace. You’ll have no aversion to stopping dead or performing a sudden about-face and each footfall will feel like a conscious decision to fully occupy a new space. You will be walking as a way of exploring the sensation of being where you are. While simple, this marks a striking mental shift from the way of walking in which we’ve all been so deeply trained – walking in order to be somewhere else.
I’ve come to see the effects of this change in mindset as a special case of the overarching relationship between expectation and experience. It represents a denial of the expectant sensation of ‘going-somewhere’ usually so inseparable from travel. By consciously altering the mental context of my perceptions, I can effect subtle yet undeniable changes in the ways I experience places. I can sit on the metro with no particular stop in mind, and let the carriage around me slip from elevator to cafe as reading and people-watching became my sole pursuits. My apartment can be transformed by intending to leave it forever the next morning, and then again by forgetting I’ve ever seen it before. By toying with these interactions, I find that I can see places in startlingly new lights. In the case of walking, this can seem like the only way to see a place at all. Sometimes I still find myself walking a bit faster than I’d like, absentmindedly chasing the ghost of my future self. I now feel that I know what to do. I stop. I stay where I am for a while, until I feel no pressure to continue… really, none. Only then do I decide to move on more mindfully.