Walking has taken on new significance and importance today, due to the coronavirus. Gyms are closed, so the outdoors have become a gym we all share. Or we have always shared this gym, but maybe we now do it more deliberately. Almost everyone I know says they take walks. Where we each go⎼ that is not so shared. Some have the privilege of deep forests, beaches, or riversides, others city streets, parks, or parking lots.
I took a walk a few days ago that could have gone on forever. Our home is in a rural area, on a steep hill, and I only stopped when my legs tired. I was also experimenting with how to walk as more a meditation⎼ how to lose myself for at least a few moments. And how, when my mind wandered, to kindly return attention to the basics⎼ breathing, looking, listening, and feeling.
When I first started my corona-walks, I distracted myself from each step so the weight of steps wouldn’t drag me down. The walk up our hill is challenging. I would set a goal to exercise for maybe 30 minutes or an hour. But if I began each walk thinking about how many minutes I had left to finish, each step would become a burden. So I either counted steps or thought about interesting ideas or people or projects I could take on. Or I played this game with myself. I pretended I would only walk to the big house up the road. And when I arrived there, I’d tell myself to walk just a bit more, to the maple tree where I saw the turkeys last week. And when I reached the maple tree I’d continue to the next memory or turkey sitting.
But not this time.
In an online birding class I took recently, the teachers spoke about how we honor the birds we live with by knowing their names and their songs. This was a new and beautiful idea for me. But as I walked, I just wanted to listen. To name the birds would be another distraction from the song itself. It would mean me, here, and it, there. But to stop walking and just listen, the sound grew closer and clearer. And when the song ended, the trees and insects and stones and cars on the road were waiting for me even more distinctly.
In the past, I often thought about what it meant to feel at home someplace. This is the answer. That the gullies, streams, and trees, the wind, heat, and the house I owned would live inside me, not just me inside it. That I’d be open to all of it. That it would be a place to love and think.
There are so many ways to think. We can think rationally and critically, use words, concepts, examine theories, research and organize facts. Or we can let our minds wander through imaginative realms, memories of the past or ideas of the future⎼ through our pictures of ourselves or how others picture us. Or we quiet the mind, by focusing on a singular chosen point of focus⎼ the breath, sensations, the maple tree, and especially feeling⎼ or awareness of whatever arises in the immediate moment, including awareness itself.
The first involves a task-positive brain network; we focus strongly and our minds are filled by what we study. The second is the default mode network and it is where we go when we’re not focused on a task. We daydream and our minds drift. We think but with no set goal. Our minds can be noisy but we’re often not very aware of it. The third is more about knowing or mindfully attending than thinking. We focus on how feeling, sensation, and thought create moods and emotions, or how thought follows the road that feeling lays out for it.
When we think rationally, we separate ourselves in thought from the object of study. In the default mode, we are in the center and everything revolves around us or is perceived in relation to us. It can be relaxed, but also prone to rumination and to feel unhappy, burdened. In the third, our relationship to everything changes. We are more open, one part of a larger reality, and focus on the whole context, on things as they are in themselves, not just in relation to us. It takes us beyond what we already know, to a deeper or wider universe.
If we rationally pose a question, define it clearly, research possible answers and question them, and then let it all sit inside us, sleep on it, or focus strongly on the bird songs and the wind, our minds quiet and often an insight will come to us. We use all three ways of thinking.
Imagine we’re walking on a dirt road. To take a step, we need to see ourselves and feel our own feet touching the ground. But we also need the awareness of the broader context, the earth that envelops us, the weather, the sounds not just of bird calls and cars speeding by but any other voices around us.
So this time, as I walked, I wondered⎼ could I walk and not feel “this is me, here, in the center?” Could this walk be all of us walking together, the birds, trees, rocks, and heat? My wife, neighbors, friends and family, and those I have never met? And my thoughts⎼ they could join in, too⎼ not as centerpieces, but as bird calls or chipmunks rustling the dry leaves? Could I walk so my capacity for compassion is strengthened along with my legs?
Mystics throughout time have spoken about losing the sense of self as a boundary. Could this be done? Could I experience the edges of myself not simply as a border but as a point of contact, where I could touch and be touched? Could I walk with silence as my companion?
There is a line in a poem by possibly the greatest of the classical Chinese poets, Tu Fu, which David Hinton, a modern American poet, said could be translated as: “in Spring Mountains, with my friend Absence, I set out alone to find you.” Tu Fu apparently walked the mountains of China as this silent presence. What a beautiful thing to do.
For a few moments, the birds, the trees, and the rest of us walked together. What fun was had.
It is said that a dragon sleeps under certain places of the earth, under roads, for example. And if we walk with enough silence and compassion the dragon will awaken. It will slip through the spaces where our minds are open and fly joyfully to the sky above.
Now that would be something to see, wouldn’t it? I think we would all gladly share that joy.
*For information on walking safely when you might meet up with other people, in this time of the coronavirus, please refer to this NPR program, Masks and the Outdoor Exerciser.