The Art of Walking: What Waits to be Discovered?

I’ve been traveling on foot these days. Well, perhaps not ‘traveling’ but walking. Out and about, seeing what’s to be seen in my new environment on O’ahu.

As we have done many times in the past, my partner and I currently share a car (how un-American). With my mate needing the vehicle for a daily commute to Honolulu, I’m usually at home without wheels. Mostly this works fine but sometimes I’m compelled to get out during the day; I need to get some exercise to shake off the writing, editing, blogging, etc. Recently I’ve taken to walking down to the Hawaii Kai marina, an area of shops and restaurants at the foot of our valley. From the house it’s roughly three miles distant and strolling at a casual pace takes me about an hour, one way.

Along the way, there’s a long stretch of busy road that is certainly my least favorite part of the journey. Sometimes while I’m traversing that segment, I focus more upon the exercise and pretend that I’m in easy training for that walking tour of France or Italy I’ve dreamed about for years. I certainly miss my barefoot walks on the mountain in Maui, and a bit further back my dusty rambles while living in the Spanish campo (countryside) or amid the green fields and woods of England. Still, wherever I am, it’s good to move the bodysoul and be in motion, getting a change of scenery. I’m walking to the marina three or four times a week, treating myself to an iced, decaf coffee (a ‘why bother’ as a local coffee shop calls it) when I’m there.

Walking has long been a soulful practice of mine. Solo rambles in nature (or on quiet roads in semi-wild areas) reconnects me to my essence, moves my energy, helps me get ‘unstuck’, stirs my creativity, and draws me outwards from normally inward-oriented inclinations. In a very physical way, walking brings me home to myself; my best and most vibrant self. Walking evokes the powerful and expansive River, the one aligned with his purpose, overflowing with gratitude and contentment. For freeing the soul, walking is almost as good as dancing. Almost.

There’s a soulful art to walking, with two main components involved. The first requirement is to keep your senses wide open. As I said in a recent podcast, what is waiting to be discovered? To what will we gift our attention? The second requirement is to soften the focus on ‘arriving’ and simply be present with the traveling; it’s about the journey, not the destination. Rather than a mission to get somewhere or burn ‘x’ number of calories, transform the walk into a casual wander. Relax. Walk slowly. Meander. Amble.

Generally I don’t walk with music playing in ‘earbuds’ or a headset, I prefer to be fully open to the experience. Yet I’ve discovered that a little soft music while walking down the busy road to the marina (or most any urban environment) helps to buffer and soften the noise, and actually allows me to more fully appreciate what I encounter. And though music adds a soundtrack that can be a diversion or an imposed mood at times, I find that I can generally stay open rather than contract against the traffic noise.

Staying open is what it’s all about, whether walking or in life.

CattleEgretRoaming my suburban world, scanning with my eyes and my olfactory sense catching alluring whiffs of tropical blossoms and salty air, repeatedly I am stopped in my tracks by the simple, stunning beauty (or aroma) of something. A few of the encounters that arrested me recently:

  • A white cattle egret launching into flight from a grassy lawn.

A massive outcropping of purple Thai basil, fragrant with anise notes, its flower spikes adorned with attentive honeybees.

A feral chicken and her cluster of seven young chicks.

A spindly plumeria tree alongside the sidewalk completely frosted with creamy, perfumed blossoms scenting the air.

A sleek, golden eyed mongoose making his way down a concrete aqueduct.

Tradewinds smelling of salt and tropical flowers as they careen through the valley, blowing through my hair and cooling my sweaty skin.

A fat brown lizard missing his tail, sunning himself on the sidewalk.

The subtleties of rust on salt-corroded iron and chain link fences.

Two amorous mynah birds having sex.

A mailbox with an elegant Japanese bonsai trained to grow decoratively over the top.

A chest-height shrub of resinous rosemary decorated with blue blossoms (and amber honeybees).

A great wooden gate with an antique, intricate carvings and Balinese artwork.

Misty clouds trailing like wedding veils over the jagged emerald peaks above me.

In the modern world, most of us spend the bulk of our hours within the structured cocoon of house, office, and car, rarely interacting with the outside, natural world. The relationship with our inanimate surroundings is mostly unconscious, and our relating with people is a different sort of exchange than a communion with the growing, living macrocosm. Too rarely are we opened in heart and mind, or inspired. When was the last time you stopped to marvel at something and felt your spirit rise up in delight? In our busy lives, it’s ever so easy to be lulled into the technological cyber-trance of email, Internet, text messages and visual media which now pervades our existence. It takes a deliberate and conscious effort to unplug from all these wired connections, and a further effort/decision to get up and feed the soul, instead.

The soul longs for conscious nourishment.

Nourishing the soul is akin to choosing to make a delectable meal from fresh, gorgeous ingredients and sitting down to savor it; as opposed to throwing something in the microwave (packaged, frozen, leftovers, etc) and then eating it standing up in the kitchen (reading emails, of course). If we don’t live surrounded by nature and beauty (and sometimes even then), it takes an effort. We have to make room for the sacred in our lives.

Engaged in a conscious manner, walking is something that helps us connect to bodysoul in a practical, everyday way. Most of us aren’t used to walking other than as a sort of exercise (which many don’t feel they have the time or energy for). While exercise is important and valuable in its own right, a walk can be much more than that. It gets us outside, free from the confining structures of our lives, and it connects us with something larger (characteristics that are shared with gardening, I think).

What I never fail to notice when I’m on foot is that the world is fully alive. Whether it’s a manicured garden or a patch of weeds, life unfurls everywhere in a quietly riotous and exuberant conversation. The lanky tendril of a green vine growing through the slats of a wooden fence reaches out to tap my shoulder and remind me, life finds a way.

Grow where you’re planted. Reach for the sun.

Because our lives no longer depend upon it, humans are the only ones not paying attention. We are the sole aspect of nature that is alienated from our own environment and the larger web of creation.

You might ask, why does it matter?

Certainly there’s a larger discussion about our relationship with the planet and the staggering impact of our disconnected, destructive, non-sustainable lifestyle. For our collective future, it definitely matters whether we as humans can learn to pay attention. On a personal level, from the point of the soul, most of us are struggling to find some sort of meaning in our lives, to feel a sense of passion and vitality in our core, and to offer something of value to the world. Soul longs for harmony, nourishment, expansion and to be in authentic conversation with the world. I have said before that little else opens us like inspiration. And when we begin to pay attention, we can be inspired anywhere… by the miracle of the cosmos unfolding in a clover blossom.

One of the primary ways that we draw into relationship with a place is to walk it on foot. Our senses draw us into contact in ways that are impossible when in a car or gazing through a window (we are then looking ‘at’ something rather than being in contact with it). Walking, our presence is sensed reciprocally by everything we behold. Walking, we are connected and interwoven, and at any moment our heart might burst wide in wonder, awe, or gratitude. Ravished by wild beauty… what a way to go.

That’s what I want as my epitaph: He was ravished by wild beauty.

The scenery couldn’t differ more strikingly but returning from the marina I’m often reminded of my walks to our village in southern Spain a few years back. On market day, in the morning before the Mediterranean heat grew too blazingly intense, with a rucksack on my back I’d descend the dirt road as it wound through the olive groves towards the whitewashed pueblo of Riogordo (a settlement since Roman times). After wandering the small street mercado (market) and purchasing a fresh, whole chicken and whatever vegetables caught my eye, I would stop for a cortado (an espresso dabbed with milk) at Bar Molino, and then begin the half-hour trek back up the hill to the old stone farmhouse where we lived.

I could have driven, of course, but the whole point was to walk. Not only for the exercise but also to open my senses and engage in a moving communion with the world around me, passing steadily on foot beneath the wide aquamarine sky. Engaging deliberately in a quiet, slow ritual shared by others in that ancient land for centuries uncountable. One step at a time, climbing the long dusty road up the hill. Walking to market offered me yet another chance to unlock the shutters of the heart and rejoice in the simple acts of being alive.

I’m not carrying a chicken in my backpack these days, nor am I lost in rapturous delight over my environment, but there is beauty everywhere waiting to be discovered. I’m still out walking to feed my soul, listening to the mynah birds gossiping loudly and the clackity clack of wind in the swaying coconut palms. On foot, I’m the one who will encounter the small, everyday wonders and pause to say, Thank you for the beauty. I’m the man who walks with his heart unlatched, welcoming little birds and abandoned dreams wherever I may find them.

Go outside and walk, my friend, with senses wide open. Wherever you live, let yourself be shamelessly seduced by the beauty that is waiting for you to discover and celebrate it. In your simple appreciation, you embody and make holy the entire cosmos. Nothing could be more sacred than that.