Saturday, June 9, 2012

These Feet Were Made for Walking

When I retire, and that horizon rushes toward me, I intend to cultivate certain pursuits: I want to write in a style that I once did more regularly in my callow years—a pithier, more poetic way, losing words to meanings. I want to shape my surrounds in accord with the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi. And I want to cultivate walking for the sake of health and psyche. Each of these, to a lesser or greater degree have been part of my life, but I want them to be more so, more often.

Today, this Sunday before our summer hiatus, I will explore the art and discipline of walking. In part, I hope to inspire your summer activities. Perhaps you might try out a form of walking that you find appealing, making it a habit.

Many years ago, when first learning Unitarian lore, in a biography of Theodore Parker by Henry Steele Commager, my imagination was stimulated by an account of a trek that Parker took with a few Transcendentalist cronies in September 1840.

The Road to Groton

“It was in mid-summer of 1840 that this queer assortment of Millerites and Come-Outers had gathered at the little town of Groton, some 30 miles north of Boston, and Parker determined to go and see for himself what it was all about. Ripley wanted to go along; perhaps these unlettered men and women, so simple and sincere, could teach them something about the problems of society and the church. So they started out from West Roxbury, and on their way we picked up the young irrepressible, Cranch, whose interest was artistic rather than philosophical. Famous walkers, all of them, they gave themselves two days for the walk, so that they might loiter on the way, know the feeling of the earth, get into tune with nature and natural man. The first day they stopped off, and paid their respects to old Doctor Ripley, who warned the young men not to be 'egomites,' and they took tea with Emerson who looked, said Parker, "as divine as usual." But Emerson was a disappointment, all the same; he could talk of nothing but the Dial, and to no one but the Ripley, and even in the Dial he admired all the wrong things. The next morning along came Bronson Alcott, never too busy to attend a convention of reformers, and the little company proceeded on their way, their transcendental banners fluttering in the breeze, their high talk drifting in the dust across the open fields.” [Henry Steele Commager]

Let me tell you a little about the circumstances and the players in this walk to Groton to convey why it beguiles me so. The convention was inflamed by a frenzied popular belief that according to the Bible, the world would end in 1844—so the followers of William Miller, the Millerites, believed. (Tens of thousands of Adventists sold their properties and donned white “ascension gowns” on the appointed day climbing to the peak of buildings or seeking high ground.) George Ripley by the end of the year would organize New England’s great adventure in Utopianism, Brook Farm, subsequently satirized by one of its backers, Nathaniel Hawthorne, in the Blithedale Romance. Bronson Alcott also soon co-founded a short-lived, only 7 month, experimental community name Fruitlands—where a vegan diet ruled and leisure was balanced with work. (Did any of the Unitarian cronies ask Alcott on the road to Groton, “And, Bronson, what about your precocious daughter, Louisa May? Does she still write stories?”) Theodore Parker would become the most controversial Unitarian minister of his generation for his theology and his activism. He was a polymath and avid abolitionist who gathered around him the largest church in America by the end of the decade. Christopher Pearse Cranch was already an accomplished artist, painting in the sublime Hudson River style. And imagine having tea, but being disappointed, yes disappointed, in Ralph Waldo Emerson for being distracted by the fortunes of the Dial, the famous magazine of the Transcendentalists.

In his journal, Parker wrote a line that forever haunts me: “The route is beautiful, and talk of various kinds beguiled its length.” The journey surely exceeded the destination.

How might we categorize this thirty-mile walk from West Roxbury to Groton, MA? It reminds me some of what is arguably the most famous walk in English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was actually a pilgrimage to a holy shrine. But I’m not sure the" “Road to Groton” was a true pilgrimage, given the destination.


Within traditional spiritual disciplines, a pilgrimage has status. Among the famous Christian destinations is Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. For many centuries, Pilgrims have taken various routes from throughout Europe converging at the cathedral dedicated to St. James at Compestela, in the region where legend reputes that James preached the gospel following Jesus’s crucifixion. In recent decades, this has become a surprisingly popular undertaking, with upwards of a 100,000 and more walkers making the journey, often of 700-800 kilometers. The journey requires considerable endurance and perseverance; the modern rewards are the countryside, the regional food, and most of all companionship. It also seems walking with others leads to conversation of a special kind.

I think of walk-and-chat, when I see walkers in groups of two, three, or even four on the sidewalks of our contiguous suburbs. They are of a sort, wearing sporting clothes, often with a cup of coffee, and perhaps a dog on leash which moves from side to side sniffing the berm. Since I live within two blocks of downtown La Grange, such walkers walk past my house and I hear snatches of their peripatetic conversations from my front porch. I suspect this is a sort of friendship/therapy.


There are solitary walkers of course, including one of the most famous and Unitarian, Henry David Thoreau, who spoke of sauntering in a celebrated essay “Walking:

"I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks,—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived from “idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word form sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels".

Thoreau was an extreme walker. In that same essay, he wrote:  "I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least,—and it is commonly more than that,—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago."

Thoreau favored walks in Nature. He didn’t advocate the road less travelled. He advocated no road at all. And he advised rumination, which means active thinking.

The Flâneur

In contrast to sauntering and ruminating in Nature is urban walking—what is known as the flâneur. Flâneur, a French word meaning something like sauntering, became popular in the late nineteenth century. Being urban and French, the term contains a soupcon of decadence; the urban stroller is part of, yet at the same time intellectually, detached from the urban landscape and bustle. The flâneur takes it in with detachment, the sort of detachment one has with a photograph. (Photography was coming into vogue.) But with the detachment, there is an ironic sense of self-involvement. The critical mind is critical of self. Still the flâneur is attracted to the city’s many stimulations. The flâneur experiences and appraises.

Susan Sontag, made an astute connection between the photographer and the flâneur: "The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world 'picturesque.'"

Chicago is a great setting for a contemporary flâneur, the urban stroller perhaps armed with a good digital point and shoot camera that will allow you to see with the particular focus of a camera’s eye. When I moved here 30 years ago, I sauntered through many of the neighborhoods. It was a great pleasure then and educated me regarding what this city represents in the scheme of evolving history.

An admonition for fellow suburbanites, you can’t really know your place here in the suburbs without knowing what I’ll call the complex soul of Chicago. That soul’s landscapes stretches from Roger’s Park in the north to the neighborhood to the south around where the South Shore Works once made steel, from Austin in the west to the Miracle Mile on the Lake.

Mindful Walking

Thoreau spoke of rumination while walking. A flâneur has a certain consciousness—a hyper awareness. One of the important spiritual guides of our day, Thich Nhat Hanh has long advocated mindfulness in all pursuits, but makes a special appeal for walking mindfully. He has written:

"Walking meditation is one of the ways to contemplate peace, and today we are going to walk together, generating the energy of peace, solidity, and freedom.

"I suggest that when you breathe in, you make three steps. Bring your attention to the soles of your feet, and become aware of the contact between your foot and the ground. Bring your attention down from the level of the brain to the soles of your feet.

"Breathing in, we make three steps, and we may tell ourselves with each step, 'I have arrived. I have arrived. I have arrived.' And breathing out, we make another three steps, always mindful of the contact between our feet and the ground, and we say, 'I'm home. I'm home. I'm home.'

"Arrived where? Where is our home? According to the teaching and the practice of the Buddha, life is available only in the present moment, in the here and the now. And when you go back to the present moment, you have a chance to touch life, to encounter life, to become fully alive and fully present.

"That is why every step brings us back to the present moment, so that we can touch the wonders of life that are available. Therefore, when I say, "I have arrived," I mean I have arrived in the here and the now -- the only place, the only time where and when life is available, and that is my true home.

"The Buddha said that the past is already gone, and the future is not yet here. There is only one moment for us to live, and that is the present moment."

Healthy Body Mind

Conventional wisdom declares that walking has multiple benefits of body and mind. New research provides evidence that this is so. A bestselling book (The First 20 Minutes) by Gretchen Reynolds) posits that of all forms of exercise, walking may well be the most beneficial. “Humans,” she writes, “are born to stroll. When strolling becomes an exercise habit, it has health results similar to running with one extra benefit. A runner will inevitably injure her or himself. A walker most likely won’t.

Our body has evolved so that we might walk. (An infant’s great developmental passage is moving from crawling to standing and, hallelujah, walking. The foot is a complex appendage, comparable to our marvelously complex hands, with a structure of bones, tendons, and muscles that contribute to our ability to maintain an upright balance while traversing through a varied landscape. Touch your nature and your nature will touch you.

We are constructed to navigate our world, not to sit for hours on end in front of a computer. Remember Thoreau’s comments about the workers of his day, suffering similar conditions.

Those of us who are abled might contemplate that our fate, if we live long enough, is that we will be increasingly less-abled—muscles atrophy and the brain center for balance deteriorates. We might be particularly mindful, then, of the incredible gift that our ability to walk is. Appreciating that ability can lead us to liberally exercise that ability and be grateful.

I’ve offered a few ways of being intentional in your walking, giving walking a spiritual fillip. A little or a lot and with whatever attitude you walk, is better than not.

Become a saunterer in the sublime spirit recommended by Thoreau: "For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels."