Hidden Benefits of Walking
At present, the Covid-19 lock-down does not permit people to travel to Marked Walking Trails and National Loop Walks outside a 5km. radius of their homes. I have the good fortune to live on the edge of the Burren, so I can experience the magical, karst landscape on some days. However, in these pandemic times, on most days, my daily walk starts and finishes at my front door. I do a variety of walks in my locality. When friends ask me why I repeat the same walks, I am reminded of a quote from Thomas Merton, Franciscan monk and mystic; “It is essential to experience all the things and moods of one good place”. I’m reminded also of Patrick Kavanagh’s words: “To know one field or one land is a lifetimes’ experience”. I return to the same paths because, when I walk attentively, each time it is a new experience. Once you get out walking, you reconnect with something greater than yourself and that connection runs deep. With the physical effort of walking the endorphins are charged up and you feel a sense of well being. Within a short time, you have a feeling of freedom, of escape even and you leave your cares behind.
Having done a Zoom talk for Clare County Library and a video for Galway City Library Services, on the benefits of walking, as part of Healthy Ireland at the Library, I decided to write this article. I hope you enjoy it and are inspired to take up walking as a daily pastime.
There are numerous health benefits to body, soul and mind when you simply take a walk.
In his book ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’, Peter Wohlleben, the German forester and author, says that forest air is the epitome of healthy air because the trees have filtered the pollutants in the air as they float by so the air is cleaner under the canopy of trees. He writes that Korean scientists have been tracking older women as they walk through forests and in urban areas. The results of their study show that when walking in the forest the blood pressure, lung capacity and elasticity of the arteries of the women improved, whereas a walk in the city showed none of these changes. Other studies have shown that blood pressure calms and reduces in an oak wood. It seems that deciduous woods are best. Remember, forests produce oxygen, so a daytime walk in a forest is like taking a shower in oxygen – you breathe in clean, healthy, oxygen rich air.
In the book ‘In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk and Why It’s Good for Us’, the author Shane O’Mara, Trinity College Dublin, where he is Professor of Experimental Brain Research, says “You get old when you stop walking, you don’t stop walking because you get old”. Walking is a holistic exercise. Every aspect of walking aids every aspect of one’s being. Walking is good for the body, good for the brain and good for society at large. The health benefits of walking are well documented. Think of walking as something that repairs your brain, lowers your blood pressure, aids your digestive system, reduces inflammation and allows you to be creative and better at problem solving.
There are, what I call, hidden benefits to walking, where I use a variety of strategies which give a walk a purpose.
Strategy 1: Process Walk – Walking to Resolve a Problem.
If you have a problem you need to think about, if you need to make a decision, if you need to let go of “baggage” you have been carrying for too long, if someone has asked you for advice, then you can use one of your walks as a Process Walk to deal with the issue. Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, North Africa, the Early Christian theologian had a motto, which was “It is solved by walking”, in Latin “Solvitur ambulando”. Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th. Century German philosopher says, “Never trust a thought that didn’t come by walking”. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th. Century Danish Existentialist philosopher had the following to say, “Every day I walk myself into a state of well being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it”.
Process Walk: At the start of your walk, look for a small stone with sharp corners and jagged edges and pick it up. Carry the stone in your hand, feeling the sharp edges with your fingers as you walk. The sharp stone symbolises what is sharp in your life now, the thing you need to resolve, that confounds you, irritates you, frustrates you, and holds you back. This is your focus for the duration of the walk. Near the end of the walk look out for some place that appeals to you, where you can cast away the stone. I like to toss it into water. The throwing action symbolises the casting away of the problem, the coming to a decision, and the letting go of anxieties, fears and worries.
Strategy 2: Spiritual Walk – Walking as a Meditation to Ground Yourself.
It is difficult to be grounded in modern society. The Covid-19 pandemic made 2020 an extraordinarily demanding year, in so many ways, for so many people. We live in unsettling times. The constant demands on our time and energy create stress in our lives. We are living “in our heads” for most of the time. The problem with living in our heads is that our heads, the thinking mind, the ego, can do only two things. The ego revisits the past, flooding our minds with invariably negative thoughts, such as disappointments, regrets, mistakes made, missed opportunities etc. The ego can look into the future, make plans, and create anxieties, causing us to worry about things that may never happen. The ego, our heads are never in the now, never in the moment, never fully present. Modern culture has created for many people conflict in their lives. John O’ Donohue, author, poet and philosopher of the Burren, who died on January 4th, 2008, says “We live in a society where people are exiled from themselves”. People feel a lack of connection, alienation, they feel fragmented and unanchored. People wish to be grounded. People aspire to living in harmony with themselves, their families, their communities, with planet Earth. Communities in the past lived in harmony with all aspects of their environment and in tune with the rhythm of the seasons and the circle of life. Walking provides us with an activity that may enable us to be grounded and to get us out of our heads. It is up to you, to decide to go walking.
The Buddhist tradition recommends that you just do it! No analysis! No excuses! The ego does not want you to take a walk. Why? The ego knows that when you walk you create the opportunity to get out of your head and into your body, and connect with the spirit within you. The ego, the thinking mind, cannot connect with your spirit. The ego will do everything it can to scupper your plan to take a walk. You go to the front door, ready to set off, and the ego will badger you – is it likely to rain? Is time too tight for a walk? Is the trail properly marked? Don’t listen. Take the first step, feel the earth beneath your feet, be aware of each step, one step at a time, start slowly, be present to the now.
Spiritual Walk: Select a section of your regular walk, say a 1km. stretch. For this 1 km. section, you walk in silence repeating the mantra 1, 2, 3. You say the mantra in your head, not aloud. A mantra stops you giving the left side of the brain, where the ego is located, something to think about. This allows you to walk without distraction. Inevitably some distracting thoughts will interrupt your mantra. When that happens you simply return to the mantra by saying “3” and continue repeating 1, 2, 3. The mantra matches your step as you walk i.e. 1(left),2(right),3(left), 1(right),2(left),3(right) and so on. As you walk, you get out of your head and into body. You connect with the spirit within you. At the end of the spiritual section of your walk you feel energised because you have connected with your spirit.
John O’ Donohue says: “Our bodies know that they belong. It is our minds that make our lives so homeless”.
Strategy 3: Mindful Walk –Walking brings you out into Nature.
In recent years a new branch of psychotherapy has emerged called Ecotherapy. Ecotherapists offer counselling and psychotherapy sessions in the outdoors, to their clients. So, instead of meeting their client in their rooms, they meet in a wildlife park, by the sea or in the mountains. A motto used by some ecotherapists is “Take steps towards the change you want to see in your life”, that is, start walking! Ecotherapy is based on E.O.Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis (1984), which simply stated is, that we as human beings have an innate instinct to connect emotionally and spiritually with nature. We are hardwired to connect with nature. Connecting with nature is a way of lifting our spirits. In January 2020, the National Botanic Gardens, Dublin were offering Biophilia Tours to visitors. In recent times we have been hearing about “Forest Bathing”, i.e. bathe yourself in natural surroundings, connect with nature and use your senses. Studies have shown that being out and about in the countryside (the green gym) or by the sea (the blue gym) reduces stress and enhances well being. Wilbert Gessler (1992) coined the phrase “therapeutic landscapes” that is, environments that help to provide a healing sense of place. Michael Viney, Irish Times nature columnist says: “There is no anti-depressant quite like a good view of the sea”. Nowadays one hears of G.P.s prescribing a “green prescription” for a patient, encouraging the patient to take up walking, swimming, cycling etc. instead of prescribing a drug. Walking brings you to places where you can use your five senses. Once you are out in nature you can listen, see, feel, smell and taste wild things. It is said that when you use your senses, the sixth sense, intuition falls into place. Seamus Heaney’s poem “Postscript”, inspired on a visit to The Flaggy Shore, where the northern edge of the Burren meets Galway Bay, the poet describes his spiritual experience, his experience of the delightful and the marvellous in nature. In the poem he is asking you to open yourself to the wonderful, in the everyday. Heaney’s spirit soars as his senses soak up all it takes to create a perfect moment.
Walking in nature brings you to a “transitional space”. When you are walking it is good sometimes to walk at a slower pace. You are conscious of every step you take, conscious of every breath, you are silent and you slowly come to stillness. You take time to look around and really see. Your walking brings you to a place where you experience the extraordinary. It brings you to what I call a “Wow” moment! It causes you to have a sharp intake of breath. You want to hold that breath, to stop time. You are in the now, in the moment and you don’t want that moment to pass. It’s as if you have walked through a portal, you have crossed a threshold into another dimension. You are not holding the experience, it is holding you. Your physical walking in nature has helped your head to calm and centre so you experience a heightened awareness. Because you are attentive, aware, present to the now, the ordinary is rendered extraordinary, delightful, marvellous, and spiritual. Mary Oliver’s poem “Snow Geese” is a perfect example of the poet’s experience of a “Wow” moment. Mary Oliver’s poetry teaches you how to pay attention. One of the poet’s best known mantras is: “To pay attention, that is our proper and endless work”.
Mindful Walk: Walking is not always about working up a sweat. Slow down. Stop. Breathe deeply. Be silent. Look around. Be aware of all living things about you on all sides. Be open to a “Wow” moment.
I will leave the last word to Rumi, the 13th. Century Persian poet, Islamic scholar and Sufi mystic:
“We’re all just walking each other home”.
About the author:
Pius Murray lives in Corofin, County Clare, a village on the southern edge of the Burren National Park. He is a retired Primary School Principal Teacher and now operates a guided walking business in the Burren and Aran Islands, Walk with Pius. He himself has been walking in the Burren since 1990, and invites visitors to explore its secret places and immerse themselves in the spirituality of this stunning, unique, karst landscape, on the Wild Atlantic Way on one of his guided walks.