In praise of walking
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - August 22, 2020 - 12:00am

I spent most of the week in a different country and found some much needed perspective walking by a river, through forests and among mountains.

Wales is in the west part of the main island of Great Britain and has a separate history, language and culture from England. In its wild and rugged northern mountains, I lifted my gaze to see wide horizons, arrived in the here and now under sun and rain, to wash away the blues I’d been nursing in the lowlands since the death of a close friend.

His parents live in Beddgelert, known as the jewel of Snowdonia. By visiting them in this place, famous for its natural beauty, I would work to resolve this new reality in which I would start to accept grief, anger and fear by being with other people living with this loss and walking with them.

Walking itself was as much of a tonic as the countryside. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explains the power of mindful walking. “You can take a step and touch the earth in such a way that you establish yourself in the present moment; you will arrive in the here and the now. You don’t need to make any effort at all. Your foot touches the earth mindfully, and you arrive firmly in the here and the now. And suddenly you are free – free from all projects, all worries, all expectations. You are fully present, fully alive, and you are touching the earth.”

Political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau too observed the power of a good walk. “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs,” he wrote. His final book was even called “Reveries of a Solitary Walker,” though he’s best known for concepts that influenced the French Revolution and modern political and educational thought in works like “The Social Contract.” I imagine him striding through Geneva when he realized: “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.”

There’s a vital link between movement of the body and the flow of thinking. Rousseau and Thich Nhat Hanh’s observations are supported by recent scientific research. Neuroscientist Shane O’Mara’s recent book “In Praise of Walking” sets out the premise that walking is a uniquely human activity and that the brain and body have evolved so that “walking makes us healthier, happier and brainier.” It is, he says, intertwined with the human sense of identity and experience.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions of us around the world to stay home and if initial data is anything to go by it’s taken a toll on our mental health. Perhaps that’s another reason why it felt like such a relief to walk for miles in nature for me. It was as if the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other and keeping going was resetting my place in the world.

Medical doctors have long extolled the benefits of walking for fitness and cardiac health. It puts less stress on joints and reduces pain, prevents weight gain, reduces risk for cancer and chronic disease, improves endurance, mood, circulation and posture, alleviates depression and fatigue. Walking is a marvellous and seemingly simple feat. The emerging science is giving us a clear picture that regular walking confers enduring, complex and substantial benefits to individuals and arguably on society itself. Our brains and bodies are built for movement; regular movement improves our thinking, feeling and creative selves in myriad ways, as well as improving our health. Research now shows we have two main modes of thought: active mode and mind-wandering. Walking can stimulate mind-wandering, allowing our minds to drift and, as O’Mara puts it, “integrate our past, present and future, interrogate our social lives, and create a largescale personal narrative.”

It also has a profound social function – when we want to prove that we think and feel the same way about an issue we get on the streets and walk together. It becomes a collective action that can transform societies as on EDSA. Perhaps its essential power is more acute than ever, now that people are still willing to march for a cause though they risk becoming infected with the coronavirus.

We spend so much of our lives at a fast pace, trying to get from A to B in as little time as possible, that deciding to take a walk for its own sake is a  radical act. Walking and doing so deliberately is a slow undertaking.

“The mind can go in a thousand directions./ But on this beautiful path, I walk in peace./ With each step, a gentle wind blows./ With each step, a flower blooms.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)

We set off, Penny, Chris and I, past the churchyard, ignoring the town’s main tourist attractions and shops, to head south along the Glaslyn River on what’s called the Fisherman’s Trail. It would take us to Aberglaslyn, Bryn Du and Beddgelert. I considered each step with care, the rocks underfoot  were uneven and slippery, the path narrow, dropping sharply into the white water of the full and fast flowing river. At one particularly treacherous corner, iron handles had been hammered into the rock face to give walkers more stability and safety. At every turn the views were gorgeous; delicate wildflowers bloomed in abundance among the boulders on our left while the river flowed fiercely on our right, the water tumbling and crashing its way over and around enormous rocks, fresh, clean and elemental. Amid dark earth, craggy rock, roaring river and lush growing flowers, ferns, roots and trees, all was energy and life overflowing.

Eventually we came away from the river and climbed higher through Aberglaslyn Woods, our breath strained with the effort, till we reached a stile and emerged at the peak of Bryn Du, among purple, pink, white and green heather to a magnificent view. The wind whipped around us, as a light rain began to fall. There was the valley below, the river running through it, surrounded by mountains, shrouded by a sky of dark clouds.

“I have arrived./ I am home/ in the here,/  in the now./ I am solid./ I am free. /In the ultimate/ I dwell.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)

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