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Walk of life

How an ordinary daily ritual can be a truly immersive experience

Walk of life

The late Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, seen here leading community members on walking meditation in France in 2014, proposed that we walk every time with the same silent reverence as we walk to a holy place. Photo courtesy: International Plum Village Community



Bindu Menon

Walking can mean many things to many people. In my locality, there are walkers of all types. There are the regular friendly neighbours who undergo a personality switch the moment they put on their walking shoes. This breed will brook no trifle distractions, won’t smile, wave or nod at you till they are done with their rounds. Next comes the boisterous lot who do the talking more than the walking. Then there is the not-so-rare breed of reluctant walkers, who venture out only because their dog has to. So you see the dog dragging the pet parent, making one wonder who is on the leash. There are other minor categories too, like the Swachh Bharat walkers who will obsessively remove every leaf, twig or piece of plastic on their path; or the ambushing walkers who will prey upon a friend/neighbour out on an errand and force the hapless person to walk along. And finally come the relentless walkers, the types who will walk any time and oftentimes a day, never mind the blazing sun or biting cold, dust storm or cloudburst.

For the Mahatma, going on foot was a way of knowing oneself too. But more importantly, he offered to the world a revolutionary idea, a peaceful alternative and a robust template that would launch several peaceful political movements

Walking is the prince of exercises, said the man who transformed this rather ordinary activity into a powerful political philosophy. The familiar visual of Mahatma Gandhi with his walking stick, of a man on the move, remains embedded in popular imagination, and even makes him the most iconic brand ambassador of walking. He is believed to have walked 18 km a day for nearly 40 years, according to the Indian Council of Medical Research. Moreover, he walked nearly 79,000 km during his political campaigns from 1913 to 1948.

For the Mahatma, going on foot was a way of knowing oneself too. But more importantly, he offered to the world a revolutionary idea, a peaceful alternative and a robust template that would launch several peaceful political movements. From Martin Luther King’s historic 1963 ‘Walk to Freedom’ that energised the civil rights movement in America to Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement and the more recent nationwide yatras of Rahul Gandhi that altered the political landscape and resurrected a moribund party, it can be wisely declared that there is nothing pedestrian (pun not so intended) about walking.

In ancient Athens, Aristotle founded the Peripatos, or the Peripatetic school. The name is said to have come from the philosopher’s propensity to lecture while walking through the peripatoi or walkways of the Lyceum, where he and his disciples would gather. In Buddhism, walking is a core aspect of meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist teacher and pacifist, proposed that we walk every time with the same silent reverence as we walk to a holy place. “The earth is sacred and we touch her with each step. We should be very respectful, because we are walking on our mother. If we walk like that, then every step will be grounding, every step will be nourishing,” said the monk of mindfulness.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, French philosopher, too, believed in mindful walking. In his book ‘Confessions’, he wrote, “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.”

What then does one make of walking? Is it merely an everyday fitness regimen, a shared social activity or something that allows you to pause and reflect? In his book, ‘Footloose in the Himalaya’, Bill Aitken says “to walk is to become part of a poem that celebrates the body’s simple graces”. Being mankind’s earliest form of locomotion, walking, Aitken adds, remains universal, “since even the latest design of a car cannot get you upstairs to bed”.

Walking therefore can both be an ordinary everyday ritual and a truly immersive experience. It’s for this reason that we Indians value it. From the pheras to the parikramas, the act of circumambulation invokes a cultural and spiritual association, where the line between the mundane and metaphysical becomes a blur, where an arduous physical trek can also be a marker of spiritual strength and a test of faith.

As you read this, Paul Salopek is journeying somewhere in China, on foot. In 2013, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow launched the ‘Out of Eden Walk’, a 24,000-mile journey across the globe from the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia (or the evolutionary Eden) to the southern tip of South America. His mission: to retrace the steps of our ancestors and engage with climate change and technological innovation to mass migration and cultural survival. But more than anything, it has been about capturing the essence of humanity. In an interview, Salopek said, “Walking has shown me that the boundaries between stories are permeable, in that one story bleeds into another, because human life bleeds into each other.”

In her book, ‘Wanderlust’, that explores the history of walking, writer Rebecca Solnit says that it is “a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them”.

William Wordsworth would do a hat-tip to that. The pioneer of Romanticism found his passion in poetry from his long strolls in the countryside, accompanied by his sister Dorothy and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is said that they would saunter out at odd hours in their village, endlessly worrying the locals who suspected them to be French spies. Wordsworth has said that “nine-tenths of my verses have been poured out in the open air” as his journeys by foot in England’s picturesque Lake District unlocked images “to muse, to creep, to halt at will, to gaze”. German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche believed that one must write “only with our feet” and to “never trust a thought that didn’t come by walking”. In fact, his love for music was only matched by his love for walking and he wrote: “What my foot demands in the first place from music is that ecstasy which lies in good walking.” What is a good walk then? Is it, as Solnit suggests, one that enables discoveries and allows the mind “to assimilate the new into the known”? Karl Marx, after all, is believed to have conceived the economic system outlined in the opening volume of ‘Das Kapital’, during his nightly strolls on London’s streets.

More than a century ago, the world’s most influential naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, wrote, “When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?” Writer Alexandra Horowitz tries to precisely find this out in her book ‘On Looking’. But it’s not a garden or mall that she chooses but the humble neighbourhood. She moseys around a city block with 11 persons from, well, different walks of life, and documents the experiences. The experts include her toddler son, her dog, a blind woman, an urban sociologist, a physician and an illustrator among others. Horowitz learns from her toddler that walking isn’t necessarily a purposeful and linear movement of the body from point A to point B, but “an exploratory exercise in touching and — eek! — tasting textures and surfaces, pointing at sights, pausing to absorb the tickling brush of the breeze”. In this way, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the old the new. From each expert, she learns about the whole ecosystem of urban animals that live their lives trying to elude us, about the walker’s gait and what that can reveal about his personality, the joy of talking to people on the street while walking and the “infinitely explorable openness” such an experience can provide.

In ‘Wanderlust’, Solnit narrates an interesting episode dating back to 1836 where Wordsworth was dining with a local lord in a castle. The host complained that a wall on his land had been demolished and that he would punish the offender. Solnit, quoting from a letter on the incident, writes, “The grave old bard at the end of the table heard the words. The fire flashed into his face and rising to his feet, he answered: ‘I broke your wall down, Sir John, it was obstructing an ancient right of way, and I will do it again.’”

What Wordsworth did for fellow walkers in his village almost two centuries ago may seem difficult to emulate today. But last May, Punjab became the first state to implement the “right to walk” that mandates provision of footpaths and cycle tracks in all future expansions of existing roads and construction of new roads. Small steps do matter.

A Walk in the Woods

Bill Bryson

This 1998 travel book chronicles writer Bill Bryson’s ambitious attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail in the US, the longest continuous footpath in the world. Though he couldn’t complete the 2,200-mile journey through tough mountain terrain, the book is a fairly entertaining, rudely quirky account of the fascinating history of the trail, its landscape and the tight situations that a wannabe hiker finds himself in, which includes getting lost and imaginary bear sightings.

Of Walking in Ice

Werner Herzog

This is a diary-like account of filmmaker Werner Herzog’s long walk from Munich to Paris when he finds out that his friend and mentor, film critic Lotte Eisner, is dying in Paris. Herzog believes she would stay alive if he made his way by foot to meet her. The book records his observations and experiences from his three-week-long journey.

Footloose in the Himalaya

Bill Aitken

The Scottish writer, who hitch-hiked to India from England in 1959 and decided this was home, takes the less-travelled road in this part travelogue-part autobiographical account of walking the mountains from Arunachal to Kashmir. The journey detours into small towns, trails holy men, encounters local ghost stories and some hill gossip.

Walking

Henry David Thoreau

The essay, first delivered as a lecture in 1851, was published a decade later after his death. It is a personal reflection on his philosophy, on nature and environmentalism and 10 years of walking. Society, he laments, has forgotten the art of walking.


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