A note on the forgotten art of human walking

Walking is man’s best medicine.” (Hippocrates)

To rediscover Walking

First; let us do what Honore’ de Balzac told us to do; reflect on some small questions to prepare our thinking:

What is walking? Why do we walk? What is the role of our mind and our body in walking? How shall we understand the importance of walking for human life ? What are the functions of walking for the human life pattern ? Are there some distinct or special defining aspects and properties for human walking ? How is human walking different from animal walking ? How did it come that walking in modern life is reduced to a technique and a form of exercise and recreation ?

There is no doubt; walking is back on the human scene. Authors, philosphers, health freaks, everybody form all corners is starting to look at walking.

It seems that walking is once more getting some attention and is being rediscovered as an important activity for human life.

Almost daily we hear about and read reports in televison or newspapers telling us about a multitude of fascinating walking projects. A lot of popular and scholarly articles and books are published every year discussing different aspects and forms of walking. Walking is being connected to everything there is under the sky; walking is healthy, walking is spiritual, walking is philosophical; walking is poetical and litterary, walking is antidepressive.

All this is happening at the same time as ordinary modern humans have almost become zero walkers. In everyday life walking is marginalized and has become a superflucious and forgotten activity.

It has to be said; all the time: Walking is a very ordinary and natural animal and human activity. So plain and simple and down-to-earth that it is easily ignored or minimized. Both by most of us in our daily living, and by philosophers and psychologists and sociologists in their study of human affairs. Like breathing and sleeping, waking is a very basic human and biological activity. All organisms is able to move in one or another form, it can be movement as a reaction to an influence as the wind or water, or as selfgenerated transport or automovement towards a goal. Most of us find it fascinating to watch one year old children learning to walk after a long period of trying and effort and frequent falling. Therafter, walking is relegated into the background and mostly seen as something trivial and almost not worth any attention except when some illness is making walking difficult. The truth is that walking continues to play an important role in all human functioning, not only as movement and transport but playing an important part both in bodily, mental and social functioning.

It is all too easy to understand walking only as a simple and elementary acitivity. Something so low and simple that we have in common with most other animals. And therefore, walking is of little or no interest to students of what is essential or specific human.

But, as animal thinking and feeling is tranformed in us by our being human, so maybe also animal walking is being transformed into something different and new by the human way of walking. If it is so, we need to bring walking back into the center of our attention, as a basic and significant form of activity. And an important part of what it means to exist and behave as humans in this world.

There is more than a little danger here. As a consequence of our lasting forgetting about and marginalizing of walking, it is all to easy to rediscover walking under a partly wrong or onesided perspective. Often we think only of walking as a physical and bodily activity, maybe important for health, exercise and recreation but in other aspects more of a problem than useful. Because walking is so full of effort and slowness it is a way of movement and transport that is to be avoided with all costs in our daily living.
This is a degrading way of considering walking, mainly as a form of recreation, exercise and physical activity – even more often exclusively as an instrument for strengthening physical and mental health and wellbeing. This way of thinking has a high risk of once more letting us give up walking; we will and can never become genuine walkers agian, if we only use it forand understand it as a way of attaining health and related practical benefits.
It is certainly not only our understanding of walking that has diminished it.
Our living in the modern life pattern makes it easy to loose all real walking ability. Even our deep and maybe inborn wish to walk and wander is becoming mute and silenced; the result is that we just dont want to walk much anymore. We even start to believe that we dont like to walk at all, and also there is nowhere where we can simply walk naturally as part of everyday life. For modern people, there is no existential point in walking anymore. This degrading of walking can be seen in a grotesque form when people are doing walking by the side of a country road on a modern walking apparatus, for exercise.
After having lost this important part of ourselves we will only awake to become walkers again if we learn to walk and see walking in a new way. We have to make a new start, from a new understanding of walking.

Walking is fundamental for us both bodily and psychologically, nobody will deny that. It is not possible for humans to quit and forget walking for a long time. We can’t forget our walking forever, suppressed and displaced by and living a crippled life in the shadow of bicycles, skiing, cars, planes, trains; all those forms of motorized pseudo movement that is basically different forms of nonwalking. Whatever we do to just get away from genuine walking, selfmovement, moving ourselves further from being imprisioned in the here-and-now in our life. In the end – if we are going to confront ourselves as the lost tribe of walkers, we have to start from here to be reborn as walkers.

So, we must all of us rediscover and relearn walking. Learn to become natural walkers, genuinely walking humans. To walk and to use walking in our living, for our body, soul and sociality, yes also for health and welfare.We must relearn how to love our walking. Much of modern life and the materialistically focused imagination makes us forget the ancient life arts of walking, and then as Thoreau once said, we no longer know how to take a good and genuine walk.

The psychology of genuine walking
Of course, it should not come as a surprise that there is a psychology to walking, as there is a philosophy. As language and thinking and feeling all have a psyvhology, also walking has. But there is no chapter in modern psychology books discussing the psychology of walking, and what it means for us to be a walking creature.
The french romantic philosopher J-J Rousseau discovered that long distance had an important role in his own thinking process. He understood that thinking and walking are connected in an intimate way. Walking came to have an important role in the development of his views on human life and society.
So it is claimed that Rousseaus writings about walking became the first ‘psychology of walking’……

.»if ‘the eternal yearning that never finds peace

is the deepest secret of the walking tour, then Rousseau discovered that secret. He is the founder of the psychology of the walking tour.» (The philosopher Harald Höfding in «Jean Jacques Rousseau and His Philosophy»).

In our ordinary life, we never seem to think much about walking. Walking has no mysteries for us. Therefore, we need to be reawakened so that we can look at walking with new eyes, with the eyes of a child….where every small and great thing can have this magic quality. So, lets leave our ordinary routine consciousness, and look at walking with new eyes…..

How can we, in our modern times, invaded as we are into the innermost of our bodies and our souls…by machines and tools and information and money….how can we rediscover this secret of walking, and make it our own ? Where we are right now……we have today almost lost our human walking…..we dont need to walk anymore…..there is almost nowhere to walk….. and there is no point in walking…….

Researchers on walking report some of the facts about walking in modern life…..

«First, our results underscore that walking and bicycling are fringe modes and represent rare behaviors (-). Even among the urban adult population, and considering an individual to be a cyclist or walker if they made even one cycling or walking trip from home over a 24-hour period, only 5% cycled and 12.% walked.» (Kevin J. Krizek, and Pamela Jo Johnson: «Proximity to Trails and Retail: Effects on Urban Cycling and Walking,» Journal of the American Planning Association 72, no. 1, 2006)

The wonderful portuguese author Jose Saramago remarks in the middle of his traveling in US:

«I dont see people walking, – I only see cars. I cannot understand why. I do understand the physical part of it, but I don’t understand the human part of it, why people don’t walk…. To travel in a car all the time is like being in a spaceship that protects you from everything. But if Americans are happy with this way of life, that’s up to them.» (Jose Saramago 2002)

This is not a happy situation.
In this no-walking-state we suffer, our bodies and our minds and life together are suffering….decaying……

«there is a growing recognition of a widespread mental malaise in the general public that is expressed as mild depression, low self-esteem, high stress and anxiety and poor coping. This has been accompanied by institutional and cultural reductions in physical activity levels and it has been suggested that increases in exercise participation may have a substantial impact on the incidence of sub-clinical levels of mental ill health among the general public.»
(Kenneth R. Fox, Stephen H. Boutcher, Guy E. Faulkner, and Stuart J. H. Biddle, «The Case for Exercise in the Promotion of Mental Health and Psychological Well-Being,» in Physical Activity and Psychological Well-Being ed. Stuart J. H. Biddle, Kenneth R. Fox, and Stephen H. Boutcher, London: Routledge, 2000)

Walking is decisive for natural forms of exercise….of movement that we do for its own sake…not because of other things…like weight reduction and vanity.

Les Snowdon and Maggie Humphreys write in ‘The Walking Diet‘ –

«after evolution has worked so hard to perfect the human body, is Homo Sapiens going out of its way to turn back the clock?» – and – «If exercise is to be effective it must become as natural to us as breathing, eating, or cleaning our teeth. Otherwise most of our efforts are a waste of time and energy.»

But the change in the role of walking in our life cant be reversed……we have to start anew to recreate a walking life form:

«And because walking can never again be what it was–the motor-cars will see to that–it is our duty to pay it greater reverence and honour.» (Morley)

In the midst of all modern forms of transportation and virtual pseudo movement our silent suffering, coming from our nonwalking, passivity, virtuality and consumptive life style slowly makes us reawake because of the voice of pain…….we reawake to discover and become existential walkers again; but now walkers in a new way…. a new form of life.
We have to take a closer look at how walking will be reentering our modern life…..

The return of walking as a form of therapy
Yes, when we loose walking, it returns in modern westernized mask; dressed up as something else typically related to som sort of technique or an instrumental activity done for some other reason:

«From being the only mode of mobility to being relegated to a gimmicky protest form, walking is reentering our lives—garbed in the quasi-medical jargon of ‘therapy»  (Saurabh Bhattacharya.)

Some people see the problem. Dr Madhu Gupta Shastri (director of the Krishna Dutt Health Center of Yoga and Nature Cure in New Delhi, India) comments on this:

«It is tragic that a natural form of exercise must perforce be called a therapy today,»

«But if you don’t make it sound like something medically necessary, fewer people will take the trouble to walk. You get ready, slide into your car, drive to office, slump down in your chair and remain there for the rest of the day, not getting up for even a glass of water, as all your needs are being taken care of by others. Come evening and you drive back home, slump before the TV, eat and go off to sleep. Where did you actually walk?

So, after this it should not come as a surprise to anyone to learn that:

«more than 60% of the world population is

inactive or insufficiently active to gain health benefits»(WHO 1999)

What can and should we do to avoid making something as human and natural as walking to a sort of therapy ?

«The idea is as simple as arguing that if we build communities where walking is more possible, people might walk more. (-) On a more general level, if we build communities the way they were built before the automobile, and otherwise encourage preautomobile modes of travel, it seems sensible to think that persons will drive less.» (Marlon G. Boarnet, and Randall Crane, Travel by Design: The Influence of Urban Form on Travel; 2001)

I am not so sure that walking in modern life is only about the design of communities; it is partly true, but we need more to become walkers again. I think we have to broaden our view, because as human beings we are not living only in the immediate practical environment…. we should not think about our movement only as something useful, as a simple form of transportation. That is only a part of the human story of walking.

We are in the middle of the human way of existing……always transcending our immediate life, Our walking has to be seen as part of a life pattern that always is transcending what is given, that is what is useful and practical and healthy. As humans we have been walking this earth since our origins millions of years ago……we have always been living and longing to where we are not in this moment…..we are searching both back in time and into the future, as we walk….we leave thing behind…we depart from home……we are passing through this world…..walking as strangers…as pilgrims…..our walking is part of our dreams and images of a good life, being a good person, a better human being, finding salvation and heaven……we must remember that our human walking is never just practical or instrumental walking……it has to be part of our transcendence…..

So this is the central principle in my project on «Therapeutic and transformative walking»: We must all rediscover and relearn genuine human walking…that is walking in a deeper meaning….we must learn to become existential walkers…that is walking humans… to walk and to use walking for our health and welfare and spiritual searching….and once more be able to love walking. We must once more be able to see walking as part of our ability to go further in this world….to depart from what is known and established in the ‘here’, so to find a new ‘there’……walking as transcendence…as creative human practice……
Our modern life and materialistically focused imagination makes us forget the ancient life arts of walking….so we no longer know how to take a good genuine walk…….as Thoreau himself once complained:

“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”.

And for Thoreau….walking is always more that just something useful….practical….instrumental.

Do we need a theory of walking?
We need not only to rediscover walking and learn to walk again. We also evidently need some deep thinking about walking, a sort of theory of walking: as Honoré de Balzac wrote in his famous «Théorie de la démarche»:

«Isn’t it really quite extraordinary to see that, since man took his first steps, no one has asked himself why he walks, how he walks, if he has ever walked, if he could walk better, what he achieves in walking… questions that are tied to all the philosophical, psychological, and political systems which preoccupy the world?»

It is necessary to know that walking is always more than just being physical and practical active, the good walkers are a sort of philosophers. Walking is also something existential for us as human beings.

The german filmmaker Werner Herzog says about «the Importance of Travelling on Foot»:

«Humans are not made to sit at computer terminals or travel by aeroplane; destiny intended something different for us. For too long now we have been estranged from the essential, which is the nomadic life: travelling on foot. A distinction must be made between hiking and travelling on foot. In today’s society — though it would be ridiculous to advocate travelling on foot for everyone to every possible destination — I personally would rather do the existentially essential things in my life on foot. If you live in England and your girlfriend is in Sicily, and it is clear that you want to marry her, then you should walk to Sicily to propose. For these things travel by car or aeroplane is not the right thing. The volume and depth and intensity of the world is something that only those on foot will ever experience.»

And he continue this way of seeing things:

«When you travel on foot with this intensity, it is not a matter of covering actual ground, rather it is a question of moving through your own inner landscapes».

What will or can happen to a person as he or she is rediscovering walking in its authentic meaning? We know that as this happens one will understand the deeper connection between oneself and the world and see or feel the magic and mystery of it all:

”In the glow of youth there were times every now and then when I felt the necessity of a strong inspiration of soul-thought. My heart was dusty, parched for want of the rain of deep feeling; my mind and and dry, for there is a dust which settles on the heart as well as that which falls on a ledge. It is injurious to the mind as well as to the body to be always in one place and always surrounded by the same circumstances. A species of thick clothing slowly grows about the mind, the pores are choked, little habits become a part of existence, and by degrees the mind is enclosed in a husk. When this began to form I felt eager to escape from it, to throw it off like heavy clothing, to drink deeply once more at the fresh fountains of life. An inspiration — a long deep breath of the pure air of thought — could alone give health to the heart. There was a hill to which I used to resort at such periods. The labour of walking three miles to it, all the while gradually ascending, seemed to clear my blood of the heaviness accumulated at home. On a warm summer day the slow continued rise required continual effort, which carried away the sense of oppression. The familiar everyday scene was soon out of sight; I came to other trees, meadows, and fields; I began to breathe a new air and to have a fresher aspiration. I restrained my soul till I reached the sward of the hill; psyche, the soul that longed to be loose. (-) I restrained psyche, my soul, till I reached and put my foot on the grass at the beginning of the green hill itself. Moving up the sweet short turf, at every step my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling; with every inhalation of rich pure air, a deeper desire. The very light of the sun was whiter and more brilliant here. By the time I had reached the summit I had entirely forgotten the petty circumstances and the annoyances of existence. I felt myself, myself.” (From: Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart: My Autobiography; 1905)

“But urban wanderings, delicious as they are, are not quite what we mean by walking. On pavements one goes by fit and start, halting to see, to hear, and to speculate. In the country one captures the true ecstasy of the long, unbroken swing, the harmonious glow of mind and body, eyes fed, soul feasted, brain and muscle exercised alike.» (Christopher Morley, Essays)

Two questions at the same time: Why do humans walk, and is there a special human way of walking?

There is certainly many reasons to walk, most of them of a practical nature. But we have already discovered that there also is some deeper reasons why we should walk connected to our existence as human beings,both of this world and always trnscending it.  The german philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is telling us in his «Welt als Wille und Vorstellung» that one basic answer to this question is metaphysical – as he says – «the answer is will»:

«This and this alone gives man the key to his own existence, reveals to him the significance, shows him the inner mechanism of his being, of his action, of his movements. . . . Upon this rests the perfect suitableness of the human and animal body to the human and animal will in general, resembling, though far surpassing, the correspondence between an instrument made for a purpose and the will of the maker…. The parts of the body must, therefore, completely correspond to the principal desires through which the will manifests itself; they must be the visible expression of these desires. Teeth, throat and bowels are objectified hunger; the organs of generation are objectified sexual desire; the grasping hand, the hurrying feet, correspond to the more indirect desires of the will which they express».

The human body, in its design and its parts…are giving us the key to our existence…..like the hurrying feet themselves.. they are all different objectivations of the will, and are expressions of its desires….like movement and walking itself.

Walking is like a poem, or a poem is like walking

So says Ammons, the american poet….
«each makes use of the whole body, involvement is total, both mind and body. You can’t take a walk without feet and legs, without a circulatory system, a guidance and coordinating system, without eyes, ears, desire, will, need: the total person…. [A]s with a walk, a poem is not simply a mental activity: it has body, rhythm, feeling, sound, and mind, conscious and subconscious.(Ammons; Set in Motion 16)

Walking as an auto-poetic process; the autopoietics of a walk, a walk or a poem is not only embodied in “preordained” code and emergent structures, but it is also the result of embodied “enaction” within the strictures and structures of a particular environment…..walking is creative….a self making process……becoming as the walk unfolds.

There is this double aspect in walking; it takes you back to the close reality of living and reality, and as the poet said about ‘the open road; it at the same time opens the door to life’s mystery and ‘the great wide open’.

«Walking allows you to engage with the local mode of reality.» (Makarand Paranjape)

“The way a journey is gone, to come to the point, is walking.“(Robert Coles Holliday)

The spiritual side of walking

The great russian author, Leo Tolstoj pictured as a walking pilgrim in the last part of his life. Spiritual walking as pilgrim, that is the ancient form of walking as part of a spiritual project…..demanding, solitary and simple. This form of walking became an important part of his trying to find a solution to his long lasting religious and existential crisis related to his ling a successful and wealthy life as modern human being. Tolstojs pilgrim walking project can illustrate how human walking has a strong transcending potential, and can help us develop and go further in our human values as we depart from and leave behind….walk and move away slowly but determined, from our hitherto problematic way of living. Leo Tolstoy can serve as an interesting model for the many people in modern society who wish to develop a new more honest and ecological right life style by revitalizing and participating in the old pilgrim walking traditions. The most famous of these is of course the european ‘camino santiago’, but there are also many other important pilgrim roads in other religions and parts of the world.

Christopher Morley (1928) wrote:

The day on which I was fully initiated into the mysteries is marked by a white stone. It was when I put on a knapsack and started from Heidelberg for a march through to Odenwald. Then I first knew the delightful sensation of independence and detachment enjoyed during a walking tour. Free from all the bothers of railway timetables and extraneous machines, you trust to your own legs, stop when you please, diverge into any track that takes your fancy, and drop in upon some quaint variety of human life at every inn when you put up for the night… Walking is the natural recreation for a man who desires not absolutely to suppress his intellect but to turn it out to play for a season. All great men of letters have therefore been enthusiastic walkers».

Walking as therapy

Walking can of course have therapeutic effects, both for the body, the mind and for the human life situation itself. Most human things, good or bad, can have therapeutic effects. They dont have to be part of the instrumentarium of the medical profesion to be therapeutical, as some is prone to believe. This has to be understood as Franziska Boas writes about dance as therapy:

“I make no separation between dance as an art and dance as a therapy. Every art has a therapeutic effect both on the artist and on the observer”.

The therapeutic potentialities in walking can be seen in different ways. Typically this is reduced to the question of doing exercise and training, and its positive effects on the body and the mind. And there seems no longer to exist any doubt that walking is a strong healthpromoting activity. But, to see the therapeutic role of walking eclusively as exercise, is having a limiteded understand of the human way of existing……our hunger for selvtransformaton and selfenchancement, imagination and transcendence. And genuine walking can play an important role in satisfying this very human hunger.

Thich Nhat Hanh says on his ‘walking meditation’:

«We walk slowly, in a relaxed way, keeping a light smile on our lips. When we practice this way, we feel deeply at ease, and our steps are those of the most secure person on Earth. All our sorrows and anxieties drop away, and peace and joy fill our hearts. Anyone can do it. It takes only a little time, a little mindfulness, and the wish to be happy. This walking is the best way to deal with stress and anger. Practice walking, even with your anger still within you. After a few minutes, your anger will subside.»

Towards a new beginning as human walker: How to develop your existential walking…some basic rules for finding the magic on the open road.

1) Teach youself to walk purely for the sake of walking itself…genuine walking that is…….and not for some other instrumental or practical reasons…..exercise, health, recreation…and so on…
2) You should learn to walk as you feel like………design your own ways of walking…begin to be a personal walker..but for that you need to try different walking styles and settings for walking……and you should also try as often as possible to walk in a brisk and upright and determined style……so to put some engagement and intensity into the walking…..

3) Sometimes you should walk until you and your body feel tired, vey tired and maybe exhausted…so to discover the deep influences what walking can have on your bodily processes and your state of mind…..

4) Walk often up to an hour……and sometimes also most of the day……and sometimes even day after day….as if there is no limit to the walking…..endless walking…walking as discovery…transcendence. Walking as liberation from being imprisoned in the solid chain of the here-and-now and everyday situation, moving further through life’s possible and unknown landscapes.

5) Walk as you like and feel; but also sometimes try fixed times for walking…..morning walks can be good…evening walks in another way also…weekend walks and holiday walks.

6) Increase gradually your total walking time…..both every time you walk and altogether as part of your life; so that it can play an important role among your life activities….

7) Sometime, try to walk without talking……or other accompaning activities like taking photos……your mind should take part in the walking, from inside… walk slow..like a river flowing out of your inner self……or walk like you fly with wings on your feet, like the greek god Hermes…..

8) Walking can serve you as a tool of sanctification……walking the right way can help us stepping outside the prison and limits of our everyday consciousness, so that we can rediscovering the macig and mystery of life and living in the ordinary small everyday things and activities:

«In everyday life, sacredness appears in many shapes and forms, from the most magnificent aims to the seemingly most mundane pursuits. Almost any facet of life can become sacralized through a process of sanctification.»

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