Ritual Spotlight

On Walking

“Most of the time walking is merely practical, the unconsidered locomotive means between two sites. To make walking into an investigation, a ritual, a meditation, is a special subset of walking, physiologically like and philosophically unlike the way the mail carrier brings the mail and the office worker reaches the train. Which is to say that the subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings.”

— Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

 

An integral part of Hindu and Buddhist devotional practice involves circumambulation — “to walk in a circle around” sacred objects, deity images, or a holy place. The mechanics of motion are specific and important here. Orienting the physical body around a focal point is to keep what’s sacred at the center of one’s life. Maintaining this orientation with repeated motion further aligns the body with what is sacredly charged.

In the Hindu tradition, honoring that center means circumambulating clockwise, keeping it to the side of the auspicious right hand. “Going to the right” (pradakṣiṇa) is also connected to aligning oneself with the apparent movement of the sun. The word “clockwise” is adapted from a translation from Sanskrit, meaning “sunwise.”

From spiritual pilgrimages to personal odysseys, walking has always offered both poetic and practical relief, restoration, and resonance. Beyond the realm and particularities of sacred tradition, we are altered psychologically when walking, especially in nature. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time outdoors to combat stress, an adaptation of the longstanding Japanese tradition, Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”

In a recent study at the University of Edinburgh, researchers used lightweight brain-scanning devices to understand the impact of green space on the mind. The results indicated that walking through busier, urban areas induced frustration and irritation in participants. Green space and parkland alternatively led to calmer and more meditative states. “Natural settings gently engage the brain while allowing it ample space to ruminate in the background on life’s quandaries and complexities. In other words, it lets your mind off the hook for a while; going for a walk allows your brain to roam along with your body.”

Walking is the primary mode of interaction we have with place: a means, but also — equally — a method. Akin to eating and breathing, to walk is to take in the world: “a reciprocal action, a gesture of exchange.” (Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot). With every step forward — one foot in front of the other — walking renews our chance to move differently, to be different.

Below, a few reflections on how we walk: considerations for making meaning of motion.

  1. Spiral inward: What so often begins as an escape — a way to separate from a sense of identity — becomes, through repeated motion, reminders to remember. Walking the network of passages in a labyrinth, for instance, helps align mind and body through contemplative and deliberate motion. Follow the maze with your life in view, spiraling into the center as you inch closer to your own.
  2. Go slow to deepen self-intimacy: “Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone. This stretching of time deepens space. It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar. Like the regular encounters that deepen friendship.” (Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking)
  3. Quicken your step to activate creative and divergent thinking. Experiment with variable rhythm. Find what you don’t know you are looking for.
  4. Stop or pivot direction when you feel an inner tug or inclination to change course. Increase childlike wonder, attune your attention.
  5. Walk the perimeter of an imaginary shape to sharpen your propensity for precision. Practice with other bodies. We’re taking cues from shuudan koudou (“collective action”), a form of highly choreographed synchronized precision walking practiced in Japan.
  6. Engage the senses, one by one. Movement engages our senses and makes us increasingly aware of our relationship to our bodies. Intentional intake through touch, taste, smell will help decelerate your experience of the world, inviting greater slowness and sensuality. Go barefoot.
  7. Walk directionless to practice “being” without consequence or aim: “Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing.” (Rebecca Solnit)   

 

Further Reading: