I’ve never really liked taking walks – especially not walking all by myself, without the distraction of a conversation. Often, the wordless-ness of such a lonely walk will send my mind into an unrestrained spiral of brooding. For example, while walking on and on, moving my feet mechanically, I may start thinking about something I failed to do yesterday; then about the slim chances of finishing that task today; then about my hopeless inadequacy; then about how I may walk right here next week again without feeling any better; then about the mess I made of my life; then about how meaningless and futile it is to carry on like this… and so on, step-by-step. In the context of a depression, it can be dangerous to just take a lonely walk.
On the other hand, a little daily physical exercise in the form of simple walking is generally said to be an important contribution to one’s health (I’m not talking about jogging here, as that is way beyond my scope and understanding). So lately, I’ve been trying to do a little more walking again. To keep my mind at bay while on the road, I cling to a method that I’ve named Mindful Walking. This is, more or less, my own loose variation of the meditative Mindfulness method of fully concentrating on your own immediate sensory experiences. Maybe you know the famous Mindfulness exercise of fully concentrating on eating one single raisin? Anyway this is nothing new, but I want to explain it nevertheless.
A few days ago I walked back from a friend’s home to my own place, a track through the fields. Right after a thunderstorm, it was still raining a little, with some last rumbling fading away in the clouds. I used my phone to make a few photos of squashy wetness:
Why make photo’s? I did that not with this blog in mind, but because it helped me to concentrate on the here-and-now. For the most important thing about “mindful” walking is to not focus on your destination, or start thinking about the rest of the day: all that matters is to focus just on your next step, focus just on all the little (and bigger) things right around you. Every step of the walk should feel not like going somewhere, but like being somewhere.
So while walking I try to focus as best as I can on things close by: this shrub here, this buzzing bee-or-is-it-wasp, this puddle here, this sharp stone felt through the sole of my shoe, this snail in the mud, this flower here, the cry of this bird flying up from a tree, this unidentified pungent smell from the roadside… To illustrate what I mean, here is the same photo of the same path with some of the nearest focus points drawn in:
By way of contrast, here is the same photo again – but now edited to show an artist’s impression of unfocused walking, of walking on-autopilot just to get to the end of the track, while allowing your mind to get out-of-control, spiraling away into the foggy depths of depression:
There are many ways to keep focusing on your immediate surroundings; one that works fairly well for myself is to keep asking questions about what you see, hear, or smell. By asking yourself questions, you force yourself to look twice. Below is another photo from the same spot, catching a single one of my focus points. Something bright red – so the initial question was, what flowers do we have here?
On taking a closer look, these were no flowers at all. This was a shrub’s dead branch. For some mysterious reason its decaying, rotting leaves had turned out a bright red instead of the usual yellow or brown. Where did this brilliant red come from? I must tell you that I simply skip unanswerable questions; so I took another step and shifted to a next focus point.
I do want to stress that of course this “mindful” attitude applies to all kinds of walks in all kinds of environments. I know from experience that it works just as well when you are walking through a busy town center on your way to that one unique discount computer parts shop. Just avoid thinking about what you are going to buy (save that for when you enter the shop) or what you still need to do tomorrow (save that for a few minutes at breakfast). For now, just concentrate on all there is to see and hear and smell in the actual street where you are walking:
The bottom line here will hardly surprise you. This “mindful walking” can also be seen as a kind of metaphor that applies to our life as a whole – or at least to our daily attitude and activities in general. As much as possible, we should try to concentrate on the here-and-now, on direct focus points.
When we sit at the table sipping from a cup of coffee, we should not allow our mind to wander away into all kinds of vaguely disturbing feelings of nagging guilt, foggy feelings of futility and hopelessness, depressing feelings of inadequacy, or just simple fear for all the demands of the rest of the day. Instead, perhaps for a few seconds we might try to focus just on the taste of that hot coffee in our mouth. And after that, we might try to find something else for our senses to focus on – whether it is rinsing the coffee cup, or something else.
• tip: Of course it is great and even necessary to have some realistic long-term goals. But being focused on long-term goals should never obscure the awareness of every moment of your life as an experience in its own right.
Avoid the trap of associative, unrestrained brooding about the past or the future. Instead, try to focus on your actual experience of the here-and-now.