The art of walking

In many ways, modern life makes us sick. In this bulletin, I’m going to make the point that half our problem with modern life (if not more) is that we have lost the art of walking. Not only is it a health bringer, both mentally and physically, but it also helps us to think, just ask the Greek philosophers.

I Walk Therefore I Am?

The year is 327 BC and you are at the Lyceum in Ancient Greece, a famous cultural center where activities range from military exercises to lectures on rhetoric and philosophy to ceremonies offering praise to the gods.  You are a student at Aristotle’s famous school which was established here 7 years prior.

You spend your days walking with your teacher and other students through the tree-filled groves adjacent to the school at the edge of the Lyceum, carrying books and taking notes. Lively discussions follow nightly as you and the other students painstakingly work through the daily lessons covering ethics, the four causes of an object, the five elements, and the soul life of a plant vs. that of the animal and human.

Today you are walking with your teacher and many other “peripatetics” under the covered walkways of the Lyceum. You pass by a large sculpture of Apollo, the patron of the Lyceum, a statue you know well.

You reflect for a moment on how Apollo’s forearm is drawn across his head, a posture of repose that indicates to you a recovery gesture from a previous exertion. All this thinking work you do is a great exertion as well, you say to yourself.

As you walk on, your attention returns to the lesson: Aristotle’s views on how the soul and the body are inextricably linked, which differ profoundly from the Platonic and Pythagorean dualistic view. You don’t know it, but you are participating step-by-step in the birthing of natural sciences out of ancient mystery wisdom. And you are doing it as you walk.

The school at the Lyceum is also known as Aristotle’s Peripatetic School. The term “peripatetic” comes from the Greek word “peripatein,” which means “to walk up and down.”

Aristotle’s students were called the peripatetics reflecting Aristotle’s specific method of teaching; he taught while walking.

The early Greek philosophers almost indistinguishably linked thinking with walking. Socrates also used walking as a pedagogy to process, teach, and learn.

Walking and the Heart

Culture today knows well that walking supports the heart and cardiovascular system. It helps to improve circulation, reduce blood pressure, and strengthen the heart muscle. Walking, and specifically walking on hills where the circulation gets a significant challenge and the leg muscles are most engaged, reduces the risk of heart disease — a leading cause of death worldwide.

Blue zone studies consistently highlight the importance of adopting natural, sustainable, and enjoyable forms of physical activity like walking. Interestingly the blue zone communities are all in hilly communities. Hill-walking is the norm. Rather than hitting the gym, these communities incorporate healthy movement into the social fabric of their daily lives. 

Furthermore, with walking, step by step a rhythm is established. When we walk we enter with our limbs a realm embodied at all times by the heart and lungs. The left arm goes forward and the left leg goes back. Above and below are in an opposite rhythm as are the left and right. There is symmetry, harmony, and balance.

Walking and Mental Health

The Greek philosophers give the insight that when walking is examined more closely the effects go beyond longevity and heart health.  At a certain point, walking becomes like a vibratory hum. Just imagine the legs of a group of sheep hustling down a path. Their legs demonstrate a fast repetitive motion that becomes vibratory. “Higher vibration” has at times been used to represent higher states of the mind. Moving into higher states of understanding there is a connection to frequency. Thoughts have presence and frequency. Walking, in a way, trains an important part of the activity that is needed to think.

Screen time has changed thinking, it seems. Screens are surely passively thinking for us. They implant thoughts and pictures in our heads directly without our work. Life with screens has made us less active as well. We should be passionate about walking’s ability to counteract the ailments of our time.

Bottom Line

People who walk are inspired by their practice, have less anxiety and less depression, and enjoy better muscle tone and heart health. People who walk are also aiding their ability to be active in their thinking. They have the satisfaction of controlling these outcomes. We need walking to process our experience just like we need our cardiovascular system to prepare toxins for excretion. Modern life, decidedly tipped away from the outdoors and towards using technology to provide comfort, offers to take away the activity that historically has been essential and inherent to our functioning as humans. Let’s be in remembrance of the power of intentionally placing these activities into our lives at our own initiative. It just may be the difference-maker we need.

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.

― Søren Kierkegaard

All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” 

― Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols 

Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.

― Henry David Thoreau

(Anyone who uses “Me thinks” is worthy of your consideration, me thinks.)

Walking was a creative, mental, and spiritual practice for Thoreau and can be for you too.

Thanks for tuning in!