It is a paradox that perhaps the single best way to still one’s mind is to put the body in motion. The list of what has been accomplished on walks is almost comically illustrative of this point.
Nietzsche said the ideas in Thus Spoke Zarathustra came to him on a long walk. Thomas Cook supposedly came up with the idea for his travel and tourism agency—one of the first and biggest ever—on a walk from Market Harborough to Leicester. Nikola Tesla discovered the rotating magnetic field on a walk through a city park in Budapest in 1882, one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time.
And this is only a small sampling of what we can directly attribute to walking. When he lived in Paris, Hemingway would take long walks along the quais whenever he was stuck in his writing and he needed to clarify his thinking. Darwin’s daily schedule included several walks. Charles Dickens often walked as much as 20 miles per day! The poet William Wordsworth has walked as many as 180,000 miles in his lifetime—an average of 6.5 miles a day since he was five years old!
All of these walks, hundreds and thousands of miles over the years, were facilitating and generating the insights behind their brilliant, world-changing work. Nietzsche would go as far as to say of his own strolls, “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”
When I was 24, I broke my elbow after a fall from my bike. The break was painful and required a sling for something like six weeks, which made writing particularly difficult. My frustration was exacerbated by the fact that as an avid runner and swimmer, my normal means of exercise were also off the table. I also wasn’t going to be getting on a bike again anytime soon. To prevent myself from going stir-crazy, I started going on long walks. In the morning. In the afternoon. Late at night before bed.
At first these walks were just inferior substitutes for the exercise I was missing, and I disliked the experience. But as they went on—and the distances grew longer—walking grew on me. I came to notice and love the beauty of the city I had moved to. (There is no better city for walking in America than uptown New Orleans, even in the swampy summer heat.) I also found that words for the book that I was writing seemed to just flow into my head from nowhere. Even difficulties I was having in my relationship started to feel less serious, and solutions followed. It was exactly as Thoreau said, “the moment my legs begin to move my thoughts begin to flow.”
By the time my arm healed, I was a convert. I was a walker. As much as I could, whenever I could, especially when I was stuck. I even walk when I have phone calls to do or if I show up somewhere early. But it should be said that walking thoughts are usually a different kind of thought. They are not the racing thoughts of the worried mind. Or the distracted thoughts of the workplace mind. They are, as many walkers attest, more naturally reflective, calmer and contemplative.
It strikes me that this is partly due to the environmental change and then partly due to how the mind works when walking. In a notoriously loud city like ancient Rome, it was impossible to get much peace and quiet. The noises of wagons, the shouting of vendors, the hammering of a blacksmith—all filled the streets with piercing violence (to say nothing of the putrid smells of a city with poor sewage and sanitation). So philosophers like Seneca went on a lot of walks— to get where they needed to go, to clear their heads, to get fresh air. “We should take wandering outdoor walks,” he said, “so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.”
It would seem obvious that walks in parks or forests or along pretty scenery are the best, but I don’t think it’s necessarily about nature. A busy New York City avenue can be silenced with headphones and a loop around a parking lot or down a long hallway will do in a pinch (a lap around the inside of the Pentagon is around a mile for example). It’s the process that’s doing the work, not the crashing of the oceans waves or the lapping of the water along the walls of a canal.
There is evidence that memory and the mind function differently on the move. The late Seth Roberts used to practice flashcards for languages he was learning while on the treadmill because he found that while each activity was boring by itself, doing them simultaneously allowed him to do both better. A study at New Mexico Highlands University has found that the force from our footsteps can increase the supply of blood to the brain. Researchers at Stanford have found that walkers performer better on tests that measure “creative divergent thinking” during and after their walks. And a 20 year study found that walking five miles a week protects the brains of people suffering from Alzheimer’s.
In a letter to his niece, Kierkegaard wrote
“Every day, I walk myself into a state of well-being & 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. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”
Isn’t that interesting? That sitting still seems to invite the sickness of the mind, but walking seems to still those ripples until the mind is like a quiet lake…precisely because the mind has been more active.
The Buddhists talk of “walking meditation” or “kinhin” where the movement after a long session of sitting, particularly movement through a beautiful setting, can unlock a different kind of stillness that traditional meditation couldn’t.
Like I said, it’s a paradox. Move to find stillness. And if not stillness, then at least insight.
Certainly this piece wouldn’t have been possible without a walk or two. And since I need to start the next one, it’s time to leave for another walk. I hope you will take one too.