For some time now I’ve had a nagging suspicion that I didn’t receive the complete instruction manual to life. Apparently, someone ripped a few key pages from my dog-eared, smudged copy when I wasn’t looking. How else to explain those days when it seems as if everyone else has inside information that gives them a competitive edge?
Talking to friends and associates, however, I find I’m not alone. Most of us believe we occasionally wander in the Land of the Lost. Well, I have good news to report: Just call me Prometheus and chalk one up for our side, because I (trumpet fanfare) stole one of the secrets, something that gives the fire to us.
One night after dinner I went for a walk. I was worried about some petty concern, a problem beyond my control that seemed monumental at the time. Instinctively, I started trudging down the street. It felt good to be moving, swinging my arms, huffing and puffing, observing the world as I slowly moved through it. When I arrived home I found my problem hadn’t gone away, but I felt refreshed. As far back as 400 B.C. Hippocrates prescribed walking to soothe a troubled mind. But as helpful as this is, it’s not the competitive edge I’m talking about.
The next night I walked again, and that’s when I stumbled on the real secret — something the likes of Aristotle, Jean Jacques Rousseau, William Wordsworth, Albert Einstein, Charles Dickens, Soren Kierkegaard, Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis and Henry David Thoreau, to name a few, have used to their advantage: In some mysterious way the brain is connected to the feet.
Something curious and wonderful happens when you amble through the world at 3 mph. The muses start whispering. The mind wanders to out-of-the-way corners of consciousness and makes unexpected connections. Rousseau understood. “I can only meditate when I am walking,” he said. “When I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.” Ralph Waldo Emerson called walking “gymnastics for the mind,” and Kierkegaard put it like this: “[I] have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”
So, like Rousseau, Emerson and Kierkegaard, I started walking for ideas and began to carry a notebook or sometimes one of those little tape recorders — a clever idea I got on one of my hikes. ( In this I later discovered I was merely following in the footsteps of another avid, creative walker: Thomas Hobbes, who had an inkwell built into his walking stick so he could jot down his peripatetic insights.)
The key, I discovered, was length. A 10-minute jaunt won’t do it. You need time and distance to walk away from the cares of the day, to let the mind go blank and break through. The great practitioners understood. As a student, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley regularly walked the 32 miles from Oxford to London; Wordsworth made a point to walk 14 miles a day; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 10; and Charles Dickens, who regularly traipsed through London streets looking for characters and plots, is said to have once gotten up at 2 a.m. and walked 30 miles to breakfast. Thoreau said, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from worldly engagements.”
The examples may be a bit over the top. The point is you have to warm up to get in tune with the universe. Forty-five minutes to an hour probably will yield at least one productive insight. Some recommend this formula: State the problem, forget the problem and wait for an answer. Once you’ve posed the question in this way, take a hike. More often than not you’ll get a surprisingly good answer.
So I kept walking. I started walking once a week, then twice a week, then three times, then as many as I could manage. One October Sunday, like Thoreau, I tromped around for five solid hours and it was great. I filled several pages of my notebook and the next day a lot of it still looked good. I have become addicted. I’ve noticed if I don’t walk enough, life seems to go less smoothly, especially my writing, a trait I share with James Michener. “When my writing goes poorly,” Michener once observed, “it is always because I have not walked enough, for it is on these uneventful and repetitious walks that I do my best thinking.”
Whether a “think walk” should be solitary or social is moot. Some of us, like Einstein and me, seem to do our best thinking wandering alone. Others seem to achieve their best insights walking and talking to others. Walking stimulates thought which stimulates conversation which stimulates more thought. Aristotle, founder of the peripatetic school of philosophy (peripatetic comes from the Greek word for “walk around”), lectured his students as they walked through a sacred grove of trees in Athens. Coleridge wrote the opening stanzas of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner while on a long walk with Wordsworth, and Freud tromped around the streets of Vienna conversing with his patients and students.
Hey, I’m not taking anything away from football or basketball. They’re great sports, but they don’t produce great literature or philosophic insight. Walking is the sport of the illuminati. And now, we know their secret.