You want to have a clear, unburdened, creative mind? Go take a walk.
YouTube celebrity Hannah Hart mentioned at NerdCon about how she often takes a walk – and it struck me as something that so few people do anymore. Poets like Wordsworth and Thoreau and nearly every classic writer and thinker were avid walkers. Even back to Marcus Aurelius and Lao-tse.
But these days, busy and successful people don’t have time to just take a walk. Do they?
We really need to re-learn this most basic pleasure. We have to reclaim our attention from the push notifications. We need to unplug from the constant barrage of marketing and advertising. We must re-connect to our imaginations and creativity.
And it’s free!
So make time to clear your thoughts. To open your mind to the world around you. To let your eyes wander. To discover.
We forgot how to walk a long time ago
Our culture started forgetting this basic pleasure of walking a long while back.
Several years ago, I picked up an old collection of Reader’s Digest stories from 1946. It includes delightfully interesting essays from some famous folks, like Winston Churchill’s thoughts about painting and Helen Keller on what she would do if she could see for three days. Such gems.
But one of my all-time favorites in the book is titled “How to Take a Walk” by writer and naturalist Alan Devoe. He lists three rules, with a bonus fourth, for taking a walk.
A walk should never have an objective
If you’ve got an errand to run, do it another time.
Just go. Wander. Otherwise the awareness of your plans with gnaw at your subconscious, like “a maggot in a walnut,” Devoe warns. Gross.
A walk should never be a premeditated ritual
How often do we do anything spontaneously? Put on your nearest pair of shoes. Open the door and go out. Don’t make it a planned activity. Plans can quickly burden your walk with obligation or guilt if you can’t make the time.
Shut off Netflix mid-show if it occurs to you and revel in your willpower. Drop the overwhelming to-do list for a few minutes and come back to it refreshed. Sign out of everything before you go to sleep and go for a walk before you check email or Facebook in the morning to kickstart your day.
If you plan it, it’s much less of an adventure.
Leave your problems and worries at home
If you go out for a walk with your mind overloaded by thoughts about making it to your next paycheck or that new loud rattle your car is making, you could return home feeling even more anxious.
“You must learn to expunge from your mind every single one of your usual worriments and vexations,” Devoe writes. “Until you have learned to do this, walking is worse that useless.”
I love his wonderfully ancient-sounding vocabulary on this point, but it’s true today. Devoe says this is the hardest part about walking to master and I completely agree.
So imagine stepping out of your home and leaving everything behind, for just a few minutes.
Let this walk be an escape. A few magical minutes of peace.
Bonus: Don’t get distracted by people
Don’t get pulled into people watching. Especially insecurities or negatively judging others.
Try not to think about their clothes or if anyone is watching you. Drop your guard and have a deep breath. Ignore the drivers on the road and the pissed-looking commuters rushing to the train.
Look at the sky. The reflections in the puddles. The leaves in the summer or the gray bark in the winter. Feel the texture of the ground under your soles.
Enjoy being outside. Be present.
Don’t walk and post on social media
Ok, that’s not Devoe’s rule! That’s my rule, for me.
If I do bring my phone, I put it on airplane mode. I’ll hide it in a pocket or bag where I can’t feel it while I walk, somewhere a little difficult to reach so I’m not tempted to pull it out.
But if I see something I must photograph, I leave the editing and posting for back home. Tell yourself you’ll save the data and wait for the wi-fi connection. Enjoy taking the photo and keeping it just for yourself.
I love taking photos, but I have to keep my camera and walks separate or I end up forgetting about the walk. It becomes a hunt for the next photo. This breaks rule 1, since the photos become the primary objective!
A few minutes outside changes everything
Americans spend about 95% of their lives indoors! How crazy is that!
We let our backyards become overgrown, never learn to garden at all, don’t appreciate the national parks we have, and under-fund our local lands. We sit inside and “pin” digital photos of someone else’s grand adventure or their potted plants, making excuses that “someday we’ll do that” or we “don’t have a green thumb.”
Experts beg people to go outdoors for even just 5 minutes each day. How pathetic is that.
Let’s change these numbers. I want to make drinking my coffee on the porch a habit, eating dinner outside a regular event, packing a picnic on the weekend a frequent treat.
Such simple changes that improve our mental and physical health, re-frame our entire outlook on life.
The kind of change that can start now, with you and me.
When you get home at the end of the day, drop everything you are carrying immediately and change out of your work clothes (I can’t relax wearing “work” clothing).
Leave the headphones and Spotify and podcasts and switch your phone to airplane mode. Or be really daring and leave your phone behind. Leave behind the anxiety that you “need” your phone in case “something happens.”
Unplug. Open the door and just go.
I know, going for a walk sounds like a boring hobby from an obsolete era. It’s something you do for the sake of your dog or your grandparents might do. Walking isn’t something we associate with “fun.”
But in an age of “optimizing” and squeezing “productivity” out of our every waking moments, we forget how to enjoy the most basic things that make us human. How to enjoy simplicity.
When was the last time you walked down your own street, with no destination in mind?