How to pay attention to the walk, to one’s feet, one’s breath, the swish of a jacket against skin, the smell of diesel or elderflower blossom; if not, what is the point of walking? The paradox being that one walks to lose oneself, and in doing so finds oneself. When the first psychogeographers wandered the streets of Paris, they did so with two different aims in mind: either to focus on their feelings; their subjective reaction to the buildings and squares around them, or to let their feet beat a rhythm, the mind drift freely into a meditative state.
Often when I walk, I have a problem staying present. I can walk from Hove Street to St James’ Street, across main roads, along the seafront, into the narrow roads of the north laine, and suddenly realise I haven’t registered a thing. If someone were to ask what colour was the sea? Was the tide out? Were the shops open? Were people waiting at bus-stops? I wouldn’t know. My mind roams, often in circles, cartwheeling over problems – both real and imaginary. The same thing happens in the countryside – mile after mile can flow pass, when suddenly I look up to see a flint path, edged by shoulder high cow parsley, or arrive at a silvered wooden stile, and realise I have no idea where I am. Have I walked too far or not far enough?
Over the years, in a bid to stay present, to be in the walk, I have developed a method of mindful walking. It is a combination of Buddhist mindful techniques and a writing activity taken from Nicki Jackowska’s book ‘Write For Life’ (the chapter on geography offers precise and inspiring directions for writers to capture objective and subjective perceptions invoked by walking).
The secret to good writing, as George Orwell suggested, is to write about objects not abstractions. So, it is with walking. Sensory information – what reaches our eyes, ears, nose and skin, the lights and colours, sounds, smells and textures – builds a solid frame on which our personal narratives can soundly hang. And, if writing isn’t your thing, the act of fixing the mind to specifics opens up a little space, a distance from one’s usual preoccupations, and if nothing else, provides a little perspective.
Below, I offer two options, one short and simple, for the shortest of strolls, the other an extended version for when there is time to go deeper.
While walking take in five things around you (immediately or on the horizons) you
- Physically feel/touch/experience
As soon as you have run through the list, start again, as you will have walked on, and sounds, sights and smells will have changed.
Do the above, but this time add:
- Which makes me feel……
- Which makes me think of….
The rote of ‘fives’ came about after experimenting with ‘threes, fours and sixes’. Five just worked best for me, but you may find differently.
When you return from your walk, capture your thoughts spontaneously, free-writing without critiquing/editing. Review at a later date, highlight interesting words, thoughts, sensations, insights.
*Write For Life, Nicki Jackowska, Bloomsbury Publishing