samedi 31 août 2013

Hemingway, Thoreau, Jefferson and the Virtues of a Good Long Walk

Solvitur ambulando -- "it is solved by walking." This phrase refers to the 4th-century-B.C. Greek philosopher Diogenes's response to the question of whether motion is real -- he got up and walked. "It is solved by walking." As it turns out, there are many other problems and paradoxes to which walking is the solution. For instance: In our culture of overwork, burnout, and exhaustion, in which we're connected and distracted 24/7 from most things that are truly important in our lives, how do we tap into our creativity, our wisdom, our capacity for wonder, our well-being and our ability to connect with what we really value? Solvitur ambulando.
In my own life, for almost as long as I can remember, walking has frequently been the solution. When I was a girl growing up in Greece, my favorite poem was "Ithaca" by the Greek poet Cavafy. My sister Agapi and I had the poem memorized long before we could actually understand what it really meant. It opens:
When you set out on the voyage to Ithaca,
pray that your journey may be long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Over the years, I came to realize that a journey -- one that can also be full of adventure and knowledge -- doesn't have to involve planes and cars and passports. The benefits of a journey are always available simply by walking.
There are, of course, many takes on the virtues of walking. For Thomas Jefferson, the purpose of walking was to clear the mind of thoughts. "The object of walking is to relax the mind," he wrote. "You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you."
For others, like Nietzsche, walking was essential for thinking. "All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking," he wrote in Twilight of the Idols. For Ernest Hemingway, walking was a way of developing his best thoughts while mulling a problem. "I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out," he wrote in A Moveable Feast. "It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood." For Jefferson, walking was also "the best possible exercise," while for Henry David Thoreau, walking wasn't just a means to an end, it was the end itself:
...the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise... but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man's swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!
Less subjective are the scientific studies that increasingly show the psychological benefits of walking and other forms of exercise to be very tangible. "It's become clear that this is a good intervention, particularly for mild to moderate depression," said Jasper Smits, a psychologist at Southern Methodist University. The results are so clear-cut that Smits and a colleague have written a guidebook for mental health professionals with advice on how to actually prescribe exercise for patients. And there is no page-long list of side effects accompanying this prescription. This tool for dealing with depression is no small thing when you consider that, according to the World Health Organization, over 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression, and that since 1988 prescriptions for antidepressants have gone up 400 percent in the U.S.
Psychologist Laurel Lippert Fox has taken the idea one step further (pun slightly intended) and actually has walking sessions with her patients. As she says, "It's so much more dynamic than sitting in your Eames chair."
Research has also shown similar benefits to simply being around nature. One study showed that spending time in natural settings makes us more generous and more community-oriented, a conclusion that has "implications not only for city planning but also for indoor design and architecture," according to the study's co-author Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester Medical Center. Another study by Dutch researchers showed that those who live within one kilometer of a park or wooded area suffer lower rates of depression and anxiety. Even if we don't live amidst trees and greenery, we can always take a walk through them. When scaled up, this practice could have real societal consequences. "As health-care costs spiral out of control, it behooves us to think about our green space in terms of preventive health care," said Dr. Kathryn Kotrla of the Texas A&M College of Medicine. "This highlights very clearly that our Western notion of body-mind duality is entirely false. The study shows that we are a whole organism, and when we get healthy that means our body and our mind get healthy."
On the flip side, it also turns out that sitting is as bad for us as walking is good for us. Just take a look at this terrifying infographic, entitled, appropriately, "Sitting Is Killing You." Among the key statistics: Sitting for six or more hours a day makes you 40 percent more likely to die within 15 years than someone who sits for fewer than three hours a day. Sitting is also implicated in weight gain, as sitting down slows down enzymes that help burn fat by 90 percent. After two hours of sitting, your good cholesterol drops 20 percent. And those with sitting jobs have twice the rate of cardiovascular disease as those with standing jobs. Perhaps our prelude to telling someone some bad news should instead be, "Hey, are you standing up?"
But the benefits of getting up and walking go beyond our health. A 2010 study shows that walking three times a week at one's own natural pace for 40 minutes increases brain connectivity and cognitive performance and helps combat the effects of age. And according to Art Kramer, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois who led the study, higher brain connectivity leads to increased executive control, which we use for things like planning ahead. So it's not just the ruminative, creative type of thinking that's enhanced by walking -- it's the focused, get-things-done type, as well.
Even more intriguing is the link between the act of walking and thinking. A study in theEuropean Journal of Developmental Psychology found that cognitive performance was increased when the subject was actually walking. "We conclude that the interaction of walking and cognitive performance is influenced by sharing resources between two tasks," the report states, "and that performance improvements in cognition may be caused by an exercise-induced activation of resources."
Though he didn't have the science to back it up, Henry David Thoreau was onto this truth long before the scientists. "Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow," he wrote. More recently, in Wanderlust, author Rebecca Solnit noted the connection between the act of walking and how we experience the world. "Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world," she wrote, "of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world."
This touches on a concept I became fascinated with during a trip to Japan this past spring. For someone interested in traditions and spiritual practices that intersect with mindfulness, Japan is, of course, an amazing place -- from the elaborate tea ceremonies to the ubiquitous local shrines. But one that I was particularly captivated by was the importance in the Japanese aesthetic of the concept Ma, which can be loosely translated as the essential space or interval between things that exists most fully when it's experienced.
By walking we move through the world not just physically, but also spiritually. Often by "taking a walk" we mean that we're not walking to get anywhere in particular. But even when we are walking toward a destination, when we're walking to connect two places, the in-between -- the space, the interval -- can be more important.
In The Art of Looking Sideways, Alan Fletcher talks about the idea of space as something more than a void:
Space is substance. Cézanne painted and modeled space. Giacometti sculpted by "taking the fat off space." Mallarmé conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lay in pauses... Isaac Stern described music as "that little bit between each note -- silences which give the form."
Walking is how we move through our world; language and writing are how we articulate that experience. "Words inscribe a text in the same way that a walk inscribes space," writes Geoff Nicholson in The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism. "Writing is one way of making the world our own, and... walking is another."
But to fully experience the world around us, we first have to be able to free ourselves from the distractions that are constantly begging for our attention. Even the supremely focused Henry David Thoreau struggled to stay in the moment:
I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is -- I am out of my senses.... What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?
"Shake off the village" -- what a great way of expressing a vitally important human need. Since Thoreau's time, the village has grown exponentially bigger and become more intrusive and seemingly intimate -- giving us the semblance of connection without any of the real benefits of connection. Technology has enabled the village to become exceptionally good at not allowing us to shake it off. With the advent of the smartphone, getting away from it all is no longer as easy as simply getting up and walking away. And, increasingly, people are making the choice not to even try to shake off the village -- surrendering to a life of distractions, with the result that, as Thoreau put it, we are living much of our lives out of our senses.
Wayne Curtis calls them "the digital dead[,] shuffling slowly, their eyes affixed to a small screen in their hands." He cites a University of Washington study that focused on a single intersection in Seattle. The study found that one in three pedestrians were distracted, by either typing or talking on a phone or with earbuds in their ears. And it took those who were distracted almost 20 percent longer to cross the street. Another study found that those texting were 33 percent slower getting to a planned destination.
This slowness and distraction can have detrimental effects. According to an article by Jim Gorzelany, "the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says 1,152 pedestrians were treated in emergency rooms during 2011 after being injured while using a cellphone or some other portable electronic device."
In trying to lessen the hold of technology on our lives, we need all the help we can get. Some among us are able to switch their devices on and off, go cold turkey for periods of time or go on periodic digital diets. For those without that kind of willpower, technology can sometimes be used to help us deal with technology. Curtis writes about an app called Serendipitor, which, the developers explain, "is an alternative navigation app... that helps you find something by looking for something else." It does this by introducing "small slippages and minor displacements within an otherwise optimized and efficient route." Curtis's verdict: "In an obscure kind of way, it actually helps me stop and pay attention."
But even better is leaving all technology behind, forgoing ersatz connection for the real thing. "I suspect the greatest mental benefits of walking are explained not by what it is, but by what it isn't," writes Oliver Burkeman. "When you go outside, you cease what you're doing, and stopping trying to achieve something is often key to achieving it."
When I was living in Los Angeles, many of my best ideas were conceived while hiking. Whenever I could, I would have hiking meetings instead of sit-down meetings. I also had a regular group of friends I hiked with, and our rule was that whoever was in the best shape would do most of the talking on the way up, and the rest would do the talking on the way down. Silicon Valley executive Nilofer Merchant calls this method "walk the talk." Meaning, if you've got to talk to someone in person, why not doing it while walking? "What I love is that you're literally facing your problem or situation together when you walk side by side with someone," she said. "I love that people can't be checking e-mail or Twitter during walking meetings. You're awake to what's happening around you, your senses are heightened and you walk away with something office meetings rarely give you -- a sense of joy."
How many times have you had a sense of joy in a stale conference room while half-listening to an endless PowerPoint presentation? Maybe the connection between our minds and our legs is that one of them is going to wander. Sit still and our minds want to ramble -- get up and start walking and our minds can slow down and be focused.
Perhaps forcing the brain to process a new environment allows it to engage more fully. In Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently, Gregory Berns writes that "new insights come from people and new environments -- any circumstance in which the brain has a hard time predicting what will come next."
So it truly seems like there is no end to the problems that can be solved by walking. It makes us healthier, it makes us fitter, it enhances every kind of cognitive performance, from creativity to planning and scheduling. Best of all, it reconnects us to ourselves. And there is nothing paradoxical about that.
Photo by AlexPears/Flickr

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