Rural Walking Path, Oxford, England, with Ancient Grazing Rights I played basketball for the first time in about 10 years last week. I was really sore the next day, but I had a great time and played better than I thought I would. What I did particularly well was shooting free throws, making about 70% of them. Considering it had been 10 years since I had played, I was happy with that.
Shooting free throws is meditative, as is walking. Yoga and formal meditation classes get all the attention, but any repetitive activity which focuses the mind is meditative. In the Anglo Catholic religious tradition, we use the 1928 Book of Common Prayer which has a communion liturgy with the same prayers repeated in every service, most of which I know easily by heart after 2 years of saying them. This is meditation on spiritual matters. The anxiety, worry, sadness and / or obsession move to the background during the liturgy, and during the basketball game or the walk.
In the Western and Christian tradition, we have not fully understood or utilized the capabilities and resources that our rich heritage and tradition give us to live a healthy life. Neglecting the Sabbath is one perfect example, but that’s a whole different essay. Meditation is unfortunately often seen as an exotic eastern thing. Most Westerners either never do mediation because they think it’s weird or they become overly dogmatic and think you have to become a buddhist or go to yoga classes to meditate. I know yoga very well, and could easily teach yoga, but I don’t particularly enjoy yoga classes and find them too rigid, long, and boring for my tastes. And yes, some of the classes are too cramped and the people really can be weird. I do yoga stretches on my own and with clients, but it’s just not my thing. If you like it, by all means continue to do it, because it’s very good for you.
Walking offers us another method by which to meditate. Instead of “emptying out”, let us meditate on the beauty of the created world as we walk. The ancient Psalms speak of the same thing:
24 This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.
What better mantra or theme could there be to a walk than that? Rejoice. Let’s clear the mind and focus on how great it is to be walking and to be alive. Let us meditate by “filling up” while we get rid of the stress, at least temporarily. The Dali Lama was once asked by a fawning group of American millennials, clueless and self-loathing about their own culture, what spiritual path they should take. His ironic answer- embrace your own Christian traditions. He’s right. Let’s bring back the pilgrimage!
The benefits of meditation are:
- Increase in the hormone GABA, which relaxes the arterial walls and promotes relaxation in general
- Increased ability to focus
- Decrease in anxiety, depression, and obsessive thoughts
- Improved mood
- Improved memory retention
- Conflict Resolution
I’ve written before about how much fun it is to be a “flaneur,” a man on the streets, meaning someone who goes for strolls and enjoys the street life. The unfortunate thing about America is that it’s not built well for this. When I was in England this summer, I took 15-20 mile walks every day in London, Bath, Cambridge, Oxford, and Cornwall, all beautiful, relaxing, and meditative. I hiked some of the ancient pilgrim paths in Cornwall. 15-20 mile walks sound long, but it didn’t seem like it at the time.
As the attached photo from Oxford illustrates, there are scenic rural paths everywhere in England and ample opportunities to walk in cities and see interesting things, especially if you have a raincoat. In America, you might have to be a little more creative because our culture is built around the car. Drive to a park to walk, or walk midday from where you work. Or walk around your neighborhood to eat, and then walk home. Walkability is something I support 100% and many cities are retroactively adding this in now. Greenville, SC, Huntsville, AL, Chattanooga, TN, and even Columbus, GA have been working on walking and outdoor projects. The Belt Line in Atlanta is probably the best thing the city has ever done.
Walking is meditation. It clears your mind. Leave your phone at home and head out. Take a break from the required cynicism and give it a chance. Don’t even create a plan. Just walk and clear your head. Look at all the big oak trees, the flowers, or the clouds. Say hi to people you pass and stop and talk if you want to. No goal, no time limit, no destination. Breathe as you walk and take it all in. Try not to think too much, just enjoy what you’re doing. I like to use a mantra or prayers sometimes when I walk. Or focus on deep breathing and nature.
To truly get a good, intense workout, do some intervals every week, but that’s a different conversation. Walking has a different goal than exercise. Walking is done for enjoyment, for your mental health, and even for your spiritual health. The essence of the spiritual life is the fundamental fact that life is a gift. Being alive is a gift. Get out, walk, and enjoy the gift of life.