Walking Can Save You

Peace, rhythm, solitude and reflection

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Photo by Mika Matin on Unsplash

When I was in my early 20s, after leaving college and scratching my head about what to do with my life, I took a job in a local government office in the town next to mine. Since I had barely enough money to pay my rent, let alone buy a car, I used to walk to and from the job everyday.

It wasn’t far, but it wasn’t close either. I walked 3 miles each morning and 3 miles back each evening. It took 45 minutes from door to door. Whatever the weather, I walked everyday.

After a few weeks, I started to realise that all this walking was having a powerful effect on me. The path I took began to grow familiar: roads to cross, hills to climb, traffic lights to wait at, landmarks, canal bridges, near the river, pass the school, glimpsing the church spire above the rooftops as I went.

The familiarity of the journey brought with it a new aspect. I noticed how sometimes the cars on the road beside me flowed freely, and how at other times they were clogged up nose to tail. Whereas for me, I just kept going at the same rhythmic pace. Every journey took 45 minutes.

I realised that, with this simple regularity, I could relax and let my thoughts wonder. This long daily walk became a type of meditation. I had no idea what an extraordinary liberation this could be until I experienced it.

Later, as my earnings rose (very gradually) and I became more settled, I bought myself a bicycle. That was as much as I could afford at the time. The new mode of transport cut the journey time down to 10 minutes, with an extra 5 minutes at either end for the messing around with locks and chains.

It didn’t take me long to decide that the bike was no improvement. I was now cycling with the traffic and subject its fretful stops and starts. I had to concentrate fiercely. I had to fight for my place. I had to defend my safety.

A few weeks later I left the bike at home and returned to my old method of walking. It was like meeting an old friend again.

Over the next few years, I learnt so much about myself as a walked. I went from someone with little clue about the future to someone who knew what he wanted from life.

Footsteps have a rhythm and a balance. Like a metronome, they keep time for you. Upon this regular pattern of beats, your mind can go freely exploring like a melody.

For me it takes around 20 minutes for the rust and debris to slip from my mind, and then the air seems to reach the dusty corners and new thoughts emerge.

Green shoots grow. Oxygen moves around freely.

I’ve found that walking helps develop an inner tenderness, towards yourself and towards the world around you. You refrain from making judgements too quickly, because when you are walking you have time to change your mind.

This is the greatest freedom available: to be able to think without pressure. Walking provides a space for speculation, to experiment with thought and, most importantly, to not know the outcome of that experiment.

I’ve always been happy with my own company, and walking confirms the idea. Solitude unties you from the distraction of other peoples’ judgements. When we learn to think for ourselves, we feel our emotions with new clarity. If I need to make a decision in my life, I will always wait until I can go out walking before I make it.

I’ve never lost my preference for walking. If I’m out with friends at night and someone offers to drop me home, I nearly always turn them down. If I need to get to my local train station or to the shops, I would much rather walk.

There’s a beautiful lyric by the singer Tom Waits that goes “I always take the long way home.”

That’s how I think about walking. I always take the long walk home.

So if you need time to think, space to breathe, room to save yourself, try going for a walk.

That’s what I do. I always take the long walk home.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings” https://books2read.com/u/bw7vNY

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