For myself and my fellow high school students, there was something unsettling about Radio Bill. He was odd. A misfit. A person living at the edge of society. He was always alone, never participated in any group activities, was a watcher instead of a joiner, and seemed forever lost in his own radio world. When you’re fifteen, an eccentric like Radio Bill, who’s living on the fringe of “normal”, is not to be trusted.
Now, nearly thirty years later, I’ve become my own version of Radio Bill. I wonder if perhaps he was onto something important. Maybe he had wisdom that none of us in high school could have begun to understand or appreciate.
Like Radio Bill, I walk (or run) all over the neighborhood, almost always with my earbuds in my ears and my iPod on my hip. I walk mostly alone - a watcher, rather than a joiner. I can often be seen with my camera, oblivious to the world while I get lost in the simple beauty of a flower or leaf. I’m sure, to the local high school students, I look a little eccentric watching society from the fringes and not always participating in the things that seem “normal” to them.
Thankfully, in the years between high school and now, I’ve learned to care a lot less about what makes me seem normal. I have also learned that there is great wisdom and strength in being a walker. Radio Bill and Forrest Gump definitely knew something that the rest of us forget as we climb into our cars and rush to our next destination.
Walk to improve your health
The most obvious argument for walking is your health. Walking may not get as much buzz as running or yoga or high-intensity workout programs like “The Shred”, but a regular walking routine helps strengthen your heart, alleviate depression, prevent diabetes, and strengthen your bones. Research shows that postmenopausal women who walk approximately one mile each day have higher whole-body bone density than women who walk shorter distances, and walking is also effective in slowing the rate of bone loss from the legs.
Walking helps your brain too. In a study on walking and cognitive function, researchers found that women who walked the equivalent of an easy pace at least 1.5 hours per week had significantly better cognitive function and less cognitive decline than women who walked less than 40 minutes per week.
Walk to slow your pace
We live in a fast-paced world. In our schedule-oriented lifestyles, the clock is our greatest master. We have deadlines to follow through on, appointments to attend, expectations to meet, meals to cook, classes to attend, kids to chauffeur to soccer games - you name it. Our brains barely know how to slow down because of the high level of demands placed on them.
Walking forces you to slow down to a more human pace. It gives you breathing space between the appointments and deadlines. It provides badly-needed balance for your body and your brain. It takes you away from the over-stimulation of the wired world and gives you stillness and space for reflection and contemplation.
Maintain life at a fast pace without finding any balance, and you’ll soon face burnout. Learn to slow down through walking, and your body and mind will thank you.
Walk to enhance your creativity
“It is on these walks that my best ideas come to me. It is while walking that difficult clarity emerges.” Julia Cameron, Walking in This World.
When we get too busy with “doing” and don’t dedicate enough time to “thinking”, we lose our creative edges. We start pumping out widgets just like everyone else in the assembly line instead of focusing on the next innovative idea that will replace the widget.
Walking is all about creating space for “thinking” that has nothing to do with “doing”. When you walk, your mind has time to meander down different pathways than the ones it normally gets stuck in during more productivity-oriented activities. Your mind doesn’t have to fill itself with concerns about whether the erratic driver next to you is going to cut you off, or where your next turn-off is. All you need to do is put one foot in front of the other and let your mind wander down paths of its own.
There’s a difference between a rut and a groove. A rut is an old pattern, formed from many, many years of doing things the same way again, and again. When we rely on high speed transportation because that’s the acceptable and fast way to get from destination A to destination B, we get stuck in ruts. A groove, on the other hand, offers us flow and opportunity, like the grooves on an old LP. When we get into a groove, magic happens. Walking gets us out of the ruts and into the grooves.
Walk to gain new perspective on your surroundings
“Nothing brings home the beauty and power of the world that we live in like walking.” Julia Cameron, Walking in This World.
There’s nothing like walking down a street you’ve driven down a thousand times to make you realize what you’ve been missing all of these years. Maybe you missed the quaint little coffee shop tucked in behind the hardware store. Maybe you missed the wild crocuses growing at the edge of the vacant lot. Maybe you missed the poster on the community bulletin board advertising an art show you’d love to visit.
Walking offers us opportunities to savour what we otherwise take for granted. It also helps us see the world differently than most other people do (especially those rushing past in cars). Throughout history, people who offered prophetic wisdom that shifted cultures were often pilgrims and wanderers - people walking different paths than the majority of society. Like Radio Bill, they were the watchers rather than the joiners - the witnesses at the edge of the crowd.
Like the simple wisdom that emerged from Forrest Gump (remember “Life is like a box of chocolates”?), walking may open your mind to new nuggets of wisdom and new perspectives that help you influence the world in positive ways.
Walk to engage with the people around you
Although I normally walk alone, I also cherish the many wonderful conversations I’ve had while out for a stroll. When I go on business trips, for example, I always find myself walking through interesting neighborhoods in the cities I visit. Walking affords me the opportunity to connect with the local people in ways that faster forms of transportation do not. While walking, you can stop to chat with the man tending the flowers in front of his house, or the woman hanging a poster in a shop window. You can learn interesting things about people and about the neighborhood that you’d never learn in your car.
Even in your own neighborhood, walking affords you tremendous advantages that you just won’t get in a car. You’ll get to know the neighbors better if you walk past their houses and stop to say hello. You’ll know more about the local businesses and what they’re offering. You’ll understand the challenges your neighbourhood is facing and you’ll see yourself in the picture more.
It’s easy to separate yourself from your community when your regular routine is to hop into your car and leave the neighborhood for work, shopping, entertainment, etc., but when you walk, you build connections that will benefit both you and your neighbors.
Walk to deepen your spirituality
“It is while walking that I experience a sense of well-being and connection, and it is walking that I live most prayerfully.” Julia Cameron, Walking in this World.
In almost every faith tradition, there is some version of a pilgrimage. Most pilgrimages end in some sort of Mecca or sacred place. In Spain, for example, thousands of pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago, an 800 kilometer walk that ends at a cathedral built to honor St. James (of Biblical tradition).
Pilgrimage is seen as a way of getting closer to God. There’s something about the contemplative speed of walking that still attracts many people who feel themselves disconnected from their spiritual centers.
You don’t have to go to a foreign country to go on pilgrimage. You just need to walk in a contemplative, mindful way and open yourself up to the spiritual connection that the walking can offer. It may not meet the definition of a traditional pilgrimage, but a walk through your neighborhood park can do a lot to connect you with nature and with God. In some neighborhoods you can find labyrinths that have been designed specially to help you make your walking more contemplative.
The beauty of walking is that you don’t need any special equipment (just a good pair of walking shoes), you don’t need to take any lessons (you’ve been doing this since you were in diapers), and you don’t need to pay for any club memberships. Just tie up your shoelaces and walk.
You probably won’t walk across the country like Forrest Gump, but you might soon find that you’re healthier, happier, and more connected with your neighbors and your own spiritual center.
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