On Walking

My best thinking comes 45 minutes into a brisk walk. The briskness is key because walking briskly allows you to get into a sort of rhythm, and the rhythm then, after about 45 minutes, turns into meditation, i.e. a clear head, devoid of thoughts, focused on the present, and from this focus burst thoughts gurgling up deep from your subconscious, possibly startling thoughts, but usually insightful. Actually, always insightful.

The problem, of course, is getting to the 45 minute mark, since the first 45 minutes are ass boring. Take this morning, for example. This morning I woke at about 6:30am but thought it was much earlier because the light wasn’t that strong, it was more like a 5:30am light, and I certainly felt like it was 5:30am, my body had that kind of stiff forlornness that comes with waking early, confused, to pee, and after getting some water and pacing around the apartment for a bit I decided trying to go back to bed would be futile and the best course of actions was a walk. I should also mention that I was fasting. I hadn’t eaten anything in over 30 hours but actually didn’t feel as desperate for food as I’ve felt in similar fasts. It might’ve been the mate. This wasn’t a true water fast. In a true water fast you only drink water, and in this fast I allowed myself to drink tea, specifically mate. If you’re not familiar, yerba mate is a tea drunk in the Southern Cone region of South America, especially Argentina and Uruguay. It’s in the same family as the holly plant, with more caffeine than black or green tea. It’s also, I think, an appetite suppressant, which would make sense given my relative lack of hunger as I contemplated taking this walk.

The good thing about fasting is I was less focused on achieving the state of meditation than on just getting around the lake. So I took a more direct route. I walked up 65th street, past H’s house, all the way to the lake, and then joined the crowd — which this morning was relatively thin — on their orbit of this small body of water in north Seattle. I don’t usually like walking around Greenlake because there are too many people. With too many people I don’t feel special, and I don’t feel like I’m in nature. That’s why I usually opt for Ravenna Park, which is shorter and not a loop but when I’m in Ravenna I feel like I’m in the middle of the woods, whereas at Greenlake I usually have to listen to two early 40’s mothers pushing strollers talking about early 40’s mothers stuff, which is fine but makes me want to pour cement in my boots and sink to the bottom of the lake. What do they talk about, anyway? Early child development. Teething. Biting. Things like that. The other day I walked around the lake with an old high school friend, and his wife, and their new baby, and their dog, and it was fine — it was great! — except to be perfectly honest I didn’t care about their baby, maybe 3% of me cared about their baby, enough to look at it and think, “there, sitting in that stroller, is a small human”, but beyond that all I wanted to do was walk and catch up with my friend, which didn’t happen.

About a quarter of the way into the walk running seemed propitious. One, because I felt like I had some nervous energy to burn, and two because it would help me get around the lake faster. Did I think about it impeding my possibly oncoming meditation? Of course I did. But I also figured I wouldn’t run for that long since one of my defining characteristics is sloth, so soon I’d be walking again, there were still a couple miles to walk at this point, and I’d still have time to enter the trance. I also wanted to sprint, since I think sprinting is one of the best things a human can do. At least a human male. It imitates things like hunting and running from big animals, mostly hunting, and helps us tap into our primordial selves, our primitive selves. I think it raises testosterone. And now that I’m 34, testosterone is something I actually think about, to the extent that I’ve purchased Brazil nuts for their supposed testosterone-boosting effects. I don’t know if they work. My sex drive doesn’t seem higher. What really worried me the other day was when I took a shower and my hips seemed bigger, they seemed wider, which caused a small freakout — are my hips actually wider, I thought, am I a woman? — but I soon calmed down and realized I was (probably) being ridiculous, though since I broke my wrist at least part of my upper body has withered, which means my hips could legitimately look bigger.

Anyway, I ran, or rather jogged, but not for long. I sprinted, too, for a short stretch, and it was the good kind of sprinting, where you’re going full out, feeling a bit like you might take off at any moment. At this point I was about half way around the lake, and it was about this point I went into the sort of trance, or meditation, or whatever you want to call it. It’s not a tremendously altered state. I was clear-headed — in that that’s pretty much the defining characteristic — but if before my mind was a moped engine, spluttering, half flooded, spark plugs covered in goo, now it was a Maserati, deep and throaty and smooth, sounding like an F-16. I was still noticing things going on around me, the ducks floating by, a dog who looked decrepit, a man wearing some kind of traditional robe and practicing tai chi. It’s just that I wasn’t so lost in my thoughts as before. The worry and anxiety had drifted away. The sound of my footsteps, the feeling of my footsteps, had calmed. That was all I was thinking about — putting one foot in front of the other, but I wasn’t thinking about it so much as noticing it, noticing the rhythm.

In 2014 I walked the Camino de Santiago. Traditionally, this is a 500-mile route from the border between Spain and France to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. Some do less. To say you’ve done a camino you only have to do 100km, which for anyone in decent shape is paltry, especially since you can take all the time in the world to do it. My camino took 33 days. Two of those days were rest days. The rest of the days I’d generally get up around 8am, work for an hour, walk for six hours, find lodging, work for another two hours, get dinner, watch TV, and go to bed. Repeat for a month. Not that hard. Except I got shin splints about a week in and also had hip problems and arch problems and to combat the arch problems walked 200km in flip flops, though since it was winter and rainy my feet started to get raw and have open wounds from the straps. But I finished the Camino de Santiago. There was a time on the first day (and the first day was the most significant of them all) where I came into San Sebastian, a city in northern Spain where I would later live for two months, sharing an apartment with a girl named Cristina from Barcelona with whom I’d sit in the living room and roll cigarettes and talk and who I think liked me at one point but then one day all of the sudden seemed to hate me, I still have no idea why, and also a girl named Elise from Ethiopia/Italy/London who had a coke-addled boyfriend who spoke zero Spanish, and walking into the city that first time on the Camino I first walked by a beach called Gros where I would later live, and there were surfers getting out the water, olive-skinned girls in three millimeter wetsuits with hair flowing behind them, and after Gros I traversed downtown, not knowing where I was staying, just content to walk, and then I got to La Concha, San Sebastian’s main promenade and probably one of the most famous in Europe. For my money, San Sebastian is the most beautiful city in Europe, and La Concha is one of the main reasons why. It’s a half moon promenade about a mile long and elevated 20 feet from the beach. When you stand there, looking out over the bay, you see light dancing on waves that are turquoise in color, and then the island in the middle of the bay that has some kind of castle on it, and then beyond that the Bay of Biscay and all that that promises, all that the endless stretch of ocean promises. It’s impossible to stand there and not be filled with wonder, especially on an unseasonably warm evening in November when the sun is setting and the last light is filtering through the trees and families are strolling about, old people with their hands behinds their back which is apparently the only way to walk if you’re over a certain age and European. I could learn a lot from the way old people walk. They’re in no hurry. I like walking fast but the true liberation comes from sauntering, strolling, enjoying every moment mindfully and not just thinking about putting each foot in front of the other but rather hearing the sounds, smelling the smells, noticing things like a leaf quivering in the breeze or the caw of a crow, absorbing the din of the voices around you, the excited cries of children.

When I was rounding the head of La Concha, actually when I was on the homestretch walking through some low-lying Mediterranean trees and the light was golden and still filtering through, I thought, “Everything is perfect right now,” and also, “I must finish this walk. If I don’t finish I’ll never do anything. If I do finish I can do everything.”

I did finish the walk. I got bedbugs that night at the hostelling international hostel and two days later my arm swelled to the size of a golfball because of the itching. But I finished.

This morning at Greenlake was a far cry from the Camino de Santiago. First of all, the attitude was different. There are less people strolling and more people just trying to get it done. The loop around the lake is a means to an end, and the end is having worked out and also being able to say they worked out. They get satisfaction from this exercise, but they don’t really know why and they also don’t realize there’s another form of satisfaction to be gained by slowing down.

Not that I’m one to talk. When I rounded the half way point and began to go into my trance I was steaming like a locomotive, passing groups, looking straight ahead, my heart rate rapid but smooth. And then my thoughts started to get clearer, or rather I stopped thinking so much. It was a little like playing a sport where you lose yourself in the game, are completely present, but with more time for reflection. Except I wasn’t really reflecting, this is the great contradiction. Unimportant thoughts begin to disappear and the truly important ones bubble to the surface like a dead deer that’s been at the bottom of the lake but somehow becomes liberated by a chain reaction involving its decomposition and floats to the surface. Though that’s probably not the best analogy. A better analogy would be a bubble that’s been clinging to a frond of seaweed at the bottom in brilliantly clear and cold waters. A whale swims by and the current caused by its tail causes the seaweed to tremble and the bubble breaks free from the micro follicles on the seaweed that were holding it, via surface tension, and begins its slow, inexorable rise to the surface. A happy rise. A bubble that knows its going to get to the surface and is in no hurry, just enjoying the ride, looking around, anticipating the moment where it will no longer be a bubble, it will pop and just be part of the air.

This was how thoughts came to me. I thought about my financial situation, which is less than ideal, but I didn’t worry about it. I thought about how clear my head felt from fasting. I thought about how I hadn’t shit in awhile. I thought about how I wasn’t mad at people because I was happy with myself, happy with my willpower, and when you’re happy with yourself it’s hard to be mad at other people.

This state probably lasted for about 20 minutes. It’s a bit like hypnosis. If you fight it or think about it too much it won’t happen. And it only happens when you’re not thinking about it. You’re walking and walking and the next thing you know 10 minutes have passed where you’ve been in this state but didn’t even realize it. Some would probably call this “flow.” Some would probably call it a form of meditation. And I’m talking it up here, making it sound like some transcendental experience, which mabe it would be if you were to fast for a week before doing it or walk 100 miles without stopping, I don’t know what kind of meditation would happen then, or what kind of shin splints, but the significance of this experience, the power, lies in the subtlety. The tranquility. Having a tranquil mind is like those first few seconds after you wake up and before you start worrying. Because we humans love to worry. If we’re not worried we don’t know what to do with ourselves. There has to be a problem to solve, a goal to reach. But it is precisely at the moment when you stop thinking about the goal that real progress is made. A walk in which you only thought about the destination, about getting there, would be ruined. “Stop thinking, and end your problems,” Lao Tsu said. What does this mean? Does this mean you should drink yourself into a coma? Maybe. But more probably it means that you don’t have to participate in the cyclical system of thought that most people participate in, myself included. This idea of, “When this happens, I’ll be happy.” When I become a writer, I’ll be happy. When I have a girlfriend, I’ll be happy. When I get something published in print, I’ll be happy. When I have more friends, I’ll be happy. When I have financial security, I’ll be happy. I have news for you (aka“me”). If you can’t be happy in this moment right now, you never will be. You will get to your deathbed and look back with regrets not about what you did or didn’t do, but about the thoughts you had, the things you worried about.

Doing more will not make you happier. Having more money will not make you happier. Having more things will not make you happier. You do not understand this. I do not understand this. As we speak you are in the process of disregarding, in the event you haven’t already, the first three sentences of this paragraph. You are thinking, These are just platitudes, and Yeah, but what does that really mean? And, People say that all the time, and I’m sick of it. And, I wonder if I’m going it have pizza later.

But anyway.

After about 10 minutes in this state I began thinking again. This more or less coincided with arriving at the Starbucks that’s at the east end of the lake, signifying the edge of the park. The last stretch of the walk didn’t really feel like a “walk,” so much as “walking home.” And that’s fine. The purpose had already been achieved. I took a shower, prepared some mate, and then got ready to do something productive, not really noticing that the most productive thing had just taken place. It had just taken place and I hadn’t even noticed, so caught up was I in the, “What’s next?” And I think in the end that’s one of the reasons I walk, not because it helps me answer that question, but because it helps me realize that that question is meaningless.