Thoreau on Escaping Busyness through the Art of Walking

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

Are you trapped by busyness?  Finding and protecting the time to do the work that is meaningful and important to you requires that you slow down, remember your goals, and develop focus.  I’ve found that my ability to complete meaningful work is inversely proportional to how “busy” I am.  Accomplishing deep and satisfying work is the product of rejecting perpetual distraction, unending demands, and our modern culture of 24-hour responsiveness.

Science tells us today that even short lunchtime walks can help you cope at work, improve your concentration, heal your brain by soothing your mental state, enhances your creativity, and can treat depression. Although he did not have access to brain-scanning technology, Henry David Thoreau nonetheless presciently anticipated this present conflict in his essay “Walking,” in which he discusses the art, requirements, and benefits of learning to detach from daily distraction and find new and clear perspective in the outdoor world.  An outgrowth of journal entries from 1851, the essay argues that man finds “absolute freedom and wildness” in the natural world.

Thoreau argues that the benefits of walking in nature are found in understanding the art of sauntering, which we have in large part lost today:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

Thoreau’s requirements are large: “four hours a day at least…sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”  To prepare one’s self, Thoreau announces a bold and demanding set of spiritual requirements needed  for a proper walk:

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk. […]

No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession.

Setting aside four hours a day for a daily trek is an impossible goal for most of us these days.  It probably was an impossible goal for most of Thoreau’s neighbors as well.  Nonetheless, Thoreau’s short essay is a beautiful exposition on the value and purpose of walking and exploring, regardless of physical distance.  In leaving the daily mundane chores and obligations behind, we have the opportunity to find a direct connection to an improvement in health, spirit, and mental focus.

When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shop-keepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them — as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon — I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

While the physical benefits of walking are easily appreciated, the deeper benefits lie in the opportunity walking presents to develop mindfulness,  “a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant.”  Thoreau understands this point well, and turns his attention to the goal of mindfulness and the manner in which giving our full focus to the task at hand is essential:

Of course, it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. 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. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder, when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works — for this may sometimes happen.

Thoreau describes here the instant of realization that we all have experienced, when we suddenly snap to attention after having been lost in thought, only to realize that we are occupied and engaged in some different task.  It is this mental drifting, this capture in the cacophony of our minds, for which Thoreau prescribes walking as the antidote.  For walking, in our great spaces, is the way to recapture Wildness.

The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. […]

Life consists with Wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness, and surrounded by the raw material of life. He would be climbing over the prostrate stems of primitive forest trees.

And what do we find in Wildness?  New perspective.  New ideas.  Escape from the same paths of learning and thinking and doing that limit creativity and expansion and prosperity.  It is new ideas that and new thinking that excite us and attract us:

In Literature, it is only the wild that attracts us. Dullness is but another name for tameness. It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the Schools, that delights us. As the wild duck is more swift and beautiful than the tame, so is the wild-the mallard-thought, which, ‘mid falling dews wings its way above the fens. A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wild flower discovered on the prairies of the west, or in the jungles of the east.

When the afternoon energy low hits you tomorrow, and you find yourself checking your watch every ten minutes, take a walk.  If you have a list of phone calls and voicemails to return, take your cell phone and return the calls while you walk.  If you plan on an afternoon coffee break, walk to a different coffee shop a few blocks away, rather than simply visit the break room down the hall.  While I don’t accomplish it every day, my goal on most days in the office is to do my deep thinking and creative work in the mornings, and make phone calls in the afternoon, preferably while walking.  It revives me, clears my head, and lets me refocus on the task at hand mindfully.

Who knows?  While you probably won’t find Thoreau’s Wildness every day on every walk, you just might have spark the crash of creativity and new perspective of brilliance that Thoreau felt was lurking in the Wild:

Genius is a light which makes the darkness visible, like the lightning’s flash, which perchance shatters the temple of knowledge itself-and not a taper lighted at the hearth-stone of the race which pales before the light of common day.

photo:  Patorjk via Wikimedia Commons