Walk. Day 40 of Lent. Be inspired.
Like the Greek philosophers, many writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing.
“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” Henry David Thoreau once wrote in his journal.
What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so inspirational to thinking and writing?
The answer begins with changes to our physical chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps quicker, more blood and oxygen circulate not just to the muscles but to all the organs, including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells.
The way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa or thoughts change the nature of how our bodies move. Sports Psychologists who specialize in exercise music have found what many of us already know: high tempo music motivates us to move faster. But did you know that walking at your own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of your bodies and your mental state that you cannot experience as easily during any other kind of movement.
Walking is defined by an ‘inverted pendulum’ gait in which the body vaults over the stiff limb or limbs with each step of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down. And because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander and to overlay the landscape with images from our mind.
This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight. Stanford published a set of studies that directly measure the way walking changes creativity in the moment. The bottom line is this- walking is a great activity for brainstorming ideas but not so productive for laser-focused thinking.
Where we walk matters as well. A small collection of studies suggests that spending time in green spaces—gardens, parks, forests—can rejuvenate the mental resources that man-made environments deplete. So parks will be more productive to your creativity than city streets. Psychologists tells us that attention is a limited resource. It is continuously drained during the day. A city scape populated with activity volleys our attention around. While walking in a park allows our mind to drift peacefully from sensory experience to another as the landscape changes. If you are overstimulated, go for the serene setting of a nature walk. If you need stimulation, a walk in the city will give you a variety of sensations for your mind to explore.
The reflection found on a walk reveals the relationship of walking, thinking and expressing ourselves. After a brisk walk when I return to my desk I find similar aspects in walking and in writing. When I walk my mind decides the map, my footsteps following the mental path I’ve laid out for the stroll as my body makes that ‘inverted pendulum’ gait. Similarly, writing forces my brain to review its ideas, plot a course of story and transcribe the imaginative thoughts into narrative and descriptive passages through the guiding hand of the strokes on my keyboard.
Of course the delight of a good walk is always the inner conversation you can have with God.
The rambling prayer that skips and lingers, circles back only to look ahead. And somewhere in the walk I usually pause or smile or have that ‘ah-ha’ moment when my spirit and mind bump into the Divine. Glory. Right?
Want to be inspired, go for a walk.