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An Antidote to Mindfulness

Open-minded Walking

At a recent spirit workshop people were talking about not having time to meditate which got me thinking about walking, which I consider to be my meditation practice. I'm fairly sure the theorists and purists would disagree. That's ok. I don't need their permission.

Neither do you.

There are two types of meditative walking. The first of them is the one you would expect: mindful walking. If the 1970s were all Zen, then the 20teens are totally mindful. Mindful is the new Zen. In fact, it probably isn't. It's probably the old one re-packaged and as a fad it will, sadly, last just as long in the mainstream. The good news is that some folk will pick it up and work with it and their part of the world will become a better place. Anything can be done mindfully, including walking. Some other time I will explore that in depth: the how and why and what it feels like.

Not today.

Today I'm more interested in something that is…well, not exactly the opposite of mindful walking, more perhaps its complement or its antidote. Calling it Mindless Walking conjures up the wrong idea entirely. Mind-free Walking comes closer, but is clumsy to say, so let's just call it Open-Minded Walking.

So, what is it? And how do you do it? And why might you want to?

Much as I would love to blind you with science about what you need to do and how, and what the physical, mental and spiritual benefits are, I can't. The latter half of that you will work out for yourself, by doing it. If you're not inclined to give it ago, they won't matter. The first bit is no more complicated than dressing for the weather, pulling on footwear you can walk reasonable distances in, stuffing whatever you think you might need in a backpack and heading out the door.

Thereafter, basically, just keep putting one foot in front of the other and looking around you as you do so.

You mean, just go for a walk?

Yep. That simple. The only rule is: put the brain in neutral as you set out…then let it do whatever it wants while you walk.

There are no targets to be met, no number of steps or mileage to be counted (unless you need this to get you through the door, in which case count them afterwards), no hills to be climbed (unless there are hills, in which case climb them – or be a child and run down them).

You can take all day or just squeeze in half-an-hour on the way to work.

Do it often and you will find a time or a distance that works best for you, a point on a walk at which you suddenly notice no matter how you felt as you set out, you have hit your stride, you're walking to your own natural rhythm and maybe you're not sure what you've been thinking about for the last little while. For me, it's about the two to three mile mark that I really settle into it. Even so, if fifteen minutes is all I have, a walk round the block still lets me go look at the sky, at the trees, pictures in puddles, other people's gardens; it lets me feel the weather and note that I am connected to the planet.

The 'brain in neutral' is the bit that separates this exercise from mindful walking. If you wish to be mindful then focus on the walking, how you feel, the connection of your feet to the earth. Your mind will drift – because it always does – and you will bring it back to focus. This is more akin to true meditation.

In open-minded walking: don't do that. Set out with an intention to enjoy your walk and (consciously if necessary) switch the brain to neutral as you set out. Then let your mind do whatever it wants!

Do not, even gently, guide your thoughts. Let them have their sway. If you spend the whole walk in work-worry, who knows you might have a solution by the time you get back to the desk or you may have clarified that there really is absolutely nothing you can do about the situation, so it can be put to one side while you get on with other stuff. If you do neither you will at least have 'tired the inner child' a little and the anger will have subsided and the picture will be a mite clearer.

I have walks like that. The normal "set to neutral" trigger of pulling on trainers or boots provokes an error code, and I'll spend miles snowballing rubbish. At least I'm getting some fresh air and some exercise. And no-one else is having to listen to my rant.

I have other walks where 'neutral' really means 'disengaged' and I come home or arrive at my destination unaware of a single thought along the way. Nothing of consequence? Or all just squirrelled away in the creative subconscious for future use? I don’t know.

Mostly though, I look for beauty, I conjure poetry, I capture moments. Open the mind, follow where it leads, allow thoughts the free rein they seldom get in our busy-busy world. Indulge in remembering or creating. Memories, hopes, stories, regrets, philosophies, musing. Snippets of something and nothing.

In the Regent's Park I loved the oriental garden in its Autumn dress.

Regents Park

But later the same day, walking by the Serpentine, among the swans and geese and gulls, I suddenly 'heard' my Dad reciting one of his party pieces:

The grass is green, the sun is riz, I wonder where dem boidies is
The say the boid is on the wing, but that's absoid

The wing is on the boid

A traditional American rhyme that surfaces in various forms…no-one knows who wrote the original…and who cares? makes me smile.

It might have been my Mam who taught me to master the mechanics of walking, but it was Dad who taught me to walk. He took me into the hills, taught me to get lost and not worry about it, taught me to look at the broad views and the tiny details, to stare at the clouds and ponder the rocks and the streams. To weave stories and learn histories.

He also taught me to walk in the built up places: to look for landmarks, to feel the past, the locality, the people…the myths and legends and the possible futures.

You don't need to be in beautiful places to go for an open-minded walk. Wherever you walk you will find beauty, if you look. Look around. Look up.

I love the idea of 'looking for beauty' and apologise to my teacher because I can't remember where I first came across the idea.

If you really struggle with the idea of just letting the mind think whatever it wants – if you have something that you feel you will be better not thinking about for a while - and I'm a fervent believer that we wouldn't have evolved the capacity for denial if it wasn't sometimes useful – then looking for beauty is a good way to use an open-minded walk. Just ensure you have no preconception of what beauty might look like. I didn't expect to find a Buddha statute built into a house-wall in one of the more industrial areas of town…or a heron in a city park…or be taken by the way a building crane looked in a melted reflection. It might be oil on water refracting light, the silence of a cloister, or the bustle of a market.

Reflected crane

Seek and you shall find.

Carry a camera. And I mean a camera. Not a phone. If you must have your phone with you, stuff it in the bag so it's a hassle to get to if it rings. You know they'll leave a message or call back if it's urgent. A camera in your hand, or in your pocket, is a prompt…to look…look closely, look widely, look differently.

And some days…will go unsnapped…and that too is ok.

At the end of the day, or indeed at the beginning of it, it is just a walk, a chance to think or not think, and every day is all the better for doing it.

© Lesley Mason


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