When most normal activities were put on hold due to lockdowns in countless places across the world, the act of walking began to play a more central role in many of our lives. It was, at one stage of the pandemic, our only legitimate reason to be outside, permitted under the banner of exercise. Yet these keep-fit-ventures gave us more than that. Walking became the last remaining component of our previously-held freedoms, and with the constant threat of the virus hanging over us, the act of going for a walk turned out to be crucial for our well-being, not only for the physical movement it provided, but also as a point of reflection and contemplation. Pandemic walking, in essence, became a daily mini-pilgrimage.
We are all pilgrims now
A pilgrimage can be defined as a journey towards a shrine or holy place, or one that is done for sentimental reasons. These are often long and arduous, requiring mental and physical commitment as well as time. For those on religious pilgrimages, such as the Pilgrim’s Way from Winchester to the shrine of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury, or the highly popular Camino de Santiago – the route to Santiago De Compostela from Northern France – pilgrims walk to affirm their piety and/or as an atonement for their sins. But in recent times there’s been a huge increase in secular pilgrims on holy routes, pilgrims with their own individual reasons for taking part, be it for the physical challenge or something more profound. Either way, secular or religious, the act of going on a pilgrimage often leaves the participant with a heightened state of awareness, both of their surroundings and their inner-feelings.
This type of walking-mindfulness is something we’ve inadvertently practised as part of our daily exercise, forced upon us in a way. The overwhelming seriousness of the pandemic situation squeezed out of us deeper thought patterns and emotions which often surfaced as a result of our saunters.
But for centuries pilgrims and travel writers have used walking as a method of gaining awareness of their environment and have benefitted accordingly. As we enter the last throes of the pandemic and countries around the world step up vaccine efforts, these travellers of the past can provide us with reasons as to why we should all carry on participating in pilgrimages, long or short, as a way to enhance our lives.
Xuanzang – Knowledge gained from walking
Let’s start with the long. In 7th Century China, a monk and scholar named Xuanzang left for India along the Silk Route on a pilgrimage in search of knowledge. His mission: to collect foreign Buddhist texts in order to correct bad or incomplete Chinese translations. He left without permission (India must have been on China’s red list). On the way he learnt languages, lived with royalty and visited holy sites, as well as picking up his desired transcripts.
He returned to China no less than 16 years later as a hero, having walked 10,000 miles and holding in his possession 657 texts brought back on 20 pack animals. Knowledge, Xuanzang shows us in a literal sense, can be gained from walking. For most of us our walks are considerably shorter and we carry less books, but we can nonetheless learn from those we interact with along the way, or simply from our observations of others, or of nature, which the following travellers will attest to.
Basho – Nature’s escape
While Xuanzang collected reams of information, a century later Matsuo Basho, the Japanese haiku poet, sought on his travels to do the opposite. Before leaving on a pilgrimage, he cast off his major belongings and when walking on his journey made sure to travel light. The only possession left to get rid of was his self, with the aim to discover his true being. He did this by becoming absorbed by nature. He reflects on this in the following haiku:
Basho’s approach helps us on two levels. Firstly, to use the pandemic as an example, many of us have walked through green spaces, woods, coastlines and so on, observing nature along the way. Watching birds interact with each other, bees buzzing around, the movement of water, we’re witnessing a part of our world oblivious to the human virus rampaging through it. In that moment of observation, nature has helped free us from the pain of the pandemic, or indeed any human worry or concern.
Secondly, Basho shows that our walks allow us, for the time in which they last, to be physically free of material things for the duration. We are, albeit temporarily, separated from our worldly possessions. This freedom from things goes some way into helping free the mind, clearing the path perhaps for thought-provoking revelations.
Nietzsche – Great thoughts and solutions
The benefits gained from walking aren’t shared by everyone, however. The 19th Century French novelist Gustav Flaubert was a sedentary figure and accepted that, ‘we can only think and write while sitting.’ The philosopher Freidrich Wilhelm Nietzsche had a different opinion. Nietzsche, due to ill health, had left his professorship at the University of Basel in 1879 to live a vagrant lifestyle travelling across Europe. It was only then that he devoted himself to writing as well as recuperation. In his work Twilight of the Idols he opposed Flaubert with his now-famous quote, ‘All truly great thoughts are conceived from walking.’
Modern science would agree. Neuroscientist Shane O’Mara, author of In Praise of Walking, says of a stroll that, ‘there are all sorts of rhythms happening in the brain as a result of engaging in that kind of activity, and they’re absent when you’re sitting.’ When we get up and walk our senses our sharpened.
Our fine-tuned senses can enable our brain to solve pre-existing problems, the answers to which lie beneath our conscious and are set free in our ambulatory state. 19th Century Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton would start out on a walk with a particular issue in mind and proceed to solve it by the time of his return. On one such walk along the Dublin canal, (now known as the Hamilton pilgrimage) he came up with a formula for the quaternion number which later aided the invention of an array of technologies, including the cell phone.
We may have come up with our own formulas, haiku poems or quotes pertaining to the philosophy of life on our walks, or we may have resolved issues of a more personal concern. Whatever the outcome, walking provides us with an ability to think clearly, something of value going forward.
Thoreau – The local pilgrim
What’s important to remind ourselves of at this stage, is that these imaginative feats can be achieved on a short ramble. What makes a walk a mini-pilgrimage are the thoughts, observations, learnings and reflections that come with it, we don’t need to travel for 16 years or 10,000 miles to achieve this.
And it also doesn’t matter that we stay in the same locality. In much the same way as you can’t step into the same river twice, as Greek philosopher Heraclitus reminds us, neither can you step onto the same path. Consider your favourite local walking route and how your perceptions of it are altered each time you take that course; seasons transform the landscape, animals leave their footprints where before there were none, and also your mind follows a different pattern. You therefore notice different things on the walk, both in your external environment and in your inner being.
As an itinerant traveller, appreciating the local area is something I’ve had to grow accustomed to, which I explain in my previous post, ‘How I cope with travel restrictions.’ And I was partly inspired by Henry David Thoreau, a naturalist and writer whose most famous work is Walden, or Life in the Woods. He spent much of his time walking in nature not far from his home in Concord, Massachusetts, and he said of it:
In other words, you can discover as much from a local saunter as you can in a lifetime of exploration. It’s for these reasons we should continue to appreciate walking in close proximity to our home, even when we have the ability to travel far and wide.
Baudelaire – Flaneuring
The city also provides us with inspiration. Charles Baudelaire, a contemporary of Thoreau’s, was a 19th Century French poet and flaneur; an aimless stroller or ambler. He not only observed people in their urban surroundings but, in order to get to know them better, empathised with them, imagined what it would be like to live that person’s life. He was building narratives around what or whom he observed and by doing so built a connection with those around him, wherever he might’ve been: ‘to be away from home and yet to feel everywhere at home’. A sense of community. Something that was sorely missed during the pandemic.
Here he’s doing with people what Basho did with nature; absorbing himself into the environment. By building an awareness of our surroundings we become part of it, and this brings us all closer together and similarly closer to nature, an inseparable tie that we have nonetheless loosened over centuries of civilisation. And perhaps post-pandemic, we will continue to rediscover these connections.
Chatwin – connecting with our origins
This assimilation into our environment was observed by Bruce Chatwin in his book Songlines, set primarily in Outback Australia. The indigenous Aboriginal people of Australia are one of the oldest living cultures, and their lives are culturally dominated by nature. In the Aboriginal Dreamtime, the land was sung into existence, creating a bond between creator and earth and from this comes the Songlines, tracks which mark the route followed by the creator-beings. Those who know the song can navigate the land and follow the path, or the footprints, of their ancestors. While this is hard to understand for many outside of their culture, what it highlights is the interconnectedness between the wanderer and the land, dating back to its earliest origins.
We can’t forget that we were once a migratory species. Our recent enforced enclosure in our homes was at odds with our nature, which meant our primal yearning for movement seeped out in the form of our localised walks. Walking has allowed us not just to help cope with the pandemic, but has brought us, in a sense, closer to our nomadic origins.
Staying on this line of thinking, the following passage from Chatwin in the second half of his book may also be relevant:
While our walks have helped us to survive the pandemic, mentally and physically, the benefits it has provided us with extend way beyond the easing of restrictions. Could we, now with a better understanding and awareness of ourselves and our surroundings, return to normality (or some semblance of it) as kinder people, respectful of both the environment and each other? If the answer is yes, then we have good reason to continue on our pilgrimages, local or otherwise.