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I took up walking years ago as an intentional goal when I was stuck in my completely unwalkable upstate New York community and struggling with debilitating chronic pain. At that time, when my children were small and intense and the days felt impossibly long and emotionally charged, I began walking out of the dual desperation of early motherhood and chronic back pain. We walked and looked at red-winged blackbirds swaying on cattails, euphorbia hiding pale green among the field grasses, the goose poop along the driveway. I shifted my feet while watching my toddlers throw pebbles into the tiny stream running through our front field. We couldn’t walk far because our semirural road was busy and had no sidewalk, but even that little bit down the driveway and into the field made a difference. We went back in for lunch or naptime or some silly craft project calmer, gentler, quieter.
Slowly, without realizing it, I was developing a habit of walking meditation. Forced to walk at a toddler’s pace, and before that with the back-bent waddle imposed by a well-fed infant in an Ergobaby carrier, I got very bored walking. The first iPhone was released the year my first child was born, but I wouldn’t own one for several years after that, so I couldn’t escape by listening to a podcast or talking on the phone as I walked. There was truly nothing to do but either let my attention wander off to nowhere or land like a moth on the swamp grasses, the cattails, the strong, hairy vines of the poison ivy that seemed to sucker onto every tree in every forest where we lived. I was bored, I was walking, I was bored, I was walking.
I remember the feel of the air during those now long-ago walks and the sound of the wind through tree branches far better than I remember the feel or sound of more recent walks, when I was listening to an audiobook or had just paused to check a text message or was looking for photo opportunities for instagram. I don’t, though, remember what I was thinking about. Which is the point. Meditation is partly about letting go of your thoughts, or letting go of your attachment to them. Inside, with my first infant, and then a toddler and another newborn, my thoughts sometimes drove me wild. I couldn’t meditate inside, and with my back pain ever-present, I hated to meditate sitting down at all. But at those inching little paces, my mind finally learned to rest.
Mediation is often advised, or even prescribed, as a way for us to reduce stress, to stop feeling overwhelmed in our lives, to build more patience and mindfulness into our parenting, to improve health, to help us form good eating habits and strong relationships. Whether it’s a cure-all or not, meditation has been shown to be beneficial for many aspects of human life.
But most meditation is performed while sitting. And sitting itself is harmful. Not sitting for a few minutes or sitting for the duration of a meal. No, the kind of sitting that damages our health is the kind far too many of us accept as an immutable aspect of our lives. Sitting in a car, often stuck in traffic, to drive to work for an hour, maybe more.
The research on sitting’s damage is extensive. Dr. James Levine, who was the first to say that “sitting is the new smoking,” wrote in Get Up! that “for every hour we sit, two hours of our lives walk away.” His conclusions, and his book, are based on over three decades of researching sitting’s detrimental effects on our health, including circulation, blood pressure, obesity, creativity, clinical depression, stress, and cholesterol levels.
One of Levine’s most thought-provoking findings revolves around an uncomplicated emotion we can all relate to: sadness. Sitting too much, Levine wrote, forces the brain to adapt to lack of movement. It—the brain, or the mind, or simply “you”—becomes sluggish and sad, a fascinating and sobering finding when thinking, also, about the necessity of walking and other vestibular movement to stimulate the brains of infants, toddlers, and older children.
From childhood to adolescence through adulthood and old age, wrote Levine, “movement is not only the essence of life; it is the rhythm that defines our stage of living.” Not just our bodies, but our minds, too, evolved to move. We think with our feet; we solve problems through wandering; we walk to come to terms with our depression and our prayers. We walk to remind ourselves that we are free.
So here was a question I presented to researcher after researcher: If sitting is so damaging for our bodies, how beneficial is it for your average commuting office worker to come home after a long day and sit for another ten to thirty minutes to clear his mind? Consider Dr. Levine’s findings that “the average American sits thirteen hours per day; eighty-six percent of Americans sit all day at work and sixty-eight percent hate it”—and more from Public Health England, which found that sedentary behavior accounts for around 60 percent of British workers’ total waking hours, and 70 percent for those at high risk of chronic disease. How does sitting meditation stack up, mental health–wise, against a walk through a park, or along a tree-lined street, or simply downtown or down the road? Assuming said office worker has access to a walkable space for thirty minutes to an hour, wouldn’t getting off of his butt for that period of time (leaving the cell phone behind, preferably) and taking a mindful, meditative walk be even more beneficial?
It was strange to discover that nobody, that I could find, has done extensive research on this question. Walking is beneficial to us. Exercise is beneficial to us. Meditation is beneficial to us. Sitting is bad for us. But the specific question of “Is mindful walking better for someone who sits all day than sitting meditation?” is one that has so far been answered with “That’s an interesting question.”
It is an interesting question. It seems obvious that sitting meditation would be far better for us than sitting answering mind-numbing emails or making annoying phone calls, but considering the health benefits of bringing walking more fully into our lives, a walking practice like kinhin or a medicine walk akin to those practiced in some Native American cultures might heal and enrich our lives in ways we can’t predict.
Could every walk, every pilgrimage, every mindless turning of the foot in response to grief be a kind of walking meditation? Was that not where the Salish and Kootenai tribes ended up when they walked back to the land their ancestors were forced off of? Or Peace Pilgrim as she walked the world yearning for peace? If we walk every day with intention and presence, even for ten minutes, are we not, in this kind of walking, treading the paths of our hearts and our souls, all the while healing our minds and bodies?
This article has been adapted from Antonia Malchik’s new book, A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time. Copyright © 2019 by Antonia Malchik.