I recently returned from backpacking across France with a couple friends, having never visited France before. Every city we visited – Paris, Lyon, Aix en Provence, and Nice – had its own unique charm, but I leave Paris, despite having spent three times more days there than the other cities, feeling like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Rebecca Solnut captures its charm perfectly in Wanderlust: A History of Walking:
Parisians inhabit their public gardens and streets as though they were salons and corridors, and their cafés face the street and overflow into it as though the theater of passersby were too interesting to neglect even for the duration of a drink. Nude bronze and marble women are everywhere out of doors, standing on pedestals and springing from walls as though the city were both museum and boudoir, while victory arches and pillars punctuate the avenues like the yonis and lingams of a militant sexuality. Streets turn into courtyards, the largest buildings wrap around other courtyards that are actually parks, the national buildings are as long as avenues, and avenues are lined with trees and chairs just like the parks. Everything—houses, churches, bridges, walls—is the same sandy gray so that the city seems like a single construction of inconceivable complexity, a sort of coral reef of high culture. All this makes Paris seem porous, as though private thought and public acts were not so separate here as elsewhere, with walkers flowing in and out of reveries and revolutions… walking Paris is often described as reading, as though the city itself were a huge anthology of tales.
It makes perfect sense why the Flâneur was born out of Paris. There’s something particularly irresistible about wandering aimlessly throughout the city. It is a beautiful and large city which still feels human in scale, a rarity in the modern age where cities and suburbs are built around cars.
In a sense the car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.Rebecca Solnut, Wanderlust
Also the city which gave birth to the realtime ridesharing app industry (Uber, Lyft, etc.), so that we don’t have to walk or run. I love using Lyft, but grow increasingly aware of how it can contribute to the “suburbanization of the American mind,” which has, as Solnut writes over 17 years ago:
made walking increasingly rare even when it is effective. Walking is no longer, so to speak, how many people think. Even in San Francisco, very much a “walking city” by Jackson’s3 criteria, people have brought this suburbanized consciousness to their local travel, or so my observations seem to indicate. I routinely see people drive and take the bus remarkably short distances, often distances that could be covered more quickly by foot. During one of my city’s public transit crises, a commuter declared he could walk downtown in the time it took the streetcar, as though walking was some kind of damning comparison—but he had apparently been traveling from a destination so near downtown he could’ve walked every day in less than half an hour…
Why do some consider walking a damning comparison? Why the resistance to walking?
I think most people are aware walking is really good for them; you can find dozens of studies citing numerous mental and physical benefits. Improved mood, balance, coordination, blood circulation, immune function, sleep; longer life span; strengthened bones, muscles; promotes new connections between brain cells; stimulates growth of new neurons; eases joint pain; counteracts the effects of weight-promoting genes; curbs sweet tooth; reduces, prevents or manages various conditions, including Alzheimers, dementia, breast cancer, osteoporosis, mental decline, memory loss, disability, and osteoarthritis.4
No, it’s not for a lack of health benefits that people have a resistance to walking. It’s because walking makes people uncomfortable. I see three main reasons – anticipatory thoughts of the future and non-acceptance of the present imparts a certain internal tension felt in the body; physical pain may arise, particularly in the back, knees, or feet, due to injuries, improper footwear, or a lack of conditioning; or people are disembodied to the degree that they simply lost pleasure in the act, that the body:
has begun to atrophy as […] a sensory organism. In the century and a half since the railroad seemed to go too fast to be interesting, perceptions and expectations have sped up, so that many now identify with the speed of the machine and look with frustration or alienation at the speed and ability of the body. The world is no longer on the scale of our bodies, but on that of our machines, and many need—or think they need—the machines to navigate that space quickly enough.
Unsurprisingly, with San Francisco being the tech capital of the world, I see, on a daily basis, people commuting in the streets downtown with the next wave of prosthetics: electronic “self-balancing scooters” – a.k.a. electronic unicycles and hoverboards. Sure enough, a local news station reported on it 3 years ago, when the prosthetics were first emerging onto the scene.
These prosthetics are a perfect step in our evolution to becoming completely disembodied, to a time when automation and virtual reality makes it unnecessary to move at all. Look at how the Segway Ninebot One S1 is marketed:5
The users look like robots. ARE YOU ONE? Also see how the Airwheel X3 is advertised:
How is forgoing the health benefits of walking constitutive of an “intelligent life”? It may be a joke to BE ONE – an electronic “self-balancing scooter” user – but it is a tragic joke to BE ONE delusionally, to mistake the glances of passerbys as envious or admiring, when in actuality they’re more likely meet your Ninebot S1 as they would someone on a segway, or a clown on a unicycle: as something silly, ridiculous, even absurd.
I’m sure these machines are fun to ride. And it’s important to have fun in life. But it’s also important to consider what is nourishing to your organism. Walking is deeply embedded into what it means to be human.
In Bodies in Revolt: A Primer in Somatic Thinking, Thomas Hanna, the man who coined the term “somatics,” talks about ethology’s discovery of fixed motor patterns, which are encoded neurophysiologically into every living being. Fixed motor patterns seek the stimulus that will release them such that a homeostasis of bodily energy is maintained, and tension or “unpleasure” is avoided. In other words, “the animal experiences a hypertension of energy in some area of its organism and moves to discharge this unpleasant energy accumulation so as to regain the pleasure of organic balance and repose.”
For example, “domestic dogs and cats, which are overfed and do not need to hunt for their food, will nevertheless do so because inner releasing mechanisms drive them to stalk, chase, grab, bite and shake to death either real or imaginary animals. They are driven to do this, not by the primary drive of hunger but by the secondary phylogenetic drive of hunting, which, as drives, are self-releasing even without the stimulus which in ancestral dogs and cats would have triggered hunting behavior.”
During times of even slight mental distress, I naturally seek to go on a walk; longer walks in proportion to the degree of unrest. Walking serves as a relieving “reset” button to my system. I have to imagine that walking is so fundamental to our evolutionary biology that to walk simply restores so many behind-the-scenes processes of our bodies back to a state of “organic balance and repose.” It’s not a stretch to believe the host of health benefits I listed earlier.
To actively avoid walking is to deny your organism of nourishment, and to find displeasure in walking is to be disconnected from nature.
Walking has always been pleasurable for me. But since becoming more and more embodied, the pleasure has taken on an entirely new dimension. Stripping my feet of sensory deprivation tombs (i.e. modern footwear) and increasing my brain’s mental maps (neurological connections) of my feet has provided me with an additional world of pleasurable sensations, almost like a new sense. Imagine how much more pleasurable walking would be with a sense of smell that is half as refined as a dog’s.
Becoming more grounded, centered in my alignment, fixing imbalances and asymmetries, eliminating unnecessary tension in the body, restoring proper length/tension relationships and muscle firing patterns, and practicing different walking movement patterns and biomechanics – has imbued my walk with a markedly different felt-sense of aliveness. While indiscernible to the untrained eye, I now experience a grace, rhythm, coordination, and peace never felt before. Without putting in much work yourself (besides investing money), you can get started by seeking out Rolfing treatment, Feldenkrais instruction, or other somatic professional for quick improvements.
Becoming aware of how the prime movers – the core, hips, and shoulder girdle – initiate movement. How the initial power from the prime movers translates to the swing of the elbow and upper arm. The timing of the shoulder swing to the ball and heel of the foot making contact with the ground. The relationship between the ribcage, hips, head, and neck, and how they all sway with each step. Staying in my alignment and being sensitive to when I stray. How the environment alters my breathing pattern.
Not to mention, treating walking itself as a meditation, as a means for cultivating mindfulness, concentration, and equanimity. There are dozens of walking meditations, but Shinzen Young (an amazing meditation teacher) has provided one example of a walking meditation in this PDF article.
This year I started practicing the Taoist internal art of Baguazhang, which, as with the other Taoist internal arts, is both a deadly martial art as well as path to enlightenment – a vigorous meditation that leads to intimate knowledge of body and mind, as well as a sensitivity to the subtle energies of the body. And what is Bagua? Circle walking. It’s a style of walking in circles with coordinated upper body movements that translates over time into profound physical benefits, spiritual insight, and mental peace. I’m blown away by the practicality, efficacy, and simplicity of the Chinese Taoists.
To be fair, I actually think the Onewheel is pretty cool. It’s safer, more physically demanding, closer to a skateboard, and capable of off-terrain riding. It may seem like I view all of these prosthetics as pure evil, but I don’t. I’m on #TeamBody, trying to keep a voice for the embodied body alive. If you were a member of a culture, language, or species that was near extinction, you would want to preserve the dying breed. It’s important we consciously step into the coming new world of technology, and not unconsciously collapse into it. Otherwise, we find ourselves waking up after the fact, wondering “how the fuck did we get here?”. Or even worse, we’re too far gone to have any chance of waking up in the first place.
Play the material game, enjoy the artificial body parts, and have fun. But know that a much deeper pleasure and boundless fulfillment is found in developing the feeling body.
On a more philosophical level, Solnut references Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain: The Unmaking and Making of the World:
She describes tools and manufactured objects as extensions of the body into the world and thus ways of knowing it. Scarry documents how the tools become more and more detached from the body itself, until the digging stick that extends the arm becomes a backhoe that replaces the body. […] Walking returns the body to its original limits again, to something supple, sensitive, and vulnerable, but walking itself extends into the world as do those tools that augment the body. The path is an extension of walking, the places set aside for walking are monuments to that pursuit, and walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it. […] Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.
Solnut continues with a commentary on the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, who:
described walking as the experience by which we understand our body in relationship to the world, in his 1931 essay, “The World of the Living Present and the Constitution of the Surrounding World External to the Organism.” The body, he said, is our experience of what is always here, and the body in motion experiences the unity of all its parts as the continuous “here” that moves toward and through the various “theres.” That is to say, it is the body that moves but the world that changes, which is how one distinguishes the one from the other: travel can be a way to experience this continuity of self amid the flux of the world and thus to begin to understand each and their relationship to each other. Husserl’s proposal differs from earlier speculations on how a person experiences the world in its emphasis on the act of walking rather than on the senses and the mind.
Are you a walking body? Or ARE YOU ONE?
- the historian Kenneth Jackson, author of Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States
- see articles from Harvard, The Atlantic, New Yorker, and Arthritis.org
- notice the URL categorizes the Ninebot as “Consumer Lifestyle”
- img src: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bitboy/23447887053/
- here’s a video of someone demonstrating Bagua movements, albeit with a lighter, smaller sword: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2akL7S5Y98