Meditation on the Move: Walking, Nature, Mystery

Meditation on the Move: Walking, Nature, Mystery
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    Meditation on the Move: Walking, Nature, Mystery *   William Wordsworth spoke for many walkers when he referred to the ‘delight’ of ‘wandering where I could meditate in peace, and find the knowledge which I love’ ( The Prelude  XII). His words invite several questions. What forms of walking and meditation does he intend? Not, presumably, scurrying to catch a bus, and not navel-gazing trance. Second, how might walking inspire meditation? Third, is there a kind of understanding  –  perhaps the knowledge Wordsworth ‘loved’ –   to which walking meditation, or ‘meditation on the move’, is especially conducive? ‘Walking poets’ and revery    There are several practices that might invite labels like ‘walking meditation’ from which I want to distinguish my topic. I do not, for a start, have in mind kinhin , the ‘walking Zen’ that punctuates periods of zazen  by walks around a room or garden. Nor is my topic the spiritual pilgrimages embarked on by the followers of many religions: a Thai Buddhist tudong or a kora  around Mt Kailash, for example, or a hajj   undertaken on foot. Nor am I thinking of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and others who one envisages, perhaps mistakenly, striding forth on mountain paths or through city streets to do battle with the philosophical problems that tormented them. These practices share a number of features. The walkers are highly focused  –  on a particular problem, the holiness of a mountain, or whatever. Often this focus is an ‘inward’ one, concentrated on the breath, say, or a thought process. Typically, these practices have a definite purpose  –  to become mindful of suffering, perhaps, to attain purity, or to simply to arrive at a particular location. Typically they are also regimented, even ritualistic: monks chant and hold hands, pilgrims prostrate themselves or walk in a circle. Even in the relaxed form of Buddhist meditative walking encouraged by Thich Nhat Hanh (1996), people are instructed to smile, imagine flowers and attend to their breathing. The meditation on the move I have in mind has none of these features. It is more akin to the ‘meditative excursions’ that one nature writer describes as having ‘no rules’, more an ‘unplanned amble’, albeit a spiritually charged one th at is a ‘way of looking at nature’, at ‘what lives and moves around me’ (Lister-Kaye 2010: 6, 292). This description applies to the walks taken by those I’ll call ‘walking poets’. This expression was used as the name of a 2014 exhibition in Grasmere, devoted to Wordsworth and Bash ō.  But ‘walking poet’ would be a happy label too for Wordsworth’s friend and philosophical mentor, Coleridge, for Bash ō’s hero, Saigyō , and for many other writers from Li Bai to Thoreau and Edward Thomas.   Bash ō’s walks, he tells us, had ‘no rules’: ‘I walked at ease in whatever direction I pleased … [with] no itinerary to follow’ (1966: 85). Like Wordsworth, he describes himself as ‘wandering’. Thoreau preferred ‘sauntering’, a way of walking for which, he regrets, most people  have lost the ‘genius’ (2012: 3). ‘Wandering’ and ‘sauntering’ are terms indicative of a looseness and suppleness absent from the focused, purposive walks and meditations mentioned earlier. They are terms that are inappropriate, for example, for a walk whose aim is to enable intense inner scrutiny. As Peter Cheyne nicely puts it when describing the meditative walks of Coleridge and Wordsworth, as they ‘communed with nature’, the two poets ‘follow[ed] a train of thought outside the head, as it were, in the immediate landscape’ (2013: 44). Far from being a means of self-scrutiny, the meditative walk is marked by openness and responsiveness to an environment  –  as in the case of Bash ō, to whom ‘every turn in the road’ or ‘every sunrise’ brought a fresh thought or emotion (1966: 85). He would have been as impatient as Thoreau with those whose attention, when walking in a wood, is elsewhere: for then, reflects Thoreau, ‘I am not where my body is –   I am out of my senses’ (2012: 10). The themes just indicated  –  loosening up of thought, receptivity to an environment, release from over-attention to the self  –  come together in Rousseau’s concept of revery  . Already in The   Confessions , Rousseau had explained how he could ‘only meditate when … walking’, with his ‘hear  t roaming from object to object’ (1979: 382). But it is in his final, posthumously published work,  Reveries of the Solitary Walker  , that the contours of walking meditation or revery are fully described. In revery, a person is not engaged in purposeful thou ght and deliberation: rather, the ‘soul rambles and glides through the universe on the wings of imagination’. Nor is the walker engaged in self- analysis: rather, he ‘forgets himself’. During meditative walking, moreover, ‘passions and practical concerns’ a re suspended, which makes room for spontaneity and responsiveness on the walker’s part. His or her ideas ‘follow their own bent without constraint’, so that it becomes possible to experience ‘the spectacle of nature in its wholeness’ freely and without prejudice (Rousseau 1992: 91ff). It’s worth noting that Rousseau’s description of meditative walking was strikingly anticipated by remarks in the Daoist classic, the  Zhuangzi  , on you , variously translated as ‘roaming’, ‘rambling’ and ‘wandering’. You , it has been said, is a metaphor for a Daoist ‘eudaimonistic ideal’ (Fraser 2014: 215), cultivation of a heart-mind (  xin ) that ‘follows along with the character of things’ and is ‘unfettered’, ‘unobstructed’ and freed from the opposition of ‘self and other’ (Guo Xiang, in Zhuangzi 2009: 132). It is the ideal, as Zhuangzi puts it, of allowing oneself to be ‘carried along by things so that the heart- mind wanders freely’ (2009: Ch 4). The Daoist rambler, it seems, would have been a willing companion to Rousseau’ s walker - and indeed to Coleridge, who notes that it is when his mind is ‘leisurely and off the stretch’  that he able to appreciate the river and the light of the Scottish glen through which he walks (quoted in Walker 2002: 165). Given the loose, free character of meditation on the move, it would be wrong to dictate what its content must be. Still, it will be helpful to have on the table some examples of meditations that have this character. A meditation might involve imaginative reflection on natural phenomena as ‘symbols’, in Coleridge’s sense of things that both exemplify and point to ‘Ideas’. An example would be the poet’s own experience, walking along the river Greta in 1799, of eddies of water that at once embody and express ‘the life that we li ve’ ( Notebooks  I: 495). Another meditation, inspired perhaps by an object encountered on a walk, may take the form of mentally travelling back in time, as when an old stone-marker prompted Bash ō ‘to contemplate the minds of ancient people’ and to experience a poignant sense of ‘the passage of time’, of what crumbles, decays and collapses (Bashō 1996: 75). Or a walk may trigger a beautiful fantasy with the power to give one hope  –  as when Thoreau, walking through a meadow on a lovely evening, imagined ‘an infinite number of [such] evenings’, able to ‘cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there’ (2012: 50).   A good source for examples of meditation on the move, not unlike those  just given, is the nature writing of another poet and prodigious walker, Edward Thomas who, interestingly, explicitly identifies the land’s ability to ‘compel’ meditation with its ‘bestowing’ of a ‘mood of generous reverie’.  Among the reveries that walking through landscapes inspires in Thomas are thoughts of ‘unremembered years not so long past’ and the way that the land ‘offers symbols of peace, security, and everlastingness’ (2009: 18 -19, 30). Walking and engagement with nature  It is no accident that Zhuangzi borrowed a term from the world of walking, you , to name the quality of heart-mind aspired to by Daoist sages. The aptness of the metaphor indicates that ‘wandering’ or ‘sauntering’ is conducive or hospitable to meditation of the kind suggested by Rousseau’s word ‘revery’. But why should this be?  There are many references in the literature to physical aspects of walking somehow morphing into seemingly parallel features of mental activity. Montaigne’s remark, ‘my wit does not budge if my legs are not moving’, implies that bodily motion transmutes into a movement of the spirit (1991: 933). Other writers speak of the mind inheriting the ‘flow’ or ‘springiness’ of the walker’s stride. But how the legs transfer motion or energy to the mind is left unexplained. ‘There’s something about walking that … enlivens my though ts’, writes Rousseau, but he leaves the ‘something’ unidentified (1979: 157f). Maybe it is only something the professional physiologist or neurologist could explain. It would be disappointing, however, if we non-experts can contribute nothing to understanding how walking may inspire meditation.   One suggestion might be this. Walking affords a person ever-changing, fresh vistas, and hence a constant supply of symbols  –  of natural things and processes that invite the exercise of the philosophical imagination. Such a view shows through the writings of Coleridge and Wordsworth. The latter, it seems, only had to step outside his Cambridge College and walk through the surrounding countryside to be bombarded by natural phenomena that inspired ‘deep analogies’, possessed ‘inward meaning’ and expressed ‘incommunicable powers’ ( The Prelude  III). But not all meditation or revery consists of reflection on symbols, and it remains unclear what is distinctive about walking, since other activities  –  a visit to an art gallery, say, or driving through a desert  –  also furnish plenty of symbols. Here is a more compelling suggestion as to how walking might be distinctively conducive to meditation. Walking is at just the right level, so to speak, on two related scales. Activities higher or lower on these scales would not be similarly conducive. I’ll label them the scales of ‘bodily engagement’ and ‘cognitive engagement’.  Bodily engagement in a natural environment ranges from climbing a sheer rock face to lying on one’s  back in the meadow below. The former requires total bodily control and concentration: it allows no room for meditative revery. Lying in the grass does allow room, but since it calls for no active physical engagement, it also allows for plenty of other concerns to crowd in  –   ‘background worries’ (like the price of tallow, in Wordsworth’s case), routine anxieties, obsessive self-analysis and so on (see Baird 2014). Lying on my back, I want my thoughts to drift like the clouds above, but instead I worry about losing my job or my girl-friend. Walking is nicely placed between these extremes of bodily engagement. Rambling or sauntering does not demand the degree of bodily effort and concentration that excludes revery. It is sufficiently ‘automatic’ for the mind to be ‘relieved of duty’ and hence able to indulge in imagination and narrative (Gros 2014: Ch 9). Yet walking demands sufficient attention to the body and its surroundings  –  to paths, rocks, pot-holes, gradients  –  not to permit the walker entirely to ignore his or her physical engagement. Rebecca Solnit neatly combines both these points: walking requires us to ‘be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them’ (2014: Ch 1) –  not so busy, anyway, as to preclude revery. Turning to what I ’m calling the scale of cognitive engagement, we find at one end the focused intellectual attention to an environment of a landscape archaeologist or botanist and, at the other, the complete absence of attention to the same environment of, say, a golfer who is playing a hole nearby or a driver speeding through it on the way home. Walking is suited to encouraging a level of attention between these poles. Unlike the golfer or driver  –  whose focus is somewhere else - walkers can hardly ignore the surroundings through which they move, and these may of course become intensely present. A walk, however, imposes no determinate constraints on  what features of the environment the walker becomes mindful of. The walker is unlike the archaeologist or professional botanist whose observations are dictated by certain aims  –  the search, say, for a shard or a tiny flower among the stones. Fr  édéric Gros writes, ‘it may be that the world yields more of itself to the whimsical saunterer than to the serious and systematic ob server’ (2014: Ch 19). It is true, at any rate, that what the world yields is likely to be very different in the two cases. Rousseau was an enthusiastic amateur botanist, and botany gave him much that he sought for in his life  –  release from everyday cares and ‘grateful admiration of the hand’ responsible for the beauties of nature. But this was botany on the hoof, conducted while ‘wander[ing] freely from object to object’ and with an ‘idle … interest and curiosity’ that Rousseau contrasts with the dour aca demic study of plants by people obsessed with ‘systems and methods’ (1992: 98f). It was this ‘idle occupation’ that ‘enlivened [his] thoughts’ and gave him a sense of ‘nature in its wholeness’. And when Bashō, walking through a garden, stops to look at a c herry tree, one suspects that the ‘many things of the past’ that are ‘brought to [his] mind’ (1966: 79) are quite different –  and brought in a different way  –  from those discovered by the landscape archaeologist. In terms of both bodily and cognitive engagement with environments, then, the kind of walking that concerns us  –   Thoreau’s sauntering, Wordsworth’s and Bashō’s wandering –  is hospitable to the style of meditation or revery that I have described. It is meditation that engages with the world, but in a sufficiently relaxed and supple form to encourage imagination and reflection. Nature and convergence  Walking, then, is conducive to meditation, but does it, in addition, incline meditation to take certain directions? Does meditation on the move draw the walker/meditator towards a certain vision of the world? It would be good to draw upon a tradition of scholarship that addresses such questions, but the literature that does so is disappointingly meagre. This is a symptom of a wider failure of philosophers, psychologists and others to attend to the kind of engagement with the world that I am calling meditation or revery. The reason for this failure is that meditation does not neatly fit into any one of the categories of mental activity to which scholars are inclined to shoehorn mental phenomena. Meditation is not exclusively an exercise of reason, or of emotion, sensibility, mood, desire or perception. In meditation on the move all of these, and more, may and often do cooperate. That meditation on the move straddles or transcends the familiar categories of philosophical psychology helps to explain its academic neglect, but it also provides a clue to answering the questions asked at the beginning of this section. It encourages the thought that, if walking meditation is
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