I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. FERNANDO PESSOA

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Walking As Therapy (2)

Camino, Spain

If you watch how nature deals with adversity, continually renewing itself, you can't help but learn. DR BERNIE SEIGEL

Walking has saved my life. This may sound like hyperbole, but I happen to believe it to be true.

At a time when I drove the length and breadth of England as a sales executive, walks in Derbyshire's Peak District, or climbs in the Lake District, or strolls along the Grand Union canal were absolutely essential to me - welcome and necessary escapes from the confines of the car and a pressurised job. Walking saved my life.

When my father died I spent months alone at the old, family home, sorting out his things and preparing the house for sale, I was also working six days a week. On the Saturday, the day I had off, I used to roam the fields and woods nearby, and hike the disused railway embankment - all former childhood haunts. Walking saved my life.

My three Caminos in France and Spain were a direct response to mental turmoil and huge, seemingly intractable personal problems. These pilgrimages may not have taken the problems away, but they gave me relief, and insight into a different way of looking at things. Walking saved my life.

I find walking to be one of the best therapies. This is an approximation of a conversation I once had with the Camino ...

Camino: Buenos dias, mi amigo! Welcome to the Path. You know, there are so many pilgrims who walk along me praying I'm going to give them enlightenment and strew epiphanies at their feet like poppy petals. They want to find God instantly, or at least when they reach Santiago. And when they arrive at the end of the trail, and don't realise it's just the beginning of another, different trail, and when they find that great cathedral just alienates them, because it's too crowded, or because they're too tired, or because they're lonely and pining for the pilgrim friend they met in Burgos whom they've never seen again - they return home deflated and disappointed. Now, are you this kind of pilgrim, my serious friend?

Solitary Walker: Well, I don't know. It's too early to say. I've only just reached Hontanas, and I've other things to think about, such as the hole in my sock, the water in my boots, the pain in my knee and whether my stomach will protest about the oily fried eggs and rough, tongue-curling wine I'm about to consume in this albergue. And whether those bloody pilgrims are going to keep me awake for yet another night with their snoring and grunting and being sick from smoking too much weed. However, I did think you might stick around and provide some psychotherapy for me from time to time, my wise Camino guide?

Camino: Oh dear. Big mistake, peregrino! I'm afraid I'm not much of a psychotherapist, though a lot of people seem to think I am. Can't you see, dammit, that I'm simply a track? A little muddy, a little worn round the edges, a bit rocky here and there, it's true. But I'm not the most difficult track in the world, and I'm always well signposted. In fact in some places you'll find a scallop shell or a yellow arrow or a graffitied 'Ultreia!' every few metres. Sometimes all together. You'd have to be blind to get lost. (Though a surprising number of blind pilgrims do walk me. And actually they never get lost.) I think you'll have to look to those American new-age gurus for psychotherapy, mi amigo - you know, the ones you see on Oprah with names like Star and Heartsblessing. As I say, I'm no therapist. I can only trip you up, torture your feet, exhaust your limbs, graze your skin and, occasionally, bring you moments of such enormous joy that you feel radiant with hope, love and well-being. For true therapy look within yourself, my tired pilgrim.

Solitary Walker: Thanks anyway, Camino. I think we're getting used to each other's company, even if your answers do sometimes disappoint. I'm also getting used to your annoying habit of answering my questions with another question. What kind of answer is that? For instance, the other day I asked you how far it was to my destination, and you replied: don't you think your destination is right here and now? And recently, when I asked you how many more kilometres were left to walk along the path, you answered: you think there's a path

Camino: Well, as I've told you, my questing friend, I'm no sage. Though you'll discover a little sage - and thyme, and rosemary too - growing along my verges. Now, why don't you gather some and add these herbs to your instant packet soup tonight?

Solitary Walker: I've already said - I'm eating the hospitalera's fried eggs soon. Then I'll feel so tired I'll be crawling into my sleeping bag by nine. I'll rejoin you tomorrow, my twisting, winding, enigmatic friend.

Camino: Till tomorrow. Just remember what John Muir once wrote, that  In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. And sleep tight.

11 comments:

annie said...

I hear you, and I Love Camino's "Don't you think your destination is right here and now?" and "You think there's a PATH?"

Thank you for sharing this part of your walk with us.

annie

Bonnie said...

Delightful Robert! Enjoyed your communication with that chatty Camino!!

There are so many reasons that walking feels therapeutic - and you have touched on most. Another reason is that walking results in bi-lateral stimulation of the two hemispheres of the brain. Thus if we were stuck ruminating about a problem or a perceived flaw in ourself (this usually takes place in a particular part of the brain), the bi-lateral movements of walking 'jumpstart' the opposite hemisphere and seem to diffuse/spread/attenuate the negative thoughts. We feel more balanced and clear, in part, because we have stimulated both hemispheres of the brain and are enjoying what could be called some whole brain thinking where fresh perspectives arise. This (bi-lateral stimulation of the brain) is actually the basis of one of the treatments of choice for post traumatic stress problems (PTSD) and it is called EMDR.

The bi-laterally stimulated brain is generally (after the stimulation) a relaxed one and thus we will often notice a significant shift in our mood after a walk. BTW, even if you continue to think about your problem or wallow in your mood as you walk, the bi-lateral movements should eventually produce relief and a fresh perspective. Hence the value of a long walk.

So, dear Robert, I believe you when you say that walking has saved your life. It is good therapy. With a few resources at our disposal we can be our best therapist.

George said...

Loved it, Robert! I think walking has also saved my life on more than one occasion. Whenever I find myself stymied by something intractable and asking what can I do, the answer is usually the same: You can walk. Walking has an amazing capacity to cleanse the toxins that have built up in the mind.

Bouncing Bertie said...

My take on walking as therapy - in Burton Joyce for Christmas/New Year, helping care for elderly parents, one with Alzheimers,the other deaf and arthritic, the 'need' to take the dog out for an hour's walk a day (my need rather more than his) is definitely a lfe saver.
Happy walking!
Gail.

Phoenix C. said...

Love the conversation between you and the Camino!

I so agree that walking gives you an insight into a different way of looking at things. I've always highly valued the inspiration of the countryside, the environment 'genius loci' itself and the fresh air and exercise clearing my mind.

I'm also interested in reading Bonnie's comment about the stimulation of both hemispheres of the brain.

Paul C said...

I happen to like the writing of Muir and hiking. Interesting post!

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for all your comments.

Bonnie - that was such an interesting comment on what physically happens in the brain.

Gail - yes, I've been through all that, and empathise. Keep calm and strong.

Would reply at greater length, but I'm just off for a walk..!

Helen Fisher said...

I nearly missed this gem, and am so glad I didn't!
I think you know from my blog how I find walking therapeutic, but the conversation on the Camino (with Camino) was a gift. So many times I think the trail is the answer, but actually, I have the answers I need; I just need to ask the right questions and to pay attention to what comes back!

The Solitary Walker said...

Helen - wonderful comment. Thank you.

Ruth said...

This is such a delightful way to show how the journey is the point, Robert! I loved it. So very clever.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Ruth. Glad you are enjoying the series!