A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Spiritual Nature Of Walking (6)

Camino, Spain

The dictionary defines 'spiritual' (which comes from the Latin 'spiritus', meaning 'breath') as relating to, consisting of or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material; concerned with or affecting the soul; of, from or relating to God; of or belonging to a church or religion; sacred; supernatural.

I think some of us may be slightly hestitant in using with confidence the words 'spiritual' and 'sacred' these days, loaded as they are with theological, specifically Judaeo-Christian meanings. But I say it's time to liberate these words. Indeed, this process of liberation and democratisation has been happening for quite a while. As more and more new-age cults and philosophies take hold, as we rediscover ancient beliefs and practices such as druidism or paganism, as we broaden our interest in and understanding of many different world religions, the idea of what is spiritual and sacred has widened and become more universal.

For instance, the belief in the sacred, spiritual aspects of nature - with the implication that nature should therefore be respected and protected - is widespread (think of Native American culture, wilderness writing, TV wildlife documentaries, political eco-warriors). Unfortunately, though these ideas are now more mainstream, there's still an enormous, seemingly impossible mountain to climb when faced with the power and vested interests of multi-national companies, corrupt governments, greedy, uncontrolled capitalism, and all the rest. But I digress.

For me the greatest rewards of walking are its spiritual ones. Sure, walking can tone and toughen the body, soothe the mind, calm our neuroses, reduce our stress levels, provoke our sense of curiosity and wonder. But without a greater framework - you can call it a symbolic, metaphorical, metaphysical, artistic, imaginative, religious or spiritual one, I don't think it matters - a long walk may simply be just that: a long walk. It seems to be a human need and necessity to impart some kind of personal myth or 'guiding fiction' to our lives (read Loren Webster's excellent post on this here), and a long walk is an ideal method of doing this.

We can layer our walk with a myriad of meanings and significances. When recounting our walk-story to others we may raise it to the level of a myth or a fable. Funny how we exaggerate some bits but leave out other bits, isn't it? (It's interesting to ponder on what parts we include, what parts we discount, what parts we embellish, and why we do this.) Perhaps we interpret our walk as a quest, a pilgrimage, a labyrinth, a metaphorical path bristling with symbols, a trip through Dante's 'dark wood', soul-wanderings, or Stations of the Cross. Whatever our interpretations, it's a fact that both our inner and outer journeys tend to become entwined, and feed into and enrich one other.

I'm afraid I just can't contemplate a long walk, which may take up a great deal of my time and energy, as simply a way of getting from A to Z during the course of which I might admire some views, suffer muscle fatigue, chat with a few people and drink rather too much wine. Oh no, it has to be some grand design for me! I'm made that way. My mind won't accept it's no more than a long, dusty trail. It flies off continually at all kinds of imaginative tangents, making all sorts of crazy and fantastic connections.

For walking will not allow us to be mere walkers; the vital breath (the 'spiritus', or the Sanskrit 'pranha', or the Chinese 'qi') of nature, the land and the landscape  - invisible, intangible, life-giving, all-important - fills our lungs and our hearts, and in doing so restores our inner being, which is also our spiritual being and our sacred ground.


George said...

After a day of driving through traffic on the interstate, which serves as a metaphor for the mindlessness of American life, it is such a relief to visit this tiny oasis of yours, especially on a day when you are talking about the spiritual dimensions of walking.

Language has become such a problem in the realm of spiritual issues. The term "Christian," for example, can refer to right-wing fundamentalists who approach their faith legalistically — i.e., passing the tests with respect to certain beliefs, tenets, rituals, etc. — or it can simply refer to someone who has chosen to walk the walk of the man in whose name this religion was founded. More generally, as you point out, the terms "spiritual" and "sacred" have also become loaded with cultural meaning, and many associate those terms with either Christianity of Judaism. While some profess to be "spiritual, but not religious," others think this is a cop-out to some kind of new-age relativism. The term "sacred" is also fraught with misunderstanding. Say that you believe that everything is sacred, as I believe, and many will conclude that you must be very "religious", which I am not, at least in terms of the popular meaning of that term.

For these reasons, I often have difficulty talking with people about my spiritual life. I agree with you entirely, however, that it would be better for everyone if we liberated words like "spiritual" and "sacred" from their cultural prisons. It is the sovereign right of every person to determine what is spiritual and sacred in his or her own life.

I digress, of course, as you did, because the role of language in our spiritual lives is such an interesting subject. More to the point of your posting, however, I totally relate to what you are saying about the spiritual rewards of walking. I go back to that statement by Sir Edmund Hillary: "It's not the mountains we conquer but ourselves." Before we can conquer ourselves, however, we must first know ourselves — and therein lies the problem. In the madness of modern life, with its myriad demands and distractions, it is difficult to truly discover one's self. In walking, however, especially walking alone for significant periods, we discover who it is we need to conquer, and we are given insight on how that conquest can occur. That, at least, has been my experience.

This is such a thought-provoking post that I could go on and on. The hour is late, however, and I have already said too much. Thanks for the posting. I agree with everything you say.

Ruth said...

It's beautiful to read your post and George's response. Two serious walkers who live this and know. I met a moose once on the Pacific Crest Trail, just him and me. It was a spiritual experience. (I wondered about my immanent death, for one thing.) :)

What is expressed here by both of you is the constant need to find meaning within a culture where the media, and popular culture, blare a brassy version of the sacred on loud speakers. Connecting and reconnecting with the earth helps us find that balance.

I do a meditation, in which I give the day's troubles to the earth, and ask her to cleanse them. The first time I did this, eyes closed, visualizing all my worries going down the stream of me into the earth, I felt guilty! How could I give such terrible gifts to her?! But the sensation I felt when she returned them with glee and intense beauty, as purified gifts of bounty, convinced me that she is highly able to restore us spiritually. She is inside us! And we have to keep consciously getting reacquainted with her.

By the way, as for Tolstoy, thank you for the recommendation of the bio your wife is reading, and suggesting Anna Karenina before War and Peace. I have read AK, and so I will move on to the biggie! :)

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks both George and Ruth for such long and interesting comments.

George - yes, it is dfficult to talk about one's 'spiritual' life. (Though most of the posts in this series were written quite quickly and easily, I found this one more problematical - and in the end I think I've over-complicated, and also condensed, things too much.)

Any 'spiritual' qualities in our lives are often demonstrated to others by how we live our lives, by our very presence and demeanour, rather than by what we say or write about our attitudes and beliefs. It's how we walk the walk, not talk the talk. I've usually found that 'religious' people who constantly talk about their religion and try to evengelise are far less authentic than people who just live out their convictions. Digressing again...

I admire and identify with contemporary writers and poets like Annnie Dillard and Mary Oliver who suggest the sacred but in secular terms.

You're absolutely right, Ruth, about the restorative powers of the earth - and the ritual you describe recalls strongly Zen Buddhism and also the druidism/paganism I mentioned in my post.

And re. your moose story, and the numinous dimension of nature, I fell down a mountain once (well, a bit of it). Definitely not a particularly spiritual experience!