I’ve been going on a lot of walks lately, ranging anywhere from half an hour to an entire day, with other people and alone, along city streets and on footpaths through wooded hills. They are as unscheduled as possible and without a specific purpose or goal but rather an attempt to step back from the pressing demands of my day to day life in order to slow down and reconnect to myself and the world.
The Tyranny Of Time And Poverty Of Space
The dominant world view encourages us to see our lives as date books to be filled as efficiently as possible. Since the invention of the mechanical clock, ever busier schedules and ever faster technology have dictated the pace of human civilization. Sped up to an unnatural velocity, people are constantly rushing to or worrying about the next three dozen things they have to do. The result of this is that many are not present in their lives as they are living them. Most people either do not, or feel that they cannot, make time in their lives to experience the world more slowly. This is not just the result of privileged people choosing a fast paced lifestyle; in a world where most people are a paycheck or two away from losing the life that they are accustomed to and dependent on, being able to navigate rapid systems of information and transportation is an issue of survival.
Correspondingly, the way that we interact with space is limited by the constraints of modern life. As people rush through the world, public space is often only considered for its utility, how efficiently it allows people to meet goals that they do not choose; distance is an obstacle to be overcome by ever-quickening modes of transportation and telecommunication. The rich potential of common space becomes impoverished by freeways, parking lots and commercial uses. Movement, sound, light and color are extraneous unless they are being used to promote consumption. Those who are wealthy enough can buy and decorate private spaces to satisfy their aesthetic needs, but for many this ability is severely limited by economic reality. Similarly the enjoyment of being where you are is relegated to brief moments called vacation that are not equally accessible to all and even those who can afford them often find they are not fulfilling. All of this leads to a sense of isolation from self and environment that is endemic to the civilized world.
This disconnectedness is as prevalent among radicals and activists as it is among the population at large. An awareness of how deeply the world is broken and how much suffering is happening everyday often compels people to take on more and more for the Cause, to martyr themselves for the sake of an ideal. People often become so overextended that they burn out when they realize revolution is not imminent; disconnected from themselves and those around them, they are no longer a part of the world they are trying to save. Is it any wonder that when people attempt to break out of the isolation inherent in late stage capitalism, they often end up recreating systems that are just as isolating?
I find that I am able to feel the most useful when I am connected to myself and engaged in activities that are tied to my life and well-being. Any real sense of liberation can only emerge from people who are struggling to have healthy relationships with themselves and each other, valuing beauty and freedom because they want it in their lives right now, not as abstractions on a sacrificial alter but as real and present forces connected intimately to their own well-being. It is in this context that I so value the opportunity walking gives me to stay connected to myself and the world around me.
Moving Outside Of Time
One of the effects of meandering is the way that it seems to slow down time. Going for a walk, without worrying about an explicit timetable or destination offers me an opportunity to step outside of time in a certain sense. This kind of walking, by definition, happens at a comfortable pace, giving me time to take in all of the things that I am seeing. Allowing my body and mind to fall into the rhythm of a gentle walk is soothing and restorative. I find that it invites thoughts to wander in and out of my head and connect to each other in ways that are impossible when I am frantically trying to think. It is also physically invigorating; we are given these amazing bodies and hardly ever use them. Even an activity as simple as walking allows me to take joy in feeling connected to my body.
Walking also gives me a new perspective on distance, with things simultaneously seeming both closer and farther away. Closer in the sense that they are within walking distance, and farther because getting there is filled with stimuli that is lost when I use a faster mode of transportation. Learning to pay attention to these details, feeling the way that the world is teeming with life and interacting with it is powerful. It is amazing how a butterfly, or dust floating through rays of sunlight, or the earthy smell of decaying trees or even blades of grass bursting through pavement can ground and calm me when I am able to focus on them.
In order to travel this way I try to get places as slowly as possible, using planes and cars as infrequently as I can, opting instead for trains, bikes and my feet. This is not always possible, but when I prioritize planning my life in a way that minimizes the continuous hectic rush that isolates people from each other and their own experiences with the world, I find more opportunities than I would have thought.
Often the only time that people slow down and pay attention to the world around them is when they are traveling or exploring a new place they have never been before. What I am talking about here is not that exactly but making that sense of awe, presence, and exploration part of the day-to-day experience of life.
The situationists were a group of artists and thinkers in post-war Paris during the years leading up to the student revolts of 1968. They sought to break through the spectacle of commodity culture in order to create situations where revolutionary transformation was possible. One of the practices advocated by the situationists was the dérive [day-reeve]. The dérive was essentially a meandering walk involving several people over the course of a day or two. Participants would roam through the city and attempt to map out (either literally or figuratively) and re-value space based on the way they interacted emotionally with it. This process of psycho-geography was an attempt to change the way that people interacted with the world.
The dérive is compelling because it offers a model for re-imagining the space that we exist in. This can allow us to free ourselves, for a timeless moment, from the definitions assigned by the cold mechanistic utility of the system and allow us to more fully emotionally engage with the world. This process will look completely different for each person or group of persons but contains at its core an overt element of play; it is very much like the unselfconscious way that children interact with the world. For me shopping malls have become (remained) poisonous life sucking places, dumpsters have been re-envisioned as hidden treasure chests, pedestrian walkways between streets as portals between different dimensions of reality and skyscraper-lined avenues as echoing canyons to explore. Each of these appraisals are no less true than the more conventional descriptions, it is only the perspective that has changed, and it is that change in perspective that helps to nurture and sustain the emotionally vivid life that is beaten out of people so consistently.
So whether it is a solitary walk through the fields and rolling hills or a social and imaginative dérive in the heart of an urban center, walking can offer opportunities to escape the bleakness of modern time and space, to connect with and echo the rhythm of the world. I refer to walking specifically because that is what I have been doing, but much of this can apply to any activity that encourages one to slow down and notice themselves and the world around them. This is not to suggest that taking a walk and feeling good about ourselves as we gaze at our navels is a solution to the problems of the world but to point out that taking steps to heal ourselves and remain connected to each other and the world is crucial if anything else we do is going to matter.