The next time you go for a walk, discover the wonder of the everyday world around you
How often do you go for a walk and truly look around at what you see? Not to exercise and not to transport yourself from one location to another; to simply walk and observe with the fresh eyes of a visitor who’s never seen the sights you’ve become accustomed to.
There is a fascinating history of people walking with no other purpose than to just be in the moment, observing the world. On the city streets of Paris during the 19th century, a particular brand of pedestrian was known as a flâneur – coming from the Old Norse verb flana, it means “to wander with no purpose”. Baudelaire famously wrote about the “gentleman stroller of city streets” in his prose poetry collection Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) while Honoré de Balzac described flânerie as “the gastronomy of the eye”. In recent years women have been recognised as part of this tradition as well, with books like Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London by Lauren Elkin exploring the relationship between the wanderings of women and creativity. Famous women who were known to find inspiration in the everyday streets and people included war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, author Virginia Woolf, and photographer Sophie Calle.
From the hustling city streets to the quiet calm of nature, forest bathing is another way of making your walk more mindful. Originating in Japan in the 1980s, the practice known there as Shinrin-Yoku was inspired by the Shinto ethos of the calm found in nature and was born out of the desire to combat stress from overworking. Thought to reduce blood pressure and stress while improving cardiac and pulmonary health, forest bathing has become widely popular throughout Europe, the US, and in Australia and New Zealand.
While you can take guided walks run by accredited leaders, the simple premise of forest bathing means that it’s just as easy to do it yourself. All a bathe in the forest requires is an easy, pleasant place to walk with the occasional space to sit and be. For safety reasons, you might not want to leave your phone at home, but for the duration of your walk have it switched off or leave it on flight mode. If you can’t get out into nature or you live among city streets, try your regular walking path. Whether it’s a walk to work, a lunchtime stroll, or a trip down the road to your bus stop, any time you spend outside on your feet is the perfect opportunity to observe the world around you. In fact, the more boring and routine your walk is, the more you get to exercise your mindful observation skills. Put your headphones away and engage with the world around you. It’s easy to treat a walk just as a fitness activity, but the mental health benefits extend far beyond the endorphins gained from exercise. After all, as Laura Elkin says in Flâneuse, “We are made of all the places we’ve loved, or of all the places where we’ve changed.”
Calm Your Mind
This meditation activity can be performed inside, outside, in public areas, or your own backyard. Just be sure to start and end somewhere that is quiet and soothing. To begin, close your eyes and take three slow, deep breaths while standing still. Open your eyes, and with one slow step take a breath in and then with your next step, release it slowly. Aim to breathe deep into your lungs and fill your body with oxygen – as you slowly exhale, it will trigger a relaxation response in your body that will help you experience your feelings in a calm, thoughtful way. To end your walking meditation, pause your steps and take three slow deep breaths. This is to signal that you’re ready to go on with your day with a clear and relaxed mind.
Open Your Eyes
This mindful activity helps bring your focus and attention to the present moment, activating your imagination and your observation skills. Choose a walk you take regularly, whether for leisure, health, or even just to walk from your car to your workplace. Take note of all you see and imagine seeing it through the eyes of someone from another country or even another time period. What stands out to you? A shopfront? A spiderweb? A particular building with interesting architecture? If your thoughts drift to worries, errands, or other distractions, acknowledge them and then return your focus to where you currently are by finding at least one thing you haven’t noticed before. When you arrive at your destination, try writing down some of what you’ve noticed or talk about them to a friend.
Words: Carly Saillard