Why do I do it?
I am happy to report that I have resumed my practice of walking in the mornings.
I've been walking in the mornings for enough weeks now, that it has started to feel habitual again.
I get up and head out the door as quickly as I can; I don't eat or drink anything; I don't raise the shades; I don't let the cat out of his room. Often my eyes are still a little blurry and dry, and my legs and back are stiff and clumsy. But I walk. Often I fold my arms because letting them hang and swing feels like too much movement so soon after sleep.
What is it that I'm doing on these walks?
Clearly it isn't about exercise. I don't take big steps, or pump my arms, or try to raise my heart rate. I see a lot of other people out between the hours of six and seven a.m. and most of them appear to be exercising. The effort of their motion is evident, even if they are in a group chatting as they walk or jog. I feel accepted by them, and we always say "Good Morning" or nod, but I know they are doing something different from me - at least in part.
I like to tell myself that it is a contemplative practice - walking as a form of moving meditation.
The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society discusses Walking Meditation as "being mindful of the muscles of the body, the placement of the feet, balance, and motion." But the shape of that practice is a very slow, short walk - perhaps even passing over the same short path over and over again. It is something very different from my going for a walk in the mornings.
Sometimes I'm able to focus my attention on the sounds of my feet hitting the pavement and my shoe laces clicking against my shoes; sometimes I'm able to focus on my breathing and notice how inhales and exhales create a rhythm that matches my steps. Sometimes I'm able to notice the rate at which my knees bend and straighten, the amount of twist that happens in my hips, and how my weight transfers from one leg to the other. But often that much focus eludes me.
Sometimes I wake up with a song in my head, and I find myself following the lyrics in my mind as I walk.
Sometimes I feel like a small rational entity enclosed within my head, and I sit at the top of this body that is walking. I'm being carried by its motion, but I don't feel a part of it.
Sometimes my brain gets quickly to work on the plans of the day: going over schedules, making lists, rehearsing potential conversations. Rebecca Solnit, in Wanderlust, says that the brain functions at about three miles per hour-- the speed of walking. That's why walking can be so helpful when we are solving problems. A New Yorker article from today discusses this same point. While it may be true, in the mornings, my thoughts feel more like idle chatter than productive thinking.
If I try to do anything, I try to see what is around me. To hear the crickets and first bird chirps of the day. I look for rabbits and squirrels, and house pets observing me from the other side of windows. I try to see the trees that I pass, and to notice if the leave look dry or are starting to turn. I try to appreciate the efforts of home owners who have planted flowers and maintained lawns and landscaped walkways. Observing the world as I walk seems to be my only real intention.
Sometimes I walk with my eyes closed though. I can't take too many steps like that, but a straight section of empty road may encourage me to trust my feet and my ability to balance and to try to walk without seeing. This act brings me to a different state of awareness. First I feel incredibly self-conscious; I know I look weird to anyone watching. Then I find that I don't really trust myself-- what I'm out of alignment, and I can't walk in a straight line? I don't want to walk into the street or trip over the gutter. But there is some sensation of walking with my eyes closed that is positive enough that I am encouraged to do it occasionally. But why am I walking at all?
For the people I see exercising, I know that they are getting more out of their activity than merely exercise. I don't know exactly what it is for them, but it probably helps they clear their heads or feel grounded and able to face the day ahead. Is that what I'm doing? My head doesn't often feel cleared by the walks. More than once, when I'm only 5 or 10 minutes into the walk, I find myself wishing for a place to sit down, and often my lower back is hurting so badly by the end that I struggle to take the few steps up to the porch.
Why do I walk? Perhaps because walking is one of the things that I do.
It sounds like circular thinking, but maybe the performance of my identity requires that I walk. -- At least for now, since there is still daylight before 7am, and heavy coats are not yet needed.