Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Garden of Philosophy: Finding Truth (and Inspiration) With Your Feet


            Apparently, it says here, if I wish to have creative thoughts, and then go write them down, I'd better get back to walking. In a piece on the openculture.com website, Josh Jones writes that a body of thought in both the Western and Eastern traditions suggests that mindfulness, freedom from routine thought patterns, and what Nietzsche termed "all truly great thoughts" are generated by walking. (Here's the link to the complete piece:
http://www.openculture.com/2015/07/how-walking-fosters-creativity.html) 
            "Many a poet and teacher has preferred the ambulatory method," Jones writes, to produce the meditative tradition's goal of mindfulness. Aristotle's school in ancient Athens was given the name "peripatetic" because (legend has it) he preferred walking while delivering lectures on, say, physical science, metaphysics, politics, ethics, poetics, cosmology and all those other subjects on which his teachings were long considered the last word until about the time of, say, Galileo. Of course, all that talking while walking might have made it a little hard on students trying to take notes. Our main sources for Aristotle's philosophy are (in fact) believed to be students' lecture notes.


            Among other thinking-walkers, Nietzsche is quoted as saying that walking is “the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.”
            Other candidates for the school of walking: Thoreau (who walked straight from Concord to Cape Cod, stopping in Plymouth where he almost drowned trying to walk across Duxbury Bay at low tide), the poet Rimbaud, the noble-savage philosopher Rousseau, the clockwork philosopher Immanuel Kant, who left his house at exactly the same moment every day for the identical stroll.
           Another take on creative walkers comes from a book titled "Wanderlust: A History of Walking" by Rebecca Solnit, who examined the role of walking in the lives of real and fictional persons such as the poet Wordsworth who hiked all over England and Scotland (sometimes accompanied by fellow 'Romantic' poet Coleridge), Jane Austen's fascinating independent thinker Elizabeth Bennett, and the 20th century zen-influenced American poet Gary Snyder.
            Ah, if only the legs were as young as they once were.
            Solitary walking in natural or 'wild' spaces was in fact the only sure release from the miserable, negative thought patterns that visited me in certain difficult, unhappy periods of ill spent youth. The best place for a walk was the most remote place one could reach. Since I was living in New England, remote was at best a relative term, but getting lost in a stretch of woods where you were unlikely to run into anyone at all for a good piece of time, released whatever agitated spirits, happy or sad, that needed to get out. I'm making this sounds more therapeutic, I know,  than creative, but for me these solitary exercises in locomotion were where the poems and the stories got started. The desk time would come later. You needed to release the pent-up spirits first. You need to get the mind and the body (the mind-body, perhaps) going.
            My walks are way more modest these later days. I live in a city. I initiate a nature walk by starting the car. Increasingly a creature of habit (Immanuel Kant's 6 p.m. outings don't seem so pathetic to me any more), I drive the few minutes to a salt marsh graced with a hillock and some tame woods, and maintained by the city just enough to keep a "nature walk" footpath open.
            The footpath through the marsh is a short walk through a place impossible to get lost in. Sometimes I run into another human, almost always accompanied by a dog. But for a little while I'm breathing air sluiced by the elements. Sky, water, vegetation, decay, renewal. Sometimes I meet a hawk. Occasionally a great blue heron pops up out of nowhere.
             At the end of it I drove home and go back to whatever I was doing. But I am always a little different -- a little aired out, pumped up, cleaned out, mentally re-set from the outdoor experience. What's good for the body is good for the mind.
            Recently I've been coming back, slowly, from a surgery that proved more complicated than anticipated. The weather's been a typically raw, unstable, changeable, teasing March; promising something, delivering less. It almost always feels too cold to go for a walk.
            But I have to get myself going again. It's time to go back to those walks.