At one of my talks last year, I brought up the idea of “sauntering” as a more worthy goal to hiking.
It wasn’t my idea originally, but rather sprang from the brilliant mind of the father of our national parks, the environmental philosopher John Muir. Muir preferred this paradigm shift from “crushing miles” to walking expectantly and with reverence, as if saints walking to the holy land.
Muir was elevating the transformative and spiritual over the athletic.
Curiously, science proves that walking is not only good for the body, but sauntering at a moderate pace has broader implications for our health. This is because sauntering activates the creative center in the brain, the part that transforms us and helps us be the person we are meant to be.
In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association recently published an article that stated good health comes less from intensity of walk and more from simply walking itself – and often. My own doctor told me the best prognosis for my cancer was to get myself on the Appalachian Trail and begin walking until it was time to deal with my disease.
So I shouldn’t be surprised that my talk made an impression, including on one audience member named Wilma. Wilma is in her 80s but doing quite well, especially now that she followed doctors orders and lost weight by eating more healthily. Her smile is infectious and she has a lot of energy. She even crocheted a mini prayer shawl for me as I embarked on my cancer ordeal.
But Wilma had one hangup. Her doctor prescribed walking every day. She uses a rollator-style walker and there are convenient paths around the lakes near her home. But somehow she interpreted “walk every day” as hard-core, sweat-inducing sprints.
So when I came along and suggested sauntering might actually yield more benefits overall, she told me she felt released to begin moving and became a sauntering disciple.
Now this teacher has to practice what she preaches. It was not the easiest week since my left side continued to drain and my mobility was limited carrying a collection tube sewn into my side all week.
Still I managed to walk my neighborhood, adding a block here and a block there, using trekking poles to work my arms and slowly stretch my new, very tight chest. The weight of the drain pulling on my sore and irritated body kept me from carrying my phone to listen to power music or favorite news podcasts.
But it’s funny what happens when you don’t have anything to distract. Your focus turns to simply moving and noticing. One neighbor ripped out their grass and replaced it with native plants to feed hungry pollinators. Another has chosen the funkiest color combination for their Victorian home.
And many people recognize my slow but determined gait, covered head-to-toe from the hot sun, and smiling as I make micro-improvements. I saunter because that’s all I can physically do right now.
I’m making progress. I feel less dead tired and more fluid as I move. I don’t need to cling to the wall in fear of falling over and I’m going further each day.
Yesterday, I went as far as the beautiful neo-Gothic House of Hope Presbyterian Church. With plenty of time to acknowledge its grandness as I slunk by, I suddenly remember that nearby is a labyrinth made out of patio bricks.
It’s one modeled after the meditative path in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France. According to the cathedral website, walking the labyrinth is a silent pilgrimage and a chance to contemplate our existence. There’s only one way in and one way out – this is not a maze – and yet something happens on that short walk as we head towards the center then back out to return to the world.
Talk about sauntering!
The Saint Paul version is a little overgrown and hidden in a shady spot. When I arrived, there was not a soul was around, so I set my sticks on a bench and began my walk. Around and around. Even after countless times walking this same path in many parts of the world, I’m surprised how close the path comes to the center before veering away. Likewise, it passes closely to the exit, as if offering a choice of whether to step out and give up, or stick with a resolve to see what happens.
When I finally do arrive inside the center, it feels as if I’m in the bosom of the creator herself. I gather my thoughts about life and my current condition, take what’s on offer as to my own power to choose to simply muddle through, then retrace my steps, grab my sticks and walk home.
Perhaps that’s how healing works. We have to get quiet and travel deep inside to find the truth of our hearts and the miracle of being her now, then bring it with us into our messy lives.
One of my oldest friends from Houston contacted me after learning I’d need a bilateral mastectomy. She told me about one of her favorite older relatives who had a “radical” back in the day when healing and getting back to normal was far more difficult than it is now.
Apparently when she asked her doctor what to do to get better, he simply suggested to walk. And that’s what she did, every day for the next 50 years.
I move slowly enough to have each street and the distance to the next street memorized. I know how far I can go safely. I know when it’s time to stop and I know when I need another walk to ground me. I doubt I have another 50 years of life left, but whatever is left, I’ll joyfully saunter into it.