Posts Tagged ‘walking’

“We must cultivate our gardens”

May 31, 2013

My wife has many talents I do not share, including the proverbial master gardener’s “green thumb.” I’ve never tried to compete, have in fact evaded and tried to escape the whole earth-scratching, seed-planting, weed-yanking, endless-summer-watering routine. I’ve pretty much ceded that turf to her, with an Emersonian shrug. My version of transcendental domesticity also craves mobility and freedom, leaving the nurture of non-sentient life to better hands.

I delight in long free walks. These free my brain and serve my body. . . . But these stoopings and scrapings and figurings in a few square yards of garden are dispiriting, driveling, and I seem to have eaten lotus, to be robbed of all energy, and I have a sort of catalepsy, or unwillingness to move, and have grown peevish and poor-spirited.

And yet, for reasons still mysterious to me, this spring I decided I’d try and tend a tiny plot of earth. Don’t know why. But it was with real pleasure and anticipation that I stooped to the work of preparing the ground near my back porch and the old shed to host a pair of petunia plants, one white, one purple. “To garden well,” as Michael Pollan says, “is to be happy amid the babble of the objective world, untroubled by its refusal to be reduced by our ideas of it, its indomitable rankness.”

I’m trying.

Wish I’d taken a picture, before the ravenous rabbits arrived to devour my work.


Daunted but not defeated, I’ve gone to a hanging basket of impatiens. So far, so good.


But if my garden fails to grow I’ll be philosophical about it and just walk away.

Then I’ll walk back in an hour, to the pool.

And then to that hammock.

Where I’ll write a book this summer.

Nice work if you can get it.

Walk and enjoy*

May 25, 2013

“Regular walking can strengthen your heart and improve your general health. Walk and enjoy yourself as you enhance the quality of your life.”

My dogs and I – the two pictured here, and two others (one gone, one sadly going) – have been walking past this fading but affirming sign several times a week for over a decade. Best health-and-happiness advice I’ve ever received, dispensed for free by the good congregants of the adjoining Baptist church on whose tax-free property we’ve been traipsing all these years. Our transitory  souls, the dogs’ and mine, thank them very much for generously sharing their space with us – and for not proselytizing.

“Walking continues to be a great pleasure. It also continues to be a form of self-medication. It stops me from getting depressed. It keeps me more or less healthy, more or less sane. It helps me to write.” (Geoff Nicholson)

Except for that last sentence my dogs would say the same. The sign is right.


*Originally posted 5.14.09

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May 24, 2013

When you talk dogs and philosophy you really have to begin with Diogenes of Sinope, don’t you?

DiogenesSolvitur ambulando* (“it is solved by walking”) is often attributed to him. Don’t know why canes is typically omitted from the phrase, since the philosopher whose full nominal designation (“D. the Cynic”) practically means dog, knew the  ultimate solution almost always involves a second or third set of appendages. Preferably a quadra-set, and canine.

(Actually my Latin teacher, Ms. Google-Translate, prefers *solvendum est per ambulationem canes. Write that on the board a hundred times! Tense is tricky. But cynics do not cavil over convention.)

Unless they’ve been “trained”, dogs and Cynic philosophers do what it occurs to them to do when it occurs to them to do it, without regard for local custom or popular propriety or (especially) the presence of commanding authority. Diogenes told Alexander to step out of his sunlight. We’re told Alex was impressed. The dog was not. But why does that make either Diogenes or his dog a “cynic”?

There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them.

AngelPupMy dogs are actually much sweeter and more compliant than that. They’re waggers, not barkers. They don’t even hassle fundamentalists or Platonists. (Squirrels & chipmunks are another story.) One’s an “Angel,” not a “Cynic,” thanks to Younger Daughter’s inspiration at the puppy pound. But wouldn’t Cynic and Diogenes be perfect names for a pair of pups? Their eventual successors perhaps, should I live so long.

But not so fast, they’d say if they could. These two are still fabulous walking companions and they’re infinitely patient. I won’t keep them waiting another moment.


Free attention

May 16, 2013

The Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto, Japan commemorates the Japanese Jamesian Kitaro Nishida.

File:Path of philosophy.jpg

And so does San Francisco’s Philosopher’s Way, in McLaren Park.

A virtual walk engages the imagination but not the senses, and not that vital sense of the ever-fleeting “nick of time” that Thoreau toed. So, it’s no substitute for the real thing. But this is still terrific. I’m going to SF, as soon as I can. It’s been too many years since my last Giants game anyway.

Meanwhile, I’m adding Nishida and his philosophy of attention to my stable of pedestrian philosophers. His “musing” plaque in the park, if you missed it:

Thinking has its own laws. It functions of its own accord and does not follow our will. To merge with the act of thought – that is, to direct one’s attention to it – is voluntary, but I think perception is the same in this respect: we are able to see what we want to see by freely turning our attention towards it.

Increasingly I am persuaded that controlled attention may be as close to the secret of life as we’ll ever come.

Thales wet and dry

May 15, 2013

Thales, widely though somewhat arbitrarily designated the first western philosopher, was a walker.

And notorioiusly, a plunger. So caught up was he one day, lost in his ruminations about water being the font et origo of things, that he tripped and dipped.  “Drowning in the act of speculation,” John Lachs dryly notes.

The other side of the story, we always hasten to add, is that he was also sufficiently worldly-wise to corner the olive market when he wanted to.

Plato’s version had it that Thales fell into the drink because his gaze was fixed on the starry heavens. What exactly he was thinking is anyone’s guess.

What else do we know of Thales’ perambulations? Not much. But I think that’s enough, for my purposes. It’s good to contemplate the stars and the material nature of existence. It’s also good to keep our feet on terra firma.

What sort of space makes you solitary?

March 17, 2012

Awoke in a foul and complaining mood this morning. First, because I’m home alone. It’s Spring Break for everybody else in the family. They lit out for the beach yesterday afternoon, straight from school, and left me stranded here with the dogs & cat & fish & a pile of grading. I enjoy my solitude, but prefer to take it in the rough proximity of loved ones.  Not to hurt the cat’s feelings, or minimize the consolations of a purr at your elbow… but it was just simply too quiet here last night. The silence was deafening.

Plus, I didn’t get to see them off because I had to go straight from the auto shop (brake job, they were worn down to a millimeter) to meet with another arbitrary rejection from the Academic Committee That Cannot Be Named.

And  topping it all, I have a headache.

But if you complain, as Eric Idle told Michael Palin, it does you no good etc. etc.

So here’s something to feel good about, reported in TimeA Daily Walk Can Reduce the Power of Weight-Gaining Genes

It’s the first study to bring the effect of exercise down to the genetic level, and to measure how physical activity can change the way genes work — in this case by inhibiting the activity of genes that promote weight gain. MORE:How Exercise Can Change Your DNA

The study also documented an increase in the activity of these genes among those who were more sedentary. For every two hours spent in front of the television every day, there was a 0.3 kg/m2 increase in Body Mass Index (BMI). The fact that walking and TV watching each had independent effects on BMI hints that it’s important both to increase exercise and reduce sedentary time in order to lose weight.

Losing weight is not my issue, but gaining momentum can be. What I really lose on my daily hour ramble is (for instance) angry feelings about obtuse academics, and feelings of excessive solitude, and aches in the cranium.

So I gotta get out there right now. Sorry cat, you don’t get to go. A purr will take a person only so far, and I too believe it’s really  crucial to walk the dogs – and not just for the many, many health benefits. This morning I’ll be pondering one of Thoreau’s more interesting reflections on what it really means to be alone.

Men frequently say to me, “I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.” I am tempted to reply to such—This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This which you put seems to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another. What do we want most to dwell near to? Not to many men surely, the depot, the post-office, the bar-room, the meeting-house, the school-house, the grocery, Beacon Hill, or the Five Points, where men most congregate, but to the perennial source of our life, whence in all our experience we have found that to issue, as the willow stands near the water and sends out its roots in that direction. This will vary with different natures, but this is the place where a wise man will dig his cellar…. Walden

Henry was wrong about one thing: I’ve found that an exertion of the legs can close some of the gap between people. I’ll probably have to walk from here to the gulf, though, to feel better about that *&%$! committee.

HHDL & something completely different

November 15, 2011

Our assignment in SOL today is to find something relevant pertaining to the Dalai Lama and share it. Here’s my choice, HHDL in London a few years ago. Isn’t that John Cleese, 20 seconds in, appreciating the DL’s pluralistic observation that Buddhism is not for everyone (but neither is Christianity, et al)?

There’s a wealth of relevant stuff out there, online and in print. Check out the “Night-Stand Buddhist” site for more suggestions.

Those of us with the Dalai Lama’s book in hand have the alternative assignment of reading and posing questions about the first three chapters. Circumambulation, mentioned briefly in chapter one, is the topic I’m most intrigued by. It’s a ritual practice intended to facilitate or “fabricate” an enlightenend state of mind and feeling more conducive to selfless and compassionate Buddhahood, and it largely involves walking around in circles.

To circumambulate literally means to ‘walk around.’ The principle involves making a clear and conscious connection with something that is regarded as special. This is often a physical object but it could also be a person. In a religious context ‘the thing’ would be seen as especially related to or embodying the transcendent qualities aspired to. In a more mundane situation one could go round a dwelling say as part of a blessing. Buddhamind

Great! I’ve been practicing this one unwittingly for years, though usually without explicit thought of any sacred foci. The circuit around Radnor Lake might be an occasional exception there, like Thoreau’s Walden perambulations.

More typically, my circles tend to meander in wide and mostly-random spires. Nor do I walk in robes, or in a pack. (Can a peripatetic fly solo, or with canines?)

But this begins to answer my old perplexity: why must effective meditation be zazen, “seated”? Evidently it needn’t be, though the blog Zen Man Walking indicates that the seated form has its special dispensations.

My own contemplative nature, though, is best activated by slow and steady motion. In my experience the mind is most calm and clear at about 4 mph. As the Buddha said, “to walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.” Good shoes don’t hurt either.


September 24, 2009

Matthieu Ricard begins Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by trying to rehabilitate an idea I confess I’ve always looked down on: renunciation, “a much-misunderstood concept.” It’s not about giving up anything good or beautiful or meaningful, he says; it’s about “freedom from mental confusion and self-centered afflictions,” and “meaning through insight and loving-kindness.”

So it doesn’t parallel “negation,” is in fact an affirming state of mind? Joyous, even? It will be a stretch for me to make that connection, I thought joi de vivre was a condition requiring active, energetic, integrative and positive movement– none of which are normally connoted for me by the word “renounce.” But I’m listening.

Here’s an illustration of how I’ve tended to think about renunciation: “The purity of [the Jamesian concept of ] pure experience,” I wrote, ” is not that of renunciation in the eastern sense, of personal desires and attachments. James was quite at home with the idea that we are the particular bundles of wants, preferences, valuations, and (especially) experiences, and actions that uniquely individuate each of us. As they change and grow, or stagnate, so do we. The people, places, and things to which we sustain voluntary attachments are the most important constituents of our respective identities. To renounce them, or detach from them, would be to die… you can reach a state of consciousness called ‘clear consciousness’ in which the mind is perfectly lucid, without being caught up in discursive thoughts.” We can reach such a state, but James does not advise futile efforts to stay there. Life presses forward.”

Renunciation, in other words, has always seemed to me to mean something like stagnation, torpor, ennui, even suicide. But I stand ready and receptive to Brother Matthieu’s correction.

meditate-on-a-mountainBut I also note that some advocates of renunciation are quite frank: it means “losing interest in life’s activities… letting go of all desires and attachments… turning inward instead of constantly being focused outward.” This is the diametrical contradiction of Russell’s advice in Conquest of Happiness. Happy people of my stripe take an active interest in the  far-flung “outward” world. Is there some reason I’m missing, why we can’t honor our inner subjectivity while also caring about people, places, and things out there?

It’s not, they say, about “going off to meditate on a mountain and escaping the world.” But Ricard opened his TED talk with that enticing Tibetan mountain view. It sure looks, at the very least, like holding the world at arm’s length. It looks like detachment, when engagement seems the more responsible attitude. Is this just semantics?

Then, Ricard gently disputes Henri Bergson’s view that the vagueness of “happiness” is a virtue, allowing us each to interpret its meaning as we see fit. He wants to be more precise.

Can we agree that the Sage of Konigsburg, dutifully bearing the world of pure and practical reason on his back, following his impersonal imperatives and acting categorically for all humanity, was badly mistaken when he said happiness must be “rational and devoid of anyKant personal taint.” Taint?!

can kantThis is one of the nubs of the issue, for me. Personal values, predilections, enthusiasms, interests, idiosyncracies, peccadillos… these are our delights. For us to abandon them for the rational, impersonal, categorical (etc.) out of a sense of duty to the Moral Law and Reason for its own sake, is not to pursue happiness, it’s to denigrate happiness as peripheral to more important things (to be ascertained by always supposing that our choices must legislate for all, imperatively, impersonally, and categorically).  Kantians can help us remember not to denigrate the common world, and bless them for that. But if happiness  is not, at the end of the day, about personal satisfactions and my individual flourishing (and yours), I say it’s over-rated. It is, though. So it isn’t. Critique that, Immanuel.

This looks like a more promising formulation: happiness is “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind… not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being.” And the stoic element of Buddhism is prominent here too: “while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.” I’m prepared to take that possibility as axiomatic, though it seems impossible to “prove.” No problem.

I think Ricard must (to his credit) be a walker, with his example of a perfectly happy pedestrian “walking through a serene wilderness, [with] no particular expectations beyond the simple act of walking. She simply is, here and now, free and open.” Yep, that’s precisely the feeling behind my goofball smile, if you ever spot me ambling down the street or around the lake. (Kant was a daily walker too, I wonder what his problem was.)

But that’s not the whole nine yards, “the difference between these flashes… and the immutable peacefulness of the sage is as great as that between the tiny section of sky seen through the eye of the needle and the limitless expanses of outer space.” So it’s vast, cosmic. I’m familiar with the flash, and find it readily repeatable. But I wonder how I’d do as a sage.

Better than Sartre, I hope. We’ve already seen that he has no use for what he regards as the silly American pursuit of happiness. He makes me sick. Nauseous. Dukkha-filled. Redundant. Superfluous. Suicidal. Well, he would if I swallowed his Nothingness nostrums.

Jean_Paul_SartreIn fairness, Sartre is expressing the state of mind of the pre-Existentialist hero who has yet to take full personal responsibility for creating his own essence, when he says “we hadn’t the slightest reason to be [here].” He’s quite clear, in Existentialism is a Humanism, that fashioning one’s own raison d’etre is a worthy and meaningful undertaking. He’s also quite clear in subverting that activity through the concept of “bad faith.” No wonder he sat around in bars smoking harsh unfiltered cigarettes, suffering logorrhea and the “wicked world syndrome.” (And I suppose I might, too, if the Nazis occupied my country.)

“Sukha is the state of lasting well-being that manifests itself when we have freed ourselves of mental blindness and afflictive emotions,” and Ricard says it is also an undistortive window on reality. My framing question remains: can I have some without disengaging from responsible activity and involvement in the world? Windows are good. So are doors.

So: how to begin to meditate. I love the instruction to just “watch your mind, the coming and going of thoughts… do not be bothered by them.” I do it every day. But I don’t sit first, I walk out the door and I keep going. Works for me. But what works for you?


May 27, 2009

Simon Critchley, recently applauded here, has a nice new Times essay on happiness. He quotes 18th century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great  romantic dreamer of noble savagery in a benign state of nature, from “Reveries of a Solitary Walker”:reveries

If there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul.

Sounds a lot like what has been called “flow,” a state of body and mind in which time is mooted and we are  contentedly one with what we’re doing, as we’re doing it. Like Rousseau, I try to experience such reveries afoot – usually in the semi-solitude afforded by my companionable canines.  Perfect walks are infrequent, but very good ones are common. Happiness can be taken in stride.

There are degrees of walking reverie; at the upper end of the scale the experience is indeed a matter of sauntering in a spirit of receptive, contemplative spontaneity, making space for unbidden thoughts that “happen as they will,.” Then there are more meditative walks, aiming (like seated meditation) at a pleasant blankness.  And there are purposive problem-solving walks, each step confidently gaining on something.

Someone should write The Varieties of Perambulatory Experience. I’ll put it on my list.

But Critchley is also right to remind us that  reverie can be tapped from many sources, in many ways, at many angles of inclination… if we’re fully present to them.  It’s just that walking works most reliably for me, as apparently it did for J-J R.

Intoxicated w/Spring

May 23, 2009

warner park may21.09jpgHere’s what you can do when an illuminating early am visit to the 4th grade “Electric Houses” exhibit puts you off your May morning routine of writing and then walking the dogs before the sun climbs too high for their comfort (we’re already getting those summerish mornings here):

Give the dogs the day off, and head (w/bicycle) to Edwin Warner Park. Hike the Harpeth Woods trail, scale the semi-strenuous bisecting hill, then bike the paved, conveniently  non-auto-vehicular roadway that girdles the park… while listening to a great mp3 audio rendition of Jim Harrison’s The English Major. I share “Cliff’s” Whitman- esque intoxication with spring, and I agree with his fictional Harvard prof who said: in the realm of absolute imagination we remain young late in life.

But at 60 it’s getting late early for Cliff, I still have some years on him.  Or so I choose to believe.