Friday, 14 November 2014

Beginning with a single step…

There is something richly rewarding about putting one foot in front of another – as has probably been said as many times I have actually done so… – particularly over several miles; and especially when the weather is clement, and the landscape picturesque (although I also love walking in the rain and snow, in certain cities, and on the flat…). There is also something richly rewarding about overcoming the pain and effort that each step takes – especially when the (small) sensible part of my brain is telling me to turn around, before I go too far (literally beyond the point of no return).

But, without stretching my limits, pushing the boundaries, then one of the reasons that I walk would lose its allure: as that last mile – when my legs are wobbly; bits of me ache that I didn’t know I had (as well as those I did); and then, finally, my destination comes in sight – suddenly pushes all negativity away: and a final rush of acceleration (or imperceptible increase in speed, to those observing me…) rewards me with a rush of endorphins and adrenaline (the body’s natural painkillers and energy bars), that, like an emphatic, crescendoing Elgarian finale, wipes out any memories of the heartrending passages that have preceded it. (A bit like childbirth, I am told.)

On Monday, on a whim, I ended up taking more steps in one day (just over 14,000) than I had done in total over the last three weeks; and remembered – even through the next day’s subsequent fug of tiredness and worsening symptoms – why I have always walked to deal with my pain: even if, in the short term, it so increases it. Not only does it improve my fitness, and therefore my ability to deal with daily challenges; but, whilst I am “putting one foot in front of another”, I am also directing my gaze mainly outwards – and not concentrating on what ails me – whether that be on the scenery (and framing a reasonably good photograph), or chatting to the other walkers I meet, and engaging in some reciprocal fussing with their various canine companions.

Let us fix our attention out of ourselves as much as possible: Let us chase our imaginations to the heavens, or to the utmost limits of the universe; we never really advance a step beyond ourselves, nor can conceive any kind of existence, but those perceptions, which have appeared in that narrow compass.

Coping with aches and pains by focusing elsewhere is, of course, an ancient trick; and one that has been used in all sorts of ways: from meditation to pushing through the effects of injuries inflicted by war. We distract ourselves – sometimes deliberately, sometimes not – and ignore our own needs – sometimes temporarily, sometimes for long periods of time – to care for others, or simply to get through the day: perhaps the two sides of a coin featuring a self-serving head and altruistic tails.

Pacing and distraction (usually by some form of relaxation) are key parts, therefore, of most pain (self-) management programmes – once you have gotten over the fact that this is how it’s (always) going to be. That doesn’t mean stopping fighting, of course: just applying whatever energies you may have in a more organized, consistent fashion. On a day like Monday, though, when there is suddenly the strength, or the urge is felt, only a true ascetic would have stuck to their self-imposed limits, ignoring the resulting enjoyment and reward (which, despite accepted wisdom, is not wiped out by the agonies of the morning after the day before – unless you let it).

The real challenge – for me, though, in my current state (in the bottom dip of an infinite sine-wave of permanent ill-health) – is in repeating such achievements: so that they become habitual, and don’t depend on whim or chance. This I used to be good at: walking between twenty-five and fifty miles a week, up hill and down dale, and in all sorts of conditions (both me and the weather…). In fact, in many ways, it became an addiction (but much less harmful than most analgesics); and I think there wasn’t a footpath within five or ten miles of my front door that didn’t bear the fading imprint of my favourite walking boots (which I have replaced with an almost identical pair; but still can’t bear to throw away: even though their soles have long been treadless and flat – an apt metaphor, perhaps, for my current lethargy: which I keep telling myself is enforced; and yet I know that Monday’s trek is eminently repeatable…).

A week or so ago, in the Guardian, Ben Okri wrote – in the King or queen for a day column – that…

If I had the power to impose my will, I would get people to walk more. We walk only when we have to, hurrying between places where vehicles can’t take us…. I would have people walk to the next bus stop rather than stand there waiting. I would have people get lost walking just for the special pleasures of discovery. I would have people walk when they are depressed, walk when they are overwhelmed with problems, when they are anxious, when they are sad. I’d have them walk when they are happy, just so they can infect the world with their precious mood.

It is not an accident that the ancients linked walking and thinking. Images of Plato’s Academy show master and pupil walking. The peripatetic philosophers walked thinking. There is a Buddhist practice of mindful walking, walking as a form of meditation, walking linked with breathing as a liberator of consciousness.

…walking is its own thing. It keeps us close to the right level of life and close to the natural pace of things.

And, having already grumbled in this blog about…

…our lazy ways of driving our children to school; or arriving at village meetings by car; or nipping down to Bart’s for a loaf of bread in our 4x4s, when all of our local amenities are central, and easily accessible on foot even to those, like me, who walk in pain, and with a stick; and when the three hamlets – from Tysoe Manor to Lane End Farm – are less than two miles from end-to-end (and that’s using the roads; not cutting corners with our frequent footpaths, or as the numerous crows fly…)

…all I can do is concur – and hope to lead by example – by just continually “putting one foot in front of the other” as I used to do; and remembering, as Laozi famously said, that “The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.”

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