The Spirituality of Walking

An Awe-Full (or Awe-Filled!) Experience

You who know my habits know that a daily walk or two is a really must-do activity. So David and I take at least one walk, usually around the neighborhood or nearby park, each day – two if we're lucky. (See my lead photo and the first one below.) We miss our walks when we're traveling, so we try to walk even then – even if only around and around the hotel’s parking lot! When we walk at home, we are always accompanied by my cell phone playing a Pandora station – usually Fleetwood Mac or Hall & Oates to match our gait. (We are well-known around our neighborhood as the couple who hold hands while they walk. This is how our host introduced us at a neighborhood holiday party we were invited to attend. There must've been a hundred-plus folks there, many of whom we didn't know. But we were that “couple who walk holding hands,” and many recognized us by that description.

Which brings me to “The Transcendent Power of Walking” by Francis Sanzaro in the Sept. 18, 2022, issue of The New York Times. (Please see the second photo below). Sanzaro is a mountain climber who altered his walking venue from running mountain trails to neighborhood strolls. Reading it, I knew there was a blog in there somewhere. He writes that “study after study after study has proved what we feel, intuitively, in our gut: Walking is good for us. Beneficial for our joints and muscles; astute at relieving tension, reducing anxiety and depression; a boon to creativity ... slows the aging process, maybe ...” Sanzaro cites Shane O’Mara, a professor of experimental brain research in Dublin, who called walking a “superpower,” claiming that “walking, and only walking, unlocks specific parts of our brains, places that bequeath happiness and health.” Sanzaro writes:

I started walking around my neighborhood more. Compared with those wild places, this was unremarkable: pacing down a sidewalk of 10-year-old maples, across cracked squares of pavement, alongside a ditch bursting with spring runoff. But I turned it into a practice of sensation. I listened. I felt.

And in a remarkable way, the neighborhood came alive – alive in a way that those mountaintop or the wildflower-strewn rivulet in the valley below never had. My senses, once atrophied, came to life, and with them, so did the world around me.

Sanzaro goes on to write about working to overcome what he terms “concepts” or those filters that do aid us in navigating our world and figuring out what’s going on out there, but that also tend to come between us and our raw experience of nature and place right before us. In fact, our bodies can help us in that regard, because brain researchers study what they term “automaticity” as we stroll. That is, our nervous systems coordinate our movements without having to think and plan our next moves. His point is that if we can just reduce our busy brain’s conceptual thinking, we can “leverage the gift of walking to stop thinking and start doing ... paying attention to the stuff of place, the place itself.” And the place itself comes to life. He writes:

It doesn’t matter if I’m going to the store or for a lunchtime stroll to catch a glimpse of a sexy tree – I know I”m walking. I breathe, I swipe left on everything that tries to lodge itself between me and the world. Pebbles crunch underfoot. Leaves smile in my eyes. Sounds emanate from bottomless wells. The world gets younger, exalted. I see, smell, hear and feel things I didn’t before. It’s not profound, not magic, but it is impossible to tie a ribbon around.

Well, maybe it’s time to turn to the topic of Awe – “a feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world,” writes Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California – Berkeley. In “Delving Into the Science of Awe” (The New York Times, January 3, 2023 – see last photo below), Hope Reese quotes Keltner’s research that suggests that awe has great health benefits that include calming down our nervous system and triggering the release of oxytocin, the “love” hormone that promotes trust and bonding. Keltner reports that the experience of awe activates clusters of neurons in the spinal cord that regulate certain bodily functions, slowing our heart rate and deepening breathing. Apparently awe also has psychological benefits. He writes that “many of us have a critical voice in our head, telling us we’re not smart, beautiful or rich enough. Awe seems to quiet this negative self-talk tendency.” Reese also cites an email from Judith Moskowitz, another scientist who studies positive emotions: “(I)ntentional awe experiences, like walks in nature, collective movement, like dance or ceremony ... improve psychological well-being.”

So apparently the experience of awe is good for your brain and your psyche and, therefore, that pure feeling of being in the presence of something vast and beyond defining conceptually. But recognizing when it comes over you – when you feel it – would be good to develop and cultivate in your life. In a cross-cultural study here and in China, folks kept journals describing experiences that sounded a lot like awe happening to them two or three times a week. “It was like, ‘Oh, I can just take a breath and look around,” one said. “It doesn’t require privilege or wealth; awe is just around us.”

Reese has a few suggestions to practice and cultivate the feeling of awe in your own life. First, she suggests focusing on the “moral beauty” of others. Just the simple act of witnessing the goodness of others can create the feeling of awe. What comes to mind as I write this is the kindness and goodness of the Buffalo Bills football player who was injured in a recent NFL game televised a few days ago. Damar Hamlin had established a foundation to help poor kids in his old neighborhood in Pittsburgh. After he was injured, millions of dollars poured in to help those same kids – likely motivated by an awe response to Hanlin’s generosity and goodness.

Second, Reese suggests practicing “mindfulness“ or meditation, contemplation and reflection, or at any rate, slowing down, breathing deeply – priming us for awe.

Finally, she suggests being open to new experiences. For example, choose that unfamiliar path to walk down, because awe can spring from novelty. Choosing a different restaurant, taking an unfamiliar path in the woods, checking out a new route or listening to music that is unfamiliar to you – apparently can trigger awe.

Well, being a creature of habit, I’m working on that last route to Awe. But apparently that healthy experience of openness to the world around us, welcoming wonder and awe whether we are standing in a checkout line or walking our neighborhood route, is just there for the practice. So let’s make 2023 an “Awe-some“ time as we embrace the gift of every day that we are given in this world we live in. Here’s to life and to living it as best we can, day by day, as we travel our journey together.

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Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.