Guest post by Claire de Boursac (MBACP). Claire is a psychotherapist and walk leader working in private practice in London.
Over the last year I’ve been walking with awareness along a disused railway line in North London. For me, an awareness walk in nature is akin to a superfood smoothie for our whole being- physical, emotional, mental and spiritual- combining ingredients we know to be really good for us in something truly delicious.
I’m a nature- loving Londoner working as a humanistic psychotherapist and am a Walk for Health leader so I have a personal knowing and professional understanding of the benefits of a) cultivating awareness b) walking, and c) being in nature. I expected to find it a pleasurable and health- enhancing experience but I wasn’t expecting it to be so powerfully so. A wonderful alchemy happens when the three elements come together.
I’ve walked along this piece of land for many years, appreciating it as a way to get from A to B avoiding the main roads. So what’s different when I walk it with awareness? Essentially I organise a particular mind and body state in which to walk. Modern urban life, at least in the West, typically requires us to use our quick, thinking part of the brain a lot. We are constantly taking in and processing information and forming responses. We typically spend a lot of time reviewing what has happened and planning for the future. This can be exhausting and overwhelming and can disconnect us from ourselves and our environment.
Before I start walking I consciously invite the part of my mind which has been keeping me on top of a busy schedule and London life to go off duty. It’s probably been working hard for hours and is well overdue a break! I use some simple awareness exercises (including breathing and body scan) to bring my attention into the present moment, to my immediate experience of myself and my environment. In contrast to the busy mind which has been super alert, our senses are often dulled in the urban environment so I invite them to wake up and join the walk fully. I simply spend a moment with each sense, allowing whatever is there to be received. Rather than seeking the sounds, letting them arrive at my ear and then noticing without judgement, without needing to understand or define them.
Through these simple exercises we can turn the volume down on our busy, chattering mind and up on our senses. Our surroundings come into sharper focus and we notice things which were there but previously not known. Although we’re all different, generally in a very short space of time the system adjusts and we find ourselves in a somewhat altered relationship with ourselves and the world around us, more accepting, more connected.
The intention for the walk is to be in this state as much as possible. Inevitably my mind will wander. That’s OK. I just bring it gently back with a conscious breath or by feeling my feet on the path. The call of a bird may serve as a helpful reminder, locating me back in this moment, in this place. Walking in this way seems to evoke an attitude of gentle appreciation. I might become aware of the many distinct movements involved in taking a step, admiring the complex machine I call my body. I might notice the seemingly endless shades of green surrounding me and marvel at the delicate beauty of the leaves of a particular tree. There is much to be inspired by when we take the time to really notice. As is so often the case, the attitude I form to the outside world mirrors the one I’m holding for myself and I tend to finish the walk feeling appreciative of myself too.
At the end of the walk I feel grounded, energised and recharged. Things that seemed stressful or troublesome at the start of the walk somehow seem more manageable and less important at the end. Some of us know and enjoy these feelings in a yoga studio or on a mediation mat. I find it wonderful to experience this out in the world, alongside my fellow beings. We are, after all, social beings living in a shared space.
There are many ways and places to walk with awareness and I’ve always found it a deeply satisfying and nourishing experience. There are two things which have supercharged my walks- the added shot of wheatgrass to the superfood smoothie if you like. The first is walking the same route through shifting seasons. This has added excitement and interest, noticing the changes or the emergence of something new. It has been a reassuring reminder that the world is not fixed and constant. Change is normal and not necessarily something to be feared. It reminds me of cycles. Of birth, death and renewal. And at the same time it gives a seemingly contradictory sense of consistency. This space is always there to welcome and nourish me, always available.
The second is walking with others. I lead awareness walks for a small group. Although we walk at our own pace and in silence there is a strong sense of shared experience and it’s always delightful to hear what other’s have seen, smelt, heard and experienced during their walk. I appreciate the sense of connectedness and community this brings.
Photo source: Claire de Boursac