by John Coward
I walk to find out what I think. I walk to contemplate, to muse, to explore, to be in nature, to be in the world. This is not an original idea. In fact, I adapted (read: stole) this idea from the novelist and essayist Joan Didion, who once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.”
Didion has it right, but I want to extend her notion to the act of walking as a creative process. I argue that there is something mentally freeing about the act of physically passing over the earth, simply putting one foot in front of the other. Walking, in other words, can spark images and foster juxtapositions, the contrasting ideas that lead to original thoughts, new ways of perceiving the world.
There are many examples of walking and writing in literature (think of the poetry of Wordsworth and Whitman, or the naturalist John Muir) but I want to consider the 17th-century Japanese poet known as Basho, who wandered the countryside in search of spiritual awakenings. After a fire destroyed his house in 1682, Basho began a long walk, collecting material for a new poetic form known as haibun.
The Poetry Foundation describes haibun as “a hybrid form alternating fragments of prose and haiku to trace a journey.” Beyond the form, haibun involves images that work on two levels. The external images are those observed on the physical journey; the internal images are those “that move through the traveler’s mind during the journey,” as the Poetry Foundation puts it.
I don’t read Japanese nor have I visited the places Basho walked and wrote about. But I embrace this idea—walking and thinking, thinking and walking, observing the moments that can lead to deeper experiences in the world.
The idea is to approach a kind of revelatory mindlessness, an experience similar to haiku, a poetic form without symbolism. Haiku is simply “[l]ife as it flows,” according to David Shiller, author of The Little Zen Companion. Shiller continues: “There is no egotism [in haiku] either; haiku is practically authorless. But in its preoccupation with the simple, the seemingly trivial stuff of everyday life—a falling leaf, snow, a fly—haiku shows us how to see into the life of things and gain a glimpse of enlightenment.”
I love this focus on the “seemingly trivial,” small incidents and movements that can be significant. I like to think that some journeys—some steps along the path—can open our minds and bodies to something richer and deeper, even if we don’t glimpse enlightenment.
In Tulsa, an oil-born city designed for cars, walking often seems an oddity. In some neighborhoods it’s difficult to walk very far because of traffic or lack of sidewalks (or both). Given this environment, it’s hard to wander like Basho or even walk down the street to buy a loaf of bread. Besides, in twenty-first century America, we all believe we have far too much to do. No mindless wandering for us.
But when it’s possible to slow down, walking can give the mind a way to escape the routines of daily life and push through to something more profound. Walking can give us time to imagine and create something new and beautiful and a space to work through ideas—even to solve problems. Walking is not a panacea, of course, but it can move us forward.
As with many things, the first step is often the hardest.
John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).
Photo by Morikawa Kyoriku (1656-1715) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons