The most obvious way to take a meditative approach to walking, is by doing so silently – either alone or in company. Silence has a distinct power of its own, and as noise tends to be the social norm, it is well worth exploring what happens when we are silent, and silent in the company of others. I find sitting in silence to be really powerful, especially when shared, but will freely admit that silent walking does not work for me in the same way. Your millage may vary.
When we sit together silently, there’s very little external stimulus. A controlled, inside space means no unexpected things will occur. Any thoughts arising can be kept and shared later. Being outside, whether moving or stationary, we are more likely to encounter something unexpected. In interior spaces, working internally, there are only certain kinds of connection we can make.
On the first silent walk I undertook, quite a while ago, I found almost at once that it didn’t work for me. I wanted to share the things I was seeing, and in a group it’s only possible to alert people with sound unless they can all see you. I’m not sure that replacing sound with mime and arm waving is at all true to the idea of silence, it’s just swapping action for noise, while slowing down and reducing what I can express. If a buzzard flies over or I glimpse a deer in the undergrowth, there may be very little time to alert those around me. I’m good at spotting wildlife, and I love getting to share those moments of connection and joy with fellow walkers. To stay silent and let someone else miss out on beauty just feels wrong to me.
If you want to see wildlife when walking, then a quiet and attentive approach is vital. Most creatures have better hearing than we do, and a profound desire to be where we are not. I’ve walked with people who are talkers; interested in filling a walk with political debate and great thinking. Sometimes you have to stop them to get them to even see the big vistas of landscape. The person who is too caught up in their own head is not engaging with the world. The skills that make for good, indoors silent sitting – the deep inward looking of that can also be a disengagement when you take it outside. What point is there in moving in a landscape if you are not participating in the landscape and being open to other presences?
I’m also very interested in stories in the landscape. To handle this to best effect, it’s necessary to talk about them as they come up. Evidence of human history, of the ancient past in the forms of geology and geography, local folklore, and the like are all present in many locations. To comment on them and share knowledge and insight in situ is a powerful thing. It stops the landscape of a story from being just backdrop and makes it intrinsic. It is through stories that we tend to form our inner maps and make emotional connections with places, so sharing the stories of a landscape helps people bond with the place they are in.
My son and I moved area when he was 8, from the place he’d grown up to the place I’d grown up. At first he was disorientated. He and I had walked together a lot and got to know the place we’d left, but this new place made no sense to him. In the first few weeks, we walked a lot, and I storied him into that landscape until places became identifiable, and the history of the place, and the family history of the place became ingrained in him, and he settled. Conversely, when I’d moved away from this area for the Midlands, my lack of stories to go with the landscape left me feeling adrift for many years, and collecting stories of place took a long time.
For me, the critical thing when walking is to avoid banality and small talk. Words for the sake of making a noise cut us off from what’s around us. If I’m alone I would never wear headphones to cut me off from my surroundings, either. If the time spent walking is used as time for a brain workout, a debate, an argument, a showing off of knowledge then this too cuts us off from the landscape. The default should always be silence, but with spaciousness so that when something important comes up, there’s room for sharing. That might be observations of what’s around us, it might be questions the landscape inspires, or stories we associate with a place. Given time and space, walking can cause deeper personal revelations to float to the surface sometimes, too, and those are also worth airing and sharing. If we’re too absolute about silence, we can lose the richness of experience. Human communication is part of being real, present and alive, when we get it right.