“Oh no, if you’re walking as transport, that isn’t spiritual.”
I was in a conversation with someone who had expressed an enthusiasm for embodied spirituality, and was told this. My idea of spiritual walking – namely that all walking is, or can be spiritual – was apparently wrong. I don’t know how many other people believe this – that to be spiritual, an activity has to be redundant in practical terms – but it makes no sense to me. How can we talk about embodied spirituality, but only have it apply when we aren’t occupied with the physical realities of living? What it means is that Tai Chi and Yoga and standing meditations and walking that is deliberately constructed to be a spiritual exercise can be spiritual, but getting somewhere is excluded.
To do something that has no use to you may seem like a good act of dedication to the divine. Time and energy poured into an act that has no purpose other than to express adoration for the divine. If that’s your path, by all means, follow it, but it isn’t mine and never will be. Central to this is that I do not want this neat divide of sacred and profane. I don’t want to see some things as special and other bits as not special – for me this is intrinsic to embodied, experienced spirituality. All of the earth is sacred. Any act of engaging with the earth can therefore be sacred if we want it to be.
As a Pagan I want to engage spiritually with the physical realities of my existence. I want to live in my breath and my movement – something I don’t always do well. I want to live as greenly as I can – walking for me is part of being sustainable, and being sustainable to the best of my abilities is for me, a key act of Pagan dedication. I need to get places – to work the soil, to share bardic expressions, to buy food and clothes, to meet people. None of these things strike me as being intrinsically unspiritual aims. I seek relationship and survival.
There’s another aspect to this in that green living takes time. I cook from raw materials most days. I hand wash my clothes. I don’t have a car. Things that are the work of minutes for some people take me hours. This does not leave me with a vast amount of time and bodily energy to devote to doing spiritual things that serve no practical purpose. My choice to live lightly is in no small part a spiritual choice.
It doesn’t matter where I am or why I am walking or who I am with – I always pay a lot of attention to my surroundings, to the elements and the wildlife around me. Anyone who is walking can. I am more conscious of the exact shape of the land when I walk than when inside any mode of transport. I feel and acknowledge the wind, the sun, the night time – there’s conscious connection and presence for me. It doesn’t matter if I’ve popped out for a loaf of bread, or am coming back from a party – I could still see a fox, or hear an owl, and I’m alert to all of that.
To walk (or cycle) for transport is to make a big commitment to living lightly. Cars cause all sorts of problems – emissions, contribution to global climate change, wars fought over oil, noise pollution, air pollution, the need for roads and parking spaces requiring land to be covered in tarmac, the death toll of wildlife on the roads, the interruption and destruction of habitats for roads, the deaths of people on the roads… I think anything any of us can do to reduce this has to be good. It is not easy or convenient to do without a car in a culture that assumes car use as normal. It can be socially alienating and makes jobs and key infrastructure – like healthcare – much harder to access. It is, by any measure, a sacrifice.
But of course no one is selling expensive courses in getting from A to B on your own two feet. No exotic walking to work retreats, no walking to the supermarket gurus, and so on. It is ‘pedestrian’ with all that suggests to us. No one gets to be important by walking to where they need to be, and no one will be impressed by how special and spiritual you are if they see you doing it.
We evolved to get around by walking. We have this unusual body configuration precisely so that we can put one foot in front of the other to get where we need to be. Walking is ancestral, it is fundamental, it is intrinsic to being human. Walking to get stuff done is a major part of the history of our species. How can this not be spiritual?