The spiritual discipline of the long walk

The spiritual discipline of the long walk

My friend Adam McHugh’s next book likely won’t hit the shelves until 2015, but I got to read chapter 5 last week. (You may know Adam from his first book Introverts in the Church, and if you haven’t already read it, you should find yourself a copy of it right now.)

The book is about the listening life, which Adam wryly says isn’t glamorous or sexy, and will never be the Next Big Thing. It’s a quiet discipline, and one we desperately need–as individuals and as a culture–even if it’s the talkers who seem to get all the glory.

I’m excited to read it.

In chapter 5, Listening to Creation, Adam proposes “the spiritual discipline of the long walk.” Adam writes:

It is long because the monologue racing through our heads takes a while to talk itself out, and it is a walk because moving any faster would make the world blurry, and this is a practice which requires attention.

I love this idea, especially because the frigid cold and icy sidewalks of late have prevented my customary daily rambles. I started taking several short walks everyday when I started tallying steps, but quickly found I loved being out on the pavement (not in the woods, sadly) by myself to breathe the fresh air and clear my head. My walks often involve voicemail and voxer and design podcasts. I don’t think the multitasking long walk is what Adam had in mind.

the spiritual discipline of the long walk | Modern Mrs Darcy

Adam’s words reminded me of something Gretchen Rubin said in Happier at Home, (one of the 8 books I want to re-read in 2014). Rubin writes:

I avoid checking my email or talking on the phone when I’m walking someplace, or traveling by bus, taxi, or subway. I used to feel guilty for not using that time efficiently, but then I realized that many of my most important ideas have come to me during those periods. 

And so I’m changing my habits (which is developing into a theme for the year). Even though–or perhaps because–life lately has felt frantically busy, and my inbox is exploding, I’m carving out quiet spaces, even when I’m doing something simple like (solitary) driving, or heading out for a quick ten minutes to pick up steps.

Adam says that on this bullet train of modern life, “some of us have decided we need to slow down or get off the train so we don’t miss what is right in front of us.”

I don’t want to miss what is right in front of me.

And as soon as the temperature climbs above freezing, I’m heading out for a long walk.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on checking email, finding quiet, and the spiritual discipline of the long walk.

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Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture is an excellent read for introverts and extroverts alike. Adam also appears in Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, when he and Susan go on a field trip together.

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47 comments

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  1. Melissa D says:

    Thanks so much for this reminder, and for the book recommendations. As a mom of young children I have an especially difficult time narrowing even small amounts of time into focused activity. I’m not just interrupted in serial fashion — I’m interrupted by everyone at once, all the time. It feels as if I have to keep the streams of 4 of other people flowing at full strength before I get everyone out the door and have time to myself (which is often interrupted in other ways, or which I feel guilty for spending on a solitary, non-utilitarian pursuit). And yet I find that if I spend even a little time first at the feet of the Master, life works differently.

    Writing this with a 4YO in my lap!

  2. Marilyn says:

    One of the reasons this Advent season was so meaningful to me was because of the space I found there to just be quiet before God. I very much hope to carry that gift with me into the rest of the year, but honestly, already it is a challenge.

  3. Love this. (And I’m excited to read this book too! 🙂 I used to be so good at this concept – the long, {contemplative} walk, especially when I lived in picturesque Pennsylvania, and I woke up to beautiful fields awaiting some footsteps. Now that I’m back in Texas, I need to follow through with this, and get back to this practice–its so good and so needed. I may also sub in a long bike ride–that feels peaceful in the same kind of way for me. 🙂

  4. Leslie Lee says:

    This is a really helpful reminder. I’ve been working on something similar lately: getting back to being a noticer. My drive home has a lot of stoplights, and in the past few months I’d gotten into the habit of checking my phone at each light. Head-down, not noticing the interesting people walking by or the sunset or the flock of birds. (Not to mention that not being the safest or smartest thing to be doing.) This year I’m hoping to get back to being a noticer in in-between moments like those in life, because I agree with that Gretchen Rubin quote – that is when I have some of my best ideas.

  5. Anna says:

    I love long walks. Some of my favorites are from times where we (our family of 5) were out of range of all cell phone signals. The constant contact of e-mail can be great, but it can also be overwhelming. I have to admit that I don’t always want to be accessible. Sometimes, I’ll just turn the volume off on my phone while I am out running errands or whatever. Things can with a couple of hours. 🙂

  6. I’ll have to check out his books. I’m reading “Quiet” right now. My runs are so slow they are practically the pace of a walk, and I do a lot of my good processing and thinking then. But just like you first commenter above, with three little ones at home under 5, my day is basically a long series of interruptions, and a long walk sounds like a luxury. i’m lucky to get one of my slow jogs a week in, since my husband leaves for work before the sun…

    • Missy June says:

      I just wanted to share that when I had three tiny ones under five years and was a single om, I found it “restful” (at least in a different way) to still get those walks in. I committed to one mile a day – always! I would let the two walkers move slightly ahead of myself with the stroller and they seemed to entertain themselves and get out some energy. I know the fresh air did us all well!

      As they got just a bit older (you’ll be surprised how quickly that happens!) I found two local tracks where I could put them in the grassy middle and jog around them. It wasn’t completely solitary or carefree, but so worth it.

      Now I get to go for longer and alone, but they still want their mile-long walks as often as possible!

  7. I LOVE the idea of a long walk. It reminds me of what I’ve been learning about what I find restful and how I recharge. I used to think that reading or writing was restful for me. But I found that while I do enjoy it, it doesn’t recharge me because my thoughts are flying and I’m making connections to other things I’ve read and jotting down notes on what to write about. I found that it’s actually when I’m physically active that I feel the most rested because for me rest is getting out of my head and thoughts. I also just realized my soul needs to be in nature every single day and that recharges me as well. I really look forward to reading that book!

    • Nanci Byers says:

      —I too need to be in nature daily. It is usually my garden, not wild nature, but I invite wildlife to my gardens in many ways, so it works for me. I also find yoga very settling to quiet my mind in a physical way.

  8. Maria says:

    Your last few blogposts have convinced me to start the 10’000 steps again 🙂 I already did this a couple of years ago and I loved it. But as it often is at some point I stopped and never picked it up again. But i definitely know how much better I feel when I get enough walking time = thinking time.
    And ehm… not really in line with your post: You mentioned design podcasts. Can you recommend any?

  9. Faigie says:

    I don’t have small children so when I drive its usually by myself but, I have found myself not putting on an radio or cd as I use that time to think and can drive for quite a while this way.

  10. I love your unword, and I’m with you (and Adam and Gretchen 🙂 ) 100%. I usually resist checking my phone when I’m out and about. Know I see more wisdom in it. Thanks.

    As a random tangent, I thought it interesting how Adam suggests walking, no faster. I DO find that when I’m running my thoughts don’t really go anywhere. I’m just focused on getting through it. I know other people aren’t that way, but I always have been. I could see how a regular walk might get my brain going more. Love that.

  11. Missy June says:

    I walk/jog daily for about 40 minutes (unless below twenty degrees, but sometimes even then!) and I never bring a phone or check email. Most often, I don’t even listen to music. The freedom and solitude are necessary and nourishing for me because my energy is drained from so many sources the rest of the day.

    My husband is also a runner and views his time alone as a spiritual discipline.

  12. Jessica says:

    This is really interesting to me. I don’t walk nearly as much as I would like – and it’s not because I don’t have the time or the weather (I live in California), it’s because I’m not always disciplined enough to do it. Anyway, when I was in college, I spent a semester studying aboard in Ireland. We had a month for spring break and so a friend and I decided to fly down to Spain and walk the Camino de Santiago. Talk about a LONG walk! It was about 500 miles total. And in spite of the blisters and pain, I remember it being one of the best times of my life. We typically walked alone with our thoughts. Occasionally, when we needed support, we walked together. But it was a time before cell phones and so we were either conversing with ourselves or with each other. The time was spiritual – and the Camino was/is a Catholic pilgrimage.

    Just reading this post makes me motivated to start walking again. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  13. Tuija says:

    Walking has been so important to me that I almost cried reading this blog post, I’m missing my solitary walks so much. Three fractured ankle bones + setbacks in recovery have forced me to have a more sedentary life than I would have wanted for the past three months.
    So I love the idea of long walks as a spiritual discipline. Giving my mind some fresh air – thinking, praying, sometimes listening to praise music. The longest walk I have done was a trail marathon (took me more than 10 hours). It was wonderful, despite the feet ache at the end 😉 …
    I’m looking forward to getting back on my feet. And reading what Adam McHugh writes about walks, too.

  14. So jealous you got to read part of Adam’s book! I can’t wait to read it.

    So much of what you’re talking about echoes what I just read about in Hamlet’s Blackberry. I’m trying to give myself more space and quiet to let my thoughts meander. I’m really good about it when I have a long drive ahead of me but I need to cultivate it in smaller, simpler daily ways, too.

  15. Wendy says:

    I love this idea! I’ve started leaving the radio off when I’m driving by myself (which is most of the time), and I’m realizing that’s where I am able to process what has happened in the day, or think through my hopes and goals for the day.
    Also – maybe I missed this – what is the name of Adam McHugh’s new book?

    • Anne says:

      It’s called The Listening Life, but I didn’t reference it as such above because I’m not sure whether or not that title is set in stone yet.

  16. This is interesting. I usually walk with a buddy, and it’s a great time to talk everything out and solve all of the world’s problems. I was wondering if I should find a way for solitary walks, then I realized that sorting laundry for me can be almost as good as a yoga session in terms of clearing my mind and just thinking.

  17. Carrie says:

    I never multitask while walking, but it’s mostly because I don’t have the technical setup: I don’t have an iPod or mp3 player.

    So maybe I’ll keep it that way. 🙂

  18. Courtney says:

    Maybe it’s the time of year, or the weather, or just this season of life, but lessening the screen-based distractions in my life has been a real theme with me lately. I want to be able to “just” go on a walk, or drive the car, or fold clothes without something blinking at me. But it’s hard to resist. It is so easy to multitask – I expect it of myself and this, I’m realizing, is wrong. Because I end up a distracted mess with relationships less than what they could be. Thanks for the additional thoughts on this subject. It is a good one!

  19. I have been convinced that if I can bring more quiet and calm into my life, that I will be more productive and effective. The hard part for me is figuring out how to make that happen. It shouldn’t be so difficult, but it really can be. We have to fight for the quiet and calm and learn how to create environments and times in our days, weeks, years without it.

  20. 'Becca says:

    I have no cell phone and dislike headphones/earbuds, so I’m not tempted by electronic distractions while walking. I find that my brain has quite enough to do on its own! My usual weekday routine includes 3 solo walks of about 1/2 mile each (from my kid’s school to the bus stop, from the other bus stop to work, from work back to the bus) and I feel those are important times for thinking in an unstructured kind of way. Also, it’s important to me to be really “present” in the walk, both to avoid the hazards of traffic and uneven sidewalks, and to notice the flowers and squirrels and other people. Here are a couple of thoughts on that:
    Finding refreshment in a small urban forest
    Everyday songs of praise

    At times when I feel really twisted and confused, a longer walk is one of the best things I can do.

    Have you ever tried walking a labyrinth? I am lucky to have two outdoor, public ones within a few miles of my home. I’ve only walked them a few times, but it was a really interesting experience.

  21. AH says:

    First of all, I would like to say that I really love your blog. Second of all, I read somewhere that Steve Jobs used to have a lot of walking meetings.

  22. Ginger says:

    I can’t wait for the weather to warm up so I can resume my morning walks out of doors. I’m usually guilty of loading up on podcasts, but not too long ago when I had forgotten my earphones, I was left alone with just my own thoughts and was shocked at how many epiphanies and connections I had during that one walk alone.

    It dawned on me, I don’t often have 45 minutes without input — books, blogs, conversations, email… I think I’ll have a hard time giving my my favorite podcasts (Al Mohler’s The Briefing, The Rabbit Room, Timothy Keller, and BBC’s In Our Time), but I might enact one day a week for quiet walking, or even turn off the podcasts halfway through to give some time for brain space.

  23. Rita says:

    I love this, and I would encourage you to bundle up and go out even when it’s very cold – it’s invigorating! (Unless it is icy/snowy and treacherous, of course.)

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