Purposeless walking

May 20, 2014

The French have their flâneurs, and the Brits go on rambles, but around here a walk usually means a quick dash to the bus stop, yakking on the cellphone all the way. Who just walks for leisure anymore? In a thoughtful, evocative article called The slow death of purposeless walking, the BBC reminds us what we're missing. There's something about the pace of walking that fits perfectly with the pace of thinking. Creative juices start to flow and stubborn problems unknot themselves. We become part of the passing scene and feel good in our own skin. But honestly, we don't need an excuse to do some purposeless walking; it's just plain fun.

First, some ground rules. No gadgets allowed: no phones, media players, ereaders or cameras. No companions either: you're walking alone. Don't try to combine it with any other kind of walking, except maybe dog-walking. You can start anywhere: your own neighbourhood, a city park, or the heart of downtown. You might want to pick an end-point or an end-time so you can get back home eventually, but other than that don't plan it at all.

Stripping away all our distractions may seem disorienting at first, but actually we're just swapping the electronic ones for a new set: the ones in the environment around us, or the ones we can create in our own minds. If I am worried about something, or have a problem to solve, I often start out my walk focussed on my own thoughts. I try to just let them flow, kind of observing them from a distance, without censoring them or judging them. But eventually I move my attention outward. Sometimes I like to retrace familiar routes. Then I can spot the irises that weren't blooming yesterday, or the new popup shop on the Danforth. Other times I like to go exploring on busy streets, just enjoying the parade. Are young women still all wearing those tights and come-hither boots? Do people match up their pairs of dogs mainly by colour, breed, or size? To keep from falling into routines, sometimes I'll pick a pattern: first right, second left, first left, repeat. Suddenly I'll come across a statue or a parkette or a great little coffee shop I never knew was there. Purposeless walking is full of surprises. Retirement's greatest gift to us is time; waste it well.