There are a lot of activities that a modern man or woman can do to try and escape the stress and pressures that mount in any given day. There is meditation. There’s sports. There is yoga, and various spiritual practices; there is religion and prayer; there’s various handiwork, like knitting or carpentry…
I don’t do any of those things.
And yet, I’ve managed to spend 8 to 12 hours sitting at a computer, basically 7 days a week for the past 15 years, without becoming either a mental patient or a permanently-inverted super-nerd. (No offense to all the permanently-inverted super-nerds out there—I’m with you in spirit. Keep on keeping on.)
So how do I do it? How have I found anything even remotely approximating balance, with my brain churning through a glut of information and other digital signals for the majority of my waking hours over the past 15,000 days?
I can answer that in one word: walking. But of course I’m not just going to answer it with one word—I enjoy hearing myself talk way too much for that.
Over the past decade-plus, walking has become a steady lifeline for me. I can say with confidence that I have gone on at least one long-ish walk every single day of the past ten years, no matter what the weather. (Before you ask: no, I will not walk your dog.)
For almost all my 15 years of computing, I’ve lived somewhere where I could partake in that level of physical activity, but I didn’t start serious therapeutic walking until I did moved out into the country, in ’99. Not coincidentally, that’s right about when I got my dog Cali. (It’s also about when I stopped working a “day job” away from the house…before I used walking to balance out my computer time, I used airport shuttle driving, and before that, dishwashing, and so on.)
1999 is when I started walking for real, out deep into nature. Since then, it’s been the same every place I move. I develop various walking circuits with my dogs, and we take between 3 and 5 walks of various lengths every day, with usually at least one walk being around an hour long. (It’s almost always out in nature; while walking around in town and the shopping areas can be more “fun” and social, the communing with nature is definitely a key part of the walking therapy for me.)
I’ve been lucky to be able to find places to live that satisfy my pedestrian needs—magically, each place has provided access to more acreage than the last. (I literally live next door to a state park now.) The dogs make it easy to be motivated to walk, but I actually think I’m addicted to it in its own right. My dogs are getting pretty old these days, and sometimes Cali will veto a proposed nighttime walk, and I’ll pout and whine until he has to give me a biscuit to keep me from digging up the yard in retaliation. (My pets and I have a complex relationship. Don’t judge.)
Walking at night is especially soothing, particularly on the nights of the month when the moon allows me to keep my flashlight in my pocket. There’s nothing more different from being surrounded by seven computer monitors than gliding along in the dark woods, lit only by moonlight, being serenaded by a million crickets and hearing ten million leaves rustling in the breeze all at once. When you add in the metronomic quality of my own constant footsteps, it becomes hard not to lapse into a state that probably does come pretty close to meditation.
Because walking in the woods is so opposite, so different from my “inside life”, it’s the perfect antidote to information overload. And that’s how I can justify taking such a big chunk of my day up with a task that most often doesn’t “produce” anything or bring anything tangible into my life. Two hours a day is nothing to scoff at, right? It’s one eighth of my waking day.
I do check myself on a regular basis to make sure that I still think it’s sane—that it makes economical sense to spend two hours of each day doing nothing but essentially stretching my legs and and getting some fresh air. Considering my overall tendency to evaluate the financial economy of my time, two hours that don’t earn me anything need to justify their existence. When I’m walking, I don’t make phone calls, I don’t have meetings, I don’t read or work on an iPhone…the closest I come to connection with the outside world is my trusty voice recorder.
And indeed, some of my walks are comprised almost entirely of me talking into my voice recorder as I make my way through nature’s beauty. That includes these very words that I’m now typing out, which were composed as I walked through the beautiful Grass Valley woods, aided only by vague moonlight and accompanied only by my two distantly-trailing dogs (and untold millions of small and large woods creatures).
That brings up another point, which is that a great deal of my writing—and a great deal of my clearest thinking—takes place when I’m out on these walks. Much moreso than when I’m sitting at my computer or at my desk, or when I’m in a meeting with people–or in any room, really. Even driving around…I sometimes get inspired thoughts when I’m driving around, but much less often than when I’m walking.
I think my thoughts just don’t bloom as readily in the more crowded environments. It’s like a little seed or tiny sprout–it needs sunshine and attention and all that stuff if it’s going to grow any bigger. If it doesn’t get those things, it’s gonna wither and die. Or if it gets run over by a bunch of busy-ness and commotion, it’s never going to get a chance to flourish. But if it has a half-hour or hour to ping around the mind, it gets a chance to put serious roots down, and grow into something more substantial–and maybe a little more tangibly noticeable and easily articulated.
True to that phenomenon, I almost always end my recordings when I arrive home from a walk. Even if I’m in the midst of something big…either by coincidence or force of will, I end up wrapping up my thoughts on the subject and getting “back to work” in my electronic cocoon.
Which is not to deride the work I do sitting at my computer. I wouldn’t come up with the ideas that I do come up with if it wasn’t for the input and provocation and questions and probing that occur when I’m sitting at my desk, surrounded by all the information and potential connections that anybody could ever hope for.
They both have value; they both feed each other. They are yin and yang. I couldn’t get all my office work done while walking around in the woods, even if I tried. And just as much as I need my walks to set me free from my thoughts, I also need them for my thoughts to find places to land and turn into great ideas.
Clearly both realms have a relevant role in my reality. I never remember for sure which one is yin and which is yang, but I get the gist of it well enough to know that’s what’s happening here. And as such, I do consider myself to be earning my meditation merit badge, at least as much as the average person. One thing I know for sure: I don’t like to imagine how I’d be right now if I had done all this tech time over the years without having the requisite balancing “walking meditation” that I do every single day.
On that note, I’m home now, so I must be done with “thinking and recording” time. I’m about to re-enter the command center. Meditative Lance, signing off. :-)
Lance Brown can be found at http://lancebrown.org, and in the woods of Nevada County, CA.