Walking seems such a simple thing. I used to think nothing of jumping up and heading out of the house when I was a boy; following the impulse to move felt seamless, an act so natural as to be thoughtless.
My father Norman was a big walker, and on weekends while I was growing up, he’d invite me to join him in what he called “a constitutional.” We’d stroll through our neighborhood and then on to surrounding streets for several miles, perhaps ending up at his brother Alan’s house across town. Talking while we walked, he’d share stories of his youth, listen to what was on my mind and as I got older, we’d talk politics and about current events. Never shy to share his many opinions and perspectives about life, Norman enjoyed our walks, and so did I.
At 18, I moved to hilly San Francisco from New York, bought an old VW van, drove more and walked less. Never a particularly athletic type, my lifestyle became increasingly sedentary, and ultimately, I spent the bulk of 40 years working at a drafting table or computer. Not coincidentally, my weight increased. Never svelte, as my mother would say, I topped out at 225 pounds. By the time I was in my early fifties, I’d developed type-2 diabetes, and losing weight became a health necessity. While I didn’t know it, I’d also developed heart disease, which would lead to a stent in my coronary artery, the one doctors call “the widow-maker.”
About that same time, roughly twenty years ago, I started doing yoga three or four times a week. Over time, that practice transformed my body; arches appeared on my flat feet, my flexibility and strength both increased, and I dropped twenty-five pounds. I was still working at a desk, however, and not walking much, under a mile per day.
By the time I neared seventy, still striving to keep my blood sugar under control and retired from desk work, I decided to walk instead of drive. I gradually worked my way up to an average of 4-5 miles a day – to shop, for appointments, and simply to explore all the nooks and crannies in town. Over three years of daily walks, my weight dropped to 165 pounds, what I weighed when I graduated from high school. I’d come to enjoy my daily “constitutional” as much as I did with my father.
Then, last year, I began to experience episodes of ventricular tachycardia while walking, a dangerous, super-fast heartbeat of the heart’s main pumping chambers. I underwent an ablation procedure to prevent the VT episodes, cauterizing portions of my heart muscle by snaking a catheter through a vein in my groin. I was told to hold off on walking, and that a recovery might take as long as three months. It was then I felt how attached I’d become to my daily walks.
The word “animal” includes the root “anima,” the same root that’s in the word “animate” and means “life.” Movement is the essence of animal life, and when deprived of the opportunity to move, life loses a seminal ingredient. I felt that loss enormously; gratefully, I’m back to walking daily with no problems. Not so simple, after all.
Buddhist walking meditation includes placing attention to touching the earth – heel, sole, toe – heel, sole, toe. Just so, just so.