‘So, how are you REALLY?’ Or, if you prefer, the charming, ‘How are you, in yourself?’
When’s the best time on a walk’n’talk to ask these searching questions? Right at the beginning? After a 10-minute warm-up? Once the endpoint is in view? GPs talk about the door-knob phenomenon; the fact that a patient’s primary concern is often disguised as an afterthought, mentioned seconds before the end of the appointment; ‘Oh, by the way Doc, I’ve found a lump.’ Trainee doctors are told to pay attention to this last-minute revelation, as it’s often the main reason for the patient’s visit. My mum has a friend who will merrily chat away on their walks for nearly an hour before mentioning, as though in passing, a family death, crisis or celebration. Because some of us really are backwards in coming forwards, and it takes a bit of pressing to come out with the real matter at hand. To make sure we get to it before we run out of time, my mum has told me I need to ask her twice at the start; how is she, and how is she really. I’ve got a pal who always does a quick test of the water at the beginning of a phonecall; ‘are you just ringing for a chat, or..?’
location location location
Because of the open views, gentle pace and lack of eye contact, walks can be excellent opportunities to get a friend to open up about what’s really on their mind. Some routes even seem particularly suggestive of certain topics or modes of reflection. But you have to know your companion well, and the route. You’d never start a conversation about something sensitive whilst circumnavigating a caldera. No-one in their right mind would embark on a discussion about depression knee-deep in a bog. And I hope none of my hiking partners would ask me to shout about my insecurities over the roar of a waterfall. We all know that some locations are better for thinking or talking about certain topics than others. Circular walks can be perfect for cogitating on a situation, considering it from all angles, deliberately delaying a decision. High terrain hikes, especially in windy conditions, can be hugely empowering and invigorating, making them great for coming up with ideas, setting resolve and making plans. Meandering riverside strolls can put us into a reflective mood, whilst walking through woods can feel companionable and comfortable, as though we are surrounded by friends.
Because of the metaphor of moving through things, walks can be great ways of making mental progress with a problem. And since time spent in nature is known to reduce stress hormones, improve creativity and boost attention, green walks really can help us to get clear and reach wise decisions. What’s more, if we choose to really take notice of our surroundings, we might see that nature is offering for our attention plenty of small lessons and subtle metaphors in well-being.
This is the first in a series of 4 blog posts, cataloguing some of the common features of walks, and suggesting some simple invitations of topics to examine whilst experiencing these features. Since I couldn’t think of a more straight-forward way to arrange these ideas, they are listed in alphabetical order, so this blog post will deal with A-F.
Walking uphill is difficult. Exponentially so. A tiny incline makes a HUGE difference to my heart rate, breathing and perspiration. I’m pretty fit, but I swear I am allergic to hills. I puff and pant, gasp for breath, struggle to hold a conversation and end up a red sweaty mess at the top. So I am NOT suggesting that steep up-hill climbs are ideal opportunities for in-depth conversations. Especially not about anything controversial, since being a sweaty mess does not a happy bunny make. However, an ascent is a fantastic opportunity to look at how we talk to ourselves about our challenges.
Have you ever noticed the negative self-talk that comes into play when we are doing something difficult? ‘It’s too hard. I can’t do it. I hate this. I’m gonna quit. Everyone else is better than me. I’m not strong/fast/fit enough. I’m no good.’ It always amazes me how our minds insist on giving us this messaging even WHILE we are ACTIVELY DOING the hard thing! I was shocked and saddened to hear from a group of young women that they experienced this negative self-talk frequently on a walking journey, and almost continuously on steep inclines.
An ‘ascent’ is an action of rising, moving upwards. We use the term to mean rising above, or evolving to a higher plane. When you are ascending, you are moving, rising and achieving, going beyond what you thought possible, making progress and evolving.
Notice that even while you are making this fantastic progress, your monkey brain is chattering with self-doubt, criticism and comparison. No need to beat yourself up about this, or seek to change it. It’s natural. Your brain is simply trying to protect you, with its memory of how weak you used to be, or how small and frightened you once were. Tune in for a moment to the chatter. Notice it for what it is; fearful, senseless chatter. Thank your mind for its concern, but explain these worries are not needed now. You are strong. You are fearless. You are climbing a mountain. Stroke that little frightened part of your mind, wrap it up safe and warm, and soothe it to sleep like a child. Let the monkey mind know that you have heard it, you are grateful to it, and it can rest now, while you get on with the adult’s work of climbing this goddam hill. Each time you notice, appreciate and soothe this monkey mind, its voice gets smaller and thinner. Gradually you can overwrite the script with new words. And before you know it, you’ll be at the summit, monkey-free and triumphant!
“There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone, somewhere, will say, ‘Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.’ This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, ‘I am the wilderness.'”
‘Braving the Wilderness’ by Brené Brown
There are valleys in the UK where streams which have been flowing underground suddenly bubble up and emerge, fully formed, on the surface. As a child, I used to play on a common called ‘Spout Hills’, where the water tasted incredibly fresh, seeming to emerge from the very rocks. Lathkill Dale in the Peak District is a beautiful green valley whose stream emerges extremely gradually, almost imperceptibly, depending on recent rainfall.
Springs and wells remind us that rarely is all tranquil below the surface. Similarly, still waters run deep, and a friend who seems always so calm and composed may have storms raging within. What is bubbling up for you, as you walk this stream-bed or pass by this spring? Our emotions often catch us by surprise, and it is good practice to give them time to emerge, coaxing them gently out by compassionate enquiry and mindfulness.
Stop and sit. Take a few deep breaths and bring your awareness to the sensations of your body, and your breath. Ask yourself gently, what is going on for you? What is present? Do a brief body scan, bringing your attention to all the parts of your body in turn. At the very end, ask yourself, what do I need?
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
‘The Peace of Wild Things’ by Wendell Berry
Clearings are often beautiful, restful spaces on walks. They invite us to stop, turn around, sit down, look up or look inwards. Sometimes clearings are man-made, sometimes natural. Tree-stumps or fallen trunks might make good seating options, or the gap in the canopy might allow the sun to reach the ground, and soft grass may replace the leaf litter, inviting us to lie down Titania-like, in our bower.
A ‘clearing’ is a structured conversation we can have with a friend to clear something that is in the way of our relationship, be that tension, resentment or misunderstanding. The aim is not to make the other person wrong, to tell them off or shame them. Clearings must be done with a positive purpose, and compassion. The speaker must first check the listener is happy to hear a clearing. Then move through the 4 phases, before asking the listener to repeat, then finally to respond. I first encountered this ‘clearing’ model 6 years ago, and began practising it avidly; I now genuinely use it in my friendships and personal relationships, and 99% of the time it results in clarity, ownership, apologies and a welcome hug.
Run a clearing with a friend. You may want to practise this model on trivial matters first, before attempting to use it for real. The aim is to be very calm and clear, speaking in short sentences.
1. When I see/hear … (just state the facts, with no blame)
2. I feel … (use pure emotions e.g. sad/angry/upset/fear not -ed words)
3. What I would like is … (a request, in clear and simple words)
4. So that we can … (the benefit this change would create for you both)
The job of the listener is to just listen. They try to repeat back exactly what you heard, to check you understood correctly. Then take time to respond. Can you meet the request? What would you like? Can you reach a decision, or agree a way forward?
It doesn't interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
the centre of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.
I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.
‘Self Portrait’ by David Whyte
The construction of dry stone walls, stiles, standing stones and rock piles are in evidence across Europe and into South America, going back millennia. Although they might feel emblematic of Derbyshire, or Ireland, the skill of stacking rocks in interlocking patterns is ancient and precise. In Yukon, Canada, I was fascinated to learn about the practice of inuksuk building; these are man-made (and man-shaped) rock stacks which serve as markers of hunting grounds, camps or hiking trails.
Dry stone cairns and inuksuit indicate that one is on the correct path, and are used for navigation purposes, showing hunters, travellers and campers the way to go. Rocks are symbols of permanence and solidity; this happened here, this exists, this is the way. Rocks transcend time and remind us of our solidity, no matter how briefly we are to inhabit the earth.
Collect some stones and have a go at building a mini cairn or inuksuk. Notice the skill of balancing the rocks; the weight and shape of each one. Consider what your cairn is announcing to others. Let what you build be a beacon to others.
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
From ‘Anthem’ by Leonard Cohen
Walks in nature in the UK are full of edges; field boundaries, ditches, fences, hedgerows, cliffs, etc. Whilst some are more striking than others, and it’d be exhausting to make every occurrence significant, there might be some merit in taking a moment to use an edge as an opportunity to share a personal boundary with a good friend, or to practice stating a boundary to someone who needs to hear it.
Edges keep us safe. Although in nature they look like ways of containing and entrapping, in personal relationships, having and setting clear edges gives us freedom to be self-expressed because we know the rules. Boundaries let us know that we are operating within the codes society sets for us, or we set for ourselves. Children raised entirely without boundaries do not learn morality, and adults who live without boundaries can be exposed to great harm, while people who cross them get into dreadful trouble. Stating a boundary to a friend, loved one or colleague is an act of kindness, to them and to ourselves.
Take a moment to reflect on a time when someone crossed a boundary with you, that was not ok for you. What did it feel like? What was put at risk? How would you like to respond next time a similar boundary is approached? Practise (out loud if you can!) explaining what your boundary is, what behaviour is not ok, and what you need to happen instead. It’s ok to use the word ‘no’!
“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.” – Henry Cloud
Crossroads and path junctions abound in the countryside, and despite my map reading skills, I not infrequently find myself contemplating both directions before making my choice. I still find that the way TO a place looks and feels very different to the way FROM that place home again. I’d argue that the way back isn’t really the way out in reverse; it’s a new journey with its own identity.
Crossroads present us with a literal opportunity to choose our path. Many decisions in life don’t really feel like decisions when we’re making them; they might feel like the next logical step, or the thing that naturally followed, or the next phase in a plan. It is only when looking back afterwards that we see the narrative shape our life has taken, and see each step like a deliberate choice.
Stop at a crossroads. Notice how it feels to be contemplating your direction. Do you know which way to go? Does it matter? Do you always go the same way? Choose one branch, take a few steps and turn back to the crossroads. Imagine yourself standing at a crossroads in your life. What did you need to hear?
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost
Next time you’re heading off for a good walk’n’talk with a pal, why not use the landscape as inspiration for some deeper conversations? Take a look around you and suit your topic to the features you see. Make use of nature as a mirror; a way in to greater understanding of yourself and your companion. Choose some of these metaphors and readings, or invent your own. Do let me know in the comments below if you have a particular favourite!