Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Walking Within Walking: On the Dilemmas and Delights of Repetition

As is wont to happen, we often find ourselves walking the same paths, treading well-worn trails to school, work, and the store, or setting out over recognizable sidewalks and streets for exercise or enjoyment. For some individuals, this recurrence can generate a form of boredom from which there is no apparent escape, while for others it seems to offer the quiet pleasures and familiar consolations associated with the rhythms of circadian life. How might we best think about and interpret these routes and routines? How do our personal and daily walks open a portal into the larger world that is walking, which may be governed by its own order and internal logic? 

At the very heart of human ambulation is repetition. Walking is by its very nature a repeated physical action. It is a perpetually revisited “falling,” coupled with an inveterate catching and “re-collection” of our tumbling momentum. In terms of biomechanics, there is always a cycling—or recycling—in operation of both the churning legs and turning arms.  The body, and the lower limbs especially, might even be envisioned as an unorthodox organic wheel that carries us across the unfolding landscape. 

Internal to the container of our own corporeal form, there is also a repetition of the beating heart and the pulsing breath, which moves through an incessant cycle of inhalation and exhalation. As the poet Jean Tardieu puts it, “In order to advance, I walk the treadmill of myself/Cyclone inhabited by immobility/But within, no more boundaries.”

Along the way, distinct styles of ambulation emerge through the force and frequency of our reduplicated steps. Repetition becomes the hallmark of the way we appear, the signature that we author each time we saunter—more “foot-writing” than “hand-writing” perhaps—as a continuously exhibited and soon-erased trace of our fleeting presence. Indeed, we recognize friends, family members, and “familiar strangers” at a distance by the manner in which they repeatedly walk, much as we identify and come to know them through their characteristic voices and gestures or the movements they manifest in other activities like eating, talking or dance. Style is our peculiar way of showing and issuing forth in the world, a trait involving individuality, affect, habit and nuance. There are, for example, those who demonstrably shuffle or bounce or sashay or strut, to name but a few styles. Monty Python’s skit, “The Ministry of Silly Walks,” is a humorous twist on this point.  Here is the episode:

We learn to recognize, too, the footfalls of those whom we may initially know more visually through their vertical posture or bodily comportment: that is, by the distinct sounds they generate in particular kinds of pacing or, say, the unique pressure of their heels clicking and clacking on wooden floorboards or the repeated squeaks and squishy glide of their approaching sneakers parading proudly down a tiled hallway.

Interestingly, we can pick out ourselves as well when viewing ambling styles on a video monitor, but as we walk we cannot generally see our own gait (even in a mirror) since the observing eye interferes and alters our natural movement. However, because we can recognize it on a screen (as silhouette), perhaps we have an immanent sense of the way our walk looks from the inside, so to speak. There is, in other words, a deep bodily connection at work. As the philosopher Alphonso Lingis has observed, “the body is the locus of a primary reflexive circuit doubling up into inner motor diagram and externally observable thing, each inscribing itself in the other.”

Repetition also occurs by way of the fact that we stride through particular and unique locales on a regular basis. We walk to the same subway or bus stop each day. We amble again down the halls of our work environments dozens of times every morning and afternoon. We stroll through our gardens, or we walk to our favorite cafés, parks or bars again and again. We take the dog out for his—and our—turn around the block once more. This repetition not only serves to conduct us across ground—to cover space as extension—but to deepen our engagement with and understanding of lived place, our inhabited and meaning-bearing surroundings. What from the “outside” (observer’s point of view) seems to be mere repetitiveness, from the “inside” (an experiential vantage) may suggest something else, or something more. Over time, it might lead to a transformation of consciousness—through discipline or a kind of askesis (ascetic practice)—and a new view of the world.

The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, was known for the regularity and predictability of his daily walks.  So reliable were his trips on foot through Königsberg that the eighteenth century residents of his neighborhood set their clocks to his passing. Although never traveling more than fifty miles from his birthplace—despite lecturing on the field of geography—Kant walked up and down a narrow half-mile street near his house up to eight times each day beginning exactly at 3:30 PM for nearly sixty years of his life. Breathing deeply with his mouth closed, wearing a long coat and cocked hat, and waving a rattan cane to both increase circulation in his body and to fend off talkative locals, he strolled on what cab drivers in the city (now Kaliningrad) presently call “The Philosopher’s Walk”.

“The purpose of walking in the open air,” Kant writes in The Conflict of the Faculties, “is precisely to keep one’s attention moving from one object to another and so to keep it from becoming fixed on any one object.” One may be tempted to speculate nevertheless that in Kant’s case we find an instance of what Freud diagnosed as “repetition compulsion” and later theorists extended into other formulations involving fixation.  After all, he did walk the very same route over and over again hundreds of thousands of times. But another way to perceive his repeated walks might be relative to either Kant’s philosophical approach or his personal temperament, both of which were given to extreme discipline, assiduousness, and attentiveness. Thinking and walking are decidedly different actions for him—the former having a clear and distinct object of focus and the latter none in particular—and when they occur in tandem, Kant believed, they can produce a dizzying, disorienting vertigo.

Like Kant and other philosophers such as Rousseau and Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard was an enthusiastic traveler by foot. The great Dane sauntered the streets of Copenhagen as a way to address or sublimate his experiences of melancholy and alienation and to compose many of his written works, which are now part of the Existentialist tradition. “Health and salvation can only be found in motion,” he proclaimed. “If anyone denies that motion exists, I do as Diogenes did, I walk.  If anyone denies that health resides in motion, then I walk away from all morbid objections.” Kierkegaard was also fascinated by the phenomenon of repetition, which may help to account for some of his passion for walking. “The love of repetition is the only happy love,” he confessed. Kierkegaard viewed repetition and recollection as sharing in the same movement although happening in different directions since “what is recollected has been, is repeated backward.” And whereas repetition is conducive to happiness and transition into the future, recollection causes us to be unhappy and is tied to the past. Similarly, with bodily ambulation one can discover and indulge in one’s bliss. As Kierkegaard avows, “If one keeps walking, everything will be all right.”

Repetition serves as a defining mark or essence of an entity or process. It involves a trait or quality that is identifiable—or seemingly so—over time: the refrain, mantra, image, or word that seizes our senses or settles into our memories and imagination. In the case of walking, such repetition can alight and express itself through the medium of the body or the vessel of place. But repetition need not be interpreted solely as numerical (as opposed to qualitative) sameness or self-sameness. Change is always in play and at work.  In a walk, however much we strive to recover, return to or recreate earlier conditions, it will be true that the path or weather or temperature are sure to be slightly distinct, as will be our evolving state of mind and subjective feelings. Therefore, as Kierkegaard notes, the only true and exact repetition is to repeat “the impossibility of repetition.” 

Repetition-with-difference provides a twist. In this regard, the coil or curve is perhaps somewhat akin to a Möbius strip, where the inside subtly turns and transitions to become the outside. There is continuity but also change, commonality as well as testament to difference. Gilles Deleuze, in fact, proposes a model of repetition as a system of relations that is similar to a spiral (as opposed to a simple circle), making possible new formations and metamorphoses rather than merely duplicating singularities or patterns or, alternatively, subsuming particulars under a universal—what he terms “bare repetition”. For Deleuze, repetition is related to a unique series of events or objects. He thus distinguishes a “qualitative order of resemblances,” which is represented by the image of a cycle, from a “quantitative order of equivalences,” which finds its symbol in equality.

Experientially, a sense of enchantment and a suggestion of the sensuous seem to be bound up with encounters of repetition.  We take delight in the presence of discernable patterns, colors, textures, sounds and smells. But we are also charmed by surprises that break the order, disrupt the familiar so as to interject wonder, awe or curiosity into our pathways.

One interesting instance of repetition is provided by the artist, Richard Long, who has devoted himself since the late 1960’s to exploring the aesthetic aspects of walking in the landscape through his environmental sculptures. The connection between sculpture and walking, in fact, is what art historian and critic, Lucy Lippard, claims as the source for considering walking to be an art rather than merely a performance. One of Long’s works, Line Made by Walking, for example, is a black and white photograph that depicts a path in the grass running through the center of the picture. It was “drawn” with his feet—via the repetition of his steps so as to suggest walking within walking itself—and appears both commonplace (pedestrian, ordinary) and yet oddly ambitious at the same time in marking the earth itself. In this regard, it gestures implicitly toward Robert Smithson’s well-known “Spiral Getty,” which itself is a walkable “pedestrian scale” path of rock and earth in the Great Salt Lake.

Playing on a sense of ambiguity through the intellectual beauty, singularity and visual clarity generated by a simple straight line, the work raises the question for us of whether the line is an enactment of walking—a performance in effect—or a sculptural trace of the repeated walking and, it demands of the viewer to engage in some interpretive thinking. Without describing the surroundings, a walk or anything else for that matter, the work also suggests some of the differences between traditional art-based aesthetics and emerging environmental aesthetics: first, it occurs outdoors (a larger context than the conventional art world of indoor museums and galleries); secondly, it is impermanent and temporary (in contrast to a typical striving for permanence in the art world); and, thirdly, it is practical in that one can put to use the path made by the walking (unlike most paradigmatic artworks.  

How, then, might we best find delight in the repetition afforded by familiar walks without succumbing to the trap of monotony? The poet W. H. Auden observes, “the ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.” Whether this opposition is fully justified or not, varying walking surfaces and the times of day in which we amble about can surely contribute to a deepening sense of engagement with the surrounding landscape and place. The desire to repeat is often tethered to the desire to affirm, to say “yes” again and again to what we have experienced once before. But this same desire can also be yoked to a longing, a yearning for what is past and long gone. How we relate to the world of repetition depends in part upon whether we perceive ourselves as backpedaling, progressing forward creatively, or simply stepping sideways in the ever-fluctuating stream of time.  

Monday, July 15, 2013

Walking the sheep

This is the way we walk our sheep, walk our sheep, walk our sheep . . . so early in the morning! Apparently, some enterprising folk are renting out these wooly creatures as inexpensive and sustainable lawn mowers! One dollar per hour I've heard.  The sheep receive some healthy exercise while they freely feed.  And you get your grass cut along with a complementary conversation piece or a pleasant distraction for motorists and pedestrians who might pass by.  Here is a photo I snapped of some women walking their sheep near The Nature Institute and biodynamic farm in Hawthorne Valley, New York which I visited with friends.

Walking Meditation

Walking occupies a special role within Eastern philosophical thought and daily practice. Throughout Asia, sages and monks have sauntered the countryside for centuries in search of enlightenment. Walking is even accorded a place as one of the “Four Dignities” (key modes of being and integral bodily postures) in China, along with standing, sitting and lying.

Buddhist classics such as the Dhammapada—which literally means the dharma (truth or law) of the foot, path or step—regularly celebrate the virtues of walking as a method and living metaphor for how to conduct one’s life. The work espouses, in particular, the merits of an “Eight-fold Path” for responding to the recurring phenomenon of human anxiety and pain (dukkha). “Walking upon this path you will make an end of suffering,” it declares. 

This embodied language is further extended: “If you find an intelligent companion
 who will walk with you,
 who lives wisely, soberly, overcoming all dangers,
 walk with that person in joy and thoughtfulness.” While adhering to the imagery of a path, the Dhammapada advocates an ethics of both vigilance and diligence: “Good people walk on regardless of what happens to them.”

The most popular Taoist book, Tao Te Ching, similarly counsels “the way” as a route through life that is physically and metaphysically walked. We read, for example, “Gladly then the Way receives/Those who choose to walk in it,” though we also encounter a warning that movement on foot is not always such a straightforward or linear enterprise: “He who tiptoes cannot stand; he who strides cannot walk.” Still, the Chinese character for the elusive and mysterious Tao 道 consists of two parts—one referring to the human head and the other to walking—thereby connoting a genuine path or journey through the inhabited world. “A person's heart and mind are in chaos,” a Taoist text reminds us. “Concentration on one thing makes the mind pure.
 If one aspires to reach the Tao, 
one should practice walking in a circle.”

Within Zen Buddhism, koans—riddling remarks put to practitioners—might inquire, “What is Zen?,” and tack on paradoxical replies such as “Walk on” or “Walk without feet,” in an attempt to propel one towards satori,sudden insight into the nature of things. At the entrance to many Zen monasteries, too, one often finds a sign with the words, “Watch your step.”  This message, of course, implies one should take care as one walks, but in another sense it advises us to be forever mindful or watchful as we go about our everyday lives. Thus, when a 14th century monk asked his teacher, “What is the essence of Zen,” the Master responded, “Watch your step.”

Through walking practices, one might even be “carried away” to the point where the goer (doer) passes completely into the going (doing). The walker disappears—is gone, “oned”—with the unfolding or ever-proliferating walkway. During the course of a walk in which one is fully present with the path being followed—the underlying earth, the ambient air, the shifting sounds, and emerging scents—one forgets and hence loses one’s shallow sense of “self,” which dissolves into the progressive movement.

Dogen, the 13th century Zen Buddhist, even goes as far as to speak of mountains “constantly walking” in his sutras, opening up the possibility that nonhuman and inanimate entities exist, change and move (e.g., fall apart or relocate) in comparable manners to we humans. When we, in turn, walk like a mountain—ying-ing our yang, so to speak—we walk without walking. That is, we move meditatively, with openness and without a trace of self-importance.  In this way, walking grows into a robust trope and metaphor that bears, transfers, and carries practical thought, helping in the process to disclose and communicate the surrounding world to us in its particularity and beauty.  Movement, in short, generates meaning; it gives rise to spatial and temporal significance. 

More directly, there exists kinhin 経行 or walking 

meditation, a Buddhist practice that occurs between periods of zazen 

or seated meditation.  In Japanese, kinhin is formed of two 

characters, one (経) that means “classical works” or “religious 

teachings” and the other (行) that means “walk”.  During this practice, 

individuals walk in clockwise fashion very slowly and deliberately while 

maintaining their hands in shashu (one hand held as a fist and the other 

covering the fist). Movement typically commences with the ringing of a 

bell two times (kinhinsho). As one proceeds, a step is taken after each 

full breath. The walking ends when the bell is rung once (chukaisho). 

For those wishing to try it, here is a helpful video about kinhin:


An aim of kinhin is to improve mindful awareness of one’s actions and undertakings. Meditative walking provides an appropriate means to exercise or achieve such mindfulness because movement on foot is so habitual, ordinary, and routine to human experience. Walking is commonly an unconscious or pre-reflective activity, and to make it the object of conscious, deliberate and willful attention provides an opportunity for insight and learning. One might conceivably even experiment with this form of ambulation in more exceptional conditions that pose greater mental and physical challenges for maintaining focused concentration, such as walking in heavy rain, walking on ice, or walking with one’s eyes closed. I’ve engaged in kinhin on a number of occasions and found it to be a constructive counterbalance to protracted periods of reflection in a seated position. It also resonates with those persons who enjoy bodily motion or who may be unable or unwilling to sit for a lengthy time.

As Tich Nhat Hanh writes in Resting in the River, "Walking meditation meansto enjoy walking without any intention to arrive. We don't need to arrive anywhere.  We just walk. We enjoy walking. That means walking is already stopping, and that needs some training.  Usually in our daily life we walk because we want to go somewhere. Walking is only a means to an end, and that is why we do not enjoy every step we take . . . So this is a kind of revolution in walking. You allow yourself to enjoy every step you take.”

In the video below, a monk walks serenely at a snail’s pace through the crowded streets of an Asian city.  There is a hubbub of activity all around him. He lifts one foot and places it ever so slowly in front of the other.  He is ringing a small bell.  Our attention is halted, arrested. Perhaps we are torn for a moment from the frenzy of our own lives.  Perhaps we slow down as well and move a little more meditatively or mindfully. As a Chinese proverb puts it, “One step at a time is good walking.”


Photos: (i) Man walking in Khajuraho, India (ii) Walking path, Woodlands Cemetery in West Philly (iii) Hindu pilgrims in Benares (Varanasi), India (iv) Walking within a circle, St. Petersburg, Florida  (v) Entering Jain temple, India(vi) Animal tracks, Penn State Brandywine campus  (vii) Woman carrying food, Delhi, India (viii) foot and footprint, Udaipur, India.