Walking and Thinking: Thinking About Walking by Harry Constant

Oxford Writers' HousePersonal Essay2018JanuaryWalking and Thinking: Thinking About Walking by Harry Constant

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Walking and Thinking: Thinking About Walking by Harry Constant

When someone dramatically leaves the room stating that they are going for a walk, it is commonly acknowledged that they intend to think about how annoying you have just been. At the heart of this common situation is a truth that I had not often considered before. I, as well as many others, think best while I am walking. These two activities are remarkably bound together. The link seems to have been made long ago, but it remains to consider to what extent it actually impacts the results of our thoughts and the way we think.

There is little doubt in my mind that walking is conducive to thinking. Beyond indignant stage-exits, poets and philosophers often appear  engaged in these activities. We see it from Thales falling down a well as he is caught up in his thinking during a walk through a town in Ionia to John Clare considering the country paths that were so entwined with his poetry. The nature of walking as a means to engage in thoughtfulness both inspires poetry and constitutes its subject matter.

Robert Frost is just one example of a poet who takes paths and roads as a subject in his poem 'The Road Not Taken’. He was likely thinking about the poem he was going to write as he walked down a similar path, whether real or metaphorical. Even if metaphorical, the narrator clearly implies that he is walking as he makes these observations. In such a case it might be said that walking not only provokes thought and art, but also influences the concrete result of the art itself.

I myself regularly feel the impulse to start walking whenever I am stumped by an avenue of thought or bogged down in a piece of work. It is unimportant where I intend to walk, only that I make whatever preparations the weather requires and get to it. The regularity of one foot moving past the other whilst carrying me towards an as-yet-uncertain destination seems a fitting parallel to thinking. This is especially true for an issue concerning which have not yet come to a conclusion.

Yet, regardless of whether it was my initial intention, I end up walking to the same places: to the Martyrs’ Memorial on St. Giles or to the train station, amongst others. I might be considering any number of things without paying much attention to my surroundings and then realise that I am walking to one of these familiar places. It is rare that I come to any conclusions before I reach these destinations. I would argue that, in my case, walking has become so closely linked to the process of thinking that the conclusion of the walk encourages that of the problem.

Besides, the way in which thinking impacts the act of walking explains why I do not start out knowing where I am headed. If I do not know how long I will have to consider the issue, I do not know how far I will be walking. As a result, I end up reaching whichever of my usual landmarks is closest at the time when I am drawing to a close on the issue. At first, it doesn’t matter where I go because the simple act of walking helps me think. In the end, I find a place where I can stop because I no longer need to keep thinking, and stopping draws a line under the matter both physically and mentally. Walking, then, can spark the creative process, or walking and creativity might be symbiotic: walking helps thinking, and when you are coming to the end of your thought process, you notice that you have also stopped walking. 

Given that walking can be so creative, perhaps we should take it more seriously. After my own walks, I have often considered that we should we need greater advances in technology that can recognise, record and replay our voice so that thinking time does not go to waste. As far as I have noticed, only some technological devices can do this in a way that does not require carrying a microphone everywhere. This is of little use because of the sheer amount of storage space needed to store all this data.

Aside from pointing out an unquestionably valid business venture, I hope that these ruminations will lead to you taking more walks. Your mind will be clearer and you might accidentally get some exercise.

The nature of walking as a means to engage in thoughtfulness both inspires poetry and constitutes its subject matter.


Harry writes things sometimes. He studies classical archaeology and ancient history at St John’s College, which makes writing like this a good change of pace. He cares about books, poems, coffee and a few people too. 

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