The mind works best when it is free from distraction.
Distraction takes many forms, but usually falls into one of three categories:
- Physical distractions. The things that are around us in our environment. Clutter, noise, heat, cold, or other forms of disturbance from the world around us.
- Mental distractions. Those thoughts and emotions that force their way, unbidden, into our awareness. Things that we have left undone, or worries about our life and world.
- Social distractions. Friends, phone calls, notifications. The distractions that come from living in the always on, digital world of the twenty-first century. Just having our phone on our desk, or even in the same room, can lower our effective IQ by 10 points.
Generations of thinkers and creative people have dealt with the problem of distractions is through regular walking, or some other kind of physical exercise.
Sir Winston Churchill, the British wartime Prime Minister, built brick walls to help him think.
Haruki Murakami, Japanese novelist, runs marathons. Not just for fitness, but also as it brings “liberty of mind.”
Charles Darwin, author of On the Origin of Species, even had a path built for this express purpose. At Down House, his home in the South of England, he built a gravel track, called The Sandpath, round a wood on the edge of his property.
The Sandpath provided a circular walk of roughly a quarter of a mile. Located half a mile from the main house, Darwin would talk a walk on this track several times a day. This included a regular lunchtime walk of five circuits every day at noon. A walk of about two and a half miles – about four kilometres.
He kept a small pile of flints at the start of the circuit, and as each circuit was completed, he would knock one of the stones aside with his walking stick. By doing this, he avoided the necessity to break into his thinking by having to count.
In much the same way that Sherlock Holmes would talk about “three pipe” problems, Darwin would talk about “three flint” problems.
For many of the world’s leading thinkers and writers walking was a major part of the scaffolding they put in place to support their intellectual regimen.
In 1990 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term Flow to describe autotelic mental states. These are brought on by activities that we can get lost in, drawing, reading, playing music, and even brick laying. Activities that are often repetitive and engrossing. Mindful walking has very similar effects to these kinds of activity.
Such free-focussed states permit the mind to freewheel. This allows us to make fresh, interesting connections in our minds, and our creativity can then come to the fore.
As the latin motto says, Mens sane in corpore sano, a healthy body provides a sound basis for a healthy mind. If we choose to leave our mental clutter and distractions behind by adding a period of moving reflection, or a walking meditation, to our day, it will not only make a significant contribution to our physical and mental health, but also to our sense of well-being and general happiness.