Solved By Walking

Eadweard Muybridge, “Animal Locomotion” 1887

This past week I saw a reference to solvitur ambulando, the Latin phrase that translates as “it is solved by walking.”You may ask “What can be solved by walking?”

The phrase is often attributed to Saint Augustine. Sometimes it it used to mean less literally that a problem can be solved by a practical experiment. But many people take it quite literally – problems can be solved by walking.

I love to walk. I try to take a significant outdoors walk every day. But walking is not as cool as other activities and sports. A person who walks is a pedestrian and pedestrian as an adjective means unimaginative or ordinary. That’s a shame. “ordinary.”

“The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.”   –  Thomas Merton, Mystics & Zen Masters

Last week, I was taking my new grandaughter for a walk. Well, I was doing the walking but she was also going for a walk. I thought of a poem – “Shoulders” by Naomi Shihab Nye. It wasn’t raining, but we’re in this odd time when it is “raining” every day.

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

I walk to clear my mind, to work my senses, for inspiration, and for exercise. When I was attempting to seriously study Zen Buddhism ( a course of study I flunked out of), the meditation I found most effective for me was kinhin. This walking meditation is practiced between long periods of sitting meditation (zazen). But I found this break to be the main thing and the zazen was an interruption. It is “meditation in action” and works best in nature.

What is happening can be explained as a psychological phenomenon called “involuntary attention” because the natural surroundings engage the brain but in a way that still allows for reflection.

solvitur ambulando

This past week, the Latin phrase entered a conversation between poet Billy Collins and the writer Cheryl Strayed. Collins didn’t talk about it but he has a poem titled “Solvitur Ambulando” in which he credits the phrase to a “thoughtful Roman.” In the poem, he questions the phrase’s validity.

The maxim makes it sound so simple:
go for a walk until you find a solution
then walk back home with a clear head.

It does sound too easy and no, I do not always return from my walk with a solution or a poem. Sometimes when I walk, I have a conversation in my head with someone. It’s not so strange a thing to do. I wrote earlier about walking conversations between two very famous mathematicians. Collins also thought about that particular conversation:

And what about the mathematician
who tried to figure out some devilish
mind-crusher like Goldbach’s conjecture
and taking the Latin to heart,
walked to the very bottom of Patagonia?

There he stood on a promontory,
so the locals like to tell you,
staring beyond the end of the hemisphere,

with nothing but the cries of seabirds,
waves exploding on the rocks,
clouds rushing down the sky,
and him having figured the whole thing out.

In a different interview, Collins explained that “the poem is sort of about that belief that, if you have a problem, you take it out for a walk, and you don’t turn around until you have some clarification. So, the poem, really, is about someone who just walks for hundreds of miles without clarification.”

Writers often seem to be “working” when they walk.  You can find solvitur ambulando in Lewis Carroll’s “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles“, and in Douglas Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach. It, not surprisingly, shows up in “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau. I’ve come across the phrase in The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, and in the writings of Dr. Oliver Sacks.

I can’t quite explain why the phrase is the motto of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society. They are the airmen who “failed to return” from missions during WWII but either evaded capture or escaped from captivity. They walked their way to freedom?

In all my years of walking, I have yet to make a pilgrimage. Those are in the purest sense long walks, sometimes religious, but always a kind of spiritual journey.

In that conversation I listened to this past week, Billy Collins noted that his daily walks don’t measure up to Cheryl’s solo pilgrimage of a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State.

Collins comments that “I would say after a thousand miles, you’ve got yourself together.”

Strayed replies, “I’m sad to report that the walk goes on. The journey continues even after that. But I do think that that’s one of the things that you see over and over, is that power of a sort of walking meditation, where the classic journey one takes by foot, that is always enlightening. And I think we see that even on a micro scale on those 2-mile walks.”

Walking has all kinds of low-impact health benefits, though I probably don’t walk fast enough and far enough, and I stop too often to look at things to get all the benefits. It can lower bad cholesterol and raise the good kind, reduce blood pressure, strengthen muscles and bones, improve glucose control and insulin response, help with diabetes, slide off a few pounds and decrease your chances of getting heart disease. Americans don’t walk as part of their regular day. It tends to be more of a special activity. Europeans walk three times more than we do.

Walking can be a solution. It can’t solve all problems, but in this pandemic time, I agree with writer Bruce Chatwin who wrote that “The best thing is to walk… Movement is the best cure for melancholy.”

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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