The Intellectual Uses of Ambulation

I walk outside for about two hours a day, like most city dwellers. I walk to work; I walk to the grocery store; I walk to the library. (These points, with occasional lines out to visit a friend, form the triangular parameters of my life.) Before I moved to Boston, I didn’t walk so much; and in the first few years that I lived here, my impatience with walking gradually built until it became physically painful for me to follow my daily trailheads. The walk to Boston College — of which two variants were feasible — caused me untold mental anguish. Each too-often seen sidewalk stain and sagging gutter scraped my spirit like steel wool. I took to reading on the hoof and other dangerous practices.

Then, as I was oozing along my now repulsive sidewalk one day, I was thinking about Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson, which includes a minor character who innerly monologues a good bit about the mental disciplines of Buddhism. For some reason, I was suddenly taken with the idea of mental discipline, which I defined to myself as the conscious exercise of mental energy in a definite direction. A certain amount of mental discipline is the inevitable ancillary to mental work, to reading, writing, serious conversation, and so forth. But what if I put some of the otherwise aimless stretches of my mental life to work for the sake of the discipline, not as a means to something else? What if, for example, I spent time each day consciously attempting to enumerate new ideas for myself about a set topic, or purposefully rehearsing in as great detail as I was capable the most recent book I’d read, or memorizing things just for the sake of the activity? Might that redeem the awful periods, like walking to work?

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