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?

I tried it. I remember distinctly: I conceived the idea of this kind of mental discipline at the bottom of Lake Street, where it touches Washington Street. By Roger’s park, I decided to give it a whirl, devoting my consciousness for the remainder of the walk to enumerating possible specific forms such mental discipline could take, and then twenty minutes later, as I approached my office, I suddenly woke up from the pleasures of concentration with a start, as if emerging from the pages of a gripping novel, and realized the walk had passed without my noticing it. But it hadn’t passed the way a walk passes when I daydream or fret: no, I could look back over that stretch of time and point to a significant reflective accomplishment, a list, 14 items long, which I promptly wrote down once I got to my office.

Since that thought experiment, I’ve never minded walking anywhere.

But a new problem emerged pretty quickly. By now my mind falls into the flow state of ambulatory concentration pretty quickly. When I set out on a solitary walk, I set myself a question or topic, and find myself in the zone. On a good day, the ideas come fast and thick. But to really indulge the byways and alleys of discursive thought, I can’t be worry about remembering the happy results of what I’ve already thought. Memory is a technical problem. I find myself derailed from my line by the necessity of making a mnemonic. Even so minor a circuit as turning your attention back and forth from a substantive problem to a mnemonic problem can ruin the momentum — so unique to thinking while walking — that I cherish.

Enter the smartphone.

An idea came to me while discussing the composition of philosophy with some friends. Both of them found it difficult (at the time) to sit down and write. They could write philosophy for discrete formal projects — term papers and conference presentations, and the like — but not as a daily practice; they didn’t write for discovery. After I spent a while describing how delightful and useful I find the practice of daily reflective writing, they bemoaned the fact that their best ideas come up in speech and not on paper. I suggested they get .mp3 recorders and take verbal notes.

Later it dawned on me that this was also obviously the solution to my own problem. I could take audio notes as I walked, instead of worrying about remembering the cataract of my own ideas. I downloaded a simple audio note-taking app onto my smartphone, and I was set.

Ambulatory reflection is now one of my favorite activities — and it turns out I’m not alone. Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Walter Benjamin, and many other thinkers I admire, were also walker-thinkers. During Verso’s insane 90% sale on ebooks this week, I got hold of Frederic Gros’s Philosophy of Walking. I look forward to seeing what he has to say ambulatory reflection.

Now excuse me, I’ve got to take a walk.