By Michael Grey
“Touch, sweet touch, you’ve given me too much to feel. Sweet Touch, you’ve almost convinced me I’m real” – Daft Punk.
I know from cycling and yoga how dedicated structured movement can free the mind of thinking, as one attends to the task.
The path is one of the mind and body joining, attending to it’s wholeness. The first time I witnessed my mind really quiet and felt a state of solid emotional calmness was via guided yoga asanas with meditation. I am reminded of the quote by Pema Chodron, “It’s also helpful to realize that this very body that we have, that’s sitting right here right now…with its aches and it pleasures…is exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, fully alive.” Well by these standards I might be able to self-actualize, for at least little bits.
It’s hard to go back to those spaces where you have delightful meditation experiences. Many times meditating is a lot of work and you’re just trying to keep your mind from getting caught up and drifting off all the time. So I like to try different practices when I can. For me, mixing forms of mindfulness keeps things interesting and usually brings awareness to stagnant parts of myself.
I heard about the benefit of barefoot walking on a Freakanomics episode.
This practice fully engages the muscles, allowing a more strengthened system. I have high arches and scoliosis and so finding shoes to walk around in is a tedious and expensive endeavor. Heels are a no-no in this philosophy—they emphasized that the foot’s evolutionary purpose is to not be bound up in a shoe. The shoe is more social construct than functional, and most elaborate footwear is decades, not centuries, old.
So, I figured I would give this a shot. I went to the end of the driveway, and started walking on the pavement in bare feet. At first it felt like an array of unknown sensations and mild pain from tiny rocks scattered everywhere. I noticed the heat of the pavement and its dryness. I noticed my aversion to walking in this uncomfortable camouflage minefield of pavement and tiny loose rocks. I graduated to walking on a sandy path that ATV’s use near our property. This is much more pleasant to work on, but actually takes more physical effort. More work in less space. There are still obstacles, and still pavement to be crossed to get there.
I noticed it was slowing me down. Always eager to complete tasks and forgetting to enjoy them, walking barefoot allowed me to pick up more detail in my environment. The first task is to not injure yourself, so you have to be mindful of where you are going and about to step on. Look at what is right in front of you. Attend to where you are.
I noticed the abundant sensations traveling through my feet. It’s like awakening the sense of touch all over again. I noted my that my feet and legs have an innate ability to navigate the terrain. By contrast, I noticed how much I stumble about for balance with my traditional shoes on over some soft sections of terrain. This was a lightbulb moment. This isn’t a fad; this is what walking in nature is supposed to be.
When staring at what’s right ahead, you notice the small things, like small mushrooms, berries to forage on (blueberry and blackberry season have since passed), and objects to avoid such as animal poop. You notice other animals are walking the same path and that you have already walked the path. You feel dampness or dryness of the ground and the textures of whatever you’re walking over.
With thin skinned feet, you do feel rocks, acorns and plenty of uncomfortable moments. But, they do not last. They are just microbursts of impermanence. You just have to remember you are now the shock absorber, and have to adjust accordingly.
The other senses can be alive too, such as the noises of birds, trucks and the wind, the color of the sky—gray or blue. The leaves of the trees are always changing color in small ways and the heat, or lack thereof, is very prominent and unforgiving, so you have to sometimes keep moving.
I will not pretend to be any expert on earthing, other than that if you are likely walking on earth, off pavement, you may be truly grounding the body into the earth. It is the same as the ground wiring of your house can take a lightening bolt to earth ground. Do I notice it? Not at all. Is it happening anyways, unconsciously? I assume it is. And I assume it is good for you. Well, walking and outdoor time are good for you. Believing it is good for me is at minimum a good placebo effect for my mental and physical health.
“Some people feel the rain, others get wet” – Bob Marley
What I do feel while walking barefoot is a better connection to nature, I have noticed that any time alone outdoors, settles my mind. I try not be put off by the wet weather. Walking in a light rain can be very calming in itself, the olfactory senses come alive, with the ambient noise of the water falling. Being outdoors seems liberating at times, as if I don’t realize my house can be my own prison if I remain there too long.
Is this really walking meditation? I have read a bit about it, and I don’t think I am doing that, or even proposing it. What I do think is that a certain force of presence is brought about, felt, and kind of intuitively understood when we connect to our given senses. We are forced to breathe deeply, without even thinking about it. So, I notice the slowing down, and this increases observance of the senses. Have I noticed emotional insight in the level of a 45 minute sitting practice? No, but it has brought a type of connection and direct experience that’s pretty hard to write about. There is much numbing we can do in life, and it appears that shoes can be another form of dampening our sensations.
I can only encourage you to give it a go.
Author’s note: I have since purchased a couple of “Barefoot” style shoes, and can attest that they are much closer to my experienced described above. While still like a glove, they offer much of the same structural natural form of walking. It’s been a good alternative in cold weather.
Michael Grey is a middle aged husband and father living in New England. He enjoys dystopian science fiction, gardening and sunsets. He as worked over 20 years as a customer service representative. He is an advocate for climate justice and open discussions about mental health.
Editor: Dana Gornall