Our millennial generation seems destined for a history-book page entitled “Burned Out, Restless, and Unsatisfied.”
While Gertrude Stein named our ancestors of the early 1900s the “lost generation,” and Tom Brokaw dubbed our grandparents the “greatest generation,” we seem to be stuck with the "burnout generation." That’ll look good in the books our grandkids read in their history classes.
But we have a choice. We may feel like we’re only reacting to life, rather than living with intentionality, but we love to read about mindfulness, yoga, minimalism, and contemplative-living. I know, I know — I’m not telling you anything you haven’t already heard. I’m not even suggesting anything new when I toss out the idea of a daily walk this Lent.
Yep, that’s it. That’s all I’ve got here: a 10-minute walk. Again, I know you’ve heard it before, but the thing about Lent is that it gives us this manageable span of time to try out those new practices we’re always putting on the to-do list and then shoving farther down that list. Forty days. That’s it.
A 10-minute walk gives us that “mindfulness break” we *know* we need. Research backs this up: In 2014, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a review of studies showing that meditation — including mindfulness practices — improves markers of well-being, especially those associated with stress reactions.
There are many forms meditation can take, but in its simplest form, mindfulness is nothing more than the old advice to “be here now” — focus on the present moment in a specific, intentional, nonjudgmental way. One surefire way to practice this kind of mindfulness is simply going for a walk.
Think about it: 10 minutes of just feeling your heels hit the ground, of feeling your body flow through space, of noting just how blue the sky really is. Ten minutes of slowing the world down. Ten minutes to have only this moment. According to that JAMA study, meditation and mindfulness can improve anxiety issues, depression, even pain in certain circumstances. In some situations, the effect can compare to the effectiveness of antidepressants.
Another JAMA study analyzed the effects of mindfulness on physician burnout. Apparently, at least in the last decade, up to 60 percent of practicing physicians reported symptoms of burnout. Participation in a mindfulness program, however, combated these symptoms, creating short-term and sustained improvement in well-being and attitudes toward patient-centered care.
So there’s the science. But even beyond this science, we’ve got more. If you like a more intuitive approach, we’ve got the support of seeing practices like a simple, 10-minute walk advocated by people as diverse as Matthew Kelly with his support for finding “carefree timelessness”; Eckhart Tolle with his advocacy of “just being” even in the middle of the rush; and federal judge Raymond Kethledge, who collected in his book, Lead Yourself First, the stories of famous leaders who made time to be by themselves in quiet places.
Some figures in Lead Yourself First discuss the power of solitary runs to unlock intuitive creativity and problem-solving. Run or walk, the simple act of being — being alone, being present — can help your subconscious reset and mine its creative power to solve problems, weigh options, and find counsel.
A Latin proverb captures this wisdom: solvitur ambulando, “it is solved by walking.” People have turned to silent walks for clarity since the time immemorial. Whether it’s Jesus in the desert, Ulysses S. Grant preparing for Shiloh, or Jane Goodall observing gorillas in Central Africa, we can find examples of solitary walks leading to clarity and inspiration.
For myself, I make a habit of taking a walk every morning — 10 minutes or so when I’m busy, a little longer when I’ve got some breathing room. The time doesn’t go toward planning or thinking though problems. I don’t use it to strategize about projects or even to “get some exercise.” Nope. That time is sacrosanct to be about nothing.
It’s about unstructured, unallocated, unplanned awareness. It’s about waving at the guy down the street who struggles to control his giant white-coated dog that has a bad attitude about sharing the sidewalk. It’s about noticing the quality of the air, its warmth or coolness on my skin and the feeling of the Gulf Coast humidity. Sometimes, if he’s out on his riding mower, it’s about waving at the dude who maintains the grass and foliage on the median. Or it could be about awareness of my internal landscape, my interoception and experience of my body and senses in the world — just feeling me.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this complete “down time” usually ends up leaving me with a breakthrough for my writing, a new idea to try, or a solution to a work problem that’s been poking me. The idea will simply bubble up and flash into my consciousness. It’d probably been sitting there a while and just needed the mental gridlock to abate.
So if you’re still looking for a Lenten “thing,” you might try a little aimless walking. It requires a little less commitment than prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but that’s okay. Lent can be about shaking ourselves up a little to find that new depth, that new discipline, that rekindled passion for something more.
Or, in the case of the aimless awareness of a short walk — something less.