“When I’m in turmoil, when I can’t think, when I’m exhausted and afraid and feeling very, very alone, I go for walks. It’s just one of those things I do. I walk and I walk and sooner or later something comes to me, something to make me feel less like jumping off a building.” —Jim Butcher
Several months ago, when I came across the quote above, I felt that little zap of connection you feel when someone hits right on your emotional mark. In addition to being a licensed therapist, I’m a cancer survivor—and I have found deep healing after cancer treatment through the practice of walking.
Turns out that some of the greatest artists in all of history were devotees of the daily walk. Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau and Tchaikovsky were just a few of the endorsers of walking as a way to engage with humanity, spur creativity, and cultivate a deep relationship with oneself.
Mindful walking is a practice that has been an integral part of many religious and spiritual practices the world over for thousands of years. The tradition of walking the labyrinth has been a part of the Christian faith since the middle ages. Often known as prayerful walking, it is considered a powerful method for connecting with God. In the Buddhist tradition, walking meditation is one of the cornerstones of meditative practice. Buddhist monks integrate mindful walking as they perform chores and go about the business of daily life.
In addition to a rich history of providing emotional and spiritual benefits, in recent years a number of studies indicate that a daily walking practice, mindful in nature or not, may reduce cancer recurrence risk for some cancers—in particular, breast and colon cancers.
According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, women with a history of breast cancer who walked three or more hours a week showed a 50% reduction in recurrence compared to women who were inactive. Clearly, the benefits of walking are numerous.
Healing Body and Mind
After cancer treatment I felt the need to commit to a daily practice in which I could build back up my body, mind, and spirit. I felt intuitively that I needed to be outdoors, connected with people and nature after all those months cloistered inside my home (or, more specifically, camped out on the living room couch). When I was advised by my doctor to try to incorporate some daily walking into my schedule, I didn’t hesitate to put that suggestion into action.
I committed to the practice of a daily, hour-long walk and made it the centerpiece of my day. Much to my surprise, this daily walk became an essential component in not only my recovery from cancer but also in managing stress and anxiety. It is now built into the matrix of how I cope with the seemingly endless litany of “problems,” both big and small, that I encounter in my daily life.
Through a walking practice, you can cultivate a habit of looking within and connecting more deeply with all the feelings drowned out and pushed to the side while going through cancer treatment. For many, if not most, cancer survivors, it’s only after cancer treatment ends that they really feel the full emotional impact of what they’ve been through.
By identifying those feelings instead of trying to outrun or escape them, you’ll be better able to address the ways in which cancer impacted you emotionally. This will allow you to connect with and move through your healing process more fully, which in turn allows you to be able to help others along with their own healing.
When walking, it’s helpful to notice things unseen in daily life—the small connections with nature. The noticing of those small details can help you to “stop and smell the roses” and stay in the moment, rather than living in the past or worrying about the future.
That power of finding connection with nature, even in an urban landscape, cannot be underestimated. It’s the reason we go to look into the Grand Canyon or gaze at the majesty of Niagara Falls. It puts us in touch with the “hugeness” of the world, time, and space. It also connects us to our common humanity.
Daily walking is also necessary in getting back into a healthy relationship with your body after cancer. You might still be feeling fairly angry with your body for betraying you by getting cancer in the first place.
You just may find that the more you walk, the stronger you feel—both in body and mind. At the start, you’ll be working both physical and emotional muscles that may have been laid dormant. Here is your chance to build them up and make them even stronger than before.
The Practice of Mindful Walking
I’ll share with you the method that I’ve developed in creating a mindful walk experience. Feel free to adjust the steps, add or remove pieces, and tailor it to your unique needs.
- Step outside. Take a moment to stretch and connect to your body. Are there areas that are tight and require some attention? Take a couple of deep breaths and get centered.
- Begin walking at a leisurely pace. Take a moment to focus on your breath. You may choose to breathe in with one step and out with another, or you may want to just have some awareness as to how your breath connects with your movements.
- Pay attention to your body’s signals. What does it need today? Do you feel strong and steady on your feet, or fragile and unsure how long you can go on? Are you relaxed, or are you carrying unwanted tension with you? If an hour-long walk is too tall an order, find what works for you with the energy you have.
- Take a look around and notice things—really, deeply notice. What sights, sounds, and smells are you aware of? The din of freeway traffic in the distance? The tangy smell of ozone after a rain? The brightness of the leaves as they turn colors? Look for the details and take them in. Be attentive to what you pass each day but never really look at. Be aware.
- Notice feelings that come up. Are you feeling vulnerable, lonely, or disconnected? Are you feeling joyous, awed, or exuberant? Are you feeling a mixture of both positive and negative feelings, or are you just in the middle in a swirl of emotions so overwhelming that you are having difficulty identifying what they are? In any case, don’t try to chase or change them. Just notice the feelings (or lack thereof), acknowledge them, and then allow them to move on by.
Even if cancer has left you without full mobility and you use a wheelchair or scooter to get around, the simple act of being outside in mindful awareness can be healing. Taking time to process your feelings and treat yourself right is what it’s all about. I hope that this mindful walking practice helps you like it’s helped me. I wish you abundant healing and wellness.
Holmes MD, Chen WY, Feskanich D, Kroenke CH, Colditz GA. Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. Journal of the American Medical Association 2005; 293(20):2479–2486.
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stacey Fuller, LMFT, therapist in Pasadena, California
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