ADHD · dogs · fitness · meditation · mindfulness · walking

Christine and Khalee Try Walking Meditation

Ok, full disclosure: *I* was doing a walking meditation.

Khalee was just walking and sniffing everything and deciding where to pee…which is being really in the moment, I guess so she’s got this mindfulness thing sorted already.

I usually set out for my walk with one earphone in, using my walking time to hear some cool podcast stories that I would forget to make time to listen to otherwise.

Today, though, my mind was busy and I didn’t think I could focus on a story. So, I decided to try a new walking meditation that I bought last week.

Image description: Khalee, a medium-sized, light-haired dog on a neon yellow leash is standing on an asphalt path and looking back toward the camera. Christine’s feet in black and​ white sneakers can be seen at the bottom of the photo.
At this point, Khalee was doing a ‘waiting for Christine’ meditation practice. She has to do that one a lot. Image description: Khalee, a medium-sized, light-haired dog on a neon yellow leash is standing on an asphalt path and looking back toward the camera. Christine’s feet in black and white sneakers can be seen at the bottom of the photo.

I’ve tried to do walking meditation before, figuring that the movement would help me focus, but I found it was the opposite. Trying to make myself think about how my feet were landing, over and over, was enough to make my brain want to crawl out of my skull.

(Note: I have only tried two walking meditations before and they were both really foot-focused. Perhaps that was an unfortunate coincidence and most aren’t like that.)

Last week, thanks to a tweet from someone with ADHD requesting ideas for meditation, I came across a walking meditation from Anna Granta, an ADHD Coach from the UK.

I figured that a meditation from an ADHD coach would be a bit more tailored to someone with ADHD, and I was right!

For starters, she has a great voice. Lots of meditation leaders have voices that grate on my nerves but Granta’s is sensible, even, and friendly.

The meditation is short – less than 5 minutes from start to finish, including instructions.

And it’s very practical – leading the listener to tune into what they could see, hear, smell, and feel while they walked.

And once it was done, I kept my podcast off for the rest of my walk, noticing the sounds, smells, and the details of the sights around me.

It was a short practice but it was really refreshing. And it would be easy to do in the future.*

I returned from my walking feeling like I had untangled a knot in my brain.

Neurotypical people or those with an established meditation practice might find this practice too short or too quick but my ADHD brain loved it. It was short enough to feel doable, long enough to calm down a bit, and clear and inviting enough that I could keep practicing even after the audio finished.

I’ll definitely be using this meditation in the future. Not for every walk, because sometimes hearing a story is exactly what I need in a given moment, but I love having it close at hand for when my brain needs to smooth out a bit.

Khalee’s walking meditation was also successful. She left the house untroubled, returned the same way, and just walked when she was walking and sniffed while she was sniffing. She’s a mindfulness expert, really.

Image description: Khalee, a medium-sized, light-haired dog on a neon yellow leash is walking away from the camera while she sniffs the ground. She is standing on some grass and there are large decorative rocks a bit further ahead. Part of an asphalt path can be seen on the right side of the photo.​
Here’s Khalee during the sniffing part of her meditation practice. Image description: Khalee, a medium-sized, light-haired dog on a neon yellow leash is walking away from the camera while she sniffs the ground. She is standing on some grass and there are large decorative rocks a bit further ahead. Part of an asphalt path can be seen on the right side of the photo.

*Her instructions are clear and now that I have followed it once, easily done on my own even without the recording. I will still go back to it, though, to help me ease into the process.

fit at mid-life · health · interview

Walking Her Talk…And Her Writing: An Interview With Author Ann Douglas


I first ‘met’ Ann Douglas around 20 years ago when my information-seeking pregnant self picked up her Mother of all Pregnancy Books at Chapters. I loved her writing – she wasn’t the expert talking down to the novice, she was the experienced friend giving you some perspective on whatever you were dealing with right now.

We started chatting back and forth on blogs back in the day and I volunteered to be interviewed for some of her other parenting books, and, in the process, we’ve become good friends. I’ve only seen Ann once in person but we have stayed in touch with phone calls, Zoom chats, and email.

A few years ago, Ann took up the habit of long daily walks and it has been life-changing for her so I thought that Fit as a Feminist Issue readers might enjoy hearing about her routine and about her other projects and interests.

  Image description: Two middle-aged adults in life jackets smile for the camera. Ann, on the right, has curly grey hair. Neil, on the left, has short grey hair and a moustache and he is wearing sunglasses. The deck of a boat and some lake water can be seen behind them.​
Ann Douglas and her husband, Neil, on a boat ride this summer. Image description: Two middle-aged adults in life jackets smile for the camera. Ann, on the right, has curly grey hair. Neil, on the left, has short grey hair and a moustache and he is wearing sunglasses. The deck of a boat and some lake water can be seen behind them.

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous bestselling parenting books and she is currently
writing a book for and about women at midlife. She lives on a lake in a rural area outside of Bancroft, Ontario.

What are some of your current projects (fitness-related or otherwise)? 


I’m hard at work on a book for and about women at midlife, I’m doing a lot of volunteer work related to electoral reform, and I’m taking full advantage of the precious and time-limited gift that is a Canadian summer. For me, that means going for twice-daily walks on a rural road and paddling in my kayak a couple of times each week.



I know that walks are an important part of your daily life. Can you tell me when that started, some details about your routine, and what benefits you have found from incorporating walking into your routine? Does it help your peace of mind? Your feeling of well-being? Your writing?


Walking is a key ingredient in the recipe for a happy, healthy me. I started walking back in 2013, after being completely sedentary for most of my life. And when I say “sedentary,” I mean sedentary. Even a 15-minute walk around the block triggered debilitating foot pain. (I was morbidly obese at the time and my feet were having difficulty dealing with the additional weight I was carrying.) The clock was ticking (I was about to turn 50) and I knew that I needed to find a way to be physically active on a regular basis if I wanted to reduce my risk of developing some of the serious health problems that tend to run in my family, including heart disease and diabetes.


When I started walking, I had physical health goals in mind. What I hadn’t counted on was the impact that regular physical activity would have on my mental health. My twice-daily walks not only help to put the brakes on my anxiety: they also help me to sleep better at night which, in turn, helps to control my anxiety and boost my mood. This has proven to be a complete gamechanger for me, in terms of my mood and my overall quality of life. (I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 18 years ago.) Getting enough sleep and physical activity are the glue that holds everything together.


Walking has also helped me to manage another major health challenge. Four years ago, I was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease: a balance and dizziness disorder that, in my case, is characterized by really acute attacks of vertigo (the kind where you end up throwing up for a couple of hours straight). I quickly figured out that walking as soon as possible after a vertigo attack helps to reset my vestibular system; and that walking regularly helps to maintain the health of my vestibular system. Walking is a key strategy for minimizing the impact of my Meniere’s disease (along with getting enough sleep; minimizing my intake of salt and caffeine; and avoiding alcohol). I also try to minimize stress, but that can be a little hit and miss.


However, the walking helps with that, so even if I’m more stressed than I’d like to be, at least I have a strategy for dialing back the level of stress.


I’m really lucky that I live in a naturally spectacular part of Ontario, so walking automatically means spending time in nature, because I’m surrounded by nature the moment I step outside my front door. That’s a huge benefit: being able to nurture my life-long love affair with nature while I’m nurturing my body at the same time.


You were asking about the impact of walking on my writing. I deliberately take the first of my twice-daily walks at lunchtime, midway through my working day. It’s a way to recharge my mental batteries, just as they’re starting to lose their charge. And often when I’m out for my walk, a solution to a writing-related problem will pop into my head. (“Wait a minute: Chapter 4 should actually be Chapter 1!”) It’s pretty magical, how that works.

Image description: a rural road extends around a curve. The ground is covered with snow and there are snow-covered trees on​ either side of the lightly-plowed road.
A scene from one of Ann’s walks this past winter. Image description: a rural road extends around a curve. The ground is covered with snow and there are snow-covered trees on either side of the lightly-plowed road.


How do you feel about fitness as a key element in self-care?


It’s a huge deal for me. My younger self would be amazed to know that I grew up to be an adult who is an active living evangelist. I hated gym class when I was a kid. Like really hated it….


Being physically active on a regular basis has also given me some newfound body confidence. I’m willing to try new things that I simply wouldn’t have been willing to try before I became physically active. Two years ago, I bought myself a kayak and now I love kayaking. Younger me would have been convinced I wasn’t athletic or coordinated enough to go kayaking. Midlife me knows better!


You are writing a book about women at mid-life and the founders of this blog, Sam & Tracy, have written a book called ‘Fit at Mid-Life.’  I’m interested to know if fitness came up in your research as an important element for women at mid-life. If so, could you tell
me a bit about that?


It definitely came up a lot—and a lot of these conversations were about guilt: the guilt women felt for not being able to be as physically active as they wanted to be. Midlife is crunch time for a lot of women—a time of life when they’re asked to juggle an impossible number of responsibilities and to live up to sky-high expectations of what it means to be living well at midlife. Sometimes important things fall off their to do lists, simply because there isn’t enough of them to go around. That isn’t something that they should be feeling guilty about. It’s something our culture should be feeling guilty about—for asking so much of women that they don’t always have the capacity to take good care of themselves.

As a parenting author, did you find that fitness was a concern for the parents you interviewed or who sought your advice? If so, could you share a bit about that, too?


This definitely came up in the research for my most recent parenting book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids. Once again, there was a lot of guilt as well as frustration with the very real barriers that can prevent parents from exercising as often as they’d like, and for some parents more than others. For example, if you don’t live in a safe and walkable neighbourhood, being active can be a huge challenge. Ditto if you’re a single parent who doesn’t have anyone else available to give you a break so that you can go for a walk by yourself. (Sure, you can walk with a child, but research shows that exercising with kids doesn’t necessarily reap the same fitness benefits as exercising on your own, as anyone who has ever tried to go for a walk with a toddler can attest. You’ll get to see a lot of dandelions, but you might not get a very robust workout.)


But back to the guilt—both guilt for not being able to take time for yourself so you can exercise and guilt for actually taking that time.


I think the best way to deal with that guilt is to simply ask yourself, “What’s reasonable and sustainable for me right now?” and to look for a way to start with something. It doesn’t have to be a big commitment. It doesn’t have to happen every day. And maybe you can mentally frame it a way that actually feels good: as a nice thing you’re doing for yourself as opposed to yet another obligation to add to an already too long to do list. (“I get to go for a 10-minute walk around the block” as opposed to “I have to….”)

Image description: a bright blue fibreglass kayak is tied up at a small floating dock on a lake. The kayak cover rests on the dock and we can see the water all around the dock and the kayak.
Ann’s kayak awaits her next paddling adventure. Image description: a bright blue fibreglass kayak is tied up at a small floating dock on a lake. The kayak cover rests on the dock and we can see the water all around the dock and the kayak.


The name of this blog is Fit is a Feminist Issue. Does the connection between feminism and fitness resonate with you? If so, how?


Yes, and on so many levels! First of all, in terms of body love and self-acceptance. Being
physically active on a regular basis has allowed me to feel good about my body in ways that I didn’t even think were possible, given the toxic cultural messages women are given about their bodies. A lot of the women I’ve interviewed for my book have been quite explicit about the need to break up with the patriarchy—how that is a path to liberation for them, both personally and politically—and I couldn’t agree more. Gender roles as prescribed by our patriarchal culture make it more challenging for women to find the time or to have the other resources necessary to take good care of themselves. And, of course, those challenges are intersectional, with some women being impacted so much more than others. My rage about these issues intensifies as I grow older. I just want things to be better, and not just for women like me (a cis, heterosexual, white middle class woman). I want things to be better for all women. Because we deserve nothing less.

Is there anything you would like to talk about that arose from other questions but that I didn’t directly ask about?

I guess I’d just add a quick note about self-compassion. There’s a lot of research to show that women who treat themselves with self-compassion are more likely to recover from an exercise setback (for example, an injury, a family emergency, or something else that disrupts their plans to be physically active). Instead of beating themselves up for having to put their workouts on hold, they simply treat themselves with the same kindness as they would show to a friend who was facing a similar challenge. Instead of feeling like giving up, they feel like they can re-engage with their exercise goal. Learning about self-compassion was life-changing for me, which is why I’m always talking about it.

dogs · fitness · motivation · walking

On this glum day, Christine is grateful Khalee needs a walk.

You’re reading this on Tuesday but I’m writing it on Monday.

I’ve been stuck between metaphorical gears all day.

There’s nothing wrong and I’m not feeling down or anything, I’m just not…something.

It might be because I had a lot of administrative dreams last night. (You know, the kind where you spend the whole night putting things in order?*) So I woke up tired.

Or maybe it’s because the weather looks like this here today.

A paved path with trees on the side on an overcast,  foggy day.
It’s just so inspiring and uplifting, isn’t it? (Does sarcasm work when you can’t hear me say it?) Image Description: a paved path with sparse trees on either side. It’s overcast and foggy.

Whatever the reason, I’ve spent the day feeling glum and kind of vaguely dissatisfied with the work I was doing.

I know how to shake this feeling, of course.

*All* I have to do is to get moving.

But when you are feeling meh, it’s hard to motivate yourself.

And when you are feeling meh and you have ADHD, motivation is even harder to come by.

That’s where our heroine, Khalee, comes to the rescue.

Because she needs a walk, it’s an automatic part of my day.

A light haired  dog in    a red and white shirt sniffs the air on a paved path.
I love how Khalee sniffs the air like this when we are on a walk. I think it helps her decide which path to take each time. (We follow her nose.) Image description: a light-haired dog in a red shirt covered in white hearts is standing on a paved path. She is facing away from the camera and her nose is lifted as she sniffs the air.

So, despite the fog, despite the chill, despite my lack of motivation, late this afternoon, I bundled up and took Khalee for a stroll.

As we walked along, looking around and taking deep breaths, I started to feel a lot better.

I started smiling at Khalee, sniffing her way along, wearing the dog shirt that I refer to as her ‘pyjamas.’

And I was filled with gratitude for this good pup whose simple need for exercise helped drag me out of today’s doldrums.

A light haired   dog looking directly into the camera.
Here’s Khalee Pup (a.k.a. KP) after I called out ‘Hey, Good Girl!‘ so she would turn around. She knows how good she is. Image description: a light haired dog, wearing a red shirt with white hearts on it, looks directly at the camera.

I was still tired but I didn’t feel meh at all anymore.

Thanks for taking your Christine out for a walk, KP, she really needed it.

*Last night, in separate dreams, I was searching for a piece of paper that doesn’t exist in real life, I was trying to remind my husband of things that aren’t happening in real life, and I was trying to teach a sewing class over Zoom (also not happening in real life- which is best for all concerned.)

fitness

Neighborhood walking

I went for an early morning walk yesterday. Morning walks are not my normal thing, but I had time to kill between dropping my daughter at her job and a doctor’s appointment before work. It was my second walk doing something a little different in the last week, and both highlighted three revelations that aren’t totally new, but bear repeating and highlighting.

Walking, for me, shrinks distances. I get into habits of believing that things are further away than they really are, so I take my car. I hate using my car for short distances, so I organize “great circle routes” to do all the errands at once. When I break down some of those errands into single chores, I can easily get in some physical activity at the same time.

When I walk, I notice things. Yesterday morning’s walk included three kids gleefully stomping in a big puddle to smash the melting ice (one of my favourite late winter activities). I also spotted a window with a row of flowering potted plants, and chatted for a moment with a friendly crossing guard. These were all small moments of joy that I would never get in a moving vehicle.

Walking is a way for me to take action. I care a lot about the environment, so by using my own steam I am not contributing to climate change. I acknowledge that being able to walk places is something not available to everyone, especially in winter. I had to navigate icy stretches and some small snowbanks blocking the sidewalks. In summer, I would be able to note where sidewalks are broken or too high for someone with impaired mobility. I won’t notice them as much as someone in a wheelchair or using a walker, but I can at least report what I do see to the folks who maintain our streets and sidewalks so that fixes can be made.

Feet wearing black rubber boots, standing in an icy puddle. Photo by Julien-Pier Belanger on Unsplash

Sat with Nat · walking

Nat navigates walking to work in a Polar Vortex

It’s been a week of proper cold winter weather in London, Ontario. I live on the little southern bit of Canada wedged between the Great Lakes. It rarely drops below-20C here but when it does it tends to be because the Arctic airmass slips south into the jet stream and it stays that way for a week or two.

Some Canadians lean into the weather quipping “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just not dressing for the weather,” That supposes everyone has both the means to acquire the right clothing & equipment as well as the knowledge to know what to buy, how to wear it and when to stay indoors.

My partner and I are fairly committed to walking to work as part of our fitness and reducing our carbon footprint. I’m also terribly cheap and hate paying $8-12 a day to park my clunker.

Some days we just bundled up with hats, mitts, good boots and faces covered.

A close up of Nat’s face framed by a fake fur hood. You can just make out her eyes between her grey toque and bright orange face cover

My hood is always up when it’s -24C plus wind chill.

We did walk 2/5 days this week but we also chose to drive when the “feels like” temperature hit -39C. It was a week of driving in a cold car, working in a cold office and wearing layers of clothes in the house & in bed.

Brrrrrr

This type of cold weather wrecks havoc on batteries so for folks using electric mobility devices like scooters it was a week of being home. Waiting for buses became so hazardous school transportation was cancelled Thursday.

I think one way we can debunk toxic masculinity is calling out ideas of being able to “tough out” the weather. Sure, there are times to dig deep into your resolve to overcome obstacles. And yes, making our lives consciously more physically challenging can be a way to enhance our fitness. But those ideas must also be balanced against safety and wellbeing.

So I’m ok getting the lift offered by a friend on a snowy afternoon as I walk home. I’m ok driving when I might otherwise risk frostbite. I have been looking for rain pants and insulated snow pants that fit for about 5 years to no avail.

I would like some though so if you know where a woman can find women’s size 20 or XXXL I’d love to hear about it!

fitness

Walking shouldn’t be weird

The scene is a hotel in a large American city. I’m at a conference and heading out the front door to run an errand and meet colleagues at a restaurant down the road. I’ve Googled the directions, looked at the map, timed it all out, and put on my comfortable walking shoes. The only thing I need to know leaving the hotel is whether to turn left or right.

I shouldn’t have asked.

“Where are you walking to?”

I give the address.

“That’s too far to walk.”

No, it’s not. I’ve got the map. And Google says it’s 31 minutes away.

“That’s a long way.”

I want the exercise.

“But it’s cold and it’s raining.”

<Fact: It’s 6 degrees Celsius.>

I’m from Canada. This is warm. And it’s just mist. And I’ve got my umbrella.

“Okay then.”

The concierge shakes his head disapprovingly.

Now to be clear I don’t think this is an American versus Canadian thing. I’ve had similar reactions from hotel staff in Winnipeg and Calgary.

In New York walking would be normal. In Chicago walking downtown would be fine. In Toronto and Montreal, ditto. You walk.

But some cities culturally aren’t walking cities. Walking shouldn’t be weird.

See The US Surgeon General’s Call to Make Walking a National Health Priority.

The U.S. Surgeon General is calling on Americans to “step it up” — that is, to do more walking. He says this easy and free activity could prevent serious health problems.

On Wednesday, Dr. Vivek Murthy launched the “Step It Up” campaign in Washington, D.C., a national effort to promote walking and wheelchair rolling. He calls it a powerful tool to prevent chronic health problems.

“The science tells us that 22 minutes of brisk walking or moderate physical activitycan get you these health benefits of reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes,” Murthy explained.

And I love, love, love that he’s including wheelchair rolling in this campaign. Yay for inclusive fitness!

 

 

fitness · Weekends with Womack

In praise of feet as travel accessory

imageTraveling, for me, is energizing, refreshing and a real pleasure. It’s a chance to leave my regular life for a bit and try on different modes of existence. Eating new foods, embracing a new cadence for the day, looking at other landscapes and diving into another environment are all ways to clear out old habits and experiment with new ones.

When I lived in Italy 16 years ago I tried dressing up more in response to the well put together Italians I encountered every day going about their business. Sadly, that habit didn’t really stick. But I did develop a love for Italian coffee that has persisted.

Another thing that travel does for me is remind me of the virtues of public transportation. In Boston I drive and ride my commuter bike around town but don’t usually take subway or buses much. In other places– especially cities with good public transportation infrastructure– it’s easy to get around on trams, trains, buses and even ferries. It may seem like it’s more time consuming (and does require some planning), but it’s a great way to see what a place is like. You can get a look at the locals in their daily lives and also see the working areas– not just the tourist sites.

Engaging down the path to discovery is sometimes taxing, though. Managing the logistics, luggage and lag (of the jet variety) sometimes leaves me a bit low energy. But I’ve noticed something else on my travels for the past two months: no matter how tired, lost, confused or homesick I’ve been, walking around always makes it better. Here are some examples where walking is a handy option;

I’m in an airport with a long wait, too tired to read. I walk around.’m newly arrived somewhere and majorly jet lagged– headachy and queasy and out of sorts. I walk around (preferably with nice friends like Samantha and Diego, who I saw Tuesday in Toronto).

I’m not feeling up for navigating yet on my bike in a new place. I walk around.

I want to get a feel for a neighborhood, but have no particular destination in mind. I walk around.

I spy a forest path or beach that looks enticing. I walk around.

My normal sports outlets are not available because I’m far away or can’t find or afford to do them. I walk around.

I’m traveling back to Sydney for 3 more weeks of work and exploration and social fun. I’m planning on swimming, kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, and of course riding my bike. But no matter what, my feet are available as a handy travel tool to combat lots of travel woes.

So thank you feet!

fitness

My week of walking on the wild side

For the past two weeks I’ve been home from work recovering from surgery (everything is fine and I’m now back on my bike) and for exercise that means I’ve been walking, a lot.

One of the cool things about recovering from surgery as an active person is that you can scale back considerably and still have lots that you can do. No biking or running, fine, but I walked lots. Some of it was with the new puppy so it wasn’t all speedy. To the surprise of the staff at the clinic I attended one week out I walked there and back, about 8 km. But parking would have cost $10, I’m frugal, and it’s not like I was getting any other exercise.

But all that walking made me think about pedestrian safety and risk. When Tracy blogged about giving up road cycling and her fear of being hit by a car one of my first thoughts was about walking and cars. Why? Because I’ve had two people in my life in the past few years killed by cars while out walking. One was a friend from church out walking her dog at night and the other was an older woman I knew from the velodrome. She was out walking in the evening. I kept imagining how many people would judge that activity safe and her velodrome riding risky. I blogged about cycling and risk here.

During my week of walking lots I heard of more pedestrian deaths in the news. Another pedestrian was killed in our city this week. A 70 year old, crossing the road, at an intersection. We don’t yet whether charges will be laid but I couldn’t help but note that there’s been no outcry about pedestrian safety.

Should he have been wearing reflective clothing, flashing lights? A helmet? Maybe it’s not safe to walk and we should all just stop. Maybe we should drive everywhere and then walk in our houses on treadmills.

image

See also Toronto driver crashed into four pedestrians leaving one dead.

Pedestrian deaths are common. They don’t make news except on slow days. In big cities hundreds of people are killed each year while out walking from place A to place B.

Freakonomics even speculates that running someone over is the best way to get away with murder.

From Mike’s traffic blog, talking about New York, “There were 1,300 fatal pedestrian crashes there from 2008 to 2013 and only 66 drivers were arrested. That’s the entry point for Freakonomics to analyze pedestrian crashes. In New York City, 52% of all traffic fatalities are pedestrians. That percent drops to 14% for the rest of the United States. Obviously there’s an exposure risk in New York. There are more people walking around there than anywhere else.”

You don’t hear much of that and as a cyclist I find the comparison with cycling deaths a bit hard to understand. There are ghost bikes but no ghost sneakers. That’s part of why I worry about ghost bikes. They single out cycling as particularly dangerous rather than cars as our shared enemy.

Cycling advocacy groups do occasionally promote helmets for pedestrians, on the grounds that what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander. See here
and here.

I don’t think of myself as much of a walker. I say it’s too slow. I say that I’m saving walking as a fitness activity for my old age, along with cruises for vacations, long driving trips, and television for entertainment.

Now the not walking thing isn’t quite true. For years, I pushed strollers. I will always walk dogs. I love hiking. But I tend not to walk as transportation. I usually drive the car or ride my bike for distances over 2 km.

Maybe it’s an identity thing. I am a cyclist, but I’d never describe myself as an avid walker.

And in terms of safety, I’m not suggesting we stop walking. But we should think differently about risk, maybe that means worrying a bit more about walking and a bit less about cycling. Certainly we should pay lots attention when walking (stop looking at our phones! ) and maybe even wear reflective clothing and lights when walking at night. I’m also looking forward to the era of driverless cars. I think smart cars are likely to be much safer for their passengers and for cyclists and pedestrians alike.

image

Sat with Nat

Back to walking to work

It’s still quite cold in London, Ontario but the sidewalks are dry and clear and the past two weeks I’ve been walking to work. I know from my time using a Fitbit that my walking commute is the best way to get daily exercise in. I’m lucky, driving takes 10 minutes, walking 30 so I really don’t need to change much to make those steps happen. My feet and hips are aching a bit, I look like an evil garden gnome AND I’m very glad to be getting back to walking to work. Yay spring! 

 

athletes · fitness · Guest Post · motivation

Lessons From Spinoza (Guest Post)

LadyDay SpinozaLast week, I walked from Benedictus Spinoza’s birthplace in Amsterdam to his grave in the Hague, a journey of (on the slightly indirect route I selected) some 75 or so kilometres (50ish miles). It took me two full days. By the time I finished the first day, my legs were wobbling and my feet were blistered. By the time I finished the second day, each step made me cry.

Why would someone undertake a walk like this? I did it because I love Spinoza’s thought, and I admire Spinoza the man. In a way, I wanted to seal my relationship with Spinoza with a kind of grand gesture. This isn’t the first time. I celebrated my 40th birthday by getting a Spinoza tattoo. Now, I’m 44 — the same age at which Spinoza died, as it happens — and living in the U.K. for a year, which makes it easier for me than it usually is to travel to continental Europe. It occurred to me to visit Holland’s various Spinoza sites. As soon as I realized that the whole geography of Spinoza’s life fit into a walkable distance, the idea of doing the walk became an idée fixe for me.  The two things that particularly appealed to me about the idea were that such a walk would be both an embodied activity and a meditative activity, and that it would be difficult. Both of these themes are central to Spinoza’s thought.

In a way, it is surprising that Spinoza, the great 17th century rationalist philosopher, has anything to contribute to our ideas about embodiment. Some other prominent philosophers of the period — most notably Descartes — regarded the body as a mere vessel for the mind, and blamed the body for the errors of the mind. Our minds, on Descartes’s view, are (in some sense) infinite and transcendent. Perfection is at least in principle possible for them. Our bodies, on the other hand, are finite and corruptible. Worse, they can corrupt the minds to which they are intimately joined. For Descartes and his followers, carnality — embodiment — is to blame for our evil thoughts, our irrational thoughts, our errors, and our sins. One of his most influential followers — Malebranche — therefore argued that to be virtuous one must make oneself as much like a corpse as possible.

Spinoza was different. He regarded the mind and the body as just two ways of thinking about the very same thing. For Spinoza, the body isn’t some flawed vehicle we’re stuck in — it actually is us, just as much as our mind is. Indeed, the body just is the mind, but thought of as part of a physical system rather than as part of a system of ideas. Like most philosophers, Spinoza offered instructions on how to become wiser. His advice was the opposite of Malebranche’s. Where Malebranche says “Make yourself like a corpse,” Spinoza says, “No! You’re an organism, a living, breathing, complex organism operating in a system that involves tons of other organisms. The path to wisdom is understanding those systems in all their complexity.”

Thus, we find Spinoza offering the following sensible tips:

…to make use of what comes in our way, and to enjoy it as much as possible (not to the point of satiety, for that would not be enjoyment) is the part of a wise woman.* I say it is the part of a wise woman to refresh and recreate herself with moderate and pleasant food and drink, and also with perfumes, with the soft beauty of growing plants, with dress, with music, with many sports, with theatres, and the like, such as every woman may make use of without injury to her neighbour. For the human body is composed of very numerous parts, of diverse nature, which continually stand in need of fresh and varied nourishment, so that the whole body may be equally capable of performing all the actions, which follow from the necessity of its own nature; and, consequently, so that the mind may also be equally capable of understanding many things simultaneously. This way of life, then, agrees best with our principles, and also with general practice… (Ethics IV.45 cor. 2)

* Ok, I admit it. Spinoza says “man” and “he/him”, here and throughout. But isn’t it better this way?

Many sports, not just sports but many sports.

We ought to play many sports (and eat and drink nice things in moderation and take time out for the theatre and listen to music and do a little gardening…) because our bodies are complex and benefit from a variety of types of nourishment, exercise and stimuli. Not just that — physical variety is important for our intellectual lives because our minds and bodies aren’t really different things at all. Understanding means understanding bodies.

Sometimes, when you’re sitting at a desk for hours, or whizzing around in a car or a plane, it’s easy to make the Cartesian mistake of thinking of the body as a vessel (like the desk, the car, or the plane). But any runner knows how rich that sequence of thoughts are that occur on a long run. They’re not just rich; they’re connected to our surroundings in a much more intimate way than they are when you’re stuck at a desk or on a plane. In those more contained environments, one tends to have controlled thoughts — the thoughts that one plans to have. Here I am at my desk thinking about this task that I have to perform. Here I am on the plane thinking about the article I’m reading. When we confine the body, it’s easy(ish) to confine the mind too.

You can do that to an extent during exercise. I’ve certainly taken runs or walks or bike rides in which I’ve intentionally focused on some problem or another. And, in some ways, we’re way better at solving such problems when we’re exercising. But I challenge you to actually go on a run or walk or ride and never once have your thoughts turn to your environment, on the one hand, and to the rich phenomenology of being in a real live body, on the other.

For me, on my long walk, this meant lots of thoughts about Dutch waterfowl and architecture, and the ubiquity of bicycles in the Netherlands, and the terrible toll of the Second World War on Dutch jewry, and the surprising similarities between rural Northern Dutch culture and the culture of rural Eastern Ontario. It also meant lots of noticing how feet and calves and knees and hips and iliosacral joints feel after one hour of walking, two hours, four hours, eight hours… It meant remembering that pain in itself isn’t dangerous and, so long as you genuinely aren’t in danger, can even be really interesting. When your feet really, really hurt, I learned, it is easier to keep walking than to resume walking after a rest. I relearned (because I first learned this when I was training for a half marathon a couple of years ago) that it is easier to approach a long physical challenge by thinking of it in terms of a collection of small challenges with small rewards. (Once you’ve passed that windmill, you can look at your watch. Once you’ve crossed that bridge, you can have a handful of nuts.)

If you asked me whether my big Spinoza walk depended on physical stamina or mental stamina, I would reject the question as unintelligible. In this instance, at least, physical and mental stamina are two sides of the same coin — a most Spinozist result.

The walk, though, wasn’t just an opportunity to explore firsthand and without distraction the inseparability of embodiment and intellection. It was also a challenge — a chance to undertake a difficult task. I won’t say too much about this. If you didn’t understand the appeal of difficulty, you wouldn’t be reading a blog about fitness and feminism. Part of what makes fitness fun is pushing oneself to achieve a difficult result. Feminism, of course, means undertaking a whole other set of difficulties, more difficult ones usually than are required by our fitness efforts, and alas not always fun.

While it might be surprising at first to learn that Spinoza has useful things to say about embodiment, it should be entirely unsurprising that he understood difficulty. After all, his parents and grandparents were forced from Spain to Portugal to France to Holland by a succession of anti-semitic laws sweeping Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries. Spinoza himself was forced out of the Amsterdam Jewish community, and then wrote one of the most notoriously difficult works in western philosophy despite poverty, ill health and a day job grinding lenses.

Spinoza’s final words in that work remind us why we try to do difficult things. He writes, “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” That is, if something is desirable and yet uncommon, it must be hard to get or to do. The difficulty doesn’t make such goals less excellent, though. On the contrary, your willingness to undertake a difficult and rare achievement is evidence of just how excellent it is. Think of it: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” If that isn’t the right motto to repeat as you push yourself to finish a ridiculously long walk, or to shave 1/10 of a second off your race time, or to add a triple axel to your routine, or to score a goal against the toughest defence you’ve ever encountered, then I don’t know what is.

Shannon Dea is an associate professor of philosophy at University of Waterloo. Her hobbies include hiking, doing yoga, missing the swell bike that’s waiting for her back in Canada, and sticking to cockamamie plans once she’s gotten them stuck in her head.