Clearing your head

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December 9, 2022 6 min read

I am an avid runner. I rarely actually look forward to my runs, but I am consistent in lacing up and going for a run. Running has a great physiological impact on me and I like the challenge of improving. However, when I go for a run, if I have something on my mind, I am only able to focus for the first kilometre or so. Thereafter my mind grows unreliable in its ability to remain on topic. My focus shifts to the act of running and my train of thought derails. Ability to focus aside, after my run I often feel like my mind is clear of whatever thoughts were occupying it. It just feels like quite an intense mechanism for clearing my head.

Side note: Running has been shown to reduce chronic stress in the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

Unlike running, I really enjoy going for a leisurely walk. It's not a chore, there's often no explicit objective, no target I'm working toward (I'm certainly not attempting to become a professional power walker). It must be said that I didn't always enjoy going for a walk. I am quite objective/output driven and I didn't see the point in walking. Running keeps me fit, clears my head and I can improve at it. I initially slinked into walking regularly under the pretence of listening to Podcasts. Podcasts allow me to potentially learn something (so they offered an objective) and I couldn't listen to them with my full attention when running, so I had to walk. So I started going for regular walks, donning my headphones and listened to whatever flavour of Podcast I fancied on that day.

Initially this was fine, I'd listen and walk and usually learn something. Overtime though I started to notice how often I would find stray thoughts rattling into my subconscious while walking. And I would entertain them for quite some time before I caught myself and redirected my focus to the Podcast I was listening to. But I didn't like this; I didn't like that I had these thoughts simmering on the back-burner that I couldn't freely engage with without feeling guilty for neglecting the purpose of my walk (the Podcast). This was all unfolding more or less at the same time I was reading The Art of Thinking by Ernest Dimnet, which encourages us to spend time alone with our thoughts. All of this led me to start walking without my purpose-bearing Podcasts. I started to set out on walks leaving all technology at home- armed with just the head on my shoulders (and pepper spray).

Arguably, the act of walking distracts from true communion with our thoughts, but I wasn't overly concerned with this.

Beautiful nature I will admit that when I initially thought about going for walks purely on my own, not even with music, it was strangely suffocating. I didn't like the idea of not having some sort of distraction from myself. I would be breathing in my own thoughts, trapped in my mind with myself. Once I began walking on my own, I quickly realised how melodramatic I was being and that my mind wasn't the cage of despair I (or philosophers) had built it up to be.

And boy oh boy am I glad I started going for random solo walks. Whilst walking might seem like possibly the most wasteful, unimaginative thing for someone to do, unless you've tried it, it's quite hard to appreciate just how beneficial it can be.

My usually-daily 30 minutes strolls have offered many benefits:

  • It affords me an opportunity to 'get out' when my emotions boil over

    • This is especially useful for powerfully intense and reactive emotions like anger. It forces you to literally take a moment to reflect and digest. When I step out for a walk, angered by something, the first 10 minutes of my walk I am usually still angry and boiling over. Then slowly, without realising it, the boiling anger turns into a gentle simmer. By the time my walk concludes, I've faced down my unruly emotions, with them constrained by reason. It stops me from letting primitive, impulsive emotions from ruling over me or coercing me into doing something reactive.
  • It gives me a chance to reflect and grapple with the aforementioned emotions and thoughts

    • Walking gives me an opportunity to review myself. I can audit my thoughts and behaviour, I can look back on my emotions - what might have made me angry, if I could've reacted better and so on. I can take a step back and gauge if whatever got to me was within my control, what I can do to prevent it and work to realise real change within myself.
  • Walking allows me to marvel

    • Perhaps a cliche, but in a world filled with entities vying for our attention it's not often we stop to smell the literal roses. When I'm out on a walk though, and not wrapped in my thoughts, I find myself taking in the world. The most seemingly mundane things, a thick branch reaching into the boundless sky, can send my mind into a spiralling sense of wonder. The beauty of the world reveals itself to me and I find myself more appreciative of our home we call Earth. After walks, I find my feeling more grateful to be on this astounding planet, to be alive and to be able to experience life.
  • It gives me a chance to chew on difficult problems

    • I love going for walks when there's a difficult problem I need to solve. Maybe it's coding related, maybe it's a difficult decision I need to make.
    • A walk offers me the freedom to step through whatever the problem is, to actively and intently think about it. Admittedly, I don't often solve these problems on the walk, but they certainly allow me to provide my subconscious the blueprint it needs to get started on solving the issue(s) at hand. I'll go for a walk to think about something, and not long after, I'll find a solution wandering into my subconscious. It's amazing experience.

Walking settles down the clutter and straightens out the squiggles in my mind. It feels like housekeeping for my brain, tidying things up and putting things back in order. Of course, the same can be achieved through sitting and just thinking (which I also do, and will maybe write about some other time), but I find there's a splash of freshness that comes with actually stepping out of whatever space you're in. Whatever rut I'm in is weak to a change in scenery and a mental stare down.

Next time you feel uneasy about, weather permitting, I'd suggest stepping out and being alone with your thoughts.