Professor Wu's Rulebook

Grow your creativity by going for a walk

Struggling for creative inspiration? Turn to the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau for a timely meditation on the value of walking and being more present.

In a time of lockdown and isolation, of home offices and entire days spent at a desk in your home, it has perhaps never been more important to remember to step outside and go for a walk.

This isn’t just for your physical health – your own creative horizons can be expanded, too. In 2014, for example, researchers at Stanford university found that walking boosts creative inspiration. They examined creativity levels of people while they walked versus while they sat. A person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when walking.

But the stats will only ever take you so far. And while many of humanities greatest thinkers have long extolled the incredible value that can be found in embarking on a gentle journey outdoors under the power of your own two feet, there are few people who have described the innate excellence of walking than Henry David Thoreau. In his 1861 treatise Walking (free ebook | public library), Thoreau reminds us of how that primal act of mobility connects us with something primal; something natural and intensely human. In a world in which our access to the outside world can feel at times increasingly limited, Thoreau makes the point that going for a walk can substantially improve our connection to the world – and to ourselves.

Intriguingly, for Thoreau there seem to be different ‘levels’ of walking – and suggests there is a difference between the average ‘walk’ and the elevated form of walking – ‘sauntering’ – which he makes out to be something far more based on being *present* in the here and now, of forgetting the troubles of the village (or the zoom meeting) and focusing only on yourself and your surroundings in the moment. Indeed, he describes the difference as so:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

Proclaiming that “every walk is a sort of crusade,” Thoreau despairs at our growing tameness as a society, which has possessed us to cease undertaking “persevering, never-ending enterprises” so that even “our expeditions are but tours.” With a dramatic flair, he lays out the spiritual conditions required of the true walker:

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man — then you are ready for a walk.

[…]

No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession… It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker.

Later in his treatise, Thoreau once again grapples with the challenges of trying to forget “the village” as he calls it (though for us it could easily be the demands placed upon us by a demanding boss, or the stresses of lockdown solitude, or any other unnatural 21st century demand):

I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?


Are you a writer, artist, or other creative soul living under lockdown once again in 2021? Check out our ‘lockdown lit’ series for more ideas and inspiration for how to stay creative and connected in these trying times of uncertainty.

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