By Terry Plotkin
It is almost maddening to watch in action: Drinking a glass of water, but not focus on swallowing. Driving a car, but not paying close attention to this important and dangerous job. Having to wait just a few seconds, and out comes the phone. Going through the day’s activities with a song, one that we may not like, that we may not have even chosen to listen to, that is totally unwelcome in our brain, and yet, there it sits repeating the same verses over and over again, as if we were locked in some deep meditation. The TV is on while we cook, and the radio while we visit. And so the day goes. The shocking truth is that we seldom fully engage with the task at hand. Our brain is only partially present in the actions that our bodies are taking. It is an epidemic that is so prevalent that it goes unnoticed. My guess is that lack of attention is the leading cause of accidents, a suppresser of creative thought, a contributor to the alienation from ourselves, a blocker of insights, and a reason we turn away from nature and each other. It makes us jittery and anxious. There are products for sale that try to alleviate the symptoms, and others drawing us ever deeper into the morass of mind clutter. The solution – if there is one – must lie elsewhere.
Walking. I am teaching myself to walk. Preposterous! Absurd! A grown man knows how to walk! Do I do it consciously? Do I pay attention to my gait? Fifteen years of heel pain indicates not. Arch supports, ankle supports, expensive, rigid running shoes, cushioning for the sole, encasing my feet in all manner of technologies to improve performance and cut pain, all for naught. Technology let me down. I stretched every day, more than once, but got at most temporary relief. A friend raised my consciousness about another way to approach the problem, and I made the switch, going barefoot as much as possible and wearing minimalist shoes when necessary. (Check out the book Born to Run if you want a great read and to learn about the topic.) All of it made sense to me, yet my feet still hurt. Just when I was thinking that this is the way it is, that I should accept my fate, that it is just bad genes, flat feet, old age, or a combination of everything, and that it will likely get worse as I get older, and with the prospects for later in life filled with pain and disability, I tried one more thing: Teach myself to walk in a way that doesn’t injure me. The principle being that there must be something that I do on a regular basis that is at the root of the problem. I observed myself walking and quickly noticed that I take fairly big strides, heel striking as the foot lurches in front of the body. Then I bring the other leg forward and POW! POW! POW! Again and again, clomping onto my heels. When I ran, it was even more pronounced like a Frankenstein type stride, punishing not only my heels but my feet and knees and back. Ten thousand times a day, decade after decade. It is a wonder I can even stand up. The revelation almost feels foolish it is so obvious. I look around. I watch others walk. I talk to people. I do research on the internet. Someone tells me to walk like the hippie in the Scooby Doo cartoon. He doesn’t stride in front of his body. He steps under his body, rolls onto the balls of his feet where there is natural shock absorption, and pushes off. The heel hardly touches the ground. It makes sense to me and I try it, but I must retrain myself to move differently. I must walk consciously, paying attention to each step. Don’t let the mind wander: No chatter, no music buzzing in my ears, no spacing out, no fantasies. If I lose the focus, I must bring it back. Every day, every time I walk. Slowly, over a few months, with some messages thrown in for the leg muscles now used in new ways, and the pain slowly abates. At this point 90% better. Amazing. Call it the Zen of walking.
It is quiet in my house nowadays: Most of the time no TV, no music, no news. Just fold clothes, cook food, write, eat, stretch, clean, work. It is quiet in my car when I drive with no talk radio or songs to fill the empty space. I observe many things coming at me and me at them. There is much to be aware of and lots of small decisions to make.
It is true that it is never too late to change. Meanwhile, almost imperceptibly, slowly, slowly, quieter, ever quieter in my brain.