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Self-Improvement and the Big Walk

Ridgeline Transmission 091


A Big Walk is an opportunity for self-reinvention. I felt this acutely last year amidst my forty-three days of walking in the late spring. And as I gear up for another big walking bout come November, I find myself reflecting back on what I felt and why I felt it, and how I concocted the spell to feel those feelings.

Hi Ridgeliners. I’m Craig Mod and this week’s newsletter is metaphor-free.

The biggest dividend-paying rule of last year’s walk was undoubtedly the no media rule — social or otherwise. That meant no Instagram, no Twitter, no Facebook (as if), and no New York Times or Washington Post. It also meant no podcasts (although I snuck a twelve hour one in that was historically relevant).

The theory behind the rule is that social and traditional media are structured sub-optimally on our phones; they are attention monsters. They are always there, always a pull-to-refresh away. By keeping that option (literally) on your hip, it allows the mind to go to the media as opposed to be present in the landscape.

Last year I blocked all media and, lo and behold, I found the Big Walk quickly became a meditation in ways I don’t find in my usual day-to-day wanderings.

This manifested in a few distinct ways.

  1. I had to contend with boredom. Meaning, when I was bored I had to be bored and keep walking. As opposed to: sling up the ‘ole smartphone and walk-n-suck on another list of headlines. The corollary of this was a sharpening of the eye — the mind seeks stimulation and after exhausting the obvious, less obvious, more nuanced details begin to emerge. Masters of craft are really master noticers, and one major differentiator between them and a non-master is a honing of the eye.
  2. I interacted with far more people than I would have otherwise. In some ways I was starved for interaction, and in others I simply found that media on the internet, in general, places a very low-level spell of dourness upon me. It seeds a kind of mental lethargy. The lethargy of effortless mental plenitude. And getting rid of that opened up a brightness of being that connected me to communities and peoples I may have otherwise passed by.

This rule combined with A Big Walk is a potent combination. Similar to meditation practices like Vipassana, “arriving” at the “state of walking” takes time. One reason a Vipassana retreat is ten days long is because you’ll spend a good three or four just waiting for your mind to arrive. With much of that arrival requiring (I’ve found) the shedding of media addiction impulses. The darn meat machine upstairs can’t sit still, is hungry for more Delicious Timeline.

Similarly for a walk — “arriving” into the rhythm of a walk takes time. I had dinner with Natsume-san, the owner of Yama-to-Michi (a wonderful Japanese hiking brand) a few weeks ago and he mentioned how he feels that a walk shorter than a week isn’t “really” a walk, since that’s how long it takes to get going. I agree.

As you begin to “arrive” to a walk, you begin to “improve” and reinvent. The walk itself brings an implicit momentum to being, a daily target, movement through space, and with that a kind of natural high. The day-after-day compounding aspect of A Big Walk is foundational to winding up the internal flywheel of improvement.

The further along on a walk the more I find myself waking up thinking: How can I be better today? This happens with greater clarity the more present I become. A Big Walk is both a set of incremental steps and a set of incremental self-improvements. My “Hellos!” grow bolder, more friendly, my smiler wider. I remember thinking last year that I finally “learned” how to smile on that walk.

And if you’re paying attention, if your eye is ready, you begin to see beauty between what’s otherwise obvious, or over-observed. This is the space from which Kissa by Kissa grew. Pizza toast, old shops in the middle of nowhere, the plaintive song of a tomato farmer. Head buried in media, I’d miss those things, certainly. But even having media close by might be enough to impress that subtle lethargy upon the mind, might be enough to keep me from reaching out to these folks I passed by, might keep me from attempting to be yet again, one percent better in the new day of the Big Walk.

My next walk is scheduled to start on November 3rd. You can imagine how this will be a challenging moment to go no-media. I’m thinking about how best to handle this. I’d appreciate your thoughts!

Anywhoo — Hello from the Shinkansen back from Kyoto. The city was beyond a delight; I am smitten, filled with inspirations. I fell in love with a million nooks. Thank you for all the recommendations. The last stop was at Shigemori Mirei’s old residence and private garden. Moss galore. It can be easy to look out at a garden of his and see reductive simplicity, or impose a kind of “destiny” on the moss itself and how it grows. But the invisible hand behind his gardens is strong, like Stalin’s fist — if you left his garden alone for a month, it would be a jungle of thick weeds. Every day, maintenance is required. And the improbability of the rocks is anything but. Here you are witnessing a refined and sharpened eye, committed to self improvement. It left me wanting to find that quiet and confident place myself. And I suspect it’s out there, on the right walk with the right rules in place.


Fellow Walkers

The first time I walked for several days with a 12 kg backpack (averaging 15.5 km distance and 909 m ascent per day), I started to feel, discover, and understand my body better. I am writing this during that first time. Currently on day seven (of 11) of the Tour of Mont Blanc, with one day of food poisoning.

I was rent from the husk of a vast mountain range. Not vast in its height, the oldest of the mountains and worn down to its round, granite hearts, but vast in its breadth. My childhood, sometimes just a blur, flashes green and stings of icy water flowing freely down, under, and across the ridges and valleys. Somewhere close by a fairyland of childhood codes and protocols is stashed away in the oaks behind a house, my feet still bruised from the fist gravel road that led to it.

(“Fellow Walkers” are short bios of the other folks subscribed to this newsletter. In Ridgeline 001 I asked: “What shell were you torn from?” and got hundreds of responses. We’re working our way through them over the year. You’re an amazing, diverse crew. Grateful to be walking with you all. Feel free to send one in if you haven’t already.)


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