By Andrea Pisac
A year ago I stopped walking. It wasn’t my choice. A strange illness tied me to the bed for nearly 3 months. I say strange because no doctor I saw knew what exactly was wrong with me. Today, when I walk several miles each morning, no doctor knows it either. I, however, have a hunch. What was ‘wrong with me’ was actually what was ‘right with me’. Because an illness disguised as a catastrophe usually navigates us (back) to our true path. It’s a call of our soul’s purpose.
When I writhed in pain unable to move, knowledgeable people offered contradictory advice. Physiotherapists said I needed to lift weights to strengthen my muscles, and neurologists urged me not even to lift a finger until the pain was completely gone. I went for not moving, since movement really did aggravate the pain.
But three months later, a time neurologists suggested would be enough to heal the inflamed nerves, the pain was still there. By then it was stuck both in my head and my body, and no pain killer worked.
Walking = movement = life
I knew something radical was needed. I read thousands of studies, all of which claimed 3 months was more than enough to heal a back injury. Only I couldn’t recall ever injuring myself. If the pain was an accumulation of daily stress, my prolonged rest should have been enough. So why was I still hurting?
One morning I got up and decided to walk. Pain or no pain.
You think this was easy. That we can all walk. I thought so too, until I couldn’t walk at all. I walked for 3 minutes. Just enough to reach my favourite café around the corner from my house. My husband treated me with coffee there. I could barely sit on a sofa to enjoy my drink. I learned this: walking is the most quintessential movement of our body and soul, but we are almost never present to it.
From that day I stopped consulting with doctors. Most of them were freaked out by my decision to walk. When one of them suggested a spinal surgery – even though no injury showed on MRI – I was convinced I had to pursue with my own plan.
Each day I walked a bit further. At first I measured my progress in how many blocks of the same street I covered. And because I couldn’t walk far, I walked deep. I focused my attention on every sensation in my body: one foot firm on the ground as the other slowly lifts, and as the heel of one touches the ground the toes of the other slowly part with it. Tell me – have you ever noticed how perfectly coordinated our walking is? And how when we walk we become alive?
Soon I was able to complete a 15 minute circular walk. At first I’d feel my leg muscles working but soon realised that my whole body was involved. When I finally became aware of my breath, I knew walking was much more than just taking steps: it was a unique balancing act of our whole being.
Walking = presence = intimacy
When I began walking, I thought of my neighbourhood as pretty dull – not a place you would choose for an inspirational stroll. But as the walking pain subsided, my attention broadened. I started noticing houses, trees, children at the playground, and pretty much everything that I used to sleepwalk past. It didn’t matter if it was pretty or not. I paid attention and just by doing that I felt alive.
Imagine my happiness when I was able to walk to the other side of the town – to visit my sister-in-law! I walked for 30 minutes and there she was, waiting for me with a cup of coffee on the terrace.
A curious thing happened during, and even after my walks. I was able to pay attention to so many things at the same time: my bodily sensations, things around me, and my own thoughts. And the thoughts went wild: in a good way! Creative ideas for my next novels, decision to ditch the oppressive academic job and do what I really love, projects to involve my local community. I would come home and write it all up until my hand hurt.
Walking = being alive = being healed
I never noticed when the pain stopped. I was so much in love with walking, with streets I walked through, with scenes I observed, that it became my most holy daily ritual. And each day everything was new.
When I was able to drive I’d go for long walks in the centre of Zagreb. This was a perfect opportunity to spend time with my best friend. I pressed her into scheduling our weekly walks as if they were business meetings she couldn’t miss. Notice how often we sacrifice our pleasure time thinking it jeopardises our efficiency and ambition.
Meandering through hidden green paths of north Zagreb restored our intimacy and renewed the connection with our city.
Walking = connecting = finding a purpose
Months into my walking, I really did ditch my academic job and started a new novel. But I often felt that taking a lot of time just to walk was extravagant. That I was doing nothing. I had no paid job and no intention of applying for one. I wanted to do something that would encompass all of my creative skills: writing, exploring, story-telling. But I didn’t know the shape of that unique calling.
And then the more I moved my body, the more my mind moved through its own boundaries. I developed an eye for seeing unusual in the most obvious, for finding patterns in ordinary things surrounding me. It all happened as a result of aimless deep walking that I spent time on every day.
It occurred to me: we learn how to walk twice in our lives. The first time we learn how to take steps, the second time we learn how to walk through life.
The Walking Manifesto
As a tribute to my aimless walking – the most productive and creative of all activities – I have written ‘The Travellers’ Walking Manifesto’. I say it’s for travellers because when you visit a new place, aimless walking is the best way to get to know it. But it’s not only for travellers. We often take for granted the immediate world around us and walking is the best way to reconnect with your home as well.
So here’s my newly found purpose: I want to create a series of aimless walks through Zagreb. They come with a charted map just to give you a head start so you know where you can meander. They also come packed with stories about the neighbourhoods you walk through. My hope is that you’ll discover an unusual, non-touristy, layer of Zagreb and as a result forge a deep intimacy with the place. I also hope you’ll rekindle your creativity, rest your mind if it has been troubled lately and become closer to the people you walk with. Revisit my website to get fresh Zagreb walks but also use my walking principles to discover any place you live at or travel to.