In my book Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Guide to Growing Older and Wiser, I propose a practice that I developed and have used myself called “The Gratitude Walk.” Especially in these trying times, when our minds are filled with anxiety and negative thoughts, this simple practice can do wonders to lift your mood. I recommend it especially for men, who may not be inclined, as they exercise outdoors, to use that time to improve their mood or their sensitivity to their surroundings.
I first discovered this practice when I was recovering from a life-threatening illness, and was just beginning to walk on my own after spending weeks using a wheelchair and then a walker. Just the simple act of standing on my own two feet made me feel grateful. Anyone who has been similarly impacted, even by something as relatively mundane as a broken ankle or leg, knows what I mean. Most of our day is spent doing things—like walking—at an automated, unconscious level. We don’t typically wake up in the morning, swing out of bed, stand up, and say to ourselves, “Wow! I’m standing. I’m walking. What a miracle.” The Gratitude Walk is designed to enhance and restore that sense of wonder of doing or seeing something as though for the first time—a quality that we have in abundance as children but slowly lose as we grow up.
The gratitude walk begins, even before you set out, with an intention—to invoke gratitude. Invoking this intention is not something we ordinarily do in the course of the day. Typically when we feel a sense of gratitude or thankfulness it is a feeling that arises spontaneously, in response to a situation. A common example of this is when someone in traffic pauses and motions to let you by. I don’t know about you, but in these Covid times I have noticed that peoples’ driving is more jumpy—perhaps because people are preoccupied or anxious about the circumstances of their life. I actually make it a habit to let drivers by, or let them go first, simply to add my little drop into the pond of gratitude and common civility.
So as you leave your house for your walk, think “gratitude.” That’s all, just the word is enough. And in addition to that, form an intention to actually look around as you walk. I see many people these days with earbuds or earphones on as they walk. I understand their approach, I’m a musician and I love listening to music—but not while I walk. Walking, especially in the spirit of the gratitude walk, is for looking around and noticing—not just what you see, but what you hear, what you smell, and what you feel.
Often just paying attention to your surroundings is enough to invoke gratitude. It helps to walk, as I do, in nature, but even walking down the street in the big city offers plenty of opportunities for gratitude. Where I live, it’s autumn now, the leaves are turning yellow and red, and are scattered all over the ground. This is a kind of beauty that is written into our DNA as primates living on the land. We respond to it, and we are glad for it—as long as we actually notice. Seeing the leaves, and the change of the seasons, is a message from the universe that yes, in spite of everything, life goes on, life will continue to go on. One day I too will be a falling leaf, coming to the end of my useful life on planet earth, but until then I nod to the leaves that have fallen as fellow brothers and sisters in life. Gratitude.
I see that the ground is covered with little holes. The squirrels who live in my neighborhood have been busy. I don’t know whether they are burying the abundant acorns that fall from the many oaks here, or are digging up ones they previously buried, but their holes mark their work. We all have our work. Sometimes, as human beings, our work is tedious, oppressive, or dull. Other times people find their work exciting. But that is one connection we have to the squirrels of autumn—we both must work to survive. Hello brother squirrel. Gratitude.
On the turning trees I pass there are fruits, nuts and seeds, and the birds that come in the fall especially to eat them. Where do these birds live the rest of the year? Do they hide under bushes, biding their time, until the bounty of food ripens? So much of the world proceeds according to its own rhythms, independent of what we humans impose on it. With our big cities and raw sounds of trucks, traffic and pollution, it is as though we have become interlopers on our own planet, ignoring its needs and its destruction. I am reminded of a cautionary phrase some wag—perhaps a baseball fan—once coined: “Nature bats last.”
If we add to that dictum the famous saying of that baseball philosopher-sage Yogi Berra—“It ain’t over till it’s over”—then we have a fitting epitaph to frame the many instances of gratitude a simple daily walk can provide. As bad as things seem, for you personally or of people generally, nature abides. It was here before we emerged, and it will be here when we are gone, when perhaps some other less careless species emerges as the top dog of our emerald planet.
See how many moments of gratitude you can find on your walk. It just takes an intention, and the attention to looking and seeing.