My husband and I are in Devon, England and drive from Brixham, an end-of-the-road fishing village, towards the Elizabethan market town, Totnes, situated on the River Dart.
We are hardly out of Brixham when traffic comes to a standstill. We quickly make a U-turn in our plans and on the road, and instead park up at the top of a cliff so we can descend to a small cove and then into the woods. My husband always out paces me; he will descend swiftly and wait for me down by the water.
I am wearing a flat shoe with crepe soles. There is an elastic strap across the instep. They would have been appropriate for a quick walk in the market, browsing among browsing food, clothing, and craft stalls, but are not the best for the walk we are about to take. Oh, well.
The steps towards the beach are well trodden, weatherworn, and uneven. I notice I am looking at my feet, hardly taking in the beauty of the sky meeting the sea, the approaching pebble beach, or the warmth of this summer day.
Wait a minute: I’ve been teaching the Alexander Technique for several years; is there something I already know that could make a difference?
Whenever I have taught walking, taking a private student through my neighborhood or working with a group, inside or outside, I include suggestions to “see out” and not over-focus on the feet. Why am I concentrating on my feet and this path? Why do I not practice what I teach?
My brain responds swiftly with defensive remarks: Of course I’m looking down; I am afraid of falling! I am jet lagged and don’t trust myself; because I’ve never been here and don’t know what it’s going to be like; I am wearing the wrong shoes for this kind of walk. . .and I also hear my inner voice say: I’ve probably always descended steep, uneven stairs in this same, narrowing, way.
And there you have it: my habit is so engrained that I readily find defensive reasons to perpetuate it. A faint inner voice reveals the dilemma: I have a habit that I have not yet considered changing! In repeating this habit, I have limited my experience of my life. No matter how much distance I cover, I see mostly the ground. Must it be so?
I continue walking at my measured pace, but begin to move my eyes away from my feet and the path and up towards the horizon, looking out with “soft eyes.” As I look forward, I don’t focus toward the pinpoint of infinity, but rather attend to my surroundings in all directions by using my peripheral vision. Now I sense my feet on the ground as I walk, but I actually do not see my feet as I continue on the path.
I begin to notice that there are frequent shifts in terrain, always a few steps ahead of me. I had not noticed the near distance—the very near future—when I was looking down at my feet. What do you know, if I keep looking out, by the time I reach the place where the ground has changed, my feet have managed to step accurately, and I do not stumble. In fact, it appears I can walk more safely and skillfully by looking ahead and around me than down at the ground!
I am becoming attentive to something different: Rather than placing all my conscious attention on my feet and the ground, I am more conscious of my surroundings and less fixated on concerns about avoiding injury. Shifting my gaze does not diminish my ability to walk safely. In fact, it seems to increase my safety margin. And, there is a plus: Now I can appreciate the visual beauty around me. I also hear the birds sing.
I remain curious but tentative, hardly believing my luck in having discovered this new way of attending to myself. I trust that with further practice in shifting my gaze, I will habituate to this new way of simultaneously moving and looking and will expand my ability to feel what the moment offers.
Mind you, my crepe-soled flats are really not the right shoes for this activity. I look forward to doing this walk again with lace-up shoes.
Eventually I arrive at the beach, and reconnect with my husband. We move from the sand into the woods towards our destination: masks hung high on living trees surrounding four tree stumps with symbolic carvings on them. These works of art have a temporary home; they will eventually degrade and become part nature again. I walk further on the flat, forest floor. On this well-kept path, I feel no need to look down at my feet or the ground, but I am more aware and conscious of taking in my surroundings.
Back at the beach, my husband points to a second set of ascending steps. He calls the entire path, including this second set up ascending steps, his “Stairmaster.” I save that extra climb for another day. Developing my endurance is different from developing my ability to attend to my surroundings in a new and refreshing way, and I will need to increase my endurance gradually.
We ascend towards our car, and I notice I am trusting this new use of my peripheral vision more and more. I toggle back and forth to compare: When I am focused on my feet, I know what I see, and it is sharp and clear, but I am aware of only a small, narrow portion of my surroundings. When I look out by including my peripheral vision, I see so much more, and there is a different quality to my seeing: I am in and with my surroundings. I feel compelled to analyze this change: I don’t have to even see what’s coming ahead—my vision and brain are calculating that all the time. I can enjoy my surroundings and trust my helper-brain to do the specifics.
I start to fatigue—from the length of the walk, the legwork of descending and ascending, and the practice of a new way of attending. As I feel more tired, I am less willing to continue my experiment. I start slipping into my old habits, looking down at the path more frequently. I try something else. I quickly glance down but then look out again. This works! I continue towards the car without stumbling.
I am beginning to have a deeper appreciation of the parts of me that are not under my direct, conscious control, parts that, moment to moment, unconsciously spare me from stumbles and falls.
During my walk, I have demonstrated to myself that I can allow a greater and grander view of my surroundings and still remain safe and stable. When I am fatigued, I can less easily access my new skills, but am also free to continue to experiment. I trust that with repetition, the new experiences will become new habits and in time will serve me better and more easily.