This is a guest post by Darcy Kitching. Darcy Kitching is the Collaborative Storyteller and Boulder Program Coordinator for the Walk2Connect Cooperative, one of the lead organizations for April’s Monthly Theme. She is grateful she gets to walk, parent and use her urban planning education in Boulder, Colorado.
Not five minutes after my husband walked in the door from a week-long business trip, I smiled, gave him a squeeze and presented him with the Lego brick in my hand. “Here you go – have fun!” I said, blowing our son a kiss and tying my walking shoes. I was done. Depleted. And desperate for some alone time on the trails.
It had been an average week, filled with the kind of everyday exhaustions all mothers experience: negotiations and competing priorities, personal space invasions, soothing of feelings and selection of dinner items, all on the margins of a demanding out-of-home work life. My son is a generally happy 5-year-old, but when our strong wills clash, I close my eyes and remember the slogan on the sticker I bought at my local baby store when he was born: “Motherhood: The shortest, steepest path to enlightenment.” Grateful for the opportunity to step off that rocky road for a couple of hours, I set out on foot to rewire my brain.
I live in Boulder, Colorado – training ground for elite athletes, and just a beautiful place to get outdoors for the rest of us. Even better, my day job is all about walking. I’m a member-owner of the Walk2Connect Cooperative, so I spend my working hours meeting with partners and colleagues, coordinating events, gathering walking stories, planning walk routes and collecting information about what’s happening in my city’s pedestrian environment. It’s a dream job, but coupled with the parenting gig, I frequently find myself feeling a little anxious. So, at the beginning of this year, I took a mindfulness-based stress reduction course. It was there that I learned how to take in the good.
“Taking in the good” is a practice pioneered by neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, who spoke about it at TEDx Marin in 2013. In his talk, “Hardwiring Happiness,” Hanson says our brains are like Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good. Negative experiences, thoughts and feelings stick with us and penetrate deeply, owing to our Stone Age ancestors’ need to stay aware of everything in the environment that could kill them or their kin. Positive observations and experiences, on the other hand, tend to slip right out of our awareness unless we consciously hold onto them. That’s why it takes five positive interactions to counteract every negative one, according to relationship expert, John Gottman. That’s also why it’s so easy to walk through our days dwelling on what needs to be done, what isn’t getting done and what will never get done, rather than seeing the beauty all around us.
Taking in the good requires mindfulness – an intention to pay attention to the present moment and let any kind of joyful encounter, from fully tasting that delicious first sip of coffee in the morning to delighting in a smile offered by a stranger, penetrate deeply into our minds and bodies. Hanson uses an acronym for the process: HEAL – Have a good experience, Enrich it, Absorb it and (optional) Link the positive experience to something negative in your mind to rewire that neural pathway.
Walking is a natural mechanism for engaging this practice. As we move through our environments at one to three miles per hour, we can literally stop and smell the roses – or hug a tree, or pet a dog or gaze at a piece of art. So often, however, we fill our walking time with conversation, distraction in the form of music or podcasts, fitness objectives and thinking, removing us from the opportunity to let the experience of walking and our surroundings change us deeply. How to HEAL? It’s easier than it might sound.
The day my husband came home from his week-long trip, I bounded out of our front door and gave a little yelp of thanks for the remaining sunlight. I stopped and consciously took in the beauty of the midafternoon light on the mountains for a good 15 seconds. I absorbed it fully, letting the observation fill my chest with warmth as I gave myself over to it. I then decided to link the experience to the feeling I had before my husband walked in the door. I wanted to supplant my feelings of exhaustion and depletion with the awe and gratitude I felt outside, soothing and replacing negative feelings about my parenting struggles with pure joy. I pictured my son and imagined him smiling in the glorious light before me.
I headed across the street and set foot on the dirt trail, where I’ve routinely worked out worries and solved problems in my life. This time, though, I breathed deeply and placed my attention in my ears, listening to the soft crunch of my shoes on the gravely path, and my eyes, gazing at the glowing pine forest ahead. I let my senses take in my surroundings. As I walked, I repeated the HEAL exercise, taking in the good with great intention. It allowed me to notice the healing warmth of the sun on my back as I rounded a corner, and to quiet my mind.
Taking in the good has become an important exercise for me on every walk, and I have shared the practice with my Walk2Connect community group. Together, we might stop and gaze at a mural on a school wall, sniff daffodils just bloomed, delight in finding a tiny garden angel along our path, appreciate some artful rock work, or beam over books found in a Little Free Library.
With each discovery along our route, we take 15 or 30 seconds to let the joy of it sink in, filling ourselves with delightful presence and boosting our happiness by strengthening positive neural pathways. Since walking, even without consciously taking in the good, already provides so many physical and psychological benefits, why not mine what Rick Hanson calls the “ordinary jewels” of everyday experience for even greater rewards?