Sunday 22 April 2018

Books: Walk this way to well-being

Walking the walk: O'Donovan wants us to be 'mindful flaneurs' ambling through the urban landscape with open eyes and imaginations
Walking the walk: O'Donovan wants us to be 'mindful flaneurs' ambling through the urban landscape with open eyes and imaginations
Mindful Walking

Hilary A White

It's a little hard to move these days for talk of "mindfulness" and the trend towards a rather more attractive take on the term "self-awareness". This is to be centred, in control and sure of your existential positioning, rather than self-obsessed or egotistical. To paraphrase an ancient Greek aphorism, it comes down to knowing thyself, something which can seem easier to carve on an acropolis wall than actually pull off.

And while it all may smack a little of New York shrink culture and neo-hippidom, there is something to be said of lifestyle mechanisms that allow burnt-out, digital-singed minds time and space to breathe cool air.

Hugh O'Donovan - a Munster rugby player, chef and army commandant turned psychologist - here incorporates walking as the ideal engine-room with which to manufacture mindfulness and calibrate its efficacy within us.

Of course, it will surprise nobody to learn that getting out for a good walk has its benefits, and a cynical part of you looks at Mindful Walking as a long-winded way of saying just this. After all, is it not gently drilled into us throughout life that a stretch of the legs and some fresh air is a panacea for stress, depression or ennui? That said, it is no harm for someone with O'Donovan's background in physical motivation and psychology to make a thorough enquiry into this correlation.

In soft, self-help language (lots of first-person plurals, buzz phrases and neologisms like "human doings" and "awarenessing"), O'Donovan maps out this particular style of walking, whereby a strand of meditation is brought into play. The goal is a kind of "child-like" openness to what is around us in the now, without letting the past and future butt their way into view. The body cares not about these places, we're reminded, and step-by-step, O'Donovan instructs how to tune into its frequency during locomotion. It's all very cosy and encouraging.

You can reason to yourself that one of the greatest joys of hill-walking or any brisk physical activity is that its toll on the body leaves little energy for naval-gazing. This idea is part of O'Donovan's oeuvre but he believes this state is achievable in settings urban as well as pastoral. In cities, he wants us to be "mindful flaneurs", wandering and ambling with open eyes and imaginations. The presumption is that this recipe for inner peace is surely of more use to urban readers, but who knows.

Mindful Walking is full of nice ideas such as this, and there are many for whom its calming metre and simple truths will be of huge benefit. Our instructor is thorough, but as if to allay doubt, he references such things as stoicism, Buddhism, Vietnam POW James Stockdale, writer Susan Sontag and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. All that's needed now is to get out there and see if it works.

Mindful Walking

Hugh O'Donovan

Hachette Ireland, €19.00

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