Thought Walks: Defining

The act of thinking and walking are essential to the experience of being human.

Unfortunately though, it’s all-too-common to be deprived of physical and intellectual movement once childhood curiosity wanes. Thought-walks wither into regurgitated-sits.

This doesn’t have to be so.

There is an idea that ideas are, well, alive and one must carry them as they move about the world. In The Aims of Education, Alfred North Whitehead echoes this sentiment in the preface:

“The students are alive, and the purpose of education is to stimulate and guide their self-development. It follows as a corollary from this premise, that the teachers should be alive with living thoughts. The whole book is a protest against dead knowledge, that is to say, against inert ideas.”

Inert ideas are those that have stopped moving and grown fat, tying one to a single sedentary spot. In a way huge monuments (pyramids, museums etc.) are like inert ideas that bind a people to one location and one perspective. Cities and even civilization itself is, in some sense, a giant dead idea.

But I digress.

The exercise of making ideas alive through walking and thinking is brilliantly executed in Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines. Chatwin wanders around the Australian Outback to learn about Aboriginal cultures. His mentor Arkady …

“Went on to explain how each totemic ancestor, while travelling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints, and how these Dreaming-tracks lay over the land as ‘ways’ of communication between the most far-flung tribes.

‘A song’, he said, ‘was both map and direction-finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across country.’”

Although the quote was written down in a book, it speaks, again, to the need of lifting language off the page and having it alive within you as a compass that provides direction. Socrates was aware of the perils of the written word and warned of its negative effects on memory.   Chatwin continues:

“To some, The Songlines were like the Art of Memory in reverse. In Frances Yates’s wonderful book, one learned how classical orators, from Cicero and earlier, would construct memory palaces; fastening sections of their speech on to imaginary architectural features and then, after working their way round every architrave and pillar, could memorise colossal lengths of speech. The features were known as loci or ‘places’. But in Australia the loci were not a mental construction, but had existed for ever, as events of the Dreamtime.”

So clearly the written word has its use, but it can very easily lead to the illusion of knowing more than you do. It’s a like assuming you know what a food tastes like by staring at pictures of it. You might get an idea, but why not take a bite?

Thought walks are what happens when you take bites and digest, embodying words by having them work through your system.