This kind of walk is much more than a workout
By Jancee Dunn
Welcome to the first installment of Well’s series dedicated to walking tips and inspiration.
This time, we’re exploring “awe walks,” outdoor rambles intended to cultivate a sense of amazement. To help, I enlisted Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.”
Awe, Keltner explained, is that complex emotion we experience when encountering something so vast that our sense of self recedes. It can be positive or negative (like the feelings that come from witnessing violence or death), but the awe that feels good is the type found in moments of wonder and humility.
Many people associate awe with places like the Grand Canyon, Keltner said. But some feel it more frequently in response to commonplace things like a nighttime sky blazing with stars, he said. In short: Awe is more accessible than you might think.
And research suggests it’s good for your health, too. Awe can help calm the nervous system, reduce inflammation and foster a sense of community (even if you experience the emotion alone). People who took awe walks, one study found, felt more upbeat and hopeful than walkers who did not.
These walks also have restorative benefits, said Keltner, who has seen the positive effects firsthand. When his daughter was younger, she had anxiety and became preoccupied with dying, he said. So they began to take nightly awe walks to a giant cedar tree in their neighborhood. Together, they touched the tree’s bark and talked about the cycle of life. As the months passed, this ritual connected them to nature and each other, Keltner said, as his daughter went from being “freaked out about dying” to getting “a sense of ‘this is just part of life.’”
“An awe walk can be a healing ritual,” he said. “Twelve years later, I still walk to touch that tree.”
Ready to try it? Here’s how:
Decide on a place.
You can pick somewhere you’ve never been, Keltner said, adding that you’re more likely to feel awe in an environment where the sights and sounds are unfamiliar — a local park or trail you’ve never visited, a new neighborhood in your city or town, a body of water if you live near one. Or you can travel to a familiar spot and imagine that you’re seeing it for the first time, he said.
No matter where you go, the fleeting beauty of a dawn sky or sunset has been shown to cultivate awe.
Once you’ve arrived at your spot, give yourself at least 20 minutes of uninterrupted time. If you can, turn off your phone. Then take a few deep breaths “to shift out of our hyper task-focused mind,” Keltner said. Breathe in for four counts, hold for four, breathe out for six. Do this for a few minutes. Then start walking.
Pay attention to your senses.
Heading outside hoping to be awed can seem daunting, but try not to put too much pressure on yourself, Keltner said. Instead, he said, just be open.
Take in the sights, sounds and scents that usually escape your awareness but have the potential to raise goose bumps. When something catches your attention, “stop and pause and feel,” Keltner said.
Sense the wind on your face. Touch the petals of a flower. Tune into the sounds of what Rachel Carson, the American marine biologist and the author of “Silent Spring,” once called the “living music” of “insect orchestras.”
Keltner often gives his students an assignment: to simply notice the sky. His students examine the colors, clouds and how the vista can change in an instant. “They’re blown away,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘I haven’t looked at the sky in years.’”
When you’re on your walk, get in the habit of pausing and homing in on a detail — a ripple on a lake, an ant moving industriously through the grass — then, slowly expand your field of vision. The shift in focus to vastness can sometimes inspire awe, Keltner said.
Or pan from the ground to the sky. If you’re in a city or the suburbs, he said, fix your gaze on a window or doorway, and then move it up. (Until I tried this exercise, I’d never noticed how many building rooftops in my town had statues and carvings of animals, human faces and even gargoyles.)
What Keltner calls “part to whole” focusing can apply to people, too. If you’re in a crowd, start with one person and zoom out to take in the whole system of human activity, he said. “Walk by a pickup basketball game, and you’ve got enough humanity for a Shakespearean play,” he said.
I’m an early riser, so I’ve started taking awe walks at dawn. I watch the sky change from violet to orange to fuchsia and have seen a small colony of bees wake up and start to work. I even discovered a nest of baby robins, lodged snugly in a juniper bush two blocks from my house. Now I walk there every morning and listen to their faint, reedy chirping.
Like Keltner’s strolls with his daughter to the cedar tree, seeing the nest every day sustains me, somehow. I feel a twinge that the robins will leave soon. Until I find another wondrous sight to delight me, I’ll keep walking — phone stashed, eyes and ears open.