Sunday, 29 May 2016

Walking With Plato excerpt in Scottish Herald

With the release of WWP scheduled for later this week, the Scottish Herald have published an excerpt from Chapter 3 in today's Sunday Herald. (link)

It's been pruned back to make it fit the available space, and therefore has a few jumps and starts, and some omissions. But great publicity nonetheless.

I think therefore I ramble: walking the West Highland Way with the great philosophers

THE road between John o’Groats and Inverness is almost unremittingly dull. The Great Glen Way, like the curate’s egg, is good in parts. But the West Highland Way is sublime. It runs 96 miles from Fort William to Milngavie, near Glasgow, through some of the wildest, remotest, and loveliest parts of the Scottish Highlands. It meanders through pastoral landscapes, passes between rugged peaks, stretches across desolate moors, cuts through leafy forests, and runs beside serene lochs.

Our first day’s walk on the West Highland Way took us 13 miles from Fort William to Kinlochleven and it was on this day that I began to think of myself, for the first time, as a walker.
In the early days of JoGLE, I had always found the last few miles of each day to be a dull, painful slog. But now I found them merely dull. The pain wasn’t there any more. Or, if it was, I had become inured to it. As a long-distance walker, I had gone from zero to hero, from bumbling novice to seasoned pro, in just a few short weeks.
Rannoch Moor is a vast wilderness of peat bogs, streams, lochs, and lochans, a 50-square-mile elevated plateau encircled by mountains.
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, the narrator, David Balfour, says of Rannoch Moor: “A wearier-looking desert never man saw.” But he was fleeing for his life and dangerously ill at the time. So doubtlessly that coloured his perceptions.
My experience of it was very different. I found it to be a wild and lovely place. Something about it – something to do with its vastness and openness, and its harsh, untamed beauty – seemed to set my soul free.
Generally, in my everyday life, my thoughts writhe and churn inside my head like the proverbial can of worms. But there, on the moor, they seemed to find release. I felt smaller and less important than I usually do, and it was a good feeling.
I recalled that I had felt the same way 20 years previously while walking in the Lake District. I was in my early 30s at the time, and undergoing a crisis of faith. In the middle of it all, I took a fortnight’s camping holiday, alone, in the Lake District.
Each day, I would walk through the countryside and allow my thoughts to wander freely. And slowly, surely, and simply, the knots began to unravel. I began to understand who I was and what kind of person I wanted – needed – to become.
Mostly, it was the solitude that helped me to gain clarity. Solitude, by itself, though, wouldn’t have been enough. It wouldn’t have brought me the stillness and clarity that I needed. The walking was important too. There is something about walking – the steady, unhurried rhythm, the gentle stimulation of heart and lungs, and the pleasant synchronisation of mind and body – that soothes the spirit and frees the mind.
This is especially true of walking in the countryside, where the quiet beauty of the surroundings soothes the spirit still further, and where the wide-open spaces offer still greater freedom to the mind.
I knew nothing about Plato, except that he was an Ancient Greek, and that he was a philosopher. But “philosopher” meant thinker – and that’s what I wanted to be.
It was hard work, and I didn’t understand it all. But it excited me anyway, because it exposed me to a whole new way of trying to understand the world.
Socrates and his companions didn’t just tell each other what to think. They reasoned with one another. They talked, and they listened, and they thought things through. It was the complete opposite of everything I had ever known. And it was brilliant.
For the rest of the week, I carried that battered old copy of the Republic with me, and I walked with Plato. Plato introduced me to philosophy; and philosophy introduced me to Epicurus, Bertrand Russell, William James, Gensei, Hegel, and all of the other great thinkers that have kept me company ever since.
The next stage of the West Highland Way, a 13-mile jaunt through farmland, forests, and riverside paths, from Tyndrum to Inverarnan, passed quickly and pleasantly.
As I walked along, not at all focusing on, but nonetheless enjoying, the varied scenery, I found myself musing on what it is about the countryside that is so soothing to the spirit and so refreshing to the soul. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Or, at any rate, I couldn’t put it into words. I felt that it had something to do with the space, with the openness of the fields and the sky. And I felt that it had something to do with the gentle, almost imperceptible, pace at which things change.
The British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch expressed it far better than I ever could in her beautiful book The Sovereignty Of Good: “I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then I suddenly observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important.”
Perhaps all of this explains why so many troubled and depressive thinkers have been avid walkers.
Take the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, for example, a man so messed up and brooding and despondent that I consider myself positively cheerful by comparison.
By the age of 21, he had lost his mother and five of his six siblings. He had a religiously melancholic father who viewed these deaths as God’s punishment for the sins of his youth. He suffered physical problems, including a curved spine and – quite possibly – sexual impotence.
As a child he was ridiculed and bullied by his schoolmates, and as an adult he was ridiculed in the Danish press. To cap all of this, he suffered – perhaps unsurprisingly – from severe and chronic anxiety. He wrote in his journal: “The whole of existence makes me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation ... Great is my distress, unlimited.”
Mildly depressed people, such as my 30-year-old self, find that walking helps to put their troubles into perspective and to improve their mood; and more severely depressed people, such as Kierkegaard, found that walking helps to make their lives bearable.
Scientific evidence bears this out. Numerous studies have shown a positive link between walking and mental health.
For example, a study reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that walking 30 minutes a day boosted the moods of depressed patients faster than antidepressants.
Another study undertaken at California State University, Long Beach, found that the more people walked each day, the more energetic they felt and the better their mood. And a study undertaken by researchers at the University of Stirling revealed that walking had “a large effect on depression”.
I was fortunate, then, not to be walking for just 30 minutes a day, but to be walking for seven or eight hours a day. And not only that, but also to be walking through some of the wildest, most wide-open, and most inspiring places in Britain.
Small wonder, then, that I was beginning to feel healthier, happier, and more energised than I had felt in a long time.
Extracted from Walking With Plato: A Philosophical Hike Through The British Isles, by Gary Hayden, published by Oneworld, £12.99

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