I remember taking a walk with a fairly new teenage client this winter, trudging aimlessly through the snow. The walk had been his idea, and I’d had to convince him to wear shoes for it. Once we got moving, conversation flowed in fits and spurts. We would talk while we walked, then quiet down to take in some natural splendor, then listen to the crunch of the snow under our boots as we made our little track across the snowy field. Properly bundled for the cold, it proved to be exceedingly pleasant to stretch our legs while we meandered through a conversation about fantasy novels, school bullies, and the thousand adult decisions required in the proper navigation of middle school life.
After a while, this young man mentioned his parents, a topic that I’d been eager to talk about for weeks now, and which he’d been skillfully avoiding. I had been wanting to point out to him that the maintenance of their relationship was not his responsibility, even if it had fallen to him within his family system. A little too eager for the opportunity to try and unburden him, I said something to the effects of how surprised I was they had managed to maintain the healthy masks they both wore for so long. That’s when he stopped walking, and revealed to me that the extent of their secret-keeping was much bigger than I had realized.
This session ended up being absolutely vital for our ongoing treatment, and has had a lasting impact on all of our sessions since. Previously, he had been stonewalling - we both knew we were going to have to address his role is in his family, but he had demurred at every opportunity. Suddenly he was opening up to me in a way that was totally without defense. Needless to say, I was quite pleased. I was also, though, a little humbled; I had very little to do with him spilling the beans. For all my training and all my effort at gaining this kid’s trust, a little walk in the snow had had a much more soothing effect on his nervousness than anything I had done.
This is really important, and it points to something even more important. Before I was a therapist, I thought I’d be a professor of religious studies. To this end, I took a class on ancient rituals when I was in college. Do you have any idea how many ancient rituals are basically just excuses to go for a good, long walk? I’ll give you a hint: pretty much all of them. Taking a pilgrimage is a critical component in just about every major religion in the world, and many of their paths are still maintained to this day.
Walking is the oldest ritual in the book and, despite its venerable age, is still going strong as a top-shelf method for getting fearlessly in touch with oneself. If you don’t believe me, just look at the recent success of books and movies like Wild, or A Walk in the Woods. Even The Walking Dead, a hugely popular TV show about the zombie apocalypse, can be understood to be a story about people walking away from their old lives and coming to realize who they really are.
When I go walking with clients, the benefits of pilgrimage become abundantly clear. There’s something about the rhythm - walk and talk, walk silently, stop and talk seriously - that makes an ancient kind of sense to our minds. In many ways, this rhythm matches the ideal rhythms of therapy. My best sessions often start fairly light and ramp up in revelatory intensity until the client finds themselves at a kind of emotional or existential cliff. This is when they pause and usually look out the window at a tree in the wind, or start to get more acquainted with the details of their palms. After a minute or two of quiet reverie, I’ll gently bring their attention back to the room, and this is when they can choose whether to leap into the unknown or stay in their own familiar and stifling comfort.
In my office, this can seem more dangerous than it really is. Taking a leap of faith into greater knowledge of oneself always leads to intense relief, though it means confronting the fear of falling. Whether this means falling out of your identity as a competent employee, a kind parent, a brilliant artist, or whatever else you think you have to lose, it feels like a great risk. In an office with a person there to watch you fall, well, it can be unsettling. Outside, walking across the land, an older truth is more available: life requires little more than putting one foot ahead of the other, and all of the questions of identity are held more easily in a wide perspective.