Olivia Sprinkel takes her shoes off for a slow and mindful walk on Hampstead Heath…
I am standing on Hampstead Heath, in a circle of about 25 people and we are practicing Qigong. We move slowly through different exercises, apart from ‘bouncing bliss’ where we jump up and down and shake faster and faster, and then stop and feel the energy radiate away from us. After the movement, we come to the standing meditation. We hold our arms in a circle in front of us at different heights for nine breaths at a time – nine is the magic number in Qigong.
I feel a wetness on my foot. I am standing barefoot on the fresh, alive, spring grass, but it is not grass that is touching my foot. It is wet and it is moving. I glance down and see an earthworm making its way up the side of my foot, then slowly down its length before finally it slithers off back into the grass. Another earthworm is inching along nearby.
Later, back at home, I look up what the earthworm might mean. The website ‘Wildspeak’ suggests that “The earthworm is the spiritual groundskeeper. In real life it both nourishes the earth and takes nourishment from the earth. As a guide, it says that through interacting – literally – with the soil and earth around you, you will find nourishment, and in turn nourish.”
Gardening is one way to get your hands dirty with soil, and is also a slow practice. However, there are other ways of connecting with the earth as I would learn this spring morning on Hampstead Heath…
At the beginning of the walk, led by Adrian Kowal and Andres Roberts from Way of Nature UK, we were invited to go barefoot. I chose to keep my shoes on initially. It was only after stopping for the Qigong, and perhaps taking some inspiration from the earthworm – as well as from the luxurious feel of the grass – that I decided to be brave and keep my shoes off for the rest of the walk.
As we walked away from our Qigong spot, I noticed how walking barefoot made me move more slowly. Part of this was for a practical reason: I needed to pay attention to where I was putting my feet to make sure that I wasn’t about to tread on something sharp or squishy. It was also to do with feeling the earth, enjoying the coolness of the grass, or the warmth of sun-baked soil, the slight prickliness of seed casings, or the softness of a damp patch of ground. Writing this now, I am envious of the earthworm, who lives by such touch and feeling. When walking with shoes on, you might experience the sensation of touch through the wind on your face, or stopping to feel the leaves or petals of a plant but to have this constant contact with the earth is a whole different experience.
The final activity that Adrian and Andres introduced us to was mindful walking. Andres shared his methods of this derived from those of the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh who invites us to experience with each step, the feeling that “I am home, I have arrived”. Andres explained this is not simply about saying these words to ourselves as we place our feet on the ground, it is about fully experiencing this sensation in our bodies. He also shared an expression of Thich Nhat Hanh’s – “Walk as if you were kissing the earth with your feet”. I had heard this before, but I had never fully understood what this really meant. As I walked slowly, mindfully, taking my time to put my feet on the earth, I was careful to focus on that contact. It came to mind that if I was seeking to “kiss the earth with my feet”, as I placed them slowly and gently upon the ground, then this was placing me in a relationship with the earth where I could feel the support it was giving me.
At the end of the walk, I had dirt under my toenails and on the soles of my feet, and a little cut on one of my toes but I had feet that felt alive. As I put my socks and shoes on to walk on pavements again, that feeling of connection tingled on.
Olivia tweets at @sustainable_ and blogs at Year of Play (www.yearofplay.com).