Thoreau’s Guide to Walking Philosophically

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is of taking walks – who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering.

Henry David Thoreau, Walking

Henry David Thoreau had a gift for turning the everyday into the extraordinary. Take walking. We do this each day. We walk to the subway, the bus, or – here in LA – our car. But it’s usually a purely pragmatic act – a way of getting somewhere or working out.

But for Thoreau, walking was a philosophical, even spiritual, act.

Read the original post

Thoreau devotes an entire essay called “Walking” to the subject.  Here, he takes on the tone of an extremist. He explains that there’s a big difference between real walkers and wannabes.  He calls real walking sauntering.  Real walkers don’t walk for transportation or fitness.   They walk to experience a mixture of spiritual ecstasy and inner warfare: “every walk,” he says, “is a sort of crusade.”

Wannabe walkers take two forms.  The first consists of idlers.  “Idlers” sit still in their houses, never exploring nature on their own two feet.  Then there are the “faint-hearted…vagabonds.”  Vagabonds walk, but for the wrong reasons.   Some walk to tour the countryside, “where half the walk is but retracing our steps.”  Others – Thoreau calls them dumbbell swingers – walk to get a workout.

I’m normally not a huge fan of any form of extremism, and I’m a bit of a dumbbell swinger when it comes to walking.  But for this week’s experiment, I propose that we explore Thoreau’s radical practice of walking philosophically.

This is no easy task.  In “Walking,” Thoreau outlines three key principles that real walkers must follow:

•    The Tree Climbing Principle – After the William James Experiment, I thought we were done doing daring acts.  But Thoreau recommends: “to elevate ourselves a little more…we might climb a tree.”  Apparently, he found himself – in all senses – on the top of a pine tree on a June day in Concord.

•   The Magnetism Principle – This one’s tricky.  Most walkers follow a trail or a plan.  Thoreau rejects this practice.   Following plans, maps, and trails is what tourists do, not walkers.   Real walkers, says Thoreau, move according to “the subtle magnetism in Nature.”  If we “unconsciously yield to it,” Thoreau says, this magnetic force of nature will “direct us aright.”  This one should make things interesting.

•    The Time Principle – A 20-minute walk through the neighborhood won’t do. Instead, Thoreau places an insane time constraint on aspiring walkers:  “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits,” he says, “unless I spend four hours a day at least…sauntering through the woods.”

This week, I plan to follow these principles, though I’m going to have to cheat on the last one.  For most of us, strict adherence to the time principle is impossible.  I do, however, plan to walk each day and to explore Thoreau’s practice of walking philosophically.

If you believe Thoreau, this practice offers huge benefits.  For one thing, he says that it brings us in touch with “wildness.”  When we explore areas “not yet subdued,” we drop into a deeper level of awareness, beneath our thoughts and stories about the world.  This “wildness” leaves us “alive” and “refreshed.”

He also says that this practice draws us into the present moment.   The cool breeze, the sunset, and the sound of birds chirping – all of these events happen in the moment.  In Thoreau’s words, their “philosophy comes down to a more recent time than ours.”

That’s what happened for Thoreau.  Now let’s see what happens for us. Please join me and keep me posted on your experiences using this page or the Life Beyond Logic Facebook Page (where you can also upload pictures and videos).

Update: Life Beyond Logic Tests Out Walking — Thoreau-Style
posted March 10, 2011 by Nate

I’ve had three great days of testing out Thoreau’s principles of walking.  Here’s what I found out: most walkers fail to satisfy Thoreau’s rigid requirements for “real walking,” I love the “magnetism principle,” and I’ll pass next time on the “tree climbing principle.”  Enjoy!


  1. Kara Warme says:

    This makes me think back to many fabulous walks with your wife to the Dish at Stanford. Something about the combination of fresh air, physical challenge, beautiful scenery, and great company enabled us to open up and learn about ourselves and each other in ways we couldn’t accomplish in a coffee shop (although we tried that a lot too!)

    • Nate Klemp says:

      Yes, I can’t imagine a better place to try out Thoreau’s practice that “the dish.” I remember so many nights, mornings, and afternoons spent strolling through those trails. In the craziness of late 1990s Silicon Valley, “the dish” became an almost sacred place for me.

  2. Erin says:

    First off, I love this site and am so glad you are doing this. Although I have not done each experiment for the full week, I have at least tried to do part of the experiments at least once or twice in a week. I walk home everyday from work and thought I might be able to just challenge myself this week to be in the present for the entire walk home (about 30 minutes). I have discovered this to be a much harder task to do than I initially thought. I think I can remain focused for about 3-5 minutes before I find that my mind has wandered off. I will keep trying each day though.

    • Nate Klemp says:

      I hear you! I have often experimented with similar practices and have come to a similar conclusion — that staying present is possible, but really hard. As I’ve explored this form of walking throughout the week, I’ve noticed that time plays an important factor. During the first 20 to 30 minutes, it feels like my body is walking but my mind is still busy thinking about work I need to do or people I need to email. But the longer I walk — particularly in nature — the more I start to drop to a level of awareness beneath thought. That’s the level of awareness that Thoreau calls “the wild” and, once I’m there, it’s a really fantastic experience.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Niles G. Jeran says:

    This a very compelling experiment. Walking is a therapeutic and transcending act in which an individual can learn and gain much. Especially in a world as fast paced as today, walking is an essential tool to slow us down, to sharpen our senses, and observe the obscurities of our surroundings that are typically missed.

    For me, walking is a time of reflection, especially when “sauntering” through the wilderness. I find myself thinking, dreaming, and asking questions about myself and life that I otherwise would never have time to ponder.

    The most essential aspect to this weeks experiments is that we apply the Thoreau’s extreme ideas to our walking. Walking is a everyday activity that for most people cannot be avoided, so it is essential our “walking” this week be out of the ordinary and stray from our typical routine. And while walking, ask yourself about why you are taking the time to do so? what do you see? do things appear different? how so? these are all questions that give reason to why Thoreau calls walking spiritual, it is a time to focus and meditate on aspects of life that most never uncover.

    • Nate Klemp says:

      Hey Niles,

      This is great stuff! I like how you related this experiment to the William James experiment. Your idea that the best walking happens when we break out of habit reminds me a lot of James. And I think there’s really something to that idea. If we want to be present as we walk, if we want to fully drop in to the experience of walking, then I think you’re right––we have to make a conscious effort to draw our attention out of habitual thought patterns.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. Lorraine Nichols says:

    I walk my dog every day before work and after work. Rain, snow, sleet, sun, heat, cold – doesn’t matter. I make that committment to her since she is expected to be in the house all day, and stay out of trouble. I initially said it was her award for being a good dog. What I have come to realize over the 8 years I have been doing this in rural Vermont is that it is my award as much as hers. When I have an early morning meeting and my husband walks her, I find that I miss it, and that my day starts off in a less calming way. I totally engage in what is happening around me. I see the conditions of the snow, the shards of ice that has been falling off the trees the past 3 days from the ice storm we had. The sun through ice covered trees was spectacular on Tuesday – Millions of diamonds glistening. In the spring I am always checking what trees are budded out first, when is my first spring sighting of the red-wing blackbirds in the marshy grasses near the farm pond. Then the spring peepers in the farm pond creating a cresendo that is deafening at times. In the summer, I walk more in the woods behind my house on paths that are somewhat easy to follow. Last year I noticed a great abundance of bright orange salamanders along the damp leafy forest floor, and my morning walks became a game of how many could I see along my walk. My record is 18 in a 15 minute walk. I had to concentrate not to step on them.

    Walking four hours a day is hard to do, but many weekends I get out with my dog for a 2 hour walk, or in the winter a 2 hour xcountry ski in the woods on paths where I hardly see another soul except at the parking lot. I commune with nature throughout the entire time. Skiing isn’t ‘walking’, but I think it counts. I find all of these walking/skiing times as spiritual for me and a time to focus on nature and what is happening in the world around me. It is definitely meditative, relaxing and mind soothing.

    • Nate Klemp says:


      Your words about walking are beautiful! They have a poetic feel that reminds me of Thoreau. Maybe it’s just something about living in New England that creates eloquent prose.

      I share your experience. Walking is a form of meditation for me in this experiment has helped me see that if I bring my attention to how I walk, this is an experience that I can deepen.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. Devon Walker says:

    I believe this to be one of the most intensely practical art of living experiments. Walking and philosophizing goes as far back as Aristotle who founded the Peripatetic School.

    It was said that Aristotle was a walking lecturer. That walking invigorated his intellect by forcing the mind and the body into dynamic motion. The phrase walking and talking is not a coincidence, nor do I believe it to originate in today’s cult of busyness. Aristotle would often walk with his students and colleagues because he realized that such natural motion is simply the best way explore the nature itself. Walking seems to ignite a ancient and primal sense of exploration and vigor. To follow the principle of magnetism is to try and walk in the shoes of our ancestors thousands of years ago. When walking was not a chore, but a way of life. When literally the life of a hunter-gatherer depended on the mind being in acute accordance with the body.

    In this evolutionary sense, walking taps us into an awareness which lies dormant in the collective subconscious of humanity. A sense of discovery comes upon us with each step, each welling footstep which transfuses our energy with that of the raw earth.

    This was my experience this week. A friend who has been following this blog came up to me in the cafeteria and said, “Want to take a walk?” Naturally I responded positively. Good thing, because it was assuredly the highlight of my week.

    At Pepperdine we live atop a hill, the typical habit is to drive if you want to get off that hill. So the first step was to walk down the hill. It went from there… down across PCH through the bluffs, down to the beach… when the tide raised, we climbed over the rocks. We end on long past fallen night before turning back along the road… for two and a half ours we walked. We talked… And when it came to an end, I wished there was more time, more space, more of me with which to soak up the beauty of the land on which we had traversed.

    I now truly understand when Thoreau meant when he said 4 hours of walking a day. When we came back to the place from which we had set, it was different. The indoor plants were no longer props for aesthetic rumination. I saw now the concealed joy within the green leaves. I felt the tingling presence of life within these corporate fixtures. And I do not mean merely the trees, but the students, my peers, who surrounded me while making the daily ritual of nourishing the growth of those very skin cells that shiver down my back at the thought of a connection with such life.

    With our journey flowed too our conversation, while we may have begun with discussing the merits of such an experiment, such talk quickly faded to general talk about the philosophy of life, before finally delving into deep personal experiences. While we walked in order to live deliberately, it seemed as if the path itself was the one doing the deliberation… Reducing our conversation down from trained examination to raw personal relation… The path itself seemed to show us to the places of most meaning, with each stride another fear, another defense, another societal distinction fell away…. At last it seemed the two of us were alone, although surrounded by structures of man’s creation, the open air seems to obscure all that was irrelevant… thereby isolating the individual flames of personality… shielding our flames from the societal wind billowing about our souls so as to create a true fire. One in which each single flamed nourished itself. Thus the inferno of camaraderie was bellowed, and meaning flowed into our lives…

    Time presses, but I will leave you, especially Nate, with a note. Perhaps the method of walking is about leaving our societal trappings behind, about breaking down distinctions which impede our progress toward greater meaning… I dare say that you should try the walk without the camera or the phone. Walk without the conscious call of an art of life “project”. Of course we must learn from retro-analysis, but during your walk, embark on a intellectual path guided by magnetism of the mind. Do not think, “I don’t want to be that professor who…” or begin to imagine headlines explaining your fear… listen to other impediments to your magnetism, climb not further for no other reason than that you have no compelling feeling urging you to take the next step…

    Walking is about letting the mind wander free with the body… Let your soul float about in the breeze… Only then will we find what we are looking for… after a realization that we have no idea what it is we are looking for…

    • Nate says:


      Wow! This is an amazing post. Like some of the other posts, your words have a Thoreau-like quality this week. Perhaps that’s the result of being in nature and experimenting with walking in a new way.

      Your closing thought is especially valuable to me. I have been struggling with the issue you raised all week. On the one side, there is a part of me that wants to leave the cameras, drop the twitter, and let go of the blog and just go fully into the experience of walking. Luckily, I had a few experiences this week that had this feeling — no camera, just me and the trail.

      What I’m seeing, however, is that for those people who don’t have the time to walk or perhaps have yet to be inspired to hit the trail, the video can offer a service. It can give them an experience of what it might be like — one that might ultimately offer some inspiration or insight.

      I think about this with Thoreau as well. Had he gone fully into his Walden experiment and let go of any feeling of obligation to document it, we would have missed out on a truly inspirational book.

      But I appreciate your push. With all of these “experiments,” I’m finding that it is important to not let the writing, video editing, and social media become more important than the experience itself.

      Thanks for your thoughts, and I’m psyched you had such a great experience!

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