“Every step is a revolution against busyness.”
Thich Nhat Hanh,
How to Walk
I recently had the chance to catch up with a university friend. I naturally brought a book with me just in case I had the time to read, and it was “How to Walk” by Thich Nhat Hanh.
When we met, the title seemed funny to him.
“I pity you,” he joked. “You’re 24 and you’re still learning how to walk.”
Putting all the sarcasm aside, it actually made me reflect on my own state of being. Particularly, how much of my life has been spent running? How many precious present moments have I squandered out of my anxiety for the future? How many of these moments have I wasted even by running behind, or being stuck in the past?
I remembered a passage that I took note of years ago in Seneca’s essay “On the Shortness of Life”, where he wrote, “The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
He even went as far as saying that life is only short if we are preoccupied with the past and the future, and that life is long enough if we know how to use it well — and that is, by walking — by living mindfully in the present.
I’ve also been re-listening to Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” album a lot lately, and it got me questioning on how much I’ve really changed since my first listen about three years ago.
The album was Browne’s attempt to use the musician’s life on the road as a metaphor for daily life itself. Lyrically, he articulates on the transience of touring, as it is in life — how we tend to not notice the years that have passed, the temporary friendships that we make, and how after a while, even the wonders of the world start to seem like just another mundane sight.
To communicate the vibe of touring, he recorded the songs live in concert and even in odd venues like the back of his touring bus and in hotel rooms.
The title track, especially, is a song that has tugged at my heartstrings for years at this point.
In it, Browne questions his reasons for running.
Just a couple of years before the song was written, his fellow songwriter Bruce Springsteen released his mega-successful album and single “Born to Run”, which glorifies the hustle of being on the road and running after your dreams.
But as Browne observed in “Running on Empty”, this fuel-injected mindset does little to fill your inner void. No amount of running can help you be at peace with yourself, and you are only distracted from cherishing the present. Eventually, you wonder where all that time has gone, not realizing the events that had unfolded around you.
As Browne sings,
“In ’65, I was seventeen and running up 101
I don’t know where I’m running now, I’m just running on…
In ’69, I was twenty-one and I called the road my own
I don’t know when that road turned onto the road I’m on”
At first, Browne thinks that he is the only person guilty of his lifestyle, singing, “I don’t know about anyone but me.” But a few lines later, he realizes that this is in fact, a societal issue.
Look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too
Having watched plenty of his performances of this song, I couldn’t help but notice how he has, perhaps, internalized his own message much deeper over the years. When he was younger, he would perform the song at an energetic blitz. But as he got older and older, it seems as though he would perform at a slower and calmer tempo that is just right for him to savor and get his message across.
Anyway, this article is a reminder (mostly to myself) — to live presently as best as we can — one day at a time. Instead of running on empty, we can return to this present moment.
We can choose to walk mindfully. There’s nowhere to rush towards. We’ve already arrived with every step.
As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Every mindful step says: ‘I don’t want to run anymore. I want to stop. I want to live my life. I don’t want to miss the wonders of life.’ When you truly arrive, there is peace in you because you aren’t struggling anymore.”
Only once we are able to be truly present, we can best serve and give our love to other people in our lives.
To quote another line from “Running on Empty,”
If it takes all night, that’ll be all right
If I can get you to smile before I leave