The Tao of Walking

101by Gregory Bassham

“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road.” – Walt Whitman

Walkers are a motley tribe. People walk for all sorts of reasons. Sociable walkers walk for the pleasures of good talk. Fitness walkers walk to stay in shape. Nature walkers walk to enjoy nature. Dog walkers walk to enjoy the company of a companionable dog. Beach walkers (a tribe of their own) walk to enjoy sun and sand and a glittering shoreline,

where a confident sea
is ever breaking, never spent.

As G. M. Trevelyan says: “There is no orthodoxy in walking. It is a land of many paths and no-paths, where everyone goes his own way and is right.” [1]

I wish to say a word about the special pleasures of long-distance walking. I am thinking about two kinds of walks in particular: the all-day “tramp” and the multi-day walking holiday. Although the notion of “the Tao [or Zen] of X” is greatly overworked, there are interesting tie-ins between Taoism and long-distance walking. Let me explain.


Taoism (pronounced dow-ism) is an ancient Chinese wisdom tradition that stresses harmony, balance, simplicity, naturalness, and intuitive insight. According to Chinese tradition, Taoism was founded by the sage Lao Tzu around 575 B.C.E. Lao Tzu is the reputed author of the classic Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching (“The Book of the Way and Its Power”). The Tao Te Ching is a short book, full of memorable gnomic sayings and mellow wisdom, but not easy to understand. There is a point to this obscurity, for Taoists believe that life itself is inherently mysterious. Ultimate reality, they believe, cannot be grasped by words or concepts; it can only be felt in the pulse in moments of tranquility.

The central concept of Taoism is that of the Tao (“the Way”). The Tao means, at once, the way of ultimate reality, the way of the universe, and the way that humans should order their lives. Ungraspable by thought or language, the Tao is the ineffable and transcendent ground of all existence. Yet it is also immanent; it flows through all things, and is “the norm, the rhythm, the driving power in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life.” [2] To live well is to live in harmony with the Tao, and this means to live simply, naturally, and contentedly in a way attuned to the rhythms and harmonies of nature.

Like Buddhists, Taoists believe that much human unhappiness is rooted in self-centeredness and grasping, egocentric desires. To find lasting contentment, we must rid ourselves of egoistic attachments and strive to make our hearts “clear and calm like a still lake reflecting the light of the moon.” [3]

Another important Taoist concept is that of p’u, or the “uncarved block.” Taoists believe that humans are fundamentally good and that we need to recover our “original nature,” our inner natural self. To do this, we must shake off the sophistications and artificialities we’ve picked up from modern life and return to a simpler, more natural, and more intuitive way of living and thinking. This simpler, almost childlike state of mind is what Taoists call p’u. To recover our intuitively wise and naturally good original natures, we must recover our ability to see life elementally, as simple and whole. This can be done only by diving beneath the accretions of culture and education, radically simplifying our lives and our thoughts, and returning to a condition in which we “understand” life less and appreciate it more. [4]

The last Taoist concept I need to explain is that of wu-wei, or “effortless doing.” Wu-wei literally means “inaction” or “nondoing,” but it is not a recipe for do-nothing passivity. Rather, it is a counsel for letting things happen naturally and without meddlesome interference or unnecessary conflict. Taoists believe that people often screw things up when they try to “fix things” by passing all kinds of laws, micromanaging people’s lives, or engaging in aggressive results-oriented management. In most cases, they believe, more can be accomplished by means of a lighter, more yielding approach. Think of a waterfall at the end of a great canyon:

“On one level, nothing is weaker than water since it naturally yields and gives way to what it comes in contact with. Yet it is precisely this fluidity which transforms its weakness into its greatest strength. … The waterfall conveys a hidden message with profound moral overtones. It gives us a valuable lesson in what it takes to cultivate good character. We learn that soft overcomes hard, that passivity can be a form of action, that yielding conquers aggressiveness, that flexibility wins out over rigidity, and that constancy triumphs over impetuousness. … In like manner, the Tao is like water: It follows its natural course, and in doing so, it accomplishes all.” [5]

In short, Taoism emphasizes the values of simplicity, naturalness, freedom from attachments, effortless doing, and intuitive, holistic wisdom. With this quick backdrop, let’s now see how these values connect up with the many pleasures of walking.

The Joys of Long-Distance Walking

To fix ideas, suppose it’s fine weather and you’re about to embark on a six-day walking trip in central Italy, the Pyrenees, the Bernese Oberland, along Hadrian’s Wall, or wherever your favorite walking destination may be. Suppose, further, that you are accompanied by a well-matched boon companion [6] and plan to stop each evening at a comfortable, rustic inn. What Taoist pleasures might one look forward to?

First, of course, the pleasures of enjoying natural scenery. Beautiful vistas can be enjoyed through car windows, but the hidden beauties of nature are revealed only to the walker. As Trevelyan writes:

“[T]he sudden glory of a woodland glade; the open back-door of the old farmhouse sequestered deep in rural solitude; the cow routed up from meditation behind the stone wall as we scale it suddenly … the autumnal dew on the bracken and the blue straight smoke of the cottage in the still glen at dawn … These, and a thousand other blessed chances of the day, are the heart of Walking, and these are not of the road.” [7]

When we walk in beautiful surroundings, we slow down and take time to see things. We don’t watch nature through the movie screen of a car window; we are immersed in it, communing with first principles and fundamental realities. Then, as John Muir said of mountain-walking, “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows through the trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” [8]

There is a second way in which walking connects us with nature. Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers on the African Savannah and are built for walking and running. Our long legs, upright carriage, piston-like arms, curved spine, springy joints, arched feet, ample buttocks, and ability to cool ourselves through perspiration give us a frame that is ideal for swinging along all day over hill and dale. [9] Because of our biomechanics, when we hit our ideal stride in walking:

“something miraculous happens. We become unconscious of weight, of locomotion; we are aware only of rhythm. It is a sensation akin to swimming, in which the water bears our weight. In the right rhythm of walking, the body’s weight does in fact float, borne along in a perfect balance between gravitational force and the momentum of forward motion. …  To hit your stride is to discover a new sensation, the sensation of moving as effortlessly as the deer bounds, the horse gallops, the fish swims and the bird flies.” [10]

Walking, for humans, is as natural as breathing. Walking also comports with the Taoist ideal of simplicity. In going for a long-distance walk, we free ourselves from the clutters and messiness of modern life. We say goodbye to the world of traffic, deadlines, meetings, and e-mails, and enter a stripped down, spare world of natural fundamentals: walking, communing with nature, eating, drinking, eliminating, and sleeping. There is freedom in this trade-off. As William Hazlitt said, “We go a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind, much more to get rid of others.” [11] Not the least pleasures of the open road is this freedom from restrictions and responsibilities — the freedom to do as we please.

By a magical but predictable alchemy, long-distance walking also amplifies enjoyment of simple pleasures. Robert Louis Stevenson said that, for him, the best part of a walking tour wasn’t the beautiful scenery, but “certain jolly humours,” including “the peace and spiritual repletion of the evening’s rest.” [12] “After a day’s walk,” G. M. Trevelyan notes, “everything has twice its usual value. Food and drink become subjects for epic celebration, worthy of the treatment Homer gave them.” [13] Pipes, pots of tea, armchairs, fireplaces, and books become things of rare quality and beauty. If you step outdoors at sunset, all nature seems appareled in celestial light. In these and in many other ways, “walking gives us back our senses.” [14]

Freedom from attachments and self-centeredness is a third Taoist value that walking can foster. The locus classicus of this sentiment is Thoreau’s famous paean to “sauntering” in his essay, “Walking.” Thoreau claimed that he had “met with but one or two persons in the course of [his] life who understood the art of Walking.” This isn’t surprising given Thoreau’s view about what is required for a proper walk. “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk,” Thoreau said [15].

Thoreau liked to give his readers a jolt, so perhaps this is a tad over the top. But what he is driving at is the Transcendentalist idea of Nature. For Thoreau, nature is sacred, a temple of the divine. In cities we encounter ugliness, corruption, and greed; in wildness we encounter the divine. That is why Thoreau believed that “life consists in Wildness” and that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” [16] For him, a long walk in the woods wasn’t an escape from the “real world,” but a pilgrimage into reality.

This is a very much a Taoist idea. The spiritual benefits of communion with nature is a constant refrain in Taoist literature and art. Although it is everywhere, the Tao is more easily perceived in the mists of a mountain glen than it is in noise and fumes of modern factories.

Every member of the Order of Walkers can testify to the fact that walking relieves stress, promotes health, and gives a satisfying glow to the day. But what about this mystical-sounding idea of freeing us from “attachments”?

Here we touch on one of the high mysteries of long-distance walking. Animals don’t put loads on their backs and walk long distances for no apparent reason; only humans do that. Why? In large part, I believe, because humans have a need to connect with something grand and elemental. On long walks amidst beautiful surroundings we become absorbed in things larger than ourselves. Human problems are put to scale, daily stresses and strains are washed away, our sense of self expands, and we feel ourselves part of a larger Whole. This sense of absorption and communion satisfies something deep in human nature — as Taoists have long recognized.

The connection between the Taoist concept of wu-wei and long-distance walking is also something that all dedicated walkers can attest to. The sense of effortless motion one feels when swinging along a forest path in tip-top form is the very picture of doing through non-doing. And what is “accomplished” by means of such “recreation,” such idle “play”? Let G. M. Trevelyan speak for all walkers:

“I have two doctors, my left leg and my right. When body and mind are out of gear (and those twin parts of me live at such close quarters that the one always catches melancholy from the other) I know that I have only to call in my doctors and I shall be well again. … On these occasions my recipe is to go for a long walk. My thoughts start out with me like blood-stained mutineers debauching themselves on board the ship they have captured, but bring them home at nightfall, larking and tumbling over each other like happy little boy-scouts at play … I have known the righteous forsaken and his seed begging their bread, but I never knew a man go for an honest day’s walk … and not have his reward in the repossession of his own soul.” [17]

In speaking of wu-wei, or effortless doing, we touch upon one of the great splits in walking, the eternal debate between “thinking walkers” and “not-thinking walkers.” [18]

Thinking walkers like to walk and think at the same time. They find that walking stimulates the mind and helps to organize one’s thoughts. When they go for walks, plans get made, books get written, retorts get formulated, and ideas fly like sparks off a generator.

Not-thinking walkers like to walk with their rational, calculative minds “turned inward, or turned off.” [19] Their goal is not to cogitate, but to be. By allowing their cogitative minds to take a nap as it were, they return refreshed. Frequently some kind of thinking is going on, but sub-consciously. It is common, in fact, for not-thinking walkers to return from a walk with some nagging problem — put aside and left to steep by the conscious mind — fully solved at some subterranean level. As Sussman and Goode note, this is a nice illustration of the Zen doctrine of no-mind. [20] But it is also a good example of the Taoist notion of wu-wei. Much gets accomplished, but without striving or conscious effort.

The last Taoist theme I wish to touch upon is the idea of intuitive, holistic insight. As we’ve seen, Taoists believe that ultimate reality cannot be grasped by means of words or the rational intellect. The deepest truths must be perceived by what Pascal called “the heart” — by feeling or intuition. Wordsworth, a patron saint of walkers as well as nature-mystics, spoke of

that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lighten’d: — that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things
. [21]

Walkers, too, know such a mood. Thus Trevelyan speaks of the rapture two silent walking companions feel when nothing

“disturbs the harmony of body, mind, and soul when they stride along no longer conscious of their separate, jarring entities, made one together in the mystic union with the earth, with the hills that still beckon, with the sunset that still shows the tufted moor under foot, with old darkness and its stars that take you to their breast with rapture … our minds become mere instruments to register the goodness and harmony of things, our bodies an animated part of the earth we trod.” [22]

Whether we think such moods put us in touch with a higher reality or not, they have special meaning. Like Wordsworth, “’mid the din of towns and cities … in hours of weariness,” we remember them as “sensations sweet, felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; and passing even into [our] purer mind, with tranquil restoration.” [23] Such happy, restorative memories become treasured possessions, still fragrant with powers to refresh us, body and soul.


Gregory Bassham is a professor of philosophy at King’s College (Pennsylvania), where he specializes in philosophy of law and writes frequently on topics at the intersection of philosophy and popular culture. Bassham is the author of Critical Thinking: A Student’s Introduction. He and his family live in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania.

[1] George Macaulay Trevelyan, “Walking,” in Clio, A Muse and Other Essays Literary and Pedestrian (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1913), p. 81.

[2] Huston Smith, The Religions of Man (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), p. 270. Originally published in 1957.

[3] Seven Taoist Masters: A Folk Novel of China, trans. Eva Wong (Boston: Shambhala, 1990), p. 44. Quoted in Michael C. Brannigan, Striking a Balance: A Primer in Traditional Asian Values, rev. ed. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010), p. 146.

[4] A point nicely brought out in Benjamin Hoff’s classic The Tao of Pooh (New York: Penguin, 1983). Others have noted p’u-like themes in the film Forrest Gump (Paramount, 1994).

[5] Brannigan, Striking a Balance, p. 145.

[6] I say “well-matched” to forestall all objections from walking purists who embrace the “gospel of Silence” and insist that the “high, ultimate end” of walking can be achieved only by walking alone. (See, e.g., Trevelyan, “Walking,” p. 60; William Hazlitt, “On Going a Journey,” in Aaron Sussman and Ruth Goode, eds., The Magic of Walking, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967, pp. 227-228; and Robert Louis Stevenson, “Walking Tours,” in Sussman and Goode, p. 235.) To head off all such cavils, let it be stipulated that this boon companion always walks at the desired pace, is not objectionably blabby, and would never think (as Emerson once said) of profaning river or forest by loud singing or vain talk.

[7] Trevelyan, “Walking,” p. 70.

[8] Quoted in Edwin Way Teale, ed., The Wilderness World of John Muir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), p. 311. Originally published in 1954.

[9] Sussman and Goode, The Magic of Walking, pp. 39-43.

[10] Ibid., p. 43.

[11] Hazlitt, “On Going a Journey,” p. 227.

[12] Stevenson, “Walking Tours,” p. 238.

[13] Trevelyan, “Walking,” p. 79. Another example of what Colin Fletcher calls “the small, amplified pleasures” of hiking: peeling your socks off at the end of a hard day. Colin Fletcher, The Complete Walker III (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1984), pp. 6-7.

[14] Sussman and Goode, The Magic of Walking, p. 90.

[15] Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” in Henry Seidel Canby, ed., The Selected Works of Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), p. 600.

[16] Ibid, p. 672.

[17] Trevelyan, “Walking,” pp. 56-58.

[18] See Sussman and Goode, The Magic of Walking, pp. 98-102, who have many wise things to say about this eternal divide.

[19] Ibid, p. 101.

[20] Ibid, p. 100.

[21] William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” in Ernest de Selincourt, ed., Wordsworth: Poetical Works (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), p. 164.

[22] Trevelyan, “Walking,” pp. 61-62.

[23] Wordsworth, “Lines,” p. 164.


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55 replies

  1. Robin Herbert responded to an earlier comment of mine and ejwinner also weighed in. Let me just say a couple of things by way of response.

    I can quite happily go along with most of what Robin says. One thing he was saying was that we manage to communicate because we are similar creatures: the communicated meaning of a string of words is not so much in the words themselves as in our common experiences. There is much truth in this.

    ejwinner talks about the parallels between Chinese philosophy and Romanticism. I don’t deny them: I would love to see them discussed. My comment was prompted by the fact that the OP was implicitly assuming rather than explicitly discussing.

    The more general point at issue could be seen as a matter of emphasis. Robin and ejwinner are emphasizing one thing (our common humanity) while I am emphasizing another (the importance of culture and cultural differences). Both are important, obviously.

    A specific question lurking in the background here concerns something like to what extent we should take mystical etc. claims on their own terms, i.e. as reporting on a culture-transcending reality.

    From an imagined cosmic perspective, as Robin suggests, our cultural differences may indeed seem quite trivial.

    But they are not trivial in this sense: a person is created in a specific social and cultural milieu; delete the specific details and you delete the person.

    Findings in the sciences and mathematics can be presented ahistorically (as they often are). The thinkers involved and their cultural milieu etc. can be forgotten while their findings survive. But in other areas (literature, social philosophy, etc.) this is not the case. The thinker’s work is inextricably bound up with his/her cultural milieu, so that the thought can only be understood if the historical context is understood also.


  2. Excellent essay. Excellent subject. I will comment in two parts.

    Recent studies have shown that physical activity improves mental performance.

    I would go further: physical activity, especially if strenuous or scary, changes brain parameters so much, it creates a different world, inside out. It is as if one were in a different universe.

    Physical activity can be the gate to a different universe. Always is, if well done. What could be more enlightening?

    Try running down a mountain thousands of meters, when every misstep could be fatal. And several of them come every second. The mind you would living with then would not be the one you use behind a desk, tapping a keyboard.

    Many of the famous historical philosophers were very much into physical activity, and mentally engaging the real world. Socrates and Captain Descartes were military men. Nietzsche climbed mountains, solo. He climbed the glaciated Corvatch with crampons many times (now one can climb to the top by mechanical means; Corvatch is higher than Mount Grand Galibier, which I soloed myself the hard way) .

    Critique Of Taoism:
    “Like Buddhists, Taoists believe that much human unhappiness is rooted in self-centeredness and grasping, egocentric desires. To find lasting contentment, we must rid ourselves of egoistic attachments and strive to make our hearts “clear and calm like a still lake reflecting the light of the moon.”

    Many of my greatest unhappiness in life had to do with various life-threatening accidents, and injuries (not just nearly drowning from being stung by a venomous sea creature, but losing country and family members to war).

    I was not at fault. I did not have to rid myself of selfishness. Attachment to country and family, or friends, who, what made me human is hardly a defect. And it is not selfish, it is the opposite. The world, war, bullets, death, intruded.

    Maybe Taoists, pervaded by selfishness, have hearts like raging seas. Then let them apply their remedy, to themselves.

    “Taoists believe that humans are fundamentally good and that we need to recover our “original nature,” our inner natural self.”
    This completely contradicts the Taoist’s analysis that selfishness is problem number one. If humans are fundamentally good, they cannot be fundamentally selfish.

    The truth is very different: enough humans are so fundamentally bad for them to be able to concentrate here and there, conspire, and launch wars. Wars and their consequences are the greatest creators of human unhappiness.

    The physics of 26 centuries ago (smooth water, moon calmly reflecting, waterfall, natural flow of water…) is central to Taoist’s imagery. That’s good, but it means that we should do the same: find imagery, analogies and metaphors in physics. And we know much more physics now.

    It should easier for us to find in all this science imagery, analogies and metaphors that Taoists would never have known, 26 centuries ago.

    Next: The Way of Humanity is the way we have traced for millions of years.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. An antidote of sorts:

    Rather than learning to understand Taoism as it was actually taught and practiced by Taoists in traditional and modern China, Americans have been conditioned to understand “Taoism” in terms of an appealing vision of personal simplicity and a so-called “harmony with nature,” both delightfully free of any unpleasant cultural baggage…such a fantasy ha[s] nothing to do with the actual facts of Taoism, but it would never have existed had it not been for the Protestant revolt against church authority in matters of truth, the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau about returning to a simpler life, and the 20th-century reaction against the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution. No aspect of the fantasy Taoism created by immature, self-centered
    Western minds has any basis in the facts of Taoism in China.

    and quoted approvingly by Sivin (1978), Kubo Noritada summarises:

    Taoism…was founded on a variety of ancient popular beliefs; was centred about immortality lore; incorporated the lore of philosophical Taoism, the Book of Changes, yin-yang, the Five Phases, divination and apocalyptic prognostication, astrology and so on, as well a shamanistic beliefs; and was given religious forms modelled on the style and organisation of Buddhism. Taoism is a religion of benefit in this world, the
    chief goal of which is eternal life, exempt from ageing.”


  4. So now I am having second thoughts about the criticism I received, regarding me being ignorant about Taoism. According to the above quotes provided by Davidlduffy, it seems that most other commenters are as ignorant about it as I am. 🙂

    I’d like to read an expert essay on Taoism, to inform us about it properly (with all due respect to Gregory Bassham, it is not obvious from his credentials that he is an expert on Eastern philosophy, nor Taoism in particular). For example, and in particular, I’d like to know the answer to the following question: does the philosophy of Taoism assume reincarnation, or not?

    For both theists and atheists reading this blog, I think that the answer to that particular question would cast a much clearer picture on Taoism, as well as the average Western-cultured (mis)impressions of it.


  5. First, to Marko: Taoism, like Confucianism, is not a “next life” religion, by and large. This Wikipedia page has more:

    The main psychological or “spiritual” principles of Taoism are (to me) pretty clearly all about that. The “naturalness” etc., are all about harmony in this life; they’re not about renunciation for the sake of improving any Taoist equivalent of karma or anything else. With that, I would somewhat caveat DavidDuffy. I agree (and meant to say it on a previous post) that we should not view Taoism through a “Rousselian” lens. I did mention, already, the “fluff” of modern publishing, myself.

    It’s why I also noted, previously/already, that the “naturalness” of what David’s author says is falsely called “philosophical Taoism” stands in direct contrast to the elixir of immortality, the I Ching, the concept of qi and its and other attempts to clearly control nature and life. To put it into Western terms, we would (or some Westerners would) call much of this “magic,” and not in the stage illusions sense. Wiki’s main article has many sublinks, several of which talk in more detail about these aspects of Taoism.

    Per the issue of Qi, we should see things like Feng Shui, Qi Gong, etc., as being part of Taoism in some way.

    Per the link I posted above, one can gain a basic sense of this from basic Googling, or from reading an annotated Tao Te Ching or Zhuangzi, translated and edited by an author not attempting to totally denature Taoism.

    That said, as I noted in a previous post, the origins of Taoism are eclectic, and include many folk religion traditions.

    And, we’ve covered this ground a bit before — with Buddhism, and with Judaism for example. How much “demetaphysicalizing” of a religion is “permissible”? (And, who decides what is “permissible”? Religions, after all, do evolve, and for a variety of reasons.)

    Per Mark English we’ve also covered, a bit, the issue of taking mystical claims on “their own terms” before. Those “own terms” almost inevitably end in the word “ineffable,” and, at that point, per Wittgenstein, those “own terms” are no longer discussable because we’re in private language territory. (Speaking of, I’m surprised a few of the commenters on a couple of essays from a few months back haven’t popped up again.)

    And, per David’s link, arguably, our original poster, Gregory Bassham, is guilty of passing along just one half of a falsely dichotomized Taoism.


    Meanwhile, back to the “walking.” I can appreciate the “communion with nature” ideas, but one need not be a Taoist, nor an Emerson or other Transcendentalist, to benefit from such communication, nor to formulate such benefits. Look at Wordsworth and the Lake District.

    And, that’s another “takeaway.” Yes, Taoism can teach us about naturalness, communing with nature., etc.

    So, too, can communing with nature without taking any metaphysical preconceptions out into nature.

    Liked by 1 person

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