In our very first book club episode, Elissa Schufman and Carolyn Szczpanski discuss How to Walk by Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s a short, approachable book about the practice of mindful walking.
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Elissa: [00:00:00] Like the whole… There’s a whole page where he was just like, “the best answer to,” like, “why walk?” Is, “Because I enjoy it!”
Carolyn: [00:00:06] Yep.
Elissa: [00:00:07] Like, he talks so much about the concept of, like, enjoyment and joy. Or when I talk to people who aren’t already in the transportation space about it, they’re like, “Yeah, that sounds like, hard and terrible. Like, why do you do that again?” [laughing]
Carolyn: [00:00:21] I’m in this movement because I want to feel joy when I’m walking to the bus stop. I want to feel joy when I’m on the bus and that those are things that are potentially available to us. I think that people have just so routinized getting from one place to another as not being a source of joy. And I think some of us who ride bicycles especially have kind of reacquainted ourselves with the joy of moving our bodies through public space. But I think that that’s so anathema to what we’re taught, especially as people who spend so much time in metal boxes.
Ian: [00:00:57] Welcome to the Streets.mn podcast, the show where we use transportation and land use to make our communities better places. I’m Ian and usually I’m your host, but today is our first book club episode, which means that Elissa Schuffman is running the show. Find show notes and a transcript of the episode at [https://streets.mn]. And with that, I’ll hand you off to Elissa.
Elissa: [00:01:20] Welcome, everyone to the Streets.mn Podcast Book Club, which uses books to foster reflection, imagination and conversation about better places in Minnesota. My name is Elissa Schufman. I use she and they pronouns. I am an advocate for more just and joyful communities, an abolitionist, a lifelong reader, and Twin Cities resident. I will let my co-host introduce herself.
Carolyn: [00:01:44] Hey, thanks for having me, Elissa. My name is Carolyn. I use she/her pronouns. I am a communicator, a person who moves through public space, biking, walking and taking transit. Also an abolitionist and someone really dedicated to making my community a… A more just and joyful place as well.
Elissa: [00:02:06] We’re in good company today.
Carolyn: [00:02:07] Yes.
Elissa: [00:02:08] And today we’re going to be discussing the book, “How to Walk” by Thích Nhất Hạnh. It is an introduction to mindful walking. It talks about how mindful walking can be a way of accessing joy, wonder, resistance and embodiment. So I’m really excited to talk about this book in particular with Carolyn, and we will all learn why more as we go through the discussion today. I thought a good place to start for this book would just be to talk a little bit about our respective relationships with walking. Carolyn, I don’t know if you want to kick us off. What is your relationship with walking like?
Carolyn: [00:02:44] You know, it’s interesting. I was biking over here and I was thinking about, you know, how I first thought of walking. And honestly, my family is a hiking family and I never really thought about that as really just walking in nature until I’ve gotten older and have been, you know, a quote unquote, “pedestrian” in different ways. But I remember that as as walking was really one of the ways that we came together as a family to do, you know, things on the weekends and called it a different thing, like a cooler way to talk about it. But in essence, it’s really just walking. So I’ve had that relationship to walking for a very, very long time. How about you?
Elissa: [00:03:28] Yeah, it’s funny because I think my relationship with walking has been very like, choppy. You know, I feel like one of the things that came through so strongly in this book is just like the idea that everybody walks first is, walks as praimary. And I read this book for the first time, I don’t know, five or six years ago. And at that time I really disliked walking a lot. And I was like, “Gosh, this thing that I like have to do to get places, It’s like, like I, I guess I’ll do it if I have to, but I would much rather be on my bike or much rather be taking transit.” And I think part of what this book helps me realize is that like my relationship to walking, right? I have like all these have had all these internalized ideas about like efficiency and needing to get Places.
Carolyn: [00:04:15] Mhmm.
Elissa: [00:04:15] Right? Transportation Advocate We’re constantly talking about efficiency and needing to get places, and that’s not what walking is about.
Carolyn: [00:04:24] Yeah, yeah. I think that there’s something in kind of Buddhist philosophy that there’s no in-between time. And so I think that like you, I also thought of walking is like the time that I have to like, get from my house to the bus and it’s like useless time. But when you kind of cultivate a meditation practice, you realize that every moment is a moment to be present and aware as Thích Nhất Hạnh talks about. And so there’s no such thing as time wasted, you know, because it’s time to be present. And so there is utility in that. So I definitely identify with that, too. And as someone who couldn’t be on my bike for a couple almost two years, like walking became a joyful thing. Like, “Oh my God, at least I can walk!” as opposed to just be relying on crutches or not being mobile at all.
Elissa: [00:05:16] Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting. So I was also a person on crutches for a period of time. I was hit by a car in 2015, as you know, and then couldn’t walk for a while and couldn’t ride my bike for a while and I was on crutches in the winter. And yeah, I think it also really changed my relationship with walking in terms of there’s something in it about like slowness and pacing yourself.
Carolyn: [00:05:38] Yes, yes.
Elissa: [00:05:40] Where and this is like this also goes back to this idea of efficiency, right? Where just like, like it’s hard for me as someone who doesn’t, is not a practicing Buddhist, right? To cultivate that level of like slowness to access the joy of just being like, “Oh, I’m here.”
Carolyn: [00:05:56] Yeah,
Elissa: [00:05:57] “I’m walking and doing a thing.”
Carolyn: [00:05:59] Yeah, yeah. I remember when like, so I was hit by a car in 2020 and had two different surgeries, so I had to essentially relearn to walk three times. And it’s, it’s, it’s very analogous to what you get taught around walking meditation when you’re doing PT to relearn how to walk. And the strange delight, honestly, when you really think about like heal, you know, feeling all of your foot kind of as Thích Nhất Hạnh talks about like kissing the earth, like there’s, there’s kind of an ecstatic experience that can happen from that. That sounds really like dramatic, but especially when you’re relearning how to walk and realizing what an incredibly marvelous thing it is that we were able to do this thing and able to get from one place to another. So, yeah, and there’s there’s a lot of sensations in walking that I think, you know, from a pedestrian context, we never end up exploring. And I think part of it is because we create public spaces that are completely unwelcoming to pedestrians. And so we just want to get to wherever we’re going and be done with it. But there’s a lot of things about the physical, physical aspects of walking, even just, you know, I’ve noticed this more recently too, because I’ve been again, trying to be more grateful for just being able to walk when I can, just feeling, you know, we think that we talk a lot like as bicyclists, like, you know, feeling the wind on your face or, you know, that sense of momentum. But you can feel that when you’re walking, if you’re present to it, like you can feel the like air and wind on your skin and just as blissful of a way, but we just discount it as kind of throwaway time. So… yeah.
Elissa: [00:07:45] One of the things that I wrote down to myself as a thought of like digesting this book is like it doesn’t feel good to exist in a lot of our public spaces, right? And like, we are not wanted. And we, we is a variable definition, right? It’s like you can think about that from the lens of like racism or classism or the modal hierarchy, right? But like, there are very few people who are like, wholeheartedly welcome in most of our public spaces. And that does lead to this sense of like, why would I walk and be outside and be in this place where I am not wanted to degrees or by certain people?
Carolyn: [00:08:23] Yeah, yeah. And I mean to put on my Buddhist hat for a second, you know, that’s something that we talk about a lot as Buddhist practitioners as being present with what is. And so being present with, you know, the noise or having to be hyper vigilant about cars, or being surveilled, things like that. These aren’t pleasant things, but we can’t exist, especially in social-change contexts, if we’re not actually in contact with, with what’s actually happening. So there are definitely these blissful aspects of walking, but I think Thích Nhất Hạnh would also argue that being present with the the issues that are barriers that are uncomfortable, you know, Buddhism was huge about, you know, the world and our existence there is going to be suffering and we make ourselves suffer more when we try to turn away from that and pretend that it’s not happening, or that it’s our fault that we’re suffering. So, yeah, public spaces that are engineered in ways to be uninviting in so many ways and just not necessarily just meeting that with this is an uncomfortable experience. I’m going to turn away and not walk, but actually meeting that experience and saying, “Well, what can we do as a society to to change that?” So…
Elissa: [00:09:52] Yeah, I think relates so strongly to like why like part of the reason that this book. Came to mind for me as like a book that felt worthy of discussion as part of the Streets.mn Book podcast, right? Because like on its face, that’s a space that is about advocacy. And this is like how to walk. A mindful walking meditation guide, is like, not an advocacy book, but I think what you’ve articulated so well is like this tension that I just kept thinking about as I was reading through the meat of the book, the section where it was like, “Notes on walking,” right?
Carolyn: [00:10:27] Yeah.
Elissa: [00:10:30] Which is just this idea that like the, the present, right? Like so much of what mindful walking is, is like being present and being involved now and not being sort of overwhelmed or pulled toward the past or the future. Like things have to happen in the present. The present is where you exist.
Carolyn: [00:10:52] Yep!
Elissa: [00:10:52] And also that like advocacy is by its very nature, like about the future and about the past, right? Like we look to the past to see like what happened, how we got to the place where we are, how we write the systemic wrong or the specific wrong. And then like we have to imagine something different and always be looking towards that. And it can be so difficult to recognize what is in your control and what is not in your control, especially like so much of advocacy is about… like, building collective power and influence and educating folks. And like like the idea of changing hearts and minds is totally at odds with, like, you can only control what you can control in like, many moments.
Carolyn: [00:11:34] Yeah, I feel like there’s there’s also that kind of paradox in Buddhism as well, which really resonates with me, that, you know, there are a lot of people who have a misconception that Buddhism is really passive and nihilistic, but A: there’s this kind of like I already mentioned, you can’t be in relationship and change something if you’re not present with it. But there’s also this this notion of embodiment in that you can’t, you know, walking as is something, you know, walking meditation in particular is something that can settle your body, settle your mind, make you feel like you’re in in relationship to your body. And there’s a lot of teachings around, you know, we’re always acting outside of our bodies, like when we’re not in tune with and living inside of our actual bodies were not acting in skillful ways. We’re not acting with wise intention. We’re not acting in ways where we can, you know, organize with other people, build power, you know, be good, anti-racists if we’re living outside of our body. Like it’s just fundamentally impossible. And so that’s one of the things that this helps us do is act being in the present and thus being in our bodies allows us to be able to, you know, acknowledge in a skillful way what’s happened in the past without feeling defensive, without having to turn away from it, and then also have the capacity to work together to create something better. And if we’re never in our bodies, that’s that’s never possible or it’s possible, but it leads to a lot of intra-movement fighting and re-triggering other people’s traumas. And so, yeah, being in the present is important in that way too, in terms of building together in ways that we’re not. Yeah. That we’re doing it in a mindfulness skillful way.
Elissa: [00:13:31] Yeah. There’s something in the book, there’s a sentence that really struck me and so you have this little anecdote around. It’s called “Walking on Capitol Hill,” walking with staffers for Congress and elected folks and like encouraging them to use mindful meditation as they are walking from their office to the place where they cast their vote. And the phrase it says, “They say they can survive better in their environment.”
Carolyn: [00:14:02] Yeah, yeah.
Elissa: [00:14:03] Because of that practice. And I don’t know that phrase “survive better” feels like it relates so strongly to some of the things that you were just talking about in terms of like like, yeah, we can’t if we’re not embodied or present, like we can do the work, but it’s going to be like harder, like we can, we can survive better if we’re like here in present for the work that we’re trying to do.
Carolyn: [00:14:23] Yeah. And we can act in ways that are more aligned with our values instead of just acting from, you know, trauma energy or habit energy. There’s something I counter your quote with another quote from the book, and this is in “Imprinting on the Earth,” where he says, “When we walk,” well okay, I’ll start from beginning. “We walk all the time, but usually we only walk because we have to so that we can get to the next thing. When we walk like that, we print anxiety and sorrow on the earth. We have the capability to walk in a way that we only imprint peace and serenity on the earth.” So to me, that’s something that I’m working with a lot, especially honestly, as as a white-bodied person in a lot of BIPOC spaces, like what is the energy that I’m coming into this space with, and is it an energy that’s connected to my best, most skillful self? Or is it just the random energy that I’m, you know, blowing in with today? And so I think that walking is one of those things that can really make you feel grounded in a very physical, tactical way, which is why walking meditation is such a part of meditation practice. Like when you go on retreat, basically all you do is sit and walk, sit and walk, sit and walk, sit and walk all day long, like 45 minutes each thing. But it’s so helpful in creating that sense of… Of grounding. So…
Elissa: [00:15:49] Mmm.
Carolyn: [00:15:49] And we do it all the time. We do it when we go to the bus. So how cool is that?
Elissa: [00:15:53] Yeah, it is. Yeah. There, there’s a couple of really good little transportation nuggets throughout this book that I really, really appreciated. There was something you said it sparked something else for me around… Like you didn’t use the word frantic, right? But when I think about.
Carolyn: [00:16:10] Ah! I was searching for that word. Thank you.
Elissa: [00:16:13] [laughing] But when I think about that frantic energy. Right. Like and meditation and walking meditation as an antidote to that frantic. Because there’s so much wrapped up in that frantic energy, right? I think it’s like capitalism, and the pace of society, and like the social the social media machine that is designed to make people feel angry and like dissatisfied. And I sometimes call it the rage machine because it’s just like, what it’s designed to churn out. And it’s I think it’s just like so incredible to think about, like walking this basic thing that we, most of us, are taught how to do at a very young age. And we don’t even think about right? When I when I like try to think about the idea of like what is walking and how all of the like orchestra of my body parts work together to make that happen so I don’t fall over. I like I like almost fall over,right? It’s one of those things…
Carolyn: [00:17:03] Yeah.
Elissa: [00:17:04] …When you start thinking about it, it’s I don’t know, it’s just like kind of magical. And the idea that, like, walking and being present with walking can be an antidote to all these, like, big societal level challenges that like, filter down and sort of, I don’t know, like, a lot of them ruin my day, right? Like I walk to the store and I’m like, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” [laughing]
Carolyn: [00:17:23] Yep, yep, yep. And I mean, I love that notion of, of slowness too, because I think that that’s something that, you know, we as people, I don’t know, maybe a lot of people who listen to this podcast don’t drive and we just it takes us longer to get places. And I think a lot of people I used to have a lot of anxiety around that that, you know, I have to schedule meetings in such a way that I have time to get from one place to another in a way that other people can get there faster. But I think when you then when you flip that around and really embrace the slowness of that, that, you know, that is time that I can, you know, be present with my body. It’s time that I can, you know, absorb things in public space that, you know, subconsciously are going to make me more creative and make me more energetic and vibrant. I think I’ve really very intentionally tried to make that shift rather than feeling bad that, Oh, yeah, I can’t stack meeting to meeting, to meeting to meeting. I mean, this is pre-pandemic, obviously, but I think really embracing that slowness is so healthy and such a, you know, act of resistance against this productivity culture that makes us so frantic.
Elissa: [00:18:38] Yeah, Yeah. I feel like I want to shift gears a little bit to talk about like the theme of joy in this book.
Carolyn: [00:18:46] Mmmm.
Elissa: [00:18:46] This was like it was everywhere in this book, like every not every page, but almost every page. It was like, like there’s a whole page is just like the best answer to like, “Why walk?” Is, “Because I enjoy it.”
Carolyn: [00:18:57] Yep.
Elissa: [00:18:59] Like he talks so much about the concept of like enjoyment and joy. And I think like you and I have had previous conversations about, like joy and movement spaces and I think the transportation space and like is like the space that I’m in. But like all of those spaces that are transportation, housing, safer streets, all the different things, right? Like I think are often so like any other movement space, right? It’s not unique to this space. Like, so caught up in the urgency and the stakes of everything. And it is like kind of burnout and exhausting. And when you talk or when I talk to people who aren’t already in the transportation space about it, they’re like, “Yeah, that sounds like hard and terrible. Like, why do you do that again?” [laughing]
Carolyn: [00:19:41] Yeah! Well, yeah. And I think it’s because people don’t like we’ve just thrown away this big portion of our life, which is, you know, outside of our little individualized lives, of our homes or our nuclear families. And everything that happens outside of that is just kind of ancillary time that we’re just waiting to get to another place. And so to be able to even conceive of I’m in this movement because I want to feel joy when I’m walking to the bus stop. I want to feel joy when I’m on the bus and that those are things that are potentially available to us. I think that people have just so routinized getting from one place to another as not being a source of joy. And I think some of us who ride bicycles especially have kind of reacquainted ourselves with the joy of, you know, moving our bodies through public space. But I think that that’s so anathema to what we’re taught, especially as people who spend so much time in metal boxes. So, yeah, I find walking I mean, I find biking very joyful. Obviously, I’ve been a bicyclist for a while. I used to work at the League of American Bicyclists, so obviously biking is my jam, but I really enjoy walking too. There’s a slowness to it and an ability to perceive the world that’s really different. And yeah, I don’t really think of it anymore as just a thing that I do when I have to. Sometimes I will choice-fully walk instead of ride a bike. So I think there is joy in the inherent slower pace of it.
Elissa: [00:21:15] Yeah. And I think I think some of the things you’re talking about in terms of mindset shift, right, about the context we’re all operating in, which is like this relates to you being like, “Well, I used to feel bad that I couldn’t stack meetings back to back to back to back” Right? Where it’s like, the thing is not that I’m not doing enough, it’s that too much is being asked of me, right? It’s not that I am too slow. It is that the world is too fast.
Carolyn: [00:21:37] Yep, yep. Yep!
Elissa: [00:21:38] I’m like, this is this is like a human pace of things, right?
Carolyn: [00:21:44] [sighs] Yea!
Elissa: [00:21:45] So I don’t know. I like, I like we talk a lot about like human scale of things, right, in street design and like, street adjacent, you know, you want like human-scale lighting so that like, you’re not lighting just for cars, you’re lighting for people walking on the street. Right. And I think there’s something to be said for like thinking about how the concept of like human-scale whatever, like transfers to like our time and our priorities and not in typical places.
Carolyn: [00:22:12] Yeah. Well, and this is interesting because it’s actually kind of counter to what he talks about in the book in terms of what Thích Nhất Hạnh talks about, in terms of if you’re walking, just walk, don’t walk and talk or don’t walk and eat a snack. But I also think that from my experience, walking also connects me to people in in a different way than than bicycling. Like bicycling, it’s kind of a you make a choice to ride with another person, but walking, you’re just organically in space with people. And I think that we’re also so segmented in our societies. We’re moving from place to place in individualized boxes, we’re in, you know, single family homes. So I think that walking kind of creates this spark of joy of of talking to someone I would never talk to otherwise. And yeah, experiencing other humans at that human level scale because it’s just me and my body and you and your body walking down the sidewalk. And that’s like about as human scale as you can get. So I also really appreciate that as well as a, like feeling part of my community, you know?
Elissa: [00:23:26] Yeah, I mean, that’s what we, that’s like when we talk about like more just a joyful communities.
Carolyn: [00:23:31] Yeah,
Elissa: [00:23:32] That’s what I want! That’s why, you know, the thing that happens, it doesn’t happen as often for me when I’m walking. It happens more when I’m biking and used to happen when I like, rode regular bus routes. More like sort of one time. Yeah, what you said, which is where I’m at right now of like running into people or like building relationships over time with people because, like, the only thing you do have in common is that public…
Carolyn: [00:23:59] Yes.
Elissa: [00:24:00] space. Like, I don’t know, I explained to a friend of mine, just like a couple of weeks ago what a pickup bike ride was, which is like you run into somebody and you happen to be going the same direction and then you like for a while until you turn. And that’s like not a thing that he was like, “I didn’t know that could be a thing” because he drives everywhere, right? Yeah, Yeah. And so just yeah, I think like there are lots of pockets of joy to be had. And to your point about like people who are not in like movement space being able to like, they cannot imagine that that would be a thing.
Carolyn: [00:24:33] Exactly.
Elissa: [00:24:34] Right?
Elissa: [00:24:34] We do a good job of from inside movement to outside of movement space talking about like the harms but not about the joys of like, riding the bus because like, I like, run into people. All the people who work in downtown Saint Paul used to ride the bus, you know?
Carolyn: [00:24:49] Yeah. Or just like overhearing fascinating conversations that you never would have heard otherwise. Like, I think that people always think of, you know, when I tell someone like, “Yeah, I don’t drive, I don’t have a driver’s license,” it’s seen as like, Oh, well, you know, you must be scared of driving. You must not have enough money or, you know, some sort of deficit orientation to it as opposed to like, No, I mean, I could financially probably. I actually have no idea how much a car would cost.
Lucille: [00:25:18] I mean, it’s one banana, Michael. What could it cost? $10.
Elissa: [00:25:23] Gas is expensive now.
Carolyn: [00:25:25] Yeah, I mean, if I really wanted a car, I’m sure I could make it work. But people don’t have that concept of like, I… I don’t want that, you know? So I think that that’s, that’s also really hard for folks to say, which I think is wrapped up in that whole context of like what we expect of human beings and the rapidity of everything we’re supposed to do in 24 hours.
Elissa: [00:25:46] But yeah, it’s a lot.
Carolyn: [00:25:49] I mean, I was kind of continue on this path of talking about how, you know, slowness and walking is a direct response to, kind of an opposition to what we have right now. I really loved the each step is an act of resistance. Or he says, “Every step is a revolution against busyness. 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.” I know we’ve touched on that a little bit, but I think that there’s so much voluntary distraction that we do for ourselves. And I know that I keep myself busy as a means to not connect with, you know, things that are hard or things that are true or things that I need to heal from. And so I think that this antidote to busyness is such a key step towards resistance, because I have to know myself before I know what I’m able and interested in standing for. So I really love that, you know, walking as an antidote or an active resistance against busyness because that’s something that is still kind of a lifelong unlearning for me.
Elissa: [00:27:11] Yeah, there’s the quote that I was like, “Oh, I have to I have to read this one.” But it relates to the thing that you were talking about in terms of like he talks about like running from things…
Carolyn: [00:27:23] Yep, yep.
Elissa: [00:27:25] …throughout the book, right? And this this little page is called, “Walking Instead of Driving.” Right? “Sometimes we don’t really need to use the car…”
Carolyn: [00:27:34] Yeah.
Elissa: [00:27:34] “…But because we want to get away from ourselves, we go down and start the car. You cannot escape yourself wherever you go.”
Carolyn: [00:27:41] Mm hmm.
Elissa: [00:27:42] “Sometimes it’s better to turn the engine off and go out for a walk. It may be more pleasant to do so.” Yeah.
Carolyn: [00:27:48] Or it might suuuck, but ultimately, it’s what you need to do. It’s probably maybe not pleasant, but that’s also a reason to do it.
Elissa: [00:27:57] Yes, it is. Yeah. I appreciated the “may” was doing a lot of heavy lifting. Yeah, I think it’s just like that description. Like. I mean, when I was a teenager and I drove over, like, I’ve done that, like I have watched 1000 movies and 1000 television shows. Where that has happened is like upset. And instead of dealing with the thing they’re upset with, they go and they get in their car and they drive.
Carolyn: [00:28:21] Yep.
Elissa: [00:28:22] Eventually come back and park their car in the same spot, like they don’t actually get away from the problem.
Carolyn: [00:28:28] Yeah, they haven’t gone anywhere.
Elissa: [00:28:30] Yeah, but I just like that. That to me just felt like so insightful and very like, resonated with both my personal experience and then also the way that we like have centered car usage and media. Like it’s sort of this, right? I don’t know that anybody who’s writing that scene is like and then this person gets in their car because they can’t deal with the problem. Like maybe they’re very smart. And that’s what what they’re thinking about how they’re constructing that scene. But it’s just like one of those things in the societal, like our collective consciousness that just emerges over and over again.
Carolyn: [00:29:01] Yeah. I mean, when you watch that scene in a movie, you’re thinking to yourself, Oh, that person’s going to like, clear their head or whatever, which is so ironic. But that is how we’ve like conflated, you know, going fast or going in circles is is what you do when you can’t or don’t want to actually be present with what is.
Elissa: [00:29:26] Yeah.
Carolyn: [00:29:28] [sighs]
Elissa: [00:29:28] But just like it’s it’s hard, right? Because there’s a lot of things coming back to some of the things we talked about earlier. There’s a lot of things like we don’t have control over either in our personal lives, in the advocacy work that we’re all trying to do. Right? It can be really. Yeah, it’s a lot to like reckon with that and also continue to be like, “And I believe that we can make change,” right? Like, holding that tension is a lot of emotional work.
Carolyn: [00:29:52] Well, and also being in tension, you know, that’s like in movement spaces… In Buddhism, you know, such a core tenet is like being with grief, being with anger, being with discomfort. And we’re a society that eschews any sort of negative emotions as bad. And so, of course, we’re not solving problems if we’re not able to actually feel and and acknowledge in, you know, really embodied ways. What’s wrong to give us the motivation to create what’s right from a place that is, you know, coming from truly grounded values. So. Yeah. Getting in your car and driving in circles is keeping us stuck where we are in so many ways.
Elissa: [00:30:44] Literal and metaphorical.
Carolyn: [00:30:45] Yes. Yes.
Elissa: [00:30:47] Yeah. There’s something else in what you said that brought to mind perfectionism for me, right? It’s like there’s so much of I think in… It can be really tempting in advocacy spaces, and in personal spaces, to make all of the stakes all or nothing, all the time.
Carolyn: [00:31:07] Yes!
Elissa: [00:31:08] I think that relates to this idea of like stuckness in that like we’re afraid to try the thing for fear of failure. Right. And one of the things that Thích Nhất Hạnh talks about throughout this is like, I guess what strikes me is there’s no conversation about like skill fullness or being good at something like it’s not like you have to be the best walker.
Carolyn: [00:31:32] Yes, that’s so true. Yep.
Elissa: [00:31:34] It’s like you have to do the thing.
Carolyn: [00:31:36] Yep.
Elissa: [00:31:37] And it would be nice if you also experience joy. Well, and that’s all that’s like all this is, right?
Carolyn: [00:31:48] Yeah. Yeah. Well, and he talks a lot about, I think in this book, but definitely in kind of his overall teachings is that you’re always arriving, you’re always home and because you’re home in the present moment. And so it’s, it’s, you know, in opposition to this notion that we have I think a lot in advocacy spaces is that there’s a destination and A: that destination is fixed, and we have identified what it is with certainty. But actually the the arriving there is just as important and also that, you know, there things might change along the way, you know, like there is… And when you get so hooked into that, there is a single destination. There are so many ways that…
Elissa: [00:32:35] Everything’s failure except the one thing.
Carolyn: [00:32:36] Exactly. Exactly.
Elissa: [00:32:39] Yeah.
Carolyn: [00:32:40] Yeah. And there is like, that’s something that they teach you if you’re on retreat and it’s your first retreat and, you know, they’re doing the first instruction around walking meditation is like literally, “You can’t do this wrong.” Like, like if you are as… If you want to walk fast, if you want to walk super, super slow, like I’ve seen people walking in so many different ways. It’s about how you’re doing it, like how you’re experiencing it. It’s not about are you doing it right or wrong, which I find so yeah, so different than… Also in advocacy spaces we have this like ideological purity a lot of the time where it’s like if you have a slightly differing opinion than me, A: We can’t work together or B: you’re wrong or you’re not woken up or you’re not left enough or you’re not radical enough. So I think that this, you know, meditation, walking, all of Thích Nhất Hạnh teachings kind of push against that any sort of universal truth because everyone’s experiences are going to be different and those experiences are going to change moment to moment.
Elissa: [00:33:44] It’s work, right?
Carolyn: [00:33:45] Mhmm.
Elissa: [00:33:45] One of them struck me is that like Thích Nhất Hạnh is like one of the most famous, like Zen Buddhists. I don’t know the names of any others. And like throughout the book, he’s just like, “Yeah, sometimes I like… Miss and this is hard.” Like I went to I went to this airport and I like, tried to walk and it was hard for me to do walking meditation in this context, right? And to normalize, like it is work to like it is work to do hard things. And it is hard work to do things that seem like they should be simple. And yeah, it’s I think that like for me is also part of what you’re saying in terms of… being in relationship with people who don’t have 100% the same viewpoint that we have or the same priorities or the same like tactics or whatever the thing is. Because like they exist here too, they are also walking on this earth.
Carolyn: [00:34:44] Yeah.
Elissa: [00:34:44] Just because we don’t agree with them on a thing doesn’t make them go away.
Carolyn: [00:34:49] Well, it also they’re not a fixed thing they’re walking too. They’re going to be in a different place in the next second. So we also can’t presuppose that we’re all you know, this is another like I won’t go too far into this, but, you know, like in Buddhism, there’s also this concept of no self and not because we’re nihilistic and we think that we’re we don’t exist, but we like there’s a belief that we are always changing. The Elissa and Carolyn that are sitting here right now are going to be different. Like I’m already different than when I said my name, whatever, however many seconds ago. And so creating the space and the grace to be interacting with people in ways that recognize that A: we’re all flawed and dealing with a, you know, a society that’s fundamentally unjust, but also a human experience that is hard and… No matter how you cut it. So I think that that’s such a such a valuable teaching that, yeah, especially Thích Nhất Hạnh, who I think has become such a household name because he teaches in such a simple way and not simple to be, you know, not in a negative context, but in a way that so many people can understand and not in some sort of, you know, I’m this, you know, practitioner who’s transcended all of the hard things in life. And I think just like one thing that that also brought up for me was actually last night at Common Ground – shout out Shelly Graf – Shelly Graf, who’s one of the co leading teachers there, was talking about intention and the distinction between like intentions and goals. And I think it advocacy spaces we have goals and we feel like, “Okay, we didn’t hit that goal. We failed.” As opposed to like having an intention of… I have an intention to not… I actually do have an intention for this podcast, to not swear. I might end up swearing before the end of this podcast. But that doesn’t mean that like, I failed. It means that like, okay, I still have that intention and I’m working towards that intention, but there are different edges, you know? And so like thinking about intentions rather than, than goals helps in my mind, kind of combat that perfectionism where it’s black and white, good or bad, kind of, all or nothing stakes.
Elissa: [00:37:13] Mhmm. Yeah. Mmm. I feel like I just want to spend like a minute or two digesting that, but it’s hard to do that when you’re being recorded. So… I think what I want to close with is, for me at least, as I’m thinking about like, what am I going to like, there’s a lot that like, this is not a long book, right? And there’s nothing in here to your point that’s like, particularly like, complex, right? Most of the little notes on walking are like half a page. You know, it’s like less less than 100 words. It’s like a slightly long tweet. And so there’s like, I think tons of stuff for me that I always, like, digest and carry away every time I read this book. And I think there’s one thing that I kind of want to springboard off of what you said about, like, intention. He talks in the little one called “Silence” about concentration.
Carolyn: [00:38:08] Mmm.
Elissa: [00:38:08] And it’s that thing that you said earlier about he really advocates for like, if you’re walking, just do the one thing, just walk. Don’t do like seven things. Don’t don’t be on the phone and be walking your dog and like all this stuff, right? So he says that in the practice center where he lives in southwest France, but he doesn’t live there anymore because he passed away last year, I think.
Carolyn: [00:38:32] Yeah.
Elissa: [00:38:34] We don’t talk when we walk. This helps us fully enjoy walking 100%. If you talk a lot, then it’s difficult for you to experience your steps deeply and you won’t enjoy them very much. The same is true when you drink a cup of tea. If you’re concentrated and you focus your attention on the cup of tea, then the cup of tea becomes a great joy. And I think like for me, I have been thinking a lot about that relative to a thing that many of the podcast listeners will probably be familiar with, which is the fight along Hennepin Avenue South in Minneapolis, where there were a great many advocates working very hard to make sure that we got great sidewalks, that we got protected bike lanes, and then we got dedicated bus lanes on Hennepin Avenue. And we wanted all of those things to be there all of the time, because that is when they are needed. And we got the sidewalks and we got the bike lanes. And we did not get full time, dedicated bus lanes. Righ?. Although we did like we did a lot of work and we got bus lanes there for part of the day, which is really great. And I think there is this temptation in that this is like tying together for me a lot of different things that we’ve talked about to do the all or nothing thing and say like, “Well, we didn’t get all the things we asked for.”
Carolyn: [00:39:55] Mm hmm.
Elissa: [00:39:56] Right? But I think, like, we did get most of the most of the things we asked for. And just because there’s not like necessarily a commitment to a full time dedicated, bus lane there right now doesn’t mean there won’t be one in the future. To your point about, like, things are changing. And I think the like, “how” of how we go about things like meditating or reflecting or concentrating on that is like it’s like “worthy of merit” is the phrase I keep wanting to say. And I’m not sure that’s great phrase because like we did a lot of really good work, like advocates did a lot of really, really good work. And like concentrating on that and reflecting on that is a source of joy for me to say, like, Wow, all of these like people who just like they did a lot of things right? They were collecting petition signatures, having meetings with elected officials, like talking to people who ride the bus. Like…
Carolyn: [00:40:51] Yeah,
Elissa: [00:40:52] …Lots of people did lots of things and like, that’s amazing. That’s amazing! And we’ve like, I think, collectively, there was not necessarily the like, viewing of that as a source of joy because of the like we didn’t get 100% of the goal thing that we were fighting for. Right.
Carolyn: [00:41:08] Yeah.
Elissa: [00:41:09] So we got what I will loosely call 80%. I don’t know. That’s not the real percentage, right? But like the how of how we went about about it really matters and I think the, right like, so much of it’s in the title of this book right it’s how to walk right?
Carolyn: [00:41:23] Yeah.
Elissa: [00:41:23] Like how is what it really matters a lot of the time. And because of the ways that we focus so much on like goals or outcomes as opposed to like, how as our intentions, like, lose it, we lose all the joy of like, look at this incredible, amazing thing that we organize to do.
Carolyn: [00:41:39] Yeah, well, and the how also creates the future what. Like it creates the parameters of what we can do in the future. So because of the how in that particular fight, there is now organized community power to have the next what you know so have the next the fight, or however you want to term it. And I mean that’s something also that you know he talks about in the book and is certainly, you know, one of the primary threads of a meditation practice is you’re always coming back. You’re never done. Like it’s, it’s a practice and like by the definition of that term. So everything is a practice. And the more we do it, the more it becomes part of our natural inclination. And ultimately, you know, when you’ve practiced for so long, that’s when you become fully liberated. So I think the how is so important and makes the what possible. And I think like if if I could close with one thing, I think getting to that, what can you do? Like what can you practice? And I think that some of these simple things, they seem so simple. But I loved his little piece on “A Contract with the Staircase” where like, because I mean.
Elissa: [00:43:05] It was so sweet.
Carolyn: [00:43:06] Right? I mean, because I live in, like, a converted attic of a single family home that’s been converted into apartments. And so I walk up some very steep stairs every time, and I was like, Oh, I should totally do this. But so he says, you know, “Make an agreement with a flight of stairs you use most often decide to always practice walking meditation on those stairs, going up and going up and going down. Don’t climb those stairs absent-mindedly. If you commit to this and then realize you have climbed several steps in forgetfulness, go back down and climb up them again. Over 20 years ago I signed such an agreement with my stairs and it has brought me great joy.” I mean, come on, how great is that? Like, let’s all make a contract with our stairs. That would be my my take away. But I think that it goes to your point about the Hennepin fight, where it’s it’s the practicing and the doing and doing things without this absent mindedness that makes it possible for us to build… And, you know, when bigger things down the road as well. And at an individual level too – being a happier, healthier person who’s enabled who’s able to engage in those spaces in ways that are more sustainable and joyful as well.
Elissa: [00:44:25] I feel like that is I could continue on with this conversation for a long time, but that feels like a note to end on. I would invite folks who are listening and want to be part of the discussion or see it continue to check out the post on the Streets.mn blog and if you have any suggestions for discussions or books for the podcast in the future. Feel free to email [email@example.com]. Thank you so much, Carolyn, for joining me this afternoon. I had a really great time discussing this book and look forward to continuing to meditate on it. The next book club book will be rolling out in January – Mark your calendars. We’re going to be discussing The City & The City by China Miéville, which is a sci-fi murder mystery that questions the nature of borders and what we mean when we talk about cities. So I’m very excited. It’s a very different book than this one.
Carolyn: [00:45:20] I, for one, am excited.
Elissa: [00:45:22] Thank you again, Carolyn. I hope you have a lovely afternoon and looking forward to continuing to discuss all things, advocacy and movement related with you.
Carolyn: [00:45:30] Okay. Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it.
Elissa: [00:45:33] Bye!
Ian: [00:45:34] Thanks for joining us for this episode of The Streets.mn Podcast. This show is released under a Creative Commons attribution non-commercial, non-derivative license, so feel free to republish the episode as long as you’re not altering it and you are not profiting from it. The music in this episode is by Eric Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet. This episode was hosted by Elissa Schuffman and edited by me Ian R. Buck, with transcript by Mike Allen, first of his name. Christy Marsden is our awesome guest-booker, and technical assistance is provided by the super professional, Brian Mitchell. If you’re able to help make sure this team gets paid for the hard work that they do, please consider donating at [https://streets.mn/donate]. We really appreciate it. As Alissa mentioned, you can join in the book club discussion by going to the comments section on our post on Streets.mn, and if you have feedback or ideas for future episodes, you can email us at [firstname.lastname@example.org]. Until next time, take care.