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Walk and write: Memories of the Via Francigena

Recently I have been experimenting with mindfulness techniques other than journaling: meditation and mindful walking. Very early on during my 6-month unpaid leave - in weeks 2 and 3 in fact - I walked on a long-distance trail called the Via Francigena that runs all the way from Canterbury, UK to Rome, Italy. I had learned about this trail several years back when I was sitting on a plane on a business trip. Back then the only mindful moment in my life was reading through those self-care magazines I used to buy at the airport before boarding.

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It was late, I was tired and exhausted from work and family, and unsettled by the thought of not seeing my small kids for almost a week. Focusing my mind on the magazine put my racing mind to rest for a while. I recall reading an article about an American woman who had suffered divorce and illness before flying to Italy and putting on her walking booths. Return to Glow – I bought the book once I returned home and put hiking parts of the Via Francigena, through Tuscany to be precise, on my bucket list.

A couple of years later I knew I had given up on that dream when I started looking for alternative trails, shorter and closer to home, driven by my bad conscious for wanting to take a trip away from my family – other than those many business trips I was going on.

I had almost forgotten about this dream, until we booked a little house in Tuscany for Easter Break this spring. The house was basically next to the trail, the Via Francigena!

My husband agreed to me hiking a week, while he would drive back home with our kids. I rejoiced and booked the night train home, Venice to Salzburg, non-refundable. The next morning, I realized my mistake: I had booked the wrong date! My one week ended up being two weeks – an honest mistake of my conscious mind, but I think my unconscious mind knew quite well what it was doing!

On the way down to Italy with my family I did not know if my body would be up for the task. I had been through so much lately; my lunge capacity was at 65% following the pneumonia and pleurisy.

I ended up walking 134 km from Altopascio (by Lucca) through San Giminano and Siena to Buonconvento. It was the freest and happiest two weeks of my adult life; I appreciate every moment along the way, walking and writing and healing.

I will tell you more about my experience on the Via Francigena, but for now I invite you to take advantage of some down time this summer and try out a walking-writing combo. Plan 60 minutes plus the time it takes you to walk back (home).

Take a notebook and a pen(cil). Consider packing a little blanket or something you can sit on and something to drink.

If you have a walking route in mind, take it. If not, just turn left or right outside your front door and start walking. Put your timer to 10 minutes. Walk as fast or slow as you feel like, let your mind do what it wants to do, let it go where it wants to go, put one foot in front of the other.

When the 10 minutes are up, see if you can find a place to sit. If not, just stay standing. Take your notebook and your pen, set the timer to 10 minutes. Put pen to paper und just started noting down whatever comes to your mind, don’t overthink it. Use your arm to take dictation of whatever wants to come out on the page. Let your brain be idle.

After 10 minutes, continue walking, perhaps your steps want to slow down. If so, slow down, breathe. If not that is fine too, keep up your speed.

After 10 minutes take out your notebook. Notice your surroundings. Perhaps there is running water, a river. Perhaps you notice a flower or an insect. Perhaps you are sitting close to a traffic light. Take a few moments to notice your surroundings and set your timer to 15 minutes. Write whatever comes to your mind. Write fast, don’t lift your pen off the page.

When the timer rings, skim through your notes. Is there something that speaks to you? A sentence, a word, a thought? Get up and take that thought or word with you on your walk. Let it occupy your mind.

After walking 5 minutes take out your notebook and do another 10-minute writing session.

Take a deep breath. You just did your first writing-walking combo. Enjoy the walk back (home)!

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Dr. Stefanie Brodmann

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