For walking is monotonous by itself. It isn’t ‘interesting’, and children know it. Basically, walking is always the same, putting one foot in front of the other. But the secret of that monotony is that it constitutes a remedy for boredom. Boredom is immobility of the body confronted with emptiness of mind. The repetitiveness of walking eliminates boredom, for, with the body active, the mind is no longer affected by its lassitude, no longer draws from its inertia the vague vertigo of an endless spiral. In a state of boredom one is always seeking something to do despite the obvious futility of any activity. When walking, there is always something to do: walk. Or rather, no, there’s nothing more to do because one is just walking, and when one is going to a place or covering a route, one has only to keep moving. That is boringly obvious. The body’s monotonous duty liberates thought. While walking, one is not obliged to think, to think this or that or like this or like that. During the continuous but automatic effort of the body, the mind is placed at one’s disposal. It is then that thoughts can arise, surface or take shape.
…We mentioned earlier the need to distinguish between monotony and boredom. Boredom is an absence of plans, of prospects. You circle around yourself, at a loose end. Waiting, but not for anything specific: not expecting anything, but indefinitely suspended in empty time. The bored body reclines, gets up restlessly, jerks its arms about, steps out in one direction then another, stops suddenly, starts again, fidgets. It is trying desperately to fill each second. Boredom is an empty rebellion against immobility; nothing to do, not even looking for something to do. You despair of yourself when bored. You tire of everything straight away, because it is on your own initiative. That faces you with the immense, unbearable ordeal of recognizing the poverty of your desires. Boredom is dissatisfaction repeated every second, disgust with beginnings: everything is wearisome from the start, because it’s you who starts it.
Walking isn’t tiresome in that way. It’s simply monotonous. When you walk you are going somewhere, in motion, with a uniform tread. There is far too much regularity and rhythmic movement in walking to cause boredom, which is fed by vacuous agitation (mind rotating aimlessly in a stationary body). That is what led monks to suggest walking as a remedy for acedia, that insidious illness that gnaws at the soul.
— Fréderic Gros, A Philosophy of Walking
Patrick Kurp mentions the tedium of exercising on a recumbent bike, which can only be alleviated by the right sort of book. The Lady of the House loves walking on forest hikes or urban strolls, but thinks me slightly mad for doing my cardio exercise on a treadmill. There are practical reasons for my choice. I don’t live in a particularly walkable neighborhood. I’d rather exercise at home than go to a gym. But I enjoy my treadmill walks, probably because music keeps my mind occupied while going nowhere. Put in my earbuds, cue up a playlist, and off I go. I am disciplined enough to complete boring-but-necessary tasks, but I don’t seem to struggle with the sense of futility that afflicts so many others during stationary exercise.
I see from my archives that it’s been almost ten years (!) since I read a wonderful book by Bruce Ellis Benson, Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith. In that post, I excerpted numerous passages from the book about how thoroughly music informed Nietzsche’s entire life. Ellis’s thoughts on “de-cadence” have often come to mind since then:
Although Nietzsche never explicitly speaks of decadence in terms of “de-cadence” (falling out of rhythm), that way of thinking about decadence actually fits quite well with what Nietzsche says about it…But one can also interpret decadence musically, as a “de-cadence”, in the sense of a loss of rhythm. On that read, decadence is the loss of life’s rhythm in which we are out of step both with our true selves and with the earth.
I’m not sure how I could ever satisfactorily put into words how much this notion of a “rhythm” to life itself resonates with me. It’s true that my brain is always playing one melody or another on a feedback loop. I’m always keeping the rhythm to my mental soundtrack through various subtle tics — lightly clicking my teeth, lips or tongue, or tapping fingers and toes. I’m always in sync with one time signature or another. It seems to give some kind of important structure to my activities. But on the physical side of things, what Gros says is also true. There are many times when both physical and mental dissatisfaction is relieved by simply getting up and moving in a regular rhythm. Something about the actual cadence of activity, especially walking, seems to produce solutions to whatever is bothering you. Like most people, when I’m feeling out of sorts, the last thing I want to do is exercise. Luckily, I know enough from experience that’s it’s probably the best thing I could do. Sync your body, and your mind will follow.