Not far from where I grew up in northeast Iowa, ten bears march across a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. They’ve been marching there for at least eight centuries, in rain and snow and sunshine, through seasons of drought and of rain, silent witnesses to an ever-changing world around them.
As a travel writer who specializes in holy places, I’m embarrassed to say that for most of my life I’ve ignored this spiritual treasure in my own backyard. I visited Effigy Mounds National Monument mainly for hiking, largely oblivious to its more than two hundred Indian mounds, thirty-one of which are in the shape of bears or birds. And I’d never even visited its most significant site: the Marching Bear Group that stretches for nearly a quarter mile across the top of a bluff.
In my defense, it’s easy to overlook earthen mounds like these, which are among the many thousands built by the native peoples of North America before Europeans arrived on the continent. Through the past centuries the great majority have been plowed and bulldozed, and even those that remain require some effort and imagination to appreciate. Without a trained eye, an Indian mound, even a bear-shaped one, looks like just another small hill covered by grass.
But once I discovered those Marching Bears, once I’d walked and sat and prayed among them, I’ve come to realize that they carry a powerful spiritual message, one with multiple layers of meaning.
One message from those bears is that the spiritual path calls for subtlety and discernment. Just as it’s easy to overlook Indian mounds, it’s also easy to miss the sacred that threads through all of life. The Marching Bears are best seen from overhead—the raptors that glide on the breezes above them, in other words, have the best view. So maybe the lesson here is that the sacred requires us to shift perspective, to get out of our ordinary plane of existence and find a new vantage point.
I love, too, the fact that the bears seem to be walking, which is a spiritual lesson in itself. It makes me realize how sedentary much of contemporary religion is—and in an era of Zoom services, that’s more true today than ever.
This runs counter to the fact that humans are designed to move, both in our ordinary routines and in our spiritual lives. Millennia ago, our hominid ancestors began to walk upright, igniting an evolutionary transformation that’s still being played out. We’ve evolved a long way from those early humans, but we continue to benefit from walking. It strengthens our heart and lungs, improves the functioning of our immune system, enhances digestion, strengthens bones, and pumps blood to our brain. The feel-good hormones released by it improve our psychological health, lightening mood and easing depression. A walk helps us step off of the hamster wheel of anxiety, even for just a short time.
I think all those millennia of walking have also shaped our souls. A walk, especially in a beautiful natural setting, allows for open-ended thinking that doesn’t happen as easily in the midst of regimented daily routines. As the scene before us slowly shifts, our eyes drift from one scene to another, inviting contemplation and reflection. Walking isn’t as conducive to linear thought—you’re unlikely to be able to solve a complicated mathematical equation while strolling—but instead lends itself to intuitions, flashes of insight, and making connections between seemingly disparate things.
Walking, in other words, allows our consciousness to expand and deepen. Echoing the experiences of many, St. Augustine put it this way: Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking. No matter what “it” is, it’s usually made better by taking a walk.
Many faiths have a sense for the importance of walking as a spiritual practice. Christians follow the winding turns of labyrinths, Buddhists do walking meditation, Muslims circumambulate the Kaaba in Mecca during the Hajj, and Hindus made a reverent clockwise circuit around sacred places as a form of prayer. “Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet,” recommends Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
All of these practices reinforce the timeless truth that in the steady rhythm of putting one foot in front of another, our souls can slowly change. Perhaps it’s because at some deep level we feel the pull of gravity with each step and know that we will one day return to the earth beneath our feet. Or maybe in walking we connect to a circuit of energy that allows the holiness of creation to flow more easily through us.
For me, one of the silver linings of the pandemic has been a renewed understanding of how walking can be a spiritual practice. Maybe that’s been true for you as well. Here are some tips to help deepen your daily strolls:
Slow down and pay attention to the world around you. Instead of getting lost in your thoughts, try to notice the small details around you, from the singing of birds to the movement of the leaves in the wind. How is the light different in the morning from the late afternoon? What changes do you see from day to day as the seasons slowly change?
Blend a mantra or prayer with your walking. The steady rhythm of a walk lends itself naturally to short prayers and simple repetitive phrases. Let the pace of your steps set the pace of your prayers.
Try walking meditation. This Buddhist practiceinvolves dramatically slowing down your pace as you try to be present for each moment and movement. See Instructions for Walking Meditation for more information.
As you walk, imagine it’s the first walk you’ve ever taken—or the last walk you’ll ever be able to take. Either of these mental exercises will change how you view this seemingly ordinary activity.
As for me, I’m happy to take a lesson from the bears of Effigy Mounds and St. Augustine. Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure it’s solved by walking. Blessings,
Photo: Aerial image of Marching Bear Mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument (credit: National Park Service)
Neuroscientist Shane O’Mara illuminates the joys, health benefits, and mechanics of walking in his book In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration.
In The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh gives guidance on how to turn an ordinary walk into a profound spiritual practice.
Drawing on his experiences as an explorer, Erling Kagge reflects on the ways in which walking changes us for the better in Walking: One Step at a Time.
Book Updates: Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper is about places that have helped me come to terms with mortality. Foreword Reviews gave it a silver award for best religion book of 2019, calling it “an ideal guidebook for facing the inevitable,”
My previous book Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God is a memoir told through trips to a dozen holy sites around the world. From a starred review in Publishers Weekly: “Whether describing mystical visions or the rhythms of everyday life, Erickson turns the spiritual journey into a series of exciting transformations.”
If you’ve read and enjoyed either of my books, I hope you’ll write a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Your review will help other readers discover my work.
Whatever It Is, It’s Solved By Walking (mailchi.mp)
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.