Walking Time


[Candles]

In the church at St-Alban-sur-Limagnole, along the Chemin du Puy.

A little while ago, I described two months on the Camino as “an eternity.” It made so much sense to me at the time that I didn’t consider the words. But a little later, I started thinking about them.

In non-Camino life, two months fly by the way cars speed past walkers.

But when I was walking, two months felt like forever.

I’m not talking about the dragging, glance-at-the-clock-ever-few-seconds time that’s so familiar to students in a dull class or employees in an endless meeting. Some might associate that sort of boredom with long walks—but those are rarely, I suspect, the people who’ve gone out walking.

A few years ago, I spent a fair bit of a summer reading about time. Not scientific time—that Stephen Hawking stuff goes over my head—but the human experience of time.

And one of the things I read was that when you experience the same things over and over each day, time feels like it’s moving more quickly. The science behind this idea had something to do with the circuits in our brain. If we use the same ones all the time, our brains stop really paying attention.

So in a weird way, we live shorter lives if we never break out of our routines. Because when it comes right down to it, it’s our experiences that count, not the readings on our clocks and calendars.

* * *

Eternity isn’t some later time. Eternity isn’t a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time cuts out. This is it. And if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere.
—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

One of the reasons children experience time as moving more slowly is because they’re always encountering new things.

I heard an interview with psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik on one of my favourite radio shows the other day. Gopnik said young children are much more conscious and aware of what’s going on around them than we adults tend to be.

Adults’ attention, Gopnik explained, is like a spotlight: we look at what we think is important and tune out everything else. Young children don’t know what’s important and what’s not, so they notice everything.

It is, in many respects, a wonderful way to be in the world, but it’s not efficient. Young children spend a lot of time sleeping and crying as they try to process all they experience. They’re not so good at getting important things done.

But, Gopnik said, adults can recapture some of that feeling through travel. When everything is new and different, we notice so much more. We become more alive. Travel isn’t the only way to reach that state, of course, but it can really help.

And I suspect that’s a big part of why time slows down on the Camino.

But it’s not only that, at least for me. I’ve done a fair bit of non-Camino travel, and time, then, didn’t slow to the same extent. I think the speed of Camino time also has something to do with the slower pace, the way life shrinks when you’re rarely thinking more than 30 kilometres ahead.

Maybe that’s part of the reason some of us get addicted to walking pilgrimages. We’re more awake when we’re walking. We live more deeply. And time stretches out toward eternity.

* * *

What do you think? Did you experience time differently while you were walking, or at any other time in your life?

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:31 pm
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4 Comments

4 Responses to Walking Time

  1. Robert says:

    Wonderful. This is exactly what I’ve come to recognize over the past few years and journeys. It seems the older you get, the faster time flows, and then you hit the road and a week feels like a month and a month like an eternity. In that sense, travel is the secret to a long life.

    By the way, if I want to take pictures like the one you ran with this blog, how many kilos of camera do I need?

    • Anna-Marie says:

      I actually brought a point-and-shoot type Camera, a Canon PowerShot S51S, which weighs … let’s see … 350 grams, plus four AA batteries. I’m not as brave as Peter Coffman.

      All you really need to take a photo like this is relatively steady hands and any camera with manual settings—and the knowledge to use them, I guess. But if you want a high-quality photo to enlarge and put on your wall (which this, alas, isn’t), you’d probably need a tripod and a camera with a bigger sensor.

  2. Heck…sometimes it’s your only thinking 30 meters ahead! 🙂

    • Anna-Marie says:

      Definitely. 🙂 It always felt a little surreal seeing signs for turn-offs just a few kilometres ahead.