The first thing that happens
Genius is nothing but continued attention.Claude Adrien Helvetius
Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are. Jose Ortega y Gasset
The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself. Henry Miller
The highest ecstasy is the attention at its fullest. Simone Weil
If you ever have the chance to hike the mountains and river valleys of the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest, you just might run into a charismatic movement teacher by the name of Mick Dodge. Mick has been barefooting for almost 20 years and is a passionate advocate for the practice. Not only does Mick walk the walk, he also spreads the word wherever he goes, talking the talk in coffee shops, university bookstores, campgrounds and parks. He tells a story of personal transformation through barefooting and teaches people how to get back into their bodies. People call him "The Barefoot Sensei" and for good reason. Mick has found a way to reinvigorate human life and experience, by way of the foot.
When The Barefoot Sensei gives presentations on the virtues of barefooting, he often begins with a simple question: "What's the first thing that happens when you take your shoes off?"
People grope for an answer, searching their memory banks for the last time they actually went barefoot, suspicious that this might be some sort of trick question. But before they can get their words in order, Sensei answers for them:"You start paying attention!"
Some listeners find this amusing or trivial, but it's actually quite profound, something that will immediately become obvious to anyone who actually spends time outdoors in bare feet. When you kick your shoes off, it doesn't take long for the instinct for foot preservation to kick in.There's something about naked, vulnerable feet that brings the mind-body into focus.
Just stop paying attention for a few moments and you'll see, or rather feel, what Sensei is getting at. Just try thinking about your relationship troubles or your floundering career when you're running down a rocky trail; you'll get a reminder soon enough. Stub your toe on a rock and your mind will come back into focus without delay.
the barefoot meditation
In the modern world, we've invented a vast range of techniques for focusing our minds. We have a thousand forms of meditation and mental training. We have drugs. We have mantras. We have strategies. We have computer software.
But aren't we forgetting something fundamental? Aren't we forgetting about our "lower education?" Human ancestors were barefooting long before any of these modern attention-focusing forms. Barefooting is a 6 million year-old meditation and a powerful one at that, especially if you travel on diverse terrain, moving with intent and purpose. Every step demands focus and concentration. Every step demands a neuromuscular calculation. Every step demands grace, precision and adjustment.
So might it not make sense to use barefooting as a path to increased powers of concentration? There are some huge advantages: It's free. It's simple. And there's no esoteric training required. Just get out of your shoes and start footing. Your mind will follow along in short order. Sensitive feet will tell the rest of your body and mind what to do. No schooling required. No books necessary. No on-line course, no certification and no credentials. It's just you, your bare feet and the earth.
This is a practice that's far older than civilization itself. In fact, it's the historical norm for human beings; our basic state of consciousness. Our primal ancestors didn't need supplemental meditative practices. They were already focusing their attention throughout the course of every barefoot day. As soon as they rose in the morning and took their first steps, awareness kicked in and brought attention to the process at hand (at foot). A hunter-gatherer might try to multi-task or split her attention to something else, but rocks, sticks, roots and holes quickly bring the mind back to the here and now. No fancy mental techniques required. Just go out for a walk.
The Barefoot Sensei likes his koan, but he might very well cast his question in a reverse form. That is, "What's the first thing that happens when you put your shoes on?"
The answer, grasshopper, is simple: "You stop paying attention."
This, as much as anything else, is the story of modern civilization. The transition took a few centuries, but the effects of footwear and similar forms of insulation have been disastrous. As our footwear "improved," we started paying less attention to the world around us. We started paying less attention to terrain and texture, of course, but also to the natural world in general.
Footwear was the "gateway technology" that put us on the slippery slope to full-body insulation and diminishing environmental awareness. And now we slog through the world as if armored in psychophysical Kevlar. When our bodies are encased in insulations, there's no vulnerability and not much point in paying attention.
Modernity might even be described as a process of decreasing physical sensitivity, mediated by shoes, clothing, cars and dwellings. The process started with simple and sensible measures to comfort and protect our bodies, our skin. A pair of sandals makes things a touch easier and opens up some new terrain. There's slightly less danger from thorns and abrasion.
So far, so good. But if a little insulation is good, more must be better, so on we went to thicker soles, thicker clothes and tighter dwellings. More innovation continued this trend, always covering, protecting and insulating the body. After a few thousand years, we begin to experience diminishing returns and a point of reversal. Suddenly, our insulating technologies begin to compromise the quality of our lives and separates us from the very source of life.
Ultimately, this process becomes pathological. When the body is massively insulated and protected, sensation goes dormant through disuse. So now we have the modern human, a creature who is effectively desensitized to the world around him. In effect, all of us in the modern world have Attention Deficit Disorder.
In the world of martial art, teachers often encourage their students to sharpen their powers of attention. Specifically, they promote the exercise of zanshin. There are several interpretations of this word, but in essence, zanshin refers to focused concentration and awareness. In my dojo, our sensei emphasized zanshin and reminded us to "always train as if you're facing a live blade." We even brought the swords out on occasion, just to focus our practice.
This method works, of course. When there's a naked samurai sword in the room, everyone knows it and everyone pays close attention; you can literally feel the threat of the blade as soon as it's drawn from the scabbard. Suddenly, people are focused and alert. Bodies are ready for movement, right here, right now.
The sword is an effective and dramatic stimulus for attention, but it's not altogether necessary. In fact, we can get a similar result simply by taking our shoes off in the right environment. A smooth, carpeted studio or dojo is not ideal for this purpose; what we really need is an outdoor environment with a variety of surfaces: roots, rocks and sticks and other hazards. Once we step out with naked feet into this kind of world, we create a sense of barefoot zanshin.
The effect is immediate and massively physical. Sharp rocks and sticks are just as effective as a samurai sword in bringing our attention into the present moment. Danger tends to focus the mind. Risk stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and generates a slight elevation in the stress hormone cortisol. This hormone, in small doses, has a powerful effect on consciousness and memory formation. It's not enough to produce a full-blown fight-flight response, but it is enough to sharpen attention.
serious, but not lethal
For beginners, the danger seems extreme and there's a lot of apprehension. "What if I step on a sharp rock?" is the common concern.
The short answer to this reservation is simple: Don't step on sharp rocks. Keep looking, keep adjusting, keep working your eye-foot coordination. This is the nature of the practice.
Of course, there will be miscalculations. You will in fact step on sharp, unpleasant surfaces from time to time. But here's the really interesting part: your body is really smart, much smarter than we give it credit for. Our legs and spinal cords are wired with a reflex that will prevent catastrophe. There is surely a specialized name for this feedback loop, but I call it "the sharp rock reflex."
If you step on a sharp stone, sensory information will flash up your legs, synapse with neurons in your spinal cord and instantly inhibit motor commands in the leg in question. In effect, your nervous system will shut down your quads for an instant, thereby causing you to unweight the leg in question, thus preserving the skin on the underside of your foot.
It's all unconscious and it's blindingly fast. It works wonders. In my barefoot hikes, I've miscalculated many times, stepping on stones that might well have lacerated or punctured the soles of my feet. But it never happens. Almost by magic, my leg shuts down, I stumble a bit and continue on, none the worse for wear. The foot survives.
So, while outdoor barefooting remains a serious practice, it is less dangerous than most people realize. Give your body a chance and it will figure out what to do. (By the way, if you’re barefooting outdoors, don’t even think about wearing an iPod. The whole point of the enterprise is to pay full attention to what you’re doing.)
This thing we're calling "barefoot zanshin" shares a good many characteristics with the flow state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his landmark book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Flow is the mental state in which a person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing. It's characterized by a feeling of energized focus and full absorption.
Csikszentmihalyi's description of flow applies to the barefoot experience, especially when we're really getting into it, especially when we're running across diverse, natural terrain. In barefooting, we experience the classic elements of flow:
- concentrating and focusing
- a loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
- distorted sense of time
- balance between ability level and challenge
- a sense of personal control
- a sense that the activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
- focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself.
Call it zanshin or call it "flow," it makes little difference; barefooting is about the here and now.
When we practice barefooting regularly, our attention will eventually grow into a wider "environmental zanshin," an expansive, but highly focused awareness of all things local and immediate. The attention we enjoy in bare feet naturally extends outward to other environmental qualities. It's not just the shape of the rocks and sticks on the trail itself that grabs our attention. We also become increasingly aware of air temperature, changes in light, odor, movement, wind and sound. Naked feet inspire us to gather information in every direction. The vulnerable body wants information; exposure stimulates attention.
This form of attention is immensely rewarding and is extremely relevant to our modern predicament. As our technology has become ever more refined, we have come to rely on external sensors to tell us about the state of our world. In effect, we have out-sourced much of our sensation to external instruments that tell us about temperature, light, moisture and other environmental qualities. Our bodies are no longer involved in the basic challenge of knowing the world. This leaves us with a creeping sense of psychological unease.
For all creatures, sensory engagement with the world is vital to health, performance and a sense of well-being. We need a sensory conversation with the world. This is vital, not just to our personal health as individuals, but also to our ability to preserve what's left of the natural world. To value and protect a thing, you must know it in your body and in your flesh. Barefooting is thus an ideal and vital place to begin.
With this in mind, I'd like to offer an updated koan for our modern age. Instead of asking "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" we might do better to ask "What's the feel of one bare foot touching the ground in a graceful and powerful walk?" If you're looking for enlightenment or even just a sense of integration with the world we live in, this is a good place to begin.