The following is an excerpt from the book Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann (Park Street Press, 2006), available for purchase from Inner Traditions " Bear & Company, Amazon and IndieBound. Reprinted with permission. In the book, Hartmann explains how walking allows people to heal from emotional trauma. When we walk, we engage both sides of the body, simultaneously activating both the left and right sides of the brain. Hartmann explains that both hemispheres of the brain join forces to break up the brain patterning of a traumatic experience that has become "stuck" in the brain through the bilateral therapy of walking.
"The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk; but divert yourself by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far."
Seeing the correlations between bilateral therapies from the time of Franz Anton Mesmer (1700s) to today, and knowing that bilateral eye motion in REM sleep is associated with healing traumas, I began to wonder: How would a person heal from trauma if there wasn't a mesmerist or energy therapist around and the trauma was too intense to be processed during REM sleep? How would humankind have handled trauma in an era without psychotherapists, hypnotists and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) practitioners?
It was a sunny Vermont afternoon in the late spring of 2001 when I was first asking myself these questions. From my office window I could see some of the streets of Montpelier, and the people walking along those streets. I noticed that most people walked in a way referred to in Brain Gym as the "cross crawl"--the right arm swings forward with the forward swing of the left leg, then the left arm swings forward at the same time as the right leg. Back and forth, back and forth--right arm and left leg, left arm and right leg.
I realized with a start that this was bilateral, rhythmic motion! As people walk, they alternately engage the left and right hemispheres of the brain--the same aspects of the brain that the alternate-side eye movement and alternate-ear sound stimulation and alternate-side tapping therapies work to engage. Could it be? I wondered. Is it possible that the way our hunting/gathering ancestors relieved themselves of the burden of psychological trauma was by walking back to the village from the hunt, and that the walking itself stimulated the whole-brain psychological healing process?
Remembering that Francine Shapiro said she first discovered EMDR by having a difficult memory resolve itself while walking, I decided to try the same, but without moving my eyes from side to side. I wanted to find out if the simple rhythmic bilateral activity of walking was enough to stimulate the brain to psychological healing.
The next morning I went for a walk from my home into downtown Montpelier and through some of the city's neighborhoods, a total of perhaps a half-hour's walk, a bit more than a mile. While walking rhythmically, using the cross crawl of a normal walker, I brought up a memory of a recent minor trauma--an embarrassing incident that occurred in a local drugstore. When I gave my name to the pharmacist, the woman standing next to me apparently recognized it and said, "Hi!" I wasn't sure if she was talking to me or to one of the people behind me, and so I was temporarily frozen in one of those social moments in which you are unsure of what to do. I meet many people, but rarely do I remember their names after just a first meeting. I'd recently given several speeches at local churches and done book signings. I'd been on local TV, and my radio show was broadcast on a local station, so it was possible that we had never actually met.
The pharmacist handed me my prescription and I left, never having responded to her. As I was leaving, however, I saw that she was staring at the floor, as if she was embarrassed. I left thinking that it must have been me she was speaking to, and that my shyness had caused her embarrassment. She was probably thinking I was some sort of insufferably arrogant snob, when in fact I was just caught in one of those socially awkward moments that you wish you could have left behind in high school.
For days afterward I tried to figure out who the woman was so that I could apologize, although my wife told me it was no big deal and that I should forget it. But to me it was a big deal--I thought about the experience daily. Every time I thought about it I relived the feeling of social anguish at not being able to acknowledge her, and the compounded and continuing embarrassment of thinking there was a person walking around town toward whom I'd behaved disrespectfully.
As I walked now, I mentally held the memory of that time in front of me, as though I was carrying a basketball in front of my chest. I walked normally through town, maintaining the rhythm of my walk but making no effort to move my eyes from side to side.
After about three blocks, I noticed that the colors in the memory picture of the experience were beginning to blur and fade. And no matter how I tried to hold it in front of my chest, the location of the memory kept moving a few feet out and away from me, off to my left.
On the fourth block I suddenly heard my voice say silently to myself, "Hey, everybody's a little shy at heart, and most people would realize that you're not a snob but were just uncertain about how to react. And instead of thinking poorly of you, that woman is probably walking around feeling like an idiot because she spoke up and didn't get a reply. It would be nice if you could make it straight with her and both of you could feel better, but you don't have a clue who she is. So you may as well just let the whole thing go and resolve that the next time something similar happens, you'll answer the person even if it does feel awkward."
As my mind said this to me, the memory picture flattened out and lost most of its color. Suddenly I could see myself inside the picture instead of viewing the event from the outside. A feeling of relief washed over me, followed by a feeling of peace. I'd come to terms with the event and with myself.
Later in the week I was talking with a client who is a psychologist. He felt "stuck" in a personal relationship that was very painful. He told me of all the past wounds around the relationship, and of how difficult he was finding it to separate himself from the other person, even though he knew that had to be done.This was not a form of self-therapy in which I engaged my cognition or familiar talk-therapy techniques. I hadn't set out to come up with a better story to tell myself about the event, or to alter my thinking about it. I was just carrying it with me as I walked, waiting to see if or how it would change. And change it did!