In 1999, the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs, known for, amongst other things, pushing a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City (Paradox of Praxis 1, 1997), took a walk across Hyde Park in London. The walk, memorialised only in a simple, unembellished photograph of an aerial view of the park, he titled ‘Pebble Walk’, christening the act as an artwork in its own right.
The hour of walking resulted in ten stones finding their way into the insides of his shoes, hence the title of the work. Instead of shaking them out, as one normally would, Alÿs left them nestling in the darkness, and kept walking in spite of them. It goes without saying that he must have been extremely uncomfortable—a single pebble in a shoe is enough to drive the ordinary person crazy, a tiny pea stacked between the mattresses. Alÿs did it, not because he was off his rocker, or as an expression of some twisted masochism, but to create an awareness in the course of his otherwise casual, everyday, walk. Awareness, in the form of pain or discomfort, brought to the banal act of walking.
I’ve thought a lot about ‘Pebble Walk’ ever since, usually when I’m on a walk, too. I love walking. It’s relaxing, and comes so naturally. I love feeling everything in my body moving in perfect sync, beating to an easy and instinctive rhythm. Heel toe heel toe. I feel better walking than I do when I’m at rest. Ever so often as I walk I’m able to zoom out a little and consider the act of walking as a gesture in itself, not just a means of getting from A to B. When this awareness hits, I feel like there’s a pebble in my heel. Not in the sense of pain or bother, but a heightened awareness of the cadence of my body as I bring my weight down onto the earth.
To me, reading is a lot like walking. Just like with walking, I think it’s possible to think about reading with a metaphorical pebble in the shoe. Both actions have the potential to be immensely contemplative. There is a rhythm to both that comes quite naturally, a pace and tempo that varies from one person to the next, a beat in which we can each find comfort. Specifically, these are activities in which we can find comfort in the rhythms themselves, independent of the content. Let me try to explain.
The esteemed social psychologist Ellen Langer defines mindfulness this way: you do everything either mindfully, or mindlessly. Either you take the effort to notice what you’re doing when you’re doing it, or you don’t. It’s as simple as that. If you’re Francis Alÿs, you can orchestrate this awareness with a handful of pebbles, but that’s not the easiest task for the layman. Haruki Murakami, writing about his experience as a marathon runner, cites a quote by Somerset Maugham, that in each shave lies a philosophy. Persisting in an act, however mundane, draws the doer into a form of meditation where there is something to contemplate and appreciate in each stroke, each step, each shave. Obviously, this mindset is particularly significant to a marathon runner, who needs to craft meaning in each step or the distance can seem illogical, even impossible.
So when we read, or when we walk, what exactly is it that commands our mindful contemplation? What is this thing we should be paying attention to, gleaning philosophy from? Like a marathon, we read and walk to embark on a journey. We start somewhere, and end up somewhere else. Home, work. Prologue, epilogue. In between, we create a beat with our steps, a tempo through the inflections as we read sentences to ourselves. I think we’re used to thinking about where we’re going, or where the plot’s going. My treatise here is to think about walking itself, or reading itself. The act. The medium. The paint, not the image.
Sometimes you’re on a walk and the mind just pauses, the experience becoming solely about the body. Your eyes are open, and you’re seeing, but not really analyzing. Instead, you’re paying attention to the body’s movement. It’s a good way to rest, and often I find that these images I seem to look at so uncritically often float up again hours or days later, even though I didn’t think I’d even committed them to memory.
Clearly, it’s difficult to function in a similar void while reading. It’s easy enough to slip into a blank, especially when the text is difficult or the language is convoluted. Because reading is solely an activity of the mind, once the mind slips into a lull the meaning of the whole endeavour is nullified. When we read, I don’t think it’s about letting the mind blank out completely. Instead, it’s about letting the body float away into the void. It’s becoming so entranced by the words on a page that you forget you are mind as well as body. All you need in the moment is your focus, and attention, and imagination. A black hole is both a single point and a vast infinity, all at once. Depending on which way you look at it, there are different ways of acquiring the void. However you get there, the end result is usually tranquil, set to the pulse of footsteps or punctuation.
These examples may seem like the opposite of mindfulness. If the mind is vacant, how can the experience be a mindful one? I think, however, that only when the mind quietens are we able to fully focus on the body. A lot of thoughts do not necessarily equate a lot of thinking. Conversely, losing touch with our bodies frees up the space for us to consider the almost musical way our mind works when we read and absorb, energy and attention pooling at a plot twist, or gliding effortlessly over other more benign stretches of text.
The red thread between walking and reading is something I believe in on a very visceral level, though I may not be eloquent enough to express the extent of this thought in words. Even though I speak about mindfulness, I’m no new-age hippie. There are no crystals in my water, no flowers in my hair. All I am is an ordinary city girl who believes in the pleasures of walking and reading, and often craves the sensations that both can bring. Perhaps you agree with me, or perhaps you think it’s all nonsense, and walking has nothing to do with reading. One’s about the body, one’s about the mind. Fair! Regardless, being able to focus intently on one gesture, one act, to the point of meditative concentration and awareness (really just noticing, not the levitating-off-your-mat stuff) is such an underrated facet of life. Believe me, I know—I’m a high school teacher. ‘Pay attention!’ is not something you tend to hear anywhere other than a classroom, but even us adults would do well to remind ourselves of this instruction every once in awhile.
There is beauty in the everyday, and a philosophy in every shave. A symphony in every step, and a time signature to every piece of writing. Let’s throw a pebble in our shoe and listen.
Heather Teo is an aspiring Singaporean writer. She studied Fine Art & History of Art at Goldsmiths College, London, and absolutely loved every minute of it. She is interested in psychologies of home and interior spaces, and explores these themes through evocative objects, relics of existences, and moments of intimacy in everyday life. Her short story ‘Gently Burns the Crescent Moon’ was published this year in ‘In This Desert, There Were Seeds’, an anthology by Ethos Books and Margaret River Press. She has also composed the screenplay for an animated short film titled ‘Danger Pain Harm’ (2019). Besides writing, Heather enjoys dabbling in film photography, and was the director of ‘Old of Things’ (2017), a documentary short film and the winner of the 2017 Heritage Short Film Competition in Singapore. Heather currently teaches art in Singapore. She spends nights typing stories, and weekends exploring with her camera.