Is sitting in a chair always the best way to work out problems? For some there is nothing more relaxing than taking a seat in the therapeutic chair and sharing. For others it can feel stifling and even hierarchical, almost an enactment of passivity or agency loss. Sitting in psychotherapy can almost embody the way in which people get stuck in calcified roles that belie a more natural sense of self and relatedness. Further a great deal of new research suggests that sitting is detrimental to one’s health. For this reason I have been experimenting with walking psychotherapy sessions.
Walking enacts agency by keeping neurological processes active. This can help metabolize excess energy in the person with an ADD type profile. One young man who typically could maintain only a superficial focus was able to deeply experience sadness about the death of a younger brother.
Walking can also generate energy for the person with a more depressive temperament. A different young man had fallen into a terrible stasis of bad feeling and self-deprecation. While walking together he interrupted a vicious cycle where inactivity perpetuated self-loathing, which induced inactivity. Within weeks of walking he was able to more constructively work on dealing with his depression, which then subsided.
Further, the act of walking can convert obsessional mutations into physical action, leaving the mind freer for more expansive conversation. One woman’s thought patterns were so hindered by haunting and repetitive ruminations that she couldn’t think of anything to say. Up on her feet and moving forward, she was freed from her habitual self-focus and capable of engaging in a more natural dialogue
Finally, there is much to be said for immersing self-exploration in a landscape with a broad visual horizon. The intake of non-verbal sensory data can soothe and relax a person, creating more spontaneous associations and dialogue. Also a person experiences him or her self as connected to a larger whole. Their problems, difficulties or struggles aren’t manifestations of their discrete and individual psychopathology. Rather, they are the incarnation of humanity.
Of course, walking outside challenges confidentiality. Therefore, one must choose carefully when walking is appropriate in an ongoing therapeutic dialogue. Yet side by side walking creates a kind of movable frame that contains the dialogue between patient and therapist. And sometimes it renders that which is shameful into something ordinary, a simple part of the human lexicon.
There is also a fear that walking can lead to a violation of professional boundaries if the relationship slips into something else. I guess this depends on how a therapeutic relationship is defined. For me, therapy is a kind of friendship organized around a specific role relationship where one person brings to bear all of their knowledge and expertise toward the solving of another’s person’s psychological dilemmas, whether they be physiological, intrapsychic, familial or cultural.
Freud himself was known to walk with his patients through the streets of Vienna. Clay Cockrell is also conducting walk and talk session in New York City. It is a new direction in my work but ultimately connected to my belief that sustainable behaviors help our ecology and our psychological function. Walking is an ancient practice that promotes physical and environmental health. Walking together has also always been seen to evoke massive social change: King walked, Ghandi walked, and so too did Moses. Why should it not be also an intricate component of psychological transformation?