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Upcycling Memory: how walking can heal

March 8, 2018





The 30 Walks Project is an audio service with two aims: to help listeners reduce emotional pain and increase their personal agency. Its author, Richard Lewis, unpacks a multi-layered project.



As people with helping relationships, we know that living in regret of the past leads to unhappiness in the present. But I believe memory can be upcycled and used much more helpfully as a bridge to a happier future.



I revisit childhood an awful lot in memory but I wouldn’t say I’m stuck on the past. Quite the reverse. It’s not somewhere I go to deliberately to avoid the present. Rather, positive involuntary memories are triggered by repetitive activities and I harness them for happiness. The psychologist Marigold Linton called these “precious fragments” and they are central to the work I’m doing now.




Precious fragments


Twenty years ago I noticed the phenomenon while scanning books into stock at the back of a bookshop. These days it happens most reliably when I’m out walking. It has to be a repetitive activity — motor skills engaged, cognition mode OFF. The memories bubble up like little snatches of Super 8 film with light leaking in through the plastic camera case. Just as I can’t switch feelings on or off, I can’t will this into being. But I can influence it by making a behavioural choice: I walk.



Golden fields in ’76, sunlight reflecting off the Frome, spotting lizards along the beach path, fishing on the Cataraqui River. I could go on. These memories are personal but not trivial: they are glittering postcards from the kernel of happiness that lives inside me. They remind me I am still on that same timeline. In my darkest moments, they remind me that I am not a dark person and they never fail to lift my mood.




Memory palace


Each time one pops up, I honour it, document it, file it. I’ve got a library of these now. It doesn’t really matter how awful life gets, I can reach in and have access to this and every time I get one out and take a look, I say to myself: “OK Stop. You may have gone down a wrong path, but that kid had the right take on life.” I can literally take a leaf out of his book.



With 30 Walks, whatever else it was, I knew I wanted to communicate something of this. It’s mostly suggested between the lines, in some of the stories I tell, and in the music. I want to help trigger those memories in listeners and inspire people to create their own libraries. This is one of the free sources of happiness that we all need to carry around.




Free sources of happiness?


I like the idea of a mental first-aid kit. Low-friction, cost-free things that can inspire joy right now in the moment. Things that genuinely exist in the world, whose healing power you control by paying attention to them.



The idea is to remind ourselves how little we need to be happy. Remind ourselves that happiness is not at the end of a complex set of goals that we’ve set ourselves, such as “when I pay my mortgage” or “when I meet my soul mate”. Transformation is positive but these are costly sources of happiness because gratification is delayed. I’m big on the sources of joy that I can get right now, without waiting or paying anything. Some people are never happy despite driving expensive cars. I see a bird, I’m good for the day.






If you grow up in a family that eats Marmite, you like Marmite today — that’s your normal. I grew up in a family that went for walks on the weekend. As kids we loved it because that was our time to get our parents’ attention, we didn’t have to be in school and it was just liberating and happy.



We often visited the Gower in south Wales, especially one beach that you can only reach by walking around cliffside path, then down a steep hill. And as we walked, our mum and dad would be totally jazzed by whatever was around them, like — Oh look, Cowslips!  Or — Look there’s a jay …



And because our parents were so jazzed by this, we would be too. As you grow older, you see a jay as you walk down a beach path and it acts as a Proustian madeleine, you remember that happy time and you get a free buzz in the present. This is so important to me in keeping my mood positive. But as I got older I understood that this is not everyone’s normal.





There’s a story arc in Season One about myself and “Sophie from Paris” and there’s a moment where that exact thing happens: I spot a jay as we walk down a beach path. I’m completely jazzed by this and Sophie has the opposite reaction: she’s angry at me because, for her, life isn’t all birds and flowers, it’s a bottomless chasm of despair. And she feels betrayed by me in that moment because she needs for everyone to be focused on her pain. And my thought is — I know that chasm is there, I fell right in it. But if I make my life all about the chasm, that is all I will see. Life is about the birds and flowers if you decide it is. It’s about where you focus your attention.



We can stray so far from joy. Sometimes, it’s a long and hard road back. But I think it’s worth a go. Maybe it’s not too late to map that kernel of happiness and pull out the precious fragments.






As I was getting ready to leave Paris and move home to the UK, I started going for these long walks around the neighbourhood with my daughter. We’d spent about eight years in the park and I think there was a curiosity, an urgency almost to explore parts of the neighbourhood we’d overlooked.



So we went walking — and this was precisely the time when 30 Walks was solidifying in my head as a project. I noticed that the walks generated little Proustian rushes for my daughter, too. She’d suddenly say, “Papa do you remember when we used to go to that park with the velodrome and afterwards we’d get a glass of grenadine …?”



And I realised she was in the process of collecting and documenting her own library of free sources of happiness and that — in this respect at least — I’d done my job in creating those memories with her and then somehow giving her the tools to find those memories in later life and use them for happiness. So I wanted to try to find a way of sharing that with others.




Unconscious cognition


There’s a whole raft of reasons why walking for 30 minutes every day is good for our health. We know that walking releases endorphins, calms stress. But it also promotes unconscious cognition and I think it’s easier for a listener to work out how an idea can help them in diffuse mode than for me to try to persuade them using rational models in cognitive mode. I don’t even know how I would begin that: my instinct is rather to sit at the piano. So my method is more like painting an idea in invisible ink on the back of the listener’s mind and then leaving them at the end of each episode with a special flashlight. When they light up that part of their mind, it shows up. 



I give people a framework and reason to walk: a 30-minute break from their current dramas in which they walk and listen. During that time I tell stories and give examples. It’s my hope that layering sound, music, voice, memory and feeling in this way could be a more accessible way for some to process new ideas than charts and diagrams.



If you go for a walk, you’ll look about. You’ll notice things. They’ll trigger things. It will just happen. You will lessen your pain. And now you have a mental Stop Card that makes sense in your emotional universe, which you can use again. Realising what you did will increase your agency and your will to repeat it.






I’m training to be a counsellor and one of the first tasks we were given was to analyse our own motivations for wanting to help others. At some point you understand that you are surrounded by people in distress who, for one reason or another, do not have access to the same resources as you. And that you can provide a compassionate response to their suffering by sharing the resources you have.



I have tried to build that response with the materials at hand: a piano, a Macbook Pro and an archive of glittering postcards.




Further reading:



















Authors Bio

Richard Lewis is a UK-based writer and composer. He is the author of three books, a number of television scripts and many musical scores. His work has appeared in most of the UK broadsheets. He wrote and produced a series for Channel Four Radio and has appeared on BBC Radio Four’s Loose Ends, Excess Baggage and many others. Outside of his creative work he is a student of counselling, focusing on contemporary person-centred therapy.


You can contact Richard via email at


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