“Where’s Your Shoes?” An Urban Spiritual Practice

It was a hot August afternoon some years ago.  I was walking home from work at the hospital when a minivan pulled up behind and started following me.

I was barefoot.

I’d pulled off my shoes and socks as soon as I’d walked out the revolving door at the hospital entrance, stuffed them in my daypack, and stepped off the pavement into the damp earth and cool grass.  I’d been enjoying the instant grounding sensation and feeling like a natural human being again, blinking in real sunlight after a long day walking hospital corridors under fluorescent lights.  Now I could smell the land and hear the birds again.

And now I was being followed by a minivan in broad daylight.

Excuse me, sir?”  The driver motioned me to the window.  A woman.

I looked around.  Women never call out to me from vehicles.

Do you need some shoes?” she said.

“What?” I said.  “No, thank you.”

I have some right here,” she said, “They’re almost new.

“No, I don’t need any shoes.”

Really, its no problem!  I’d like to give them to you!

“I have shoes in my backpack,” I said.  “Thank you.”

They are too big for my son, but I’m sure they’d fit you!

“I’m fine, really, thank you.”

But you don’t have any shoes!

“I don’t want any shoes,” I said.  “I like walking barefoot.”

The woman gave me a blank look.  The blank look changed to an expression of deep concern.  Then discomfort.

She drove off.

Hello.  My name is Jeff.  (Hi Jeff.)  I’m a barefoot walker.   I’m also a barefoot runner, but that’s another story.

Walking barefoot has revealed a lot to me about the hidden rules of American culture.  Rule 74: You have the right to bear arms (a whole truckload of them if you feel the need), text while driving, listen to talk radio, and other crazy stuff.  But you do not have the right to walk barefoot in the city.  I’m serious.  Try it sometime.  See what happens.

Here are a few of the actual reactions I’ve received when walking barefoot in my own neighborhood:

  • “Hey mister, where’s your shoes?”  (Neighborhood kids.)
  • “Doesn’t that hurt?”  (A woman in high heels.)
  • “Don’t you step on glass?”  (No.  And yes.   See below.)
  • “The ground is dirty.”  (There are a hundred thousand more bacteria per square inch on your kitchen sink sponge than on the ground.  Seriously.  You can look it up.)
  • “Eww!  Gross!”  (Teenager with piercings on face and other body parts.)
  • “My feet are too ugly to go barefoot.” (Women say this.)
  • A mother watches me suspiciously as I walk past her toddler on the sidewalk.   The toddler is wearing fifty-dollar Stride Rite shoes.  The toddler smiles at me.  The mother does not.

Only one person got it.  An elderly black woman was dragging a trash barrel to the curb and she straightened up and watched me approach.  She looked at my feet, smiled and gave me a knowing look .  “Mmm hmm,” she nodded, “I know about that.”  My heart instantly opened to this total stranger just because of our simple, and rare, understanding of the joys of connecting physically with the earth. 

I began walking barefoot many years ago.  I was reading Zen Heart by Ezra Bayda, in which he shared a short walking meditation from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.    You recite it to yourself while walking very slowly, at a wandering-the-park pace:

“As I walk the mind will wander/ With each sound the mind returns/ With each breath the heart is open/ With each step I touch the earth.”*  (Repeat)

This meditation does it all: it 1. returns your  mind to the present moment;  2. opens your heart; and 3. gets you grounded.  Since I had ridden my bicycle to work that day I pushed as I walked barefoot on the way home.  And I began slowly repeating,  “As I walk/ the mind will wander…”    

When I got to the last line, “With each step/ I touch the earth,” I felt the earth directly underneath my right foot push up slightly to meet my foot.  Then it rose ever so gently to meet my left foot.  Right foot (earth pushhhing up underneath it)…left foot (earth pushhhing up underneath it)… repeat.

I was stunned.   For those brief moments, with each step I felt met by the Earth.  Supported.  Not metaphorically but literally.  Literally held up.  As in, I was walking in the same old street — along the curb on Lindsey Ave. amidst the beer bottles and ubiquitous Newport Menthol cigarette packages — but under all that battered asphalt, iron manholes, and heaving concrete awaited …the Earth.  Ancient and alive, it seemed.

I looked around.  Had anyone noticed me standing stock-still in the street holding my bicycle?  I was a bit self conscious because people have a low tolerance for contemplation around here.  For example, I once was down on my knees looking at a tiny blue flower poking through the sidewalk.  When I looked up several people were staring at me unsure whether to call the police or an ambulance.  Which is a little annoying, frankly, since folks around here saunter, strut, shout and curse at the top of their lungs in the middle of the street all the time.  That’s considered acceptable.  What’s not acceptable normal is a white guy in dress pants standing in the the street looking at his feet.

Anyway, I was hooked.  The next day I left the bicycle at home.  I had recently read Born to Run, the 2009 bestseller that sparked a shoeless revolution in the running world.  So after work I peeled off my shoes and socks for the walk home.   My tender, overprotected, pale soles met real asphalt, brick, pebbles and concrete-  ooch eech ouch– and the first hundred yards were an explosion of with sensation and stimulation.

But then a funny thing happened.  The hypersensitivity of my tender feet seemed to go way down, as if my brain was adjusting the volume of sensory signals down to a more reasonable level.  After several minutes the tenderness largely went away.  I began to recite the walking meditation and experienced the same earth-rising-to-meet-my-feet.  But in bare feet I experienced particular textures, objects, temperatures and dry/dampness.

This kind of present-moment focus is exactly the consciousness sought by meditators and contemplatives worldwide.  The thisness of the moment.  This concrete is rough and hard.  That grass is cool and soft.  This sandy-gravelly alley dirt is also hard but…hmm, softer.  That sidewalk in October is cold, this asphalt in July is hot, but the grass in any month is comfortable and welcoming.  (Try barefoot walking on grass the morning after a frost.  Wow.)

Perhaps you are thinking, yes.  I know all this.  Concrete is hard, grass is soft.  Big whoop.  But you don’t actually experience it, do you?  Anymore?  The difference between mere knowledge and actual direct experience is like, Oh look!  A mud puddle to stomp in.  (Mud skooshes between my toes.)  God, I haven’t done this since I was nine years old!  Childlike, yes.  But even more than that, as an adult.  More consciousness, of  connecting directly with Mother Earth.

In seminary days I learned that the biblical name “Adam” in Genesis comes from adamah, ancient Hebrew for earth.  The “Adam” in Genesis (from the Hebrew, ha adam) translates straightforwardly as earth-creature.  I.e. “Adam” was not the given social name of a guy whose girlfriend was Eve.  Rather, it was a description of his nature.  His creaturehood under the Creator.

And that’s what I’m trying to get at here.  Barefoot walking is not just some quirky  physical fitness practice.  It’s a simple but heart-opening spiritual practice that uses our feet as connective soul-bridges between body, mind, and planet Earth.  Specifically, barefoot walking with mindfulness raises consciousness.  And raising consciousness in urban life is critical to sustaining the planet.

Okay.  I wrote this not just to share my enjoyment of barefoot walking, but also to address three common reactions I get from people to barefoot walking (and barefoot running).

Don’t you step on glass/nails?   

1.  No.   Because when you walk barefoot you have to watch where you’re walking.  You really have to pull your attention atoms back into your body and concentrate on your surroundings.  This is the essence of spiritual mindfulness practice.  Presence.  “Just this.”  Not chatting on the cell, planning a meeting, thinking about dinner, or complaining about your boss.   2.  Yes.  I do occasionally step on  sharp or hard objects.  Here in the inner city I probably step on tiny pieces of glass all the time.  But here’s the thing: when you walk barefoot regularly, your feet get tougher.  You don’t get cut by the little stuff.  So you see the pattern here.  Tender, shod feet stay weak and flaccid and vulnerable.  Bare feet get stronger and tougher and more resilient.

(Disclosure: I do stub my toes from time to time when trail running barefoot in the woods.  I’ve had to learn to pick my feet up as I run on the ever-changing terrain, after a lifetime of dull walk-shuffling habits on utterly flat roads and sidewalks.  And know that it’s very important to ease slowly into a barefoot lifestyle, particularly with running.  The body can adapt to almost anything…over time.)

Our bodies have a natural immune system that existed long before antibiotics and big Pharma.  Similarly, we have a natural foot-protection system that existed long before orthotics and padded shoes.   For example, when I’m running trails and accidentally step on a hard unseen root or sharp stone my foot instinctively releases tension and collapses over the stone like a pizza dough dropped over a rock and at the same time my weight shifts to the other foot to carry my body weight through the rest of the step so I don’t fall over.  This split-second correction is local: it occurs at the level of the foot itself, not up in my brain.  I know that my “mind” has nothing to do with it because it happens so fast.  But wearing padded shoes deactivates this localized foot-intelligence and results in dull-minded weak feet.

The modern foot is just sad.  Spending most its life in what one barefoot colleague calls “plastic foot coffins” (shoes) our feet are like those feeble egg-industry chickens that live their entire flightless lives in wire cages existing only to lay thin-shelled eggs for us and then die.  Some life.

Conversely, the most amazing feet I’ve ever seen were those of a hospital patient I worked with, a Ugandan woman recently arrived in the U.S.  Her barefoot village lifestyle gave her powerful, splayed, muscular toes, calves of steel, and soles so thick she could walk on gravel with a load of water or firewood on her head that would cripple most Americans.  Yet her feet were not hard, cracked, injured or scaly.  They were pliable, lustrous, alive and beautiful.

The worst feet I’ve seen?  Every day, actually, as a massage therapist in the hospital and private practice.  The grotesque, pale, inflamed, blistered, bone-skewed joints I see in American women’s feet after years of walking in dress shoes and heels.  That‘s weird.  Not barefoot walking.

BTW: There is an entire field of effective body/energy work called reflexology that involves pointed pressure to the soles of the feet.  You’ve heard about this.  As a massage therapist clients ask me about reflexology all the time: Do I believe in it?   Does it work?   Sure it works.  But you don’t have to pay a certified Reflexologist to experience deep sole-work.  Just try walking around barefoot for a while on varying surfaces.  Its a free reflexology session from Mother Earth.

Won’t you hurt your feet?/  I have bad feet.  In the bestseller Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall visits the Tarahumara, an indigenous Mexican people known for their mythic ability to run distances of 100 miles or more wearing only thin sandals.**  By comparison, McDougall notes the explosion of U.S. foot, knee and hip injuries since the 1970’s, when Nike began marketing the first padded “waffle shoes” to runners.   These new heel-lifting shoes altered the gait of runners by forcing an unnatural heel-strike landing that sends a whopping hammer impact from the heel all the way up the skeleton to the skull with each step.  We consider this whap-whap gait normal now, having forgotten how lightly we ran on the balls of our feet as children in bare feet.

McDougall’s message: if you want to heal foot injuries, take your shoes off.   Allow your feet to use all the available structures (26 bones, 33 joints, and more than a hundred muscles, tendons and ligaments) for walking and running.  Allow the full power of your evolved calf muscles to smoothly lower your heels to the ground with each step, and pick them up for the next step.

Here’s a barefoot testimonial from one of my massage clients, Kathy RN:

“I tried varous podiatric treatments for 3 years, but was never able to get free from the pain of an old stress fracture. Out of desperation, I decided to shed my stiff, supportive shoes and orthotics and give barefoot shoes a try.  I did need to carefully wean into wearing the barefoot shoes, but within two weeks I was wearing them for my twelve-hour shifts as a nurse, and the pain that had been my constant companion was gone!  I have since worn them at work and at home, and am very happy with the results. When I wear barefoot shoes, I am lighter on my feet, more aware of the surfaces I am walking on, and feel more steady. I am so glad that I tried this style of shoe.”

“But I have high arches,” you say?  Good!  So do I.  The arch is the foot’s natural shock absorber: the higher, the better.  An arch is the strongest structural design known to builders from Ancient Rome to the St. Louis Arch.  The stone blocks of a well-built archway, or the snow blocks of a family-sized Eskimo igloo do not even need connective mortar to work.  Yet the best way to weaken an arch?  Push it up from below (i.e. arch “supports”).

Perhaps you are beginning to see the power of the shoe industry to bend common sense and even biomechanical function right out of our lives.  Fortunes are made on both shoe sales and the treatment of painful, injured feet.  Nobody is making money on strong and healthy feet.  A “high” arch is a problem only for the ill-fitting standardized products of the  dress-and-athletic shoe companies.

But I Might Step on… the Earth

There’s a deeper question in all this barefoot talk, I think.  The issue is not, won’t I step on something painful or icky.  The deeper question is, won’t I step on the Earth?   The conventional shoes that mask our bodies’ feeling and function also disconnect us from the earth.  We do not think about this, working in our offices behind non-opening windows, perched high above the earth in steel-girder structures encased in concrete.  We sleep and move in climate controlled homes and vehicles where we have to look at an instrument to know the temperature outside.  There’s more of a submarine or spaceship about our lifestyles today than mother nature, it seems.

Conversely, there’s something primal, damp, sensual and connective about walking on the earth.   Something of mystery.  This is the thing I love most about it: it redirects my abstract concerns.  It plugs my attention into something much greater and more live-giving than the ridiculous flock of worries my mind generates.

I stumble out of my back door in the morning, half in the dream world of the night before and half in the storm of anxieties about my day ahead.   But the minute I get my feet on the ground in the backyard?  Bam.  Here!  Now!  Aho!   Plugged into real time.  The flock of mental distractions disappear and then there I am, surrounded by What’s Really Going On: a rising sun, a biting wind, a cloudy sky, barking alley dogs, redbud blossoms, dew, snow, frost, the damn woodchuck eating my flowers, unmowed grass.  Mushrooms over here; dog turds over there.  I’m alive, in nature and participating in it.  Just another creature, ha adam.  Connected to the Source like all the other creatures above and below.

We get so alienated from the natural world that we can forget how to recognize a close friend when it is lying right under our feet.   We are like some of my inner city neighbors who never come outside or answer their door, isolated behind covered windows and receiving their information only from television and telephones.

We’re at a real crossroads now with mother earth, and need to change our relationship to her.  Recycling newspapers and buying hybrid cars isn’t going to do it, because the mindset behind these well-intended changes still treats the planet as a commodity, a sort of gravel pit of resources for humans to plunder. 

We don’t need different, more efficient ways to continue pillaging the planet for energy and resources.  We need different humans.  A more evolved humanity that sees the ecological and spiritual implications of living as creatures in a much greater web of life all around us.

Fortunately, the treatment for our nature-dissociation is right underneath our feet.  Reconnecting with the earth from which our food comes, the four legged and the many legged, the winged ones, the waters, the mineral spirits, the life.  When you open an I-Thou relationship with the earth, you learn there’s a lot more underfoot than glass and bacteria.

Yes, there is a lot of trash and trauma on the surface of our wounded planet.  And this is painful and necessary to experience firsthand with every barefoot step.  But there is also a living spiritual connection to our Source there, and all our relations.  That real estate out there?  It can heal you.

So.  Take your shoes off, go for a slow walk, and prepare to be amazed.

(Thanks for leaving a comment below – click the”Comments” link if necessary.  -J)

*Ezra Bayda, Zen Heart: Simple Advice for Living With Mindfulness and Compassion (Shambhala, 2009)

See also: Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (Bantam, 1992)

**Christopher McDougal, Born to RunA Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Knopf, 2009)

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