Episode one

Rousseau and the power of reverie

30 mins

Script: Richard Lewis
Music: Richard Lewis
Producer: Oliver Feldman

In this episode:

  • What 30 Walks is all about
  • The value of reverie as a tool
  • How to unlock the power of unconscious cognition to solve problems without trying
  • How I discovered the idea for 30 Walks
  • What you can expect over the course of our 30 Walks together

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Full text

Have you ever read a celebrity memoir that was so cringingly warts-and-all that you sort of wished they’d kept some of it to themselves?

How about this? Have you ever tried to do something, but failed over and over again and eventually given up in despair, only to try again a week later and succeed without effort?

How are these connected?

Well, I want to begin this whole exercise by talking for a little while about Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Jean-Jaques Rousseau was a writer and a political scientist from Geneva — now in Switzerland but then an independent city state — whose life more or less spanned the eighteenth century. He was born 1712 and died 1778, less than two decades before the French Revolution, in which a monarchy viewed as oppressive was deposed and the road to a democratic Republic was begun.

Rousseau was the son of a watchmaker who would grow to become one of the most celebrated men in France and in fact all of Europe and he did so through writings that were uncompromisingly iconoclastic — that is they attacked, criticised and pulled apart cherished systems and beliefs.

Rousseau would not bow before Kings, would not accept aristocrats as his masters, rejected the authority of the Church, though not faith, changing religions at will. As such, he angered everyone. Literally everyone. But it can be argued that we owe much of what we have come to accept as basic freedoms and equalities today, to ideas that Rousseau began and to the power of his rhetoric, his persuasive language, to influence others.

Now wait, I hear you say, I didn’t sign up for a history lecture. I promise you, it all makes sense. Trust me that it’s all leading somewhere good.

Now …

Rousseau was emphatically not a member of the educated elite — as I say, his father was a watchmaker and Jean-Jacques was apprenticed to an engraver until he left Geneva at 16 to wander Europe. But although he never went to university, his ideas about politics, education and society spread and not only influenced the French Revolution but contributed to the Enlightenment in Europe.

What historians call in retrospect The Enlightenment is a period in European history where a lot of ideas that we now take for granted in modern society, were first put out into the world to gain traction. Ideas that went on to form the basis of modern Western social and political thought.

Revolutionary and incendiary ideas such as the freedoms and rights of the individual, to self-educate, self-identify and self-actuate, to be upwardly mobile rather than simply accept his place in a feudal hierarchy; ideas such as the necessity of skepticism in questioning self-appointed authorities, such as monarchy, aristocracy and the Church.

While Rousseau was a religious man, he did feel the Church ought to be defanged and put forward the notion of civil religion, that religion should be administered and managed by the people, rather than a cloaked hierarchy of authority figures.

Writers associated with the Enlightenment include some household names: Sir Issac Newton, Francis Bacon,  David Hume, Voltaire, Diderot, Spinoza, Emmanuel Kant. And Rousseau.

Rousseau was a household name in his own lifetime. His novel Julie was so popular that copies were being rented out by the hour. These are some weighty issues and some contentious subjects. As you can probably guess, Rousseau got into pretty hot water for voicing them. We know most of this, by the way, from Rousseau’s own account of his life in his book Confessions, published after his death.

Yes, his was the world’s first ever celebrity autobiography and it was a doozy. He left no shameful sexual act or moment of moral bankruptcy out when it came to exposing the whole of himself for the titillation of the masses. So, when you’re in Waterstone’s wading through the Kardashians, you can thank Rousseau for that. It was his idea.

But the autobiography was not simply the act of an egomaniac, although it could be argued that Rousseau was one of those. In writing these Confessions he deliberately sought to separate — liberate you might say — the act of confession and the moment of judgement from the Church. He preferred to invite judgement by his fellow man. It was a radical idea.

Rousseau was perhaps rather arrogant in that he didn’t take too much care to disguise or sugar-coat his ideas. He was abrasive in his criticism. We know from Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Emperor’s New Clothes that speaking truth to power, no matter how obvious and unproblematic that truth seems to you, is a risky business. And in eighteenth century Europe you could be arrested for an idea.

As a result of his bluntness, his candour, he was a sitting duck for retribution. Those authorities whose positions and assertions he challenged did not take kindly. They persecuted and prosecuted, jailed, banished and threatened. His friends … distanced themselves. Even those “friends” who later, when the coast was clear and the climate more sympathetic, went on to use his ideas in their own work and take substantial credit for them.

As a result, Rousseau lived out the end of his days as a hunted man, in exile, on the run, in complete solitude, a total outcast. A pariah. Every major intellectual of the time denounced him and David Hume, who hid him in London for a short time, famously wrote to a friend that Rousseau was “completely mad”. His final work, unfinished at his death, was called Reveries of the Solitary Walker. It is an account of his solo walks through Paris.

The central concept in this book was another new and revolutionary idea. Rousseau called it amour de soi, or the love of oneself. And by this, Rousseau was not advocating narcissism. He wasn’t saying we should all go around saying “look at me I’m so great”.

On the contrary. More than one hundred years before John Stuart Mill began the philosophical work that would lead to the development of cognitive behavioural therapy, it was an attempt to elaborate the notion of individual psychological wellbeing, with that wellbeing created inside the individual by the individual as a direct result of actions and choices in their thought processes — their cognitive processes (cognition means thinking)— and this, specifically opposed to the wellness being conferred upon the individual by the views, judgements and gaze of society.

How to put that another way: it’s not what everyone else thinks of you that determines your sense of self-worth. It’s what you think of yourself, how you take care of yourself. And the idea that you can make yourself better and heal pain by changing the way you think about things.

Amour de soi was Rousseau’s attempt to codify the act of self-affirmation. You see, Rousseau was no loner by nature. He was gregarious and social and had greatly enjoyed friendships and social contact throughout his life. So to go from being a people-loving celebrity that people wanted to court to being shunned, made a pariah, to have friends turn away from him and disown him, ridicule him — it must have been absolutely crushing.

Very few of us have not lived through some moment of social isolation, however brief, so I feel we can all empathise with Rousseau at this stage. We’ve all been there to some degree.

It may be very fleeting, like that moment in the playground when your best friend says you’re not her friend anymore and then tells everyone else not to talk to you and you end up all on your own for a couple of playtimes before it all blows over …

… or it can be something more sinister and damaging, like when you finally get up the courage to leave your manipulative and abusive partner and he con     vinces all your mutual friends to drop you and it seems the only way you can recover from the terrible feeling of loneliness and disempowerment is to take him back …

… perhaps it occurs at work, when a backstabbing colleague carries out a whispering campaign and suddenly no one wants to have lunch with you …

… perhaps it is not something malicious done to us by others but more a consequence of circumstance, after a move to a new town or neighbourhood and we know literally nobody …

… or maybe we do it to ourselves : perhaps we’ve been feeling down and so we don’t feel we can manage those big social get-togethers so we start declining invitations and withdrawing and soon people stop asking us and before we know it we are wholly alone …

… perhaps we’re too shy to make first moves but to hide our shyness we affect a mask of fake indifference that acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy and persuades people to leave us alone …

Whatever the reason, lack of social community is a major contributing factor to mental illness and mental illness can lead to further social exclusion, creating a cycle of alienation and feelings of powerlessness. That idea that you’ll never be able to climb out of where you are right now.

But, in formulating the concept of amour de soi, Rousseau was attempting to change the way he felt, by changing the way he thought. It’s the central concept of cognitive behavioural therapy. Cognitive behavioural therapy at its root holds that your thinking patterns are making you feel bad and that by staging an intervention in your thinking and actively taking control of the way you do it, you can feel better.

He was attempting to heal his own pain and in sharing that effort with us, he was attempting to heal others. Even those who abandoned him and cast him out.

And all of this came to him while walking.

You see, the book explains how he found that the gentle motion of walking helped him achieve what creative people these days often refer to as a “flow” state.

That is, the movement, the repetition, the rhythm somehow ushered forth a state of mind in which immediate cares took a back seat and the subconscious could bubble up.

This was how Rousseau came up with the incredible ideas that revolutionised Europe. He went for a walk.

Now. Let’s dig into this a bit.

When I was a kid my teachers used to give me hassle for staring out of the window while they were talking. “Stop daydreaming and concentrate,” they would say. “Eyes front!” It was intensely irritating, because they may have called it it daydreaming, but I called it thinking. I was listening, always. But I processed what they were talking about a whole lot better if I could relax the executive functions of my brain and allow the flow state to manage the information I was being given.

If I hadn’t been listening to my teachers I would never have learned about Archimedes. Archimedes lived between 287 and 212 BCE in Syracuse, part of modern-day Sicily but then part of what we think of as Ancient Greece. He was without doubt the greatest mathematician of his time, and probably of all time.

The most famous story about Archimedes is regularly taught to school kids, some of whom may be staring out of the window, and it concerns a problem given to him by the King. The king had supplied pure gold to a goldsmith to have a crown made but was suspicious that the goldsmith had cut the gold with silver and pocketed the difference. Since Archimedes was the smartest guy in town, the king asked him to work out, without damaging the crown, whether pure gold had indeed been used. But Archimedes was stumped.

You see, the only way to know if gold had been used would be to measure the density of the crown. But he couldn’t calculate density unless he had a regular shape whose sides he could measure. He wasn’t allowed to melt down the crown, so he couldn’t mould it into a regular shape. He worked on the problem day and night and drove himself crazy with frustration. Eventually his wife says to him: Enough already, you smell bad, you need to take a bath.  So Archimedes is persuaded to take a break and wash and as he gets into the tub he notices that the water level rises as he displaces it. By measuring the volume of water displaced, he can calculate the density of the crown and solve the king’s problem. Archimedes is so excited by his discovery he runs naked into the street shouting Eureka, I’ve solved it!

Well, whether or not the story is true, the moral is this: stay focused on something too long and you burn out. Take a break, shut down the executive functions of your brain, and you allow your unconscious mind to solve the problem for you in the background.

Freud, the founder of modern psychotherapy, considered “daydreaming” an infantile behaviour to be corrected. But today psychologists tend to think that daydreaming is only a problem if it it becomes maladaptive, that is, if it prevents you from functioning properly. Like, if you miss your appointments and don’t pay your bills because you’re staring out of the window then you’re doing it too much. We’ll talk more about this in a later lesson. For now, let’s think about reverie — the act of daydreaming — as something positive to be harnessed for wellbeing.

Now I first read Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker when I was in my early 20s and a decade later, while working as a journalist, I put it to use.

I had a job on a weekly paper and on press day we’d all be under a lot of pressure to get our stories straight and get them filed. Typically I would be on the tail of a significant story but in writing it I had only succeeded in turning up a whole bunch of jumbled facts and quotes. On the surface they appeared unconnected and I could not see how to put them together to make my story … true.

Of course, I knew the story to be true but in journalism, knowing counts for nothing, there is only showing. Proving. There was always something missing, a perspective or a way of seeing them or laying them out, that prevented their truth from being demonstrated and I would get terribly frustrated and afraid the story would get away from me and we’d have nothing.

My colleagues responded to press day pressure by hunkering down at their desks and foregoing lunch or at most grabbing the nearest sandwich and eating it in front of their computers.

I always took a lunch break.

It wasn’t really about lunch, although a decent lunch may have helped. The fact was, the act of walking from Covent Garden to Soho and back again invariably caused the missing piece of the story jigsaw to present itself — as if by magic — and I would unfailingly have an “aha” moment in which the answer became incredibly clear to me. Returning 30 or 40 minutes later to the office I could sit down with a clear head and nail the story. That is how I had the front page every single week during my time on the paper. It wasn’t so much the work I did, but the break I took to walk.

So you get the idea.

The act of walking — all by itself — can help your subconscious solve problems for you.

This is a well-documented and well-known phenomenon, known as “unconscious cognition”.

I was using unconscious cognition back in my school days, when I was looking out of the window. I didn’t know it, of course, I just instinctively went that way.

When you decide to stop actively thinking about a problem, your subconscious mind does not get that memo. Your immediate cognitive functions — your flash memory if you like — may have moved onto something else, but your subconscious still works on it without you.

Another way to think of it is that there are two modes of cognitive function: focused mode and diffuse mode. Focused mode is when you actively use your cognitive powers to learn or do something, like when you fill out an insurance claim form. You’re present in that moment trying to work out what to put in which box and so on. Then there is diffuse mode which is where your brain gets to work without you having to proactively manage the process, like when you take a driving lesson and the manoeuvre you’re trying to learn seems really hard and you think you’ll never get it. But then you come back the following week and suddenly it’s easy. How did that happen? Your brain worked it out in diffuse mode while you were busy with something else.

Ask any writer, musician or other creative person when they get their best ideas and they will tell you these most often come when they are doing something else: taking a shower, riding the bus, taking a walk. Or in the case of Archimedes while taking a bath.

19 mins.

So that is what the 30 Walks Project is all about.

It’s about harnessing the power of unconscious cognition to help you solve problems, firstly by giving you a structured break from your present challenges, in which you move gently. And during that break I’ll be giving you a bunch of ideas, via stories, that your brain can go to work on, on your behalf.

And because we’ve chosen walking, just as Rousseau did, then there are some fringe benefits because we’re going to get our hearts pumping, our blood flowing, some oxygen into our brain cells.

Now, that’s good for cognitive function and creativity but as we all know, walking in itself brings a whole host of other physical and psychological benefits. It’s great for your muscles and your heart, it’s great for your metabolism, and it’s super-great for your psychological well-being because it calms stress and releases endorphins that help to make you feel happy and euphoric.

Now the idea for this came to me through a period of high stress, brought about by someone who outwardly claimed to be working for wellness.

No, I didn’t join a cult. I had to pay off a little bit of debt and so I took a job working for a diet coach. Now this guy claimed to have one of those miracle weight loss programmes and had made millions through a coaching website. And every day I would receive e-mail from his clients. Some of these e-mails were very focused and would ask for a specific piece of information or report some kind of fault with the site and these people were easily satisfied. Also they tended to do well at the diet.

But the vast majority of e-mails were asking for much deeper, more emotional help. And they tended to take a certain tone. A tone that literally broke my heart every day. You see, they asked me for permission to break the rules of the diet or asked me to forgive them for being what they called being “naughty”. And to try to persuade me to give an indulgence, they told me the context of their slip-ups. They would share with me heartbreaking details about their lives and how they would go to food for comfort and then ask me, some invisible person behind a computer screen, for support and forgiveness.

It was clear from the content and the tone of their messages that they were dealing with much bigger and deeper issues than following the strict rules of a diet. Issues around very low self-esteem and above all the conviction that their life outcomes were controlled by others, not by them. In some cases I could see from their accounts that they had attempted the diet multiple times and paid out each time for expensive coaching that had failed, failure that they had internalised, further damaging their own self-image.

Now. The diet guru had sold these wonderful people on the idea that their weight was the root of all their problems and if only they could slim down, they could fix their entire lives.

It isn’t true, is it? It can’t be.

It became quite clear to me, reading the hundreds of e-mails, that in the case of these customers at least, weight gain through food was only one aspect or result of a wider outlook on life in which the people had for some reason stopped believing they could influence things for themselves and so instead of taking positive, goal-oriented action, they sought to numb the sensation.

Now, if you want to give someone wings, boost their ability to solve problems.

But on the other hand if you want to convince vulnerable people that you are their only hope, well it stands to reason that attacking their ability to solve problems for themselves would bring you power and profit. Because you’re reinforcing the notion that some magical power or technique outside of them has the solution. And if you set them up to fail at that, they’ll keep coming back.

Because if you’re thinking hey, I’m not someone who is in charge of how things turn out in my life, then taking measured steps toward any goal seems an insurmountable challenge. You have to first give yourself a reason to remember, believe and trust that you are indeed a person who can control outcomes. That you do have power.

Now. Once I’d had that little eureka moment, I started to reframe the advice I gave to the dieters. I just gave them one very simple piece of advice, but the responses I got told me I’d hit the nail on the head. Because those people who took the advice came back to me to tell me how pleased they were with themselves and how following my tip had helped them get back on track with things. It wasn’t rocket science, it was really just a case of being able to empathise with the dieters and sense what was really holding them back.

The experience of working for this toxic person, the dissonance that it created in me, left me with a sense of despair so overwhelming that it threatened to derail everything else I was trying to achieve. So to get myself back on track, I got up and took myself out for a timed walk every day. I timed it because I figured, hell it’s only 30 minutes out of my day, I can do anything for 30 minutes, we all have 30 minutes. No one can tell you they don’t have 30 minutes. It was a way of parrying any excuses I might be tempted to make for myself. So I did it.

And at first I thought, well this is going to help with stress and cardio, you owe yourself that much at the very least. But what I discovered was that, during these walks, with no prompting from me, the solutions presented themselves to a whole host of other life problems, barriers, obstacles challenges and so on, some of which had, it seemed, been blocking me for ages, years even. That was exciting and it certainly boosted my morale and more able to tick off some of the tasks and issues that I had been avoiding. But beyond helping me get back on track, the walks generated Big Ideas. They just bubbled up from nowhere. And that was even more exciting.

So in the next lesson, and over the course of our 30 walks together, I’ll share with you the advice I gave that helped those people overcome their own obstacles.

Now there’s no need to note anything down, that’s not how this works at all, but there is one thing I’d like you to remember and that is that I’m just a writer: I’m an artist, not a scientist. And artists in general are not terribly good at giving you answers. The best I aspire to as a writer, is to find a better way to ask the questions.