Zen, the Restoration of Nature, and the Renaissance of Man

The Restoration of Nature
And the Renaissance of Man


The reason our world is so over-engineered is because we underestimate the direct utility of life -- both biosphere and ourselves. By treating the resulting degradation as yet another engineering problem we only make matters worse. Our overriding concern to satisfy mind and body leads us to reach for technology when natural solutions are more appropriate. This preoccupation with the mental and the physical is mistaken and is rooted in the failure to recognize the value of action and the nature of reality.

The summary in which I outlined this thesis was cast in general terms and could do with an example to illustrate it. So let's pick one that we can all relate to, a form of technology that most of us rely on on a daily basis, namely the shoe. In modern culture it's pretty much axiomatic that people wear shoes. The notion that one could function perfectly well while going about barefoot sounds almost preposterous. Humanity may well have done without shoes for the great bulk of its past but then it went without most things for the great bulk of its past. We've changed, become accustomed to a higher standard of living, and to deprive ourselves of shoes now would just be an appalling sacrifice.

Consider how shoes contribute to this higher standard of living. Shoes are obviously protective. By insulating the feet from interaction with the ground they guard against cuts and bruises. They keep out the cold in winter and the heat from paved surfaces in summer. They keep your feet dry, clean from mud and dirt, and free from the risk of contact with bugs and shrubs. Furthermore, shoe soles cushion the impact of the ground upon the feet and are often optimized for maximum grip on specific surfaces. Thus, shoes enable the wearer to move about on two feet in comfort, safety and convenience, and on paved surfaces in particular allow attention to focus on entirely different things, like one's most pressing thoughts or mobile phone. All in all, shoes provide admirable service to mind and body.

This service comes at an environmental cost, however. Annual production stands at over 20 billion pairs. Most of these are largely made of a variety of plastics glued together. Plastics in general have poor recycling potential anyway, and plastic shoes even less, meaning incineration and landfill are the only significant forms of proper disposal. Both of these are polluting, as of course is the production of plastic resin. Shoes are also subject to wear and tear, leaking toxins and shedding bits of various sizes wherever they're being worn. On my runs in the local forest I come across the larger pieces, sometimes whole shoes, with surprising frequency, right up there alongside sweet wrappers, drink bottles and masks. The beaches are worse, and again shoes are quite prominent. This 2019 scientific paper about plastic pollution on the Cocos islands in the Indian Ocean found a million shoes washed up on its shores. Natural processes like interaction with sunlight, sea water, soil, and the digestive systems of untold numbers of hapless animals break all this plastic down into microscopic particles which are absorbed into the biosphere, very much including ourselves.

So essentially, we're eating our own shoes. Bon appetit! While this particular outcome of shoe wearing is certainly unlikely to be beneficial, it does not follow directly from the function of shoes. But plenty of foot pathologies do, ranging from blisters, hammer toes, corns, bunions, plantar fasciitis, heel spurs, ingrown toe nails and flat feet caused by constriction, to fungal and bacterial infections and smelly and sweaty feet caused by confinement. Feet being literally the foundation of the body, some of these problems don't end there but extend up to the ankles, knees, hips and back. This is made worse by the insulation of the feet from the ground, the resulting loss in sensitivity making it harder to notice, let alone correct, bad gait. There is also a loss in exposure to microbes which translates into a loss for the immune system. And, perhaps surprisingly, the electrical insulation of the feet from the ground has negative implications for immunity, inflammation, wound healing and autoimmunity.

The response to this disastrous state of affairs is a doubling down on footwear technology. Foot pathology has spawned a $4.9 billion orthopedic insole industry that is forecast to grow at an annual rate of 10.4% through to 2031. None of this will cure feet of anything, something the forecasters are evidently well aware of. Meanwhile the global footwear market is set to grow from $365 billion in 2020 to $530 billion in 2027. If you're worried about what this huge increase in annual shoe dispersal will do to the biosphere, rest assured that Nike is on the case with an eco-friendly shoe made with at least 20% recycled materials. Go buy a pair now!

Another innovation is to grind up old shoes and press them into service as material for sports fields. To be clear, no amount of recycling, however futuristic, addresses let alone prevents the material contamination of the world inherent in the outdoor use of shoes or their recycled derivatives through the leaching of chemicals, wear and tear, and outright loss to the environment. Unless made of actual natural materials, like untreated wood or straw, the notion of an "eco-friendly shoe" is simply nonsense.

The conclusion is unavoidable: shoes contribute -- irredeemably -- to biosphere collapse and human degeneracy. So why are we wearing them? There is certainly nothing about the biology of the foot to suggest any need for them. Apart from conditions that are hostile to life, such as inside a chemical plant or on the surface of the moon, the rationale is essentially to support our standard of living as described above, namely the provision of comfort, safety, and convenience.

But how good is this provision, really?

At first sight the question may seem redundant. Take off your shoes anywhere other than on the beach or your lawn and it seems obvious shoes make things more comfortable, convenient and safer. Neither can this be a surprise given that the feet are completely unused to being out in the open. So any serious assessment would have to be comparative with respect to a barefoot lifestyle, not merely the temporary removal of one's shoes. Shoe wearing being a near universal cultural adaptation, it is unlikely you will be familiar with any personally. Bear in mind that for the same reason most of what is said about it is mere supposition. This goes for medics and foot experts as much as anybody else. The fact is, the only reliable way to find out is to go without shoes for an extended period of time and see for yourself.

By way of an encouragement to do just that, here's what I found out. I stopped wearing shoes quite abruptly six years ago. In the mangroves on the southern Japanese island of Iriomote Jima my Luna sandals kept getting stuck in the mud, so I took them off. Out of the mangroves and in the adjoining forest I kept them off because being barefoot just felt really good. My son did the same and for the rest of our stay on the island we were barefoot. Back home outside the house I had my shoes on, as per usual, when my son (who hadn't) asked me what I was wearing shoes for. I didn't really have a good answer to that, so I took them off. That afternoon I did my habitual trail run barefoot.

The experience of direct contact with the forest floor was so overwhelmingly positive and natural that almost instantly there arose a conviction to go barefoot generally. So even though the soles of my feet were initially soft -- as they would be, having worn shoes all my life -- I ventured onto more abrasive surfaces like paved roads and gravel paths. I would proceed very carefully, acutely aware of what I was stepping onto. By evening the feet would sometimes be a bit tender but nothing that a good night's sleep, with perhaps a rest day thrown in, couldn't handle. There was never any injury or sense that I was abusing my feet. On the contrary, my feet felt better and more alive than ever. Gradually they got stronger, going about barefoot became routine, and by Christmas of the following year I went up mountains in freezing temperatures, barefoot. Much to my surprise not only did I not need the sandals I was carrying, but my feet became literally quite warm.

By now shoes have all the safety, convenience and comfort of a pair of mittens. Basically, they're just an encumbrance. The fact is, the body responds to the practice of going about barefoot. The feet respond most visibly, becoming muscular and well-toned, not to mention tanned! Natural heat regulation is restored through improved blood circulation and skin function. Electrical grounding and the exposure to microbes strengthen the immune system and improve the resilience of the body generally. The soles thicken, giving protection against cuts and bruises as well as hot and cold surfaces, yet remain supple, which dampens the impact of uncompromising objects still further. The hypersensitivity of the soles in the early stages goes but a most pleasant and exquisite sensitivity remains, giving detailed, real-time feedback about the ground and your interaction with it. This results in a level of situational awareness that can never be attained wearing shoes.

The mind responds too. As one's health improves so does one's confidence in it, making one less susceptible to nonsensical instructions from the medical machine. Fitter feet means a fitter body and a corresponding gain in confidence in one's abilities. The literal connection with the ground helps enormously to dissolve the conceptual barrier between you and the Earth, resulting in a more caring disposition and a lesser tendency to do anything to poison or otherwise degrade it.

Having awakened the feet from dormancy, a whole new world of possibilities beckons. Released from shoe dependency, seamless movement across different surfaces is there for the taking, from paved roads to muddy trails, onto rocks and logs and into dense foliage, in and out of streams, and up and down steep slopes. Rain is no longer an issue. On natural farms being barefoot gives you the control of a ballet dancer to step around plants with pinpoint precision while leaving little to no trace on the soil. In carpentry and crafting generally, the feet can be holding the material while you work it with your hands. Throw in the running for good measure and what all this adds up to is a sense of joy and freedom that is indescribable and a sensuality that no foot massage can give you.

An added bonus, incidentally, is the release from all the paraphernalia that comes with shoe wearing. No more shoes and socks to clean, to edge around muddy puddles for in order to protect, or to stink up your tent. No more need to maintain an array of specialist shoes like sneakers, running shoes, hiking boots, sandals, marine shoes, and wellingtons. No more visits to shoe shops and foot specialists, and no more of the stuff they would have you buy, from first aid kits to deodorants.

If all this sounds enticing and like it might be for you, the question arises of how to go about putting it into practice. In a sense, the answer is simple: just do it. On the other hand, a variety of mental and physical factors, accrued over a lifetime of interaction with modern society, may make that more or less difficult. Perhaps you have a sense that the ground is dirty and that your feet should be kept clean, or that the ground is riddled with microbes that might make you ill. Maybe you fear injuring yourself on discarded rubbish like broken glass, maybe you're convinced that going without shoes will just hurt too much, maybe you're worried about what others might think of you, or maybe your concern is that your soft and pretty feet will respond only too well, and become all hard and horrible looking.

The way to deal with such reservations is to have a realistic attitude. Your thoughts are just your thoughts, and a reservation is just a reservation. However well-founded your reservations may be, they do not constitute reality. Your action in the here and now constitutes reality. This does not mean you wilfully ignore your reservations. On the contrary, you can work with them to help guide your action. For instance, you could choose your own garden as the most suitable venue for your first barefoot experiment, or, if you have no garden, the local park or wood. With all the preparations made, the time eventually comes to act. At this point you transcend any lingering hesitations and boldly place your bare feet upon the ground.

There, you've done it!

You're standing on the ground barefoot and nothing untoward is happening to you. The microbes aren't gobbling you up. The soles of your feet are literally on the soil yet this is not causing the crisis that you thought it might. There's no excruciating pain, no one's laughing at you, and the prettiness of your feet is more evident than ever. From here on you just walk, one step at a time, paying careful attention to your act of walking, to what your feet are telling you about the ground, and to what your eyes and ears are telling you about your surroundings. Your reservations are still hovering in the background but your concrete act of walking transcends them.

Having overcome your inhibitions and with your first barefoot outing under your belt, the road to freedom lies open. Although the road is perfectly passable some stretches will take more effort than others and there's no bus service. Inevitably, there will be physical challenges in the form of rougher surfaces and colder weather. How does one resist a premature temptation to give up and go home? Once again, liberation lies in the act itself. Sensory perception may not be imaginary but it isn't reality either. Your momentary action is reality. The feet are cold but the wholehearted, precise action of walking transcends the focus placed upon them. The feet are cold, the ground is strewn with rocks, the trees are green, the birds are singing, and you are walking. Everything is as it is. With the present moment entered in this way, your judgments are informed by the totality of the actual situation. This is how bad outcomes are avoided and this is how you proceed on your barefoot journey.


Hendrik Hilberdink