There are paths we know. They lead us from one place to another. We start here. We end there. Maybe we return. Or push repeat: a daily commute; the route to the store or your kids’ school; your boyfriend’s apartment; your jog through the park; the well known path to church…
Erin is visiting from Montreal. We go for a walk and I explain how everything in Boulder is on a grid, oriented towards the mountains. Face the mountains in the West. To your right, North. Behind you, East. To your left, South. It is hard to get lost here if you know this. Unless you are very drunk, stoned, or stumbling with grief.
Last month, after weeks of rain, a CU student launched himself on an innertube on the swollen waters of Boulder Creek. His friend begged him not to – they had been drinking. It was night and moonless. The water was cold and running fast. But he would not be deterred. His friend skateboarded along the path trying to track him, calling his name. But down near Folsom, the water turned on its side and headed away from the path and he lost sight of him. It took the police two days to find him, face down in an eddy of branches and debris.
Sometimes we get to choose the risks we take. Sometimes, we are taken by them. Sometimes both.
Most of us lead lives that are heavily scheduled – much of our time pre-accounted for. Even our time off is often structured – household chores; time with friends or family; some exercise….
Yet there is another way and a different skill that can serve each of us. What is it to set out without a goal, without a destination, without a plan? What is it to see where the road takes us and meet whatever shows up and see what happens? What if our life is an epic novel we haven’t read yet? Or, more accurately, one that hasn’t yet been written? What if each page holds surprises, twists and turns, upheavals and reconciliations, joys and loss, characters and circumstances that surprise and astound and possibly confound us?
Recently, I was teaching a retreat for global activist leaders. I suggested that the students go outside and practice aimless wandering. After 30 minutes they came back relaxed and glowing. To have taken this small amount of time free of goals and expectations—their own or others’—was a revolutionary and liberating experience for these very scheduled, goal-driven and successful people.
There are many benefits to our planned and structured lives. But there are also great benefits of being able to put down the task list and let ourselves be moved by the currents within us this is the cultivation of human being instead of human doing.
The notion of scheduling—yes scheduling—this kind of free-flow time might seem an oxymoron. Yet, in the context of our busy lives, this is often just what is needed. Warning: risk of addiction has been noted in some practitioners.
AIMLESS WANDERING PRACTICE
Aimless wandering is a way of moving through our lives without the structures, expectations, goals, deadlines and pressures of time, place and function, that normally scribe the contours of our days. But we don’t need a vacation or a radical shift in how we live to start integrating this way of being into our lives.
Give yourself as much time as you can/want. This can be as short as 30 minutes or could be an entire day. This can be urban; suburban or rural, someplace that is familiar to you where you have certain known paths you tend to travel. Or you can go to a place that is not known—a place not yet travelled. Both are interesting and useful fields of practice.
Go outside. Start by just standing still, closing your eyes and paying attention to your breath for a few minutes.
Continue to let your awareness spread to your body, arriving present and awake to the experience of being in your body, to its sensations; the feel of the air on your skin; the shape of your fingers; the pulse of your blood. Keep directing your attention out of your brain and into your felt sense of your body. Arrive home in yourself.
Then, tune into the energy in your lower belly as the impulse conductor in your body. Allow yourself to start walking in whatever direction you feel drawn towards. There no right or wrong here. This is a practice. Allow yourself to make turns, to backtrack to climb and descend. Let go of any goal. Just feel and listen to the natural impulse within you.
Go slowly enough that you can be present to what you are experiencing both within yourself and to the world in which you’re moving. Let your eyes be soft and notice how your mind tends to label—tree...dirt...sidewalk— and gently invite yourself to release the labels and to simply notice details that you might normally miss. If your energy wants to stop and look, breathe, listen or smell...let it.
The essence of this practice is to release goals or destination and simply allow yourself to be moved. As we practice, we cultivate our capacity to be connected to ourselves and to listen more deeply to our inner impulses. As we practice, we also become more tuned with our environment and capable of responding to life and circumstances with presence and a discerning mind and an open heart.