To wander is defined, by Meriam-Webster and by most of us, as “characterised by aimless, slow or pointless movement.” We think of wandering as lonely poverty (think of “wandering minstrels” and itinerant preachers, or the activity of men in the mall who are waiting on others who shop.) If we’re describing more purposeful movement, we use words like “migration” (because ducks and geese and human migrants have a purpose in their movement) or “exploring” (because Cousteau and Hillary and Lewis and Clark had destinations to conquer). Is it always pointless to wander?
How I Learned I Needed to Wander
I’m the kind of person who thinks a lot. About everything. Constantly.
When friends tell me (as they often do) “Don’t think so much…”, my reply is usually something like: “Don’t assume it took very much of my time to come up with that…” (as if “a lot of thinking” really equals “a lot of time spent thinking”. The truth is, a tremendous amount of brain activity goes on in just a few microseconds.
I doubt that time spent is the point of those making the comment. Instead, I think they were referring to my “monkey mind” — incessant brain activity that jumps from branch to branch, constantly chattering away with internal (and sometimes external) commentary about how things are, how they should be, what they could be, what they aren’t.
It wasn’t until I was invited to participate in a “Day of Wandering” that I realized just how incessant my thinking activity is, and just how much that keeps me from actually experiencing people and situations around me. That day I spent about 6 hours by myself walking the Mogollon Rim.
During the first five hours, my mind was actively plotting, planning, evaluating, deciding — which way to go, what process to use to quiet my mind, how to measure my success…and on, and on, and on. Finally, in the sixth hour, I sat and closed my eyes and just listened, and increasingly found myself not evaluating.
After that, I was able to walk in a way that I can confidently call wandering: I did not choose a path or a destination; I simply walked. The result? I experienced the world around me with a new appreciation, a new depth and a new connection that felt vaguely familiar to me.
Wander because you don’t know what you’re missing
My daughter often chided her brothers and I about our walking-out-of-the-theater analysis of movies with “Can’t you just watch the movie?” It’s true that if we go through our days immersed in constantly sizing up people, things, and circumstances, we offer little opportunity to actually experience the day. Some call the ability to experience “presence” or “being in the moment”. This kind of perception is an ability we seem to lose as we grow up and adapt our training to think critically, be goal oriented, and act decisively.
Both modes (presence and critical thinking) are necessary in life, but switching the critical thinking on and off is very difficult. Those who accomplish the both and consistently well are admired as leaders and sages. Wandering is an ideal way to begin to develop presence, and to begin to see just what you’re missing in life.
Wander because you need to find your place in the world
No matter what your cosmology (thoughts about the universe) or your theology (thoughts about the divine), you’ll probably agree that each individual has a place in the greater schematic of life that we call our “world” or “the universe”.
One good way to begin to understand your place in the world is to experience the world with presence. While you don’t have to hug a tree (it can be a valuable practice, by the way!) taking some time to perceive and experience what a tree is without thinking analytically about chlorophyll, osmosis, and age calculations, etc. — can actually help you begin to understand that the tree has a place, that you have a place, and that both are interrelated.
When I wander — simply walk with no pre-determined path and no pre-set destination and with no analysis — the natural world around me is no longer just scenery (something to be viewed as a spectator). I am part of the world, and I gain a sense of my place in it.
Why is this valuable? When I begin to understand my place in the world, I begin to respond to people, places and circumstances more compassionately, more kindly, and more justly.
One touch of nature makes all the world kin.
— John Muir
Wander to say hello to yourself
From the first time I participated on that Day of Wandering, and every time since, I have learned more about me. One of the primary things that I keep learning each time I wander is just how much noise goes on inside my head.
Have you ever experienced the deafening silence that occurs when you suddenly can shut off loud music, or step away from noisy conversation? The same thing happens to me internally when I wander: at some point I’m able to turn down the internal chatter from 10 to about 1 or 2. That’s when I begin to recognize, feel, and get in touch with my body and my emotions without distractions of “thinking.”
When I do this, I’m practicing being able to observe my self. Whether you think about your “self” in Jungian terms , in a Judeo-Christian framework (such as Nee’s body-soul-spirit) or even deny that there is a unique “self” as Buddhists do, you’ll probably find method of observing, or witnessing you as one way to step toward having a deeper understanding of your identity, your purpose, and your place. It’s an initial step in being, and in stopping creating an identity based upon doing. Alas, it’s one of those things that is “better felt than telt” as a country preacher once said. Suffice it to say that it helps initiate breaking the control of this ‘outer persona’ and releasing the spirit within. It’s a way to wake up to who I am.
How to start wandering
Wandering brings insight, a sense of purpose, and a calmness to living. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to start: you simply need a place and a time. The place you wander should be safe and relatively unchallenging physically. It should also be quiet (in terms of human noise), with little likelihood that you’ll be running into other people.
If there is a park nearby where you can walk both on and off trail easily, then pick a time when others are likely to not be there. If you live in the middle of miles and miles of farmland, try asking a farmer if you can simply roam the fields. The most important consideration is quiet and a lack of needing to think about how to navigate your day.
Spending 5 to 6 hours is ideal, but if you only have 30, 60 or 90 minutes, it is still worthwhile. You may wander in the early morning (although you might be surprised at how many people are out of their homes before 7), or you may wander at night, or midday. The when is not as important as the environment you can find at that hour.
If you do only have a shorter time, then try to create quiet on your way to the place where you’ll wander: no radio, no cell phone, no conversation. Don’t worry about accomplishing anything — simply wander and, wherever you wander, be there!
How will you start? Share your thoughts, misgivings and questions in the comments below!