On my semi-regular walk this morning, I found myself in the woods and suddenly realized I wasn’t really IN the woods. I’d headed down a familiar path, and yes, I was surrounded by trees, but I wasn’t really present. My body could have been anywhere while my mind was on its own separate journey. My mind was busy bopping around, thinking about all of the things involved in launching my new program today, and ruminating over some challenging conversations I’ve had recently. Truth be told, I hadn’t noticed a single tree and, even though I didn’t have my headphones on, hadn’t heard a single bird.
When I suddenly realized my lack of presence, I stopped in my tracks and started taking it all in. I noticed some of yesterday’s raindrops still on a few leaves. I noticed the graffiti on the rail bridge I was about to pass under. I noticed some clouds moving in and wondered if there would be more rain.
Then, to help me stay present, I turned off the familiar path to a less familiar one. As I discovered while I was traveling this past year, unfamiliarity is more conducive to staying present because it forces me to notice things and pay attention so I don’t get lost. A few minutes on that path was enough to shift my brain out of its ruminating spiral. Occasionally it was tempted to go back there, but then I’d stop in my tracks again and look at a leaf or the trunk of an old tree.
In his book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it can Transform Your Life, Dacher Keltner talks about how awe, “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world,” can shift us out of self-consciousness, ego, anxiety, pettiness, and rumination. What I was doing, when I stopped on the trail to notice the trees, was hitting the pause button on all of those self-protective patterns my mind is habituated in, and landing myself more fully in the moment, more fully in the experience of being in a body that’s present in a beautiful world.
Keltner talks about many kinds of awe in his book (awe in people’s acts of bravery, for example), but says there is something special about awe we experience in the natural world. “In fact,” he says, “it is hard to imagine a single thing you can do that is better for your body and mind than finding awe outdoors.”
In a study that Keltner cites about the impact of awe, Frances Kuo had children diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder “go for a walk of comparable length and physical exertion in a green park, a quiet neighborhood, or noisy downtown Chicago. Children scored better on a measure of concentration only after the walk in the park. Getting outdoors in nature empowers our attention, what William James called ‘the very root of judgment, character, and will,’ and our ability to discern what is urgent from what is not and how to place the hectic moments of our days into a broader narrative.”
Time spent in nature can also make us less entitled and narcissistic. Keltner talks about another study in which one group of students was sent to stare up at trees and another group was sent to stare at a tall building. Later, when told of the compensation for being in the study, those who’d stared at trees asked for less money, citing reasons such as “I no longer believe in capitalism, man.” While participants were answering questions about the experience, a person (who was in cahoots with the researchers) walked by and dropped a bunch of books and pens. Those who’d stared at trees picked up more pens than those who looked up at the building.
As I did on this morning’s walk, I am trying to be more intentional about being in awe, especially in nature. I am also trying to be more intentional about having an embodied experience in a beautiful, complex world. There are far too many ways in which we dissociate and numb ourselves, especially because there is much in the world right now that activates our nervous systems and makes us feel wobbly and disconnected.
To help us all have a more embodied, awe-filled experience in the world, I’ve created a new program called A Full-Bodied Life. It’s both a self-study program and a community where we can have ongoing conversations about topics such as this. You can sign up any time you want and either study alone or join the conversations.
Let’s pretend we’re setting off on a long, leisurely walk together. Just you and I. We’re walking along the shore, an eagle is flying overhead, there’s just the right kind of gentle breeze on our faces. We dip our toes in the water now and then. Now, tell me… what would you like to talk about if you had all the time in the world for a conversation?
A little while later, after people had shared what they’d love to talk about, and several said they’d like to simply walk in silence, I said this:
The sun is shining. There’s nothing urgent I need to do. I’m going out for a real walk. I’ll pretend I’m taking you all with me.
On a whim, while I was walking, I started sharing photos from my walk, with the hashtag #ifyouwereherewithme. Here’s the sequence. Imagine we were on that walk together.
If you were here with me, I’d take you to my favourite place to wander, where deer often greet me and butterflies flit among the milkweed.
If you were here with me, we’d sit for a spell when the conversation got so juicy we’d need to look into each other’s eyes.
If you were here with me, I’d introduce you to the tree I call the Dancing Goddess Tree because of the way she reaches her thick limbs to the sky in praise.
If you were here with me, I’d tell you about the Spring I sat on the stone bench among the birch trees and wept because I realized I’d lived through a whole season without my mom.
If you were here with me, I’d invite you to leave the beaten path and step into the wild with me.
If you were here with me, we’d stop to stare in awe at the eagle circling above our heads.
If you were here with me, I’d tell you how I dream of living by water, and how the Red River near my house has to suffice for now.
If you were here with me, I’d tell you about the time I broke my foot and felt such a strong hunger for this place, I had my husband drop me off at the gate so I could limp part way in on crutches.
If you were here with me, I’d pour you a glass of iced tea and invite you to sit awhile when our wandering was done.
The last time I went to the labyrinth, my friend Jo-Anne came with me. She’d never been before and was curious about what drew me so regularly to the park across the river.
At the centre of the labyrinth, there are two benches facing each other. After walking the path, I perched on one of the benches while Jo-Anne stood in the middle with her camera. As we chatted, I saw a look of delight cross her face.
“Have you ever noticed the echo when you stand in the centre?”she asked.
No, I hadn’t. I’d stood at the centre many times, but I was almost always alone and rarely said anything out loud.
“Stand right here,” she said. I joined her at the centre and started talking. Sure enough – the tiniest of echos reverberated from my voice, but only if I stood exactly in the centre.
Trained as a scientist, Jo-Anne was quick to figure out what was causing the echo – the combination of the slight bowl shape of the labyrinth and the benches.
More mystic than scientist, I prefer to think it’s a manifestation of the energy that’s available when you spiral closer to centre. Committing to the journey, trusting the path, you arrive at centre and the God of your understanding, the source of your energy, meets you there in the echo of your own voice.
The truth is, though, there’s nothing really mystical about the labyrinth itself. Pragmatically speaking, it’s just a circular, winding path that someone has lovingly built, filling in the in-between spaces with natural prairie plants (that Jo-Anne knows all the names for and I know only as “the one with wispy pink flowers”), and adding a few benches here and there for comfort. Anyone can build a labyrinth. My friend Diane has one in her back yard.
Yes, there is something sacred about the space, but the same can be said about any space. The easy chair you like to curl up in with your favourite book is sacred too. So is the driver’s seat of your car. Or the lawnchair you bring to your daughter’s soccer games. Or the little patch of garden you faithfully nurture. Sacred simply means that God is there, and… well, God is everywhere. We just have to open our senses and we will see/hear/touch/smell/taste God. (Fill in your own name for God, if you like.)
Jo-Anne is right – there’s a logical explanation for the echo. But that doesn’t mean that the next time I’m standing there I won’t speak words into the labyrinth, hear the echo returning to me, and know that God is there and that my words are imbued with power that I can take with me when I leave the labyrinth.
Sacred space is what we make of it. Sacred space is simply us bringing our open hearts to a place and letting that place be a vessel for Spirit to be in communion with us.
For me, labyrinths are especially sacred because the winding path, the meditation of putting one foot in front of another, the simple slow breathing as I walk, and then the pause at the centre help me move gently into an openness where God can speak. When I stand at the centre, it’s because I’ve been intentional about silencing the voices that get in the way of hearing the still small voice that reminds me of who I am.
I don’t need the echo, but it’s just one more way that God uses science to remind us of Her presence when we’re ready to pay attention.
If you’re curious about labyrinths, mandalas, and circles, join me on June 26th at 7 pm Central for a free call. (More info. in this post.) Register below.
This morning was hard. I was letting the monsters win.
I was struggling with the usual not-good-enough-itis. You know the drill.
I decided it was time to go for a walk. When the monsters start winning, it’s usually a sure sign that I need to get my body moving and I need to be in nature for awhile.
Unfortunately, the moment I left the house, I got a phone call that made matters worse. It was one of those “bad news – you owe more money than you thought” kind of phone calls, and it plunged me even deeper into the monsters’ lair. The tears started flowing as I walked. And then it started raining, which seemed fitting. I kept walking. Oddly enough, walking in the rain often helps my mood.
As I walked down my favourite woodland path, I started beating myself up with old stories. “Why aren’t you better with money? Why couldn’t you have been satisfied with those well paid, upwardly mobile jobs you’ve had in the past? Why aren’t you more successful at this self-employment thing?”
As my friend Desiree said the other day (and I think she was quoting Pam Slim), I was doing some serious “story-fondling”.
Things got worse. I started ranting at God. “Why did you have to choose this particular path for me? Why did you make me so restless that I keep looking for the next journey I need to take? Why did I get stuck with a journey that takes me through so many hard places? Why didn’t you make me an accountant so I wouldn’t have to worry about money? Why didn’t you make me more like those friends who are still content in the perfectly good jobs I left years ago? Why do I have to experience so much brokenness?”
Oh yeah, the monsters were having a party.
And then I spotted something on the woodland path. A small fish. Perfectly placed in the middle of the path, looking like he had climbed out of the river, slithered along the ground for about 200 feet and stopped to catch a breath on the path, only to find that he could no longer breathe. There was a look of surprise in his eyes.
You see the metaphor here, don’t you?
A fish out of water.
Exactly what I would be if I had chosen the path of accountant, or stayed on the path of government management.
Dead on a path that wasn’t mine. Unable to breathe because I was meant for other things.
Fish need water. Birds need the sky. Worms need the soil. Rabbits need the earth.
Artists need to paint. Dancers need to dance. Accountants need spreadsheets. Scientists need test tubes.
Take a path that’s not meant for you, and you can never be fully alive.
And with that, the monsters began to retreat. All I needed was a dead fish on the path to remind me not to listen to them.
A little further on the path, I found a small pink pillow hanging from a tree. On it were the words “The Princess is In”. Hmmmm… do you think I should find a metaphor in that too? Smile.
An interesting side note: I’m in the process of creating a new website that offers a little more clarity and focus for my work, and, even before this morning’s wandering, I’d settled on language that relates to serving as “your guide along the path through chaos to creativity”. If you’re having trouble finding your path and would like a guide, check out my services, and contact me.
I knew I couldn’t spend the whole evening there. I needed green space. I needed fresh air. I needed some mindful wandering to help me process all of the wonderful things that had happened on my trip before returning home early the next morning.
So I did what I often do – I opened Google maps and looked for the nearest green patch on the map. About a quarter mile away, past the industrial wasteland, across a freeway, and at the edge of the suburbs, there was a strip of green along what looked like a tiny creek. Hmmm… it looked promising.
What a delightful surprise I found when I crossed that freeway and climbed the embankment! There was a protected greenbelt running along the creek, with a beautiful walking/biking path that stretched out for seemingly miles.
I’m happy for groomed trails when I’m on my bike, but when I’m walking, I always look for the “path less traveled”. Sure enough, closer to the creek was a rugged path made for adventurers like me. Everyone else took the easy path – I climbed through the underbrush to find the one closer to nature.
For the next two hours, I wandered wherever my curiosity would take me. I climbed under bridges, I knelt on the damp ground to get closer to the violets, I scampered after bunnies, and tried (unsuccessfully) to take pictures of an elusive red bird. I scratched myself on low-hanging branches, and I nearly got stuck in the mud.
I was my 10 year old self again, finding secret hideaways in the woods on our farm.
It was heavenly. It was like a deep exhale after an exciting but full and intense week.
Wandering is my meditation, my therapy, my brainstorming session, my stress-reliever, my playtime, and my teacher. It fills me up in a way that few other activities do.
What about you? Do you love to wander? Or perhaps you haven’t discovered the beauty of wandering yet. Check out my e-book on the topic. It’s full of goodness, including interviews with a dozen other people who know the power of wandering.