EPISODE 7: ADVENTURES REQUIRE A SANDBAR
I’m 500 kilometers into my second 'TurningLeft'. Heading down the West Coast from Seattle on my modern boneshaker. Not as fast or as far as I’d like, but happy to be as far as I am. I’m getting in shape as I go. But now I’ve paused … in smoke.
The winds have shifted northeasterly, which is unusual for the Oregon Coast at this time of year (it seems that experiencing the atypical is typical in our current world). Smoke from millions of combusted trees East of the West Coast is floating out to sea. The air is thick with their cremated remains, which is bad for the lungs … and worse for the soul. Air quality today is ‘hazardous’ according to the US AQI rating of 303. So, I’ll adapt and remain indoors until the winds change to ‘normal’ (remember ‘normal’?).
Adventures are not like a holiday.
Holidays are planned to minimise risk. We consider the different possible destinations. We choose. We go. We stay. We return. And yet experiments show that when we return we are often more stressed than before we left.
Because we also EXPECT.
We expect a ‘holiday’ to be just that … a day - or time - that will be so good as to be ‘holy’ (from the Old English). When your brain expects, it measures the consequences of the perceived experience and compares it to what was anticipated. You're not comparing realities, but one perception with another: Hindsight with Foresight. When your expectations are as high as ‘holy’ ... well ... you’re going to be disappointed!
And when your brain is disappointed, it’s not an arbitrary passing thing. It encodes it as pain. A ‘brain pain’ that can become somatosized (i.e., manifested as bodily pain), but without the endorphin release that one experiences when the body is physically insulted. This is especially true if you’re biased towards narcissism or psychopathy: Such personalities find stressful holidays even more disappointing than those who have less of these traits. But you don’t have to be pathological to feel the pain of unmet expectations.
This is because your brain is ‘wired to expect’ … all the time. You are inherently - and indeed necessarily - prejudiced. I.e., your brain pre-judges every second of every day. Doing so enabled your ancestors to survive during evolution. The better they expected, pre-judged and generalised, the more likely you were to come into existence. And in doing so, engage in the world with the same needs and abilities they had. Wisdom, then, is not about removing prejudice (which is impossible), but refining, adapting and updating it in a manner that improves your world and … more importantly … the world around you.
Even now as I write, you’ll be wondering where I’m going. Your brain is even unconsciously guessing each word from just a few of its letters. So much so that I do ‘t ev n h ve to wri e t e ac ual w rds for y u to r ad. And it’s impossible to escape from this. Which means you can never really ‘be present’, if by present you mean: ‘Be in the moment’ devoid of the future or past, since you are the personification of their co-dependent relationship.
So while you cannot exist in a moment that is devoid of past or present, you can be alive in that moment. By actively observing the ecology within you ... noticing the predictive meanings from past ecologies that your brain is projecting onto its future world … by becoming an observer of yourself in the moment of perception … you can learn to see yourself see. It’s a skill. To notice the beauty of your perceptions as you perceive them, but also the rubbish ones, since some of your perceptions are also hurtful or unkind. Seeing yourself see (negatively or positively) is an essential step to seeing differently.
But like all practiced skills, it requires a context in which to exercise it: That context is Not-A. The very place you evolved to avoid.
Imagine choosing the unknown of … say ... hiking to Deer Lake in Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula and sleeping amongst unseen bears and mountain lions … on your own. It’s getting dark. Every nuance of light … every sound … will have a possible meaning for your brain. The most dominant prejudice will be ‘BEAR!’. You will feel fear. Your respiratory and heart rates will elevate. And that’s a very good idea. Because in this moment you are facing, not only a potential real reality, but also a perceptual one. In seeing yourself see it, however, you will have the opportunity to respond differently, an option that didn’t exist until this very moment. The question then becomes, what do you do? Does your fear create panic or vigilance? One narrows while the other expands. This was in fact the experience of a dear friend on her chosen adventure just a few days ago. An active attempt to catalyse, not confidence, but courage. Not to be without fear. But to be with it … meaningfully and with agency.
By actively choosing to create a context of uncertainty, you are choosing to disrupt the old ecologies of the past and in doing so create the true freedom of choice. This is what an adventure does. It shepherds you into a new state of being. And it needs certainty to do so. Yes … certainty is essential for uncertainty.
Which brings me to the point of this blog: Adventures require a sandbar.
The coast of Oregon has hundreds of miles of sandy beaches that are punctuated by towering monoliths, such as Cannon Beach’s Haystack Rock, which I cycled past a few days ago. It’s the “3rd largest monolith in the world” - though no one knows the source of this claim, nor how to reconcile it with the fact that the one in Pacific City just 100 kms to the South (also called Haystack Rock) is a good deal taller and 3-times heavier (at 3 million tons). Each monolith is awe-inspiring in its scale and isolation. Each a geological sculpture shaped by nature’s artist ... moving water. Amongst the monoliths are gorgeous, often shifting sandbars.
As a sailor, I know that the sea doesn’t care about you. It’s a place that unites deep beauty with deeper risk. Sandbars are bridges into that risk. They take you out, hundreds of metres, into its vastness while enabling you to remain only waist deep in it. They are a physical and perceptual space of safety from which one can swim, become exhausted, and return.
If you’ve read the other blogs in this series, you’ll know that I have three gorgeous gremlins (Zanna, Misha and Theo). As their Papa, I’m not their boat, because to be so would deprive them of what they love, which is to swim. So, instead, I try my best to be their sandbar. I will not let them drown. And when they get tired of swimming, they can stand here. Feel the sea … and rest. Then swim again. Each time, swimming further away. Eventually becoming strong enough and self-honest enough to swim to the other side … to start their own adventure.
Love, then, is a sandbar, which doesn’t protect the one you love from risk, but enables them to take it … and in doing so embrace the uncertainty of themselves with courage and agency. When a young child feels love and trust, research has shown that they will adventure further from their parents, not closer. They are practicing living. They are swimming away … and getting stronger in doing so. They are also becoming inoculated from the fear of future uncertainties from which you will not be there to protect them, and learning how to thrive within it. They are expanding their perception of who they are.
Sandbars can come in many forms. One is Burning Man. And last week - had it not been for COVID - I would have been among many of its deviators (again).
As many of you will know, Burning Man is a festival that takes place the week before Labour Day in the Nevada desert. It unites art, music, dance, theater, architecture, technology, conversation, and nearly 70,000 diverse human beings. Costumes are ubiquitous … and at times completely lacking (though often with body paint, which is my favourite … for purely neuroscientific reasons of course, since the painted body confuses the brain’s visual cortex). It’s a city-sized circus of free-form creativity . . . picture a giant pirate ship sailing along on wheels touring you through the world’s largest human art experience under the heat of the desert sun. The art and its city explodes on the desert floor, then vanishes seven days later, leaving absolutely no trace . . . an essential part of the Burning Man ethos.
[You can find interviews with its fabulous CEO Marian … and its other Founders … about burning man and its future here.
You can also find a wonderful trailer to a new film called Art on Fire produced by a friend here...
... and Coyote’s new book Built to Burn, which tells the story of how Burning Man is constructed here.
Here is a link to a collection of wonderful Burning Man photos by Scott London Photography.]
In 2014, on a windy day midway through the week, I was riding my bike and getting reacquainted with the “city”. The familiar desert dust swirled, silting me and my goggles in a familiar fine layer of beige. I ended up in a camp of people from a town on the southern edge of the Midwest of the United States. There I met a person I’ll call Dave. This was Dave’s first ‘Burn’, and he said it was turning out to be a transformative experience.
What does true transformation look like I wondered?
Of course, no one really knows because it is different for every person, which is why so many people at Burning Man hungrily chase it all week. The more I talked to Dave though, the more I realized he really was undergoing a deep shift in his perceptions of self and other. Because what Dave had was a level of self-honesty that can be hard to find. He was a computer programmer from a place with fundamentalist religious values and a narrow outlook on what was socially acceptable. In his town, you either learned to fit in or you were ostracized. Dave had learned to fit in and be normal (i.e., ‘contextually average’). . . the business casual attire he wore at Burning Man reflected this. But his ‘home’ had clearly curtailed the possibilities of his life, curiosity, and imagination. Yet here he was!
It was his decision to be there . . . intention enacted ... and the questioning manner he had brought with him that mattered. But what was also fundamental to his experience was the place to which he was coming: It is the love ... the ‘sandbar’ ... Burning Man and the people therein that made his adventure possible.
As we stood there in his camp, he told me that the little green plastic flower that I saw stuck behind his ear … perhaps the least flamboyant adornment in Burning Man history … had provoked an epic struggle inside him. He had sat in his tent for two hours that morning weighing whether or not to wear the flower. It had forced him to confront a complex host of assumptions in his mind … about free expression, masculinity, aesthetic beauty, and social control. In the end, he gave himself permission to question these assumptions symbolically manifested in a plastic flower, and stepped out of his tent … into the public world. In doing so, he answered an invitation offered and met by his fellow ‘Burners’. He seemed both pleased and uncomfortable, and in my eyes far more courageous than most of the people out there in the Nevada desert that day in search of something powerful. Deviating doesn’t require being naked, upside-down, balancing on top of a 100 foot pole (though it can look like that too, which is also wonderful). For him, it was wearing a plastic flower behind his right ear … no more was needed.
As a neuroscientist, I knew that his brain had changed. Ideas and actions previously out of his reach would now be available if he was willing to question his assumptions, and in doing so create a new, unknown terrain of wondering. As a person, I was moved. This is what transformation looks like: Deviation toward oneself. To deviate is to be oneself. So simple. So complex. While many are now missing their sandbar in the desert, its principles of radical self-reliance within the context of love and care can be re-lived each day, especially in a culture that is experiencing increasing unhealthy conflict.
Nothing interesting ever happens without active doubt. Yet doubt is often disparaged in our culture because it is associated with indecision, a lack of confidence, and therefore weakness. We experience this biased perspective in our political discourse all the time … to our detriment. Which is why in this series of Adventure in Uncertainty I’ve argued exactly the opposite. That in many - if not most - contexts, to “doubt yet do . . . with humility,” like Dave, is possibly the strongest thing one can do. To embrace the superhero strength of ... not knowing with care!
But superhero strength does not happen in isolation. We need a sandbar to pause upon … a place of certainty from which to step into uncertainty. Where we can be held and our hearts touched. A place, person and/or love that enables us to wonder, wander, and return with stories of adventure that expand our minds and the minds of those who hold us.
Today, on my continued adventure of ‘Turning Left’, I’m seeing myself see the smoke around me, not as a frustrating constraint. But as an opportunity to sit and write to you. In doing so, I’m deeply aware of the sandbar upon which I’m pausing.
There are currently 625 separate fires burning in California across 1.4 million acres. A further 230,000 acres across Oregon … and yet more in Colorado, Wyoming and other Western states. Thousands of homes are gone: The home of a personal dear friend has been reduced to a chimney stack, memories and disbelief. More acreage has been burnt in August than was burnt all of last year combined … and the 2020 ‘fire season’ hasn’t yet started. When the Santa Ana Winds and the Diablos start blowing in October, even more is likely to burn.
So while I might be on my adventure of ‘Turning Left’ into my personal unknown in parallel with the fires, like all fires (literal and metaphorical), those who are closest are often those who are in service. In this case, thousands of firefighters and their supporters up-and-down the West Coast (and across the world). They have chosen lives that are ‘in service of’. They are society’s sandbars, RUNNING as fast as possible … with sirens blaring … towards the flames, so that the rest of us can run (or cycle) away! They are moths in thinly protective coats, drawn to the danger of the unknown. Not for the sake of it. Not for thrills. Not because they are so called ‘rebels’ or ‘free-spirits’. But because they are responding to someone else’s fear … our fears. They do it for you. They do it for me. We won’t know them. And they won’t know us. So here are 5 names.
Brian Stephen Smith
Jose M. Perez
All 5 were here 4 weeks ago. They are no longer.
If you would like to help support the families of fallen firefighters, we encourage you to go here.
True giving is real.
Sandbars can take many forms: A friend, parent, true lover, leader of an organisation or its volunteers, an open-minded pastor, a politician, or even an ephemeral city in the desert … as well as many other forms. It’s possibly one of the greatest gifts you can give, not only to another, but to our own brain and body. For in improving the wellbeing of another you actually improve the wellbeing of yourself, and in doing so become more adaptable and optimistic.
Indeed, as my dear friend Duane Michels says: “We’re most happy, not when we are most loved, but when we are most loving.”
So following the choices of the firefighters in our midst, each of us can be a sandbar in another person’s life. You too can be the place from which another person feels certain enough to take a risk in order to expand their perception. In doing so, you too will expand.
Towards this aim, the Lab of Misfits is gifting you a ‘Hair Ritual’, which is a beautiful, calming, empowering experience you can gift to another. Where your loved one will go through an inner adventure in expanding their perception, while you hold the context through emotional and physical touch.
The guided meditation is designed to help the person to whom you are gifting this meditation to help them go from A to not-A … to let go of an assumption or biases that has been blocking them.
We have shown through experimentation that the visualisation actually changes perceptions (in a manner that is statistically significantly). The measured benefits include:
• Significant increases in positive self concept (the good things you feel about yourself).
• Significant decreases in negative self concept (the bad things you feel about yourself).
• Significantly higher levels of divergent thinking
• Significantly higher levels of convergent thinking
• A big increase in tolerance to risk.
Please go to the link here, where you will find the voice and instructions for gifting this experience to another.
I’d be grateful to hear of how a sandbar has enabled you to embrace uncertainty … or how you have been the sandbar for another. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the CONTRIBUTION section at the bottom of this page. Thank you so very much
Written by: Beau Lotto.
PLEASE CONTRIBUTE BELOW AND SHARE THIS WITH OTHER MISFITS IN YOUR LIFE
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