EPISODE 1: THE POWER OF ADVENTURE: I’M TURNING LEFT
Five days ago I packed up my home in New York’s Greenwich Village, putting nearly everything into storage except for two duffles bags worth of clothes and hiking gear. Rented a ragtop car … and turned right... before turning left.
The plan is no plan … though I do have a number of destinations.
I am currently driving to the upper right corner of the US (Maine). I will then drive across the northern states to the US’s upper left corner (Seattle). From there I will leave the car and cycle down the West Coast to San Francisco … eventually to the lower left corner (Los Angeles). I might then drive back across the States to the lower right corner … before completing the circuit back in NYC ...
… or not ... maybe ... I don't know!
After all, I could have an accident along the way. I might be hit by a car while cycling down Cost Highway 1. Or maybe I’ll just abandon the adventure all together.
In times of doubt the most powerful way to engage with the resulting anxiety, concern and fear is not to ignore these perceptions (as many ‘gurus’, pop-psychologists and positive-psych coaches might suggest). It’s to engage them proactively. These difficult perceptions of uncertainty, objectively, are omnipresent. They are inherent in all of us, fundamental aspects of our brain and therefore essential to everything we do, believe and think. You can never be rid of them … or you do so at great peril.
So while people like Deepak Chopra suggest that the difficult perceptions arising from doubt can be eliminated by ‘being present’ … or by ‘being in the moment’, as a neuroscientist I have no idea what this literally means. Every perception we experience in the moment is necessarily grounded in our past perceptions and shapes our future ones.
There is a different way.
Doubt need not define you. You can define it. And that is what an ADVENTURE is: The stepping forward into the unknown proactively in order to create meaning out of ‘not knowing’.
Remember, the first step from A-to-B is not B. The first step is not-A. To let go of the reflexive meanings that your brain associated with any given stimulus and/or context in the past. Being in Not-A is doubt. Adventure is doubt manifest … but on one’s own terms. To adventure into Not-A ‘re-means’ doubt from a pathology to be avoided into a reason for stepping forward onto an unknown path. In doing so adventure creates the context for truth and understanding to emerge.
Remember … perception underpins everything it is to be you, from the colours you see to your deepest desires. Every time you open your eyes (or heart), you don’t see or feel the world around you, much less the data arising from that world. You don’t see light (which is colourless) nor indeed the mind of another person (though they are there in front of you). Your brain evolved to perceive something else: What my mentor (Dale Purves) and I called the ‘empirical significance’ of sensory information… i.e., a meaning that proved useful to see in the past.
This is important: Understanding this creates freedom. The freedom to Deviate.
What you perceive is not inevitable. It’s contextual. There is no inherent 1-to-1 relationship between data and its empirical significance … a priori. The open-endedness of perception, which many find unsettling, is exactly what gives you the freedom to discover … and rediscover … the world and yourself in it. Perception is created.
How? In the moment you respond to uncertainty. Do you activate your prefrontal cortex and adventure forward into doubt or step backward away from it?
When I was a small boy, rather than sleep in my room, I’d often choose to sleep on the floor next to my father’s bed, who lived elsewhere. The lights would be off leaving us both looking upwards into darkness … awake. Before long my father would invariably hear a small voice ask: “Padre, will you tell me an adventure story?”.
He was so generous in his response … never saying ‘just go to sleep’. And each time I grew both from his stories and the love I felt in his willingness to share them with me.
I would listen transfixed. Learning how he left home at 15 years old with his best friend Curly in a 57 Chevy, which he lowered, cropped and augmented, with a boot full of beer ... to pick fruit for 14 hours a day in Eastern Washington (the lesson being the merits of working hard). Or how my deaf great grandmother travelled from SW England on her own to SW Canada, and then placed an add in the local newspaper for a husband, and therein started our life in North America (the lesson being of pragmatic courage). Or when he was on the submarine called El Raton (as its navigator) and how the crew would shave each other’s heads on deck when crossing the equator (the lesson of creating deep bonds through shared vulnerability). The stories of his days boxing as an undefeated heavyweight for the Navy (the lesson of overcoming fear … and sometimes the pain that results). Stories of how his father’s challenges and strife that never dampened his focus on community (the lesson of the primary importance of ‘looking after’ others).
His stories created vicarious experiences and insights in my mind, which is why to this day one of my greatest pleasures is ‘to listen’ to the adventure stories of others - often recording them, since other people’s adventures, when shared, become all of our adventures. When you listen, their insights become our insights encoded in all of our brains, expanding our own experiential history from which our future perceptions will be created. (See our blog about our W_nder app - where users share their stories about the places in which they live.)
As I grew older, I became part of his canon of adventure. Such as the time when we cycled across Europe (me at 12 years old); or the countless hikes into the Olympic Peninsula with bows-and-arrows tracking elk (but never getting close enough to shoot them; we were good at tracking, but rubbish at shooting as our spirit was in the former and not the latter). Tying our food up into trees out of reach of the local grizzlies. Or when we sailed across the Atlantic (me at 20 years old) being ‘becalmed’ for 10 days, and then surviving a violent storm for another 6 until we landed in the Azores at sunrise between breaching whales.
When becalmed in the middle of the ocean thousands of miles from the nearest land, one night there was no moon, no wind, no clouds … no light except for the billions of stars above. I was at the helm at 3am. With an even blacker haze on the horizon, the boundary between sky and sea was lost. The sea’s surface was so flat and the stars so bright that they mirrored off the water’s surface creating a living kaleidoscope of infinite dots of light through which Hypatia floated. To this moment of existence was added the billions of living lamps of algae as Hypathia moved us through glowing water leaving a 100 metre trail of light behind.
The images that adventure creates (such as the one above) cannot be planned. They cannot be constructed, or even discovered. They emerge from the ecological interaction between you and the world (and people) around you ... and from that interaction truth and understanding are created.
Hence, our boat Hypatia was named after the last caretaker of the Alexandria Library, whose flesh was stripped from her bones with abalone shells because of her adventurous need to pursue truth and understanding. Clearly adventure and its discoveries challenge normality and as such can be dangerous to normality. Which is why ‘the norm’ usually fights back.
But - as you already know - it’s not the physical destinations that matter. It’s not Mecca or Burning Man where understanding lives. The power of both is (i) how you get there, (ii) how you are when you are there, and (iii) whether you take ownership of the consequences that will result (for better or worse). Since it's the process and the choice to engage in action and ownership of the costs that will reveal you to you. By experiencing new landscapes and new people, your assumptions and biases by which you perceive yourself and the world which you are normally blind to, can be revealed. You might not like what you see. But that’s why courage is fundamental to adventure, since creating is a response to a new context into which one then adapts.
So disrupt yourself and then find closure in that disruption … and repeat. It’s a spiral … that doesn’t end. Each trip out reveals who you were. And each trip back creates who you will be.
This blog is an invitation to go on an adventure with me.
I will be posting along the way as part of our new series: Adventures in Uncertainty. I hope to meet people (you?) along the way who will challenge what I thought to be true already … who will expand my perception of self, other and the world. For each of us is deviant … if we let ourselves be. Because to deviate is not about rebelling from the norm for the sake of it (as so many celebrate). It’s to be you in the pursuit of a truth and understanding that adds meaning to your life and the life of others around you … whether that is in the same or in a different direction from the norm is irrelevant. The issue is your reference frame for each of your next steps. Namely, your previous step.
Remember, adventure is an approach. It need not look like mine: Packing up your home and turning left … or right … happens to be mine just now. But it can equally be a compassionate approach to a conversation with someone with whom you’ve been in conflict. It can be saying sorry with true feeling, awareness and humility. It can be making the decision to create space in your day to read (or write) that book you’ve needed to read (or write) for years. It can be the decision and action to engage in exercise, to elevate your heart and respiratory rate for 30 minutes or more each day. It can be the acceptance, respect and awareness of the inherent value of another person’s sexuality that might be different from your own … or even to question your own way of loving.
Whatever it might look like, let my adventure be a call to action for your own … and record your experience. Not just what, when, and where you did it, but the WHY.
Here’s your opportunity - if you choose to accept it - to go on an adventure for the months of July, August and September. What will you do? Where will you go in your mind, spirit, body or place? And so you don’t do it alone, we would love for you to share your adventure with us.
Indeed, I personally would love to hear your adventure! Please email me/us a description of it to firstname.lastname@example.org… Tell us what you’re afraid of, what you think might be the worst thing that could happen, and … along the way ... tell us how your perceptions have been expanded (or not). With your permission, we’d love to share your adventure, truths and understanding with our expanding Misfit Community in future blogs.
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Written by: Beau Lotto.
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