Ten years ago, I got lost in a remote city in China. I didn’t have a mobile phone and couldn’t find anyone who understood English. To make it worse, there were none of the clues — parking meters, office buildings, chain stores — that I normally relied on to navigate a strange town. Although my heart was pounding and my knees shaking, I kept walking. Hyper-alert to every sense, I heard ballroom music coming from an alleyway, was knocked out by cooking smells and noticed hidden colonial-style squares.
Eventually I reached a hotel and, from there, traced my way back to my friends. I was only lost for about two hours but I felt I hadn’t been walking on solid ground. On one corner, I found myself clinging to a lamp-post, not wanting to take another step. Ever since childhood, I’d had a fear of getting lost, but the next day I woke longing for another adventure. Now, I saw how my fear had held me back from exploring and engaging with new places.
In everyday life, we all rely on sat-nav, internet directions, guidebooks and even maps on our phones. Even in our personal lives, we try to map out where we are going with goals and long-term plans. We want to get there — wherever ‘there’ is — quickly. ‘I think our relationship with time has changed how we feel about getting lost,’ says Tristan Gooley, founder of the Natural Navigation School. ‘Now we’re so often running a schedule or are late for something that we’re not going to take chances.’
Gooley finds that his courses, teaching ancient methods of navigation using the stars, weather, trees and landscape, have attracted a rich mix of people. It’s not uncommon, he says, to find an artist learning next to a professional soldier, an IT specialist pairing up with a midwife. ‘We all have skills we take for granted.’ But the reality is that most of us never put ourselves in a position where our everyday trappings are taken away, and we find out just what we’re capable of.
Away from normality
We discover other things when we allow ourselves to go in another direction, rather than via the fastest, straightest route. Patricia Debney is author of Losing You. Using ideas from the French Situationist Guy Debord, who devised the notion of psychogeography in the 1950s, Debney takes groups of university students on walks round Canterbury in which they follow an algorithmic pattern agreed in advance (for example first left turn, second right, first left).
Although they have no set destination in mind, following a set pattern takes the walkers away from their normal routes and allows them to experience the different characteristics of city districts. ‘Just to be in a space without purpose initially creates a feeling close to anxiety,’ says Debney. ‘It throws me back to the real heart of how we engage with things, which is that we are alone in the world. But then I am surprised. Every time, I notice new things that help me connect with where I live, and who I am.’
Although getting lost can create powerful and positive experiences, they are often overwhelmed by feelings of panic or isolation. For getting lost can be an emotional act, not just a physical one. There are many causes of feeling lost, including spiritual conflicts, illness and disability, generational differences, economic difficulties or relational conflict.
When I went through a tough time three years ago, I remembered how tightly I had clung on to that lamp-post in China. I felt, like then, that I needed a solid object to hold on to as I struggled with the unfamiliar. But when I eventually reached safety, I was again strangely grateful for the experience.
This isn’t unusual, according to Dr Eolene Boyd-MacMillan of the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. The very admission that we don’t know where we are or where we are going might be unnerving, but it’s often a necessary step to changing what isn’t working in our lives. ‘Being aware of being lost strips back layers of self-sufficiency and self-delusion so that we have the opportunity to be honest with ourselves and others,’ she says.
The temptation when we are lost, either emotionally or geographically, is to try and retrace our footsteps, to look for familiar signposts, or just to give up and wait for someone to find us. But Bill Plotkin, psychologist, wilderness guide and author of Soulcraft, believes that there are times when getting lost can encourage us to try new directions. ‘Imagine yourself lost in your career or marriage,’ he says. ‘You have goals, a place you want to be, but you don’t know how to reach it. Begin to trust that place of not knowing. Surrender to it.’
If we can do this, he says, we open up new possibilities for fulfilment. One of my friends once referred to an acquaintance as taking ‘the scenic route through life’.
It’s a description that has stuck with me. Plotkin believes in what he calls the ‘art’ of being lost. To get the most from it, he says we need to learn four necessary components. First, we must, in fact, be lost, and second, we must know we are lost and accept it. Third, Plotkin says, we need adequate survival knowledge, skills and physical or spiritual tools. We should certainly never take stupid risks. The fourth, and most important, component is practising non-attachment to any particular result of being lost, such as being found by a certain time, or at all. It is only by accepting what it’s like to be lost that we can experience the freedom that comes with it.
It’s reassuring to learn that when he gets lost, Plotkin’s first response is fear just like the rest of us. ‘But when I’ve finished panicking, I notice my body actually likes being lost,’ he says. ‘Not the mind, but the body. I can’t help but notice an enjoyment arising through being so present. Here. Now. Thought slows down and becomes crystalline. I hear a voice say, “Let’s enjoy being here before we get in too much of a hurry to be somewhere else. If we can make a life here, after all, we can make a life anywhere.”’