Practise getting lost: Surrendering to the unknown.

By Sonja Blignaut

“ be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender…” - Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

During our fifth Community Connecting Conversation of 2023, we explored the gifts of getting lost and finding our way through the unknown. 

Recently, many are saying that we are facing a meta-crisis.  Meta-crisis, in short, is our inability to make sense of the many interwoven and potentially existential challenges we face as a species and who we are now in this “time between worlds”.  I resonate with this, as I (and many of my friends and clients) are experiencing a profound sense of having lost our bearings … of no longer being able to locate ourselves or familiar paths and signposts.  This can create a lot of anxiety, but if we can surrender to it, there are profound gifts in the “lostness”.

Getting lost allows us to learn to manage our nervous system responses IN the discomfort of the unknown, and to hone our wayfinding skills. Both of these are critical skills in today’s world where, more often than not, we have no well-worn paths or maps to follow not only in our physical or business landscapes but also in our inner worlds.  Sometimes, we need to get lost to find ourselves.  

While we may recognise the value of the practice of getting lost, often, our preference for comfort and convenience gets in the way. Nowadays, we seldom allow ourselves to get lost, instead relying on "certainty merchants" like GPS, recommendation engines and the like.  

Beyond discomfort, many of us experience extreme anxiety when we are truly lost. It can trigger primal fears from times when being alone and lost potentially meant certain death. In From Here to There, Michael Bond writes, “Lost is a cognitive state: your internal map has become detached from the external world, and nothing in your spatial memory matches what you see. But at its core, it is an emotional state. It delivers a psychic double whammy: not only are you stricken with fear, but you also lose your ability to reason.”

“90% of people make things a lot worse for themselves when they realize they are lost. Because they are afraid, they can’t solve problems or figure out what to do. They fail to notice or remember landmarks.  They lose track of how far they’ve travelled[…]”  Stress and anxiety affect the cognitive functions we need for wayfinding:   we ‘see the trees rather than the forest’. It is how most of us behave when we’re highly anxious: the big picture eludes us as our cognitive map disintegrates. A common problem faced by air ambulance crews is the inability of those making the emergency call to identify where they are or describe their location; no one gets smarter under stress.”

Mostly today, when we feel lost, we are not truly in an existential crisis, but our bodies don't know this. The same stress hormones that create the extreme responses Bond describes above happen to us when we feel lost and adrift at work. And the same confusion and inability to think straight can seriously undermine our decision-making. This is why developing a practice where we can literally build our wayfinding muscles is critical, not only for us, but also for our children.

In her wonderful book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes: 

“The word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…I worry now that people never disband their armies or go beyond what they know.

Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant busyness, and the design of public and private life conspire to make it so. A recent article about the return of wildlife to suburbia described snow-covered yards in which the footprints of animals are abundant, and those of children are entirely absent. Children seldom roam, even in the safest places… I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.” 

Developing a practice of getting lost.

A person is traveling in a new city.
Image Louis Hansel, Unsplash

Despite all of the discomfort, we have all experienced the inspiration and unforgettable experiences that come from surprise encounters or discoveries off the beaten track. The best way to really experience a new place, like a city we haven’t visited before, is to get lost and wander for a while.  And the best way to a novel idea is to allow ourselves to get lost in thought, to allow our minds to wander.

When we allow ourselves to get lost, drift through a landscape, and open to the unexpected, we reconnect with uncertainty and go beyond our certainty merchants. This provides a space for our intuition to come online, for dots to connect, and for new perspectives to emerge.  This is true in life but also business … innovation more often flows from serendipity than design. 

“Maybe wayfinding is an activity that confronts us with the marvellous fact of being in the world, requiring us to look up and take notice …calling us to renew our species’ love affair with freedom, exploration, and place.”   - M.R. O’Connor

There is no recipe for developing a "getting lost practice"; it will differ for each of us, but we believe it starts with being and practising COOL, so here are a few COOL Wayfinding waypoints we explored.

  • Courage …  go beyond the familiar and “disband your army”.  Practice negative capability (“To rest in doubt, being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."  ~John Keats ~
  • Openness … draw on multiple forms of knowledge, including intuition.  Be open to letting go and unlearning old “selves” and certainties.  
  • Observing … Pay attention to signs and patterns. Discover new waypoints.  Notice your triggers and emotional responses without judgment, and learn to calm your nervous system responses in the unknown.
  • Lightness … Hold your own assumptions and strong opinions lightly: recalibrate & make adjustments often … don’t be afraid to admit and make course corrections. Don’t forget to notice the beauty along the way.

We ended the session with this wonderful poem by David Wagoner.  We invited attendees to read silently and reflect on it for a while.  We extend that same invitation to you.

Stand still. 

The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost. 

Wherever you are is called Here,
and you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
you are surely lost. 

Stand still. The forest knows where you are. 

You must let it find you.

(Lost, by David Wagoner )

Copyright © ComplexityFit 2022