“Not all who wander are lost.” This phrase adorns many a coffee mug, pillow, and social media meme, a badge of honor for those of us who identify as spiritual, as seekers, as “wanderers.” We may not fit into the normal constraints of society, hop between jobs, dress in unconventional ways, or spend lots of time (and usually money, too) “working on” or “finding” ourselves. Woo-woo connotations aside, the slogan above suggests that the wanderer’s life
may not as random and unproductive as it seems; we may have strayed from the straight and narrow path toward success/degrees/fame, but we’re going somewhere else with purpose and meaning.
Defending one’s position as a wanderer has not been easy for the last several decades. The prevailing leaders of neoliberal and capitalist systems have been preaching that business is the one true savior of our troubled and complex world. In turn, workers of all sorts—the traditional nine-to-fivers, and the entrepreneurial start-up founders, gig workers, and independent contractors alike—are spending more time turning their passions and values into products. Whether you spend your time in a cubicle or in a coffee shop, you’re likely listening to a “chill vibes” Spotify playlist with a refrain of hustle, hustle, hustle, harmonizing with the spurts and sputters of espresso machines and clacking of keyboards.
For the true wander, it may have been a challenge to toe the line between upholding one’s commitment to creativity, intuition, and flow and participating in mainstream society. So we made our Etsy shops and Instagram pages, hoping and praying that our voice would reach at least a handful of the right people amidst the noise of this huge virtual popularity contest. All this changed drastically, though, once 2020 turned the world upside down—for everyone. The lines between work and life completely collapsed, and even those inclined toward productivity and structure have had to embrace a more porous, meandering quality to their days.
The rise in major companies offering work-from-home options and, more extreme, the rise in people quitting their jobs entirely reflects a shift in the collective desire to wander a little more, and be told where to be and what to do for eight to ten hours a day a little less. Indeed, since outside was one of the few relatively safe places to spend time during the pandemic, the amount of time people spent in nature, including growing their own food, increased overall; those who spent more time outdoors during COVID even reported higher levels of well-being.
We Are All Wanderers
None of this should be surprising if we consider some biological and evolutionary facts about us humans. While our society has placed a high value on our mental activity and output, the human brain is not particularly good at focusing on a single task for long periods of time. Couple that with the body position that most of us assume while trying to be “productive”—sitting, likely staring at a digital screen, alone—and we have a recipe for exactly the opposite conditions that we need to think clearly, and feel well in the totality of our interconnected body-mind.
Science journalist Annie Murphy Paul explains the underappreciated intelligence of the body (that is, outside the brain) in her book The Extended Mind, which is where we might focus our attention when it comes to dealing with the question of whether we should encourage or put up barriers to wandering in a post-COVID society.
Paul explained in an interview, “In our world where we are so brain bound, so focused on the cerebral and the things that go on in our head, we tend to push the body aside, to quash those feelings”—our physical needs for food, rest, and movement, as well as information we get through our senses and experiences as gut feelings or intuition—“to override them, even, in the service of getting our mental work done, when really we should be cultivating that ability, becoming more attuned and more sensitive to it, because it has all this accumulated experience and information to share with us.”
Our ability to attune to our body’s needs is known as interoception, a skill that we often focus on in mindfulness-based yoga classes as well as holistic lifestyles like Ayurveda. Many people who experience physical, emotional, and spiritual imbalances—from indigestion to chronic pain to anxiety—have lost their ability to sense signals from their bodies in a nonjudgmental way.
This breakdown in communication often results from a life lived in front of a computer, executing the daily grind of work-home-kids-bed with machine-precision—even though neither brain nor body functions like a machine. Lacking exposure to nature, to meaningful connections and collaborations with other people, and the time and space to satisfy natural urges like hunger and elimination, we pump ourselves with stimulants in order to keep up with our own increasing standards of productivity, suffering all the while.
No wonder working from home—where we can take a bathroom break whenever we want or go for a walk between meetings—is so appealing. As Paul explains, time in nature, where “we’re not focusing very intently on anything but we’re just kind of allowing the gentle movements and the sort of soft contours of the things that we see outside just entertain our attention but in this very diffuse way . . . restores our attention. It kind of refills the tank in a sense. And so then we can return to our desk and we can return to that hard edged kind of concentration that we have to do to complete our studies or do our work.” Psychologists call that wandering attention “soft fascination,” which highlights our instinctive attraction toward the more organic, dynamic, and unpredictable qualities of the natural world—including our own bodies.
In this sense, a less fixed, more wandering lifestyle isn’t actually as counterculture as we have made it out to be. It’s our nature—all of our natures—to be embodied.
The word “embodied” carries a lot of baggage in the wellness culture, but I use it here in a more literal way. It sounds silly, but most of us need to simply remember we have bodies, and treat them as integral partners to our ability to anything—whether it’s basic physical processes or world-saving innovations. Yoga and Ayurveda offer a wealth of tools for just this purpose, with the intention of fostering qualities of groundedness, heaviness, stability, rhythm, and cohesion within ourselves and in our environment.
It may seem counterintuitive to couple grounding practices with wandering, but the two opposites provide a necessary balance that creates the conditions for “soft fascination.” The more opportunities we have to restore our minds, and offload our attention from our brain into our bodies through movement and interactions with other beings (people, animals, or even plants), the better our brains will work—leaving us more time, in the end, to engage in whatever kind of wandering we like. And an efficient balance between work and wandering is perhaps the best form of productivity for our long-term health and happiness.
These rituals offer opportunities to return to an embodied anchor morning, afternoon, and night. Start with just one, and notice how dropping that weight into the flow of your day sends ripples of stability into your whole life. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of wandering, paying a little attention to your body daily will keep you from feeling lost as the future unfolds in all its glorious, natural unpredictability.
Morning Rituals to Help Land on the Earth
Ayurveda describes a rhythm to the energy of the day according to the three doshas, vata, pitta, and kapha, which roughly corresponds with the circadian rhythm of Western science. In both systems, the vata dosha—comprising air and space elements, and accordingly light, subtle, and mobile in qualities—is prevalent in early morning and late afternoon (2-6 AM/PM). The early morning period, called brahma mahurta, is even revered in Ayurvedic and yogic philosophy as an auspicious time of day. In this quiet, ethereal, and very subtle space, the boundaries between dream and waking are more porous, and it’s easiest to connect to the spirit world, set intentions for the day, and receive insights about questions or desires that are playing on your mind or heart.
When enjoying the brahma mahurta, a wanderer might feel overwhelmed and easily swept away into a torrent of thoughts or emotions. It’s also all too tempting to fill early morning hours with coffee, emails, and distressing news reports that throw your body into activation mode too quickly. In either scenario, choosing an anchor for your morning can help ease you into embodiment and soft fascination, such that you receive information from your whole body that will help you make productive decisions all day long.
Anchor the liminal space of your morning meditation with a physical anchor like the breath to bring balance to this centering ritual. Start by finding a comfortable position, seated with support or lying down. You might place your hands on your low belly, below the navel, or drape a blanket over your lap or abdomen for that tangible feedback. Notice how your belly swells with your inhale and pulls back in with your exhale—the response to the movement of your diaphragm. You may keep your attention on the movement of the breath for as long as it’s useful, but try to keep at least 20 percent of your attention on your body the whole time.
Morning Pages or Journaling
Whether it’s from dreams or meditation, we can often greet the morning with a head full of interesting visions, thoughts, or memories that appear in a semi-conscious state. Having a notebook by your bed can help you keep track of these stories before they slip out of your mind and get replaced by to-do lists and emails. A more formal way to practice this is an exercise called “morning pages,” a form of free writing that fosters creativity in work and life. Either way, set aside 10 to 15 minutes to freewrite in a journal every morning. This physical activity will anchor your thoughts and may even reveal patterns over time that can inform your routines in the day.
Nothing creates the feeling of grounding like literal earth—stones, rocks, and other mineral elements from nature. Some people connect to gemstones and crystals, which can enrich a meditation if held in your hand, placed on your body, or just set throughout your space. You might also gather a personal collection of stones that catch your eye on your wanderings in nature. I pick up heart-shaped stones wherever I find them—beaches, forests, suburban yards—and place them in special jars and bowls around my home. They’re a comforting visual and tactile reminder of the earth element for moments when I can’t get outside.
Interlude: Regular Mealtime(s)
Mindful eating is an essential part of any embodiment practice. While many of us have been conditioned to think of food as fuel, treating a meal like a sacred ritual, where you pause and attend to the shapes, colors, textures, and smells of your food, can improve the digestibility of your food, meaning more nutrients get into your body—including your brain—so you feel and think your best. Eating all or at least one of your meals at the same time can also support a more predictable hunger cycle, which is a sign of healthy digestion.
Ayurveda recommends making lunch the biggest meal of the day, which gives us the perfect opportunity to step away from work mid-day and refuel on multiple levels. Eating your meals outdoors or facing a window with a view of nature will make this connection even deeper; or, take a short 10- to 15-minute walk outside after your meal or around 2 PM (vata time) to come back to your body.
Evening Rituals to Sink into Sleep
Like eating and soft fascination, sleep is absolutely necessary for our minds to function properly during the day—and at night, when a symphony of detoxification and mental “digestion” takes place. But after a day of wandering or hyper-productivity, it can be hard to wind down and get in the zone for sleep. Our mind are rajasic (active and stressed) whenever our senses are stimulated; its opposite, tamas, is more subdued, heavy, and slow, and the state we need for sound sleep. As such, turning down the rajas and turning up the tamas will unite our bodies and minds at the end of the day, so we start the cycle again feeling fresh and excited to explore.
Foot and scalp massage
Feelings of tightness in the body can often be a symptom of the nervous system in fight-or-flight mode. Massage is one of the best ways to drop into its antidote, the relaxation response, and release the stress we hold in our bodies. Touch and the skin are both directly related to the vata dosha, too, making massage an essential self-care practice for wandering types who need a reminder of their physical boundaries. At the end of a long day, give some love to your head and feet to draw out mental tension from both ends of the body. When massaging the head, pretend you’re washing your hair with shampoo; for the feet, massage lengthwise along the arches and in circles on the heel, then interlace your fingers between your toes and make small rotations. Use moderate pressure to encourage stimulation and circulation.
The body naturally cools down in a state of relaxation, so what you wear to bed will have an impact on your ability to drop into sleep with ease. Keeping your room cool with air circulation will facilitate falling asleep by aligning with your natural drop in temperature, but you don’t want to be so cold your body is staying “awake” to keep warm. While weighted blankets offer a more direct sensation of grounding for the nervous system, a few layers of soft, thin blankets might be a better option for some.
Breathable fabrics like cotton and muslin will prevent the feeling of suffocating or immobility that those heavy blankets might produce; they’ll also allow you to adjust your warmth throughout the night. Loose, breathable pajamas will also have a similar effect in supporting sleep. Both types of “bed clothes” provide a gentle swaddling of the body while feeding the sense of touch that soothes an anxious, vata-riddled mind before bed.
Spiced milk tonic
Grandma’s remedy of drinking warm milk if you can’t sleep has Ayurvedic roots! Milk—of any kind, dairy or plant-based—is one of the best grounding, deeply nourishing foods available to us. To make milk easier to digest, simply dilute it with roughly 3 parts milk: 1 part water, add a pinch of digestive spices (nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, turmeric, or cinnamon work well), and heat it until it comes to a low boil for about 90 seconds. You can make this a more nourishing nightly ritual by adding one or two soaked Medjool dates and blitzing the spiced milk with an immersion blender before serving. It’s a great alternative to other snacks we might crave after dinner.
The first draft of this post had somewhat of a different angle toward wandering as a lifestyle/personality type. I got through part of the intro and half of the practices, but found myself frustrated by a feeling that something wasn’t totally aligned in my argument.
So I turned off the computer and took my daily walk a little early. Lo and behold, by the time I got home I’d figured out the reframe—without spending an ounce of energy trying to figure it out. The movement of my body, the attention to the pretty houses of my neighborhood and their blooming summer gardens, and the people-watching all helped my brain ease out the knot I’d tightened by focusing too hard for too long.
This kind of thing has happened to me more than once, and probably has for you, too. While it can feel unnerving at first to let go of the mind’s grip on your world (and work) and hand over the reins to the body, remember all of the things it does for you without your conscious involvement. If we can trust our bodies to take care of processes as essential as breathing, circulation, and digestion, why wouldn’t we trust it to guide our imaginations, dreams, and ideas? What if, instead of fearing getting lost without our calendars and devices routing the trip of our lives, we trusted ourselves to know where we are in the home of our bodies?