Wayfinding as a Reflective Practice to Find our Purpose #19 #cong22


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By Barre Fitzpatrick

Wayfinding consists of walking, storytelling and finding purpose.

When I began walking with my clients about 10 years ago, it was to escape from the office. I could see the benefits of taking the conversation outdoors, getting away from eye-balling each other across a desk to the wide-open spaces available to us. The environment became an important aspect of the experience. Why hadn’t I thought of doing this before?

Prof Shane O’Meara of TCD says that the power of this comes from our evolution. We spent 50,000 years as hunter-gatherers, and only 10 years looking at computer screens. This means that we are deeply formed by walking together in bands of hunters, paying close attention to our surroundings, and communicating with each other as we naturally synchronise our pace and breath.

That synchronisation is the sweet spot, and it is a natural occurrence.

Covid reinforced this. It became obvious that this is a healthy and beneficial practice. In a 2021 survey for the Claire Byrne Show on RTE, the number one favourite for younger people during Covid was to walk with a friend to reflect on their lives.

One of the things we love to do as a species is to tell stories. Where better to do that than walking outdoors? And the most interesting story is the one we tell of our own life, how we navigate through it, trying to make sense of it all.

The first stories were probably connected to foraging. The tribe would spend daylight hours gathering food such as berries and nuts, and bring it back to the cave. Ursula le Guin, the writer, talks about the Collection Bag Theory of Literature. It’s not hero-stories of killing a woolly mammoth that started it all, after all meat was an irregular treat. Their diet was mostly based on local foraging, and when you gather berries etc. you need a bag to collect them in. So the stories told around the firesides grew out of what had happened during the day, out of what was in the bag. A story is a bag of sorts.

Sometimes the walk is prompted by a decision with a deadline. An American philosopher, L. A. Ladd, says something interesting about how we make decisions. She points out that we think we do this by listing the pros and cons, and coming to a balanced conclusion. That’s how we might choose between chocolate and strawberry flavoured ice-cream, she says, but not the big decisions life faces us with. Like having a child, leaving the country, joining a religion or the military. The defining thing about all these is that, while we might ask others who have done it for their experience, it won’t tell us the really important thing which is: how this will feel for us. So we lack vital information to help us decide the really big ones. Major life decisions are more like revelations, she says. We throw ourselves into the unknown, hoping for the best.

Maybe purpose is like that, a revelation.

Wayfinding is 2 words, ‘way’ or path, and ‘find’ or discover, come upon. The opposite of a way is a cul de sac, a roadblock. My daughter recently called this ‘the bottom of the bucket’: we have all been there, and it is a humbling experience. And the opposite of finding is being lost. Seneca describes a state of distractedness, of mental agitation, where we change our opinion from moment to moment, and are turned towards the future, towards novelty, preventing us from providing a fixed point for ourselves. So wayfinding means finding that fixed point for ourselves, that sense of purpose. And it can be a revelation.

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