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Lost in the Moment

How to awaken your sense of place

A few days ago, I had fun participating in an NPR radio show with Matt Gross, author of the Getting Lost series in the New York Times. We covered a lot of territory related to why losing oneself in new places can be a good thing. There was one idea that stuck with me, though, related to something that Matt said about the different varieties of “lost-hood.” He described the feeling of being lost in the moment, and he approached the idea by giving an atmospheric description of the feeling that you get when you become completely absorbed by your surroundings—exquisitely and pleasurably aware of every nuance of the sensory experiences of the moment. Think back to one of your most treasured travel moments. Chances are, you can remember the images, colors, sounds, smells and even how your skin felt at that moment. You might have taken the time to snap a picture of the moment, but we both know that any photograph you might have could only be a pale reflection of everything that you felt. The photo might serve as a gentle prod to memory, but it fails to convey what was happening to you at that moment in time, and looking at it might even leave you with a feeling of empty disappointment.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about this idea of being lost in the moment and I think it’s a misleading phrase. What Matt was describing was not disorientation. Rather, this kind of experience is exactly what we should strive to do more often as we move about in the world. Think about what happens to you on an average day when you simply walk from one place to another. What’s going on? You’re thinking about where you’ve just been. You’re thinking about what’s going to happen next. You’re thinking about the argument you had with a loved one a few days ago. You’re checking your phone. You’re planning your workday. Where are you? Wherever it is, it’s about as far away from your immediate surroundings as you can possibly get. Now that’s what I call lost!

From time to time, most of us struggle to find our way, and many people have asked me if I can suggest any tips or tricks that might help them to minimize these occurrences. One thing that I suggest is that they learn a lesson from traditional wayfinding cultures like the Inuit, Australian Aborigines, African Bushmen, or Puluwatese marine navigators. One of the things that all such successful human wayfinders have in common is that they really know how to get lost in the moment. What I mean by that is that such individuals have learned to practise an exquisitely well-tuned, almost meditative awareness of their surroundings. In other words, to know where you’re going, you need to have a lively awareness of where you are right now. A fringe benefit of tuning into the moment as much as possible is that not only will you have a greater awareness of your surroundings, but you will also cultivate a feeling of intimate attachment to your environment. I think it is no accident that the same cultures in which we find keenly developed orientation to place are also those in which we find reverence for the Earth and a sense of responsible stewardship rather than mere possession of the land.

It might sound like a tall order to take time out of a harried day to observe quietly and become immersed in one’s physical surroundings, but it isn’t so hard to cultivate the habit. In an ongoing experiment in urban psychogeography that I’m directing in collaboration with the BMW-Guggenheim Laboratory, a kind of traveling think-tank focused on urban issues, we lead people on short walks through the city, stopping them at intervals and asking them to observe their surroundings and to note how what is around them affects their feelings. Participants tell me that taking part in these walks has awakened them to how environment influences mood, and that they experience heightened awareness of place for days afterward. Another tactic that might work to awaken your sense of place is to try to break down old habits. Walk slowly. In fact, try to walk so slowly that you feel a little bit conspicuous. Not only will the strangeness of the pace serve to focus your mind, but you will have the time to really notice what’s happening around you. This exercise is somewhat related to the walking meditation that is a part of certain contemplative practices.

You may not have the time for such self-experimentation every day, but even a small effort will not only reward you with some refreshing new insights on how your surroundings affect you, but it might also help you to avoid becoming lost in the landscape. You may learn to love where you are even more than you do already.