I recently learned that “to wander” is a Taoist code word for becoming ecstatic. We’ve encountered this phenomenon in countless fairy tales and legends where the main character wanders off from home, usually into a forest, and discovers a world of beasts, goblins, supernatural people, and magic. The stories usually don’t use the word “ecstatic,” but as we wander wide-eyed with the main characters through the marvelous adventures that befall them, we can imagine and even share their sense of wonder. They are in some other reality that transcends the ordinary world of home and family. For them, as for us, to wander is to wonder, and wonders—as well as the wonderful—are at the core of ecstasy.
Ecstasy literally means “to stand outside of.” Wandering means to move about without a fixed goal, to ramble, to proceed idly, to meander, to pursue a winding course. It can also imply that one goes astray. And to be astray, I think, implies that there is some norm or normal place where we ought to be. We often think that ecstatic states must involve intense swooning or rapture, often indicating a loss of control and reason. They can be. But aren’t there gentler forms of ecstasy which we can encounter daily by simply wandering—that is, letting ourselves wander—from the normal and beaten path?
Like shamans who journey into an ecstatic realm where time and place are no longer in their control (although shamans can remain in control of themselves) or like the “lost” children wandering though the mythic forest in fairy tales, there are moments in our days in which we are led astray, if not physically then maybe imaginatively, when our thoughts and feelings fall into a reverie or time-space warp where anything can happen. Allowing one’s thoughts to wander is not always a bad thing, although it can be dangerous. Driving fast on an interstate highway in a state of ecstasy doesn’t seem advisable, but taking a break from work to let the mind wander can be restorative. It balances the mundane events of the day with wonder. And sometimes the wonder leads to the wonderful.
We can wander into ecstasy simply by slowing down. Maybe we don’t have to move physically or imaginatively into some other place, but just stay where we are, following the same path, but at a different, slower, more relaxed pace. The accelerated speed at which we live becomes a norm, a routine, a rut that prevents ecstasy. I’ve often thought that one of the reasons we dream at night (dreams being an ecstatic realm of sorts) is because we stop running around like we have all day and just rest, just be. We silence the noise, stop the never-ending activities, and allow our soul-awareness to wander off into a state of consciousness that stands apart from the daytime consciousness we think we need to live in the world. I don’t imagine we could go through the day in slow motion like a scene in a movie, but any reduced pace will change our perspective, moving our awareness toward the ecstatic.
The other day I combined two forms of ecstasy on a hike through one of my favorite wooded areas. I wandered and I fox-walked. Fox-walking is a term for stalking in which you move extremely slow—I repeat extremely slow. You put your foot down on its outer edge and roll it over onto the ball of your foot, then lower your heal. You cannot walk fast doing this. This is more extreme than slow-motion scenes in movies. It will take perhaps five times as long to go wherever you are going compared to your usual pace. But it is truly ecstatic. You are hardly moving so you feel like just another thing in the forest. Birds don’t see you coming and fly away. Chipmunks don’t bat an eye. And you notice everything. You see everything partly because you are spending so much time at each step you take, but also because you don’t have to look down at the ground. When you fox-walk, your foot feels the roots or rocks or dips in the earth, and you adjust your step accordingly. Fox-walking frees you up to keep your attention on the 180-degree scene in front of you. You can spend a lot of time looking at whatever you see.
The problem with everyday living is that we don’t take the time to look at what we see. Or maybe we look but we don’t watch. Watching, like wandering, takes time. It requires the wide-eyed wonder of a lost child. It requires the eye of the mind to wander. Imagine the ecstasy we could encounter everyday by taking time to wander off wide-eyed simply to watch.
I’m reminded that the warning “Watch out!” means something is going to happen.