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The Art Of Being Lost


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
The Art of Being Lost
by Bill Plotkin

From Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche

What does it mean, exactly, to be "lost"? Perhaps this: we don't know how to get from where we are to where we want to be. It's not the same as being stranded (when we do know how to get where we want to go) or abandoned. Being lost is not a simple problem of immobility or imprisonment. Neither is it the same as not knowing where we are. I may find myself in an unfamiliar room in a city with no idea whose home or office it is, but if I recognize landmarks out the window or am in the company of a trusted guide, I'm not lost; I know how to get from where I am to where I want to go. Or, conversely, I may know where I am physically but be lost because I have no idea what I want to do next in my life or where I want to go.

We can also be lost intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. It's not unusual to feel lost in the middle of our lives while sitting in our own living room, and it's possible to remain lost for months, years, or permanently. Lost souls.

We might even be lost without knowing it. That's how the seventeenth-century Spanish missionaries thought of the indigenous people they encountered in the southwest corner of what is now known as Colorado. The missionaries named the river that runs through that country the River of Souls Lost in Purgatory (El Río de las Ánimas Perdidas en Purgatorio), believing the natives were necessarily lost because they were living without the benefits of the missionaries' religion. Who do you suppose was really lost without knowing it, the missionaries or the indigenous people? Like the missionaries, it is possible to be looking for a kind of paradise without knowing you are already there. That is one way to be lost.

But being lost is not at all a bad thing -- if you know you're lost and you know how to benefit from it spiritually. Most of us consider being lost a bummer, highly undesirable or even terrifying. We all have important things to do, there's not enough time in the day as it is, thank you, and getting lost is a major fly in the ointment of success, a monkey wrench in the gearbox of progress. In the Western world, where "progress is our most important product," we are encouraged from our earliest years to know exactly where we are at all times and precisely where we are going. Yes, such knowledge is often desirable if not necessary, but not knowing is of equal benefit.

When wandering, there is immense value in "finding ourselves lost" because we can find something when we are lost, we can find our selves. Indeed, the deepest form of wandering requires that we be lost.

Imagine yourself lost in your career or marriage, or in the middle of your life. You have goals, a place you want to be, but you don't know how to reach that place. Maybe you don't know exactly what you want, you just have a vague desire for a better place. Although it may not seem like it, you are on the threshold of a great opportunity. Begin to trust that place of not knowing. Surrender to it. You're lost. There will be grief. A cherished outcome appears to be unobtainable or undefinable. In order to make the shift from being lost to being present, admit to yourself that your goal may never be reached. Though perhaps difficult, doing so will create entirely new possibilities for fulfillment.

Surrendering fully to being lost -- and this is where the art comes in -- you will discover that, in addition to not knowing how to get where you had wanted to go, you are no longer so sure of the ultimate rightness of that goal. By trusting your unknowing, your old standards of progress dissolve and you become eligible to be chosen by new, larger standards, those that come not from your mind or old story or other people, but from the depths of your soul. You become attentive to an utterly new guidance system.

The art of being lost is not a matter of merely getting lost, but rather being lost and enthusiastically surrendering to the unlimited potential of it. In fact, using it to your advantage. The shift from being lost to being found (in a new, unpredictable way) is a gradual and indirect one. The way to encourage that shift is to first accept that you don't know how to get to the place you want to be and then opening fully to the place you are until the old goals fall away and you discover more soulful goals emerging. Then you are no longer lost, but you have benefited immensely from having been so. This kind of being lost and then found is one form of ego death and rebirth, one form of entering the tomb-womb of the cocoon.

Being lost and then found in this way ushers you more fully into the now. We are often so busy trying to get into an imagined future that we've lost the present moment. We've lost the self -- the soul -- that lives and breathes only in the here and now.

Consider for example being lost in the woods, something few people can imagine enjoying. All of a sudden, the world has shrunk; here you are, sitting beside a stream in a forest. You don't know which way is home. You call out. No one answers; or, only the stream, the wind, and the ravens answer. Maybe you panic, maybe you don't. It sinks in that you are really lost. Gradually, you become aware that everything you can count on now is right here, more or less within reach, and there's no guarantee there will ever again be anything else. You could have spent your entire life on a meditation cushion to get to this radical place of present-centeredness, and now you are here courtesy of dislocation! Like a shipwrecked sailor on a tropical island, this is your world. What will you do with it? You've lost nearly everything you thought was important; the old goals are irrelevant, and yet, here you are. Now what?

This is precisely where you must eventually arrive, psycho-spiritually, for the purpose of soul initiation: you must be willing to release your previous agendas and embrace the soul's passion as you find it here and now.

By arriving more fully in the present, through being lost and accepting it, your life suddenly suffers a radical simplification. Old agendas, beliefs and desires fall away. You quiet down inside and it becomes easier to hear the voice of the soul.

This is why the Wanderer seeks to get lost.

The Wanderer learns there are four necessary components to the art of being lost. First, he must in fact be lost. Second, he must know he is lost and accept it. Third, he must have adequate survival knowledge, skills, and physical or spiritual tools. Fourth, and most important, he must practice nonattachment to any particular result of being lost, such as being found by a certain time, or at all. In other words, he must accept his condition, relax into it, and arrive fully where he is.

Whether he is physically, emotionally, soulfully, or spiritually lost, getting to know the experience of "lost" in the most intimate terms is his only true way out.

Upon entering the second cocoon, for example, we notice that the adolescent life, a life in which social and economic advancement are our primary goals, is no longer so alluring, but we do not yet have an appealing alternative. We're lost. Rather than merely changing jobs, life partners, social groups, or places of residence, we must accept that we are lost and can't extract ourselves by continuing to play by the old rules. What are the relevant survival knowledge, skills, and tools for this kind of being lost? To spiritually survive the second cocoon, you need to know about the relationship between ego, soul, and spirit. You need to know about the call to adventure, ego death, and wandering. You need the skills of self-reliance and of leaving home. You need tools in the form of pathways to soul encounter. And you need to cultivate the art of being lost. Then you must settle into the fact that, as of yet, you do not know what your soul desires for the life you've been blessed with.

Another way the Wanderer might cultivate the art of being soulfully lost is to physically get lost in wilderness. She might wander in the wilds until she is not certain how to get "out." Then she will sit and practice presence, accepting what is, because here and now are all she's got. Obviously it helps if she has previously acquired some survival skills, including ways to find water and shelter and, if she'll be there several days, food. She'll also be glad to have her physical survival tools with her -- her pocketknife and a way to make fire and shelter, for example. That's why the Wanderer studied the arts of backcountry living when acquiring the skills of self-reliance. She also studied the art of orienteering, so she knows she eventually can find her way out in good shape. She just doesn't know when that will be, and, truth be told, the lost Wanderer is not in a great hurry. Here's an opportunity to practice solitude, wandering in nature, tracking signs and omens, talking across the species boundaries, and other soulcraft arts. Here's her chance to trust the path that begins at her feet, to be fully in the moment as it unfolds. If she can do this while lost in the wilds, she's more likely to be able to do it when spiritually lost, like Dante, in the middle of her life.

When I find myself lost in the wild, fear starts in my groin and works its way up to my belly and down to my knees. My heart races. My throat wants to shout for help. My whole body begins to tremble and my head whirls. My breath grows shallow and rapid. My heart beats quicker and quirkier. But if I don't panic (or after I'm through panicking), I notice my body actually likes being lost! Not the mind, but the body. My skin begins to tingle, as if with delight. I become very awake. My senses grow sharp and clear. The sounds, colors, textures, and edges of things become distinct and radiant. I can't help but notice an enjoyment arising through being so present, so much in this body. Here. Now. Thought slows down and becomes crystalline. What will I do, I wonder. I hear a weird voice say, "Let's enjoy being here before we get in too much of a hurry to be somewhere else. If we can make a life here, after all, we can make a life anywhere."

Perchance you think you do not have the skills or interest (or time!) to get lost in wilderness and then attempt to find your self. Few people do, but few people get serious about any kind of wandering. On the other hand, I've known many people who were not the least bit interested in getting lost but had the misfortune - or fortune - of doing so anyway, and learned wondrous things from the experience (other than to never leave home again).

On a vision fast when I was a trainee, there was a woman quester who (like many people) could successfully get lost inside a large paper bag. She got lost in the dry summer mountains of the California desert. She lost her bearings in the middle of a warm blue-sky day while on her way back to her camp after a short walk. She had no camping gear or warm clothes with her. She had just visited the location near base camp where we had arranged for her to leave a stone each day as a signal to us she was all right (without having to interrupt her time of solitude). She left the stone and then became disoriented while attempting to return to her fasting circle. Later that afternoon, I checked to be sure she had left the stone.

The next day, there was no new stone. The quest guide and I hiked to her camp. Nobody there, but her sleeping bag was -- a more alarming discovery. We spent the next several hours looking and shouting. No success. We tried to track her, but the desert pavement in that land rarely registers conspicuous prints. Finally, we found her track in the dust of an old dirt road. She was headed away from both base camp and her camp. No telling how far she had gone. Plus we suspected she had already spent a night out, alone without warmth or shelter. We were about to contact the county search and rescue squad when we spotted, through binoculars, about a half mile down the road, a white bra hanging from a lone juniper. We ran down the road. We found her under the tree, out of the midday sun, quite comfortable and enjoying her day, confident we'd show up sooner or later. Despite her lack of wilderness experience, she had managed to make a warm enough bed out of juniper boughs. She was a lot more centered and calm than we were. She wasn't really lost, after all, she told us; she knew right where she was -- here, under this juniper.

The lost quester had learned much from her experience. She learned she could comfort herself in difficult circumstances. She learned she could survive a night alone in the (warm) wilds without equipment. She learned how to gather her resourcefulness and to arrive in the full presence of the moment.

Practicing the art of being lost doesn't require external wilderness. You might, for example, spend an extended period of time in a social or ethnic group with strange (to you) customs or styles, in an unfamiliar city or foreign country, with an unusual religious practice or community, or without your familiar religious or spiritual practice if you have been employing one regularly for many years -- or with people much younger or older than you. Or simply wait for a day your life no longer makes sense, or when someone or something or a role you've depended upon has suddenly disappeared. Remember to apply all four components of being lost to these other unknowns.

About the Author

Bill Plotkin, Ph.D. Bill Plotkin, PhD, has been a psychotherapist, research psychologist, rock musician, river runner, professor of psychology, and mountain-bike racer. As a research psychologist, he studied dreams and nonordinary states of consciousness achieved through meditation, biofeedback, and hypnosis. The founder and president of Animas Valley Institute, he has guided thousands of people through initiatory passages in nature since 1980. Currently an ecotherapist, depth psychologist, and wilderness guide, he leads a variety of experiential, nature-based individuation programs.



Oct 9, 2010
:fish:I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first

comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep

visiting this blog very often.



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