By Celia Coates
With extra time to spend before boarding a flight, I was standing by the display of books meant for business travellers. Not my usual reading material. But I was glad I’d looked through one of the books that I saw as I turned the rack – ON MENTAL TOUGHNESS – that contained a selection of articles from the Harvard Business Review. Its very practical view of the psychology of resilience was refreshing, so I bought a copy.
In the article called “Cognitive Fitness” * I later read this,
“The walkabout is named after an Australian rite of passage in which aboriginal adolescents undertake a prolonged and challenging physical journey, sometimes for several months, in search of psychological and spiritual self-definition and maturity. The timing is just right, since it is during adolescence that the brain establishes and integrates the neural networks in the prefrontal cortex that encode a sense of self-identity, as well as moral and social conduct. … The walkabout is not, of course, the only rite of passage ritual; it’s quite remarkable how many similar rituals occur in different cultures at precisely the same stage in people’s lives. There is a generally accepted understanding that adolescents need such ‘peak’ experiences to consolidate their personal histories and their physical development into a viable, more advanced identity.”
The Aboriginal walkabout is meant for boys on the brink of manhood and I am a woman leaving middle age who long ago encoded the sense of self-identity mentioned by authors Gilkey and Kilts. Besides that, I live in a culture that has few rituals or rites of passage for the changes in our lives, and we certainly lack any for the transition from being a working adult to being a retired one. Should we throw a party, deliver a parting handshake, just carry a cardboard box of desk stuff to our car? We no longer receive gold watches – although I enjoy the symbolism of handing someone a valuable way to measure time. We are usually expected to just say goodbye and slide away into a pleasant, out-of-the-way place.
I had paused at the airport bookrack while I was on the way to some vacation days that did mark the end of my many years of working as a psychotherapist. But what’s next? I want more than rest and recreation and I’m not interested in just sliding away, so I found the concept of walkabout intriguing. Being on the edge of old age is not so very different from being on the brink of adulthood. Our bodies, our minds, and our lives change a great deal with both transitions, and in the Western world, there’s not much of an idea about how to make the most of this time.
But we need to be careful when we learn from other cultures. The Dalai Lama has said more than once that it is important in spiritual endeavors not to just take – not to simply extract and apply a practice that belongs to a different worldview. He has advised that we learn from the wisdom of other peoples and borrow (with respect) what can be used in our own societies and belief systems. I’d like to translate the central purpose of the Aboriginal walkabout – to seek direct experience, to stretch the self, and to discover and learn new skills – into something useful in my world.
A walkabout is not a pilgrimage – it really has a different goal. I don’t live near the Australian Outback, so I’ll journey in another kind of wilderness to explore the landscape of aging and to develop a kind of mastery for the next stage of life. For me this is a more spiritual than psychological challenge.
The authors also mentioned that adolescents need peak experiences – a term created by Abraham Maslow, PhD (1908-1970) to describe his discovery that ordinary people, leading ordinary lives experienced non-physical reality and higher states of consciousness.
Peak experiences divide into two basic types,
* Naturally occurring states of wonder, awe, joy, harmony, and intense happiness
* States that also include what mystics find about ultimate truth and the unity of all things
These ecstatic and transcendent states do not have to do with religion and occur naturally, spontaneously, in the course of daily life. They are accessible to everyone. We can be open to and welcome experiences of heightened awareness, but we cannot schedule or plan them.
At the center of WINN – what is needed now – is my belief that we need to know that we are more than our physical selves and that what’s real includes many dimensions. Going on walkabout is not just a novel senior tour or a time for rest and reflection, it’s a chance to explore other levels of being. I’ll report back from time to time about what I find and what I learn from others.
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* The quote comes from: ON MENTAL TOUGHNESS (One of HBR’s 10 MUST Reads) “Cognitive Fitness,” by Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts, Page 41, Harvard Business Review Press, 2018.