By Nikki Rollo, Ph.D., LMFT

I recently stumbled upon the phrase, “Not all those who wander are lost”, from J.R.R Tolkien’s poem “All that is Gold does not Glitter.” Now I have heard that phrase before, but never paid it much attention. However recently it has become somewhat of a popular quote showing up on Pinterest boards, inspirational talks, and yoga festival websites.

Woman watching the mountain landscape by the side of a lake

This word “wandering” has actually been showing up in my own life quite a bit lately as well so it seemed to be something worth becoming curious about and working to have a better understanding of as a concept. Now, I should start by stating, I am not much of a natural “wanderer.” I am more of a “get from point A to point B as quickly as possible” kind of person so this idea of “wandering” can be a little anxiety provoking. My practice of yoga and meditation has certainly taught me a lot about the benefits of slowing down, moving mindfully and seeing what shows up on the journey, but wandering? Is there really any benefit in that?

Whenever I jump to a place of incredulous questioning (such as Really? Is there any benefit?), I think it is worth taking another look and engaging in an exploration. It might actually be an important concept to explore more deeply and think specifically about how the idea of “wandering” fits into the process of recovery.

So, I’d like to invite you to dive a little deeper with me into its meaning and see what we find that might be relevant and useful to the process of recovery from an eating disorder and the deeper wounds that are so often present.

First of all, let’s acknowledge that exploring the idea of wandering in the process of recovery is a curious one. Often, and rightly so, we focus on goals and the concrete steps to reach those goals. So, the question presents itself: Does wandering even have a place in the recovery process?

Let’s start with the definition of wandering: “to walk around slowly in a relaxed way without a clear purpose.”

Well, this can be a little confusing because it both presents a challenge to the importance of goals and clear plans for treatment and recovery, but also seems to have some connection to the concepts of creativity, curiosity and wonder. For example, when we wander around a new city we may discover all kinds of hidden gems, interesting architecture, and fascinating human beings with stories of their own. When we wander around in nature, we pay more attention to the details of a leaf or the flitter of a bird overhead. In contrast, if we are only focused on getting to the end point with our eyes on our smartphones, we miss the beauty of the flower blooming in the cracks in the concrete or an opportunity to give and receive a smile from a child, or to breathe in the scent from a bakery and perhaps even stop in to taste something delicious!

Although this seems a bit complicated, I am nonetheless curious to see what lessons we can learn from “wandering” and what role it may play, not only for recovery, but also in the overall adventure of living these beautiful lives we have been given.

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Some Lessons From Wandering

  1. Faster is Not Always Better

In thinking deeply about this concept of wandering in relationship to recovery and healing, a really important question that comes up is: What about having goals?

I would answer with a resounding Yes! Of course, we need the goals. They are incredibly important and help us move in the right direction; however I think so often in life and in recovery there is the importance of learning to have the mindset of “YES, AND”, instead of the “EITHER/OR.”

The first lesson from wandering is that if we are only focused on getting to the end goal as quickly as possible, we are most likely missing some wonderful, beautiful things that will serve us well throughout life. What happens to curiosity, exploration of our internal world, and developing a deeper understanding of ourselves in the world if we are just trying to hurry up and get it over with? As an example, if we rush through therapy assignments, have we let their message really sink into our being, become an integrated part of our development of a sense of self, or are they just done to say that they are done? Slowing down makes space for curiosity, imagination, and creativity. It is here that we might find extraordinarily valuable inspiration and healing.

 

  1. The Process Has Importance

 Being totally present for the process means taking it one step at a time and being consistent with following through on each step. Being present in the experience is to practice living our lives in a way that if something doesn’t turn out exactly as expected we know we will still be okay. We won’t always know the outcome, but we can practice being as present as possible for each moment of the journey. We can actually practice getting comfortable with not knowing!

Trusting the process requires faith, patience, and mindfulness. You might be thinking, What about fear? Well, the opposite of trust is often fear and it is normal that when we are working to develop more trust in the process, in ourselves, and in others, various fears will pop up. It’s a natural human experience. If we are slowing down and paying attention to the process, we might encounter things that are uncomfortable, things we may rather avoid, things we feel fearful to face. Wandering allows you to pay attention to what calls you, what stirs deeply in your heart, and to ask the question what needs attention inside of you?

 

  1. You Don’t Have to Wander Alone

So how do you tell the difference between mindful wandering and paying attention to each moment of the process and actually being lost? There are some interesting insights from a spiritual practice called a “medicine walk” that I think can help with this distinction. Medicine walks are solo walks in nature where a person wanders about and explores an area, moves in the direction they feel called, and spends time journaling about the process and how it brings up themes that are a metaphor for life. Even though the wanderer is taking a solo trek, there is still a guide setting boundaries around the process. For example, the guide helps with preparation and equipment, they may set a theme for the walk, set clear boundaries about where the walker can and cannot go for safety, ask the walker to wear a whistle so they can call for help if needed, and set a time to return and process the experience with the guide afterwards.

To me, this sounds a lot like the role that a therapist and dietitian play in the recovery and healing journey. You might be asked to take a metaphorical wander through your inner world, but if these safety parameters are in place, you are never truly alone or lost. This is another point that will hopefully address the concerns about fear in wandering.

The feeling of being lost or overwhelmed in the process of recovery is a normal human experience. Now that might not make you feel much better, but it is important to note that there are guides that can come along the way that can take you on part of the journey, point you in the right direction, or walk alongside you in the process.

Having a guide, actually a team of guides is of incredible importance in recovery from an eating disorder.

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So, it seems there are some lessons to be learned from wandering after all and even more importantly, to remember that wandering can and should be done within the context of clear goals and a strong set of guides who allow you to wander and not get lost.

“It is quite possible to leave your home for a walk in the early morning air and return a different person – beguiled, enchanted.”― Mary Ellen Chase