In desperate need of a shower
How I use walkabouts to find clarity and cleanliness
I’m going on a walkabout.
Not to be confused with a vacation or a sabbatical, a walkabout is travel with the explicit purpose of growth. It’s about sanding down your callused hands, and cleaning the grime out from under your fingernails.
It’s a bit like a shower for your soul.
The goal is, in the act of facing difficult challenges—and ultimately facing yourself—to come back to your daily experience with fresh eyes.
Walkabouts aren’t fun, not in the traditional sense at least. There are no resorts or massages. There are no pools or bellhops. A walkabout is work, but work of a different kind.
I’ve gone on three walkabouts in my life, and now I’m preparing for my fourth. Here is a glimpse into why.
I. Get in the shower
That first step is a doozy. Whether it’s a ritual you created for yourself, or a trusted friend had to politely tap you on the shoulder to say you smell like shit, it’s time to come clean.
You’ve been fooling yourself. Do you really need this fancy house, a personal trainer, an air purifier to sleep, and $400 headphones? Time to look yourself in the mirror and ask: how much is enough?
If I keep walking this path, where does it lead? Am I becoming the man I want to be? Or am trying to be someone else, for someone else?
To get in the shower, means going from the comfortable world of clothes and cologne, to being stripped bare—nothing to hide. Nothing to smooth your lumps and bumps, no filters, no makeup.
It’s just you.
You can’t get clean if you don’t first remove all the extra crap. If you don’t take down the facade. The armor, the sword, and the shield. All the protection you need to get through the daily onslaught—in life’s arena.
To start fresh, you shed it all, and step confidently into the cold.
“If we are very relaxed our pupils change shape” says Dr. Andrew Huberman. As a professor at Stanford School of Medicine, Dr. Huberman has spent the last decade focusing on how our visual field directly effects our brain chemistry. This means he spends a lot of time studying eyes.
An interesting thing about the eye is that when we are stressed or deeply focused, the general shape of our eye changes. “When you are indoors, and you're looking at your phone, or you're looking at a computer or a camera” says Dr. Huberman, “you may not notice it but your entire visual field shrinks to a much smaller aperture.”
This means that when we’re experiencing the stress of work, and focusing on our computer screens, the physical shape our our eyes contracts. The opposite holds true when we’re relaxed. Our vision broadens, the shape of our eye becomes expansive, and we feel a sense of ease.
But here’s the really interesting part, this relationship—between eye shape and feelings of relaxation—doesn’t just go one-way.
How we’re feeling effects the shape of our eyes, but also the shape of our eyes effects how we’re feeling. “This is why when you go to a vista, or you view a horizon, it's very relaxing—you naturally go into panoramic vision”, Dr. Huberman explains. By expanding our visual field to a truly panoramic view, we force our eyes open. Our bodies then react accordingly. We’re washed over with a satisfying sense of relaxation. “The important thing to realize is that [our] vision has a profound and very rapid effect on our internal state of mind and body and it runs in both directions.”
Without knowing it, I had chosen the hardest hiking path in the Italian Dolomites. Even calling it a hike would be an understatement. I had chosen, what the Italian climbers I met called, the “Via Ferrata”, or the Iron Path.
This climbing route was so steep, that professional alpinists had graciously bolted metal hand holds throughout. Many times we’d find ourselves thousands of feet up, climbing a haphazardly placed iron ladder to a new lookout. There was no stopping, no turning around, and no looking down.
Yet, as I sat atop the dragon’s spine of this mountain range, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. High above the clouds, I sat. And sat. For over an hour, I was there contemplating the scene. Now, after learning about Dr. Huberman’s research, I think I know why.
This had been the most expansive my vision had been in years.
II. The Rinse
Peel away from daily distractions and troubles simmering on your mental back burner. Turn off your trivial worries, and mount up squarely in a land of necessity. Your only worries: food, water, shelter. Beyond that, your canvas is empty.
With this newfound emptiness, boredom, and unstructure—your mind will spring into action. It will feed you ideas, finding relationships and alternatives you’ve never once considered.
By rinsing yourself clean, you are tilling stale soil. Washing away weeds and overgrowth from last season, and preparing for a new start.
Rinsing yourself doesn’t mean that dirt will never come back, it simply means that for today, for this moment, you have a fresh start. The insults, the dirt, the residue of the past are gone. You can begin again.
While a shower refreshes your day to day stench, a walkabout gives you the opportunity to cleanse yourself for years.
“It wasn’t until the 1920s when radio was broadcast to the masses that there was a full-time, easy escape from boredom”, writes Micheal Easter, author of The Comfort Crisis. But our quest to solve boredom didn’t end with the radio. “Then came Big TV in the 50s. Finally, on June 29, 2007 boredom was pronounced dead, thanks to the iPhone.”
Time spent passively consuming information has been creeping up ever since.
While there used to be a clear delineation between our digital experience and our physical experience, that line has all but faded into memory. Now the two have become so deeply intertwined that “the average American today spends more than 11 hours engaged with digital media”, says Easter. How could that be? How are we only present—in the physical world—for 29% of the day?
Sounds like we’re afraid to be bored.
My camera had 1% battery left. I snapped this picture, and then, lights out.
Despite my lack of photographic proof thereafter, the memory of this place remains stronger than any other. I can still close my eyes and hear the gentle crunch of cherry-pit sized pebbles under my feet. The wind brushing three-foot tall blades of wheat. The warmth of the sun, breaking through the clouds one last time, before setting that evening.
The reason Sicily has never become as popular as mainland Italy is the complete lack of infrastructure. Internet and cell service is hard to find. Maybe that’s why this island keeps calling me back.
This place taught me that you don’t burst into flames when waiting two hours for a meal to arrive. That you can still have a great night sleep on a hard, rickety, Italian spring mattress. That long pauses are a welcome addition to any conversation. And that other people will gladly talk to you—in broken english and heavy hand waving—if you simply have the courage to ask.
Rinsing ourselves—means talking a pause. Taking a moment to recalibrate and reevaluate. And the truth of the matter is, you can’t recalibrate if you’re snapping pictures. You can’t recalibrate if you’re still checking your phone, or email, or Instagram. Disconnection, and distance (not just physical but psychological) is what makes this place so powerful.
III. A Deep Scrub
Warm water will only do so much. It’s not enough to just rinse yourself clean. No, you have to scrub. You have to get in there, in those deep dark crannies. The places you forgot existed. The places you wish didn’t exist.
Washcloths are for grandmas. You’re gonna need something more substantial, something with an abrasive side. Lather it up.
If you’re having a good time, you’re not scrubbing hard enough, at least not according to my mom. You gotta work to get clean.
“After a four-day trip up the Niger River in a small, four-horsepower outboard-motored dugout canoe, I arrived at the small river town of Niafunké”, Matthew McConahey recounts in his autobiography Greenlights.
You might not know it, but Mr. McConahey is a skilled craftsman. His art is not acting, however, instead it is the art of reflection. For the past 36 years, he’s chosen a pen, paper, and plane ticket, as his tools for self exploration.
He’s found that by ejecting himself from the environment that bread his unrest, self loathing, and resentment, he has been able to find clarity and peace. Often times, by fantastic and near-mystical intervention.
None of his walkabouts have been fun.
He recounts that the internal dialogue he faced alone in the wilderness “can be ugly, painful, lonesome, hard, guilt-ridden, and a nightmare.” But the resulting transformation—and restoration—has each time, proven well worth the pain.
“We are more constantly bombarded by unnatural stimuli than ever before”, he says of the distractions that preempted his retreat into the depths of Mali, West Africa.
“Twenty-two days with very limited spoken English and mostly pantomimed conversations gave me a solitary yet communal experience that made me feel more at home than I ever had before”, he wrote after returning from this walkabout. A trip where he not only wrestled a crocodile, but the most fierce and decorated warrior in Bandiagara. “I knew the reentry into my fast-paced and privileged life back in Hollywood was going to be a challenge. No longer interested in transient whimsy and city life, I was ready to move on…”
The power was out again, but this time it wouldn’t come back on for another twenty-one days.
I sat there, staring into the darkness. My hotel room, with a 6th floor balcony, was the highest lookout point in the city. I was staying in Sodo Wolita, a 7-hour drive from the capital of Ethiopia.
Scheduled blackouts were common in Sodo. A tool used by the local government to mitigate electricity consumption, but this time was different. I didn’t know it yet, but I was in for a full month with no lights, water, or internet.
The reason I was in Sodo was to work at an archaeological site. I’d wake up each morning at 5 am, put on yesterday’s clothes, and scramble downstairs so I could try and get a good seat in our severely over-stuffed Land Rover. The ride to our site would be a bumpy hour-long excursion, up dirt roads, through switchbacks, and steep rocky mountainsides.
After 4 hours of digging each day, we’d take a break for lunch. There were three options every day. Tuna fish, peanut butter, or instant ramen. Most days, I’d make myself a sawdust dry tuna sandwich. Our Ethiopian counterparts didn’t understand that, although these three ingredients were served along side each other, they were not meant to be eaten together. Yet, many days I’d watch as they’d make themselves a peanut butter and tuna sandwich, and turn their faces up, as if to say, “you Americans have terrible taste.”
Ethiopia is where I learned just how little I needed to survive. That living off tuna isn’t the end of the world. That hot showers are a luxury—and cold water in a cup is more than enough to get by. I learned that an exhausting day of work, a good friend, and a bottle of whiskey is entertainment for weeks on end. And I learned that there is no better meditation, no better time to reflect, and face your demons, than a 6th floor balcony and a 22-day power outage.
IV. Drying Off
I’ve got some bad news for you. Just when you started to warm up, just when you got the hang of this whole scrubbing thing, you gotta get out. You can’t stay in there, daydreaming your life away—although you may be tempted to.
There comes a time, after the work is done, where you’ll have to turn off the water. Pull the towel down from the rack. Get dressed, and get back to life.
But you’re not returning to the old grind. As a matter of fact, you can’t. The life that left you battered and scarred, is gone. Things have changed, because you have changed.
Our new lives will be different. New perspectives will force old connections to fade. In their place, seeds planted in the fresh soil of your soul will sprout.
But beware—this won’t be the last time you need a good cleaning. The grime, dirt, and decay of daily life will creep back up again.
Next time, you’ll have a bit of experience under your belt.
“I was doing my residency in Baltimore. You know, at the time it was certainly the heroin capital of the United States”, recounts Dr. Peter Attia of his time as a general surgery resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “I mean just about everybody that walked in the E.R. with an abscess in their arm was addicted to heroin.”
In an interview on The Drive Podcast, Dr. Attia recalls the best advice he’d give addicts before discharging them from the hospital, “You can't just leave here and go back to the row home you're living in—with people that are doing that same thing—and expect to stop.”
“So if you want to quit heroin you need a whole new group of people to be with.”
For most of us, our addictions are not nearly as severe as a heroine addict’s, but we are addicted to something nevertheless. The destructive habits that bring us down. Our screen time, toxic relationships, weekend binges, and meaningless work. The things that make us feel good now, while extracting a lifelong cost.
“That's just such a devastating thing to contemplate” Dr. Attia admits, “when your entire life is centered around this block of Baltimore where everybody is using, then some Doc is saying...that you need a whole new social group, and you need to be around people that don't do this.”
Who we are is a product of where we are. I’ve seen this first hand, watching as I morphed into different variations of myself, all over the world. Isolated and exhausted, I spoke (and ate) very little in Egypt. Confident and in good company, I partied until the sun rose in Argentina. Our routines are not crafted by us, but rather by our environment.
So what happens if you take that away?
What if you start from just the raw ingredients, and build yourself up from scratch?
Experience the pain of losing your favorite foods. Go to a restaurant and guess—based on the menu descriptions—which meal is least likely to get you sick. Find a place where you can’t read the street signs. Eat only Ethiopian tibs for 3 months. Go a week without electricity and running water—then go a month.
Do you even know who you are without running water? Do you want to?
To truly do a walkabout—as aboriginal Australians still practice today—a boy cannot return from his trials until he’s has transformed. Until he has become a man. Sometimes this takes weeks in the desert, sometimes it takes much longer. But he will not return until a change has taken place. Neither should you.
One of the hardest parts of a walkabout is coming back. Trying to find a way to weave the new person you are, into the old patterns of your life. For many, it will be impossible. People back home won’t understand what you’ve seen, or who you’ve become. And that’s okay.
Walkabouts aren’t designed so that we can return back to our old environment refreshed, and ready to take the same onslaught as before. Instead, their purpose is to give us the courage to question our old way of life. To give us a new set of eyes to see our experiences through. And a renewed vantage point to make choices from, as we continue the journey forward.