There is a well-known trust-building exercise in which a blindfolded person allows a sighted partner to lead them. It can be a powerful experience to relinquish our visual sense and rely on someone else to take care of us. All too often however the exercise is done in a training room or in the course of a quick excursion into the grounds of a training venue.
Imagine how much more powerful it would be to do this exercise in a genuinely wild place, taking your time and with instructions to your sighted partner not just to lead you around but to bring you into delightful sensory contact with your environment. I was fortunate enough to have this experience (both of leading and being led) in a forest clearing in the Jura mountains a couple of weeks ago.
When blindfolded, I noticed how the temporary loss of my sight accentuated my chronically underused faculties of hearing, touch, taste and smell. Even now, I can clearly recall the pungent fragrance released by a small mushroom brushed by my fingers, the sound of chaffinches chirruping in the treetops, and the precise feel of grass, dry leaves, stones and pine cones under my feet. At the time I was acutely aware of the changing temperature on my skin as my partner led me in and out of the sunlight; I felt the breeze on my cheeks shifting direction as I turned; I developed a different sense of presence as I tried to stretch out my non-visual senses to anticipate proximity with rocks and trees.
Just before my blindfold was removed, I reached out and found myself touching someone’s hands. For a few moments I experienced them as the hands not of another human being but simply those of a fellow primate. Then suddenly I could see again. I looked into the face of the person whose hands I was now holding and laughter came out of our mouths: a sound that we two-leggeds sometimes make when we meet each other in the forest.
To become fully human, says David Abram (in the opening paragraph of his new book Becoming Animal) we must own up to being an animal, a creature of earth. And it is hard to do that with any conviction in the middle of a city – and almost impossible in a hermetically sealed office or hotel room.