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When my family traveled to Iceland last summer, we spent a day traversing the interior of the island. The landscape we drove through was stunning in its very bleakness. It is the closest thing on earth to a moonscape – in fact, it is the place NASA chose to train its astronauts for moon landings. Grey fields strewn with lava rock merge into the ice and mud of massive glaciers. The temperature was easily twenty degrees colder than it was to the north and south. The wind was relentless – ripping across the wide open space. We went entire hours without seeing another vehicle or even an animal.
My youngest described feeling “reverse claustrophobic” – she felt trapped by the sheer emptiness of the place. I felt profoundly insignificant. The thought of being lost in that wasteland was terrible. I could easily empathize with the panic convicted criminals must have felt when they were exiled to the interior as the consequence for their misdeeds. I was distracted by my musings when we stopped to take what would be our most striking picture of the interior – a tiny, red hut floating on a sea of gray.
It wasn’t long, however, before my anxious feelings flooded back. It turned out that the miniscule shelter was the only available refuge for tens of miles for hikers crossing the interior. “How do they find this place?,” I asked. “They have to plan their route really carefully,” my husband and son responded in unison. “It’s not enough to use a compass because of the crazy magnetics up here.” My confusion must have been evident, as they launched into a lengthy and (at least from my perspective) overly detailed discussion of “True North” vs. “Magnetic North” which left me confident that I had no business (ever!) hiking the interior of Iceland.
The thought of trekkers wandering miles off course on that Arctic tundra because of a magnetic snafu gave me chills to match those I felt from the cold wind. For the first time in my life, I finally understood the power behind the expression “finding your true north.” On that unforgiving terrain, in that extreme climate, being even one degree off the planned route could be a death sentence. For a hiker in the interior of Iceland, staying on course or maintaining “true north” is nothing short of imperative.
For those of us seeking to find our way through times of challenge, crisis, or disappointment, “finding our true north” is no less imperative. On life’s journey, there are plenty of times when we are uncertain of where we stand, of where we are headed or of what the right path is for us personally. Being able to discern our “true north” enables us to stay on that path. While we may not have an actual compass in our hand, we are buffeted by clutter and chaos that can put us off course just as quickly as the magnetic variations that can cause hikers to lose their way.
Peer pressure, gossip, anxiety, competition, and so forth can form a kind of “atmospheric clutter” that can put us off course. If we allow ourselves to fall prey to worries about what others think or want or do, we can easily lose sight of what we think, or want or hope to do. Chaos – the kind that occurs in the heat of the moment – can also pull us off course. In the middle of an argument, we may speak or behave in a way that dismays us later. If forced to make a snap decision, we may not have the wherewithal to get a full perspective on the issue and simply side with the majority. Especially in instances when our right path is also the harder path or Robert Frost’s proverbial “path less traveled,” chaos – internal or external – can easily send us off course onto the path of least resistance.
In short, when we lose sight of our true north, we get lost. While we may not freeze to death as a result, losing our true north in life can be profoundly devastating. While we may not be miles away from the only tiny shelter in a massive wasteland, finding our way back to who we are and what we believe and what really matters to us can be a mightily challenging journey.
Mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation can help us stay on course. Regularly setting aside time to be quiet, to look within at our emotions and feelings, to become familiar with our thought patterns, helps us to better understand ourselves. It helps us to develop awareness of our habits, our weaknesses and our strengths. It helps us become more comfortable pausing during times of chaos. It helps us see more clearly despite any clutter swirling around us. While mindfulness practices will not insure that we’ll never lose our way, they can make it easier for us to get back on course if we drift. Again, by keeping us intimately connected to the nudges of our conscience, the tightening of our gut in moments of fear or confusion, and even to our highest hopes and dreams, practices like yoga can serve as a light to illuminate the way back to the path that is right for us.
Much as a hiker in the interior of Iceland needs to pause repeatedly along his or her way to carefully calculate and recalculate true north in order to arrive at that tiny, red hut for the night, pausing regularly along our way through life is critical. A daily time of quiet contemplation on your yoga mat or meditation cushion is a powerfully effective way to pause. It is in these pauses that we can separate from the clutter and chaos of our lives and reconnect with our “true north.”