I’ve been lucky to travel for decades (often as a travel writer) and for much of that time I was resolutely unguided, as if guiding oneself was a point of pride. What a sad delusion. I only realized in my early fifties, when I hired a guide to take my son and I through the Vatican Museum, which I had toured once before on my own, that travelling without a guide is like feeling your way in the dark. The museum transformed from a puzzling saturation of antiquities to a collection of riveting stories illustrated with priceless works of art.
Travel guides have since enriched and deepened the travel experience for my wife and I dozens of times over the past decade. Our default mode of travel is the “small group tour” that includes a guide who not only tells those stories but makes sure you experience the best of a place, safely, efficiently, and with a depth of appreciation impossible on one’s own. India, Morocco, Myanmar, Vietnam, Namibia, and numerous Roman ruins throughout the Mediterranean — all were choreographed for our benefit by warm, knowledgeable guides.
This morning, it hit me that the obvious parallel is retirement. (Of course, that would hit me.) Unknown territory, retirement can be made so much easier and richer if guided. The earlier the better. And I’m thinking not by one guide — some sort of guru — but by a team of guides, people we look to for the skills we need and the outlooks we want to develop.
I have a team. I didn’t know it until now. But that’s what they are. And now that I know, my intention is to fortify the team with more guides. Imagine having a team of guides on your side as you navigate life’s challenges. The cost, by the way, is insignificant. It’s the choice to be guided that’s the only hurtle.
Who are these guides?
I’m glad you asked.
Travel • We’ve had great guides, middling guides, and guides who should not be guides. The great guides are artists in ushering. They help you see, they surprise you, they manage your needs throughout the day, they bring intelligence, wit, and warmth to a situation they’ve been in possibly hundreds of times as if it’s the first time. They retreat when appropriate. You miss them right after saying goodbye to them.
Psychotherapy • To my great good fortune, I have a resident psychotherapist (my wife) who has helped me look at life through the revealing lenses of emotions, patterns, habits, impulses, and the way our stories run our lives. There’s tremendous freedom in dealing with one’s shit on an ongoing basis. “What shit?” you might ask. I’ve come to believe that not only do all of us have a fair bit of it, but we are all mostly full of it. Psychotherapists can gently guide us to see that and tend to it. And to remember humility above all. So we can get on with relatively unfettered enjoyment of the time left to us on earth.
Nutrition • Nutrition is a battleground I wish not to enter (much) on this blog. It’s too much like religion. But I can speak of a guide I rely on. He’s a nerdy medical doctor named Michael Greger who has developed a non-profit foundation called nutritionfacts.org. He and his researchers read mountains of nutrition research and weed out the deceptions of that commercially driven world. I appreciate being guided by a non-opportunist.
Online • I believe we are under attack. In one sense, it’s because we willingly expose ourselves to the blizzard of information that flows through social media and online in general. Who can figure it all out? Who can retain calm in the blizzard? And we are being manipulated. We know that. It calls for self-defence. It calls for guides. I rely on about a dozen sources of curated information that I trust, all emailed newsletters. No social media. So I feel immersed but guided, as if touring an endless coral reef of selected wonders with a scuba instructor at my side.
Example Setters • I take keen interest in people older than me, especially men, who have retired successfully. I look to their examples for inspiration and instruction. I want to know how they bridged the interstitial gap between an intense career and a relaxed retirement. I want to understand their emotional transitions, their revised stories to themselves, and how they re-molded their identities around this very different time of life. I want to watch the ones who are obviously aging gracefully, and try to emulate their behaviours. And eventually, I’d like to earn the right to model behaviours for those who are coming up behind, or those who have yet to find their way.
Sam Harris • Like hundreds of thousands and maybe even millions of others, I consider Sam Harris a guide. Sam’s brain is probably no larger that the one in my head and yours. But it’s breathtakingly adept. Wikipedia says, Sam Harris “is an American neuroscientist, author, critic of religion, blogger, public intellectual, and podcast host. His work touches on a wide range of topics, including rationality, ethics, free will, neuroscience, meditation, philosophy of mind, politics, Islamism, terrorism, and artificial intelligence.” His podcasts are high-wire acts of accessible intelligence in the form of conversations with fascinating people. His meditation app, released last September, is currently changing the way I meditate and hence changing my life.
When you think in these terms, of guides, you realize that most of us have guides who’ve probably been there for years, we just haven’t seen them in this light. I can think of a few. My kids. My friends. My heroes. The list is not short.
Anyone who has had a mentor will get it. Mentors are like fast-track guides. Or maybe wings for our feet. Learning anything is better with a mentor. Finding someone who takes a legitimate interest in your personal trajectory, in your growth, is rare and precious in anyone’s life.
Once we think of guides and a team of guides, the strategy becomes irresistible. Build your team. Choose guides who can help you grow. I think you’ll recognize them. They don’t have to be professionals selling advice (although they can be). They can simply be people you admire who are modelling behavior you want to emulate. Chances are they will be flattered if you start paying attention and asking questions. There’s such fruitful humility in earnest seeking.
And then you can do the same for others as time goes on. What a great ambition at this stage of life: to learn and then model for others. To win the right to guide.
I think we forget that humans were probably made for that role, perhaps above all other roles except parenthood, which is also guiding.
A little more on Sam Harris. He has been guiding me every morning for the past three weeks. He doesn’t know it because he’s coming through an app on meditation instruction. I was pretty sure I could meditate just fine. I’ve been doing it on and off for years. But my wife and two close friends told me that Sam would take me further. And that’s what he's doing. I’m learning the subtleties of this simple but powerful training of the mind. It’s making a big difference, possibly a life-changing one. For $75. Like the Vatican Museum, meditation has been opened up by a guide.
At the conclusion of each day’s guided meditation (there are 50 in all, as far as I can tell), Sam discourses for a short time on the benefits of practicing meditation. Here are excerpts spoken by Sam in three sessions that might inspire you to consider finding guides for yourself, for anything you want to experience more fully. The time is now. (I like that sentence.)
“This really is a deliberate training of your mind. And this changes you. More and more we understand that this changes you physically, that it changes your brain. But more importantly, it changes your capacity for experience. It changes the perspective you will have on great swings in your consciousness — great happiness and great suffering. And it’s useful to remind yourself why it is you do this. It’s actually to be better in all those moments, to be less trivial, to be more engaged, to be able to connect to people and situations more easily, to be of more use to people, both to those you love and care about and to those you have yet to meet. All of this is a preparation for every moment that is to come.”
“One thing that training in mindfulness can show you is that which is aware of unpleasant sensation is the same and feels the same as that which is aware of pleasant sensation. There really is a kind of equanimity that is intrinsic to consciousness that can be quite liberating to discover, and if it’s appropriate to say there is a goal to this practice, that is pretty close to the centre of it — to simply give up this automatic struggle we live with moment by moment and acquire an ability to leave things as they are, if only for moments at a time, to punctuate our relentless search for happiness with real equipoise and well being, to give up the search by merely paying attention.”
“This is an increasingly common but actually still fairly esoteric thing to be doing with your time. But it is a really remarkable way of framing the rest of what you’re doing with your time because whatever you do for the rest of your day, it will still be a matter of consciousness and its contents living as you through the day. There will just be seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, thinking, reacting, judging — all of these processes that greet you when you’re simply trying to pay attention. This is your life. But it is only in these deliberate moments of training attention that we gain this extraordinary capacity to be clearly aware of what’s arising and aware of our reactions to it, and to relinquish those for a time. And more and more if you allow this way of being to interrupt your habits of judging and reacting and pushing and pulling in each moment, you can begin to notice a truly profound sense of relief. You can give up the war for moments at a time. And that capacity, as it grows, can really begin to matter. It can become a kind of superpower. It can become something that changes what you are able to do in each moment, what you are able to say and not do in each moment, and this is good for relationships, for careers, for the way we feel in the privacy of our own minds. This becomes a way to navigate in this landscape of possible experiences. And without it, we are just blown around by the winds of our own reactivity. Each thought becomes what we are and what we do and how we feel, that is until we are mindful of it.”
This is what a skilled guide does. Point the way and rock your world a little as they do.