A friend and I were recently hiking in the woods near the town of Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia, east of Vancouver. At one point the trail we were following led out of the forest and into a large clearing, where just ahead we could see the Chehalis River flowing. When we emerged from the trees, the path petered out. It was nowhere to be seen.
After a fruitless search we assumed (we later learned, wrongly) that the trail continued into the woods on the other side of the 100 foot wide river on whose banks we found ourselves standing. We made preparations to cross.
That summer there was little rain in B.C. The river, as a result, was running at half its normal volume. The water was knee-deep and many of the large rocks and boulders that made up its bed protruded above the surface.
For fun, my friend and I decided to see if we could cross the entire width of the river by hopping from boulder to boulder, without falling into the water – a similar idea to the old video game Frogger. It didn’t look too hard as there seemed to be enough rocks providing ample trajectory to cross.
But once we began, we realized the task would be slow and difficult.
Many of the rocks were further from each other than had appeared on shore – too far to hop between. Others were either wobbly or they just barely jutted out of the water, so that you couldn’t get a stable enough footing with which to balance. Those sorts of obstacles were a kind of “dead-end” in our trajectory. When we couldn’t go any further, we retraced our steps and attempted a new rock route across the river.
Because of this, it felt as if we were navigating a kind of invisible labyrinth – one without walls. What had seemed a simple idea had turned into a large undertaking, as complex as any board game.
It took us around 3 hours that day to cross half the width of the Harrison River. When we noticed another hiker behind us plodding the trail which we’d lost, we threw in the towel and turned back.
Though we didn’t succeed, we both noticed something interesting by the time we got back to the trail: our minds, our sense of perception, seemed somehow expanded. Novel ideas, on the topics we silently mulled, flooded in. Connections between disparate things revealed themselves. There was a feeling of heightened mental balance and flexibility.
Could we have given our minds a special workout by that river crossing exercise?
In order to navigate and physically cross the river, we had to employ mental modes, which though different, were complimentary.
On the one hand we were required to look directly in front of us while stepping from rock to rock (a left brain exercise). On the other, we had to constantly shift our attention to the bigger picture distribution of all the rocks in order to plot a route through them in the distance (which is contextual, a right brain operation).
We had likely stimulated, equally, both hemispheres of the brain, which helped them to function in a more synchronized, holistic way than normal.
I wonder what might happen if we were able to deliberately bring such stimulus to bear on our minds on a more regular basis – while cutting down on the tyranny of screens, categories, time, sequential linear experiences, and hard visual lines and edges that are the hallmark of our concrete lives?