It seemed to go on forever: the regimented trunks, line after ghostly line of them – stretching out into the gloom like the pillars of some vast, twilit cathedral. Tramping the miles between them, the ground seemed hard underfoot, rutted, difficult to walk on. The great trunks, impressive though they were, seemed oppressive, their great branches interlaced above, blocking out the sky. What dim light penetrated to the forest floor made walking just possible, but tripping and twisting one’s ankle on the half-hidden ruts and roots made progress awkward, And where was I progressing to? From gloom to gloom it seemed. A vague sense of anxiety, of unease under the straight, ranked lines of trunks, not that some beast, some predator would pounce from the gloom. No, an unease, a fear that this would never end. That the predictable marching lines of trunks was all that there was.
Enough. I sat down on the hard ground. Sitting as I always did – cross-legged, head in hands -when I said “Enough” and rebelled at the relentlessness, the predictability, the endless familiar effort of this journey. Then, on impulse, I let myself stretch out to the forest floor, a sudden desire to feel those ruts and ridges under the stiff unyielding places in my back. Perhaps the pressure would bring some relief from their usual dull ache.
They did. I wriggled to get more pressure on the tense spot beneath my right shoulder blade, shutting my eyes, then opening them again suddenly as a burst of sunlight pierced the gloom. Turning my face to the side I glimpsed, a little distance off, a patch of green, a clearing illuminated somehow by the sun. I rolled onto my side, a novel movement, and as I lay in that unfamiliar position, discerned a pathway, a winding one, not straight, and a suggestion of different shapes, trees bending and twisting in their growth as nature dictated. Birdsong from that quarter as I moved into a squat and felt the tightness in knees and hamstrings stretch in a way that was new.
Was there a connection between these new ways of moving and the sudden sight of this previously hidden path, with its suggestion, its whisper of joy?
I left the straight avenue I had been traveling for so, so long, and set course down the winding path towards the sun.
This waking dream came to me while meditating – after two friends and mentors of mine – Neuroscientist Dr Stephen Peters and Nervous System guru Jane Pike, had introduced me to the concept, no the reality of Axons, Dendrites and Myelination. The way neural pathways develop in the brain.
Axons, they explained, form like trees and branches, whose twigs reach out towards each other to create new synaptic pathways in the brain. After a while an insulating cover, gray matter – the myelination, makes these neural pathways secure.
“Think of your brain like a forest, or a garden,” Dr Stephen told me. “Do you want it to be a regimented plantation, or do you want to create and explore a wonderful, ever evolving ecosystem?”
Novel movement, Jane Pike later informed me, was the key. “If you always move the same way, your neural pathways, the axons and dendrites, always grow in the same way. Look at children, they move in all sorts of crazy, different ways, all the time. Their brains are flexible, brilliant. Later we get stuck in patterns of moving the same way all the time, even in workouts, even dance. We walk the same way to the same rooms, sit in our chair the same way, tap the keyboard the same way. But the moment we change that movement, we change our brains.”
I thought of the San, the Bushman hunter gatherers I spent so much time with in my twenties and thirties. Their lives demanded that they constantly move in novel ways, crawling, running, climbing, running, wielding the spear and bow, digging up roots, dancing at the fires at night. They retained a youthful joy into their old age that most people in our society lose by early middle age.
It was time, I realized, to start to move in new ways. To let the axons and dendrites grow as nature intended. To rewild the forest of my brain.