Driving a Dirt Road – December 18 2020

Driving a Dirt Road – December 18 2020

Following a road at slow speeds can create the perfect conditions for what neuroscientists refer to as spontaneous thought, when the brain’s hippocampus—the locus of spatial orientation, episodic memory, and imagination—is relatively unburdened by the task of wayfinding. The mind, unconstrained, half occupied, has the latitude to wander between the past and the future, imagining novel scenarios or recalling forgotten events. In a paper published in Nature, in 2016, the neuroscientist Kalina Christoff and her co-authors describe how, in these conditions, our minds can venture into new territory, allowing for unexpected flashes of insight or serendipitous discovery. Spontaneous thought, they say, is the opposite of rumination or obsession. It is closer to imagining, or dreaming.

M.R. O’Connor, Dirt-Road America: What do you see when you escape the pavement?, The New Yorker, Annals of Inquiry, November 16, 2019


Many times in meditation teachings we are told not to use our intellect – to ‘stay out of our thinking’ and be in the present moment. This is harped on so much because so much of our time and energy is spent in speculation – the endless rumination of should have, would have, could have – which leads only to suffering and keeps us from being able to feel the joy of living that is our birthright.


What the intellect is useful for is:

  1. Problem solving/puzzle solving/schedule planning/calendar filling: The 1stAssistant Director on a film or TV set is the epitome of this, always taking in what’s been done so far and what needs to be completed in how much time, what needs to be dropped so that something else might have the proper amount of time available for it, and who needs convincing on any given day. Or me, figuring out when to drive to the Westside from the Valley, and is it really necessary to get on the 405 Freeway.
  2. Assessing history: the mind/intellect is fantastic at seeing what’s been done before, what patterns might be seen, what’s different this time and how does that change our response.
  3. Spontaneous thought – ‘closer to imagining or dreaming,’ as opposed to ‘rumination or obsession.’ Some of us find this experience through dance or hiking or tintype photography. Some of us by riding slowly across the country on a bike or an SUV using only dirt roads, like Sam Correro, the subject of the article quoted above (and the go-to man if you’d like to buy a map to try it yourself). This is where we find our creativity – openness to the new and unknown, and the synthesis of what we already know – our capacity to love and willingness to love without rationalization. This is where we can find God – out beyond the rational.


Every bit of us is precious. Every bit of has a use. Whatever we love, whatever draws us toward engagement and true play is a guide to where we might find our most valuable gifts to offer back to the world and the people that sustain us.


May we always celebrate those that show us how to enjoy life. May we take permission from their enjoyment to find our own.


Today I will engage with the world in such a way that God has a chance to slip in while I’m not looking.

Road to Molt, Montana