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Transformative adventures: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Adventure awaits us all. But beware! it's not all fun and games, though you will prosper for engaging in its challenge, its discomforts, and the opportunity to stretch yourself beyond what you may have thought you were capable of. To grow and transform we need to set sail for more distant shores where untold treasures remain to be discovered!

In my blogs I put forward ideas from Adventure Psychology to help people figure a way to thrive in uncertain times, and make sense of the crazy world. By adopting an Adventure Mindset (I'll gradually reveal how) you can approach the challenges of life with an adaptable resolve, and embrace the chaos knowing full well that it's a wild ride so you might as well enjoy it!

“From the offset we had a storms, violent seas, violent sea-sickness. Yet as time progressed, facades dropped, bonds formed, inner resolve awakened and a united front allowed the journey to unfold successfully. Irrespective of how much sailing expertise was learnt, each individual left the ship changed for the experience."

Setting course...towards a better life

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

John Masefield – Sea Fever

When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.” Joseph Campbell

The stories we tell, by and large, are about undergoing transformation. The typical narrative arc sees the protagonist, curious, perhaps unfulfilled, step out of their front door and go on a journey of (self) discovery. Along the way obstacles and pitfalls arise, character is tested, self doubt is experienced. However, tapping into inner resolve, the hero emerges from the chrysalis of previous dissatisfaction. A triumphant return is heralded as this hero comes home, strengthened, purposeful, an example to others to follow likewise and realise ambition, potential and fulfilment!

Whether you are Bilbo Baggins, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter or Josephine Bloggs, the metaphor of stories appeals to a belief that under the right circumstances there are opportunities out there waiting for you to flourish and find that spark of heroism that lies dormant and untapped.

Adventures are out there for the taking!

As an ‘Adventure Neuroscientist’ I look for the source of that divine spark that resides within us: how our brains are shaped by challenge, stimulation, stretched and reformulated by exposure to environments and situations that provoke stress, and an adaptive response.

I seek to get out of the lab and find out how people perform in the real world. Especially in more extreme environments where adventure is both routine and unavoidable! [Caveat – the term ‘adventure’ evokes excitement, thrills, fun even, but beware, adventures, done properly are by their nature challenging, often uncomfortable, stretching. We can’t change without a degree of ‘trauma’ in the sense that to improve on something you have to often break down the previous structure – shedding old bark in seasonal forest burns, sloughing off dead skin, tearing muscle to allow growth.]

There is none more formative an environment for adventure and personal growth than can be found in the realm of seafaring. Whilst I have had character building experiences in diverse landscapes, be that in high altitude mountain regions, rafting through the jungle, or in magical underwater surroundings, more recent experiences at sea have proven to be especially fruitful to understand how adventure can transform.

I took part in voyages that circumnavigated a large portion of the English coastline. We sailed from London docklands, amidst the majesty of high commerce and its gleaming architectural edifices. We journeyed, via the Cornish coast, to southern Ireland, along the eastern lee of Ireland north, to the quaint Isle of Man, alone in the bleak Irish sea, and back to the home port, Liverpool. Over 900 miles or thereabouts I witnessed transformation in abundance.

Merseyside Adventure Sailing Trust (MAST) takes young people, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to sea, to provide opportunity, help develop character, build life skills as well as sailing acumen. Most importantly it seeks to create a communal bond amongst the crew and provide a lasting means for change and future achievement.

These youngsters come from diverse backgrounds. On our voyage we had those whose life circumstances already provide more than enough challenge. And to see them step up into very unfamiliar terrain, first time at sea, is to witness first hand what it takes to begin to overcome adversity.

From the offset we had a storms, violent seas, violent sea-sickness. There was fear and trepidation in the long nights at the behest of wind and tide. Yet as time progressed, facades dropped, bonds formed, inner resolve awakened and a united front allowed the journey to unfold successfully.

Irrespective of how much sailing expertise was learnt, each individual left the ship changed for the experience.

It’s not just about the discipline of getting up for watch in the middle of a stormy night. Or becoming proficient at helming the vessel or setting the sails. It’s as much about showing courtesy and compassion to one’s compatriots. Peeling spuds, sharing in the chores of providing meals and sustenance to one another. Saying please and thank you, and would you pass the salt, my friend!!

As a psychologist and neuroscientist, I seek to identify how the brain re-organises its connections to become adapted to circumstance. How it responds to the shock of discomfort, unfamiliarity and uncertainty. By understanding the factors and mechanisms concerned we can strive to apply insights to our everyday lives. I conducted a study, collecting preliminary data to identify which elements resonate and contribute to how the individual behaves and performs. Based on extensive prior research, this includes elements pertaining to motivational drives and aspirations, emotional and psychological wellbeing, and cognitive processes that the brain marshalls to keep drive and purpose ticking along.

Whilst more data are needed to confirm initial findings, what I observed was that positive impact occurred across all dimensions. Delving deeper, there was indication that the experience of being on a ‘tight ship’ gave an increased sense of goal-directed purpose. In order to prosper in life, it really helps to have defined goals and a clear sense of how one can make steps towards achieving those. At a young age, thrust into the adult world from a less privileged position where basic life skills may be neglected due to poor role models and day to day struggles, there is every chance that one may be directionless, uncertain about which way to turn. Simply trying to survive, not thrive.

It is interesting that there were slightly different indications in how the voyage impacted positively on the seafarers involved. The older, more assured individuals appeared to develop increased cognitive focus, as compared with the younger individuals whose goal-setting scores were more pronounced. What this suggests (again more data needed) is that a seafaring voyage can impact the individual in varying ways, such as focusing the brain towards skills development and task-orientated attitude. In order to become successful at the goals we pursue, we need that ability to concentrate and manage distractions that take us off-focus. Sailing can offer this in abundance – we must work together to set the vessel on course, mindful of the environmental conditions as well as how our ship responds to these for a favourable trajectory. Without labouring the point, a metaphor for life, progression and maturity!

It is wonderful to see that organisations such as MAST provide opportunity for (young) people to aspire to something greater than the lives and experiences they have encountered so far. The power of adventure for impacting lives and providing impetus for transformation should not be neglected. As an antidote to the artifice of much of modern life, hearkening back to more traditional ways such as journeying out at sea on a 100 year old ship, there can be few better ways to treat our communal malaise!

The lasting legacy of this is to preserve an adventurous mindset that prevails into ‘ordinary’ existence. By understanding more about how our brains work in challenging circumstances and adapt to be more resilient, more flexible and more accommodating, the ambition is to apply these insights to help more people (all of us) adopt this adventurous way of thinking and acting.

The voyage continues, to the edge of the world, Narnia and beyond...

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