Have you ever come across a word that ignites something in you? A single word that delivers a viscera punch, while something deep inside of you responds “Yes!”?
‘Explore’ is that word for me. Explore!
Explore encapsulates almost all of my great, personal loves in life.
I think of travel. Touching down in a foreign land and taking those first steps past the sliding airport doors.
Or blindly choosing a train stop somewhere in Western Europe and taking those first dusty steps from the station. Or taking the first wobbly steps into port, sea legs and all.
And simply exploring.
Not knowing the language or what’s around any corner, each step taking me further into the unknown and deeper into the exploration. Who are these people? How do they live? What motivates them? How does the energy feel in this corner of the world?
I’m infatuated with exploring in this way.
Explore also makes me think of another great love—books. Exploring ideas and concepts, facts and figures, opinions and editorials.
Exploring characters…what is she thinking?! What will he do next? This inevitably leads to the exploration of human nature more broadly. Why do we do the things we do? What would I do in that situation?
And explore reminds of me of my great love of science. Judge me if you will, but one of the things I relished most about studying experimental psychology was that I had access to a laboratory. A Laboratory! My fortress of exploration.
In the controlled setting of a lab, I could manipulate just one little thing and explore what happened next. I loved feeling like a true scientist, with her theories and hypotheses and findings. Exploring what happens with this tweak and that; adding a little A and exploring what happens to B.
These days, exploration plays a somewhat different role in my life. It’s a little less romantic, but profound and important in a new way.
I’ve taken to exploring some of the things that used to scare me about myself.
Emotions, for example. I’m learning to explore my emotions, the good, the bad, and especially the ugly, with the curious quality I take to traveling and reading and science.
Rather than walking away from or trying to stop unpleasant emotions, I invite myself to lean into them and explore them. Just like exploring a new land, I stay on the periphery—the well-lit, busy streets—getting a sense of the lay of the land, in the beginning. When it feels safe, I lean in a little more, checking out the roads less traveled, leaning deeper into what I’m feeling.
It’s just exploration, after all. I can turn around at any time.
When I dive into—rather than away from—those previously unfelt emotions and when I stay open to exploring what feels like the dark corners of me, something kind of magical happens. Everything opens up.
It’s like someone has walked into a scary dungeon, flipped on light, and you suddenly realize that what you thought was a dungeon is actually the enchanted forest.
That’s what exploration does, isn’t it? It cracks your inner and your outer worlds wide open. It knocks down walls and rolls in some spotlights.
When I’m leaning into my emotions and my shadow parts, exploring them with curiosity, they are no more dangerous to me than the characters in my favorite book. They are just there…until they aren’t.
They are always evolving and changing form, just like everything in the laboratory always was. And also like things in the laboratory, the act of exploring them changes them even more.
Rather than feeling like feelings are happening to me, exploring them shows me they are flexible and impersonal. They simply come and they go.
I can’t control them any more than I could control the outcome of a science experiment, but the need to control things falls away in the spirit of exploration.
Exploration means being open to what is. Saying yes to everything, even those things that aren’t easy or ideal.
After all, exploring the slums of Calcutta or the twisted antagonist in a piece of fiction or the scientific truth about the state of our environment isn’t easy or ideal. That’s precisely why exploration is necessary.
When we flip on that light switch, stay open and curious, and lean into what we find, we transform what’s in front of us. Exploring the things we’re unsure of or afraid of heals them, just like exploring the hidden parts of ourselves heals us.