• joe@jhanderson.biz   
    (206) 351-5607   

  • This fancy-sounding French term is neither a dessert nor a kinky sexual maneuver. But it may be the key to thriving in midst of profound change in our city and beyond.

    In my work teaching mindfulness, emotional intelligence and other human skills to technology teams, I’m often asked for guidance on how individuals and organizations can stay awake without judgment in the present moment, especially when delivery challenges or office politics get in the way. To me the golden key is to make use of your environment for clues to awakeness.

    Getting out on the street is a great way to unplug from all that weighs on you and get a fresh perspective. Taking a 10- or 15-minute walk is incredibly helpful. It sounds so simple, but is built on a venerable practice called flânerie. And as valuable as it is as a practice of everyday mindfulness, I think flânerie also has great potential for working with the specific circumstances of life in Seattle in 2018.

    What is Flânerie?

    Flânerie was a term coined in 19th century Paris to describe the experience of casually walking through a city with no particular purpose.  On the surface, the term has suggestions of the good life, dandified loungers enjoying the wonders of a delicious city landscape: encounters with fascinating and perhaps slightly shady people, basement night clubs, maybe some stops for absinthe along the way. Baudelaire, Toulouse-Lautrec, the Moulin Rouge. etc. etc.

    But there’s a deeper and more portable meaning of flânerie, proposed first by Walter Benjamin in the 1920’s. His insight was that flânerie is a particular way of relating to a modern city that is simultaneously involved and detached. The flâneur walks through the streets with no particular aim: open, aware, participating but not consumed by that participation.

    Why is Flânerie Helpful (and Maybe Necessary in Early 21st Century Seattle)?

    Taking a break to do a little flânerie in the vicinity of your office will help you regain your motivation, clarity and capacity to do good work and have more fun doing it. Because, after all, walking is a good way to wake up. At its heart flânerie is a way of staying awake. It’s strolling and observing, not detached from our surroundings but taking note of them with openness and curiosity. A more currently popular (but also more ancient) word for this is mindfulness. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that flânerie is the art of mindful urban walking. As it happens, walking meditation is an ancient Buddhist practice. So if you do it in the right spirit, with just a bit of technique, you can walk around on the streets near your office and be practicing mindfulness.

    Of course, wherever you are, the practice of taking a walk has many of the same benefits. But I’m writing this specifically about walking in Seattle, and specifically in those areas where you likely find your employment in one way or another. If you’re in this environment I believe that flânerie is more than just a workplace break. I think of it as an important, serious, and indeed necessary activity for us, here in Seattle in the early years of the 21st century.

    Our city is going through unbelievable change and growth–and we need to find a new way to engage with it. My personal story is that I was born in Seattle in the city’s Dark Ages (1959) and returned here in 1989 after some time shuttling back and forth to the Bay Area. So I have witnessed several layers of loss, including the village-like community of my youth, the grunge-era city I returned to in the 90’s, and then (after what felt like a pause for breath in the Bush II era) the successive layers of explosive growth that have been taking place since then. Today the change is blindingly fast and powerful and apparently unstoppable. We are becoming a city of canyons and glass and steel, not just downtown but seemingly everywhere. It is disconcerting for anyone who’s been here more than five years. The days of legendary curmudgeon Emmett Smith and his advocacy for “lesser Seattle” seem as remote as the Hapsburg empire. Seattleites are famously cranky, maybe due to our Scandinavian heritage, but it is just not very helpful to complain all the time. We need to find new ways of walking through our city, that will allow us to reclaim the joy of exploration and discovery and not a perpetual moan about “what used to be there.” Preservation and reclamation have there place, but regardless of the outcome of such fights I want to be able sink into the suchness of my environment as it is, without reservation. And for that I think the flânerie is the perfect mindset.

    Furthermore, the change we are seeing here is a mirror or forerunner of still more profound waves of change hitting our planet now and in an unending stream for the rest of our lives and far, far beyond–let’s get ourselves and our culture into shape to work with it. What we are experiencing here is being experienced everywhere on the planet, and it’s not going to slow down. Between climate change and AI and political shenanigans with no clear end in sight, the situation we are bequeathing our grandchildren is likely to be 100% change, all the time. Predictions about the impact of the new revolutions on the job market and society more generally are that it will be orders of magnitude more profound than effects of the information revolution we are still living through and not even close to recovering from. Say what you will about the ethics or rightness of this circumstance: this is the circumstance. We need to get ourselves into training to manage rapid change in healthy ways, and we need to pass that training along to our children and grandchildren, improving it as we go. Of course initiatives to help us face these challenges are starting everywhere, fueled by great people with incredible courage and amazing dreams. And I believe flânerie is a small but important piece of that.

    How Do I Become a Flâneur?

    I just mentioned “technique.” So what techniques might we employ for aimless urban strolling? Here are some guidelines (“rules” just doesn’t seem to capture the spirit of the activity very well):

    1. Find a time to break away from your desk, your inbox, and your obligations. Even a few minutes pursued in the right spirit has many benefits. Recognizing that you are in some sense “on the clock,” use the time you have in the spirit of aimless exploration. You may want to set a watch or phone alarm for halfway through your walk, marking the point at which you will turn around and walk more or less aimlessly back to the office.
    2. Get out of the building. If you are able to set this intention and actually fulfill it, even if a few seconds later you’re spotted by a co-worker who needs something from you,  you get full brownie points.
    3. Choose a direction and start walking. This is the “pathless path”, so you can’t choose a wrong direction. Nor can you choose a right direction. If you can let your feet direct you…that’s good!
    4. Choose a deliberate, relaxed pace that keeps you moving forward but helps rid you of any notion of purpose or direction. But also note that flânerie involves both motion and rest. Moving helps the conceptual bonds between elements of the landscape loosen and dissolve. When you are at rest, you can inspect more closely, soak in more details, and penetrate beneath the surface. In either case, as with walking meditation a very important quality is that you are not trying to get anywhere or do anything. It’s the aimlessness of the activity that provides its most important benefit.
    5. Use all your senses to take in what’s around you. Tactile, kinaesthetic, auditory, olfactory, visual. I’ve been especially enjoying the sensation of the bumps on yellow wheelchair ramps through my shoes. You will likely have construction sounds to listen to (wherever you go, it seems) and interesting smells from a restaurant you never noticed before. If you take it all in without judgment or resistance, it’s quite a feast!