In its simplest form, drift is an unplanned journey. To undertake a drift simply travel, preferably on foot, but take the experience of travelling as the object of your journey. Freed from aim, a drift is an opportunity to uncover facets of the environment beyond notice.
Drift has artistic and political dimensions. Political, because the intersection of the social environment and your lived experience stands exposed. Very quickly, drift uncovers the limits imposed on where you’re allowed to go and what you are suffered to do there. Artistic is the fresh perspective drift affords on the everyday; it impregnates the familiar with new meaning.
Most of the published work on drift is artistic, political, or both. Yet drift is also a magical technique. I’ve used it for divination, illumination and in the course of a drift have often encountered and communicated with spirits. You might even choose to meet with a specific deity, Ganesha or Hecate for example, and go out into your neighbourhood to speak with or witness him or her.
Drift is shamanic on its surface; it reveals things hidden formerly to consciousness. But it can be used also for enlightenment. It can be turned about to explore experience itself.
A Zen koan asks: Where is this?
To work on the koan ask yourself the question until the answer arrives. It will come not as an explanation or idea, but as a lived experience.
So let’s try it. Where is this?
The consensus answer is a physical location: in my room or at the bus stop or in Trafalgar Square. But these, although they speak to where I am, don’t reveal where this could be.
What is ‘this’?
We realise how it seems to us that I carries with it a ‘this’, which is the experience of where I am. I know I’m in Trafalgar Square, but where is this, the experience of I being here? The answer ceases to be fulfilled by a concept of location and becomes instead a deeply mysterious experience.
Ordinarily, we assume that open questions such as how or why are more difficult to answer than who or where, which suggest closed and definite solutions. Practising enlightenment, however, asking who am I? or where is this? leads to a lived realisation that the answers are far from fixed. The answer – when it becomes apparent that there is one – is beyond all ideas.
I discovered by accident how drift can work like this, during some walks around Brighton with the aim of discovering sites of power.
The first drift led me to a concrete maze set in the earth. The second, to a circular pool of water. Earth and water… I wondered if this were a pattern, and wasn’t disappointed when the third led me to a clock tower looming in the air, reminding me of buildings I’d glimpsed in dreams.
Setting off on the fourth, I was primed to arrive at a scene connected with fire. The ruined West Pier, perhaps, or the Albion Hotel.
Instead, the working collapsed into farce. I was forced to break off for an urgent crap in the amenities of a supermarket. It was a bitterly cold day. Something felt all wrong. The signs I followed led repeatedly to the same residential street, where there were no landmarks and nothing happening. It wasn’t even far from home.
I hoped the history of that street might throw up a fire connection. When my search yielded nothing, I wrote it all off as a failure.
A book on near-death experiences, which I happened to be reading, revealed the significance of the drift. It contained a reference to Nishida Kitaro, a twentieth century Japanese philosopher, and his concept of basho or ‘place’:
[I]nsofar as the I can be conceived in confronting the not-I, there must be that which envelops the opposition of I and not-I within and which makes the establishment of the so-called phenomenon of consciousness possible within itself. I shall call that which is the receptacle of the ideas in this sense, following the words of Plato’s Timaeus, basho [place]. (Nishida, cited in Corazza 2008: 72)
This philosophical jargon is really only Nishida’s take on our koan: Where is this?
We answer the question usually by separating ourselves (I) from experience (not-I) so that we can say: I am in Trafalgar Square. But the deeper question is unanswered: Where is this experience of being in Trafalgar Square? The mysterious answer is described by Nishida as basho or ‘place’. It is the non-dual ground of consciousness containing both I and not-I.
Nishida points to Plato as his source. I discovered how the passage in which Plato introduces the idea of the ‘receptacle’ is in the course of a discussion on how the four classical elements – specifically fire – lack any inherent existence (Timaeus 49a).
Of the classical elements, fire is highest, the most ‘metaphysical’. What the drift had pointed to was not a place, but the notion of place.
A crap at the supermarket: that was no ‘break’, because there never was an ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ to the drift. A residential street with nothing going on is not disqualified from ‘place’. Everywhere is somewhere. Nothing was what was happening. Taken as the object of meditation, the nature of place transports us beyond art, politics, meaning. Ultimately, beyond experience itself.
Ornella Corazza (2008). Near Death Experiences. London & New York: Routledge.
Plato (1997). Timaeus. Translated by Donald J. Zeyl. In: Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.
A chapter in Occult Experiments in the Home (the book) is devoted to the more shamanic and political aspects of drift.