Robert M. Duggan 1939-2016

“The art of navigation is a powerful metaphor of living well by recovering an awareness of nature and natural law; prioritizing sensory awareness over abstract thinking; mindfully observing the stories that are created around phenomena, and shaping our experience by changing those stories; using language as a tool of empowerment and creating new possibilities; and being aware of bodily responses to make the decisions that serve your well being.”

Robert M. Duggan, a beloved teacher, innovator, practitioner, and mentor passed away last month. I had the great fortune to meet him in October 2014 and the honor and privilege to apprentice with him after that meeting. The learning was intense and profoundly changed my life.

From my time with Bob (and his partner Dianne Connelly, wife Susan Duggan, and daughter Jade Connelly-Duggan, collectively the group at WisdomWell in Columbia, Maryland) I learned to redefine health and expand my skills for navigating living. Most importantly, my learning was not simply academic but also experiential. I gained a deeper, wiser connection with and understanding of my body.

From an early age, I have been awake to the physical sensations of hungry and full, tired and rested, weak and strong, sick and well, depressed and high energy. I partially attribute this to the vast amount of time I spent in nature as a kid; in the woods, on the salt marshes of Cape Cod listening to the runnings of creeks, lying on sandy beaches watching clouds, picking and eating berries along the dirt roads around our summer cottage. I grew up in beautiful, natural, undeveloped, sparsely populated areas. I loved being outdoors and usually was.  I smile knowing that my distant relatives spent time hanging around with Henry David Thoreau, who himself spent most of his life with only basic necessities, observing the comings and goings of the natural world and I imagine, of his own body in that context. This is how I describe much of my childhood; the natural world was my playground, my playmate, and the toy.  I loved it, and it felt right. Even today, I am most aware of everything going on in my body when surrounded by nature.  I seek that when compelled to listen most deeply.

Despite the beautiful surroundings of my childhood and youth, there were also traumas – which joined with fear, uncertainty, and confusion to create depression. My earliest recollection of this physical, emotional, and spiritual state was when I was 10. I have lived with the ebb and flow of my lows and highs for my entire life.  It has shaped much of my experience. And as a response, I learned and became practiced in the art (and science) of words as tools to design my mood and frame (and reframe) my experiences. I learned that words can either pull me into my history or open me to my possibilities. I learned that words are drugs.

And then came Bob. From him, I learned that my connection to my body and my language skills while helpful were rudimentary. I learned that the physical body has a memory and a wisdom far, far deeper than what we did yesterday, or last week, or even last year. Just as a tree has it’s deepest roots that feed the newest leaf every day, and a stream has a bottom of collected rocks and sand that shape it’s course – we too are of this natural world and are no different. We are nature. And while this is irrefutable, it remains a choice to awaken to this fact and live in accordance. In other words, awaken to your senses or not.

My work in the field of health and fitness combined with my innate way as a curious observer of the world/people around me has provided plenty of examples of the peril of not being awake to this reality. Bob would teach that it began with Rene Descartes, the seventeenth-century philosopher who stated “I think, therefore I am”, and with that “ushered in the idea of the separation of thinking from the body and the elevation of ideas over direct experience.” My time at the WisdomWell taught me to understand the danger of this separation. There is no mind-body connection, as these are not two separate entities. The body is a mind and the mind is the body. Our whole being is wise; not only our brain.

We now live in a world of abstractions and ideas, increasingly separated from our natural senses. We are the only living entity on this planet that seeks “expert” assistance with the natural processes of eating, sleeping, and breathing.  We see our food as numbers, check a device on our wrist to see how we slept last night or how many steps we’ve taken, and use a yoga class or a meditation app as scheduled time to breathe deeply.  As a modern civilization, we have traded our active, sensory experience of both the body we live in and the world around us for the flat, abstract reports on something we call a smart device.  And as a community, we get sicker, and sicker. Your body is a smart device. Wondrously, amazingly, effectively evolved. Through forces unbeknownst to you, you have lost  – or never had the opportunity to develop – your trust and faith in it. Or perhaps, you have abandoned it.

Here are examples. Stand naked outside in the cold. Do you shiver? Your body just told you you’re cold. You don’t need a thermometer or the thought “it’s chilly out here”.  Or, put your hand on a hot stove. Recoil? Your body knew too hot. You didn’t have to think before pulling your hand back. Or, consume too much food and drink and feel crappy the next morning. You don’t need the thought “I guess I had a few too many”.

To give a name to the inter-related set of skills we were learning, Bob coined Navigating Living. The foundation is the return to our senses as a primary guide. The practice is the use of tools, or skills, to affect our own well-being and the well-being of those around us.  Bob’s urgency that this spread and become a movement sprung from his compassion, a profound commitment to honor his ancestors and serve his grandchildren, and an acute awareness of the permanently broken system we call health care. This is a reclamation of our own health and through our practice and teaching the health of our families and communities. Health spreads.

He was insistent that we not learn the skills only for our own well-being. We have a greater purpose in life; to serve others. As apprentices, we agreed to live this and teach this and we each seek ways to use our unique skills, experiences, and circumstances to do this.  As a business owner with training and experience as a massage therapist, fitness trainer, and coach I have a platform. I love my work. I love to teach. I love to write. I love to serve. It is from here that I will move his work forward.

Navigating Living requires a presence of mind, an active observation of sensory input, and an awareness of the needs and limitations of your vehicle – in this case your body. It is a choice. An act of engagement with your living. A demonstration of personal responsibility for your health and well-being, in the present moment and moving forward.

To Bob, as part of my commitment to continually take action to honor him, his life, and his body of work; I offer this essay.  A Sunday morning rambling of recollection, connecting dots and offering possibilities.  More to come, as I will present and explore the tools, skills, and practice of Navigating in upcoming writings.

To Dianne, Susan, Jade, and all the apprentices: we take effective action.

To Bob: I promise. and thank you. My love and gratitude are endless.


Upcoming (and links to previous ) posts on Navigating Living: “Practice what empowers”