Letter to a young seeker

Mariellen Ward, India, Kerala, ocean, beach

Photo of me in the Arabian Sea by Andrew Adams

The top 5 things I’ve learned from 10 years as a traveller and seeker

MY NIECE IS IN university and trying to decide what path to take in life. I want to give her the best advice I can, as I think we have more than just the usual shared DNA in common: I think, like me, she also has the seeker gene.

Seekers are not content to follow the well-travelled road, and if they try, they will end up unhappy, bored and worse. I have experienced this in my own life, and also saw it played out in my mother’s life.

My mother died suddenly, and for me tragically, at the age of 67 (on this date in 1998). I was not ready to lose her, and I feel she was way too young. She gave up on life. I think she willed herself to die, as she was unhappy and unfulfilled.

I have struggled for 18 years to deal with my grief over losing her, my trauma over finding her body (she died in the night of heart failure) and my heart-break over her unlived life.

The free spirit gene

I’ve also struggled to find my way in life. Something my dad said, about a year or two after my mom died, helped provide the clue I needed. He said casually, in conversation, that she was a free spirit.

I had never thought of her that way, and his observation blew my mind. I remember driving home from that visit and I could think of nothing else. About halfway home, a related thought suddenly sprang into my mind and blew it wide open: so am I. I was so overcome with this idea, it’s amazing I didn’t careen off the highway.

If only I had known this when I was my niece’s age, my life would have been a whole lot easier. I struggled to fit into society until I was into my 40s, always wondering what was wrong with me. I couldn’t seem to settle down, couldn’t get married, commit to a job, buy a car or house. All the usual things eluded me, and I didn’t know why.

Now I know. It’s because I am a free spirit, a seeker. I was not meant to live a conventional life. My mother did it, she lived in the house in the suburbs, and it ruined her life (although I am of course eternally grateful for my life and the lives of my three siblings).

So, for the last 10 years I have been faithfully committed to the path of the seeker. My soul’s journey is my guiding light, my motivation and my primary concern — not money, not status, not societal acceptance, not ownership of things. It’s a very different way of life than the one I was brought up to believe in and aspire to, so I have had to find my own way. And this is what I’ve learned.

Inspiring travel music: David Bowie, Move On (from The Lodger)

  1. It takes courage to answer the call

Many people get the call to follow the hero’s journey. The call can be anything from a near-death experience to a restless spirit to a sore muscle to an inspiring book. If you get the call, and you don’t answer, the call will keep getting louder. It might become a health problem, a tragedy, depression.

Unfortunately, we are not taught or encouraged to answer the call of our heart, our soul. There is no manual because it is a very unique and personal experience, and because it’s a very radical, anti-establishment thing to do.

When I embarked on my soul-searching journey, to India in 2005, I knew very well that I was on a quest, and I adopted the attitude of the seeker. I saw life as a teacher, and that I was meant to learn from everything that happened to me. Train delays, illness, the sudden death of loved ones — these are not distractions, interruptions, aberrations. I have deliberately and systematically changed my thinking to see the world as unfolding the way it should. I no longer subscribe to the idea that life is supposed to be a certain way.

Travel and yoga studies have taught me that it’s easier and much more fulfilling to accept, surrender and learn than to attempt to control life. People who try always to shape life into the way they think it’s supposed to be will be plagued by anger, frustration and disappointment.

This is the way of the seeker. The goal is not power, money, or a satisfied ego. The journey is the goal. There is no destination. There is only the richness of the unfolding moment, your commitment to “participating joyfully in the sorrows of the world” and your delight in hearing the song of your soul and being in rhythm with the universe.

Inspiring travel music: America, Simon & Garfunkle

  1. You will walk the razor’s edge

Following your own path is walking the razor’s edge. Though the internet is full of memes and blogs and e-books about following your dreams, leading a location-independent life, and finding your passion, the truth is that it’s harder than a conventional life.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell, who has been one of my leading teachers on this path, said that to find your holy grail, you must enter the forest at the darkest spot. You cannot enter where this already a path or you won’t find YOUR path. (He was also the one who said “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” It’s my favourite quote.)

For some of us, that dark place appears before us unbidden, as it did when my mom died. Others must plunge into. It takes immense courage and few people will encourage you. There’s many reasons for this. They don’t want to clean up your mess if you fail and they don’t want to feel badly about themselves if you succeed. But mostly because, if they love you, they sense this will not make for an easy life.

The truth is always more difficult, complex and fluid than the media makes it out to be. All of those happy smiling people you see online, standing on mountaintops with their arms spread wide, had to work at a job they hated for a year to save money, endure a grueling economy class flight and sweat their way up that mountain. But all you see is them at the top, as if they glided there from a nearby cloud.

If you “follow your bliss” (another Joseph Campbell quote), you will be filled with doubt, the path in front of you will often disappear and become a widening abyss, you won’t know where the money’s going to come from, you will be challenged on all fronts almost all the time.

But.

You will be filled with awe and wonder, you will grow wings you never thought possible, you will see the magic dust that is the essential stuff of the universe and at the end of your days you will have the priceless, matchless satisfaction of knowing you lived your life.

Inspiring travel music: Father & Son, Cat Stevens

  1. There is no advice

In the end, there is no advice you can give to a seeker. You can show them a few sign posts, lend them a flashlight, be there for them when they need a sanctuary.

The call of the spirit is a singular thing. It may indeed be encoded in our DNA. Or perhaps seekers are leading the way to a new age of spiritual enlightenment. Like canaries in the coalmine, they may be showing us the soul-crushing, spirit-sapping truth of a materialistic, consumer oriented society.

I suspect everyone longs to be free. The difference is that seekers try and do something about it. And each one, if they stick with it, finds their own version of freedom. And adds their light to the darkness of mere being (to quote Carl Jung this time).

Inspiring travel music: Kashmir, Led Zeppelin

  1. The world is your home

Here’s one of the most important things I’ve learned from travelling the world, especially India, risking it all, opening myself up, being vulnerable. There is no us-and-them, there is no over there — and there is no wrong way or right way to live in this world. “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there,” wrote the poet Rumi.

Yoga and Indian spirituality teaches that beyond the world of duality in which we live, beyond the field of time and space, is oneness.

It is one thing to understand this conceptually, but it is quite another to live it and experience it. I have only tasted these underlying truths. I can see the mountain top, but I have not climbed it.

But I have learned to trust. To trust myself and my ability to handle all kinds of demanding situations, to trust people (who are mostly good) and most of all to trust in the abundance of the universe. We are not separate from the world, or from nature, we are part of it. As a fellow seeker said on my Facebook page recently, the earth is your mother, and the sky your father.

Beyond all the incredible sights I have seen — sunrise splashing colour on the white peaks of the Himalayas, scarlet macaws swooping among the palm trees of Costa Rica, the profound simplicity of a Japanese tea ceremony in Kyoto — I have seen that the world is one. This is indeed an experience worth seeking.

Inspiring travel music: Carey, Joni Mitchell

  1. The self is the grail

Though as I said above, the journey is the destination, you take a companion with you along the way. And one day you come face to face with that companion.

Whether you are a meditating in a cave in India, working your way across the world on a tramp steamer, volunteering in an African orphanage or drinking beer on a beach in South East Asia, if you are a seeker, you are in search of the self. Even if you don’t know it.

But one day you will. One day you will be like the protagonist in “The Razor’s Edge” by Somerset Maugham. You will meet your version of the holy man on top of a mountain (who, by the way, was Sri Ramana Maharishi in real life), and he or she or it will show you your self. And you will feel complete, and content, and it will all be worth it.

And then a new journey begins …

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14 Responses to Letter to a young seeker

  1. Kat January 12, 2016 at 10:54 am #

    Thank you for this beautiful post, I too feel the call of the seeker in my soul. I read it from my lonely cubicle at my corporate sales job, in between staring at a meaningless Excel spreadsheet and creating solicitation materials that will eventually end up in a landfill. In my heart I long to leave North American culture, where our culture is obsessed with consumerism and we are constantly faced with the pressure to buy, buy, buy. I’m constantly at odds with myself, hating the feeling of not fitting the mold, and exhausted from trying to conform. I’m still relatively young, in my mid-twenties, and was recently offered the choice between travelling to teach english overseas or stay here and work a steady, traditional job – at a good company with good benefits no less, but also totally void of greater meaning in terms of personal growth and fulfillment. My parents were totally unsupportive of my dream to work and live abroad and I buckled under their fear and expectations. I regret my decision, but I haven’t stopped dreaming, and plan on using the next year or so to save as much money as I possibly can in order to make my dreams a reality. Thank you for your inspiring words<3

    • Mariellen Ward January 12, 2016 at 11:00 am #

      Thanks for your comment, and sharing your story. I totally understand your parents concern. I’m so glad I have a BA in Journalism and marketable skills. Practicality is important too. I guess the sweet spot is finding a viable way to live a freer life …
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..For the new year: Embarking on the inner journeyMy Profile

  2. Jessica Torrens January 12, 2016 at 7:11 pm #

    I enjoyed this Mariellen, but I also wonder how this fits with your recent decision to look for communications work. I understand completely the journey of the free-spirit. But at the same time, I feel that my search to be authentic and to work in non-traditional ways did not allow me to relax much, and kept me in a kind of striving mode for long periods doing contracts overseas, not having community to lean on in the important moments, and except after my business took off, not having any financial or career security.

    I realize now that there are ways of living in a free-spirited way that also allow one to have a committed community, to have a career where there is room to learn from others and grow within teams and organizations (not only being self-employed), and that my quest may have caused me to rule out certain choices that were grounded in one place and in one community that in fact would have supported me to blossom perhaps even more than I did by always being abroad and on contract.

    The belief that we don’t fit into society is a self perpetuating one. And the more we live abroad and stay away, so to speak, the less we feel grounded and acceptable within mainstream contexts. This vulnerability can be harder and harder as we age, or when we find ourselves adrift and truly needing support. I believe there are a myriad of ways to live a non-traditional life while still ingratiating oneself within mainstream society and work contexts that can provide opportunities to learn and grow that one would not even have imagined. For women, I think large organizations can provide leadership opportunities that many women may not have imagined in themselves. I’m pondering this a lot these days.

    A note to the young woman above. I worked abroad as an ESL teacher for several years. I gave up going to journalism school to actually travel to a country that was in a period of civil unrest. There was a lot of (perhaps understandable) anti-American sentiment, sexism unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and I was exposed to CS gas on a very regular basis. It was exciting, the work was challenging, but I could have been getting gassed as a foreign correspondent rather than as a poorly paid English teacher. LOL.

    • Mariellen Ward January 14, 2016 at 8:01 am #

      Thanks so much for your comment Jessica. You make a very good point, of course it’s wise to balance the seeker lifestyle with practicality. There is an arc that “the hero’s journey” follows, which includes coming back from the forest with the holy grail, and building a life on that. For some people, they find balance as they go. Others must find it later in the search (that would be me).

      I think there is a lot to be said for trusting the process and trusting yourself. Even if you do have to make it back from the edge … for some people, life is not worth living if they don’t at least try.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..For the new year: Embarking on the inner journeyMy Profile

  3. shubhajit January 12, 2016 at 10:01 pm #

    “Neither seek nor avoid, take what comes.”

    Life is too complicated , and at the same time too simple . to understand either of this, it’s equally a damn hard work. I have chosen the latter.

    I woke up in the morning and read the post incidentally. Good read to start a day.

    • Mariellen Ward January 14, 2016 at 8:04 am #

      “Take what comes” does not fit very well with the individual and achievement oriented west! But it certainly makes for less stress in the short term. There are certainly moments, perhaps especially travelling in India, when it’s by far the best approach to take, that’s for sure! Thanks for the comment.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..The meaning of yoga: Interview with a masterMy Profile

  4. Ian January 19, 2016 at 11:08 pm #

    This post was what I needed to read this moment … thank you.

  5. Tom February 29, 2016 at 2:43 pm #

    Such a great post! The David Bowie song just gave me chills.

  6. Giovanna March 11, 2016 at 1:38 pm #

    Awesome post! Many go through a struggle of finding their way in life, I know I did so thank you for sharing these tips. Also, the inspirational traveling music is great haha. I have a blog and would love your feedback 🙂 xox

  7. Izy berry March 29, 2016 at 11:57 pm #

    Incredible I really like this article it is very inspiring
    Izy berry recently posted..Common Mistakes Travel Bloggers MakeMy Profile

  8. Anjuli April 3, 2016 at 10:49 am #

    Thank you for a deep article..very directional for me ! Yes the free spirit wants to soar, knowing what it dreams and desires….the journey is yet to unfold and the trust factor was a great take away….Thanks. Wish you many more journeys
    And if you want to swap countries, do let me know !!
    Warm regards
    Anjuli

  9. MandiCrocker April 8, 2016 at 9:52 pm #

    Beautiful. This is exactly how I feel. The stars align when we follow our hearts. The bridge appears when we step out in faith. It’s amazing. It’s hard. (It’s totally India in a heartbeat). But it’s the most exhiliarting, rewarding and courageous path one can probably take. Thank you for putting into words what is so hard for me.

  10. Susan waten April 11, 2016 at 2:23 am #

    What an amazing article; it really touched my heart and I was in tears reading it. So many of the things you wrote resonated with me. Its something I can re-read many times. It has helped me understand and accept myself better, being someone who always felt different and never fitted in any where. I’m happiest on the road, getting a glimpse of people’s cultures and just being among them. Thank you for the great write-up Mariellen.

  11. YASHAVANT SHAH May 30, 2016 at 1:52 am #

    (1) I suggest you to kindly read the book – ‘Living with my Himalayan Masters’ by Swami
    Ram. You can read it on-line OR down load it from my Gujarati Audio Blog :
    http://ykshoneycomb.blogspot.com/

    (2) You are cordially invited to my recently started Word Press blog in English lanaguage :
    https://seekersworldblog.wordpress.com/

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