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)
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
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.
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
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
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
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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