On The Nature of Adventures
“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them,” said our Mr. Baggins, and stuck one thumb behind his braces, and blew out another even bigger smoke-ring. Then he took out his morning letters, and began to read, pretending to take no more notice of [Gandalf]. He had decided that he was not quite his sort, and wanted him to go away. But the old man did not move. (1.12)” The Hobbit by J.R. R. Tolkein.
I have always fantasized about adventure. Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger, Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdal, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gibson, Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach, Peering Over the Edge: The Philosophy of Mountaineering edited by Mikel Vause, and K-2 Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain, By Ed Viesturs with David Roberts, to name a few, are amazing stories. Adventure accounts thrill us because they unfold like a movie. Adventure fantasies are as compelling, because I can buy the ticket which costs me nothing, take a trip for which I don’t even have to get in my car, and which will get me home in time for dinner (or into the kitchen to prepare it!). Best of all, I am certain that I will experience no unsettling events. In that fantasy, there is always an unlimited budget: unlimited time to prepare, unlimited funds to assure a soft landing should a contingency need to be implemented, unlimited confidence that all will go exactly as desired. It comforting to think that I will be delivered from adventure’s arms and deposited at my front door, slightly slimmer, hair a bit mussed, and none worse for the wear with a few more stories to tell my loved ones at home when it is all over. Best of all, this adventure was chosen by its protagonist, and he or she is cheered on. In this fantasy, always there will be loved ones waiting for my safe return, and not the sound of the door closing behind me even as it is opening onto the silence of an empty house. I think I am a lot like many people in that deep in my heart I resonate with Bilbo Baggins from the above quote in opening chapter of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein. I loved my little life, and was certain of it, familiar with its contours and safe zones. No one imagines, nor warns of, the illusion in the idea of safety.
On The Illusion of Safety:
We have all sorts of demands on our attention under the headings of job, family, friends. All of these are legitimate pursuits and provide adventures of their own if we are open to them and living them authentically from the heart. There are many opportunities to pay attention to what is happening in our lives. Our lives are organic, they are not static objects, immutable, no matter how we perceive them and our relationships inside of them. There are as many opportunities to ignore what is happening in our lives too. Like the canary in the mine, there is always the small voice at the back of our hearts that tells us that if we are living life from a formula in our heads, our noses stuck in the morning letters, that we are not really living. Like Gandalf, who refuses to go away when ignored, it refuses to be silenced. However, if we ignore it long enough, or stuff it down with food or alcohol, turn away from it to too much t.v., internet, or unhealthy relationships, it breaks through safety’s routine like a torrent or a tsunami and drowns out everything in its path. In the aftermath of such an event, whether it is disability, death or divorce there is an absolute silence. When that silence falls, it is as deafening as thunder. A poem I wrote about this moment which was published in a book titled In Movement There Is Peace: Stumbling 500 Miles Along the Way to the Spirit, by
On the Safety of Illusion
At first, when this happens, it is impossible to believe that it has happened, and that it has happened to you. I know. It is as if a grenade has gone off in your chest, as if it has literally sucked the essential element out of the air you breathe, leaving you somehow walking, talking, unable to gasp. You become an elaborate ceremony of rhythm and movement; it is as if nothing has changed, and everything is as it was before. In moments though, you become aware that you are amazed that you are breathing. You sense that this type of respiration is the antithesis of breath, for you cannot hear anything. Though your limbs are intact, you feel as if you must call each member back from some unimaginably distant diaspora. Only they are not yours to command anymore.
Slowly, a painful realization dawns in you. You are present at your own beheading, as a member of an astonished crowd shouting a chorus of unrecognizable thoughts and feelings that have been submerged beneath or dammed up behind this silence. The morning letters continue to come, and because habit is merely a series of repeated actions initiated and maintained by an idea we have about the nature of a self, you continue to read them. Only it is with a growing sense of detachment, for it is as if they have come for someone else. The truth is, they had been coming for someone else for some time, only you were too busy, standing still trying to hold onto what could not be held onto, to notice. Then a morning comes when you look in the mirror and no longer recognize who is looking back. This moment, friends, is adventure’s point of departure, and willing or not, you must go in search of the person you buried inside of your life.
“She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow” Paul Simon, Graceland
In a series of email exchanges, a warm-hearted Tibetan Buddhist Italian pilgrim named Francesca and I have come to know one another a little. I am reviewing the list of necessary trekking supplies against the items I am collecting in the staging box in anticipation of packing. I am optimistic I will take more than I need. Francesca who has been to Tibet 3 times assures me that we will be able to procure anything we forget in Kathmandu. Still, I want to feel prepared. It is far away. Even in photos the mountains look big. I realize that I must set aside my usual scale–these friendly, low green hills surrounding this fertile, lush farmland–for mountains that evoke reverence and awe, whether or not you believe the legends concerning them. I don’t know if I am ready for a high-altitude trek, only that I have been waiting for this for a long time. I am ready to go. The daily wait to hear news of what will await us at the border is the subject of numerous emails between members of our small group. There is a great deal of uncertainty, and all we can do is wait to hear for sure.
The highest mountain I have ever climbed is Mt. Whitney, at 14, 505 ft. Mt. Kailash is considered too sacred to be climbed. Instead, pilgrims walk around it, a three-day or 32 mile route or kora. The kora around Mt. Kailash starts in Darchen at an elevation of 15,000 ft. The second day of the trek around Mt. Kailash will be be at an elevation of 18,200 ft., its highest point on the trail before descending. However, we won’t start off at these altitudes. We will begin in the capitol city of Lhasa and gradually make our way across Tibet towards Darchen before attempting the walk around Kailash, where it is said that Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati dwell in perpetual meditative bliss. We will also bathe in the waters of the nearby sacred Lake Manasarovar, where it is said that Queen Maya bathed prior to conceiving the Buddha. This mountain and lake are sacred to Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and practitioners of Bon, the indigenous faith of Tibet.
One is drawn to the mountain, and in ascending, it is believed that one ascends into the divine presence both physically and spiritually. To arrive is to enter heaven itself, where there is no barrier between the human and the divine.