We travel for many reasons – entertainment, growth, comfort, appreciation, ego, and, probably, some of each in different amounts at different times. I like to think that I travel to grow – ideally, uncovering some remaining piece of information that will help me be a better person. Hoping that I’ll assemble enough pieces so that the puzzle of life begins to resolve into something I might recognize. As Pico Iyer famously said, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.”
For the past 5 years, I’ve been on the road more often than not. To places and experiences remote in both distance and familiarity. I’ve spent sweltering afternoons in monasteries, sheltered in the high Himalayas, zodiacked around Antarctic Icebergs, cruised at the edge of Space, spoken with the Dalai Lama, wandered among remote South Pacific tribes, ridden through endless tea plantations, worked the fishing lines in Indonesia, and cried at more than one sunrise. I’ve seen and experienced more than I deserve, hoping that somewhere along the way, I’d find myself. What self-respecting explorer communes with Buddhist Monks at the foot of Everest and doesn’t have a spiritual awakening? In the movies: none.
About two years ago, I began to realize that it just wasn’t going to happen for me. There would be no enlightenment in an Ashram or conversion in Jerusalem for me. Coming to this conclusion brought on a kind of “wanderer’s melancholy.” If the answer wasn’t out there, I might never find it. But having no easy alternative, I simply packed up and headed back on the road, doubling down on my search.
As the years have passed, I’ve collected a few more pieces. They occasionally fit together to form small archipelagos of knowledge in some enormous Terra incognita. Nothing spiritually transformational but my lens on the world has definitely changed.
For me, those islands come in flavors of convictions or truths that I’ve observed and know to be true. Interestingly enough, none of these observations are novel. From philosophers to grandparents, we’ve heard them countless times. But, hearing something isn’t quite the same as observing it. I won’t bore you with specifics. Suffice it to say, I think the Buddha had it right when he said craving, desire and attachment are the sources of suffering. Everything else is window dressing.
I’ve observed that poverty and happiness are not mutually exclusive. I’ve seen more dissatisfied 20 something’s in SoHo than their counterparts in rural Jodhpur. I know that there is real joy and meaning to be found outside the secular system of wealth, status and eternal youth. It’s not our fault; it’s our programming. But the answers can’t be found in accumulating more. You knew that already. Well, so did I, but I’m not sure I really believed it. I do now. Happiness is reality minus expectations. And Americans, in particular, have some pretty high expectations. You do the math.
I’ve collected enough pieces now to begin to suspect that they don’t belong to a single map. They simply don’t all fit together. But, perhaps, knowing that makes the journey even more sweet. I may not have found myself, but I think I now know where look.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
– T.S. Eliot
The Puzzle was first published in 2012. This version has been edited and updated by the author.