As everyone knows, you can go down to your nearest Barnes & Noble and spend hundreds of dollars on books in an attempt to glean some prophetic words of wisdom about living our lives to the fullest, guiding our spiritual development and overcoming adversities of every imaginable description. Indeed, inspiration and spiritual vision can be only $29.99 and a $4 cup of Starbucks away.
I’ve read tons and tons of books about people overcoming adversities in the mountains, on rivers, on the open sea and the hardships and tribulations of adventure travelers in almost country of the world. Similarly, I’ve likely read an equal numbers of books about why those people can do the things they do and how they cope with the pressures and oftentimes the associated catastrophic consequences. I fancy myself a pretty decent endurance athlete and a pretty internationally well travelled fella and it always motivates me when I read about people doing things, or overcoming things that sometimes seems humanly impossible. In short, I like the physical aspects of pushing limits, but I love the mental and spiritual side of the equation.
In the fall of 2011, my friend Jason and I spent a couple of months climbing, trekking and generally bumming around Southeast and South Asia (Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh, Nepal and India). We both prefer to travel as far away as possible from tour or group type situations and just wing it on our own. I’ve been to Southeast Asia a couple of times and feel pretty comfortable traveling solo there. Bangladesh, Nepal and India, well, that definitely challenged me and pushed me outside of my fairly wide comfort zone — and it changed me to the core.
After six weeks or so of getting mentally and spiritually wrecked by the travel in these places, I had pretty much started to think that maybe I was just a bad traveler, and even worse, had completely missed the reason for going there and immersing myself so deeply in those challenging cultures in the first place. Not only had we gone to climb and trek around the Himalaya, I’d also wanted to touch the roots of Buddhism and learn more about my choice of spiritual philosophies. Yes, the climbing and trekking was mind blowing, but I kept waiting for that life changing spiritual nugget to fall from the sky, but it just wasn’t happening. I’d find a small nugget from time to time, but nothing as powerful as maybe I had hoped.
Then, late one night (about a week before leaving Nepal), Jason and I were having tea in a dark, dingy little cafe just outside of Kathmandu in the Tibetan settlement of Boudhanath. Aside from one other patron, a guy in his early thirties with long curly hair and wearing worn clothes, we were the only people who came in for almost three hours. I was writing in my journal about feeling I’d missed many of reasons I’d come. I’m ususally so good about taking things as they come and finding those treasures but the hardships of solo travel had knocked me off course it seemed. I mostly just wrote about how it felt I was leaving just weary of the poverty, the crush of people and the overwhelming difficulty of doing anything and everything.
After an hour or two of eating momos and drinking tea, the guy with long, curly hair and worn clothing got up to leave. I had noticed over the evening that he’d been reading a book and every once in a while he’d stop reading and gaze out the window as if in deep contemplation. He put off a calming energy just being in the room with him and I wondered the entire time how he could have that calmness about him in such a anarchic place — yet I was there too but felt completely overwhelmed. As he walked by our table, I couldn’t resist the temptation to know his “secret” and asked him if he had a few minutes to talk. Fortunately he did.
His name was Mathias and said he was originally from Sweden. He explained that he was in Boudhanath studying meditation and philosophy at one of the monasteries and had been in Nepal now for approximately six months.
Under normal circumstances I would never have said these words to a total stranger, but I told him what I had observed about his calming energy and asked him how, amongst all the overwhelming lunacy of Kathmandu and Nepal as a whole, he could maintain that balance and centered energy.
Mathias explained that the first time he came to Nepal he had the same feelings as I did – overwhelmed, off-balance, disoriented, disappointed, angry and confused. Just like me, he had come looking for answers to many of the same questions though neither of us knew the exact questions going in.
He went on to say he vowed never to return after his first experience. However, he returned two years later as part of his studies and even though things had deteriorated in the country after the fall of the Monarchy, he was able to deal with the chaos a little better. He then said it was his third time to Nepal (this time) where he fully understood the principles of his studies and that’s what allowed him to look past what would normally be off-putting. He said the fact that I’d found a few spiritually moving experiences along the way was a good sign I was looking in the right direction.
He explained that throughout his travels and studies, he’d realized that during is first time spent in Nepal his perceptions were confined and limited to only what he knew and tried to force the ways of Nepal into those defined parameters. However, he soon realized trying to manage things which are completely beyond his control was not only damaging to his own spiritual development, but pointless. He said he finally realized that whenever he felt most overwhelmed, he had to merge with those energies and exist within them. Once he could do that, he could begin to cultivate his own seeds of learning and better develop his understanding of life.
As he was telling me about merging with the forces and not fighting the current, everything I learned as a raft guide became crystal clear. When a person falls into fast water, the first rule is don’t panic. As hard as it is, you must relax. You must try and orient yourself to the direction you’re moving and under no circumstances try and fight the current. If you do, the power of the river will overwhelm you and pull you under.
Listening to Mathias, I realized I had been doing exactly that — fighting the current. I’d been trying to harness things I couldn’t control and make sense of things that were completely senseless. As he talked more and I embraced the correlations of life and the river, I quickly began to relax and not internally fight the current. I had to learn to use the energies I couldn’t control to get where I wanted, not try to overpower them. At that exact second, all my travels up to that point made perfect sense. That’s not to say they weren’t challenging anymore because they were, but I realized that learning to deal with chaos was perhaps the reason I traveled there in the first place.
After about fifteen minutes, Mathias stood up, pressed his hands together, wished us fruitful travels and studies, softly said “Namaste” and walked out into the chilly, pitch black darkness of the night. I’ve thought about what he said almost daily and have incorporated it as a guiding principle in the way I live my life.
Now fast forward almost exactly one year later to this December and something almost identical happened, something that only reaffirmed what I’d learned in Nepal.
My good friend Jesse, who I ironically find to be similar to Mathias in both physical looks and deep spirituality, told me his good friend, Liz Clark, was in town and wondered if I’d like to come up and ski and hang out with her for a day. He also said he really wanted me to meet her because he thought we shared a lot of the same philosophies of life. Well, any friend of Jesse’s is going to be amazing as a general rule of thumb, but I’d heard him speak very highly of Liz specifically over time so I was definitely stoked to meet her.
I could write an entire blog about Liz and her sailboat, Swell, but since she already has one, I’ll refrain. http://www.swellvoyage.com/ I clearly got the sense from the very moment I picked her up in Boulder that she possessed that same energy Mathias did. There was just something about them, something so palpable about the energy they possess that it was impossible to ignore.
As we drove the couple of hours up to meet Jesse in Beaver Creek, we talked like we’d known each other for our entire lifetime. I love feeling comfortable like that around people, which is rare for me. I’m fascinated with the idea of sailing solo around the planet but like I mentioned before, I find the mentality and spirituality of the poeple who do it the most fascinating — and there sat Liz Clark, about a foot from me, willing to talk about it all.
In our random and convoluted conversations, we eventually got around to the subject of being alone, loneliness and fear, especially while sailing solo with the power of the sea a constant and humbling companion. I loved Liz’s thoughts on being alone and loneliness, but it’s when we got to the subject of fear where she said some things that really made me stop and think about just how amazingly genuine and beautiful her outlook on life was.
Stop and think for a minute about yourself and how you might deal with being alone in a raging storm thousands of miles out to sea with no possibility of rescue or help. Everything you do could be the difference between life and death. One mistake, even a small one, could be catastrophic. How would YOU react? Maybe the better question is whether you would ever willingly put yourself in that situation? If you’re honest with yourself, probably not.
But that’s what Liz does. So solo sails and accepts the things she cannot control. She’s learned to accept those uncontrollable energies of the sea, of death, of life itself and advance not only her sailboat within them, but also advance her spiritual being.
Oh, she also surfs a little (uh, and does so better than most people on the planet). And she definitely knows the uncontrollable dangers of that as well. One of the reasons I was able to meet and hang out with her here in the US is because she’s back here recovering from a broken neck sustained while surfing.
So with all this talk about being alone at sea, being scared (but not afraid), breaking of necks and loneliness, I asked her how she manages to push on with such calmness and balance, though I was pretty certain I already knew the answer.
Almost identical to Mathias’ words, she said there are certain things we cannot control. Some people let those things consume them and it becomes chronic negative energy. If they continue to let it consume them, their automatic reaction to every situation will default to negative. She then gave an anecdote related to her broken neck that made her thoughts more understandable.
She said when she broke her neck the general response from family and friends was that her unicorn and glitter picnic of happiness may cease to exist since there was a possibility she couldn’t continue surfing or continue with her voyage aboard Swell. Those were the things many people thought defined her very existence and would surely end the journey. However, Liz explained how she believes life is about flow and change and regardless of what path we take, whether it’s the one we’re currently on or a completely new path, it’s how we react to those changes that will dictate the happiness we find within ourselves and within our world. If we train ourselves to react with positive energy instead of defaulting to the negative energy like so many people have the habit of doing, then we can always move forward in a meaningful way.
As she was talking, I mentally went back to the little café in Boudhanath and heard Mathias’ words all over again. Liz was saying the same thing, just a different way. It made perfect sense to me how when I was near them they had that same powerful, almost magnetic energy that physically pulled me toward them. I truly believe we crossed paths not only because of circumstances, but also because of a similar energies bringing us together.
Spending time with Liz was amazing, period.
This is the kind of learning I love doing. No classroom on earth can provide the circumstances nor harness the energy to unravel these lessons about life. It takes getting out into the big scary world and experiencing it on its own terms. There is no App or textbook for the real world. You actually have to turn the screen off and move around, make yourself vulnerable, be willing to listen and move in a different direction in order to get a clearer view of the larger picture.
I doubt I’ll ever cross paths with Mathias again, but who knows. Although Liz will be leaving this week to return to her boat in the South Pacific, I’m almost certain I will cross paths with her again and again throughout my life. However, if I never do cross paths with either of them, I know I’ll forever have their words with me and my journey will be made better and more complete for simply having met them. I hope everyone can be so lucky in their own journeys.
Ski fast. Pedal far. Climb high. Live big.