More than seventy times over the past 21 years, I’ve literally gone on retreat, moving away from home in order to inhabit real stillness. No other adventure I have experienced can compare with silence for reminding me of what’s impossible to argue away, bringing me to a point—dissolving me altogether, in fact—and bringing to light the larger picture in the canvas in which we’re so often lost. The important things in my life rise to the top as when a glass of water is placed inside a sink. After a few days of stillness, I know incontestably what I care about and what I should do with my life, in part because there’s no “I” in the sentence. Only by stepping backstage can I begin to have a sense of what is real and what is not.
But travel, even to a less composed and collected place, can have the same effect, if only it’s approached in a clarifying light. We travel, as writers from Proust to Henry Miller have noticed, not in search of new sights but new eyes, and with new eyes even the oldest things come to new life. Travel is about being moved, being transported, and if we are moved far enough from the easy ways in which we define ourselves, we can live more comfortably with uncertainty and surrender. I stepped into the Potala Palace in Lhasa in 1985 and, very quickly, I felt myself to be not just on the “Rooftop of the World,” but on the rooftop of my consciousness. Perhaps it was the high, thin air, the shocking clarity of the cobalt skies, the combined effects of culture shock and jet lag. But suddenly I was seeing things as from a high mountaintop, with fewer agendas and obscurations than usual, as if being reminded of the lens I carry round with me all the time but so often ignore.
When I came into adulthood, roughly thirty years ago, I felt that most of us didn’t know enough about the world, and needed to travel—to Cuba, to Tibet, to Burma and South Africa—in order to see what the global neighborhood looked like. Not doing so was like sitting alone in a room with a blindfold tightly strapped around our eyes. I still feel that—most readers of this can summon the time and resources to visit Jerusalem, or just the dodgier parts of D.C.—but I also think that in the Information Age we need freedom from data and distraction more than ever. So now the kind of travel I suggest to friends involves mostly sitting still, in any room, delusions and complications falling away, and trying to see things clear. It’s easier than flying to Morocco, and requires fewer inoculations.
Travel is an exercise in perception, a way of shifting your perspectives; the hope is always that you will have less and less to distract you, even if life presents more and more that confounds you. It’s not a matter of finding answers, in short, but of clarifying the questions—and then finding the courage to live with them. The traveler quickly learns that uncertainty is his home and impermanence his most loyal companion. The layover that is so excruciating for one traveler brings a sanctuary, a way of gathering his thoughts (the better to let them go) to another. And nowhere is uninteresting to an eye that’s wide-awake: it was an overnight stay at Narita Airport, of all places, and a three-hour trip into the small town near Tokyo’s airport, and its pilgrims’ temple, that prompted me to decide to move to Japan 25 years ago.
Our journeys, the traveler learns, are defined not by their destinations, but by their starting-points, the ways we choose to approach the destination; nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. I once asked Matthieu Ricard, the longtime Tibetan Buddhist monk, how he deals with the incessant travel involved in giving his talks and translating for great Tibetan teachers; he’d taken on robes thirty years before in search of stillness, I assumed.
In his ineffable way, clear-eyed, face shining, he said, more or less, “When I get onto a plane, I am so free. There is nothing I have to do, nothing I have to say. I look out at the clouds, at the ocean below. For ten hours I can just sit and look. It is a kind of a meditation. For me, every trip in a plane is like a mini-retreat in the skies.”
How many of us can be like Matthieu, I thought? Until I was flying from Frankfurt to Los Angeles, and found myself next to a young woman from Berlin. We talked a little, but otherwise, for the eleven hours of the flight, she didn’t sleep, didn’t read, didn’t turn on her video screen. She simply sat in her chair, looking ahead.
Just before we touched down, I asked her where she was going and she told me she was a social worker, on her way to a month-long holiday in Hawaii. The long plane-trip was the way she prepared for stillness and calm, and let all the stress and pain of her day job seep out of her. Perhaps she could have done this at home, but a large part of me thinks that eleven straight hours of quietness at home can be difficult.
Travel, perhaps, is just a way of learning how to make one’s way back home, alive.