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Mindful : April 2013
travel and the human form, and the immensi- ties of the American landscape. Ishmael begins his story in Moby Dick by confid- ing, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul...I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” I find that I use travel as a similar kind of training in mindfulness. As soon as I’m on the road, my eyes are open— and with them, my heart—life has real stakes and somehow I am far enough from the illusion of a life of my own to try to find a kinder way of moving through the world. With the blinkers gone and the mark- ers uncertain, I get confronted every hour with a riddle of right action or a stab to the heart. A child comes up to me in a Haitian street, hand extended, his eyes a plaintive search: what is the right thing to do? I can’t hide behind the flimsy structures of my life. I stumble into a movie house in Beirut, and some- how watching The Human Stain affects me with an intensity that it would never find in the more populated, distracted busy streets of home. My résumé, my contacts, are not going to get me any- where in the wastelands around LAX; I have to find what’s human in the midst of what seems utterly impersonal. More than 70 times over the past 21 years, I’ve gone on actual retreats, moving away from home to inhabit real stillness. No other adventure I’ve experienced can compare with silence for reminding me of what’s impossible to arg ue away, and bringing to light the larger picture in the canvas in which we’re so often lost. The essential things in my life rise to the top, as everything buoyant does when held underwater. After a few days of stillness, I know in- contestably 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 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 life. Travel is about being moved, and if we are moved far enough from the easy ways in which we define ourselves, we can live more comfortably with uncer- tainty 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 being. 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 moun- taintop, with fewer agendas and obscu- rations than usual, as if being reminded of the lens I carry round with me all the time but so often ig nore. 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 Nowhere is uninteresting to an eye that’s wide awake. 62 mindful April 2013