I have been reading Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, a surprisingly beautiful travel book that teaches us that the key to happiness is not to find ourselves, but to lose ourselves.
There is this notion that traveling can help us ‘find ourselves’. We assume that our identities are incomplete and we must discover what it is that makes us us: what makes you you and what makes me me. Because once we find that, we will be happier in the world. But in The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen, on his journey through the Himalayas, reflects on this idea of the ‘self’ and that it’s possible that it doesn’t actually exist. There is no ‘self’, there is no ‘I’ and we must separate ourselves from our egos. He flashes back to an earlier time in his life when he first became separated from his sense of self and experienced the world without thought and emotion. In the above quote, the author has been thinking about his eight-year old son, who has lost his sense of wonder, and that leads him to this little rant about Western society as a whole. Matthiessen remembers his son when he still looked on the world without a defined sense of self:
In his first summers, forsaking all his toys, my son would stand rapt for near an hour in his sandbox in the orchard, as doves and redwings came and went on the warm wind, the leaves dancing, the clouds flying, birdsong and sweet smell of privet and rose. The child was not observing; he was at rest in the very centre of the universe, a part of things, unaware of endings and beginnings, still in unison with the primordial nature of creation, letting all light and phenomena pour through.
It would be quick and easy to describe The Snow Leopard as a ‘spiritual journey’ but that’s such a cliché and I feel like it deserves more than that. Yes, the physical journey Matthiessen makes gives him enough distance from his day to day life to be able to reflect on the recent death of his wife, and on life, death, struggle and loss in general. The Buddhist backgrounds of the Tibetans he encounters along the way help him understand a way of life built on a philosophy that he has had to learn as an adult. Reading the book has brought me closer to understanding the Zen philosophy better than any other text ever has. I had tried to make sense of it when I read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now but Tolle just didn’t get through to me. I also loved but found hard to apply Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (which is actually a great book, highly recommended). In some ways I think I picked up The Snow Leopard at just the right time, exactly when my mind needed it and was open to it. What I didn’t like about it at first – the tediously slow descriptions and very little action – was what turned out to be the most effective part of it. If you have the patience, you will let the prose absorb you, and once you do, reading the book becomes a kind of Zen meditation.
So why do we travel? What is it that we love about being somewhere different from what we’re used to? For me it’s definitely the escape factor. To distance myself from the familiar really allows me to clear my mind. I used to think that escaping this way would give me a clearer idea of who I really am; that it would make me happy. Now I see that it’s not like that at all. I don’t have to keep searching for myself, I don’t have to know who I am at all. What’s important is that I am, and to be truly content is to just be, fully present in every moment. I like this idea of losing myself, losing that abstract construct of ‘self’ altogether, and through losing myself, becoming more unified with the world.