THE GREAT ESCAPE
February is just a mini version of those great December extravaganzas teeming with jumbo jet caravans jampacked with everybody going everywhere--the beach, the ski slope, the theme park in warm climates. And with that inescapable “home for the holidays” putsch, you feel pathetic if actually caught at home for the holidays without at least the excuse that twenty travelers are coming for Christmas dinner. The real miracle of the season is Santa Claus getting his sled around without a head-on collision.
The sense that we're in the wrong place at the wrong time feels even scarier at Thanksgiving when from on high this nation must look like a slide in an electron microscope: thousands of atoms zooming around trying to hook up and cluster together as a molecule. First people leave home because they have to get away from “the parents”, then like a boomerang they head back —or the parents zoom to them. Or better yet, everybody meets up to go on a family cruise.
It isn't just holidays that make us jump. We are apparently a society with one continual case of ants in our pants. I have friends who can barely keep up to their mortgage but, they just told me, they’re going to South Africa over the Easter holiday because it’s one place they haven’t been and they “need to get out.” Another couple is still looking at the Atlas to find the right place to get away to: it was going to be Hawaii but that didn’t feel right. Friends just got back from Las Vegas because, well, “we hadn’t seen it and thought we should.” Last week I got an email from a long lost friend up in New York state asking if I knew a place she could go to be by herself for a month to try to get her life in better shape—“to journal, walk, meditate.” Since she lived alone in a semi-rural Hudson River environment, I had no idea why she needed to go somewhere else to “think” and in truth neither did she but, she wrote back, she just found a “wonderful spot” in Maine and it would “be an adventure.”
All this get up and go is yeast for the GNP, that great register of everything we get. Ironically this seems to be everything we then want to get away from, which makes that GNP a win winner. That’s probably why Uncle Sam so obligingly moved his holidays uniformly to Mondays: it provides just enough time to run off somewhere. We are so geared to going the distance the publishing business booms with guides and tales and glossy magazine pieces on yet another must-visit island resort or sanitized third world city with restaurants you won’t die for. Our newspapers have travel sections, our cities have airports getting to be bigger than they are and tourism development offices that live on hotel taxes, our airlines frequent flyer encouragements, our computers new reservations URLs every week, our cars off road capabilities, our ski resorts snow making machinery, our investment portfolios more 1031 exchange vacation rental properties. You can feel unpatriotic or party pooperish if you’re not spinning your wheels or those of a 747.
A rock is content, the sublime poet Mary Oliver observes, so it stays put, but water is not for it is always rushing on in search of someplace else to be. And so we spend our days getting and wending, destroying with fuel oil and resort communities the only planet we have to live on. Lonely thing. There actually used to be an airline marketing campaign for this gray moment of the year. It seduced people to the Caribbean with sunny rum punch lines that promised to cure “the Februaries” –a disease just like morning mouth. Sound bytes, work habits and plane service may have moved on but the lure of that presto chango remains the same: change your scenery, change your self. It’s hot. Tour brochures, magazine features, resort web pages and airline ads force feed our insatiable appetite for self-help, our unslakable thirst for self-improvement—our sense that our lives should be better and they’re gonna be with the next e-ticket or car trip. Wow! There they are selling us a bridge!
Nothing’s wrong with that sense that our lives should be better; that’s possibly the beginning of wisdom. The problem is determining what better means? A lifetime supply of frequent flyer miles? Trumping the sophisticates at a dinner party by announcing you were in Bhutan back before it had television, bars, cars and even money? Not wasting a three-day holiday by staying home? Dying with the world’s largest collection of passport stamps? You say: I go away, therefore I am. I say: Picasso never left the ground and look how he changed the world!
Right now I am one of the only people I know who is, how shall I say this? sitting still. I didn’t always. I tried to remedy several outbreaks of the Februaries with isles that were then unspoiled and unpublished but, frankly, all the sunscreen in the world couldn’t protect me from myself. What all those “vacations” changed besides my sense of geography, I can now admit, was the color of my skin for about a month and the balance of my checkbook for lots longer. I didn’t like speaking to strangers in Manhattan and I didn’t in Djerba or on PhiPhi or that tiny islet off Grand Bahama. I didn’t go to bars and dance clubs in San Francisco so I didn’t in Jamaica or Rio. I hate crowded tacky places like Faneuil Hall so I hated Cozumel. I may have visited different locations but in the end it was all the same. They all sent me home with the same carry-on baggage—tagged with that Zen memo: wherever you go, there you are!
In the Olympics of truth, that is the gold medal contender. When pangs of angst or stings of loneliness hit, it’s easy to run off to distracting landscapes especially with a whole economy acting as an escort service. But when we get back to that final check in, a change of scenery is just that. We didn’t leave our self at home. On vacation, you can take it with you. We don’t much get away from it all because it’s right up there stowed in the overhead baggage. What a drag, all this airport insecurity.
The Bahamas and the Beaver Creeks look good because it is not easy to sit still. I have moments of wanting to call a taxi and fly standby but I keep trying to stand by my aspiration to do this because it really is a cheaper thrill, one that lasts longer and makes my life noticeably better. I’ve been dropping off a lot of heavy baggage I used to lug around. Sitting in retreat, Tulku Urgyen pointed out, is merely to teach you what activities are truly essential. The late Trungpa Rinpoche supposedly said that the ultimate dharma exercise was to be able to sit perfectly still in the center of New York City; this could blow your mind! When I tried being the stillpoint of that churning world--a little daredevil stunt-- I could actually begin to sense the dramatic pulsating energy of gigantic hordes blindly scurrying in circles like mice trying to find a piece of cheese. I could feel the silliness of it all, the spin, the rat race.
Trungpa Rinpoche did say that true courage, real warriorship, was going head to head with whatever scared or worried you. When besieged by anxiety, the urge to tunnel out and take off for the airport is not the easy way out because it is not a way out. It is a dead end. The story is told of the extraordinary yogi Milarepa coming back to his cave to discover demons had taken over. They were sitting on his cushion, eating his stored food, taking up all his space. His immediate reaction was to shoo them out but he couldn’t budge them, not a one. He tried to clean up around them but they just made a bigger mess. Thus resigned, he decided he would teach them a thing or two about the precious dharma and began reading texts to give them a lesson in hopes that they’d learn a little something and take off with it. But they went right on eating, sitting, and being annoying in his cave as though they hadn’t heard a thing. And so finally desperate to get back in, he decided there was nothing else to do but join in. Thus he reached out to embrace them and to dance with them whereupon they fell from his side and vanished.
This week I am watching the young Olympians face their worst fears at the top of a precipitous mountain or the center of an ice ring. I am sitting on a small round red cushion in front of two lit candles and several images of those who have done this before. I train here by looking hard and unflinchingly at my disturbing thoughts; no matter what I see, I try to sit like a rock. Tides of emotions flow and ebb, thoughts rise and fall, I sit like a rock. Eventually, the training says, those waves will get lower and shorter and no longer wash over me. Finally they will be what goes away. Now that is a vacation.
About fifteen years ago, I revealed that I had been so hot to travel the world, I had once been a professional tour guide, and the retreat master who was registering me into a remote Vermont cabin revealed that she too had been an avid traveler. But once she got into this dharma business of exploring her own mind, this was all the adventure and get away she could handle. So I am here seconding that. It is extreme to sit still surfing the waves of your own trepidation, skiing the slopes of your own frustration, swimming through the tides of your personal confusion. And the necessary concentration demands as much fitness training as an Olympic athlete. Nothing I know from all my years of outward bounding can match the astonishing I-MAX adventure of my inward trek. It’s literally the be all vacation and end all great escape.
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