Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Pulling a Geographic (Part 1)

Last week, the local paper ran a story under the headline The latest travel trend? Becoming a nomad. The article references the book American Nomads, as well as numerous blogs maintained by people who've chosen a life of continuous travel.

The idea of long-term wandering has always fascinated me. I had a perfectly nice childhood in a suburb of Philadelphia, but still I'd dream about the day I'd be old enough to set out and have adventures around the country or the world.

As a teenager, this desire manifested as an interest in books like Kerouac's On The Road. Kerouac himself was only on the road for a short time, but the grand and romantic way he fictionalized the experience made it feel like more. I recall looking at the cover of my paperback copy, which showed a drawing of a long, deserted stretch of highway leading towards distant mountains, and feeling an ache in my heart about what it would be like to be there.

Then there were 60s and 70s TV shows like Route 66 (two guys in a convertible, finding new adventures each week as they rode down the highway) and Then Came Bronson (exact same plot, but with one guy on a motorcycle). I ate up all those nomadic stories.

I even watched The Littlest Hobo. This time, the on-the-road hero was a dog. I felt that same ache when the theme song came on:
Traveling around from town to town.
Sometimes I think I'll settle down.
But I know I'd hunger to be free.
Rovin' is the only life for me.

Wanderlust played out in my own life between the ages of 18 (when I first left home for a brief stint at college) through my mid- to late-20s. I was part of Swami Muktananda's "3rd World Tour," a travelling meditation show in New York, Florida, and California. It was much like joining the circus. Then my most extreme travel experience, a couple years in India. Later, I tripped across the US, hitting spiritual hot spots. I've spent months in Arcata (Humboldt County, CA), and a year dealing blackjack and roulette in Vegas.

I don't know what to make of the travel/wander bug. It seems to cut both ways. In Buddhism and other Indian traditions, monks may frequently travel from place to place. The idea, I'd guess, is that this type of homeless, "floating cloud" life teaches non-attachment to the constantly changing names and forms of this world.

On the other hand, constant travel can be an escape mechanism. Alcoholics Anonymous speaks of "Pulling a Geographic"... the deluded belief that you can solve entrenched life problems by simply moving to a different location. A review of American Nomads (the book referenced above) calls it "a meditation on the urge to be elsewhere." This makes the nomadic life sound like the antithesis of Buddhism, which would teach us to attend to the Truth right in front of us, rather than cultivate fantasies of greener grass.

In my next post, I'll think some more about why I had this nomad urge when I was younger, and why it seems to have evaporated over the last couple decades, as I've stayed put in Berkeley.


Anonymous said...

Funny, I have never had a desire to travel. As far as spiritual pilgrimages that many seem to like going on, (your mileage may vary) frankly it may be a type of tourism. I wouldn't think so if it was one teacher that the individual felt they could really learn from being around, but as it is there's this whole guru hopping thing.

Stuart said...

Anony said... frankly it may be a type of tourism

It may not matter so much which particular style of meditation or practice we do. It may be more important to just pick a practice that connects with our particular type of mind and life situation, and make a strong decision to stick with it day by day.

Zen Master Seung Sahn used a metaphor of a certail type of herb that has wonderful properties, but only if you harvest it when it's precisely 3 years old. So you could plant it, cultivate it, and you'll have the results in 3 years. Or you could travel around the world, looking for this plant that's just the right age... and it might take 10 years to find one!

Well, we gotta do what we gotta do. When I was younger and had this travel bug, this idea that there was something superior to be found "out there"... I don't know that it would have done any good to try to think or talk my way out of it. I had to actually do the travelling and seeking, until my own experience led to the point that I felt done with it.