Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Paradox of Experience

It seems that the more you experience, the more you begin to have the experience while you are doing the experiencing, "hey - I am feeling pleasure, I am enjoying this food, I am enjoying this swim, I am enjoying this show, or wow I am suffering under this hot sun, I am freezing in this snow, I am hurting after that accident"...and so on. But the more it happens, the more the "I", the experiencer, becomes separate from the experience, the symptoms, the feelings. The "I" doesn't change. I feel hot, I feel cold, I feel pain, I feel pleasure, but "I" am the same person after the experience as the one who started it. There is some part of me - that much bigger part of me, that stays constant. I survive the ordeal in the desert, I survive the war, I survive the 5 star hotel - I survive the Dom perignon. But at the end of the day, I am still here, unchanged for all that drama, unchanged for all that experience. And I don't quite get it each time, but after a hundred or a thousand times, I start to realize that whatever is happening happens outside of me, and for better or worse, I come through unscathed. So what happens? Eventually, the experience and the experiencer begin to separate, and a witnessing begins to happen. You can sort of detach from the pleasure or pain, recognize that it is happening, but that its not happening to YOU, its sort of happening around you.

This leaves us with a sense of I am I and you are you, we are we - whatever you want to believe that means. But this perspective gives us a wonderful sense of freedom from the cycles of pleasure and pain that we were raised on and trained in. It gives us the freedom to be who we are, and takes the pressure away to pretend to be something we are not. If you realize that the external stimuli are external, that they are happening, but not to you, then you can unattach from them, and they slowly lose their significance like air leaking from a balloon. If you then are not busy trying to experience everything, then you are free to be who you are, and really make a difference in this world. It also allows you to accept where you are in life, no matter what country you are from, how much money you have, what your job is - those become simple variables that modify your experiences, and why do we care how we modify something that is as fickle as the summer breeze, and that blows through us, leaving us unchanged?

How does this relate to travel? Well, travel is pretty much all about the experience. The desire for new sights, new foods, new pleasures, new thrills, new discoveries. We get bored with the day to day and want to take a vacation. Just let loose for a while, drink a cold beverage on the beach. Or maybe you want to see a new culture, learn a language and volunteer in a new community and help your fellow human. When we travel we gain new experience, and we think that experience forms us, makes us who we are and gives us our character. Yet, we already are formed, and that part of us, that part that is really us, lies above the experience - when we can bring that US to the world and the experience, we then start to make a real difference. The paradox is that in order to become aware of this other "me" I have to go through all these hundreds of experiences in order to re-cognize that we exist outside of all this, even though we are exquisitely entwined with all this - and that is sort of tricky. I want to taste the ripest mango on Java, want to find the butteriest dal-fry in Himachal Pradesh, want to volunteer in a medical clinic in the Nubra Valley, want to meditate in Hemis Gompa, want to soak in remote onsens surrounded by snow monkeys, want to trek through virgin Borneo forest, do kora around the navel of Tibet, watch the monsoon arrive in a sleepy village in the Keralan hills....And as I do these things, and all the other things in my life, I slowly realize that there is no end this way, there are always other Himalayan peaks, snow leopards, new foods, new remotest villages, and even if I can travel to the ends of the Earth and experience it all, I will still be me, right here. At that moment, we are truly free to decide what we really want to do, no strings attached, because, as we find out, there are no strings in the first place.

Experience and having it all are not the goal, but we have to have the experience to get free. Travel compresses this process, providing maximum new and challenging experience in small amounts of time-space. Thus it becomes a useful tool for becoming "you". When you can take a trip and be the real you, and stay in character, that is the rub. Then you are not running away, but being YOU.

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