“From time to time we are faced with pivotal decisions that can affect the entire course of our lives. The firm resolve to become happy – to learn about the factors that lead to happiness and take positive steps to build a happier life – can be such a decision. The turning towards happiness as a valid goal and the conscious decision to seek happiness in a systematic manner can profoundly change the rest of our lives”
– The Art of Happiness
Don’t you just love it when you discover a book which really resonates with your whole being? It has a deep impact, a message which seems to be essential for you at that moment in time. It may be a new release, or an old classic which has been around for ages, or even an ancient tome passed down through the centuries. This Is what happened to me in late 2012. I came across La Vida es Sueño by Juan Calderon de la Barca in the bargain bin at Blackwells Bookstore in Oxford. It seemed to call to me, and as soon as I opened it I was hooked. But it was the final words of the play which actually had a lasting deep impact on me, and made me re-evaluate how I was living life, and how I wanted to…
“All of human happiness passes by in the end like a dream,
And I wish today to enjoy mine for as long as it lasts,
Asking pardon for our faults,
As it so befits noble hearts
To pardon them.”
Am I really happy? I asked myself. And the answer was a resounding no. I had become very very good at pretending I was though. It was the necessary catalyst to begin making steps to change that, and eventually to send me on my way, to take to the road and try to understand something deeper.
Of course Intellectual understanding is all very well and good. But how to go beyond? How to really make a change to one’s fundamental being? I have spent the best part of my life substituting people and places, but there are always underlying repeating patterns.
There always seems to be an emptiness which I cannot comprehend. A phrase comes back to me from the road, a mantra which has rolled and rolled around my head…
I carried the words of the wise with me
But still I was trapped in my own body
It’s January 2017. I find myself once again back in the UK. Something isn’t right. I spend months trying to work out what it is and end up at my lowest ebb. I am desperately trying to find the inner strength to go back on the road, but somehow, something is holding me back. Is it a deeper intuition? The truth is I need to stop. My body needs time to restore itself. A chinese doctor tells me I have low chi and I need proper rest. I have walked and travelled and moved so much, I have used up all my reserves, and then some. Basically I am running on empty…
A reflection in the mirror. Who is this stranger staring back at me? Why is it that I do not recognise the face? The sunken eyes, the pale complexion, and the downturned mouth. He looks so tired, sick even. The light has gone from his eyes? Can this really be me?
“Stop. Just stop moving. When you stop, your power will grow and you will be able to help yourself and others”.
These are the words of Maria José, a woman who looks into the heart and can read it, even when it’s closed. She holds my hand, looks me in the eyes, and knows my deepest thoughts.
“You have great power within…but stop hurting yourself” (that’s not a quote from Spider-Man I promise! It was actually the words I was told!).
It doesn’t make any sense. I am a traveller, a wanderer, a free spirit. But here I am, looking at the reflection and it doesn’t lie. It shows me the truth I don’t want to see. And when I finally accept this, a little piece of me seems to die.
Oh how I have created a perception of myself, a persona. “David the Walker”. It’s so easy when you can answer that question “so what do you do?”. But what happens when I realise that it is all just a creation of my mind and I don’t really have a response? And I have become so attached to it, that without it, I do not feel whole. Because all my life I have been striving to be something. But now, if I am not the walker, then who am I? Is it enough just to be David, without any specific goal or aim? Even writing that now feels like I am somehow giving up. But it couldn’t be further from the truth.
It is interesting how we are perceived, and how that makes us feel. And we do everything to hold on to this perception of self, carrying it around like a mask. When I had the long hair, straight away it marked me out. Or if I am wandering along with a backpack, carrying a walking stick, I am of interest. And because I am of interest to other people, I somehow seem to have meaning. I have some identification and a story which people are interested to hear just by looking at me. It’s a little caress of the ego. But once I cut my hair, stop walking and put on some smart clothes, I blend in, and nobody gives me a passing look. I seemingly become just another aimless soul, struggling to find his place in the world. My ego doesn’t like that. Such attachment to my persona.
I run. From place to place, country to country, trying to rediscover that old spark which I feel has somehow gone out. But no matter where I go, I am unfulfilled. The contradiction of moving and staying still. What am I really searching for?
For a long time I have held on to the idea which came into my mind in 2013…”I know I’ll walk to India. Yeah that’s a great idea. I can go and see all those places I’ve always dreamed of”.
It was a great idea, and it set me on a good path. But I became so attached to the idea of walking and travelling overland, that I have often put myself through hell, just to maintain that original ideal.
I remember meeting a German cyclist who was so focused on biking everywhere that he had become so miserable. He felt he couldn’t go somewhere unless he was biking. He had become so fixed on the need to bike that he would ignore beautiful opportunities that came up.
I confess that there are times I was the same. And it created so much misery and suffering, all because of some crazy idea in my mind.
The fact is, life changed. The journey has a life of its own, and in trying to control it, I was simply trying to hold on to the perception of self.
When I found myself looking in the mirror, I was still trying to understand all this. I still wanted to be out walking, as I had dreamed of 4 years before. But somehow everything was pointing to a new road, and all the signs were saying it was time to stop. Time to move on, and grow…
In some ways, I was searching for a way to let go of this desire to always want more, something new, something different. I was searching for a feeling that I am enough, and what I have is sufficient. I was searching for something deeper and more meaningful than a camera load of photos and a bucket-full of travel stories (although they are great and I have a lot of those I would like to share!).
I was searching for devotion. Or should I say Dave-otion? To no longer feel a sense of lack. To let go of my tendency towards silent suffering and to embrace myself. No need to feel a failure, no more proving to myself and others that I am still “David the walker”. Now I am just David. I have not failed. I have surrendered. I have let go of an idea which had its time, just like anything else. But in the letting go, I somehow feel I have lost my way. But far from it. The truth is I have gained the strength to say “enough”.
YOU AND ART
Your exact errors make a music that nobody hears,
Your straying feet find the great dance walking alone,
And you live on a world where stumbling always leads home.
Year after year fits over your face.
When there was youth, your talent was youth.
Later you find your way by touch,
Where moss redeems the stone.
And you discover where music begins,
Before it makes any sound,
Far in the mountains where canyons go,
Still as the always falling, ever new flakes of snow.
Oh the wandering feet. How many times have I stumbled and ended up in heaven? Somehow I have been looked after through these years and guided to the right place, at the right time. I have trusted that everything will be well, and my stumbling has always brought me home, even if i couldnt see it at the time. And in my errors, the great dance has embraced me and carried me onwards.
It’s September 2017. I find myself once again on a 10 day silent meditation retreat. During the course I notice a man who has a certain quality about him. I see him walking through the trees, along the path, deep in himself, at peace (or so it seems to me) in the surroundings. I wonder where he comes from: he has long hair, dark tanned skin, a funky dress sense and features which wouldn’t be out of place in Peru, Bolivia or Mongolia.
At the end of the course, I find myself sitting at the lunch table with him. We begin to talk, and it turns out he is from Korea. He has been travelling for the last 3 years or so. When he talks it is measured, musical, thoughtful and full of sincerity. I am touched by his humility and the aura of authenticity which surrounds him.
“I would like to give you a gift” he tells me.
He takes out his wallet from his pocket and a collection of stamps from all the countries he has visited appears in his hands. As he flicks through them, he glances up at me from time to time. Then his fingers stop. He looks at me, nods his head and, with a smile, hands me a stamp. I look at it and can’t help laughing. It is from France. And the picture?
The message could not have been clearer and the gift is great indeed. I feel like I have been knocking my head on a wall continuously, when all along there was a door right next to me. There was even a key in the lock! I just needed someone to point me in the right direction. Or perhaps because I’m stubborn, I needed many people!
I call Greece my spiritual home. My questions find an answer when I am there. Its a very powerful and special country. I thought about what it is that really makes me happy and the answer was actually quite simple. It wasn’t travelling solo by foot anymore. As fantastic as it is to wander through countries, I wanted something more. To share and have more opportunity to contribute.
I had stayed in Greece for the summer to be with meditation friends, to build a strong foundation. I am at my happiest and feel most connected in this atmosphere, with other people practicing yoga and meditation. Then in October 2017, I was invited to a wonderful yoga hostel (Ellas Retreat) as a volunteer. I spent a month practicing with fantastic teachers, and was also able to cook for everyone (the vagabond cook was happy!). At the end of 1 month I knew that this was without a doubt the environment I was looking for. I wanted more.
Breakfast time at Ellas RetreatIndia was calling to me. At Ellas Retreat I was reminded once again why I had come up with India as the destination…I was interested in discovering more about yoga, in the land of its origin. A common quest nowadays but one my heart truly called for. Of course my time in Greece proves that you don’t need to travel to the ends of the earth in order to find this. But like so many thousands before me, I could not resist the call.
“It is only when a traveller has reached his goal that he is justified in discarding his maps. During the journey he takes advantage of every available shortcut”.
– Yogananda, Autobiography of a yogi
Fast forward to May 2018. Life has taken me once again under its wing…
I have returned to my own roots. The philosophy I have developed over the last 4 and half years:
“I’m not making too many plans, because I want to be free to choose every day, and open to what I find”.
But now I don’t constrain myself in the same way. Sure, sometimes I feel like going for a walk, but honestly, it doesn’t happen quite so often! Maybe I walked it all out me.
I have been in India since New Years Day…and I didn’t walk here!
I have completed an intensive 6 week yoga “teacher training” course. Not recommended (for a number of reasons) but it did help me realise the full extent of what I put my body through on the road. I feel like if I hadn’t stopped when I did, I might have done some serious physical damage (fyi – my feet will never be the same!).
And now I have come North to the Himalayas and the lands where the Tibetans have settled. Perhaps I will have the chance to meet the Dalai Lama. After all, he knows a thing or two about happiness!
Deer Park InstituteI am in Deer Park Institute, an old Tibetan monastery which has been converted into a teaching centre. They offer courses, teachings, workshops and an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. There is serenity here. Is it the vibrations of good thought and right intention which permeate my being? Or is it that maybe, just maybe, I am in the perfect environment to allow expansiveness of the heart? I realise that these qualities are both inside and out, but I am often so caught up in my mind, I am not always aware of it.
I am sitting in a room surrounded by 21 pictures of the Green Tara. Who is she? In Tibetan Buddhism she is a female Bodhisattva (those who have a spontaneous, sincere wish to attain enlightenment for the ultimate benefit of all beings). Tara embodies compassionate action, removes obstacles and liberates from fear. She’s definitely the perfect guide for me at this present time. Or maybe she has been looking out for me for much longer than I realise!
There are about 30 of us in the room, sharing our stories in a writing workshop. It is a safe space which allows people to truly be themselves and let go of the mask we show to the outside world. Here we are putting our hearts on the line, and digging out the dirty laundry for all to see. I realise this is the first time I have read aloud to a group of strangers. It’s a strangely scary and rewarding process.
Our teacher, Janet, is a humble, kindhearted and generous soul. She tells us that “the intention of memoir is to be of use/interest to one other person…writing that comes from the heart of compassion for yourself. Memoir is not about rules, it is about exploration. Something in our global culture has convinced us that our story doesn’t matter. But storytelling goes back to the first humans, and connects us very deeply”.
Can I be of use or interest to at least one other person? I guess fundamentally that’s why I am writing this now. Is it of use to you? Are you interested? What the hell, I’m continuing and hopefully you are too.
Janet is reading from Gary Snyder, Practice of the wild. I sit with my eyes closed, enjoying the beautiful words…
“The Chinese spoke of the four “dignities” – standing, lying, sitting and walking. They are “dignities” in that they are ways of being fully ourselves, at home in our bodies. In their fundamental modes. I think many of us would consider it quite marvellous to set out on foot again with a little inn or a clean camp every 10 or so miles. And no threat from traffic, to travel across a large land – all of China, all of Europe. That’s the way to see the world: in our own bodies”.
I feel as if the words were written for me, and I growl in approval. It takes me back to days on the road. I am reminiscing silently when I hear Janet speak.
“We have someone here who has done a lot of walking”. My eyes snap open and she looks at me coyly. “Perhaps, David, you wouldn’t mind sharing?”. I am urged to centre stage. Theoretically this shouldn’t be difficult given all my years on stage. But somehow it is.
I have become reticent to talk about my walking. Is it because I feel I have failed? Here I was, put on the spot, and for the first time in I don’t know how long, I was able to open up. I could see this look of surprise on the faces of the listeners. After all, what do we really see in a room of people we don’t know? Just a set of faces. It’s amazing what happens when we open our hearts for all to hear. Each of us does have a unique story which deserves to be heard. Janet has been at pains to stress this.
Sitting in this room of strangers, I began to recount my tale. I think I talked about how I set off in search of a dream, but slowly it was eviscerated by the realities of our world. The inner journey took over and I struggled with holding my own amidst man’s greed and the blanketing of nature. Indeed I wish there were no threat from traffic.
At some point I realised it was a very negative outlook. A truth, but only one side of the story. So I began instead to discuss a question which grew in my mind throughout this journey? Is it still possible, in this day and age of internet and smartphones, to be a traveller as in days gone by? Not a tourist, but a real oldschool pilgrim, wayfarer or wanderer?
A traveller arrives with a bag full of stories to offer a break from the everyday life which people are living. He, or she, brings news of the world, a new energy and conversation. A change from the norm. “Sit and drink tea and tell me of the world you come from. How do you see us? What is our place in all of it?”.
Tell me about life in your world. Do you also have sheep and eat cheese? Are you married? How many children do you have? You are Christian? What about your father and mother? What do they think? Don’t they miss you?
These were the questions I was asked, and what for me became a daily routine. And through all this I realised that despite the information, and the internet, the televisions and smartphones, there is nothing that compares to one of the oldest traditions of mankind: that of hospitality and the sharing of life between human beings. To sit around a fire, or a hot stove, with a warm cup of tea, coffee, or often something stronger. To look into the eyes of a man or woman and share with them your story, is to build a real connection. Not just through words, but with the essence of one’s being, from the heart. It is something that the news or the internet can never give. If this can be transmitted, the dervish will always find a dwelling, the wanderer will never become completely lost, and the traveller will forever remain sacred.
This is what draws me onwards on the road, and it is the essential truth which guides my steps now. The “exact errors” and “the great dance” and the “stumbling feet…which always lead home”.
I have asked myself often since I stopped walking…”What was the point of it all?”. Behind all the striving, all the struggle, all the countless hours of meditation. The only thing that comes to mind is…”and so what?”. There is no answer, no real reason to it all. Perhaps it is this realisation which has been so hard to accept. In a goal-oriented society, it is the very antithesis of everything we strive for. There was no real concrete reason for walking. No outcome I wished for, no idea of “what next?”. Did I expect something else?
I look back on all the beauty and I feel blessed and humbled by it all. And maybe, just maybe, there was a point. I was ploughing the fields, and creating a possibility…
Fertile soil for good seeds!
A wise man once told me “You need to pour out the tea before you refill the pot”.
So….anyone for a cup?