Tuesday, June 10, 2008

On 'Vagabonding' and Responsibility

A version of this essay is published at Brave New Traveler Magazine.

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

From the Tao Te Ching, by Lao-Tzu (chapter 67)

In a recent post to The Traveler’s Notebook, traveler, journalist and eco-philosopher Tim Patterson provided a how-to guide to traveling for free (or very cheap) – a practice that could be called “vagabonding” – for which he was promptly assailed by a number of readers for advocating a kind of shiftlessness and irresponsibility.

He was nailed with all manner of epithets – called irresponsible, a “hippie,” a bum, an idealist, impractical, a “rich, privileged, arrogant hipster,” and the like. In reality, Tim was just offering some practical low-budget travel advice. As such, the vitriolic feedback he got from a number of readers is way out-of-proportion.

But why is that? What brought on this storm of denouncements?

I think I have an idea.

You see, as humans, whenever we have a strong emotional reaction to something, that’s a great opportunity to learn something about ourselves, the way our psyche works, the way our minds are wired up. When we react strongly, that’s usually an indication that some fundamental metaphysical axiom, in other words, some deeply held belief, is being challenged.

Tim’s piece giving practical low-budget travel advice struck a nerve with some folks. And my sense is that these are not oddball folks – rather they are probably fairly typical, fairly mainstream in their beliefs and attitudes.

I suggest this because one of the primary fundamental axioms held in our dominant Western “civilized” culture has to do with the importance of getting somewhere in life. From a very young age, we’re urged to “achieve” this or that, “become responsible,” and to “make something of ourselves.”

Well that’s a curious phrase, isn’t it – “make something of yourself”? Aren’t I already something? Of course, that isn’t what’s intended by the phrase – we’re meant to make something important of ourselves. And in this case important means to embody success, as understood in the conventional way.

So let’s look at this idea of success:

Stealing an illustration from Alan Watts, we ask: What’s the outcome of success in business as we know it? More business! That means more investment, more production, more stuff, more expansion, more proliferation of mostly material ticky-tacky, and to go along with all this, more bulldozing over ecosystems to make it all possible.

Now, granted, all this business – this busy-ness – has produced some technological marvels and various benefits to our lives and to society. But if one is to take a reasonably objective view, one has to ask the question, “At what cost?”

And for all our technology and busy-ness, we’ve got nuclear weapons, climate change, deforestation, a precipitous decline in biodiversity rivaled only by the extinction event that did away with the dinosaurs, GMOs, an environment full of toxic chemicals, “Reality TV,” high-density Confined Animal Feeding Operations, the largest disparity in wealth between the rich and the poor in human history, unprecedented levels of violence and social decay in our cities, etc. etc. etc., and to top it off, an economic system that itself survives by accelerating the rate of all of these forms of destruction and desecration and depravity.

Even so, a belief held very deeply by most folks in our society is that in the present, we are now better off than ever before in human history. But considering the above, I’m disinclined to be so sure about this.

But here’s how all this relates to vagabonding, and notions about “responsibility”:

Responsibility in our society means getting somewhere in life. It means making something of yourself.

There is only one requirement to be a vagabond traveler, and that is to relinquish any notion of or attachment to getting somewhere in life or of making something of oneself other that what one already is.

Being a successful vagabond traveler requires one to viscerally experience the basic realization that the conventionally held fundamental metaphysical axiom of our “civilized” culture is an illusion and is absurd. To rip off ol’ A-Dub again, “It’s like a mosquito biting an iron bull - It’s the nature of a mosquito to bite, and the nature of an iron bull to be un-bitable.”

A vagabond traveler realizes that naught but frustration, anxiety and suffering can come from blindly applying oneself to a futile task such as this. Thus a successful vagabond traveler sees the inherent emptiness in the conventional notion of success, and therefore, as is written in the Tao Te Ching, “has no fixed plans / and is not intent upon arriving.” (chapter 27)

To illustrate this emptiness, let me chart a conventional course of success.

You’re told in grade school to study hard so that you can get into a “good” college. OK, what then?

In college you study hard in order to earn a degree, and get into a good graduate school or professional program. OK, what then?

You work very hard to distinguish yourself in graduate or professional school, so that you can get a high-paying and/or prestigious job. OK, what then?

If you’re a university professor, you work very hard to get tenure. If you’re in a business of some kind, you work very hard to get a promotion, to get a raise in pay, to “climb the corporate ladder.” OK, what then?

Well, with this money and status you must live in a house and drive a car and participate in certain recreational and social activities commensurate with you income level and professional status. This is necessarily expensive and, from the planet’s perspective, most often obscenely resource intensive. OK, what then?

Perhaps along the way you marry and have children. You have to begin to put away money for (1) your own retirement, and (2) to be able to pay to send your children through this same system of studying and working to achieve the thing and make something of themselves as well, and on into the future, ad absurdum…

At the end of it all, if you’ve been clever, “responsible,” and a bit lucky, you get to retreat to the Elysian Fields of Retirement. This seems to be the goal most people in our society are working for, although what they’ll do when they get there I don’t know.

N.B.: My late grandfather, incidentally, had a bumper sticker on his truck that read “RETIRED. Don’t Ask Me To Do A Damn Thing.” And indeed, that was how he lived. And well done for him. (I mean that honestly; no sarcasm intended.)

Anyway, the point is, what’s the point of all this? Where are you trying to get by going through all this? To ask this question another way:

At what point when you have amassed X amount of personal fortune, accumulated Y amount of material possessions, and achieved Z status as ‘an upstanding member of society’ do you shout “Enough!” and commence living a life of contentment?

Looking around our society, it seems that hardly anyone has reached this point. We’ve all got that thousand-yard stare, squinting intently and with considerable anxiety at the horizon – out there, in the future, when we’ll finally have enough. Then we can relax and begin to live. (I suppose.)

This is, I think, the defining characteristic of the conventional mind in our society – never satisfied in the present, never content with what is, always grasping for something more. And we’re certainly inundated with enough marketing and advertising and PR to encourage this mindset.

You see, in a sense, the vagabond traveler is a kind of avatar for our society. She is one who has seen the inherent emptiness behind the conventional understanding of success, who has realized the futility of living a life in unending pursuit of an illusory future happiness.

The vagabond traveler embodies the realization that there is no place other than here, and there is no time other than now. So if one is going to enjoy one’s life, it has to be done in the here-and-now. If one is incapable of enjoying life in the present then one is incapable of enjoyment, period, because the present is the only time there is and “future enjoyment” does not exist.

In the Tao Te Ching (as translated by Stephen Mitchell), the word “content” appears 11 times. Here are some examples showing what Lao-Tzu was trying to tell us…

From chapter 8:
“[The Tao, or natural way] is content with the low places that people disdain.”

“When you are content to be simply yourself / and don't compare or compete / everybody will respect you.”

From chapter 30:
“Because he is content with himself / he doesn't need others' approval.”

Chapter 37:
“The Tao never does anything / yet through it all things are done.

If powerful men and women / could enter themselves in it / the whole world would be transformed / by itself, in its natural rhythms / People would be content / with their simple, everyday lives / in harmony, and free of desire.

When there is no desire / all things are at peace.”

From chapter 39:
“In harmony with the Tao / the sky is clear and spacious / the earth is solid and full / all creature flourish together / content with the way they are / endlessly repeating themselves / endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao / the sky becomes filthy / the earth becomes depleted / the equilibrium crumbles / creatures become extinct.”

Chapter 44:
“Fame or integrity: which is more important? / Money or happiness: which is more valuable? / Success of failure: which is more destructive?

If you look to others for fulfillment / you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money / you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have / rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking / the whole world belongs to you.”

From chapter 65:
“If you want to learn how to govern / avoid being clever or rich.

The simplest pattern is the clearest / Content with an ordinary life / you can show all people the way / back to their own true nature.”

From chapter 80:
“If a country is governed wisely / its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands / and don't waste time inventing / labor-saving machines.”

(Of course, on the topic of travel, the Tao also says in chapter 80:

Since they dearly love their homes / they aren't interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats / but these don't go anywhere….
…And even though the next country is so close / that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking / they are content to die of old age / without ever having gone to see it.”)

So what the vagabond traveler actually represents is a higher kind of responsibility – one who is more in touch with reality and the true nature of the Universe; although the typical mind will always label her as “out-of-touch,” “impractical,” and a “denier of reality.” This mis-labeling and the anger that comes with it – the anger that was showing up in several of the reactions to Tim’s post on low-budget vagabond travel – arise because the deepest Self, beneath all those layers of conventional Mind, resonates with the truth exposed and illustrated by the liberated vagabond, the free-spirited wandering ascetic. And for one strongly identified with the egoic mind and thus caught up in conventional notions of success, that resonance is frightening.

This deepest Self, this universal thing that the Hindus call Atman, has hidden itself inside each of us, playing this colossal game of hide-and-seek. This hallucination that we are “isolated centers of sensation locked up in a bag of skin” (what is indicated in Western psychological parlance by the term “ego”) - hides our true nature from ourselves. Tim’s essay on traveling for free struck such a nerve with folks because he wasn’t addressing individual egos in terms that are comfortable, but rather speaking directly to the Universal Self hidden within all of us in terms intended to draw it out and expose the ongoing illusion of our conventional lives.

This Universal Self knows full well the illusory nature of success in the conventional, egoic sense, and moves naturally to embrace the Tao of Vagabond Travel that Tim illustrates in his piece. A strong negative emotional reaction to this Tao of Travel is simply indicative of folks’ identification with the ego. And when the ego is threatened, it gets defensive - we all know what that’s like, huh!?! Who among us has never reacted angrily and all-out-of-proportion before?

So remember folks, as Lao-Tzu said:

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

(Tao Te Ching, chapter 67)

Don’t be too hard on yourselves. Or each other. (Which is to say the same thing.)

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