“Well there are existential crises and there are midlife crises, they are two different things and it appears you’re here because you’re having both.”
Elizabeth, a devoted zen practitioner of 40 years and my venerable teacher was sitting in an “L” shape on the bed across from me. She had shared this observation with me in the same matter-of-fact way I imagined she would have informed a blind track runner that the baton he was carrying was actually a lit stick of dynamite. Maybe even two sticks.
This was day one of my first sesshin —a Japanese term for the three day silent zen meditation retreat I had just begun. The word translates literally to “touching the heart-mind”. I was sure Elizabeth could see the chain reaction of explosions now going off in the full-empty of my heart-mind.
The fuse, had most likely begun to burn three and a half weeks earlier in a conversation with my business coach.
“I think you should get out of town. Doesn’t matter where, just go somewhere for a while.” Chris had suggested.
My stomach felt like it was tumble drying an avocado pit. I had just finished sharing my realization that I needed to leave the start-up my partner and I had been working together on for the last 18 months. I felt burnt out. It was scary to admit it.
“Look, you’re not crazy. You’re a smart guy with a lot of passion for life. You just need to take some time and see how you feel.” he continued.
The smart and not crazy thing felt suspect, but getting out of town sounded like a good idea.
Two days later I was sitting in a beat up lawn chair drinking cheap, boxed red wine. It was midnight and the only signs of human life were the fresh tracks left in the sand by my Mazda3 and the occasional headlights of a truck from the road I had turned off of a mile or so back. The Mojave Desert sprawled out towards the horizon in all directions before being swallowed whole by the starlit night sky above it. The silhouette of the mountains on the horizon looked like jagged teeth, and I imagined myself joining Geppeto in the caverns of Monstro’s belly. For a moment my worries vanished.
What the hell am I doing out here? And WHY didn’t I bring a survival knife with me??
I had turned on my lamp to find a pair of yellow, alien-like eyes staring back at me from a fox a just a few yards away in the night.
This was the beginning of what my friends would later dub as my “walkabout” —alluding to the sacred pilgrimage made by Australian aboriginals in the bush.
My three week, 3,000 mile road trip wouldn’t include me tracing my ancestor’s songlines, however by the end of it I had summited Half Dome, backpacked in the Sierras, and spent three Walden-like days at Fishhawk lake in Northwest Oregon.
That first day in the Mojave desert I had come across a passage in Robert Pirsig’s classic novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The narrator, reflecting on his own hang ups, described the occasional need to drift:
“We’re living in topsy turvy times and I think that what causes the topsy turvy feeling is inadequacy of old forms of thought to deal with new experiences. I’ve heard it said that the only real learning results from hang ups, where instead of extending the branches of what you already know you have to stop and drift laterally for a while until you come across something that allows you to expand the roots of what you know.”
That neatly summed up the strategy I had shared with Elizabeth on that first day of sesshin. I was getting ready to lift anchor for destinations uncertain and unknown.
Two months later I was driving north on the I-5 with everything I still owned crammed into the back of my Mazda3 hatch. The queen-sized foam mattress pad that filled up at least a quarter of the car reminded me I was still a ways off from reaching hardcore minimalist status. I wasn’t going to lose too much sleep over that.