The End of Seeking (Or Dig In One Place)
By Mark Matousek
Listen to Mark Matousek reading this chapter from his audiobook:
In the decade after quitting my job at Interview magazine, I lived in 28 different locations, not counting extended road trips and short-term squats, camping out in retreat centers, spare bedrooms, house-sits, sublets, sport utility vehicles, anywhere that I could find a cheap bed and a teacher who claimed to have something important to say. From Frankfurt to Philadelphia to Fuengirola, Myrtle Beach to Bhubaneswar, San Francisco to Paris to Pondicherry, and back again to Manhattan.
I became a compulsive Dharma Bum, followed my divine impulses wherever they led and my Visa card was accepted. People said I was crazy for living this way for so long, and they might have been right, but it was good crazy, metamorphosis crazy, crazy for learning and waking up before the fat lady crooned her last.
Spiritual seeking was the most intense love affair I'd ever had. It brimmed with unconsummated desire, the tantra of playing peek-a-boo with God, the beloved that no one could ever possess. The divine perfume kept me snout to the ground, self-absorbed as any hopeful romantic. I'd finally found an object of desire that seemed worthy of both the chase and the heartache. Pursuing wisdom instead of money, sex, bylines, or security, which I rejected then as a bourgeois illusion, I felt authentic for the first time. My life had a noble purpose at last. I thought I'd become some kind of hero.
Then my honeymoon with the Holy Grail ended as swiftly as it began. I was minding my own business one afternoon, by a lake at a South Carolina retreat center, meditating on the meaning of light on water and whooping loons munching on Spanish moss, when the ghost of Christmas future appeared, wearing orange harem pants and a single pink flower stuck into his long, gray hair. With no invitation from me, this aging hippy proceeded to tell me the sobering story of his life. He'd been a spiritual seeker since Ram Dass [and Timothy Leary] first proclaimed, "Turn on, tune in, drop out," in the 60s, searched for God — Nirvana he called it — and avoided the trappings of worldly life.
Now, this poor guy was staring down retirement age with nothing to show for his years on the God Trail, he told me sadly, but a P.O. Box in Santa Cruz, a plethora of religious moments, and his membership card to the AARP. He was lonely, road weary, wistful, and bitter. His resemblance to who I might become myself, were I to live that long, was too pointed and painful to overlook.
"You want to know what I ended up with after all that seeking, brother?" the old hippy asked me, tugging one of his many gold earrings. "Nada," he said, "Nothing." "But how could that be?" I asked in self-defense. He'd chosen a life of surprises and travel, spent his time on the road not taken, expanded his mind with wisdom and awe. "We all make our choices," I said to the guy, "Every choice has its pros and cons." Maybe he was just having a crappy day.
The stranger waved my excuses aside, then paused my heart with these frightening words: "Go home while you're still young, Buddy Boy. Dig in one place." I felt as if God had sent me a prophet, a sign to ignore at my own peril. The sign pointed straight at the secret suspicion, the one I'd been trying so hard to ignore, that I was metaphysically full of shit. I was running away from my life, not toward it, focused on holiness Casanova-style — mounting the next retreat, teaching, Ayurvedic chakra cleanse — for the same reason philanderers can't stop chasing skirts. They're afraid to die. They're secretly scared that if they stop running, they'll be trapped. The trap, or woman, will morph into a grave. The reaper just might spare a moving target. You stick to the edge when the middle's too scary. Promiscuous seeking, I saw, was a ruse.
Next, I had the deflating misfortune of reading a book called Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, which if you haven't read it, don't, if you want to have an ego left. Fantasy-wise it was downhill from there. Sages across the board proclaimed against the refuge of the road. "When a thing is everywhere, the way is not to travel, but to love," Augustan said. "To seek is not to find," said Rumi. "I came to a spot in the road where all paths were one," said Dogen. "Most seekers are just Narcissus in drag," said Da Free John. The checkmate of this was abhorrent to me, but I did not want to end up with nada.
Returning to the city for the time being, I rented a cheap apartment downtown. I lined my walls with photos of otherworldly saints to help relieve me of claustrophobia. The strategy didn't work for long. Soon enough, I was going crazy. The walls were breathing in on me. I couldn't breathe myself, and then came the morbid ideation. This led to moments of genuine knee-knocking panic. I really didn't want to die, but as winter passed and the leaves returned, the courtyard behind my apartment quite peaceful, I began to get used to staying put. Being still made way for a ghost to appear.
In the bathroom one morning, as I was brushing my teeth, a numinous presence announced itself behind me. Not an actual ghost exactly, more a mounting apparition of dread, a condensation of feelings so thick it appeared to envelop me as I stood there holding my toothbrush. The ghost invited me to have a figurative seat. I paused and listened. The tone of its voice was more poignant than scary. The ghost told me it was a distillation of all my greatest fears. It was the combined essence of all that I dreaded, the dark thing I'd been running away from. This ghost simply wanted me to listen.
As if hearing confession from myself to music sadder than anything I had allowed myself to hear before, it spoke to me in a major chord about the unfinished symphony, the longings and dreams that could go unfulfilled, the lopped-off, pissed-off refrain that began the day I started expecting to die young. Hearing the ghost's voice touched me. It was not horrifying, so I listened to the ghost in the months to come. There's a place where beauty and sadness meet. If you've been there yourself, you know already, where the two become indistinguishable. It's the place where sadness is no longer ugly, where grief begins feeling like soap in a wound, painful but purgative at the same time.
Once in Italy, I watched my host, a restorer of damaged paintings, as he worked on a Renaissance canvas so encrusted by time that the image had been covered up completely. Ravi dipped his brush in the lye-smelling liquid and ran it across the grimy surface, revealing an eye, an ear, a cheek, and finally the face of a curly haired child gazing up at a pair of wings. It amazed me that something so foul and evil smelling could uncover so much hidden beauty. At home now, for the first time in years, I was learning that grief works the same way, poisonous if withheld too long, clarifying upon its release. This ghost and I became allies that year. Its voice told me what I was afraid of. Today, we're still close, but I rarely see him.
There's a story about a beggar who was sitting on the side of the road. The old man had been on the road for years. A stranger approached one afternoon. "Spare some change?" mumbled the beggar, mechanically shaking his tin cup. "I have nothing to give you," the stranger said. The beggar turned away in disgust. Then the stranger asked, "What is that you're sitting on?" "Nothing," the beggar told him, "Just an old box. I've been sitting on it for as long as I can remember." "Ever look inside?" asked the stranger. "Why?" the beggar replied, "What's the point? There's nothing in there." The stranger insisted, "Have a look inside." The beggar refused at first, then finally decided to pry the lid open. With astonishment, disbelief, and elation, he saw that the box was filled with gold. Coming home, I had opened the box.
This excerpt is from Mark Matousek’s book, When You’re Falling, Dive. To order your copy, click here.