‘In late September of 1973, I set out with zoologist George Schaller on a journey to the Crystal Mountain, walking west under Annapurna and north along the Kali Gandaki River, then north again, around the Dhaulagiri peaks and across the Kanjiroba, 250 miles or more to the Land of Dolpo, of the Tibetan Plateau.”
Thus begins a magnificent and difficult journey of adventure, hope and rebirth for writer and Zen devotee Peter Matthiessen.
Upon his return from the beauty and magic of the Crystal Mountain, while sitting in a small and dark hotel room in Kathmandu, Matthiessen ends his narrative with the following:
“I sit down on the bed and begin to laugh, but I might just as easily weep. In the gaunt, brown face in the mirror — unseen since late September — the blue eyes in a monkish skull seem eerily clear, but this is the face of a man I do not know.”
I have been rereading Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard because I remember it being helpful to me during an earlier period in my life. Now, as I did back then, I am looking for some sort of transformative experience to help me though another difficult period.
An old Zen phrase comes to mind for the circumstances I now found myself in: Every once in a while, we must be willing to take everything out of our room, decide what is important to us, and bring back in only those things we need.
When I first read Matthiessen, I was embarking on a journey best described by both critics and aficionados as “back to the land.”
Many of us in the early ‘70s were searching for a respite from war, social injustice and racism.
Our goal was to begin anew, to be reborn on the land, to be able to care for our own needs.
We were after affordable, sustainable and meaningful ways to take control of our lives.
We wanted to shape our own destinies by moving away from the world our parents had created and into one of our own making.
We wanted to limit what we would bring back into our rooms.
Many of us were looking for radical experiences as our way of changing the world around us.
While many of us only dreamed the dream, Matthiessen was there, doing the hard work, transfixed on the Crystal Mountain, working at transformation — open to be transformed by what he found.
Back then, many of us cleared out our rooms and went back to the land. Some of us stayed, most of us did not. For many of us the changes we experienced were temporary.
The world soon went back to where it was.
So today I look back over Matthiessen’s record searching for clues. His journey was truly transformative; what he learned he remembered, what he brought back into his room was sparse, meaningful and enduring.
What is the difference?
Two things, I think.
Our “back-to-the-land” movement was ill-fated from the beginning because as Matthiessen was soon to learn, we cannot just separate (drop out) from the rest of the world. We are hopelessly and hopefully tied to everything else.
And Matthiessen looked for happiness in all the right places. Most of us back then looked elsewhere.
We were looking for temporary relief afforded us in drugs, music and communal living.
We were unwilling to do the hard work of freeing ourselves from our addictions. We simply found new ones.
We brought in our own music to drown out that of our parents.
We screwed the cap back on the vodka bottle and unwrapped the acid.
We gave up the eight-cylinder Buicks of our father’s generation and pieced together easy-to-repair Volkswagens. We continued to consume, just consumed differently.
The Crystal Mountain taught Matthiessen, “all worldly pursuits have but the one unavoidable and inevitable end, which is sorrow: acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings in destruction; meetings in separation; births in death.”
He learned that trusting fully in life means we must first make peace with death. The journey to the Crystal Mountain riveted him in the notion that all that is or was or will ever be is right here in the moment. Now!
We tried to ‘be here now’ in the ‘70s. What we did not know back then (and Matthiessen was soon to learn) was that the process of transformation is a lifelong process, never ending, never to be fully realized. It is the process, not the product, that is the goal.
Matthiessen was willing to accept the truth of the matter: we have allowed our material wants to define who we are and we must learn to disregard that definition.
There will be times when we do not recognize ourselves. Times when we look in the mirror and do not know the face we see.
But do not despair. This can be a good thing.
Gregory Heming is a writer and optimist living in Haines Junction.