In 1989, I travelled with my wife through Kham, the eastern part of Tibet in Sichuan Province. Bus trips took multiple days. The buses usually left before dawn, drove up and down enormous valleys and passes on single lane roads, arriving at the next town in early afternoon. Passengers would stay in a hotel and wander the town until the next dawn.
We were turned back at the border to Tibet Autonomous region, and decided to go up to Amdo in Qinghai province instead. This required a three-day bus ride back to the town of Kangding, and then another three days to the town nearest the border of Qinghai.
At the last town before Kangding, we looked at the map and saw a road that cut north and joined the road to Amdo. This would have cut our travel time down by at least a day. We learned that no buses travelled this road. People discouraged us from hitchhiking, telling us that the Tibetans out in the mountains were wild and would hijack and kill us.
We chickened out and went back to Kangding.
On the road across the border to Qinghai, we still had to hitchhike and several young Tibetan men showed us their long knives. I also learned that the Chinese word for vegetables sounds a lot like the word for firewood in the local accent. When I asked if people grew vegetables in the next town, I was told, “No, only yak shit.” Our hotel room did have a closet full of dried yak shit. We were supposed to shovel it into the cast iron stove and burn it to keep warm.
Tibetans cooked in yak oil, burned yak butter candles, lived in yak skin tents, wore yak skin clothes, decorated their homes with yak bones, and even smelled like yak grease (because they rarely showered). Yak meat is a dark brownish-red, with bright yellow marbled fat. In towns, we would see men and women with long dreadlocked hair, long knives, dark weatherbeaten skin, and wild pirate clothes coming down from the mountains with piles of reeking yak meat on their backs. It was often topped with a yak head, split open on top to reveal the brain. They were always friendly and smiling. But I probably had this image in my head when we chickened out.
I don’t like talking about my existential doubts and dreams with people. By this, I mean my disillusionment with my job and the aims of my life so far; my desire to live the second half of my life better; my general disinterest in most conventional goals; my increased alienation from the bizarre, semi-psychotic dream state of compulsive work and partying where most people exist, and my fascination in seeing where the mind can take me–perhaps to enlightenment, but at least somewhere exciting if that doesn’t exist.
Initially, I don’t like to talk about it because many people are pretty clear that they don’t want to hear it. Also because I can’t quite put it into words. I am not experienced in opening up and it ends up sounding like a cliché. I fear they will think less of me.
These days, however, I don’t have much I want to talk about other than meditating, psychedelic experiences, sex, consciousness and living with death in mind. The usual academic concerns seem increasingly absurd to me. Current events, politics (both office and national), restaurants, real estate, summer plans, being busy and snarky comments–the usual conversation fodder of the highly educated–are just dull. The practicalities of daily life are tolerable if I or somebody else has a particular challenge that needs to be solved. But that doesn’t happen so often. So I sometimes end up telling people what I am up to these days.
And when I shift the conversation to my interests, I learn that the fears listed above are not the real problems. A disinclination to listen is usually expressed quickly, and I can move on to something dull or practical. And if the listener is interested—or at least indulgent—I often find myself trying to overcome my usual inarticulateness and express myself more clearly. Some people retreat when I push it too far. That is fine. Others argue back. That is even better. But these results are rare. More commonly, I encounter two much more unsatisfactory results:
1) It turns into a bitching session about academia. This is far too seductive and I come out feeling yucky, as if I’ve just watched an awful sitcom or binged on cake. The more we struggle with it, the more attached we become. Let’s face it, we have the academia we deserve. The ideal can not be built on these structures.
2) I receive sympathy, followed by the urge to give advice and help. Usually it is a well-intentioned attempt to assure me that I am a successful and intelligent person and needn’t despair. And then I am reassured that it is always worthwhile to take a break to explore my feelings and expand my life vistas. The experience will surely be useful to me in my job and career. I’m familiar with this kind of advice—I’ve given it plenty of times. And now I realize what horrible advice it is. What use is all the questioning and doubt, if my only aim is to adjust to my existing situation, to accommodate myself to the usual platitudes? If that is the point, just to reconfirm the value of the life I already have, I’d be better off learning techniques of self-repression, such as working harder and striving for more praise.
No, I want the courage to break.