So I’m with friends hiking in the Himalayas, and we run into a Buddhist monk who is climbing up to a monastery where he will spend the next eight years in silent meditation. As our guide explains this, Rich grabs some of the monk’s stuff, hoists it onto his shoulder, and helps transport it up the steep slope. This simple, impulsive act of kindness results in an invitation to accompany the monk to the top of the monastery’s tower. We wind our way up endless, dizzying flights of wooden stairs to the small room where this man will spend the next eight years – 2920 days! – in quiet contemplation, attended only by a villager bringing meals. We ask the monk about his meditation practice.
“In meditation,” he says, “your attention is like the flame of a candle. It flickers and wavers, but eventually it always comes back to the center.” He gives a slight wave of his hand to illustrate the point. “Sometimes it’s like a fish on a line, it goes way, way out there–“ a more sweeping gesture this time. “But you just reel it back in. Every time.” Afterwards, one of my friends asks to have his picture taken with the monk, and, emboldened, I ask the same. He nods and gestures for Rich and me to come sit by him.
Now, there’s a delicate social etiquette surrounding Buddhist monks, as some of them have taken vows never to touch a woman; even minor violations of this code require weeks of purification rituals, and I don’t want our new friend to be obliged to add that on to his eight-year plan. So as I sit down, I take extraordinary pains to keep space between us – no easy task in the cramped attic room. And then, just as a friend snaps the picture, the monk reaches out and grabs me in a bear hug.
I love that picture; I can still feel the laughter that burst out of all of us at that moment. And it serves as a cherished reminder of how spontaneity can enrich our lives.
I recently read a post by Nora Dunn, The Professional Hobo, called How Travel Rewards You For Being Impulsive. Her anecdotes and suggestions include “Try a New Food or Drink,” “Accept Invitations,” and “Dance Without Caring What Other People Think.” I liked them all, especially the last. As many of you know, Rich and I once went dancing in a fountain late on a steamy night in Seville, prompting a local curmudgeon to growl, “Hey you two, is that any way to behave? You wouldn’t do that back where you come from!” And that’s my whole point. Travel is a great way to put yourself in fresh surroundings that prompt you to take chances and try new things, like eating fried flies, going to bullfights, and having Buddhist monks surprise the hell out of you.
Of course, you don't want to abandon common sense entirely. At home or abroad, I wouldn’t recommend going to a stranger’s apartment to look at her collection of KGB weapons or his tattoos of Hitler’s greatest moments. But for the most part, we’re seldom risking more than a little boredom, social awkwardness, or that sinking feeling that comes when you realize they’re serious about you eating the brains of the pig.
Nora writes, “On my first-ever overseas trip (to China, when I was 18 years old), at a traditional Peking Duck dinner I was presented with fried scorpions. Being none too thrilled with scorpions while alive much less dead, I didn’t try them, and have spent the last 20 years regretting that moment.” To be honest, I would have passed on the scorpions, too. But the great thing about having regrets like Nora’s is that the next time somebody offers you an adventure, culinary or otherwise, you’re highly motivated to take a chance and say “Yes!” to something completely new. And there's no telling where that will lead you...
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. I make frequent trips to the USA, especially my native California, because America is something you have to stay in practice for, and I don't want to lose my touch.
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