In 1973, Peter Matthiessen trekked through the remote mountains of Nepal with his friend, the field biologist George Schaller, to study Himalayan blue sheep and other rarely-seen animals. As an author and a student of Buddhism, Matthiessen was also on a quest to meet the Lama of Shey in a place called Crystal Mountain. In The Snow Leopard, he meticulously captured the details of the natural beauty he saw, the people he encountered, and his spiritual growth.
It’s what happened to him on the way down from the mountain that taught me a particularly useful lesson.
Throughout the journey, it’s clear Matthiessen is a serious practitioner of Buddhism as well as a student. Braving the icy winds on the mountain, he fills the time inside his tent with prolonged periods of meditation. As he visits different religious figures and their shrines, he's able to describe the history and meaning of the artifacts and rituals.
He’s also able to describe his own inner experiences. How he relates to the death of his wife and trying to raise his son. As they go deeper into the mountains, you can feel him making spiritual progress.
On the way down, though, something happens. As much as he’s appreciated the journey, he’s eager to get through the severals-days trip back down. Repeated delays infuriate him. He screams at a sick villager who pokes his head into his tent. When a barking dog twice disturbs his sleep, he responds by urinating on it - “a cowardly act.”
Far from celebrating my great journey, I feel mutilated, murderous: I am in a fury of dark energies, with no control at all on my short temper…I am still beset by the same old lusts and ego and emotions, the endless nagging details and irritations - that aching gap between what I know and what I am.
“Have I learned nothing?”
As I was reading The Snow Leopard, I remember feeling envious of Matthiessen. His encyclopedic knowledge, spiritual connection with nature, and deep introspection. Then, for a moment, he’s just like me. Even worse than me.
For all my attempts at personal development, I’m frustrated by how a small mishap can make me acutely aware of “that aching gap between what I know and what I am.” Exasperated, I ask myself “Have I learned nothing?”
In those moments, I take solace in Matthiessen’s trip down the mountain, and knowing that even an advanced student of the human experience can stumble in his spiritual journey. It teaches me that it’s part of the journey, part of the learning.
Matthiessen’s next entry in his journal is quite different. He’s once again calmer, happier. It’s a new day.