By Toby Israel
On a recent visit to London, in July of 2016, I had dinner with a former classmate.
We had met at university in an “Intro to Buddhism” class. I didn’t know it then, in my first semester, but many themes from that course would wind their way through the subsequent years of my life.
Over our glasses of red wine—Merlot, I think—I recounted a memory of our class that stood out from the rest. It’s funny, sometimes, what ends up sticking in our minds. Someone had asked our professor if he wanted to reach enlightenment—if that’s what he was seeking.
He had answered softly (he always spoke softly): “I’m not so interested in enlightenment. I’m interested in the possibility of expanding my awareness.”
Not long before that conversation over glasses of Merlot, I had completed the Camino de Santiago, a 30-day pilgrimage across the north of Spain. I was seeking (as I always am) but in a vague way—blurry and undefined. Yet, every time I set out on a journey like this, someone is bound to say:
“I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
As if “what I’m looking for” could possibly fit into a month-long journey (as if I would want it to).
Every time I return, someone is bound to ask:
“Did you find what you were looking for?”
So, did I?
Maybe this is unhelpful, and maybe I’ve spent too much time around Buddhist philosophy, but this is what I have to say in answer to that oft-repeated question: No.
But there’s a longer answer, too. I wasn’t looking for anything, so I doubt I would find it. That’s the difference between a trip and a journey—only one has a destination. I found nothing on my Camino journey. Nothing. I did not have any epiphany. My life did not change.
I think if we set out walking (meditating, praying, anything) in search of enlightenment, we will be disappointed. And that’s not depressing; it’s inspiring. It is exhilarating, this not knowing. It is enthralling, this seeking-but-not-finding. It is magnetic, this grey in-between-ness of no-thing—neither empty of wisdom nor full of answers.
If “no” is not a satisfying response, I’m sorry, but it’s the only one I’ll give—at least for now. No, I did not find what I was looking for. I wasn’t looking for, you see.
About halfway through the Camino, in a moment of clarity, I wrote something on the same subject. I hope it may prove a more satisfactory, if somewhat abstract, answer:
“Will I come back wiser?” asked my ego.
“I don’t know,” my more honest self replied. I think I’d be the last to know. Do any of us come back “wiser” from anything? I have my doubts. I will come back with bigger calves from walking and stronger shoulders from carrying my pack.
This is certain.
I will carry in my heart 30 peaceful mornings where dawn breaks over still meadows, and the wind whispers a song only I can hear.
This is certain.
I’m not interested in finding. The beauty is in the in-between.
Toby Israel is an incorrigible vagabond. She travels in search of dragons, searches and cross-cultural understanding. Avid dancer, yogi, cook and lover of words, she is inspired by movement and poetry, good food and new things. She studied Anthropology at Middlebury College and now has the privilege of working as an editor at elephant journal. She also continues to find her way in the world as a 21st century nomad, and you can share her journey at her travel blog, Next Stop World, and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!
Editor: Dana Gornall