Searching for Answers
From Chapter 9 of The Path: One Man's Quest on the Only Path There Is
Is not joy, I asked myself, what all men are really seeking, in their heart of hearts? Why, then, do so few experience it? And why is it so common for people to suffer in the very pursuit of happiness? Toward the end of the semester it occurred to me that perhaps the fault lay with our life-style in America. How, I asked myself, could anyone find true happiness while satiating himself on physical comforts? Thoreau's statement in Walden impressed me: "Of a life of luxury the fruit is luxury." For the materialist, the heights of inspiration are unimaginable.
The worst disease of modern life, I concluded, is complacency. True joy is ever creative; it demands fresh, vital, intense awareness. How, I thought impatiently, will happiness worthy of the name ever be felt by people who are too complacent to hold an unconventional thought? Materialism cannot buy happiness.
It is not unusual for this kind of judgment to be met with indulgent smiles, as though the sheer frequency with which it is made, by young people especially, rendered it invalid. But considering the fact that it is arrived at more or less independently by so many seekers after honest values, I think it might be wise to ponder whether it contains an element of truth.
At any rate, my own solution that year to the shortcomings I identified with life in America was to travel abroad. I imagined people in less industrialized countries turning to their daily tasks with a song on their lips, and inspiration in their hearts. Mexico was such a country. I would spend my summer vacation there among simple, happy, spontaneous, genuine human beings.
Getting there was my first problem. If I took a job to earn the money for the journey, my vacation might end before I'd saved enough. How, then-short of robbing a bank-could I "get rich quick"? What was called for, obviously, was another application of my theory on luck.
Affirming a bright, positive attitude, I cast about hopefully for a solution. Our college yearbook, I remembered, offered cash prizes for a variety of literary contributions. If only I could win a large enough prize, my problem would be solved! I leafed through the book. Most of the prizes listed were small: ten, fifteen, twenty-five dollars. But then a more promising figure caught my eye: one hundred dollars! This amount would take me far, indeed. Eagerly I checked to see what I must do to win it. Then my heart sank. The requirement was for an essay on the subject "The Basic Principles Underlying the Government of the United States." Some law professor, probably, dreamed up this legal gem! Why, I thought with a sigh, must educators continually place the highest price on the driest matter? Who would ever write on such a ponderous subject?
I was about to pass on to other prospects when the answering thought came: "That's right: Who would?" Examining the information more closely, I found no one listed as having won this prize the previous year. I checked several earlier yearbooks: None of them showed a winner. Perhaps after all there was hope! Ignorant though I was of the fine legal or historical points implied in the topic, if mine was the sole entry. . . .
Anyway, I reflected, I wasn't completely ignorant. At least I knew America's basic principles as they are popularly defined: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That brief phrase might not make much of an essay, but what if I took a fresh approach to it? Would the judges decide I'd skirted the issue if, for example, I examined our present-day society in the light of how truly it was living up to those principles? Here at least I'd be walking familiar ground.
Dividing my essay into three chapters-"Life," "Liberty," and, "The Pursuit of Property"-I sought to demonstrate how, by our relentless acquisitiveness, we were depriving ourselves of all three of our basic rights: life and liberty, as well as happiness.
My paper was the sole entry. It won the prize.
Another prize offered in the yearbook was of fifteen dollars for the best poem submitted. Though this was hardly "big money," it seemed worth a light stab; I already had a few poems written that I could submit. In this effort, I knew, I faced competition. The campus poetry club had been debating which of its members would walk away with the prize; they'd already made clear their view that I, who wasn't a member, didn't stand a chance. In the past we'd crossed swords on the subject of solitary, versus group, creativity. To me a poetry club seemed a contradiction in terms. I saw it as a victory for my own point of view when this prize came to me.
Thus, with $115 in my pocket before the vacation had even started, I decided I had enough money for the journey. If I found later that I needed more, Lady Luck would no doubt provide it. Barely nineteen years old, never before on my own, and with my parents far away in Rumania: I considered myself an adventurer indeed!
Before leaving for Mexico, I took a short trip north to Massachusetts to visit Rod. Soon thereafter my great odyssey began. Heading south, I made use of a return-trip train ticket that I was holding from New York to Philadelphia. From Philadelphia I planned to hitchhike, armed with my so-far-successful formula for attracting luck, and burdened with nothing but a knapsack.
A young couple seated behind me in the train noticed the knapsack, and engaged me in conversation. Was I a hiker? They themselves were enthusiastic youth hostelers. We chatted pleasantly; soon we were singing folk songs. By the time we reached Philadelphia we felt like old friends. They invited me to spend the night in their family home in Ardmore, the town before Haverford on the Main Line.
This home turned out to be no mere residence, but a veritable mansion. Their hospitality, too, was extraordinary. A member of the family was about to be married; relatives were arriving from distant parts. Food fit for the most educated tastes was being served at every meal. Lady Luck, I reflected, seemed particularly well disposed towards me!
The following morning, as I was sitting in the living room preparatory to leaving, the dowager of the clan entered and took a chair next to mine. Her smiling manner hinted at good news for me.
"I have a nephew," she began, "who is being sent by his firm to Mexico City. He will be leaving tomorrow by car. As he is traveling alone, I'm sure he would appreciate company. Do you think you might like to go with him?"
A three-thousand-mile ride! Lady Luck was taking a most welcome interest in my case. Bob Watson, the nephew, not only took me along, but appointed me his extra driver, thereby paying all my travel expenses from his expense account. When we reached Mexico City, he put me up in his home. Thus my money, which I found had less purchasing power than I'd imagined, lasted me the entire summer.
Bob, and later his wife, Dorothy, when she joined us, were the kindest of friends to me. Our Mexican adventure was as new and fascinating for them as it was for me. Together we shared its daily lessons, rewards, and comic twists as we reported our new experiences to one another in the evenings.
Recalling my impromptu system for learning Greek, I was resolved now to learn Spanish the same way. The day Bob and I crossed the border at Nuevo Laredo, I told myself with deep concentration, "You're a Mexican." Hours later, having carefully rehearsed my words, I entered a restaurant and asked for something to drink, taking pains to get the accent as correctly as I could. An American tourist lady was standing nearby. Hearing me speak, she promptly boosted my confidence by exclaiming in astonishment, "Why, you're a Mexican!"
In one week, by following what was, I realized, a definite principle for self-education, I was speaking Spanish well enough to carry on protracted, if halting, conversations on a wide variety of subjects with people who knew no English. By the end of two and a half months my Spanish was fairly fluent.
The principle, I discovered, is to put oneself completely in tune with whatever subject one wants to master. Inborn talent, though helpful, is not nearly so important as deep concentration. Anyone can do well if he will attune himself sensitively with his subject, and resolutely exclude from his mind any thought of the task's foreignness to him. I have tested this principle many times since then-in learning to write music, to play musical instruments, to paint, to understand some of the deeper aspects of numerous subjects both abstract and practical, to attract money when I needed it, to found a successful community, and to receive helpful answers on countless matters in meditation. Always, the system has taken me far deeper into my subject than intellectual study alone could have done. Friends also, to whom I have taught this principle, have had remarkable success with it.
The principle has many ramifications, one of which is my theory on attracting luck. For a strong, positive affirmation of success is more effective when it is sensitively attuned to one's goal, and protected from the thought of possible failure.
This innocence of the chances of failure is, I think, largely responsible for the phenomenon that is popularly known as "beginners' luck."
An English girl of my acquaintance in Mexico City once told me, "A few weeks ago Mummy and I accompanied Daddy to the racetrack. He goes often, but for us it was the first time. He spent most of the afternoon making fun of our 'system' for betting. We'd choose a horse, you see, because we liked the cute white spot on its nose, or because it had a nice name. Daddy's system was more scientific. But would you believe it? He usually lost, and we won every time!"
If my theory is valid, a beginner's temporary advantage over more seasoned players is that, not knowing the obstacles he is up against, his expectations are more confident. Of course, ignorance of those obstacles also limits his success. It takes sensitive awareness of all aspects of a subject, including its difficulties, to achieve genuine mastery.
I had an opportunity during my stay in Mexico to test the mind's power in another way also. Near the end of summer I succumbed to a debilitating combination of diseases: streptococcal infection, tonsillitis, and dysentery. It was several days before I was even strong enough to go see a doctor. When at last I did so, he sent me straight to a hospital. "You'd better reconcile yourself," he told me, "to staying there at least two weeks." Worried that I couldn't afford such a long stay, I made a few discreet inquiries, and found that my fears were amply justified. To get money from America would have been difficult, though Dad had left emergency funds there for us boys. The most obvious solution was for me to get well at once.
"You're in perfect health," I told myself firmly, saturating my mind with the thought of well-being, and rigidly excluding from it the slightest indulgence in the thought of my illness. Within two days of my arrival I was out of the hospital, fully cured.
Years later a friend corroborated my belief in the mind's healing power. He had once worked as a physio-therapist in a polio sanitarium. While there, he had noticed that the poor patients, unable to afford a long stay, were more likely to recover than the wealthy ones. He had concluded that their strong desire to get well generated the energy their bodies needed to heal themselves.
My Mexican adventure proved on the whole exciting, interesting, and fun-even though, in its innocent exposure to a wide variety of experiences, it bore some resemblance (as Dad put it later) to the travels of Pinocchio. I didn't get from it, however, what I'd been seeking most keenly: a better way of life. I'd hoped if nothing else to find more laughter there, more human warmth, more inspiration. For a time I imagined I'd actually found them. But then it dawned on me that what I was experiencing was only my own joyous sense of adventure; the people around me, meanwhile, were engrossed in the same dull round of existence as those back home. Mexicans differed only superficially from Americans; in essence both were the same. They lived, worked, bred, and died; the imaginations of a rare few in either land soared above these mundane activities.
Worse still, from my own point of view, I found that I too was basically no different whether in Villa Obregon and Cuernavaca, or in Scarsdale. I experienced the same physical discomforts, the same need to eat and sleep, the same loneliness. I could appreciate more fully now Thoreau's statement with which he dismissed the common fancy that a person was wiser for having traveled abroad. "I have traveled a good deal," he wrote, "in Concord." He had, too. He knew more about his home town and its environs than any other man alive.
The important thing, I realized, is not what we see around us, but the mental attitude with which we look. Answers will not be found merely by transporting one's body from one clime to another. To those people who expect to find abroad what they have overlooked especially in themselves, Emerson's words are a classic rebuke: "Travel is a fool's paradise." In college that fall I was discussing with a few friends a movie we'd seen-The Razor's Edge, a tale about a Westerner who traveled to India and, with the help of a wise man whom he met there, found enlightenment. "Oh, if only I could go to India," cried a girl in our group fervently, "and get lost!" Newly returned as I was from my Mexican experience, I had few illusions left about travel as a solution to the human predicament. "Whom would you lose?" I chuckled. "Certainly not yourself!" Illness towards the summer's end, and disappointment at not finding what I had hoped to find in Mexico, left me for a time feeling a little dispirited. I continued my search for reality, but with less than my customary enthusiasm. It is a striking fact that, until my faith returned with all its former vitality, Lady Luck withheld from me further proofs of her favor.