Art of Living Books Journal Musings Simplicity

Body and Soul

Shetlands Puffin Peeking
Puffin peering from the edge of a cliff, the Shetland Islands, Great Britain, 1995.

In the midst of reading her book, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, the fourth in her “Space Series”, Doris Lessing talks in depth about the relationship of the impermanence of the world with the concept of self. Two of her characters go through two long soliloquies as they attempt to come to terms with the knowledge that they will become extinct. Three concepts emerge: dreams are collective, the body is but an ephemeral container, and the self is but a manifestation of other selves that came before. I’ve been reading the book on my commutes to and from work, while sitting with a wall of bodies lined up right at my knees, individuals each, but one person little differentiated from the next. The book and all these people often left me sitting with my eyes closed, trying to pull aside the veil that hides comprehension.

It is true what Lessing says, each morning I wake to the conviction, “Here I am. This is me.” And yet each day my experiences tell me that this is not really how things are. This determination to define “me” in the context of the world around always flutters out into disappointment when I realize that I am not really so important in the scheme of things after all. We cry when something dear to us dies or we lose something that we value. And yet eventually all things die and disappear. We know that. The cake we made rots. The book we read disintegrates. The dog we cherished dies. Even the mountain we roved in a reverie crumbles into dust. It is the way of the world and we are all an intimate part of it.

But it seems we spend most of our time denying it and resisting the going.

Perhaps it has something to do with getting older, and realizing that this body that I’ve inhabited all these years is steadily letting go, that eventually it will give and wink out. More and more I’m coming to realize that this youth oriented society that we push so strongly is ill-prepared for the awakening to the ephemeral nature of our lives. We spend so much time buying the make up and working out in the gyms, that we’ve left no space for the habitation of our minds, which must take time to grow into the acceptance of eventually letting go.

I watched a program the other night about a Japanese businessman who gave up his lucrative job as a salesman to live as cheaply as possible and concentrate on taking photographs. He bought a run down old farmhouse just on the outskirts of Tokyo, threw away all modern appliances, learned about how farmers in the poverty stricken days before the war kept themselves warm, cooked, and ate. He adopted the simplest, most technology-independent lifestyle he could find and settled down to enjoy his lifestyle. What he found was that a person barely needs much to live relatively comfortably, and that his time expanded into hours.

“When you’re spending less money and time on the items that are supposed to make your life better, you gain back all that time. And what I’ve found is that there is more space for my mind, now. I hadn’t realized just how gratifying the older lifestyle was. There is something that feels complete in cooking fish over an open fire or putting a vegetable from your garden onto your plate. It is a satisfaction that you just can’t derive from TV or cell phones or computers.”

I am wondering more these days if the richness of close association with the surrounding world that a life of voluntary poverty and simplicity seem to embody actually helps you incorporate the ephemerality of life into your outlook and works in better with the birth and death of your precious self. For it seems to be the clinging to self that most harms the cycle of things.

Would that our societies let go of “prosperity” and learn to transcend the limitations of desire. We could concentrate on our collective dream instead.

Journal Ultralight Backpacking: How To Wellspring


Sandpipers San Elijo
Sandpipers feeding along the shore of San Elijo Beach, La Jolla, California, USA. 1984

Lately I’ve been contemplating the need for lightening my load. This is meant in all aspects of my life. The idea first took root three years ago when, upon returning from a five day walk in the North Alps, my knees ached so badly from the enormous weight of my backpack that for nearly six months the nerve at the side of my left knee remained numb. I carried all the “right” equipment: all the stuff that the outdoor magazines had insisted were necessary for a safe and successful spell out in the “dangers” of nature. I was protected out there and instead of relying more on my brain for coping with emergencies and circumstances, I limned myself with all manner of gadgets that would make my time in the wild less stressful.

The funny thing is that in the early days of backpacking, without money to buy unnecessary equipment, I managed just fine to enjoy many of the same places I now enjoy. I spent much less time on my equipment and much more time simply immersing myself in the moments that I had come to experience.

My knee injury got me thinking seriously about what I was carrying and about what I was going out into mountains for in the first place. I came across a book called “The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook”, by Ray Jardine (later rewritten as “Beyond Backpacking”). This book, as it did for a very quickly growing number of other backpackers around the world, literally overnight changed my approach to backpacking, and even to attitudes about how I ought to be living my life daily. The concept behind the book was to create a way to safely and comfortably complete the Pacific Crest Trail, at more than 2,500 miles long one of the longest continuous trails in the world, with the absolute minimum equipment. Ray Jardine and his wife Jenny complete the trail in a record-breaking 4 1/2 months and then again in 3 months 3 weeks, each carrying a backpack not much larger than a day pack, and weighing around 6 to 7 kilos each. Using conventional hiking equipment the average thru-hiker takes six months carrying huge packs that often weigh up to 30 kilos, so these times were impressive.

As suggested in the book and later on a number of websites, I ruthlessly began to go through every inch of my conventional backpacking equipment, cutting out any superfluous item, changing items that were needlessly overweight or large, and trying to come up with ways to make as many items serve dual purposes, such as a hiking pole used as a tent pole at night, or a tarp used as a poncho in the rain while walking, or even getting rid of a redundant down jacket to be replaced by a sleeping bag that I draped over myself when it got really cold.

Such thinking allowed me to reduce my backpacking weight to about 8 or 9 kilos and to carry a pack that barely left me out of breath at the end of the day. Breaking records is not my goal while getting out into the mountains, but walking without the struggle of exhausting weight meant that I could spend time experiencing my surroundings fully.

Recently this philosophy has translated into daily living, too. Over the years while living in Tokyo, and having more money than just after college, the belongs have accumulated in my apartment until now books and outdoor equipment and computer gadgets occupy every corner of the tiny place. I have to step over neat stacks of books around my writing desk in my study. And it’s just getting too much. Trying to keep track of where things are has become a process of digging through piles of notes and files and boxes. Just stuff! Piles and piles of stuff. And what for? It all costs money to accumulate and drags at the carefree trains of thought that allow me to operate with little encumbrance.

My backpack is little more than a loose sack carrying bare essentials now. It is time to apply this thinking to the place I live and to what I plan to do with my life. We are nomads after all.