Seeking and Losing Yourself

“When someone seeks, then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal.”  – Siddhartha


I read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse when I was a sophomore in high school. A good age to be a seeker. It is a small and simple story and has become a classic. You could read it in a day or a weekend, but I would suggest that you read it slower. Pause between chapters. Read in a quiet place. Perhaps you should read this book late at night or early in the morning or at the point that is not quite night or morning.

“I do not consider myself less ignorant than most people. I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books. I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me. My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams — like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves.”


Siddhartha is set in India and in it, we meet the Buddha. It is a novel about a young man, Siddhartha, who leaves his family to have a contemplative life. But that journey doesn’t work. He becomes restless again. He leaves that life and follows a life of the flesh. He gets a woman pregnant and has a son. His life bores him. He becomes sick of the lust and greed that surrounds him and yet has a hold on him.

At a river, he hears a unique sound that signals to him the true beginning of his life. This begins with suffering and rejection, but ultimately finds peace and wisdom.

Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.”

My next Hesse book was Steppenwolf which seemed like the logical next book, although it is not at all a sequel. Hesse (1877-1962) was a Westerner attracted to the mysticism of Eastern thought. In Steppenwolf, the protagonist, Harry Haller, is a sad, lonely, reclusive intellectual. He feels sometimes that he is a wild primeval wolf. Like Siddhartha, he has trouble dealing with the good life he lives but also despises.

Rather than a river and a sound, Harry’s life changes when he meets a woman who is his opposite. Hermine is carefree and elusive. This second novel did not capture me as Siddhartha had done. Maybe this Westerner seemed too much like me.

“… there is no innocence and no singleness. Every created thing, even the simplest, is already guilty, already multiple. It has been thrown into the muddy stream of being and may never more swim back again to its source. The way to innocence, to the uncreated and to God leads on, not back to the wolf or to the child, but ever further into sin, ever deeper into human life. Nor will suicide really solve your problem […] You will, instead, embark on the longer and wearier and harder road of life. You will have to multiply many times your two-fold being and complicate your complexities still further. Instead of narrowing your world and simplifying your soul, you will have to absorb more and more of the world and at last take all of it up in your painfully expanded soul, if you are ever to find peace.”

Even though Hesse told me that “This is the road that Buddha and every great man has gone, whether consciously or not, insofar as fortune has favored his quest,” I much preferred to walk the road with Siddhartha.

For many years, I have been scribbling quotations in blank books. Nowadays, I often pass them on via the Internet. I have a number of them from Hesse and most are from Siddhartha. Here are a few for any seekers reading this post. Read and apply with caution.

  • Some of us think holding on makes us strong but sometimes it is letting go.
  • Often it is the most deserving people who cannot help loving those who destroy them.
  • I live in my dreams — that’s what you sense. Other people live in dreams, but not in their own. That’s the difference. (from Demian)
  • You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live.”
  • It is not for me to judge another man’s life. I must judge, I must choose, I must spurn, purely for myself. For myself, alone.
  • Each man had only one genuine vocation – to find the way to himself….His task was to discover his own destiny – not an arbitrary one – and to live it out wholly and resolutely within himself. Everything else was only a would-be existence, an attempt at evasion, a flight back to the ideals of the masses, conformity and fear of one’s own inwardness.
  • I have always been a great dreamer. In dreams, I have always been more active than in my real life, and these shadows sapped me of my health and energy.
  • Because the world is so full of death and horror, I try again and again to console my heart and pick the flowers that grow in the midst of hell. (from Narcissus and Goldmund)
  • If I know what love is, it’s because of you.
  • He lost his Self a thousand times and for days on end he dwelt in non-being. But although the paths took him away from Self, in the end, they always led back to it. Although Siddhartha fled from the Self a thousand times, dwelt in nothing, dwelt in animal and stone, the return was inevitable; the hour was inevitable when he would again find himself in sunshine or in moonlight, in shadow or in rain, and was again Self and Siddhartha, again felt the torment of the onerous life cycle.
The river is everywhere.


Getting Lost Again

Getting lost has continued to be a popular post on this site for a few years. That tells me that I am not alone in my interest in the idea that getting lost is sometimes the path to getting found.

I surprised myself when I noted in the site statistics how many times “lost” has turned up in my posts.  My interest in getting lost has always been balanced with a desire to be found or find myself.  I have played with that idea both literally, getting found in the woods, and more figuratively in those times when I feel lost in the more psychological, lost days sense.

This past week I came upon some old hardcover copies I had of two  James Hilton novels. One was Goodbye, Mr. Chips. That nostalgic book that became several films was one I read the summer before I became a teacher. It was a good injection of hope with a touch of sadness for the profession that I have been doing for 40 years. Hilton based it on his father, who worked as a school headmaster. Now that I am at least semi-retired from teaching and only doing it part-time, I can identify more with the “goodbye” part of Mr. Chips’ story.

The other book is Hilton’s Lost Horizon. It was published in 1933 and my copy is one that was on my parent’s bookshelf that they bought after seeing the 1937 film adaptation by one of my favorite directors, Frank Capra. His films are sometimes labeled “Capracorn” because they often slide into sentimentality. I never agreed with that completely. I actually think his holiday classic, It’s A Wonderful Life, is quite dark. I would teach it in a film noir class without hesitation.

Lost Horizon brought us the term Shangri-La. It is Hilton’s fictional utopian place (like Paradelle) that he located high in the mountains of Tibet. The protagonist, Hugh Conway, escapes his life in the British diplomatic service and finds inner peace, love, and a sense of purpose in that mountain place. It sadly seems always-timely that Conway fears that another cataclysmic world war is imminent.  Hilton turned out to be correct. I wonder if the book came to mind for my father a few years later when he went off to WWII as a sailor.

Hugh Conway had to be lost before he found himself, and that idea came up again this week when I read an interview with Reese Witherspoon about her latest film, Wild, which comes out in early December.

Now, I have had a sitting-in-the-audience crush on Reese since I spotted her on the TV film Return to Lonesome Dove (1993). She was great in Election and Pleasantville and lovable, popular, and smart in the Legally Blonde films. She probably still has to deal with the image of being a romantic comedy actress. But she got serious praise for Walk the Line. And I really enjoyed her work in Water for Elephants and Mud, although those two probably didn’t get as much praise or box office – not that those things should mean anything to viewers.

In that interview, she says “Honestly, I’ve done some movies that were really challenging, and I’ve done some movies that aren’t challenging at all.” I found another article that talked about a Reese “renaissance” – a term that would piss me off if I was her as much as the term comeback – but she has been following some new paths recently.

She had a starring role in the drama The Good Lie, and she produced David Fincher’s Gone Girl which comes out in October. She has a smaller role (like in Mud) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and I like it when “stars” do small parts too. But the film that most interests me is Wild .

The film is based on the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. A friend gave the book to me the year after my mother died, but I wasn’t ready then to read it.

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir is about her solo hike on the PCT after her mother’s death and the dissolution of her marriage. It was a best-seller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection, but a tale of grief wasn’t what I wanted then.

Still, I did page through it because a solo hike of the Appalachian Trail has been on my bucket list since I graduated college. I did the prep, read the books, got the maps, joined a hiking club, and did some sections of the AT. But then we had kids. And my knees started to give out on me, so I stopped hiking and started walking.

The book should have grabbed me. It could sit comfortably on a shelf with the story of Chris McCandless, Into the Wild, and my well-worn copies of Walden and A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and everything I’ve read that touched on wilderness salvation.

I think what held me away from the book was that I didn’t have the kind of crisis that Strayed had. I didn’t have spontaneous sexual encounters outside my marriage. I didn’t fall into shooting up heroin.

When I considered my long hike I was prepared. Strayed, like McCandless, was unprepared for the journey. If you are an experienced hiker, you will cringe at their lack of preparation. A friend who sails felt the same way about the Robert Redford character in All Is Lost. He told me, “He did everything wrong!” She takes along books (again like McCandless, overly inspired by literature) – Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Adrienne Rich poetry, but not the right hiking boots.

But the upcoming film will motivate me to read the book.  The film seems very promising. Reese looks scrubbed and natural.  It was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club). It was adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity). Laura Dern plays Strayed’s mother.

I suggested just last week to my friend Scott (who is newly retired and moving to Virginia) that we do a Shenandoah hike and get a little lost. Scott and I can talk for hours and solve all the world’s problems. He works as a substance abuse counselor and knows all about finding yourself. I don’t know if the soul-searching I am feeling as autumn arrives this month requires a thousand-mile hike in order to center myself, but you have to be open to getting lost if you want to be found.

Getting Lost


Sometimes it is good to get lost.

I’m not what could be considered a serious hiker. Maybe a serious walker. My knees don’t allow the hiking I once was able to do. I can think of two times that I was in the woods and got lost. Actually, I can think of many more times that I did not know where I was at some point, but that’s not the same thing.

In one case, I was walking and did not time my leaving very well with the setting of the sun, so I ended up in darkness.

Everyone knows that roads and trails don’t look the same when you’re on your way out at night as they did when you were on your way in during the daylight.

I was in a woods that I had walked many times before, and I knew that if I walked straight in any direction I would be “out” in an hour or two. And yet, I panicked. I found myself running and following what seemed like a trail, though not a familiar one. And I know those are the wrong things to do.

The other time I was lost it was a bit more serious. I was on a section of the Appalachian Trail with a group, but I hurt my knee and was walking/limping at a snail’s pace. I was slowing down the group. Someone offered me a map with a shortcut back to the parking area (they wanted to finish the loop they were hiking) and I said that they should go on without me and I would head back on my own. Not a good idea on my part, but they went ahead.

We had been hiking for about 2 hours, so it would be at least 2 or 3 hours for me to get back using the shortcut at my slow pace. They had at least 4 hours left to complete the loop.

I headed off and was fine until I hit a long downhill section that was just murder on my knee. Lots of stops, hopping when I could, trying to use my staff as a crutch, and cooling my knee with my water bottle. I think that I was so focused on my knee that I lost the trail. I lost THE trail, but I ended up on some trail.  After 2 hours, I knew I wasn’t passing any of the landmarks on the map. I knew I couldn’t walk back, so I studied the map trying to figure out where I was on it.

Even though I am pretty good with a map and compass, I couldn’t really fix on any landmarks to triangulate where I was sitting.  I took my best guess at the straightest path to the highway near the cars hoping that if I made it there at least the walking would be easier, and I might even hitchhike a ride to the parking lot.

Now I was off the trail. In my head, I ran several scenarios where I just could not walk anymore or would slip, fall, and break something or get knocked unconscious.  How long before the group would miss me?  And wouldn’t they look for me on the shortcut path I was supposed to follow?

Obviously, I did make it out. I actually arrived at the road, walked to the lot and arrived just minutes before the group. My shortcut had taken me about 4 hours. Of course, I told them I had been there for a few hours already, resting my knee and waiting for them to return so that we could go out for dinner and a few beers.


This past week I spotted a new book titled  You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall. It is written by  Colin Ellard,  a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo.

He says that Italian homing pigeons navigate using mental maps which include major highways and railroad tracks. He suggests that people make mental map stories to remember their way.

He says that if we were out in the woods, it doesn’t take far (a few hundred yards off course perhaps) for us to become lost.  Then we find it difficult to know if we are walking in a straight line anymore. We can make remarkable turns and still feel that we are walking in a straight line. We also tend to speed up our movement, so we go farther off course faster.

What should we do when lost?  Stop.

Still, I think it’s a good thing to get lost once in a while. On purpose. Preferably in a place where you won’t die of exposure or be attacked by bears if it takes you 6 hours to get out. And you should follow all those rules about telling someone where you are going, taking a map, some food and water, a cell phone…  Of course, all those things also make it, perhaps, too comfortable. Can you really be lost with all that preparation?

And, there’s always that idea of getting lost in a less literal sense.

In writing, I find it’s a good idea to strike out to lands unknown and get lost a bit, if for no other reason than it feels so good to find yourself.

I have a friend who is being forced into retiring and he’s not dealing well with the situation. He’s lost about what to do with his time and life after 38 years of having it pretty well set on a very clear path day-to-day.

I asked him how long it took him after college to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.

“I’m not sure I ever did,” he said.

Of course, he ultimately did. It took him about four years of walking down the path to find the one that worked for those 38 years. Maybe it wasn’t the perfect path, but it was a good one.

“So, why do you think it’s reasonable to expect that after being home for a month that you would know what you want to do with the rest of your life?” I said.  “If you said you were taking the next year to try some things and see what appeals to you, it would sound more realistic.”

I think Bill needs to be lost for a while. He needs his family and friends nearby. Right now, he needs his therapist and some medication too. He is a religious person – a believer – and that should help.

He can consult maps. He can draw his own paths on them too. But he needs, like the rest of us, to be lost too if he is to find himself.