giant red pushpin stuck in the middle of a meadow, blue sky and clouds overhead

Traveling Without a Map

Life is a bit like traveling without a map, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but my parents didn’t give me a map for this life. No, life is full of twists and turns –– pleasant and unpleasant ones, favorable and unfavorable ones. We’ve all seen enough at this point to know that we can expect the unexpected. 

We can readily see that life does not fall short in offering us plenty of surprises. And that’s good! Because that makes our life more exciting.  

It’s like driving in India where I was born and raised. Driving in India is a lot of fun. 

There are no maps and no road signs, so it’s very exciting. As you move forward, you don’t know whether you’re going the right way or not. You ask someone and they say, Go left. Another person says, Go right. Both ways may lead to the same destination, but you can’t be sure of that until you’ve arrived.

As you drive along on the highways in India, you encounter so many beautiful beings: cows, goats, buffalos, human beings, and of course other automobiles. It’s really quite exciting. You don’t know where you’re going and you don’t know when you’ll get there. You don’t know the ETA because there’s no GPS. And even if you had GPS, the ETA might not be accurate, because the roads are tricky.

But here in the US, you have a map and you also have GPS. You’re driving along knowing exactly which turns you’ll make and what time you’ll arrive. So it’s not too exciting. You know you’re going to get there around 7:00 or whatever, and that kills the excitement. I’m just kidding. It’s nice to know exactly when we’re going to arrive because that way we are in full control, right? Many of us are control freaks.

So as we can see, life does not fall short on surprises. It’s like traveling without a map or GPS. 

Life’s big surprises, the pleasant and the unpleasant

Let’s look at some pleasant scenarios. Say you have suddenly landed a dream job. Wow! That’s a great life surprise, isn’t it? Even if that dream job is eventually going to kill you, it’s still so exciting when you first get it.

Or, falling in love. The first time you fall in love is a big surprise. You’re not expecting it at all. It’s almost like a magnetic energy drawing you toward that person, and you become quite emotionally charged, so to speak. There’s no way to be prepared for the experience of falling in love. It just happens, and it’s beautiful.

Or, let’s say you win a mega lottery. That’s a giant surprise, right? You win a big lottery and then what do you do with all that money? Ah, let’s go to a casino. Or you can donate it for education or whatever. So many children need education. But whatever you do with the money, winning the lottery is a big, surprising life change. 

When we experience those good times, it’s like we’re falling in love with the world, with samsara. Then we have a kind of honeymoon period with the world. 

Now let’s look at some not-so-pleasant events. For example, losing your cell phone. Or dropping your phone in the toilet. Has that ever happened to you? I didn’t drop my phone in the toilet, but I dropped it in Puget Sound once. That was a big surprise! 

Puget Sound is huge. There was no way I could get my phone back, so I offered it to the Nagas, the Orcas. 

Losing your phone is not only a big life change, it’s a great disaster. Because losing your phone is like losing half of your mind. You cannot really function because half of your mind is missing; it’s in that phone. We can’t remember the smallest things such as our mom’s phone number. I couldn’t even call my mom to tell her I lost my phone. Isn’t that a big disaster? Or, you can’t call your partner to come and pick you up.

One of my friends told me his friend once got so drunk that he called his wife from a pay phone and asked her to come and pick him up. He told her, “I don’t have my phone, so I can’t call a taxi. Can you come get me?” And she said, “But you’re calling me on the phone!” So losing your phone is a big surprise that can cause a lot of confusion.

Or, imagine you’re driving somewhere and suddenly have a flat tire. Say you’re already late –– to your daughter’s first wedding. Not the second wedding, the first wedding. That flat tire is a big shock that can bring up a lot of big emotions and freak-outs. 

Or, what if you get stuck in an elevator with someone scary? Just you and that scary being, with no way out. You might even get stuck in an elevator with an alligator if you’re in Florida.

Or maybe you’re facing a difficult diagnosis from your doctor.

Experiences like these are the beginning of some problems in our relationship with the world, samsara. But that’s a good thing. So don’t think of it as bad, even though that’s how we usually see it.

All of those pleasant or unpleasant scenarios are simply what we call life. And how would we measure a pleasurable experience if we didn’t have any unpleasant experiences? Or vice versa? 

In any case, life events are neither good nor bad in themselves. Whether we’re resilient or not, the things that happen to us are all simply experiences of living. The reality is that we can’t avoid either pleasant or unpleasant situations. At some point we will encounter both. 

So the question is, what do we do when any of these experiences come into our lives? What we do in the moment of a big surprise determines whether or not we shine our resilience in the world.

Life Surprise: An Exercise

1. Think of a time when life took you completely by surprise — when something happened that you were totally unprepared for. Whether it’s a pleasant or unpleasant memory, briefly connect with that moment.

2. How did you respond to that moment? What was your first thought? Your second thought?

3. Do you wish you had responded differently to that big life surprise? Or not?

4. Let your answers to those questions settle, and rest your mind. Don’t judge that memory or your thoughts about it. Breathe and let your body relax. Let your mind relax.

5. What is it like, right now, relaxing your body-mind?