There is an old Zen story which goes as follows:
A young monk was hurrying on his way one afternoon when he reached the banks of a huge river. A powerful current surged past him and there appeared to be no visible means of crossing if he wasn’t to be swept away.
He walked up and down the bank with a heavy heart, frantically searching for a way of getting to the other side. He was about to give up when he saw an old Zen master on the far bank. He waved his arms to attract the man’s attention and shouted across to him.
“Sir, please tell me, how do I reach the other side?”
The old man looked thoughtful for a few moments, then shook his head and replied:
“My friend, you are on the other side.”
I expect there are several interpretations of this story, but when I first heard it the one that occurred to me was this: that our lives are such a constant quest to get somewhere that sometimes we fail to appreciate where we are.
For about five years of my life, once I realised how much I enjoyed high altitude mountaineering, I had an ultimate ambition of reaching the summit of Everest. I did a few easy hikes and climbed some trekking peaks purely for the enjoyment of being in the mountains, but I also did some tougher expeditions which were the next step on the path to achieving that ambition. They may not have been my first choice of holiday, but they were challenges which I knew I needed to overcome if I were to progress. Luckily I enjoyed them, too.
In May 2012 I finally achieved my ambition, and when I returned to base camp safely, and posted some messages to let friends and family, and all the people who had been following my adventures, know I had reached the summit of Everest, I received many kind messages of congratulation. By far the most popular comment, however, was a simple two word question:
It was a question that was impossible to answer. I was exhausted, and for the last few weeks I had only one goal in view. I had finally achieved it and returned alive. The achievement was only beginning to sink in, and it would be a long time before I fully appreciated it.
Over the following months many people asked me about my story, and were keen to find out what it felt like to climb Everest. After I told them, nearly all of them wanted to know what I was going to do next. Many of them didn’t even want to hear the story at all, but they still asked the same question. “Oh, you’ve climbed Everest, have you – so what’s next?”
Wasn’t climbing Everest enough for these people? I thought to myself. Why does there have to be a next?
Of course, there’s always a next. It’s nice to have something to aim for to give life a purpose, but the next is never as important as the now. It’s the now that we live in, after all. And when I look back on the last few years, I feel lucky to have had some unbelievable experiences, and I realise that the next isn’t so important, either. Most of you have achieved something with your lives, and have a wealth of experience to draw upon. That experience is surely much deeper and more meaningful than what you might potentially do in the future?
I found something to do after Everest, of course. I’m gradually working my way through the Seven Summits. I’ve climbed four of them now, and tried and failed to climb a fifth one, Denali, last month. I’m also working on a full length book about my journey to the summit of Everest, but don’t hold your breath, as it’s going to take me a while. But most of the peaks I climb won’t be connected with these goals at all. I will simply be climbing them to enjoy that feeling of being in the mountains. Life is all about living in the moment.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who gets asked that same two word question on a regular basis.
I think it must be the mountaineer’s most frequently asked question. I expect many of you reading this get asked quite a lot, too.
It’s probably the most frequently asked question for anyone who travels a lot, and if you meet a well-travelled person today, please don’t ask them where they’re going to. Ask them where they’ve been. You will surely hear a much more interesting story.
And if you still want to know where I’m going next, thank you for asking, but since I’ve gone to the trouble of writing them I’d appreciate it so much more if you resisted and read about my past adventures instead.
Alternatively I could collect a dollar for every time I get asked the question. You never know, I might just be able to retire.
How about you?