Smile. Breathe. Repeat., or The Need to Travel

Last Friday in Missoula, at a public talk given by Anam Thubten Rinpoche, a friend asked me what I learned in all of my travels. I hadn’t put much thought into such a question, but I immediately answered, “that our lives are unnecessarily complicated.”

A second insight I had, as I prepare for a little talk/slideshow about my travels, is just how profoundly interconnected we all are. And how the simplest of encounters can alter the direction of our life. Or, a bit less dramatically, these encounters can provide a richness to life never before thought possible.

But we need to be ‘shaken up’ to realize this. We need radical challenges, changes, discoveries and difficulties in order to see all of this. As Henry David Thoreau famously stated:

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.

And there is the contemporary American Blues musician, Keb’ Mo’:

We’re just the victims of comfort,
Connosuiers of pain.

It’s a technological merry-go-round,
Dangerous illusions buried under the ground,
And everyone likes a party,
But know one wants to clean,
Well I’d like to see a change somehow
But I’m a little busy right now,
Just a little busy right now.

I’m just a victim of comfort,
I got no one else to blame,
I’m just a victim of comfort,
A Cryin’ shame.

I’ve realized in my travels the need to be ‘lighter’. Lighter in my impact on the world yes, but also lighter in my possessions that may hold me down. I’ve realized the need for a simpler life.

Of course there are strong forces working against this ideal. I’m in America after all. In my travels I was fairly well convinced that I should have an iPhone or similar device as a handy tool to stay connected and keep data at my fingertips. And maybe a Kindle. And then a friend of mine – back here – showed me his new Nook Color. And I’m due for a new hard drive to backup all those photos. And…


It’s easy to get caught up again, both physically (out in the world) and mentally (taking on all of the desires, aversions, and neuroses of society).


It’s also easy to return to the wanderer’s mind. Or wonderer’s mind. “Same, same” as they say in Thailand. Just stop. Stop being a ‘victim’ of anything, stop being busy, find the song within and let it out! Smile. Breathe. Repeat.

If that doesn’t work, travel. Go far. Abandon your comfort zone. You’ll realize it wasn’t really helping you anyhow.

Smile. Breathe. Repeat.

Images from around India and Burma (Fall/Winter 2010-2011), photos by Justin Whitaker

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  • Maia

    Hey Justin,This is a great post — thank you. I feel some traveler's kinship with you since we seem to be going through jet lag in the same timeframe : ) But even beyond that, we clearly shared some other similar experiences as well. I really resonate with what you write here, and the aspiration to want to tread more gently on the earth and carry a much lighter load, psychically as well as physically.When I got home from a month in Thailand, almost immediately the first thing I noticed was that I got way way too many emails that meant absolutely nothing to me. I've trimmed my email diet by unsubscribing from lots of lists. And I'm left wondering about myself… what exactly was I seeking by signing up for all of them in the first place?I think the experience of being away and in Asia for a month was much more profound than what I'm trying to say here… I wrote a bit more about it on this post a while back:, happy re-entry to you…

  • Surya Devi (Raquel)

    Fabulous post Justin. The deeper I swim in the waters of Buddhism and practice residing in luminous mind, the more aware I have become about how much "stuff" weighs me down. I told my kids that come spring we are having the mother of all garage sales….and what doesn't go–goes to the dump or the thrift store!We attach so much meaning to all this stuff…and in the last year, after my first teaching with Anam Thubten, I have been cleaning out and giving away tons of stuff…just excited as I think I will be taking it to a whole new level as soon as the snow clears a path out my back walk way. But more profoundly is the unloading of the stuff we carry around in our cluttered minds…so many thoughts. I remember Tulku Sang-ngag in a teaching about 10 years ago laughing and saying…."you all think too much." His grin and laugh were infectious and it really stuck with me….but only in the last year has more of this wisdom started to sink in. Anyway, great post and writing, your insights are fun to follow as I think they speak to what many of us westerners on this path are starting to awaken to.

  • Brittany

    I agree Surya Devi. As well as lightening up on possessions, it's important to lighten up in mind and spirit. I have a tendency to take life seriously and am working on that. Thank you for sharing Justin, I still treasure your teachings.

  • Dani

    Wow, now I feel like I'm a bad influence on your life ;o)

  • Buddhist_philosopher

    Thanks Maia, a happy re-entry to you too, and thanks for sharing your link. I have a feeling the changes from our travels will continue to permeate our lives 'back home' for some time to come. I loved your post, including your quote in the comments: “Culture shock, like love, is a temporary madness. The most wonderful and most depressing feeling in the world. An experience to make life more complete.”~Robert CooperRaquel – Thank you too. My first thought when you mentioned a garage sale is that I want to go! :)But yes, the mind is key – if we can clear out the clutter there, the rest will follow. Thank you as well Brittany. In my own case, I think my 20s were a very 'serious' period in life. Every decision seemed so enormous and life-altering and all up to me. So much pressure. Now, after my fair share of life-altering successes and mistakes and seeing that they weren't quite as life-altering as I'd assumed, I don't take any of them so seriously. (meditation has helped a bit too.)

  • Buddhist_philosopher

    And Dani! Yes, it always is the Spaniards corrupting the good Buddhist Americans. Although in very good ways. Sneaky. :)

  • Ted Biringer

    Thank you for this post.Sometimes I think it is less about getting caught up in a “comfort zone” and more about simply failing to stay alert. The point I am trying to get at is this; regardless of where we are or what we are doing nothing is ever fixed – the unity that is us- and-the-universe ceaselessly advances into novelty. The Zen master Dogen once said, “Tonight’s moon is not last night’s moon.” Yes! Even the dish that we are washing is not the same dish we ate our meal from. When we truly live and die with “This” it is impossible to get stuck anywhere. Sights, sounds, tastes, touches, smells, and thoughts, ever-advancing. Dogen was much better at expressing this than me, here is a sample you may enjoy.Dogen was once asked, “What is Buddha?” He replied by directly indicating the realm of seeing and hearing while mustering the whole body-and-mind:Someone [in the assembly] asked, “What is Buddha?”The teacher Dogen said, “Finally, future births are prevented with the special attainment of cessation not arising through analysis.”The monk said, “Master, don't teach people using Lesser Vehicle Dharma.”Dogen said, “I am not teaching people using Lesser Vehicle Dharma.”The monk asked: “What is Buddha?”The teacher Dogen said, “Finally, future births are prevented with the special attainment of cessation not arising through analysis.”Then Dogen said, “Heaven is not high; the earth is not dense. Mountains and rivers, and the sun and moon, are not separated. The radiant light of each place penetrates each place. A Persian riding on a white elephant enters the Buddha hall; Handan people with bare feet circumambulate the monks’ hall. What principle can we rely on to be like this?”After a pause Dogen said, “The bright moon follows someone as if there were a reason. Naturally white clouds provide rain with no mind.”~Eihei Dogen, Eihei Koroku, 3:243, 241 Translated by Leighton and OkumuraThanks again.Peace,Ted

  • Buddhist_philosopher

    Thank you, Ted. I agree fully and appreciate this wisdom from Dogen. It reminds me of when, as a graduate student in philosophy in an environmental ethics class, I pointed to the giant hardwood table that we all sat around and said, "this is nature. The white board: that is nature. It's all alive and dynamic and REAL. There is no real separation between this and that world outside you call 'nature.'"