WHAT DISEASE CAN TEACH US: A Meditation Based on Peter Mattheisson’s “The Snow Leopard”

by Richard Kerry Holtzin


Life teaches for those who embrace learning! I remember those words from my early childhood. Amazingly, the person who told me this never even graduated from high school. He lived well into his 90s and was the most sage person I had ever met. He was also fond of saying how the secret to a productive life is keeping your mind open and your bowels empty! Those impressionable adolescent years, the 1950s, changed places with adulthood. In years to follow, there was also something else I learned from this old timer: never judge a person by mere appearance, position in life, including educational background, or any other means. This way I won’t easily get confused who might be a fool or a master in disguise.

By the 1970s, I earned (literally that my first degree (in Philosophy). For me, everything up to then was about learning and trying to make sense of a vast repository of information. I did embrace learning, just as that dear old man had encouraged. By the 1980s, a new phase of learning was in store for me: unlearning. The following true episode has taught me much, though sometimes I think I have remembered everything, though learned so very little. Then again, looking back on my life, I have come to learn and appreciate the value of unlearning which I describe as a sweeping and emptying mode of thinking intended to clear the brain of extraneous stuff that no longer has value the way it once did.

As an engaging narrative, Mattheisson’s favored tome, The Snow Leopard, relates to one of my greatest (read “momentous”) life experiences. His memoirs written about this time of his life, and where the story and adventure takes place, Nepal, somewhat mirrors my own life; at least, in some personal way I related to his escapade in this literal roof of the world. Moreover, reading his chronicle was so inspirational I wanted to share Peter’s adventures with others. Hence, the sole intent behind writing this missive based on what I later dubbed a transpersonal cosmology that came with the insight gained from the undertaking.

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Where and how it all started: In 1981, I set out for a backpacking trek around the world. Given that serendipitous jaunt, one of the many continents I planned to visit was India––mother, spiritual India that also threw down a gauntlet the minute the flight landed: cholera. In time, my physical condition weakened to the point I sensed I might not finish my intended personal odyssey to travel around the world. For some inexplicable reason I decided to go to Nepal, and not back to Denver. My reason for making the choice came down to the blunt and sobering fact I didn’t think I had enough energy in my body to return to my home. Nepal is also where I first read Peter’s account of his travels that took place in this country’s acclaimed mountains, the Himalayas.

For those who have embarked upon solo journeys of similar magnitude, regardless the destination or the time it took to complete the adventure, one understands there is something special about the feelings that come with the experience. Those feelings can also run the gamut between excitement and fear, and in a narrower sense, effect an attitude of certitude and cynicism. My own plans and reasons for setting out on that globe-trotting venture were hatched when I was a small boy. I was raised in Harrisburg, a medium-sized city and the capitol of Pennsylvania along the banks of the Susquehanna River. The highest point of modest elevation was a place called Reservoir Park. There, the somewhat lofty view provided a nearly unbroken 360-degree perspective. Often, I went there on my bike, found a place to sit or stand, then watch the sun’s trajectory across the heavens. I promised myself someday I would follow the fusion sphere around the world, traveling as it did: from east to west. That simple plan was what I had decided to do in 1981. Depleting my savings account, I purchased a rather thick wad of tickets from Pan-Am Airways and planned to visit most of the continents, including both hemispheres, on a loose (i.e., flexible to some degree) itinerary. I toted only a backpack crammed with essentials. Separated from my wife, and soon to be divorced from her, I was in my mid-30s when I boarded the airplane in Denver. The first connecting flight was in Los Angeles, with the first country on my list was New Zealand. By the time I arrived in India some few months later I still had a third of the original tickets in my pocket. I also realized I might not even finish what I started, as a boy of nine or ten years old.

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A synopsis of the book and a kindly gentleman: The story’s narrative chronicled a joint expedition of two entirely different personalities. Peter was invited to accompany George Shaller, a research biologist who planned a survey and study of bharal (Himalayan blue sheep). GS, as Peter refers to George throughout the book, focused on the interior of the Himalayas (alaya, as in the abode, and hima, meaning snow). Shey Gompa’s Crystal Monastery was among the more remote places the two men and their entourage of sherpas would visit along the way. For GS, it was all about finding the sheep and doing his research. For Peter, his main interest was to observe the mythical snow leopard (Panthera uncia). Accepting GS’s invitation was reason enough to accept GS’s challenging invite, mainly because where bharal sheep foraged, likely these elusive cats of Central Asia were also around.

How I learned of this story happened on a somewhat bumpy flight from New Delhi to Katmandu. I sat next to a professor and we had a lively exchange of information about the country we were both headed to, and each for a different reason. His reason for going to Nepal was because of a Fulbright Scholarship and mine was a counterfeit story about my desire to climb to Mt. Everest’s first base camp. The truth of the matter was the fact I was too sick to even try such a stunt. Still, he was intrigued by the fact I was on a year-long backpacking adventure around the world which he seemed to envy my equally seeming free spirit. In that part of world such journeys are something akin to a Yatra, which, in Hinduism, refers to a pilgrimage to holy places. It was also this tall, gaunt gentleman from New Hampshire who initially used this designate for my east-to-west sojourn to follow the sun’s course (even when I vectored north or south). He even thought the undertaking was meant only for the more intrepid explorer types that cast their fate to the wind and simply laid their fear and caution aside (his description, not mine). If meant to be a tribute to my assumed grit, he certainly misread my intentions by a mile. He also had no idea just how ill I was, mainly because the conversation between us was distracting in a pleasant way.

Remarkably, the professor’s facial features, including body build, nearly favored the author’s, whose picture was on the back cover of the book. He, the professor, practically insisted I read the book, then sometime in the future get in touch with him for the purpose of sharing the import of the narrative. He next confided how a girlfriend had recently given him the book to read before he left New Hampshire. However, he didn’t feel it was his type of ‘read’ and suggested I might be more interested in the story’s contents. Besides, he mentioned he had the distinct impression I was meant to read the book, and the thrust of the story (from what his girlfriend had already shared) had something to do with the kind of esoteric pilgrimage I was on. However, his going to Nepal was for an entirely different purpose. As it turned out, his insistence about my reading the book is what made me accept the book and promise to read it.

There was much more to our fortuitous meeting of minds that day. Suffice it to say how after landing in Nepal, I soon found myself facing another offer from the professor. It was just after we had cleared customs and about to part ways, when he was approached by someone who was there to meet the professor, and present him with the keys to the house and estate where he would be staying. I saw my opportunity to leave and face my dragons, such as I expected to deal with soon enough, but he asked me to standby for a minute or two while he continued talking with the lady, who happened to be the wife of the Ambassador to Nepal. He then turned to me and asked if I would like to share his home for a few or more days during my brief stay in Kathmandu before heading to Lukla, a small village used as the starting point for Mt. Everest climbers (which I made up that part of the story, as well). At first, I was reluctant to accept the generous invitation, but he was rather insistent on the matter. Initially, my reluctance was because I simply didn’t want to impose on his hospitality, and more to the point, I had a deep desire to be alone, much like a cat prefers to face its sealed fate. It took a few minutes of nearly non-stop conversation among the three of us (because the Ambassador’s wife also thought it was a good idea) that eventually persuaded me to take the offer. He also mentioned the invite did not come without strings attached. Supposedly, the professor was supposed to meet another lady-friend, in Kathmandu, and mentioned she was more or less a potential girlfriend number two. Hence, and without saying it, his romantic fling with both women was, to say the least, mitigated. . .or as he put it, ‘complicated’ to the point he needed time to sort out his affairs. Literally, that.

So it was that I came to realize I might be of some help to the romantically befuddled professor and the interesting quagmire he was in. I smiled and secretly knew only he could do that for himself. Meanwhile, I had more serious problems of my own to try to work through. By that time, my energy level was barely enough to keep me standing on my feet without feeling nauseous and woozy. Later, and after a five-course dinner cooked by the Nepalese housekeeper assigned to the residence––and a hearty meal I could scarcely eat, let alone keep down for very long––it was time to rest and maybe sleep. I was happy to shut off my mind and conversation for the next eight or so hours. Meanwhile, the professor had already committed to meeting girlfriend number two for drinks later that evening!

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Degradation of body, mind and spirit: That night, sleep was hard to come by, especially because my body was so ravaged by gastroenteritis caused by the strains of the bacterium (Vibrio cholerae). My small intestine tract was literally exploding and my blood pressure was so low I felt I was already experiencing dreaded hypotensive levels. Both conditions were the positive, though grim, signs of an ebbing life. A prompt replacement of water and electrolytes was the mandated treatment for cholera. Ironically, I was advised to pursue such a course before I left India; also, advised to seek medical treatment once I cleared customs in Nepal. Said advice came from a new-found friend I had met while touring in India, who provided me with six tetracycline tablets to help quell the disease he suspected I had contracted. As the saying goes, What’s past is prologue! certainly proved to be the case in view of my situation. I suppose, too, that restive evening and a seemingly timeless nigh that followed demonstrated how I had given up on the idea any further medical assistance might pull me out of the physical slump I was in, and getting worse by the hour. Indeed, it was one of those kinds of mental tailspins of being in a strange country far from home that doubtless had warped my former sanguine outlook. In other words, I was already giving in to the fates that had taken over. I couldn’t even remember why I had decided to embark on the global backpack venture in the first place, therefore vilifying myself for getting sick. Vaguely, however, I sensed at some level how the underlying purpose of the journey––the yatra as the professor coined it––had something to do with the post-mortem depression and haunts from a previous plane crash and near death experience (my own) just a couple years earlier. That lingering mental and spiritual malady continued to gnaw at me and I couldn’t cancel or escape the dread of that singular reminder.

But there I was in a kind stranger’s home on loan; a rather chatty man who ventured to that far corner of the world on a one-year Fulbright scholarship. Thus, someone with a defined purpose for being in Nepal. For me, however, I came there only to rid myself of so-called Mother India’s misery and seek escape, if not a subconscious notion of ending my life there due to the relentless disease I had contracted from the Mother. (Hence, the real reason why I chose Nepal as my supposed final destination.) About the only positive sense I had left was my association with the professor and at least being in his company and good cheer. Indeed, the proverb, When the student is ready, the teacher will appear! came true in my meeting him. Later that evening I realized there really were added blessings bestowed upon me another stranger. Namely, myself. And I realize that I had a refuge and it was the next-best thing to being in my own home. I scribbled such musings in a notebook by candlelight and somehow there was a bit of added comfort that came with the effort.

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The narrative of the book as perused and thought about: In those years, electricity, in Nepal, was subject to disruption for up to six or more hours a day. That night, the power was turned off. Propped up by scores of pillows, I sat in a comfortable bed with clean, cool sheets and read, or tried to read or write (by candlelight). For whatever reason people sometimes meet their fate, good or bad, I had met my own that day in the guise of a charitable man who had (in my view) the delightful and difficult dilemma of sorting out his romantic life. He had, I told him before retiring, the classic Either/Or decision on his mind, and I wasn’t referring to Søren Kierkegaard’s classic challenge fellow Christians. The professor appreciated my telling him this and advised me to hurry and read Peter’s book. His girlfriend who gave him the book had casually mentioned something about Peter’s own romantic conflicts and resolution. The professor (without making the statement) hoped I might find out something about that information, too, then pass it along.

So, I read Peter’s paperback chronicle between many episodes of visiting the bathroom across the hall. The story was interesting from the start. It gave me much to think about, both in the sense of a tough, demanding trek (Peter and GS’s), as well as a developing spiritual journey (mainly, Peter’s). By the time I got to page forty-four and forty-five, I felt a definite change in my debilitated attitude. The story was replete with Buddhist thought, particularly that which applied to Tibetan and Zen Buddhist’s philosophy and ritual. But there was much more to any adventure, such as Peter and GS’s, than the mainstream topical points such tales review. What I found so telling and somehow intended for me to read snared my attention on those two noteworthy pages.  As Peter described at the end of the quote, and here paraphrased, he had just read a statement written by Carl Jung (whose quote is part of what I found to be so compelling on those two pages). Peter mentions to the reader how he was in a garden somewhere in the mountains of Italy and was so excited that for the first and only time in his life he yelled and leaped out of his chair when he read Jung’s inspiring words. 

There I was in the abode of the snow, there in a land where giant granitic mountains towered over the hilly topography of Nepal’s front range country. I wasn’t sitting in a chair and I had no energy to leap. However, for the first time in my life I literally felt a singular surge from within that I believe can only be attributed to a direct connection with prana––spiritualized energy one might call it. (In Vedantic philosophy, prana is the notion of a vital life-sustaining force of living beings and a vital energy suffusing all living forms, but is not itself the Atman––the individual soul.) Only then did it dawn on me there was more to that global trip than a mere dream and desire of a young boy to pursue the sun around the world. And like Peter, my restive search of late was not morbid after all. I still honestly believe reading that passage on those two pages was the first grand slam of  my transpersonal mission on the earthly plane. Given the consequences of that plane crash, I had indeed returned from death’s manifestation to fulfill a greater journey.

Peter writes. . .

The search may begin with a restless feeling, as if one were being watched. One turns in all directions and sees nothing. Yet one senses that there is a source for this deep restlessness; and the path that leads there is not a path to a strange place, but the path HOME. ("But you are home," cries the Witch of the North. "All you have to do is wake up!") The journey is hard, for the secret place where we have always been is overgrown with thorns and thickets of "ideas," of fears and defenses, prejudices and repressions. The holy grail is what Zen Buddhists call our own "true nature"; each man is his own savior after all.

He then writes about a haunting and restless search that begins a personal journey that feels as though someone is watching. In this light, the sojourner may attempt to discover who or what is watching, but it’s no use: the source of the deep and restive feeling is too ambiguous. Still, one senses there is a path to follow and so one follows it. The path does not lead to a strange and unknown place, but rather takes the sojourner home. Here, Peter quotes the Witch of the North, from The Wizard Of Oz, who tells Dorothy all she has to do is simply wake up! The problem for many sojourners comes down to the fact being on such a journey is difficult in all aspects. And the path leads to a secret place within, somewhat like a citadel that is thorny with its fears and defenses, repressions and biases. An apt name for it is the holy grail. Peter cites Zen Buddhism’s true nature applied to this place and declares only man, himself, is his own savior. To know this fundamental truth also requires the sojourner must finally come to attention and claim one’s own salvation without relying on anything theological, ontological or cosmological. Thus, the abstruse nature of Zen awareness. 

At this point, Peter quotes the Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Carl Jung:

The fact that many a man who goes his own way ends in ruin means nothing. . . . He must obey his own law, as if it were a demon whispering to him of new and wonderful paths. . . . There are not a few who are called awake by the summons of the voice, whereupon they are at once set apart from the others, feeling themselves confronted with a problem about which the others know nothing. In most cases it is impossible to explain to the others what has happened, for any understanding is walled off by impenetrable prejudices. "You are no different from anybody else," they will chorus, or, "there's no such thing," and even if there is such a thing, it is immediately branded as "morbid." . . . He is at once set apart and isolated, as he has resolved to obey the law that commands him from within. "His own law!" everybody will cry. But he knows better: it is THE law. . . .

To me, the close of page forty-five (the hard book text) is the proverbial wake-up call I was meant to discover by way of a seeming chance meeting with the professor. . .

The only meaningful life is a life that strives for the individual realization. . . .absolute and unconditional. . . .of its own particular law. . . . To the extent that a man is untrue to the law of his being. . . .he has failed to realize his life's meaning.

The undiscovered vein within us is a living part of the psyche; classical Chinese philosophy names this interior way "Tao," and likens it to a flow of water that moves irresistibly towards its goal. To rest in Tao means fulfillment, wholeness, one's destination reached, one's mission done; the beginning, end, and perfect realization of the meaning of existence innate in all things. (C.G. Jung, “The Collected Works”)

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Parenthesis: My personal thoughts and reflections on this? Just this: if one chooses a different path in life apart from a prosaic perspective and social or religious practice, then one must also look elsewhere for the deeper and more provocative answers, starting from within. To be sure, such a life and practice is routinely much more difficult (as in existentially and spiritually challenging). I highly recommend Peter's chronicle added to one's other personal choices for sacred to profane cognitive reading fodder.

In closing, I managed to cheat death, and it took a long time for my body to heal; not so my mind. Months later, I resumed the global trek and returned to Denver somewhat of a restored man. Nevertheless, that return also marked a terminus to a former carefree Colorado lifestyle. Something had indeed changed within me. Namely, I sensed a resurgence of restlessness that beckoned me to go off on some other adventure; at least, a new sortie that would take me away from my familiar surroundings and friends. . .one more. As it turned out, my next stop, as a destination and place to live, was Paris (France), where I would live for some two years. From there, I would return to the States, then move to New Mexico, and later Arizona. Those willful years and that tentative incipient start began with my version of Golgotha, that is, as an experience (i.e., the plane crash episode), and later a grueling time-out in purgatory on the earthly plane. My thirty or so plus years since that episode and the world backpacking odyssey has been a demanding and personal campaign––a campaign of recompense and catharsis (as I’ve come to call it). These days I have a clearer idea what the essential purpose means to me, though I am still working out the finer details; also, still searching for the words and mindset that might make a feeble attempt how to describe my yatra to others.

Meanwhile, the transpersonal experience continues to unfold in all sorts of ways, good or bad, and ultimately, neither good or bad in a Taoist sense of meaning. I have come to know and experience the essence of a transpersonal cosmology, the following sums up the main ideas:

TRANSPERSONAL: Self-Transcendent; Spiritual aspects of the human experience (existential or otherwise); Concerns about humanity's highest potential; Recognizing unitive, spiritual, and transcendent state of higher consciousness in all beings.

COSMOLOGY: The study of the universe in its totality and humanity’s place in its broadest or narrowest scheme, including embracing the enigmatic and ultimate mysteries of life in all respects, sacred or profane.

TRANSPERSONAL COSMOLOGY is anathema to any metaphysical or methodological sense. In short, to embrace Ontology, Epistemology, Teleology, Eschatology, or any religious-based Cosmology, including anything to do with the cognitive sciences. Think CARRY WATER...CHOP WOOD, or BEING FULLY PRESENT IN THE MOMENT (aka "Mindfulness"), KILLING THE EGOIC 'MONKEY MIND' and its time-devouring interferences, if not excessively active daydreaming.

Richard Kerry Holtzin
Original draft: Paris, France (1983)

Revision: Georgetown, Colorado (1985)
Posted on this Blog site: October (2014)

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