For tens of thousands of years (and probably much, much longer) our ancestors went about living their lives, creating memories, discovering untold secrets, having adventures, building life-long deep relationships and romances, busting through personal limits, dancing with gods and goddesses, communing with the raw forces of the universe… often without ever even leaving their own villages. Instead, most of our human cultures marked their lives with journeys into dark, mysterious places, found the empty core of the universe in eachother’s souls, deconstructed the very meaning of life and put it back together in the form of something spectacular, achieved stunning magnificience in ritual and rite. Somewhere way back in your family tree was a shaman great, great, great, great grandmother who dreamt of YOU and her fondest wish for your life was that you would learn to feel the heady power of the sacred grove as she did, that over the chasm of great time and distance you and she would resonate in one-ness there together.
Or in contrast, would Henry David Thoreau look upon the jet-setting, world-travelling elite of modern Concord, and still flee their “lives of quiet desperation” in search of his hut in the woods?
In my life I’ve been privileged to travel further than 99.999% of the humans that ever lived, spoken to people in 9 different languages in their own countries, sold original works of art, music and poetry, played in a punk-rock band, sung Opera on professional stages in Europe, starred in plays (good ones!) and movies (terrible ones!) written 3 novels (yup) slept in a castle, played in a marching band, visited some of the great gardens, art and architecture of the world…
But these are not among the most profound moments, experiences and lessons of my life. Nor do they mean that I have “lived” more than those who haven’t had these luxuries. Sure, I’ve had some profound experiences while visiting exotic places, but the profound parts could have just as likely (probably MORE likely) happened without ever leaving the house. And what one discovers on a real adventure is found inside, and has little to do with the scenery.
None of the following fundamental human experiences require belief, none require drugs, none of it requires meeting the Dalai Lama or attending expensive beach-side retreats in the tropics with world-renown “spiritual teachers.” These are not things to be bought at any prices. And these are experiences that are found in all traditions, and are open to anyone, from Christians, to Pagans, to Muslims, to Buddhists, and Atheists. I can fully believe in these fundamental human “spiritual” experiences without having to believe in anything supernatural. In fact, most of the experiences on my list come from “atheistic” spiritual traditions.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not kicking the bucket list idea entirely. At its best, the bucket idea taught a generation of Americans to live their lives, to value experiences over buying stuff, and being adventurers over being consumers. Rad. But at its worst, it makes us into consumers of our own lives, looking to buy experiences, approval and wisdom from others.
So here’s a new section for MY bucket: the vital human experience, the Caveman list, aspirations most of our human ancestors likely shared in. I really don’t ever need another selfie sipping umbrella drinks on an exotic beach, and neither did Captain Caveman. I want to journey to far darker, more mysterious, more hidden places: the room of the wolf-mother wallpaper, the room where the antler carved the drum… and shit. I’ve personally visited enough of these places to know that they are real, and well worth the price of admission. But I’m not gonna put a big checkmark next to them to show off, because they’re the sort of things you build a truly fulfilling life upon, not the kind you cross off once you’ve got the bragging rights.
1. Being still enough long enough that the “world rolls in ecstasy at my feet,” as Kafka said. This is a fundamental experience, sought after in all the world’s mystic traditions, because it is both a profound experience in itself, but also something that is said to deepen the every other potential experience. When one can quiet the mind, it is said we can experience our lives more directly, instead of having to squint to see reality through the tint of our own rose-colored glasses, and we can hear the song of the world without struggling over the noise of our own mental chatter. This is an experience that can be had both alone and with company, such as in the Japanese tea ceremony, or participating in contemplative arts.