159 - Tracking a lion, or a life


career designpersonal development

We adopted a rescue a couple of months ago. Before, we had Scotch, a British cocker spaniel, for fourteen years. He lived a full life, giving us no trouble with his eating or with his docile temperament.

Scotch spoiled us rotten. We had no other reference point. So when we brought two-year-old Navya home from a shelter, she came with some trauma that I wasn’t ready for. Even though we had spoken to a vet friend and gotten a crash course on indies, it was a shock to see her refuse food or pick up on unfamiliar, sudden sounds and start yapping.

Because we were adopting her, we had to come good on a trial period. We had to share updates with the shelter, answer long questionnaires. That didn’t help our nerves. Once we got full custody, we decided to employ a trainer to help us understand Navya.

How many classes will we need? Will she be able to not react to sudden sounds (so common in any Mumbai neighborhood)? What if we go on trips without her—can we? I’m sure the trainer could smell our fears from a mile away. Our questions pointed to our desire for certainty.

We wanted to jump straight from our current situation into this vision for the perfect future. We wanted it estimated in time, finely sliced into milestones along the way, and we wanted to get everything right the first time.

“I don’t know where we are going but I know exactly how to get there,” writes Boyd Varty in The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life, “might be the motto of the great tracker.”

Varty has lived in the wild all his life. He’s a second-generation lion tracker at the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa, the place of his ancestors. In the book he uses lion tracking as an allegory for finding purpose in life.

_“Track. Track. Track,” Ren has said to me at other times. I understood him to find the first track, then the next first track, then the one after that. He does not set out into the unlikely chance of finding a lion in the future. He works with what he has now, in the moment. _

Ren is Renias, a master tracker and mentor to Varty. First track in the language of trackers is a set of pugmarks that yields useful information about the animal–his mood, energy, presence. It points the tracker to the next thing he needs to do. In the vast wilderness that is the African bushveld, on an animal’s trail, to know what to do next is information that keeps chaos and panic at bay. It is the same in our meaning-making lives.

Varty, like in much of the book, builds on this beautifully.

In my own life, I have often struggled with the first track. Full of grand visions and the desire to do something great, I often couldn’t find the first small beginning and then the next small beginning. I couldn’t dial huge possibilities into small actions. I couldn’t trust that doing enough of what needed to be done today would, with time, render a path and an outcome could be great.

A little later, he writes:

Obsessed with perfection and doing it right, we want to go straight to the “lion.” We don’t realize the significance of the path of first tracks and how to be invested in a discovery rather than an outcome.

Our lion is our purpose in life. It’s the thing we are in pursuit of. Yet, we forget that it’s a lion we’re after and that it’s the wilderness we’re in. We want to connect the dots looking forward. We want the surety of the full picture. How naive.

Those, like Renias, a masterful and intuitive tracker, are least bothered about the destination. They don’t know it, can’t locate it. They are willing to let go of their fears and carry in their heads and hearts only the information needed to make the next small breakthrough, find the next first track. They are immersed in the process of discovery.

Varty points to a special malaise of modern times—the disease of “and then what?” We want our _and then what_s answered, printed, and packed.

Navya was found on the street with a broken leg and a jumpy demeanor by the shelter people. Who knows what she has been through. To expect her to fit right into my neatly organized city life is to expect to go straight to the lion. I can ask for a map true to the smallest detail but it will not help me. No such map has been made, or will ever be.

All I need to do is find the next first track. That’s my work to do. And that’s yours too, for whatever you’re most curious about. Life’s an invitation to discover it, and to discover myself along the way. There’s no other way.

“I don’t know where I’m going but I know exactly how to get there.”

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