Traveling Without Moving
Why is it the case that it is infinitely easier to find deep, profound and life changing meaning when you’re traveling? There is something about being on a train, watching the scenery unfold itself like a continuous roll of film, or peering down at all the sad earnest little cities from 30,000 feet in the air, or biking with all your worldly possessions in tow that predisposes us to finally answer those nagging Questions of the Ages.
What is fascinating is that we often find our answers. What is tragic is that we usually forget them.
I have always been befuddled by this pheonmenon of how we can become so wise when traveling and revert back to our selfish and small selves in a matter of days upon returning. It seems like a few hours of looking at Excel spreadsheets is enough to reduce Confucious to confusion.
I’m writing this while sitting on a train so I don’t forget this time. You know, like Letters from Algernon, but to myself.
When you are moving from place to place, never sleeping in the same bed twice, never seeing the same people for more than a few days, the world begins to feel illusory and transparent. Life is exposed as a peculiar series of situations that evolve and resolve themselves like a four panel comic strip, with our consciousness as the thin newsprint that holds it all together. Travel shakes your world view, it broadens your perspective and lets you step outside yourself so you can peer inside yourself.
Movement and the transitory nature of travel primes our brains. We perceive that we are on an adventure, so we think like adventurers. We open ourselves up to serendpity and chance, and Chance finds us. This is, of course, in direct conflict with when we are at “home.” At home, our minds are a little less free and are a little more concerned with fortification than exploration. The steady cadence of the day, the commute, the morning meetings, the allotted lunch hour and afternoon conferences marshall our thinking into an inexorable march to the weekend, where we are granted 48 hours leave before taking up our stations again on Monday morning.
One notable moment for me on this trip was climbing up into the bowl of the Chisos mountains in Far West Texas. It was steep and brutal in such a way that I can only describe it as trying to ride a bicycle with an angry 300lb gorilla on your back, periodically punching you in the gut and face. Having survived it, only one word can describe those excruciating hours of climbing – bliss.
When we reached the rim of the mountains and peered down into its caldron, I was hit with something like ecstasy. The gorilla disappeared (the bruises were still there) and all the heaviness and unbearable fatigue fell from my body like fractured stalagtites. I felt one with myself. All the conflicting internal voices had stopped bickering and were singing in beautiful unison. Yes. This is what it means to be alive. I was in the middle of the Great Mobile, the point of balance from which all things diverged, but from where all things are delicately connected. I had a divine flash and knew that everything was going to be ok. All the troubles and the worries I had or will have will work themselves out in due course. I had nothing to worry, because in this world-view prince and pauper were the same, joy and suffering were the same. My only responsibility was to live and let it all graciously unfold. I was having what psychologists refer to as a “peak experience.” I had found inner harmony.
Amazing what a steep climb will do to the senses.
So what happens exactly? On this trip we have found that the human psyche is suprisingly adaptable. After a few months into our travels, we had been transformed from homebodies to steely-eyed travelers, who felt comfortable with and even thrived on a healthy amount of daily uncertainty. Where are we going? We’ll ride to where it’s interesting. What are we going to eat? We have a stove, we can find something to cook. Where are we going to sleep? We’ve got a tent, what does it matter. What had begun as questions that used to fundamentally terrify us had turned into trifling details that we didn’t let get in the way of Adventure. When you’re traveling, your thinking adapts and becomes fluid and agile, capable of mental Jujitsu.
Conversely, the mind is also infinitely adaptable in the opposite direction. As free as your thoughts become when traveling, they can be easily trapped again in their old habits. The great lessons you learned on those mountain tops, that you thought for sure were indelibly etched into your being like commandments on stone, more resemble epehmeral sand mandalas. It doesn’t take long. A few days for some, a few hours for others. Your thoughts that once roamed unfettered find themselves penned in. You look up and the blue spotless sky is replaced with a flourescent light buzzing above – the strange soundtrack to your life.
So what is there to be done?
The most alluring option would be to perpetually travel. However, the biggest deceit of the travel industry is that happiness can only be found abroad on white sandy beaches, where drinks come adorned with miniature parasols and meaning rains from the skies. While traveling does afford us space to be contemplative, it does not have a monopoly on Zen. As Pirsig writes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there.” The search for meaning is an inner exploration. Being away from the familiar facilitates the process, but you are just as likely fo find it on top of Mount Kilamanjaro as you are in between the couch cushions. One of the most peaceful souls we’ve encountered on this trip found his inner harmony while sweeping the floors of his home. He used a gnarled handmade broom that was cut from a serpentine tree branch. The textures were rough and exposed and, as he swept, all the vibrations from the bristles were telegraphed straight to his hand. The sublime in the simple. The tactile process brought him peace. He had turned a mundane task into mindful meditation.
As I write this, we’re sitting on a train on our way to Portland, OR. We’ve just passed Mynot (pronounced like “why not?”), North Dakota. The landscape outside is predominantly brown. Brown trees on brown hills with intermitant patches of pure white snow. By this time tomorrow we should be in Portland, where we will live and work for a few months before we can set off again.
We are still filled with the momentum of our journey. Full of life. Joyous. We can look at things with the calm that you develop when things around you have been in constant flux for 15 months. Inner harmony. We are excited to be living in Portland, but we have challenges ahead of us. We have to work and be dutifiul about saving so we can set off again in the Spring. In our minds we are still travelers, even though we aren’t moving. The challenge is to keep and guard this perspective, even though it will be buffeted from all sides. When the time comes to strike out again, our bikes will be already packed and our hearts would have long ago said “Yes!”
The Traveler’s Creed
The challenge is to remember what the world looks like with your traveler’s eyes; to see things as if you were passing by on some far flung adventure, even though you are at home.
These are the insights that I will try to remember.
The traveler is expectant and open and sees the beauty in things when others do not. A traveler is good natured to strangers, because he understands our fundamental interdependence with each other. The traveler operates in deep karmic debt and repays what he can when he can, joyfully. The traveler eats heartily, because he understands each meal is a gift. The traveler knows that it is the people, and not always the places, that he will remember long after he has stopped moving. The traveler believes in the fundamental kindness of strangers and walks through crowds with a smile. The traveler knows that enough is plenty and the quest for perfection leads to suffering. The traveler knows that no person is better than anyone else, because he has dined and conversed with kings and knaves and has found joy and sadness in both. The traveler relishes in the idea that all he needs to live can fit in a duffle slung over his shoulder. The traveler talks to every person excitedly because he is fascinated in everyone’s unique narrative. The traveler knows that both moments of exhaulted pleasure and suffering will pass in due course and he is richer for both. The traveler knows he will never be in the same place with the same mind ever again. The traveler sees each day as ripe with possibility and chance encounters. The traveler knows that it is because his journey must one day end, that it has meaning. The traveler’s curiosity trumps his fear. The traveler is thankful for every day he is on the road.