SHOCKING YOUR SYSTEM
There’s an intoxicating mindset that accompanies transformational journeys abroad, when everything sparkles with freshness and significance, when even waiting hours for a bus feels perfect. I want to exist in that state, where ‘wanting’ itself is a comical proposition.
Many, myself included, once having encountered that mindset, keep seeking it abroad—attributing our temporary transformation either whimsically to the localized magic of a beautiful place and its shamanic brews, or else cynically to a mere jolt of novelty. But both of these contexts are irrelevant and miss the real point. Forget finding ourselves. We—for once—found everything else!
At home, wherever that is, we see ourselves marinating in a stagnant vat of familiarity. Security, predictability, sameness…boredom. We have our routines, our favorite spots, our usual orders, and our fastest routes. Every day ends up feeling essentially the same. Get up, hit the coffee machine—just like every other morning—check the emails, blablabla. We ride past the same ‘nondescript’ buildings and trees we do everyday, follow a map app without noticing street names, go into work past the same paintings we’ve never looked at, and stare into coworkers eyes without registering their color. “I’m fine, how are you…?”
But when traveling, every smell feels new and foreign, every glance from a stranger a mystery to ponder, every snack a curiosity—I pick up words here and there and puzzle at their meaning, clutch my bag when the vibe is dark, listen blithely to directions I can’t follow, and usually take whatever shows up at my table just grateful that I made it through another day.
Perceiving the world as ‘familiar’ is what smothers a fulfilling engagement with life. This dilemma has been studied in the microcosm of interpersonal relationships where, according to Esther Perel, intimacy actually requires not merging but a perception of otherness. In a sense, this is true for life writ large. How can I engage and appreciate a world that I’ve fully grasped, one that does not surprise me?
At least for this traveler, bliss, transformation, and dare I say enlightenment descend whenever I’m overwhelmed with the feeling that ‘this is different’. Immersing in the unfamiliar, we become observers of the faces around us, the customs, streets, temples, markets, tastes and smells—details that get glossed over in our normal lives. The recurring thought goes something like, “Well, I guess that’s how they do it here.”
Traveling shakes us awake from life ‘as we know it’. That’s the allure for me, getting outside myself to experience something different and coming back to see my home world with new eyes. In actuality, though, travel just distracts me from the background noise of my default world by focusing on what is essentially the background noise—the faces, culture, smells—in someone else’s default. In other words, the same details that in my life get me daydreaming about ‘getting away’ are the same kinds of intriguing minutiae I revel in abroad. So if I find another culture’s daily grind so fascinating that it helps me transcend my own stifling daily grind, it means that my culture must offer that same portal to someone else—so why not me, too? How can I access that perspective in my own culture without buying expensive plane tickets and taking a month off? How can I just live in that?
I think it’s through awareness. In almost every case of people describing their joyous, energizing, powerful experiences abroad—whether it’s in an ashram in India, snorkeling in Bali, on safari in Kenya, making friends in Amsterdam, or drinking ayahuasca in Ecuador—the magic is in awareness. (Or presence, mindfulness, appreciation, gratitude, and whatever else we could call it.) Actually noticing our surroundings makes it easier to appreciate them.
You’ve probably had this experience before, when moving to a new town or a new house or office, when climbing into your newly bought car—everything stands out and commands your attention. But after a few weeks or months, those hallways and features become merely normal, and your mind wanders to other more diverting places, thoughts, and sensations. Your awareness shifts from what is there to what there is not.
The novelty found in traveling shocks us back into awareness, and rejuvenates our ability to appreciate the life we are presented with, no matter how normal or boring it appears. I mean, Buddha was just sitting under a tree when he became enlightened, and I’ve had transcendentally beautiful rides on the shittiest of busses on the most terrifying roads. Did you know that lovers have more sex on vacation? Not because they’ve escaped routine, but because with heightened awareness they appreciate anew their companion. On the road or in a stay-cation hotel room downtown, the context is irrelevant as long as it magnifies your awareness of now.
Autopilot kills awareness. While mindfulness meditation is something I practice for 20 minutes in the morning, it’s harder to take with me through the routine of my day. When I’m traveling, though, awareness becomes my mode of operation. I feel alive, energized and grateful. If that’s how I lived every day of my life here in USA, my resulting actions could be astounding: I’d listen even closer to clients, speak more lovingly with friends, and savor the subtly changing colors of leaves.
In some schools of thought, actions come from our emotional states, which come from our thoughts. So if I want to evoke more of those positive actions in my life, the foundational thought I need to possess is this: the world I inhabit daily is just as special as the exotic ones I visit.
Maybe it’s true that the mental path to transcendence, awareness and gratitude are easier in more beautiful, more colorful, warmer climes. But, to be honest, no matter how much I love traveling, I’m getting sick of having to buy expensive plane tickets to go get my fix. I want to travel for the pure joy of it, not the spiritual utility of getting high on ego-transcendence.
TRAVEL AS A PRACTICE, NOT A SPIRITUAL FIX
My goal—and maybe you relate—is to internally generate the positive traits temporarily lent by exotic travel, to be self-reliant when it comes to my internal states.
Usually, people backpacking mutli-week treks like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail will send themselves food to pick up at small town post offices along the way. On an impromptu through-hike of the Colorado Trail one September, I had no time to plan out my resupply logistics. So I just visited a superstore, bought dehydrated ingredients in bulk, and carried everything myself.
There were certainly downsides to this, like the trail mix I made out of one part chocolate chips, one part butterscotch chips, and one part peanuts—cloying by Day 2. The upsides, though, became apparent when others I met on the trail were unable to get to their resupply drops due to heavy rains, or when no one would pick them up hitchhiking to take them the several miles into town. Or vice versa. Basically, the unforeseen became the enemy. Instead of enjoying the mystery of the trail—what will tomorrow bring?—there was an agenda and a checklist of what needed to happen to keep going. On a slender trail that follows the Continental Divide through the incredible Rocky Mountain autumn, little post offices became burdensome detours.
For me, though, towns near the route became intriguing options that I could indulge or pass based on everything else I had going on, rather than the compulsory portals they were to those resupplying. And if I chose to pop into civilization, it was to explore, or to celebrate, but not to survive.
The way I have treated travel in the past is the way my fellow hikers treated their resupply towns. There’s an agenda and desperation—and if I don’t get re-upped, I’ve failed.
This strategy’s flaws became painfully apparent on a trip I took recently to Madagascar. Some of the happiest memories of my life come from the year I lived and worked there. Going back, I was hoping to recapture some of that extraordinary bliss—bottle it up and smuggle it home with me.
You can probably guess that’s not how it went. The magic I’d experienced in Madagascar previously had been essentially predicated on my ability to sit still and enjoy absolutely nothing going. It’s a very slow paced country. Yet on this most recent trip, my time was crunched, and my mind was flooded with thoughts of home, of my partner, of my directionless meandering through life, plus the projections and expectations of what I needed Madagascar to provide me again—the usual suspects—these threadbare fantasies I’d fondled so much that they no longer held any warmth.
And the harder I tried to tap into my ideal version of ‘Madagascar’—the paradisiacal island vibe I so anxiously was craving—the more it eluded me, the more empty I felt, and the more depressed I got. What a terrible trip. I felt let down. And I came back even more existentially desolate than when I’d left. Basically, I failed to attach the same depth to those things right in front of me as I did to my fantasies.
So my next big trip, to the Yucatan, I tried doing something new. Nothing. I did zero research and built no expectations. I showed up ready to experience the people and the place as they appeared, without squeezing them for spiritual juice. The result? Yeah, it was amazing. And not actually because I did all the cool things like diving in caves, swimming with sea turtles, exploring ruins, and eating almost too many chilequiles, but because I was aware enough to recognize those opportunities when they presented themselves.
So how do you bring the appreciation of the present moment back home? Heads up, everything I’m about to list is easier said than done. But like those people who get out there and live, telling stories that evoke responses like, “I wish I could do that”, ‘easier said than done’ is a light on the path. Find the novelty lurking in the mundane:
- Try a day using your off hand for everything.
- Turn off the music.
- Or turn on some super different music.
- Eat vegan.
- Begin a new habit.
- Drop an old one.
- Tell the barista a name that isn’t yours.
- Break a rule.
- Do anything that scares you.
New rituals—from how you brush your teeth, to the foods you allow yourself to eat, to the way you get to work—transform these daily banalities into sublime ceremonies by dropping you out of the familiar and into an explorer’s mindset, that heightened state of awareness.
Familiarity saps the spark from life. We want novelty, at least at one level. At another, what we really want is awareness and engagement in NOW. It’s the only way to truly experience the sands of time slipping through our fingers. Pursuing novelty—whether it’s a new lover, a new car, a new job—might be a good move for you and it also might be a red herring distracting from what you’re really missing: the ability to enjoy and find meaning in the present moment. To paraphrase Nietzsche, “Those who have a good enough why can bear almost any how.” In other words, if you’re able to find meaning in everything you do, everything you experience is meaningful. No matter where on Earth you are.