My friend asked me this the other day.
“You have to have learned something important from being away. You can’t just be away for half a year and not learned anything.”
Of course! I believe people are always learning something, everyday, but I know that isn’t what she meant.
I have been ruminating about this for a while. Were we just sun seekers, or did we have revelations that made us better people? Did we come back having gained something intangible? Were we wiser?
To answer that, I am going to tell an anecdote about a similar experience I had. When I was 17/18, I did a month long Outward Bound trip backpacking and rafting through Colorado and Utah. I asked my parents to support this trip because I wanted to find myself before I went to college. When you start out hoping to change your life, it does put a bit of pressure on you, but the trip did not disappoint. What I learned from that trip was that I could start over – do something I never had done before, stretch myself, challenge myself to the point of physical and mental exhaustion, and survive AND enjoy it.
But what about that trip proved that to me? Was it hiking up a bluff when I was totally exhausted in hot weather, but watching that my legs managed just fine? Was it cooking cornbread in a lukewarm pan and eating the half raw dough, and laughing about it? Was it leading the group by compass and being so scared we were going to get horribly lost? Or was it just something in the detail of each day, being outside, doing something different, being away, getting your head out of the minutae of normal life for long enough to make a real change? I think it was the latter, actually. And I think it was the same for this trip.
We saw so many cool things; it is hard to even relate to them. We saw Buddhist temples that have been around for centuries. We saw rock formations that were jaw dropping in their raw, physical beauty. We stood and looked at the view from one of the most beautiful vineyards in the world. We stood at the edge of an active volcano and watched it´s smoke drift out over the open ocean. Each one of these moments would have been enough to ruminate over for a year, but we packed them together like sardines in coach class. There was not a lot of time to process.
But thinking back, those moments are stored in some deep place inside me now, to remember when I need to think about things bigger than the four outer walls of my apartment and the 1km radius in which most of my life takes place. And what´s more, it isn’t only those big moments. It is all the details of all the places we visited. The mundane.
- The lion´s head on the manhole covers in Australia.
- The fine mist in the morning in New Zealand.
- That first view of the South Island from the ferry.
- The chocolate aisle in Australian grocery stores and that amazing shortbread cookie in the supermarket in Cromwell.
- The airbnb hosts in Kona and their friendly dog.
- The loads of new people we met.
- Driving on the wrong side of the road.
- The wave of heat when leaving our hotel in Singapore.
Things that are different about waking up in a place with which you aren’t familiar.
What do they do to you? Do they change you?
Yes and no.
Yes, because they remind you that you are one of billions of people living in one of millions of habitats. Because you realize how insignificant you are. And because of course – you experience things and people and sounds and smells and tastes that you haven’t experienced before. But that just widens your horizons. It doesn’t change you.
No, because you assimilate these new experiences into the core of you. I´ve been reading the Bhagavad Gita and to me it seems like this is the Atma – the real person you are, in my interpretation kind of like your soul. To put it another way, you don’t need to travel thousands of miles to find yourself, although sometimes it cant hurt to shake up your surroundings a little bit so you can get out of stale states of mind. Your self, your “real you” is there inside of you waiting for you to notice it.
Unfortunately, I am kind of stuck on figuring out how this applies to me. I think I need a little more distance. I have, however, seen an example of what I think I mean with my daughter.
Kiddo´s real self, as far as I can tell, was only made more apparent by the trip. The person I think she is – animal loving, music loving, mostly patient, very flexible, night owl/teenage sleeping, verbal, loving, goofy, curious – was not altered by this trip. She didn’t take in all these new stimuli and become some Australian ranger. She just added koalas and emus and kangaroos to her collection of favorite animals. She realized how much birds are exciting when they are all kinds of different colors. She realized she liked Hawaiian music as well as Psy. (Haha!) This kind of thing. No major changes. I think the only thing that we could only do on the trip, other than of course stay out all day in the sun and sand and water, was eat real Japanese food. Kiddo loves Japanese noodles. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that she loves Japanese food, because the list of things she didn’t eat was longer than the list of foods she scarfed down, but she did love the flavors.
Japan was the first time I have watched her eat soup broth. Usually she picks out the big bits, like, I used to cook her veggies in chicken stock, but she would never drink chicken stock from a spoon. In Japan, she did. It was a very fancy bowl of clear soup, and she loved it. She ate loads of noodles – soba, udon, fried chinese noodles (aka yakisoba) and maybe others. She ate edamame and ikura and loads of rice. But she didn’t touch raw fish, any kind of katsu, anything with Japanese BBQ sauce on it, anything with Japanese pickles touching it, and so forth. So…it isn’t exactly as if traveling to Japan awakened her palate completely.
I think this is kind of an intensely powerful realization as well as a bit of a let down. Did we travel the world for nothing? I don’t really think that at all. In fact, if anything, this just reinforces what I am learning about Zen Buddhism (so maybe that is why I am having this revelation and not the opposite one!) – that the best way to live well is to be in awe of the world, to be rich from what you already have, to desire just enough to care for yourself and your family, and to practice compassion for all. Being in awe of the world can happen looking at a street lamp on your street, or looking at one on the other side of the world. We have many riches around us right now, where ever we are, and while of course there are tons more things to see in other places, we don’t need them to feel better or different or fulfilled.
So, there you go, a really long post about how you don’t need to travel to have an awakening. : )