(and how to be, like, totally spiritual)
This is part 4 of my series on "Why Travel?" This series has easily been the most popular topic I have ever blogged about, and I encourage you to read parts 1, 2, and 3 to help set up this post. In part 1
I introduce the definition of long-term travel, with some attempts at poking fun at the backpacker sub-species, and in part 2
I discuss how travel can disrupt harmful tribal instincts, and change hearts and minds for the better. In part 3
I talk about real live spiritual beings that I have met in my travels, and a definition of spirituality without any of the "woo-woo" stuff.
Here in part 4 I will discuss the giant elephant in the hostel: that overused tacky cliche you find in every travel blog post ever: "I traveled the world looking for ... something. But in the end, I realized what I found was myself."
Bleck! Puke! Lifeguard, help me! I'm drowning in cheeeeeese ..... mmm, cheese is tasty ... what was I talking about?
|"I found myself! All we had to was separate our dreads and bam there I was!"|
Look. We all know the drill. And I will be honest with you: the first time I took off to travel the world, I didn't know what I was looking for either. I just knew I was looking for ... something. I was a godless heathen fumbling in the dark. One dumb travel bum, looking for clues.
Think about it for a moment, though. What are our modern lives really like?
For most people, especially those in a city, there is something I call the noise. The noise is everything that distracts you from thinking about what's really important. Work, appointments, traffic, screaming children, blaring TVs, mobile phones, Facebook, the daily grind of existence. There is no time for being present. And when brief windows of time do open up, say, on the toilet (admit it buddy), now we can hide from any introspection by clicking an app and getting instant gratification watching stupid people hurt themselves in the most hilarious manner possible.
It is harder than ever to access the stillness. Yet, it is in this stillness that the most important thoughts, desires, and goals you will ever have arise.
When was the last time you reminded yourself that yesterday is history, that today is a gift?
Is your body and mind still mostly working? Is today a day you can take a small, but productive step towards your dreams?
Do you even remember what your true dreams are?
In a way, it is almost as if the noise is a blessing. Such thoughts can be difficult. Maybe you aren't happy. Maybe you haven't taken a step towards your dreams in years. It is much easier to scroll through an Instagram feed or swipe left on Tinder than to let your mind be quiet and check in.
So what does long-term travel have to do with any of this? I claim everything. Long-term travel is not just a gateway to spirituality and mindfulness. It is a funnel. A worm-hole that grabs your hand and whisks you away on a journey inside whether you were ready for it or not.
|Whisked away, meeting new friends on the road|
When you travel for an extended period, you will be forced to endure long periods alone. Horrible bus rides. Airports. Trains. Delays. It can be so difficult to communicate that it's easier to say nothing. And of course, there will be volcanos to climb
, beaches to laze upon
, forests to wander through
. There will be torrential rains which force you under a hut, and spectacular sunsets which hush a large crowd.
You will have your soul ripped apart by mutilated orphans
in the streets treated like rats. And then it will be glued back together by the most sublime views of the heavens and earth
you have ever seen.
You will be born anew.
|One dumb bum atop the holy mountain Emei Shan, sunrise in "The Sea of Clouds"|
This is the nature of long-term travel. You will be forced to be alone, with your thoughts, unplugged from the net. Your phone will only be good for taking pictures and telling time.
(By the way, I want to acknowledge that travel is certainly NOT the only way to access the inner self. I am just saying that it worked for me, and it is a peculiarly good way of doing it.)
It is disquieting at first, to be away from the noise. One week is only enough time to feel anxious and wait to be plugged back in. After a month, the anxiety vanishes and you relax. 3 months, you start to get traveler's zen. A year, and you are fully immersed and connected with the universe. Two years and you are calling up OutsideTV to get your own travel deal.
|Really Travel Channel?! Really? Also, please call me back. Pretty please ... <sob>|
Yes, yes, the rationalist within you says, but these emotions and feelings and connections are all just chemicals in my brain. Is there really value in any of this spiritual garbage?
If you only think in those terms, then yes, you might be technically correct, but your quality of life will be poor and without meaning. So I choose to see more. To see connections between all living things, and the universe. To be aware of the present moment. To enjoy the hairs on the back of my neck go up when I witness something amazing and beautiful.
Enlightenment is a scary word. It is supposed to mean something about a mystical state of union with all things, a living nirvana, and in some cases only achievable after death. But I like this term to describe those rare beings I've met in real life who exude something special. It fits. It's something attainable. So I choose to define "practical enlightment" in this way: achieving a heightened state of awareness of the present moment. (The Power of Now
is a good book on this topic.)
In this state, you always stay attuned to the energy of others, so you can respond deftly and easily in the best way possible to everyone you encounter. But more importantly, it is a state where you are mostly immune to all the noise in the world, and in close contact with your true inner self. Your deepest dreams, hopes, desires, and goals. You speak with this inner self on a daily basis, reaffirming that you are on the correct, and best path. This is my definition of a true spiritual being. Every morning that I wake up, I remind myself I am still alive and feel thankful. Because it's another day that I can work towards my ideal, my own enlightenment.
The human potential in all of us is almost beyond comprehension. Yet it lies dormant. I think this is in large part because we fear that awesome power, and it is easier to let it sleep.
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others." -- Marianne Williamson
This quote is fascinating because if you are lucky enough to meet someone who is enlightened, in the practical sense that I describe above, you realize that you can have it too. It is something real. That is exactly the feeling that I was left with after my encounter with that monk on a hill (see part 3 of this series). I felt that I had an opportunity to seek my best self.
I have never met Elon Musk. But from the outside, he seems like a man who is supremely connected to his inner self, and almost immune to the noise. He is marching confidently forward, realizing his vast human potential.
Imagine a world where everyone was freed from working a job they didn't like. Where everyone, all 7.4 billion of us, had the means and support to freely choose what could fully express their talents. What would this world look like? It would be incredible. Beyond imagination perhaps. The vision of humanity laid out by Star Trek seems to come close to this utopia, where money doesn't seem to exist and everyone does what they are best suited to do.
|What would a nice utopia look like? This one is definitely missing bacon-wrapped hot dogs ...|
It's true that we don't live in that world. But does that mean we should let go of those desires? Let them sleep until one day we wake up on our deathbed, where they burst out, screaming regrets?
This is where long-term travel can help. The noise goes away. You can get deep within yourself. Every person is new to you, you are new to everyone, their baggage and your baggage doesn't matter. You can both reinvent yourself. It is a natural lab to practice enlightenment, to see connectedness, to experience the power of now, to look to the future, to see things as they are and not as your bias distorts them.
This is what people mean when they say they "found themselves" while traveling. They finally had time to think about who they really are, without anyone else telling them who they ought to be.
Now, let's not get carried away. Obviously this is not something that happens magically overnight on day 45 or something. It is a gradual process. In fact, I wasn't quite aware things had shifted things for me until I'd had a couple years to reflect upon the experience. It's like watching the tides change. You can't quite see it happening.
Let me talk a little more about what I have termed "practical enlightenment." Getting a glimpse of enlightenment is easy, and almost everyone has a story where they experienced a brief moment of what the Japanese call "satori
." But holding on to it is the most difficult, yet most important, task in our lives. And this is very, very hard. It is even harder today, with the noise machines in every pocket. It is a daily battle. This is why it so very important to have a daily practice. This practice can be 10-15 minutes in the morning when you first wake up. Stretching, being kind to your body, breathing, checking in. And then doing some kind of meditation.
I think a lot of people are turned-off or intimidated by the word meditation. But it can be very simple and easy. First, put on your saffron robes and light 26 candles and sing the 12 chants to the 14 gods and goddesses. Then bow 23 times towards the magnetic north pole. Finally, chant Om Mani Padme Hum 11 times while holding your toes. I guarantee this will make you feel extremely embarrassed and you will never do it again.
|Don't get your meditate on without some lit saffron robes|
The truth is that meditation is just another word for stopping the rush of the morning, and pushing away the noise. That's it. It can really be that simple. Now, meditation can certainly be more involved and useful once you get into it. But to start out, the simple act of quieting the mind for 5-10 minutes, and getting yourself aligned for the day is a great start.
In Conclusion, radical friend
I firmly believe in science, or rather I believe that science is true and doesn't care whether you believe in it or not. But knowing that when I stare at something truly beautiful that it's just a chemical in my brain, doesn't accomplish anything meaningful. We humans do like to understand. But what we truly yearn for is contentment, satisfaction, connectedness, love, and joy.
|The final day in a year away|
I will close with a final story. On my first full year away, towards the end of the trip I was sitting on a dock in Belize by myself, watching the sun go down on an emerald sea. Tomorrow I would fly back to America. I had been robbed twice, and nearly died two more times. I had witnessed the most horrible human conditions and abuses, and in the same country the most beautiful. It is such an unexplainable feeling, having such incredible highs and lows all piled so close together in such a relatively short time. I felt different, but wasn't quite sure how.
Two days later I was home in Los Angeles at a Welcome Back Nemo party with all my old friends. I remember being jolted at how loud everyone was. At the traffic. At the massive urban sprawl. My own home felt completely unfamiliar.
I had so much to tell everyone. Yet, person after person came up and said something to the effect, "hey that was cool man. So, let me tell you about my life. I work in the same job and do the same thing. Hey want to get drunk at Sharkeez tomorrow?" It was jarring. I had something that was difficult to explain, something important that no one wanted to hear. Or rather, no one would be able to even understand it. Not in their current state, drowned in noise, thinking only about the mundane and trivial, the next party.
A few people came up to me and asked to hear a good story. I realized I didn't have one ready to go, and by the time I remembered the crazy adventure where I nearly died on a glacier in Nepal, they had already gotten bored and left to talk to girls.
The whole experience was like getting punched in the gut. I realized there was simply no way to explain what had happened on my trip. No way to explain what had changed for me personally. No way to explain the noise they all lived in, and the noise I was returning to myself.
A couple months later I was back at my old job, doing the same old things with the same people. And I could feel it. The traveler's zen was slipping away. The doors into my inner self. The moments of spirituality. They were fading into the noise.
And I realized, travel is good to start the process. But if you don't maintain it every day in the real world back home, it was all for nothing.
So, that's what I do. I wake up each morning, I stretch, I breathe, and then I read a short daily meditation/prayer:
I welcome this new day.
Behold the sublime beauty of the Earth! Its raw energy! The incomprehensible scale of existence!!
Gaia has bestowed upon me another opportunity to live, to achieve my dreams.
Thank you for this day, this gift.
Behold the people! Most asleep with such untapped potential, the few awakened souls bringing light to the world.
BE THE LIGHT today. Absorb, and radiate out pure sunlight. As all things on earth do. Each living being is connected by this energy from the sun. Imagine it flowing though everything: invisible, silent, powerful, warm. Humans generate their own energy and it mixes into this stream, connecting all things.
Imagine these intermingling waves of energy, like pebbles thrown into a still lake. Imagine my own waves as they radiate out to the world, and how it subtly affects the ones around me.
Simply be, positively radiating outward, in silence. Read the energy of others closely, and respond as needed.
When I speak loudly or harshly, or interrupt others, I create conflict and disruption in this energy. Listen first. Listen with the intent to understand, not respond. Speak only when needed, calmly and with purpose.
Think of close friends. Family. Be the light to them. Smile. Hug. LISTEN. Silently share my love and joy.
See the best in everyone. Send positive energy to everyone. They need it, they have wounds I will never know. And it costs me nothing. It takes a village to raise ME up. I need to build my village one person at a time.
BREATHE! And relish simply being.......
Breathe in the warmth and light ...
Breath out the fear and anxiety ...
Until my whole body tingles ...
Enjoy this amazing, wonderful body. It is a truly incredible thing. It is temporary and fragile. Cherish it and keep it in the best possible condition.
This daily joy of existence will one day, maybe soon, be taken from me. It is wondrous waking up this day and being alive!
This is it! All we have is now.
Today I will not do dumb shit to my body, such as drinking coffee in the afternoon or drinking alcohol to excess. I'm too old and am too tired of feeling like shit and repeating those same mistakes over and over and over and over!! Be good to my body. Less poisons. More healthy food.
Be grateful for 3 things today.
Feel my spark. Let it fill my body with tingling joy. Do not let it morph into fear and anxiety; instead channel it into calm purpose, profound happiness.
Kindle the fire of my purpose, my vision for being! The satisfaction of being a writer, the pure joy of being a true musician, the self-worth that comes with being a productive worker, the power of being a man that walks the walk, the sacred bliss that I have become an enlightened being!!
Let this raging fire pull me into ACTION today, breaking through barriers as an unstoppable force!!
Create, update, and stay on the Path. Without a plan, days slide by without meaning or consequence. I must discover my Path, plan it, and stay on track.
I need to want these things as bad as a drowning man wants air. Only then will I break through all barriers, rise above, and transform.
Thought and desire will not bring peace, happiness, satisfaction, inner joy. Only action. ACT.
Who is this body? This mind? This unique collection of molecules and energy? This being?
Who am I? What am I? This ... thing ... self-aware ... a god? Am I all that really exists?
Who is Nemo?
There is no answer out there. I can travel and search the world forever. And find only this:
Nemo is what I do, create, share, give, and love, today.
Today shall not be wasted
Now clearly, this is a custom prayer/meditation I have developed for myself, over the years. But I share it to perhaps give the reader some ideas on how to create their own daily practice. Whatever they want to become, they need to first create in their mind.
I don't do this just to have a good day. That is not enough for me. I am unafraid of my potential. I want to become that monk on the hill. An enlightened human, radiating unconditional love to all beings.
Perhaps one day, if I work hard day after day on my own personal practice, I will come close enough to inspire others. As that monk inspired me.
That, my radical friend, will be enough.