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Friday, December 15, 2017

Why Travel, Part 3: Meeting a Spiritual Being in Real Life

This is part 3 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 and 2 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 human instincts, and change hearts and minds for the better.

Here in part 3 I want to introduce the idea that spiritual beings really do exist in this world. In fact, I've met a few of these people. And man, when you meet someone like this, it is quite something. You never forget it. Then I will try to explain what I mean by the word spirituality, a practical definition without any of the "woo-woo" stuff.

Let me start with a story. Once upon a time, on a beach far far away, I was sitting alone. The sun was coming up. Beaded, painted, passed-out bodies littered the beach. Trash bobbed up and down in the water, tarnishing an otherwise beautiful pink sunrise.

My bones sagged from tiredness. Yet sleep eluded me. My blood still boiled and rushed from the buckets of Red Bull vodkas last night. Thai Red Bull is very different than the American version. It comes in a small glass bottle, and it is a thick syrup of pure mysterious adrenalin.

I stared at a shell on the beach. My own body was that shell. Empty and lifeless.

Last night, I had attended my first "Full Moon Party" on the infamous beach of Haad Rin on Koh Phangnan.

I wasn't sure what I expected. But late in the evening, my brain swirling on buckets of dubious beverages, I realized that this was not what I had hoped for. Bar after bar blared out the worst kind of European cheese pop beats. On the various dance floors, men jockeyed and pushed for position amongst the few remaining drunken women and Thai prostitutes.

Good morning Haad Rin
I guess I had hoped for some kind of backpacker nirvana, where travelers from around the world convened under the full moon to share good vibes and wisdom gleaned from the far corners of the Earth.

Instead, this party had become so well known that European ravers would fly in just for the weekend, take copious drugs and too much Red Bull, become a bit too aggressive, trash the beach, and fly home a day or two later.

So, I watched the pink sunrise amongst the bodies and trash and coarsing blood in my ears. And I thought: what the hell am I doing?

Why am I traveling? What is the damn point of this trip? Maybe it just a selfish indulgence, maybe there was nothing to be found "out there."

It was the next day, or perhaps the day after, but at some point I started to feel like I should continue living. I hopped on my rented scooter, which by the way, is one of the great pleasures of travel abroad. Renting a motorbike or scooter to explore a new place is an absolute joy.

Scooters are the absolute best way to travel
I didn't know where I was going. I only knew that I wanted to ride and feel the wind. To recapture something. I wandered aimlessly for a bit on the island, and then I passed by a dirt road leading up a hill. To this day I cannot explain it. But something grabbed onto me and told me that I needed to go up that side road. I turned back around and cruised up.

At the top I found a very small temple. I parked and as I walked towards it, an old man in saffron robes came out and said in English, "welcome." As if he was expecting me. He sat me down, and then asked where I was from, what I was doing, etc. I said I was traveling for a year. He tilted his head and looked at me. I thought for a bit. And finally I said I was trying to find out why, exactly, I was traveling for a year. At this he smiled.

"I see you need a blessing." He showed me how to sit and hold my hands and how to properly receive this blessing. Then he lighted incense and chanted and bestowed upon me his prayers for good travels.

Getting my prayers on

One of the best humans I've ever met, Mr. Monk on the Hill
It's really stupid when you think about it. Some monk in a random temple giving you some "blessing" which I generally don't believe in. But at that moment, feeling empty and purposeless, questioning why I was traveling, why I was even here on this Earth ... to find this friendly old man take me in, read me so easily, see that I needed a bit of support, was shocking and overwhelming. I have no other way to say it. Unconditional love radiated from this being. It was sincere and powerful. That was his true blessing.

He then showed me a scrapbook filled with many other visitors, from all over the world. There was something special about this old man in his little temple. Here he was, giving out love and blessings to all those who crossed his path. And then all these people he met would go back into the world, perhaps feeling a little better about themselves, literally carrying his postive energy in all directions. In his own way, he was a small pebble tossed into an ocean. Little waves rippled outwards across the world.

I couldn't get that monk out of my mind. What was it about him? He had this presence. Quiet confidence and peacefulness oozed out from within. I have never met the Dalai Lama, but many people report a similar experience when meeting His Holiness. I knew I wanted that something. No, ... that wasn't quite right. I didn't want it. I wanted to become it.

From that point, my year away changed dramatically for the better. I was in tune with "traveler's zen," which I have talked about in great length in this blog. It is a weird state of contentment that you start in exist in, although you might be in a tuk-tuk careening to certain death in Bangkok. Even Delhi cab drivers trying to trick me into driving to their buddies crystal shop didn't phase me in the slightest. I simply saw them as trying to survive and make a buck and didn't hold a grudge. Everything opened up for me. Good, bad, and terrible things happened, but when the truly wonderful things happened I was ready to receive them. The pink of the morning light reflecting off the last glaciers of Kilimanjaro, the mystical landscapes of karsts and bamboo in Guilin, a simple night in Costa Rican hammocks with new surf friends. Each made me feel alive with wonder, each opened a brief door into something deeper and greater than myself.

But these windows stayed open only for a moment. Too soon, reality clanged and clanked and snapped me out of it, and then it was gone. I started to call it the "noise." The noise is all those constant interruptions and distractions that take you away from any meaningful understanding of what is really going on in the present moment, in your life, and in the lives of those around you. Noise focuses you on the mundane and trivial, and prevents you from thinking about the truth. Facebook beeping new alerts on your mobile device is the ultimate example of the noise. Instead of spending an hour contemplating life, one will spend an hour contemplating why a cat loves to squeeze into a glass fishbowl that is way too small for it.

Alone with his thoughts, this cat is ultra-spiritual
I tell this story to introduce the concept of what it means to be spiritual, at least my concept of it. I realize there are many out there who also believe we emit auras, or that crystals can change our moods, or that we have centers of energy along our core called chakras.

Perhaps one day science will find that there is some truth to this. But my concept of spirituality is much more basic and doesn't rely on anything a man of science can't appreciate and understand. To me it is that monk in that temple, and that kind of spirituality has real power. Power to change our lives for the better, and the lives of those around us.

Does spirituality matter in the age of science? What does it mean in today's world?

I could try to define spirituality with dry terms, but this is doomed to failure. Spirituality is a lived experience, and difficult to communicate through definitions. Instead I will continue to attempt to convey its meaning through stories and experiences that are relatable to all of us.

When was the last time you were alone, watching a truly spectacular sunset? Perhaps you were out for a jog or bike ride or walk in the evening. And then, the sky came alive with colors. A unique, temporary masterpiece, as if it was created just for you. Perhaps you were able to quiet your thoughts, exist purely in that moment, feeling absolutely alive. If you were really lucky, you may have felt a brief thrill in your spine and your hairs stand up. A moment of magic, fully awake and present, feeling connected to something much bigger than yourself.

This, to me, is spirituality.

When was the last time you took the time to find a clear, dark patch of sky, lay on your back, and simply stare at the universe? Truly stare at it. Embracing its incomprehensible, mind-bending infinity?

"We are a part of this universe, we are in this universe; but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us." -- Neil DeGrasse Tyson

He was referring, of course, to the fact that all life is composed of elements fused inside the hearts of stars. We are literally stardust, as the saying goes.

Pushing away the noise, letting your mind go quiet, embracing this connectedness between things, being fully present. Aware of your breath. Feeling truly alive. Grateful.

It is a kind of magic isn't it?

Perhaps to many this sounds silly and useless. Maybe it is easier to think that. That way we don't have to ever be quiet, to be mindful. That is what the noise tells us at least, and to be honest, that is what it wants. Yes, the noise has a motive. What is advertising, after all, if not a quest to keep you distracted from what you really need? Which is very little of course.

Every action I do affects others in ways I don't notice or understand. A smile to my barista that brightens her mood. Or an angry "give me my damn coffee!" stare that ruins her day. Using the word "karma" is tricky as that word is loaded with too much meaning. However, our actions clearly affect everyone around us in both little and big ways, that are hard to see if you don't pay attention.

Like that monk in Thailand, we move through time, space, and life like a pebble thrown into an ocean. Small waves move outward. At the same time, the many others around us also put out their small waves. They interact, interfering, constructively and negatively. If you zoom out just a bit, it is hard to see those individual interactions. Instead, you see hundreds, thousands, millions of lives going about their daily business, their countless waves mingling into a hum of white noise. Only the very few, who train their mind through daily practice, are able to quiet their minds and become aware of the effect they constantly have on the world around them.

This is spirituality. It is those moments when a door opens to a deeper understanding of the present moment, yourself, life, and your place in it.

(Click here for Part 4: What It Means to "Find Yourself" While Traveling)

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