Travel is exploration. Sounds trite. But let’s dig a little deeper.
In life, we make a series of choices in an attempt to survive and maximize our outcomes. We make a choice each moment—sometimes consciously and other times unconsciously—in an attempt to decide what is the best thing we can do right now, given everything that gave rise to what is happening right now. When right now presents a problem, we naturally seek a solution. If the solution does not appear in a small search space—say in our neighborhood—we widen our search space and we explore other places. We may find ourselves taking a walk around the grounds of the Dalai Lama’s residence at the foothills of the Himalayas or taking a ride around the 1,864 space-bending curves of the “Mae Hong Son loop” set in the sunny rolling hills of Northern Thailand.
What are we trying to find?
Some people are perfectly content and just travel for fun. But I believe a lot of us travel to try to find solutions. Perhaps something just feels off—you may feel that you are living but you are not alive.
Human sciences including psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, spirituality, and religion, suggest that we are all trying to find purpose and freedom, even if we are too distracted to be aware of it. Purpose and freedom bring life, to life. Purpose and freedom cultivate happiness—not temporary pleasures but a genuine happiness we carry within ourselves. You know you’ve found it when it feels like home, wherever you are.
“I have arrived, I am home” – Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, nominated for Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King
Where do purpose and freedom come from? How do we find them?
Our mind constructs the sense of purpose and freedom as it creates other experiences—with stories—but it’s hard to be in control of this narrative process. For most people, it helps to be exposed to new experiences—get off the couch, keep moving. Explore a wider search space.
But the pressures and ideology of modern society can make it difficult to find the time to search in the first place. To reduce those pressures, it helps to remember that we don’t need that much money to be happy—actually not having too little or too much might be just the right amount. It helps to reduce your desires down to what you actually need.
“You have succeeded in life when all you really want is only what you really need.”—Vernon Howard, American spiritual teacher, author, and philosopher
What doesn’t help is education systems that emphasize rote memorization and exam scores and their trickle-down effects on the stories we tell ourselves as adults about money, prestige, and status. In the process of “externalizing” our ideas of success, many of us forget the importance of searching inside ourselves to find purpose and freedom.
Fortunately, when we travel, such cultural and institutional ideologies that distract us from finding purpose and freedom can vanish when you hop off that plane, train, or bus. Your body is still there, but your “external” environment has transformed. You are suddenly exposed to a vast new information world—new ideologies, traditions, and systems of thought. And with that, the internal environment starts to change—to the extent that you really listen and learn. By listening and learning, your odds at finding the sense of authentic purpose and freedom increase. How do we improve our listening and learning skills? The secret is in silence.
What do I mean by “silence”?
Imagine there are two voices. First, the loud one in our head, and second, the quiet one when we silence our head—we can label the latter the “body voice.” Some of us are prone to mostly listen to the noisy “head voice”, and may not even be aware of the quiet body voice. This causes problems, as listening only to the head voice, we recursively repeat what we already know.
What will you find in this silence?
It may require some practice to quiet the noisy head voice, just as it takes practice to learn a new instrument or sport. But when you do, you will become more responsive to the nuance and beauty of the present—the new world you’ve spent precious money and time to travel to. It is through fine-tuning your attention to the body voice “in there” that you become fine-tune to what is “out there.” With hi-fi attention, you are more likely to find what you’re searching for. Makes sense right? Like calibrating a microscope, you will become more aware of your new surroundings—the new community around you, new strangers, new friends. And you might also find yourself being more aware that you are aware of the beauty of your where and when. You will travel deeper.
How does silence bring us into the solution space?
Deep travel will take you to nooks and crannies you wouldn’t have uncovered otherwise. It is in these spaces, you might find your solution. The closer you get to the solution, the more tantalizing the search becomes. The search itself might cultivate a newfound—or perhaps long-forgotten—sense of purpose.
By cultivating purpose, it becomes easier to enter into the flow of the moment. We experience ultimate presence. In ultimate presence, we free ourselves from anxiety that arises from discrepancies between who we feel we ought to be—arising from duties and obligations—and who we are, and freedom from depression that arises from discrepancies between who we wish we were—arising from fantasies—and who we are. We free ourselves from ourselves, and paradoxically, in doing so, we also reclaim ourselves. We connect with what is now, which is all there is.
So silence is the key to listening, listening is the key to connecting, and connecting is the key to narrow in on a solution space. Why? Because we are social animals. Never forget that. Humans have seven basic needs: food, water, air, shelter, sanitation, sleep, and connection. This seventh need is as important as the rest, even though modern society sets circumstances that make some of us neglect it and instead obsess over and become addicted to things we do not need. Like air, without connection, we die.
Pro tip #1: Quiet your head and you will listen more and learn faster
At a personal level, meditation is a good start. If the millennia of evidence from adepts in the ancient tradition is not convincing enough, the benefits are being borne out in modern scientific research too. There is even an entire research institute dedicated to understanding how discoveries from meditation and science cohere. Meditators talk with neuroscientists and even quantum physicists to understand how meditation can help us discover reality, optimize brain functioning, improve our relationships, and cultivate resilience and genuine lasting happiness.
At a societal level, we have to think bigger to find ways to grant more freedom to all. The constraints we’ve built into our modern lives may make it seem impractical to spend 12 years in a cave near Manali rediscovering our sense of purpose and freedom. How do we foster more freedom for people en masse? We engage in massive cooperation to change the cultural and institutional ideologies that bind us to a desk in an office 8+ hours a day, 5+ days a week, for 50+ weeks each year. Then we will all have more opportunities to search.
Pro tip #2: Challenge yourself, self-experiment
Self-commit to test these ideas out for yourself. The strongest evidence is seeing something for yourself. Like a child chasing a rainbow, she sees for herself that the rainbow is a refraction of light, not the solid object it appears to be. From that moment forward, there is a dramatic change in the child’s understanding. Like this, it is important to see it yourself. No matter how awkward or uncomfortable, try to silence that loud voice in your head. Be curious and see what happens. Do this more and more and you just might find purpose and freedom during the special time you’ve booked away.
Where might you find it? Perhaps in the Thai islands, in the Myanmarian temples, or even in the Indonesian rainforests—surrender to the silence and let it guide your journey this time.
The one thing that cannot be stopped (yet) is the arrow of time. Our bodies will age, and we have limited time to find purpose and freedom in this lifetime. Keep moving until you find your way. Hope keeps us going and growing. Leave the noise at home where it came from. Learn to deep travel. Purpose and freedom will arise when you are silent enough to hear them.