I haven’t posted anything on this site for a couple of weeks, but that has been for a good reason: I had a truly lovely twelve-day holiday and have been dealing with jet lag and a dastardly English cold since I got back Wednesday afternoon. I’ve written previously about the sacred dimension of rest, and while this is certainly one way vacations can be spiritual, there’s another aspect of vacationing I’d like to reflect on today: Exploration.
In some ways it could be said that the idea of exploration as a sacred practice has ancient roots in the itinerant or peripatetic lifestyles of certain philosophers and monastics of many traditions. Jesus himself lived this way, traveling from town to town, with no place of his own to call home. Of course, for peripatetics, this way of life was primarily about renunciation and asceticism on the one hand, and an urgency of message on the other hand — neither of which has much in common with twenty-first-century holidaying. But where this ancient practice might speak a bit to the sacredness of exploring is in its rejection of the comfort and normalcy of routine and habit. In this way it is reminiscent of the major spiritual lesson my youth group leaders always tried to teach us: Step out of your comfort zone. While for a holidayer like me this is temporary rather than the lifestyle it was for people like Jesus, this experience of being stretched is always helpful, and, if we engage with it the right way, deeply spiritual.
What is it?
Step out of your comfort zone! Do something new. It doesn’t need to be a trek through the rainforest or terra incognita — for me it was two of the biggest cities and tourist destinations the West has to offer, hardly ‘off the beaten track.’ It can be as simple as taking a new route to work or going to a new restaurant, or as involved as a world tour. The point is simply to shake up your routine and see something new.
I spent five and a half days in Paris with a good friend; then another five and a half in and around London, mostly on my own. Most of the time was spent on foot, walking an average of 20 km a day, seeing everything I could see, both the common tourist sites and things further afield.
We are people of routine. I am convinced that the best way to live a happy and productive life is to build good routines and habits. Routines free us from the onslaught of decisions and choices that we face every day and can’t keep up with, and thereby can release us to be our most productive, fulfilled, and happy selves. And yet, if we hold on to them too tightly, they can also limit us and become gilded cages, keeping us as we are and limiting our growth and potential. Routines make great tools but horrible masters. Exploration is by nature an exercise in setting aside our routines and habits to do something new. It requires us to leave our comfort zones and be stretched.
As I commented to my travel buddy in Paris on day four of the trip, I feel like I get a little bit dumber every day I’m a tourist. Even simple things like turning on a faucet, using an electrical outlet, or crossing the street can be bewildering when we’re in a strange place. Language and custom, of course, also feed into this. In a place where you aren’t fully fluent in the language, suddenly you are limited in how you can interact with people around you and advocate for your wants and needs. Even where you do speak the language, but a different dialect of it, you are marked out immediately as an outsider.
All this is an affront to the ego, which builds itself up on what it believes to be the firm foundation of our capability, understanding, and ability to communicate. Leaving our comfort zones reveals all of this as the illusion it is. The bubble of the ego gets popped. The only question is how we are going to respond to it: Are we going to have the humility to accept that the world doesn’t work the way we think it does or should? Are we going to accept we aren’t the measure of all things and that the world is a far bigger and more interesting place than our experiences might suggest? Or are we going to live up to the worst of the ‘tourist’ image and insist that things be the way we expect them to be?
These reflections tie in nicely to some of the ideas I mentioned in my series this Spring on integral hermeneutics. By forcing us out of our comfort zones, exploring forces us to grow, to become something bigger than what we were before. By exposing us to sights and ways of life that are different from what we are used to, exploring helps us expand our circle of empathy. And by exposing our experience and understanding of the world as being as limited and provisional as they are, it helps makes our egos, ideologies, and presuppositions objects of our awareness — things we can engage with and play with, rather than being controlled by them without even being aware of them. And, in this way, if we let it, exploring new places and environments can be a deeply spiritual and sacred experience.
There’s one more thing I wanted to touch on in these reflections and that’s the role of companionship. In the first half of my trip, in Paris, I was traveling with a friend — someone who had been there before, who knew the way and to some extent the local ways; the second half of my trip, in London, I was exploring almost entirely on my own, and so all of the responsibility was on my shoulders. The two experiences were vastly different, and it struck me as an apt analogy for the spiritual life. Yes, we can go it alone, but it’s so much easier, more interesting, and more fun, with companions at our side.