Philosophy and Travel: Connect or Disconnect

Travel forged who I was early on, and cracked me open to new discoveries at a crucial point in my development. My wife and I have shared a passion for travel since before we met, and have made it a priority above many other things in our life together. Given how much the experiences I have had abroad have inspired me I was shocked to read many passages in both Stoicism and Taoism that seem to paint travel as a thing to be avoided.

We are reminded from both schools of thought that the nature of the world is unique in all of its individual expressions. If all matter, all animals, all plants are manifestations of nature expressing itself creatively, then no matter where we look we will see something that has no equal anywhere else. We are told that it is silly to go somewhere else in order to learn the ways of nature, or of ourselves.

Without going out-of-doors, one may know all under heaven; Without peering through windows, one may know the Way of heaven. The farther one goes, the less one knows. For this reason, the sage knows without journeying, understands without looking, accomplishes without acting.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 47, Victor H Mair translation

These words express that perhaps it is not only unhelpful to travel, but misguided and foolish. Is the world outside of ourselves merely a distraction from the search for true knowledge?

Taoism reminds us that we all share a common source, and are all the same if we can look close enough. In fact, there is much to be said about the fractal nature of our universe. That one can “zoom out” to see the complexity of our position within the universe, or “zoom in” to appreciate the complexity of cells at work within any living organism, echoes the idea that we need not go anywhere in order to explore the universe of details that exist in every piece of existence.

 Though neighboring states were within sight of each other, and could hear the cries of each other’s dogs and chickens, the people grew old and died without ever traveling beyond their own borders. At a time such as this, there was nothing but the most perfect order.

Chuang Tzu section 10, Burton Watson translation

Beyond the futility of trying to find “more” somewhere else, there is also a consideration that to travel is to misguide ourselves about what we are looking for. If we are hoping for a reset, or a chance to break out of our routine by stepping away from the normal, perhaps travel is only a temporary solution, or even worse, a way to cover up the real issues that are causing us to feel restless.

Men seek retreats for themselves – in the country, by the sea, in the hills – and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite un-philosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life. So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself. The doctrines you will visit there should be few and fundamental, sufficient at one meeting to wash away all your pain and send you back free of resentment at what you must rejoin.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 4, 3

This seems to preclude, however, that all travel is in pursuit of escape.

Any trip must be formulated around where one begins and where one hopes to end up, but in this case we must first take into account the mental origin and destination before we can talk about any kind of physical journey.

I believe that there are many people who travel in order to escape. Destinations are chosen because they cater to the traveler’s needs, provide decadent lodgings, beautiful surroundings and pristine beaches. Travel guides focus heavily on amenities, activities and ways in which the traveler can streamline the experience.

This, I believe, is what Marcus Auralius is addressing in his quote more directly. In his day as in ours one might travel from the city to a country estate, somewhere far enough outside the hustle and bustle while also set up with all the trappings of home. This is merely a change in location in order to temporarily remove oneself from the stresses of daily life. As he notes, however, this relief is at best temporary. Travelling for these reasons doesn’t provide answers to the daily challenges and questions, just distance. When forced to return to daily life if often feels as if one had never taken the vacation in the first place, especially since there is often work which has piled up that wouldn’t have been there to do if we had never left home in the first place.

Travel for me has always been a necessary way to inform myself about other avenues of being. As a child I had a hard time imagining how things could be otherwise, especially growing up in a small midwestern community. Despite, or perhaps because of, my love of fantasy and science fiction, I felt that there was a huge disconnect between the life I was living and the larger world, but I had no way to penetrating the surrounding walls.

Thankfully my father also had a deep seated travel itch, and took us regularly across the American west in the back of our station-wagon. In these first trips I was able to see how things could be different elsewhere. It seems I am an experiential learner, and need to have a bit of hands on before these concepts sink in. Reading is good to point out that there is a “there” there, but it isn’t good enough to leave me with the tools I need.

Going abroad in college, not only for the first time, but on a very long journey through several countries, cracked me wide open, and the importance of travel has taken root for good. I experienced a variety of cultures and locations that I would never have been able to conceptualize otherwise. Trying to cross a busy street in the heart of Cairo or wandering ally-way shops in Hong Kong have left me with perspectives that still shape who I am.

We all need ways to see beyond ourselves, and to ultimately look back towards ourselves. The way in which travel expands my sense of what else if out there, helps me to reframe myself.

Any tool can be put to useful or destructive ends depending on who is wielding it, and what their intentions are. While travel may be an escape for many, pointing out the fact that there is something they feel the need to escape from, that is not what it is for me. For me, travel is the way, a meaningful journey that has much less to do with physical destination than it does with putting myself into a mindset of openness and growth.

As a special note about the photography here: all of these images were taken from our most recent vacation through a few places in Europe. I wasn’t pursuing photography very seriously at this point, just trying to capture what I found interesting at the time, and it is interesting to see how my photos then and my photography now relates to itself. I don’t generally take images of civilization now, but perhaps that is something I will explore more intentionally soon.

2 thoughts on “Philosophy and Travel: Connect or Disconnect

  1. Interesting and some mind blowing quotes that you included Andrew and although there is a tiny percentage of truth in them about deeper self discovery I couldn’t disagree more. Travel, in my opinion, is the best way to learn about the world and yourself. Like you said at the end of your post, openness and growth. I can’t even imagine where or what I would be without travelling and after having lived in 4 countries now, I feel extremely fortunate and grateful of taking these opportunities because these experiences and people I gave met along the way have shaped who I am.
    Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

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