The Tao of Glass: The Stoic Machine

Cameras, like humans, come in a multitude of models, and each model can vary from its brethren when it is combined with a different configuration of lenses, strobes, memory cards, recording equipment or filters. These unique combinations of innate technology and/or mechanics are set up in such a way that they are able to deliver a suite of results based on software settings and configurations that further differentiate them from one another.

Each camera contains these qualities inherently, and retains them regardless of the setting and surroundings. My Fuji X-E1 is capable of capturing images at 16mb with an ISO setting pushed to an extreme of 25600 with a shutter speed set at 4000. It may not create anything other than a blown out white wash, but it might capture the details of something moving quickly at dusk. The results are up to the interpretation of the third party viewer, but the environment doesn’t have any effect on what the camera itself does.

We have our own built in skills and capabilities, and it is important to remember that our surroundings don’t change that. No matter what is happening around us there are somethings that we will always have no matter where we find ourselves.

The camera doesn’t complain that it is only being taken out to do street photography rather than taking pictures of weddings, or landscapes, or families with squirming children. It will always be focused on executing the skills it was created for no matter what is exposed on the film.

The stoics talk about this as duty. One isn’t usually able to choose the job or position that one has in life, but it is important to attend the to duty that one is given as best as possible regardless of what it is.

If you set yourself to your present task along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigor, and good will: if you admit no distraction, but keep your own divinity pure and standing strong, as if you had to surrender it right now; if you grapple this to you, expecting nothing, shirking nothing, but self-content with each present action taken in accordance with nature and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean – then you will lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 3, 12

It is easy to frame the events unfolding around us in ways that seem to shape our lives and our options. At any given point in our lives we may be feeling boxed in, or limited in other ways. However, just because we aren’t in the job that we want, or the place we want to be living, doesn’t mean that we can’t execute the skills that we have to the best of our ability.

Cold as it may seem, the perspective I want to focus on is this: the machine can only perform its function, unaware of the context, uninfluenced by the perceived outcome. The camera doesn’t worry whether the image was over or underexposed, or whether the gallery visitors appreciate the composition of images that it created. It is focused on the execution of its duty regardless of the skill with which it is manipulated.

We can choose ourselves how much we need to be influenced by the perceived outcomes of our work and how it is received by people removed from us. We can choose to focus on aspects of our surroundings and circumstances that we imagine to be limiting factors, or simply not ideal. Or, we can keep in mind the purposed to which we are trying to apply ourselves. Perhaps it is artistry, or being a skilled worker, or being a parent who is present and emotionally available.

Regardless of the situation we can choose to focus on how we execute those actions, rather than worrying about what might come of them once they are beyond our control.

Let any external thing that so wishes happen to those parts of me which can be affected by its happening – and they, if they wish, can complain. I myself am not yet harmed, unless I judge this occurrence something bad: and I can refuse to do so.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 7, 14

Seeking Compassion in Stoicism

When I finally started reading some of the key Stoic writers in my journey to better understand the philsophy, I was quickly struck by a recurring pronouncement of empathy and compassion for one’s fellow man.

I had come to the philosophy with a partial and flawed understanding that the philosophy was primarily focused on distancing oneself from emotions and the influence of other people. The impression that many people have is that to be stoic is to be untouched by the good and the bad that happens to you, and to those around you.

My early encounters with the text, however, brought up many quotes that I found surprising given this preconception that I had come in with. Stoicism as espoused by Marcus Auralius is not only a way of living that encourages one to take the perspective of others regularly, but it also calls on Stoics to minister to their suffering brethren. A sentiment that rings more closely to what I am used to hearing as a trait of Christianity.

One of my favorite passages from Marcus, as with all his writings, was something he wrote to put a check on himself, to make sure that he was keeping his mind on service to his duties and humanity.

How have you behaved up to now towards gods, parents, brother, wife, children, teachers, tutors, friends, relations, servants? Has your principle up to now with all of these been to ‘say no evil, do no evil’? Remind yourself what you have been through and had the strength to endure; that the story of your life is fully told and your service completed; how often you have seen beauty, disregarded pleasure and pain, forgone glory, and been kind to the unkind?

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 5, 31

In the same breath as he talks about how he has treated those around him he also mentions being unmoved by pleasure or pain. These two concepts, of being both immune to the influence of emotion, and compassionate to our fellow man, are not mutually exclusive.

Below all aspects of Stoicism runs a current of thought in which we understand that our emotional reactions to things are based on our own judgement about those things. If we understand that we have the power to adjust our responses to the world, then all manner of things that happen to or around us lose their power to make us unhappy.

I am able to form the judgement that I should about this event. If able, why troubled? All that lies outside my own mind is nothing to it.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 7, 2

Marcus was an Roman emperor and writes a lot about dealing with difficult people, both friends and enemies. His version of compassion if often tilted quite strongly towards tolerance of individuals whom he might otherwise find difficult to deal with. Though some people might feel that this perspective is a bit weak, far from the sort of warmth we often associate with compassion, I would argue that true tolerance of any other person is an incredibly difficult and generous stance to strive towards.

Men are born for the sake of each other. So either teach or tolerate.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 8, 59

One of the striking ways in which Marcus helps us gain perspective on the wrongs done by others, is to point out that everyone has only the choices to act in accordance with their own knowledge and circumstances. He also finds it prudent to point out that perhaps the wrong that we think they have done may not in fact be what we imagine. Who are we to presume that our perspective on the situation is correct in the first place?

Presented with the impression that someone has done wrong, how do I know that this was a wrong? And if it was indeed a wrong, how do I know that he was not already condemning himself, which is the equivalent of tearing his own face? Wanting the bad man not to do wrong is like wanting the fig tree not to produce figs, babies not to cry, horses not to neigh, or any other inevitable fact of nature. What else can he do with a state of mind like his? So if you are really keen, cure his state.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 12, 16

Being a Stoic isn’t about building a wall around yourself so that the actions of others will not be able to affect you. It isn’t social distancing and filtering in such a way as that the words of others come to us from arm’s length. It is actually the opposite. It is being so secure in our own judgement and virtue that we can open ourselves up fully to be present in the mind and position of the other person. It is an act of actually trying to step into their shoes and see where they are coming from. It is by getting ourselves away from our own prejudices that we are able to see more clearly, and when we can see from the other person’s perspective it seems simple that we will have some sympathy for them as a fellow human being struggling to do the right thing the best way that they know how.

I have come to greatly admire this aspect of Stoicism that is difficult to convey and seems often to be lost in the description. We can only ever truly affect change within ourselves, and the focus of our attention should be on living in accordance with our own inner nature in order to lead a virtuous life. As social creatures and part of a larger connection of living beings, our virtues need also be turned to how we deal with others. True tolerance isn’t a shutting people out, it is an attempt to understand them. Our ability to not take their actions personally has nothing to do with fortitude and strength, rather it has to do with wisdom and empathy.

Compassion, it seems to me, is not only an aspect of the Stoic tradition, but a cornerstone. If we truly do the work of understanding who we are, and the challenges that each person much endure in their own ways, then compassion is a natural outcome. Blame is not a factor in the equation. We are all in the same struggle together, and we can never truly harm one another, and to share our experiences and sympathies with one another will help ease the burden for all.

Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you – but your love must be genuine.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 6, 39

Trail Running At Night: Moving Without Seeing

Trail running is possibly when I am at my happiest. It combines a natural physical exercise with being strongly connected to nature, and it engages my mind strategically in a way that road running does not. Navigating the technical difficulties of the trail clicks into something deep inside that feels instinctual, gives my brain a low-level workout and creates a meditative space to decompress. There are many great metaphors tying trail running to life, especially when thinking about how one always has to look ahead, assess the near term obstacles and formulate a plan on how to manage them. That may seem great on paper, but even that much ability to plan ahead is generous in comparison to what life is really like.

Life is much more like trail running at night.

Most of the forward motion I have had in my life seems to have been unplanned. I ended up taking classes in areas other than my chosen major, I followed my wife to another city for her graduate education and found my employment out of necessity. It became an actual career path through the encouragement of others pushing me along and supporting me. When my wife graduated I followed her again for her career and was incredibly lucky to find a place for myself in our new city with my old employer.

Looking forward to predict what might happen next has always been a bit dubious in my case given this history, but 2020 is shaping up to offer even more challenges. I have just learned that many more changes are coming for both my wife and myself. Her job was upended a few months ago and mine just informed me that I would be transferring roles and duties, losing my beloved colleagues and probably travelling more.

All of that is of course layered in and around the changes happening due to the COVID-19 pandemic. My wife is a university professor and chair of her department, which has decided to close campus and finish off the semester online only, creating a whole slew of questions without answers. My current travel for work has been suspended and the pressure on our day to day operations has caused many of our usual systems to be placed at the wayside while we figure out what the new normal looks like.

Of course, way beyond myself, it feels like this is a time of unprecedented upheaval around the world, and most of the people I talk with are feeling quite a bit of uncertainty about more than one area of their lives.

For me it feels very much like I am standing in a dense fog, trying to look down the path, and finding myself completely unable to see more than a few feet ahead. I was lucky enough to have a day like this recently and the time to get out with a camera to capture it for a few fleeting moments before the sun burned it off.

Trail running at night (or in dense fog) is an exercise in moving through obstacles without the luxury of foresight, and as such, has some great lessons that I am trying to internalize for other parts of my life right now in a moment where I just can’t see what the way forward looks like.

There is a river of creation, and time is a violent stream. As soon as one thing comes into sight, it is swept past and another is carried down: it too will be taken on its way.

Marcus Auralius, Meditation Book 4, 43

Core strength and flexibility are the things one can and must rely on.

In the daylight it is possible to run at the extremities, to plan your steps carefully and to use the obstacles to your advantage. One might intentionally step on roots or rocks in the path to gain more traction or to maintain momentum. Strong ankles and knee control can help take the force of these moves but only if the steps go according to plan.

When running at night it is better to run at the core. Since it is not possible to assess an obstacle ahead of time it is necessary to control the stride starting at the hip. Leave the knee and ankle as flexible as possible, so that when the foot comes down it can roll with the terrain. Keep the feet below the body and the center of gravity low. Focus on planting one foot, gaining balance and then pulling the next up. Get the knee ahead of you and bring down the ankle loose and flexible.

In this way one finds oneself focused inward, maintaining balance and regularity of stride, thinking much more about what the hip is doing than what the ankle is up to. Trying to hold a foot too rigid when you don’t know how it is going to land is a great way to sprain an ankle or worse.

Human beings are soft and supple when alive, stiff and straight when dead. The myriad creatures, the grasses and trees are soft and fragile when alive, dry and withered when dead. Therefore, it is said: the rigid person is a disciple of death; the soft, supple, and delicate are lovers of life. An army that is inflexible will not conquer; a tree that is inflexible will snap. The unyielding and mighty shall be brought low; the soft, supple, and delicate will be set above.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 76, Victor Mair translation

The core strength we rely on in our broader lives can serve the same function as we move into uncertainty. Having strong values and social networks will allow us to handle obstacles, not by lining ourselves up ahead of time, but by giving us a framework of support that will catch us, and a blueprint to know where we should made adjustments rather than stand fast against an obstacle.

A core strength of our family is the way we prioritize one on one time, time spent in nature and time for each parent to spend recharging individually. If any of those aspects start to slip or happen less frequently we know that an adjustment needs to be made. Trying to maintain the external specifics for plans we have made, appointments on the calendar, isn’t going to matter as much as being able to spend quality time together and maintain the balance.

Core values don’t just give us guardrails to know when things are out of balance, they also point us in the right direction to correct those imbalances. Knowing what matters means that you have a beacon to help keep orientation. Sensing when one partner in the couple is spending too much time taking point and might be getting burned out, the solution is easy: get them some time on their own, even if that means adjusting plans that have already been made.

When running at night, pace must also be adjusted. It would simply be foolish, even if one has run the course before, to try and run in the dark at the same speed one might run during the day. There is no harm in slowing down a bit when things are less clear, and only speeding up again when there is some open ground.

When circumstances force you into some sort of distress, quickly return to yourself. Do not stay out of rhythm for longer than you must: you will master the harmony the more by constantly going back to it.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 6, 11

As a family travel is also very important to us. We have a rough draft schedule of travel and family milestones planned out for the next five years, but now seems like a good time to slow down and not worry much about what is going to be happening next year, much less next month. There will be time when we can revisit those plans and probably keep most of them in some form, but now is simply not it, and that is okay.

Running in the dark means focusing on yourself and having faith in the work you have put in building up your strength. In reality, running in the day shouldn’t be any different. Just because we think we can see down the path doesn’t mean we really know what is going to happen. The part of the path that looks dry may turn out to be slippery, and the branch we want to step on may not hold our weight at the critical moment. Even if we plan the moves correctly it doesn’t mean that we will be able to pull it off. Sometimes one just takes a bad step even with all the right training and strategy.

Both Taoism and Stoicism have been very helpful in preparing me for uncertainty in my life. These philosophies encourage self reflection, which is the only way we can come to know where our core values lay. Only once we begin to observe and prioritize the things that truly matter to us can we properly exercise those values, clarify their contours, and use them to guide our decisions.

Running at night isn’t a practice of sadistic self-punishment. It isn’t something that one should do just because it seems like a crazy idea. our of bravery. Running at night, because it cultivates this necessity of trusting one’s own body, is an exercise in faith. Letting go, trusting in one’s training and capabilities, not worrying about the path ahead, only the stars above and the surreal experience of gliding through the dark, is magical. My experience of this was an experience of faith, and I don’t mean to strip that word of any spiritual meaning. Knowing that I did have faith in myself, that I know some unshakable truths from my core, gave me a sense of contentment and freedom from worry that I haven’t had since.

I write this to remind myself of the feeling, and to try and give myself the perspective that I can be like this all the time. The things we think are stable in life may not be, and even on a clear day we will not be able to predict our future paths. Is it not best to run on faith in our core values, suspending judgement of the path ahead and reacting in the moment as much as possible? I hope that everyone is able to use these difficult times as an opportunity to reflect and redefine, and find some solid footing on the path ahead.

Unlike my trail running experience alone in the dark, we are not running this race of life alone. Now is a time to rely on ourselves, but also a time to rely on one another. Even as we make adjustments to our own lives it is helpful to know that we are all in this together. I hope that all of you and yours are safe, healthy and adapting in this challenging time.

Zero or Negative One?

Algebra was never my strong suit, but I’m pretty sure that Taoist math might offer some unique perspectives on how we talk and think about the ways we are trying to live mindfully or with intention.

Taoism states that our greatest misconceptions about the world are caused by our need to categorize things with language and judgement. These judgement give rise to not one, but two ideas simultaneously. For example, when we look at something and judge it to be beautiful, that also creates and equal and opposite awareness that other things are ugly in comparison. If we judge something to be tall, then we are also aware of what it means to be short. We cannot have judgement of something along with a neutral middle, because labeling anything with one label necessitates the existence of its opposite quality elsewhere in the world.

The way gave birth to unity, Unity gave birth to duality, Duality gave birth to trinity, Trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 42, Victor Mair translation

I recently started reading the book “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X Kendi. He starts out wisely by focusing on defining his terminology. His thesis (at this early stage of my reading) is that we have fundamentally misunderstood the binary nature of the language around racism.

He works to point out the fallacy of a neutral middle ground between two opposing points. His broad argument (I would highly reccommend reading the book for a deeper perspective) is that the opposite of Racist isn’t a neutral “not racist”, it is an equally active “antiracist”. In this case, removing one from one doesn’t land us on a zero state, rather it is an equal but opposite negative number.

Writing my recent blog post “Intended Consequences” got me thinking about what the world looks like without a neutral middle ground. After talking about how being mindful and intentional in life is a great benefit to us, I got to thinking that we think of mindfulness as a bonus, an add-on to our “neutral” lives. We are exhorted to add mindfulness to our lives like a hack, an extra app on the homepage or an accessory to go along with the outfit we were already planning to wear.

Being and non-being give birth to each other, difficult and easy complete each other, long and short form each other, high and low fulfill each other, tone and voice harmonize with each other, front and back follow each other – it is ever thus.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2, Victor Mair translation

Holding the Taoist concept of equal and opposite judgments, we are faced with an interesting realization. Namely, that one is either acting towards one end or towards its opposite. Changing the language for how we talk about something like mindfulness might shed some light on what I mean. In my previous post I talked about living mindfully and intentionally, but what would the opposite be?

Living unintentionally, or unmindfully, sounds too much like a passive neutral to me. What if we change the wording to something similar: rather than intentional we can say “with care”, and rather than mindful we can say “thoughtfully”? The opposites to these don’t sound so passive any more: living carelessly and living thoughtlessly seem like dangerous ways to be, and that is exactly what Marcus Auralius is trying to highlight for us when he exhorts us to live with intention in every aspect of our lives, no matter how small.

First, nothing aimless or without ulterior reference. Second, no reference to any end other than the common good.

Marcus Auralius, Meditation, Book 12, 20

It is one thing to think of living with intention, and to infuse our craft with a conscious awareness of what we are trying to achieve each step of the way, but it is not enough to only think of it when it is going well. When we are not being intentional we are necessarily living without intent, blindly, not only losing opportunities to grow and develop, but actively denying ourselves these opportunities. Every time we do something with an intention other than towards our personal growth and development we are missing out on an opportunity to grow and develop, and choosing not to in that moment.

Taoism teaches that the world we exist in is a world of contradictions and opposites. There is no such thing as passive neutral, a zero state. Choosing not to do something allows its opposite to exist, and vice versa. The goal of Taoism is to build a personal awareness with the zero state, the unity that exists when we are able to move beyond the opposites, and see that each splitting of our perception is making it more difficult to see how we are all connected.

Thirty spokes converge in a single hub, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the cart lies. Clay is molded to make a pot, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the clay pot lies. Cut out doors and windows to make a room, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the room lies.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11, Victor Mair translation

So maybe there is a zero state in Taoism, but the catch is that we can’t arrive there by chasing after one or another of the individual directions that appear before us. What I think is most important is to realize that being passive isn’t a way out of making judgements. When we are opting out of moving in one direction, it means that the other side of the coin gets a turn. Being aware of this helps us to make our choices thoughtfully, living intentionally, so that we can avoid the pitfalls of walking blindly through life. Living intentionally also gives us the tools to become better acquainted with ourselves. When are able to spend time looking inside we might finally be able to start moving away from the ones and negative ones, allowing them to cancel each other out, and arrive at the zero sum goal.

Intended Consequences

I just listened to an interview with acclaimed street photographer Valérie Jardin that was conducted on the podcast “Photography Radio”. Valérie is passionate about teaching and was recounting experiences she has had doing instruction with students on location in Paris. One of the things she focused on was the idea of taking photographs with intention, and it sparked a connection I have seen over and over again within the Stoic tradition.

“No action should be undertaken without aim, or other than in conformity with a principle affirming the art of life.”

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 4, 2

Valérie was specifically talking about photographers who shoot everything that moves (or doesn’t) and end up with 10,000 photos hoping that there will be a few gems in the mix, rather than the photographers who are more critical of a scene and shoot selectively, looking for specific images before they are willing to click the shutter.

The seed of her thought centered on the idea that her students should make sure that they were taking pictures with an goal in mind. Every time the shutter goes off it will make a picture, but the meaning and success of that picture depend entirely on what the photographer was trying to capture.

What I find fascinating when hearing other photographers talk about their work, is what they were thinking when they attempted the shot. Shooting without a plan may result in some shots that seem great, but could the photographer describe why they took the shot, or replicate it later on with a different subject? On the other hand, a photo that might not immediately seem interesting could take on extra layers of meaning when someone hears the story behind it. It may be true that a good photo speaks for itself, but different images speak to different people, and there is no one set of standards for success. In fact, how can we even judge success if we don’t know what the goal was in the first place?

“Do not take any action unwillingly, selfishly, uncritically, or with conflicting motives.”

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 3, 5

We spent a lot of time during critique session while I was studying graphic design talking about whether or not an image was successful. It was forbidden to us words like “nice” or “like” as in, “its nice” or “I like it, good work”. None of those comments are helpful when trying to decipher what worked and what didn’t work when creating an image. If you are trying to highlight the mood of the piece, or the shapes that the shadows create, or bring out the contrast of textures, then we can talk about success, because those things are pretty easy to see. In fact there is no such thing as success in a piece that was created without a motive, because the idea of success depends entirely on having a target to shoot at.

Beyond talking about the single image, framing the conversation in success and intention will often lead us to future iterations and solutions. If the textures weren’t clear enough it will be easy to try a different mixture of settings and try again. If the shape of the shadows doesn’t balance well in the frame then we can shift position and look for a new composition. If the images are successful it will likely trigger thoughts about what other subjects might benefit from the same technique, which will lead to further photos and more exploration.

This translates well beyond photography. For me I have recently begun questioning the intention behind my use of Instagram. I’m not quite sure why I have been posting there, and now that it is in my mind I will likely decide to give it up unless I can figure out the value it is generating. In this case it is a question of time being used up that I could be putting somewhere else.

More critically I find myself struggling to be intentional with my parenting. The feeling that I have been in the same room with my kids and not truly present with them stings very badly when I notice it happening.

I find that being intentional doesn’t only serve me when it is trained on the most important aspects of my life, or the creative pursuits. The act of being in the moment and being thoughtful in one’s actions starts a virtuous cycle. When I am the best version of myself and take this to the mind-numbing task of responding to work emails it becomes clear. If I am able to take an extra moment and read between the lines of the email to formulate a more thoughtful answer that addresses something the sender meant to ask but didn’t quite know how to word, then I have a deeper sense of pride in my work. Feeling good about how I handled that particular task usually means I am less anxious about the next task on my list, and I find myself more able to be in the present.

In comparison, if I am blowing through the inbox just shooting for inbox 0, then I usually approach the next task of my life in the same mindset, not focusing, just trying to get through it so that I can get to the end of the day. At which point I often look around and wonder why I thought that was the goal.

“Concentrate on the subject or the act in question, on principle or meaning. You deserve what you are going through. You would rather become good tomorrow than be good today.”

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 8, 22

This isn’t to say that each moment need be one of extreme revelation and insight. Better to be awake and thoughtful about the choices we are making, however, then to find ourselves awake later down the road not knowing how we got there.

Links:

Photography Radio Podcast: Interview with Valérie Jardin, December 15, 2019.

ValerieJardinPhotography.com

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.