Grow Your Soul: Travel

The Size of Our Soul

How big is your soul? Does that seem like a strange question to ask? Our soul or spirit is a hard thing to define. We cannot weigh our spirits, we can’t measure the circumference of our soul. But most human cultures would agree that we all have some spark, something extra that makes us more than just a collection of cells working together. Most religious traditions end goal is to help our spirit grow. Either to grow in wisdom, to come to some great epiphany, to become one with all that is, or to become closer to (or one with) a divine being.

We might think of our spirit aging, becoming wiser and more experience, but rarely do we think of our spirits expanding.  It’s a bit like combining the ideas of “mean spirited” and “small minded.” The two tend to go hand in hand and I’d argue both are the logical result of a too small spirit. We’re born small spirited, very small. This is perfectly natural, if we thought about anyone but ourselves we probably wouldn’t survive infancy. But as we grow the fact that other people exist as something other than tools for our own survival begins to dawn on us, and our spirits begin to expand.

The Dangers of Staying Home

However, many of us stop growing our spirits sometime in our teens and may never stretch them again. We grow comfortable and complacent where we are, concerned with our own small circle of friends and family. We spend our time with people who agree with us, and talk like us, and act like us, and believe like us. With the Facebook era this has become more true, even as we feel more widely connected.

Camper van parked on a beach

And if we let ourselves cease to grow as we age, our spirits begin to contract again. Have you seen it? The elderly neighbor who has become convinced that everyone who isn’t just like him is out to get him, is evil? Who is convinced all foreigners are spies or terrorists and whose world slowly constricts until he’s shut out just about everyone? Or our Aunt who has become so mired in her own group and way of thinking that anything outside it simply doesn’t compute. The list could go on, and most of us are (at least a little bit) in danger of falling into it.

Expand Your Horizons

If we don’t care for our spirits, don’t stretch them and water them and do everything we can to keep them growing they begin to atrophy and contract. We revert to self centered toddlers in adult bodies snatching up everything we can get. We begin to see other people as either tools or enemies.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Mark Twain

The easiest way to expand your horizons, to keep your spirit growing and stretching and expanding, is to travel. Now, you might immediately want to stop reading. You might be thinking, I can’t afford to travel, I don’t have time to travel, I have kids, I have to work, I have debts. There’s a myth that for travel to mean anything it has to look like the young woman who quits her job, sells everything, and backpacks across all of China. (And then writes a memoir about it.) You don’t have to quit your job, or walk across an entire country.  But I am saying that you need to get out of your comfort zone.

Travel, a Spiritual Practice

I grew up in the rural midwest. Everyone looked pretty much the same (white, blond). Most everyone voted the same way, were Christian, and did one of a handful of jobs. (Auto worker, farmer, teacher.) My world was very small, and it wasn’t at all uncommon to find fear of the other. Black people were criminals from Detroit. Folks in the city were snobs and liberals. And no one did things the right way except us.

I had classmates whose families had lived in our little town for generations, maybe even on the same farm. Some of them had never gone further than the county seat less than twenty miles away. The world outside our little midwestern bubble was a scary place. Going to college was something to be suspicious of, because it changed people. And you know what? They were right. Going away will change you. But that’s a good thing.

Antique globe

Endless possibilities

Travel doesn’t have to be expensive or luxurious. And it doesn’t even have to be that exotic to stretch your soul. If you live in the city, take a trip out into the farmland beyond the suburbs; or trek into the city for a bit of urban experience (really, it’s pretty great). Take a road trip through a neighboring state. Book a cheap flight somewhere far away and camp your way across the country. Toss your kid in a stroller and visit your city’s China town. But, and this is the key, intentionally put yourself into a situation where you will meet people who are different than you. Put yourself in places where you will see history told from a different perspective. Taste flavors you can’t name, and dance to music that sound strange to your ear. Maybe you just need to visit a mosque nearby, or buddhist temple.

What Happens

What happens when you travel is pretty straight forward. Your horizons get broadened, and if you go into it with an open heart and mind (a tough but valuable practice) you’ll find that things you though you knew might not be so certain. You’ll come home with a far more nuanced experience of the world. People who thought would be totally foreign will likely turn out to be just people. People who dress differently, talk differently, or eat differently but who feel the same emotions, want the same things, and dream very similar dreams.

We tend to be afraid of ideas, groups, big concepts that have scary labels but that we’ve never experienced. It’s very different when those labels become people who laugh and smile and cry. These experiences widen our empathy. They turn groups, and concepts, and talking points into real people, and beautiful places, and flavors we can remember and savor. And in experience, there is holiness and awe, and wonder.

Practicing Travel Practice

Would you like to try some soul stretching? While all travel can help expand your understanding and experience there are specific things you can do to help turn travel into a spiritual practice. Here are some simple steps, but feel free to add your own suggestions in the concepts.

Escape your comfort zone

Chose to go somewhere that will challenge your preconceived notions. Instead of traveling somewhere comfortable and familiar chose a place where you don’t speak the language, or will otherwise be a “fish out of water.” Alternately, if you are normally the different one (a minority group or immigrant) travel somewhere where you will blend in. Notice what it feels like to be in a different environment from your everyday.

Make a friend

Get to know someone. It’s easy to travel to a new place, follow the guide book around to see all the must do sights and never speak to a single local. Make it a point to not do that. Stay in a hostel, a home stay, or a bed and breakfast. Ask the locals there where they hang out, what restaurants they suggest. If possible sit and talk with them, get to know them. Bed and breakfasts or hostels tend to be be best for this.

Pins in a map

Taste something new

Eat local. If at all possible avoid chains! Eat at local establishments and try the local cuisine instead of a sanitized version of it. Don’t normally eat spicy food? Try a little bit of it. Never had sushi? Ask the waiter what you should order to learn the joys of it. Watch what the locals gravitate toward and follow their lead. You just might discover a new favorite food, but even if you don’t, you’ll have given yourself a new experience and a glimpse of a different world.

Process and reflect

The key to spiritual practice is almost always awareness. And that’s also the case here. You could do everything else, but if you do not spend time to process your experience you’ll have just been a slightly more engaged tourist. So bring a journal with you, I strongly suggest paper for spiritual practice. At some point each day take a few minutes of quiet. Center yourself, and then ask yourself questions about what you have seen and experienced. Give yourself enough time to fully process! Suggested journaling questions for travelers:

  • What was uncomfortable today, why was it uncomfortable?
  • How was I surprised today?
  • What was the most delightful thing I experienced?
  • What one assumption was destroyed today?
  • Where did I encounter divinity today in an unexpected way?

Make up your own as you learn the boundaries of your own soul!

Still need a little push out of your comfort zone? I wrote earlier about the importance of doing what scares you, head on over there and take a gander, it might help!

How has travel changed your life or assumptions?

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