5 Crucial Practices for Meaningful Travel
How to get the most value from where you are
“Vagabonding is an attitude — a friendly interest in people, places, and things that makes a person an explorer in the truest, most vivid sense of the word. Vagabonding is not a lifestyle, nor is it a trend. It’s just an uncommon way of looking at life — a value adjustment from which action naturally follows. And, as much as anything, vagabonding is about time — our only real commodity — and how we choose to use it.”
Rolf Potts describes this “uncommon way of looking at life” in his book Vagabonding. The attitude and practice of vagabonding promises to give us meaningful travel experiences. But for that to happen, we have to work at it.
It’s something we do.
Below are 5 practices that help work toward more meaningful travel experiences.
1. Draw Realistically
Art can be intimidating but our goal is not to be Chuck Close, rather it’s to develop our ability to see.
John Ruskin says that “refinement of perception” is the goal of a drawing practice. As he writes in his book The Elements of Drawing:
“For I am nearly convinced, that when once we see keenly enough, there is very little difficult in drawing what we see; but, even supposing that this difficulty be still great, I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing.
…if you wish to learn drawing that you may be able to set down clearly, and usefully, records of such things as cannot be described in words, either to assist your own memory of them, or to convey distinct ideas of them to other people; if you wish to obtain quicker perceptions of the beauty of the natural world, and to preserve something like a true image of beautiful things that pass away, or which you must yourself leave (…) then I can help you, or, which is better, show you how to help yourself.”
The connection between hand and eye has played a central role in making humans who we are. Through realistic drawing, we strengthen that hand-eye connection. This creates a deeper engagement with our surroundings, wherever those surroundings might be.
2. Breathe Deeply
Take a breath.
It’s advice that applies to zen monasteries, secular offices, and open roads. In all these places, it helps deepen the quality of our attention.
Along with that, it releases endorphines, increases blood-flow, and strengthens our lungs. In short, it’s good for us. The following 4:7:8 method is one portable way of doing it.
- Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds
- Hold your breath for 7 seconds
- Breathe out through your mouth for 8 seconds
3. Journal in Detail
Two types of journaling can be useful for travel:
1. Exterior Descriptions
2. Interior Descriptions
Exterior descriptions sharpen our awareness of what is around us. Take detailed notes. Spend 15–20 minutes focusing on one thing in one place at one time and write all you can about it. Bring in the 5 senses: what does it look like? feel like? smell like? taste like? sound like?
Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt were masters of this.
Interior descriptions organize mind-clutter so we can be more present. Travel is stressful if done right. Relieving some of that stress through writing helps. Spend 15–20 minutes focusing inward: what fears came up today? what annoyances? what happy moments? What lessons? Problems? Perplexities? Paradoxes? Quirky absurdities?
Take a look at the School of Life’s philosophical meditation for a guided tutorial.
4. Mneumonic Techniques
The practices above help sharpening our awareness. Once sharpened, the limits of memory still hold sway. Is there a way around this?
In her book The Art of Memory, Francis Yates shows how Greek orators, Giodarno Bruno, and others were able to remember so well. They created “memory palaces”.
As Laura Miller writes in her article on Francis Yates:
“A memory palace, or “method of loci,” was at first mainly used to memorize speeches (the most important part of a Greek or Roman citizen’s public life). To make one, you picture a multiroomed building (it’s easiest if it’s somewhere familiar, like your family home), and place symbols of each point you want to make in each room. If you want to start out talking about crop yields, you might imagine bags of grain in the foyer, then a fierce bandit in the next room if you want to move on from there to declaim on law and order.”
Josh Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein is another great resource.
5. Write “In Someone Else’s Shoes”
This is about developing empathy. Those at the empathy museum did it by literally walking a mile in another’s shoes. How we get inside the mind of another and how do we contact another’s mind are two perennial challenges. Both are fraught with misunderstanding and projection, but they’re worth the risk.
One way fiction authors do it is through writing. By imagining “what it’s like” to be another person — to eat, sleep, talk, and dress as they do.
Sit in a park and people watch for a while. Make up a story for why people behave as they do. Or better yet, many stories. Side-step the danger of a single story as Chimamanda Adichie calls it.