Travel Is No Cure for the Mind
At this very moment, you may be here:
Or you may be here:
But most likely, you’re probably here:
It’s just another day… and you’re just doing what you need to do.
You’re getting things done, and the day moves forward in this continuous sequence of checklists, actions, and respites.
But at various moments of your routine, you pause and take a good look at your surroundings.
The scenes of your everyday life. The blur of this all-too-familiar film.
And you can’t help but to wonder…
If there is more to it all.
For some reason — this country, this city, this neighborhood, this particular street — is the place you are living a majority of your life in.
And it is this thought that allows a daydream to seep in.
You start thinking of all the other places you could be in this world.
Or more accurately, all the places you’d rather be in.
Somewhere more exciting. Somewhere new. Somewhere that can provide experiences that are foreign to you.
You dream of going to the beautiful beaches of Thailand:
Or to Paris, where you can eat French food, enjoy delicious wine, and walk around the illuminated streets that you’ve heard so much about:
Or to Peru, where you can finally go to Machu Picchu and see the architectural wonder that an inexplicably high percentage of your friends have in their Facebook profile pictures:
Or to Alaska, where you can witness the glory of the aurora borealis in all its splendor:
The world is your playground, and you are certain that these unexplored areas will become sources of adventure, wonderment, and ultimately, happiness.
Travel is the answer much of us look to when we feel the automation of life. The routine of waking up, getting ready, going to work, eating the same lunch, sitting in meetings, getting off work, going home, eating dinner, relaxing, going to sleep, and then doing it all over again can feel like a never-ending road that is housed within the confines of a mundane box.
This is The Box of Daily Experience, and it is the space we occupy on any given day of the week/month/year in which we live our lives. It is what we consider “normal” in the context of an everyday experience, and is the operating system we run ourselves on when we require a sequence of events to default to.
The boundaries of our box define our present-day situation, so when we dreamingly gaze toward the prospects of an exciting future, we look outside of it to experience emotions like wonderment, amazement, and inspiration. Our current box is okay and livable, but the world outside of its boundaries is where our hope really resides.
Since much of what we desire lives on the outside (i.e. in the future), we make it the mission of our Box of Daily Experience to make contact with the outer world as much as possible. This touch represents the achievement of our goals and validates our aspirations. We hope that this brief contact will change the architecture of our box, but ultimately, the result is fleeting.
For example, let’s say that a friend introduces you to the existence of an awesome new car. You are immediately intrigued by it, and as you read review after review of its astonishing performance, the car quickly becomes an object of intense excitement and desire for you.
The outer world has given you a tangible goal to work towards, and your box will do whatever it can to give you the resources you need to reach it.
So you churn and churn through the cycle of the daily experience.
Days turn into weeks, weeks into months, months into years.
And one day, your hard work pays off. You receive that fat promotion you’ve been working towards, and now you can finally afford that beautiful car!
Excitement froths at the brim of your mind as you purchase it and drive it off the lot. This is what you’ve been working so hard for! Now that you have this car, the structure of your box has fundamentally changed, and your box as you know it will no longer be the same!
You start driving it to and from work, to and from your hang out sessions with friends, to and from everywhere.
But here’s the thing.
While you’re still happy to have the new car, you notice that your excitement about owning it just isn’t as high as that day you drove it off the lot.
Then some months pass, with fewer and fewer people commenting on the novelty of your car.
And even more time passes. You get into your car, drive it to and from work, get stuck in traffic, park it in the same old spot, etc.
Your car is starting to look a little dirty, but you don’t care about washing it too much anymore because your car is just… a car now.
It’s been years since you’ve purchased it, and now it’s simply a vehicle that takes you from Point A to Point B with unremarkable regularity.
And then one day, your box is simply The Box of Daily Experience again, with the same mundane texture and familiar color it possessed in the past.
The interesting thing is that you can replace the object of desire (car) with any other noun (a new house, a new job, a new relationship, etc.), and the same pattern will emerge. Shifting and swapping the contents of your box may briefly alter the shape of it in the form of excitement, but in the end, these things will become just another part of normal life.
So if moving around the contents of the box doesn’t work, you look to the supposed root of the problem:
The box itself.
You decide that the box known as your environment needs to be left behind because it is the source of perpetual discontentment to begin with. You need to rip open the box and jettison yourself into an unfamiliar territory that holds the key to true novelty and sustained wonderment.
And you determine that the best way to do this is through the avenue of travel.
So you save up some money, take some time off work, pack up your bags, and head off to a country you’ve never been to. You can now revel in the beauty of the unfamiliar and immerse yourself in a boundless expanse of culture, cuisine, and life that your box has never known.
The drawback to this is that for most of us, traveling happens in the form of vacations. A vacation is designed to be an exciting respite we take to keep us incentivized to return back to The Box of Daily Experience upon its conclusion. In a way, it’s absurdly paradoxical — churning the gears of the box is what provides us with the fiscal resources to break out of it, but the wonderful memories of our vacations are what brings us squarely back to the box once again.
As a result, if you’re traveling as a form of vacation, you know you will be back in your box very, very shortly. This tends to provoke the behavior of “experience maximization,” in which you’re running around in a flurry of fatiguing excitement to experience every moment possible in your travels.
And inevitably, you’re back in the box, counting down the days in which you can do it again.
It’s times like these when you begin to dream of getting out of The Box of Daily Experience for good. You realize that a vacation only serves as a dopamine hit of cultural experience, as the built-in time constraints don’t allow you to truly understand the tapestry of a foreign place.
And one day, you firmly decide that the answer does not reside in the box you live in now.
It’s elsewhere, in a faraway place that you once visited and enjoyed.
But this time, you’ll be gone for a really, really long time.
Surely, what you’re looking for must be there. Not here.
Once you arrive in your new environment, the excitement is palpable. Not only have you have immersed yourself in a completely new part of the world, but you also have the time to explore every crevice of it.
You are introduced to some new friends that live in this foreign land, and you guys make your way downtown to check out all that awesome food you’ve heard about.
Next thing you know, you have a new crew of people to hang out with! They are fun, entertaining, and exciting, which were some elements that were missing from the people back home. These new folks have a deep understanding of a culture you’re eager to learn more about, so every hang out session with them is an opportunity to do things you’ve never done before.
You can also see things you’ve never seen before too, and it’s fantastic.
If someone asks you how life is going, you can emphatically say that it’s simply amazing.
But remember, since you are going to be staying here for a while, having fun with interesting people and seeing new sights are not reliable roadmaps for financial sustainability. And plus, all of your friends are busy in the daytime with work, and being a lone wanderer in the early afternoon is only fun for so long.
So yup, it’s time to get yourself a job.
The nature of the work is pretty similar to what you were doing in the past — it’s not ideal, but it supports your dream of traveling and breaking out of the old box, so it’s good enough.
All right. Everything is set. You now have a resource-producing engine that can power your stay in your new home, and you can continue having great experiences in this land as time progresses.
But here’s the thing about time. No matter where you are, it moves in one direction.
And this linear movement of time is nature’s way of testing what we have labeled as meaningful. Only time can reveal whether a certain pursuit is driven by fleeting novelty, or if it is motivated by a strong sense of enduring purpose.
And when it comes to travel, the test of time reveals a pursuit driven by novelty very, very quickly.
As the days in this foreign country turn into weeks, the experiences begin to occur with a familiar sense of regularity.
The food that you excitedly ate when you first arrived has now become your weekday dinner spot:
The friends that showed you all those cool cultural things when you first arrived are now people you see every week. On top of that, you often hang out at the same places all the time as well:
The sights you initially paid to go see simply become buildings you pass by on the way to work:
The job you have here feels just like your job back home again. And speaking of home, you begin to wonder how your friends are doing, as these are the folks that have been with you through years of shared experiences, and not through weeks of short-lived moments.
And without consciously realizing it yet, your life events are sequencing themselves into a familiar order… One that you tried so desperately to escape not too long ago.
And as the weeks turn into months, the stark reality of it all hits you. The boundaries of an all-too-familiar shape have taken hold.
The Box of Daily Experience has contained you once again.
Oh no! What the hell is this box doing here again?! How has it followed you all the way over here?!
Perhaps it’s time to find another place to go to?! Somewhere even further away?! A whole other continent maybe? Since The Box of Daily Experience has returned, the subsequent urge to break out of it has come back as well.
But here’s the thing. Regardless of what you do to break out of the box, it won’t work. You can change your external environment all you want, but you will continue to travel with the one box that will always accompany you.
The box known as your mind.
When we are obsessed with travel, we are intently focused on changing and revising our external venue while neglecting the one constant we all travel with: our minds.
If your mind is not at ease, then the same angst and restlessness you feel today will inevitably make itself known as you travel. That point can be delayed through novel experiences, but regardless of where you are, an uneasy mind will always unveil itself in the end.
That feeling of restlessness underlying all the unresolved issues you have at home will follow you wherever you go. A strained relationship with your family, a sense of purposelessness in work, a low self-worth, a strong tension with your partner, a lurking depression — the answer to any of these things does not lie in a one-way ticket to a faraway place.
Socrates said it best:
We tend to grossly overestimate the pleasure brought forth by new experiences and underestimate the power of finding meaning in current ones. While travel is a fantastic way to gain insight into unfamiliar cultures and illuminating ways of life, it is not a cure for discontentment of the mind.
Who we are inside a venue matters far more than the venue itself. Instead of having the wanderlust of travel guide our search for meaning, we have to look within and embrace the only thing that is present now. The only thing that actually exists today.
The Box of Daily Experience.
Instead of viewing this box as a problem to escape, we have to realize that it is indeed the only thing that we can truly hold onto.
When you view life as a continuous cycle in this box, it can be easy to take its components for granted and view everything as a mundane blur of familiar events. However, when you take the time to actually inspect the box with mindful awareness of its contents, you will discover the true amazement that lives within them. And the best tool one can use to magnify these great discoveries is the practice of gratitude.
Gratitude is what allows you to feel that same sense of wonderment about your day-to-day life as you would if you were walking the streets of a faraway city.
Gratitude is what illuminates the fact that you are a collection of (billions of) atoms that have come together to create this amazing combination of cells, neurons, and organs that allow you to touch things, taste delicious food, go hiking, laugh at funny jokes, and view the stars in a nighttime sky.
Gratitude is what allows you to realize that everyone you know and love also happens to be this collection of atoms that have assembled themselves at this precise point in time, when they could have been born thousands of years earlier or hundreds of years later. The alignment of our personal ancestries, the fact that all our forebears were healthy (and attractive) enough to reproduce, and the crazy timing of us being birthed into this world at roughly the same time is an astounding coincidence that we can’t help but to be utterly amazed about and grateful for.
Being grateful about our existence and its relation to others allows for a blossoming of meaning and purpose in our exploration of this life. It is the starting point for an endless list of awesome things we have going for us, and we don’t need to change our physical location one bit to witness this list grow.
If gratitude is the tool we use to highlight the innate beauty existing within our boxes, then practices such as mindfulness meditation allows these realizations to actually become a part of our daily outlook. One of the difficult things about the routines embedded in our daily experience is that they tend to congeal into one giant, uniform blob that we label as “life.” And this blob can harden over time to create an impenetrable barrier that prevents us from absorbing helpful advice and realizations that come to light.
What meditation helps to do is soften the texture of this blob by removing our hardened egos and neurotic thoughts from the inner core of our consciousness. What we are left with is clarity and openness to see The Box of Daily Experience for what it really is: a reflection of life that can be eased into fluidity with the proper attention and care.
While clarity of experience is a direct path to the calming of the mind, there is another beautiful quality to our consciousness that is often overlooked.
The ability to find fascination in the minds of others.
One source of constant wonderment and adventure comes in the form of books. Instead of searching for inspiring experiences in faraway places, these awesome things are abundantly available to us at all times.
I particularly enjoy reading works of non-fiction, but any form of good literature is utterly captivating. Keep in mind that whenever you pick up a good book to read, you are taking an extensive journey into the mind of the author. It’s amazing to me that as an ordinary person, I have immediate access to the greatest minds of the past and present, and can absorb years and years of their toiling research in just a matter of days or weeks.
I can place myself in the mind of a renowned philosopher pondering the mystery of consciousness, or I can take a seat in the mind of a historian detailing the Mongol conquest under Genghis Khan. I can learn about anything I so desire, and that is an adventure that can always be brought to where I am now.
This ability to be captivated by the minds of others is also widely available in the form of our loved ones and friends. However, it’s the people closest to us that we often take for granted. We tend to think we know everything there is to know about them, and our inquisitive nature is often reserved for strangers and small talk.
But when we genuinely become curious about our relationships, we discover that we have only touched the surface with many of the people we hold dear to us. I find this to be a recurring pattern with many of my own friends. Simply asking a question at the right moment has often led to interesting stories and perspectives that were previously veiled from my view.
This sharing of stories is one of the great joys I’ve experienced over and over again with people. There is always an interesting story behind every mind — and hearing it widens the health of our own.
While travel does expand and stretch the horizons of what we know about the world, it is not the answer we’re looking for in times of unrest. To strengthen the health of the mind, the venue to do that in is the one we are in now.
It is location-independent, and always will be.
The key is not to discard The Box of Daily Experience and find a new one — it’s to warmly embrace the one that we have now — with its joys, its flaws, and everything in between.
Note: This post is my adaptation of Seneca’s awesome letter to Lucilius on the subject of travel. I highly recommend that you check it out — along with all of Seneca’s other wonderful letters as well.
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