These days, instead of asking how are you, people ask, “Been on any trips lately?” Or “Planning any trips?” At the checkout counter, the doctor’s office, the hairdresser, these are the questions.
As the blizzards, hurricanes, heat waves and polar vortexes become more frequent, more and more people head to airports for all-inclusives in Mexico, Cambodia, Hawaii or Cuba. Forget the maybe 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by air travel: we will become vegans, sign petitions or a buy a Prius in order to save the planet, but we just aren’t yet prepared to give up air travel.
We all acknowledge that flying isn’t much fun anymore, but it’s like childbirth: once it’s over we forget about the pain of it all. We forget the line-ups, the delays, the rudeness, the cramped seats, the lack of service or food. As soon as we recover from the week spent in bed with one of the global flus we’ve picked up – if we’re lucky enough to get that at the end of the trip rather than at the beginning, — we remember only the good times at the beach or pool.
When we just stay home, we find it’s not only cheaper but actually more restorative to swap foreign hotels and fellow tourists for sleeping in, catching up with friends and family and maybe visiting some of the local attractions that the rest of the world is coming to see. We can spend the money saved on useful things like hiring someone to dig up the back yard so we can start planting the victory garden that the food crisis will soon necessitate. We might have a bit of cash left over to donate to Greenpeace or Aavez in the hope they may actually be able to save this beleaguered planet.
William Blake proposed that we could “see the whole world in a grain of sand.” That would require paying close attention to where we are. There is, after all, plenty to see close to home. And having more people paying attention to what’s going on around us could do the world a power of good.
There are justifiable reasons for getting on a plane. Visiting loved ones on their deathbeds, receiving a Nobel prize, participating in global peace talks — these are sufficient reasons. And there’s a difference between travels that have us doing really good work, not just going on tours to gawk at people we don’t know and will never meet. When asked about the one thing he’d do to change the world, Rupert Sheldrake, a deeply spiritual biologist, responded, “Change tourism into pilgrimage.”
There are lots of pilgrims doing good work in developing countries and if you stay home you might have the resources to support them.Many people go off on personal pilgrimages in order to learn and understand, and this is certainly a step up from being a mere tourist. But we don’t have to go away to be a pilgrim. In medieval times, European Christians who couldn’t manage the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem would follow the Chemin de Jerusalem, the path of labyrinths at Chartres, Rheims and Amiens.
Travelers speak of the pleasure of letting go of their everyday lives, waking up in unknown surroundings, and returning to the familiarity and comfort of home, but we don’t need to jump on an airplane to achieve that state. A labyrinth can offer a similar experience. As we walk towards the centre of a labyrinth we focus on releasing tensions and shedding daily concerns. At the centre we stand quietly, receiving whatever illumination comes to us, and then we return, taking with us the awareness we’ve acquired from the journey. It’s a tool for mindfulness.
One benefit of a mindfulness practice is that it can teach you how to be still. Our Buddhist friends tell us that “learning to stay” is a way of developing steadfastness. When our lives become frantically busy, our impulse is to fly away. Yet if we stop and say to ourselves, as we do to our dogs, stay, just stay, we are rewarded with new understandings about how to make our lives less stressful. Running away rarely produces good results, whereas staying can offer unexpected pleasures. A walk in your own neighbourhood might, if you pay attention, reveal a surprisingly interesting garden or picturesque back alley.
I knew an art teacher who would take her students out into the woods with a piece of letter-sized cardboard into which she’d carved a small circle. “Look at what you see through the circle,” she’d say. “You don’t really see anything unless you learn to focus.” This woman could spend hours on the beach near her home, picking up stone after stone and examining each closely. She would crouch down to look at her flowers, exclaiming over the intricate design inside a single snowdrop.
As Rilke said, we must change our lives. When our governments refuse to listen to scientists we’re appalled. But when scientists propose that we should cut back on air travel, we simply ignore them.
Travel does broaden the mind, and it’s good if young people have a chance to explore the world and understand other cultures. But for us oldsters, should we not go back to Voltaire and remember what Candide eventually learned from his explorations? Il faut cultivar notre jardin.