Friday, March 1, 2019

More notes from Destination Earth: A New Philosophy of Travel by Nicos Hadjicostis

For the universal soul all things and all contacts of things carry in them an essence of delight best described by the Sanskrit aesthetic term “rasa,” which means at once sap or essence of a thing and its taste. It is because we do not seek the essence of the thing in its contact with us, but look only to the manner in which it affects our desires and fears, our cravings and shrinkings, that grief and pain, imperfect and transient pleasure or indifference, that is to say, blank inability to seize the essence, are the forms taken by the Rasa. If we could be entirely disinterested in mind and heart and impose that detachment on the nervous being, the progressive elimination of these imperfect and perverse forms of Rasa would be possible and the true essential taste of the inalienable delight of existence in all its variations would be within our reach. –Sri Aurobindo

It is difficult to bear the unpleasant sensations that violently attack our senses, such as a foul smell, a disturbing sound, or the urban pollution that steals the air we breathe. When it comes to sights, unpleasant sensations exist on an even grander scale: A street full of uncollected garbage in Naples; a poor shantytown in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro; the ugly, overdeveloped waterfront of a Spanish coastal town set against an otherwise pristine backdrop of crystal-clear waters. All of them are disturbing and painful sights, the unfortunate results of human actions.

In order to confront these unpleasant sensations of the world, we must adopt the attitude of equality toward all sensations. We must force all of our senses to experience everything in its raw form, without any interference from the analytical and judging functions of the mind. Yogis have been practicing equality toward all sensations for millennia now. The idea is to capture the rasa, the substance, the existential quality of each and every sensation, without the mind immediately superimposing a judgement on it. All sensations are equal as sensations in as much as they are variations on an infinite spectrum of sensations. Yet from this infinity of real or possible sensations, we encounter and experience only the very few that cross our path in the limited world we live in day to day. Each new sensation that appears sin one’s life when on travels, whether pleasurable, painful, or neutral, becomes a new valuable acquisition in our library of experiences. By forcing our mind to stand back, we may return to the primal mode of experiencing our world, like a newborn, who sees and feels everything with ta freshness and intensity, unblemished by the clouding of mental judgments. 

It is not easy to smell a foul odor and not react in disgust, or make the characteristic involuntary grimace. Yet it is only by refraining from reacting in this way that one may experience the foul smell in an unmediated, direct manner. A foul smell is still a smell of a very special kind that is interesting exactly because it is new and unique. It is only through a willful exertion that one may begin to see the world as it truly is and not through the filters of one’s upbringing, prejudices, and already formed tastes. 

The Traveler-Hermit and the Inner Journey
It might be strange to compare the life of a world-traveler, who is on the move and interacting with thousands of people, with the life of a spiritual hermit. Yet, paradoxically, the two have more in common than meets the eye. 

Just as a hermit, the world-traveler is “alone” most of the time. Not in the ordinary sense of the word, for he is almost always surrounded by people. However, even while he interacts with the world, he does so more as a student of life than as a participant in the everyday socializing in which the majority of humanity is immersed. Thus, although the traveler is fully in the world, he is not of the world. His interactions have the character of those of an explorer and they do not really take him out of his state of aloneness. But time-wise, these interactions are only a part of his life. When not traveling and interacting with people, he spends many hours a day reading and studying, just as a hermit does. Then he has to gather all his experiences, make sense of them, and reflect on their meaning and significance, just a hermit meditates on the meaning and significance of his inner experiences. Finally, he has to allow all these new elements to act upon him and transform him into another person. 

It is this element of inner transformation that makes the traveler and hermit so similar. While moving in the outer world, the traveler also works on his inner world. For the journey is always twofold—it has an outer and an inner aspect. The outer journey turns out to be an instrument that serves the much more important and central inner journey. Although the outer aspect is more easily communicable, the true content and meaning of the double journey becomes clear only when the inner dimensions sheds its revealing light on the whole endeavor. Only after the outer events become part of a greater reality and find their place in the grander scheme of things does the traveler feel that something new and fresh has been gained. 

Doing and Becoming
The dichotomy of the outer and inner journey is mirrored in another bipolarity that sheds further light on the travel mode of being: sedentary life pertains to Doing, whereas travel life pertains to Becoming.

A person living a normal life with regular regimented timetable, a fixed place of residence and work, a routine taking care of family matters, and occasional holidays once or twice a year, is preoccupied with doing things. He does work, he does shopping, he does socializing. His daily program is full of things to do. Even if some time is put aside or stolen from other activities for a hobby or for studying and self-improvement, these activities are, as a rule, not central to a life immersed in society—they are a footnote in the margin of one’s life. 

Travel life is very different. The traveler has nothing to do. He may choose to sit on a bench in a park all day and simply observe the world pass by. Even while he explores places or interacts with foreign cultures or studies, there is nothing compulsory about these activities. There is nothing  he must do or accomplish by some deadline (apart perhaps from some self-imposed but flexible date he may have set for himself to complete his exploration of a country.

However, although he is not working in the sense of having a conventional job, and is not doing anything by the usual standards of society, something else is actually going on: With every contact, event, experience that comes into his life, he is transformed. Even by simply wandering effortlessly between countries as a vagabond and interacting with the various peole of different cultures or passively enjoying new landscapes, he opens himself to change. This is because just by moving from place to place, he is by default in the school of life. Almost every interaction and experience of a traveler is unique and thus holds a power and value that surpasses anything a sedentary life has to offer. By being in the journey, the traveler ceases to do and is becoming. 

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