How to Travel Like a Taoist
How to Travel Like a Taoist
I was on the runway at JFK airport when the plane’s engines revved up for takeoff. It is the worst part of flying for me; I feel like I have to run alongside the plane to help it get airborne. But that’s not the only time I feel nervous when traveling.
I get little zings of anxiety when I go into the city to go to work, let alone when I make a trip abroad. I was headed to London by myself for a few days to attend a book awards ceremony. Could I manage to ignore everyday worries enough so I could enjoy myself?
Here was a chance to find out if years of body-mind practices could help. I asked myself “What would a Taoist do?” Taoism is an ancient philosophy of China that describes a way to live with the natural world. Its practitioners are very practical people. They are artists as well as doctors, poets as well as warriors. And they are peaceful, turning to one of the martial arts only if they can’t run away. Could the techniques I’ve learned help me have an enjoyable, or at least bearable, journey?
Taoists advise that being in the moment is a key, since one is usually safe in the moment and our fears usually stem from projections about the future. Determined to experiment, I recalled a technique to quiet the mind: exhale slowly three times, soften the shoulders, sense the body secure in the seat, and observe negative thoughts without getting involved with them. It didn’t take long, a few seconds, and before the plane was airborne I had a different perspective: Respect power.
Though I might feel small and weak, the plane has all the power it needs to take off. That was a truth I could trust. I forgot about myself and appreciated the many people it takes to accomplish such a feat. I relaxed as the plane’s wheels lifted up off the earth. For the first time, I experienced the excitement of flight.
I tried to use Taoist teachings as a touchstone for the rest of my journey. Here are a few thoughts that came up.
1. Forget the guidebook.
For Taoists, a key to life is spontaneity. That would mean no guidebook, whether a paper or electronic version. Instead, I decided to rely on my internal GPS to find the places and people that I’d resonate with. It’s a moment-by-moment way that fosters becoming a traveler, rather than being a tourist who has everything planned. I thought I’d try it.
2. Bring a guidebook!
Once in London I felt a panic about what I should see. Since I only had three days, I wondered how I could cover the highlights without a guide, or someone who knew the terrain. Should I take a tour? I was completely turned around. Fortunately, there is plenty of room in Taoism for contradictions; witness the yin/yang symbol that suggests we embrace the opposites. While I pondered what to do, I consulted the map I had brought as I ventured out to the streets.
3. Keep snacks handy.
A famous Taoist poet, a woman named Sun Bu-Er (with a Taoist name of Calm and Clear Peaceful Human) advised followers to “cook the marrow of the sun and moon.” Not so practical on the road. Right away I learned that despite efforts to minimize time changes, my internal clock still got screwed up. I was sleepy at 4:00 pm and hungry when I woke up at 2:00 am and everything was closed. Some trail mix and a bottle of water, though not necessarily heavenly, would have been a welcome fix. After the first day I always had water and a package of something in my bag.
4. Consider the seasons.
There are seasons of the year, of course, which help us plan the clothes we bring and the climate we seek. However, travelers should also note the seasons of the day. I’m very alert in the morning, which was my preferred time to visit the British Library or have a meeting. In the afternoon I wanted to enjoy the warmth of the autumn sun outdoors. In the evening, at dinner alone, I missed my family and realized the sacred quality of gathering around a table of food to discuss the events of the day. Movement and stillness, going and returning; these are the cycles of life.
5. See people as they are.
Though travel is often sold as a way to relax, the truth is that it also demands heightened alertness at times. Especially in areas that are magnets for tourists. Taoists were famous for being scholar-warriors; both men and women were educated in the fine arts as well as in self defense. They accepted that not everyone was fully realized, and that some people might covet your stuff. Another ancient Taoist with a great name, Danger Evader, embodied the philosophy of prevention instead of aggression. He, or she, might have suggested this advice: follow the ways of your devotion, but don’t be naïve. In other words: Find the middle way, hoping for trust, yet putting some faith in anti-theft devices.
6. Trust yourself.
In the end, my decisions about where to go and what to do came more from bodily sensations than a mental check list. I wanted only to be outdoors. I didn’t want to go inside much, which meant no museums or shows. I didn’t take a tour because I didn’t want anyone telling me what to look at. I just wanted to see the city and experience people as I found them. Consequently, I walked for hours, exploring what was nearest first (the British Library, where I found the sign that became the motto for my trip). Then I went to neighborhoods I’d always heard about: Fleet Street, Soho, the West End, Buckingham Palace, and the Thames. It was satisfying, safe and inexpensive.
7. Reflect on your experience
Back home, when people asked, “How was your trip?” it was hard to make it sound exciting. Meaningful, yes. Exciting, no. It was a beginning, an opening into a new stage in my life. Being alone gave me a chance to see how I was connected, and meeting challenges with mindfulness reassured me that the past thirty years of study can inform the coming years.
Most of all, I was reminded that finding one’s way into the future is both a conscious and a subconscious process, because it wasn’t until I returned home and was browsing through a familiar book that I realized the Chinese character for “Tao” is a person on a path, walking.
Good advice. Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts.