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How Travel Changes the Mind

Recently I had the chance to ask a friend why she travels. In listening to her answer I also started asking myself that question. The urge to travel underlies all of the lifestyle changes I’m making. I feel almost tangibly drawn to it, the kind of feeling that makes people believe in destiny.  But I’m not a big fan of destiny, so…

Why do I want to go?

A Mathematician, a Monk and a Jew Go for a Walk

I’ve always looked up to Pythagoras. He’s the best kind of person to look up to, because we know so little about him that he can be whatever you want him to be. He can be that guy who taught that the universe runs on precise, measurable principles. You know, physics.  Or he can be that guy who thought numbers could predict the future. Or that meditation lets us hear the sound of the planets turning. He might not have taught any of those things… but we know just enough about him that you can get away with any of them (or whatever else).

One of the few things we know for sure is that he traveled. At the very least he moved from his home in Samos about 300 miles to southern Italy. Beyond that he may have traveled as widely as Gaul in the north and Egypt in the south.

And this is when it struck me: Pythagoras wasn’t just a traveler + philosopher. He didn’t travel and also found a religion.  He traveled and then founded a religion. What he learned on his travels became the basis for founding an entire movement.

I began to run through the other great religious founders of history. They have widely different backgrounds, from the wealthiest nobility (Buddha) to the poorest proletariat (Jesus). But I can’t think of a major religious founder who didn’t travel extensively. Can you?

What Travel Does

People who travel extensively gain a whole range of experiences that just don’t happen when staying put. These experiences shape the human mind and lead to a very unique perspective. Like what?  Well, for starters…

  • Those who travel must overcome social phobias. It can be daunting to talk to a stranger, but if you don’t know where to find food or the way back to your room, you have to. This can lead to social bravery where striking up conversation is effortless and normal. Obviously, some people will get more mileage than others, but anyone alone in a foreign land has to talk to strangers.
  • Spider Senses. Travelers have to be better judges of character than locals. Travelers are natural marks and quickly learn to protect their money and themselves. Those who don’t learn quit and go home. The long-term traveler however not only picks up on local custom, but pays attention to body language. They listen to their hunches. And generally, it pays off.
  • Traveling means self-reliance. When you’re in your hometown, you always have something to lean on. Even without family or friends around, decisions are made for you. You already know (or think you know) where to go for the best food, the best day off, the best route to take. When traveling you have to step up and actively seek out the things you want. There’s no other option (except failure, I suppose). You often end up finding more goodies than any given local because you constantly seek them out. This step-up-and-do attitude translates nicely to effective decisions during emergencies or hard times.
  • Traveling means relying on others. That may seem to conflict with self-reliance, but really it’s just the end result of everything above. Once you have social bravery and know who not to trust, you can put those skills to work by talking to people who are trustworthy and relying on their advice. When you’re asking everyone you meet for their recommendation on the best bar, suddenly you contain the collective drinking knowledge of 40 or 50 locals. That’s better than most guidebooks!

Any of these benefits on its own is a nice skill to have. But taken together, we have a picture of a person who can talk easily with strangers, has seemingly precognitive knowledge of bad things and bad people, can handle almost any situation quickly and effectively, and seems to have more knowledge than any couple dozen people put together, on any topic that happens to come up.

Sounds a lot like Confucius. Or the Dalai Lama. Or Keewaydinoquay.

So How to Start?

That may seem like a big order to fill, but those traits tend to develop naturally just from an itinerant lifestyle. At the same time it’s possible to cultivate them, which is a good idea as one gears up for traveling—after all, it’s better to hone your “who to trust” instincts before running into trouble, than after.

In my next post I’ll outline some of the methods I’m using to help develop these traits ahead of my Great Adventure, and then go over what is working and what isn’t. In the meantime, tell me a story. How has travel changed your own perspective? How has it honed you, or made you stronger? If you have a tale, tell it!

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21 thoughts on “How Travel Changes the Mind

  1. Nice post – I agree. Travel has changed my perspective and made me a much stronger person than I ever thought I would be years ago. It took a few trips for me to finally catch the bug, but now it’s terminal. I love to travel and explore. I hope you have a great adventure too!

  2. It’s a good point that travel encourages both self-reliance and relying on others. It underscores a more general point of self-knowledge: we are all interconnected and interdependent, even as we choose to go our own ways.

    My own contribution to the mathemetician-monk-Jew joke: Travel was also important to Pyrrho, who is believed to have traveled with Alexander to India and learned from the Gymnosophers (naked sages), and studied under the Magi of Persia as well. Pyrrho is the eponymous founder of one of the greatest, if not the best remembered, Greek philosophies: Pyrrhonian Skepticism. In a nutshell, this philosophy holds that in the absence of compelling absence for or against a proposition (such as the existence of god), the rational thing to do is suspend judgment and carry on in the spirit of inquiry.

    • Thanks for adding that, Brandon – Pyrrho is definitely worth remembering. According to the “historians” of the time, his skepticism extended to refusing to trust his five senses. he refused to decide whether the world even exists. Supposedly, this gave him a deep sense of calm. After all, he was not convinced that any threats or disappointments were real, so why fear them? When the ship he was on got caught in a horrible storm, and even the sailors were afraid they were going down, he remained calmly at the prow waiting patiently to see what would happen. So goes the legend anyway!

      • Yes. Pyrrho is also said to have walked through town paying no attention whatsoever to where he was going, and only avoided running into things thanks to a group of friends that took care of him.

        Of course, I strongly suspect these stories are instances of hyperbole invented to illustrate on an absurd scale his philosophy (whether to teach his ideas or ridicule them). There’s no reason to respect a person who would gladly run right into a wall and call it wisdom! It’s the deeper philosophy of Pyrrhonism that’s worthy of notice.

        • I could go either way on the hyperbole. On walking into walls, yes, that sounds like a tall tale. But the extreme sense of peace? The only living philosophy today that teaches not to accept that the world is real is Buddhism, and the monks with the deepest understanding of that belief are renowned for their deep sense of peace. I’ve always thought that is an interesting parallel with Pyrrho. Medically speaking, much of the calmness and other benefits the Buddhists exhibit comes from the meditation they practice, but I do wonder if there is a connection between a don’t-believe-anything-even-reality world view and calmness.

      • Indeed there is a possible connection between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism, so much so that Kuzminski subtitled his book on Pyrrhonism “How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism.” Pyrrho was said to have accompanied Alexander on his campaign to India and studied with the gymnosophers there.

        But neither Pyrrhonism nor Buddhism posit that the world is not real. In both, it’s our concepts of the world that are unreal. The world itself is quite real, and our access to it via the five senses underpins the whole of both philosophies.

        • Yes, that is definitely the most accurate way to describe Buddhist and Pyrrhonic teachings. I don’t think either system necessarily agrees that the world is quite real – rather that we can’t know one way or the other. That’s my secondhand understanding from two Buddhists I know, and definitely sums up what Pyrrho supposedly thought.

          I wasn’t aware of the Pyrrho/India link. Do the timelines really line up for that? Even if not there was a similarly skeptical Hindu school of thought, typified by the Ashtavakra Gita, prior to Buddhism. Which is an amazing book to read by the way, and one I would suggest for your list – truly there is nothing new under the sun, and easily 80% of Buddhist thought was cribbed out of that text :)

      • The influence of Buddhism on Greek thought of any kind is still controversial, though I don’t really know the issues off hand. There’s evidence for it, but no clincher. The influence of Greek culture on Buddhism, however, is well accepted, and demonstrable in Buddhist statuary – the Buddha image being modeled after Apollo, right down to the top-knot on the Apollo Belvedere statue. There’s one on display here at the MIA. Similar lineages have been traced from Hercules to the fierce guardians that stand at the gate of Japanese temples, and from the Greek wind god Aeolus with his wind-catching scarf to a Japanese ogre with the same scarf motif. But tracing influence back the other way is apparently more difficult, and I’m not sure if it’s legitimate difficulty or just Western pride.

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  4. Fascinating. At the MIA, really? If you ever want to come walk around the museum just let me know. We’re open in the evenings on Thursdays or I could probably sneak off if you wanted to come during the day.

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