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Why Travel Makes You Grow

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Being away from home makes you more conscious. When you’re at home, each day is so similar that you can navigate most of it via autopilot, without much conscious thought.

From the moment we wake up, most of our decisions have been made already: what to do for the first half-hour of the day, what time we get dressed, where we go when we leave the bedroom, who we will interact with, what time we’ll eat, where we’ll be when we do, what we need to worry about and not worry about, and so on.

When you wake up staring at an unfamiliar ceiling, with unfamiliar sounds in the background, and no routines to lean on, the day has a lot more question marks, and they demand conscious thinking and decisionmaking.

You remember more of what happens when you’re away from home, because life resembles your past experience so much less. The days seem longer and fuller, and details appear more significant, because you’re too far outside your comfortable grooves to let your mind wander out of the present into idle, irrelevant thinking. Your attention feels like it needs to stay on your surroundings, which is not true when you’re living a normal day at home.

Personal growth happens much more quickly. You have more challenges — how to get hot water out of this particular faucet, or whether it’s even possible, or where to find breakfast nearby — or how to find the answers to any of these questions without using your first language. All of this requires much greater application of inquiry, observation, and decisionmaking than a normal day at home.

Most of all, you become more conscious of who you are and how you live, because both are reflected back to you constantly when you’re temporarily unable to be who you’re used to being, and to do what you’re used to doing.

So a stint of travel in an unfamiliar land is just about the perfect setting for self-reflection. As most of you know, I just got back from three weeks in Ecuador, where I presented at a chautauqua, organized by Cheryl Reed from Above the Clouds Retreats. The idea of the chautauqua was to get away from our normal lives, convene with somewhat like-minded strangers, and exchange our ideas about the big-picture things: life paths, outlooks, bucket lists, and happiness. 

The retreat itself was fantastic. We had such a wonderful group of people. Everyone was interesting and engaging — we sat in random seats at dinner every night so that we’d each get a chance to talk to everyone else. We also had a lot of one-on-one conversations — some scheduled, some not — about our lives and where we’d like to take them next.

Throughout the presentations and conversations, a particular theme kept coming up: do you actually live how you say you want to live?

In other words, do you really walk the walk you talk, and if not, why not? J.D. Roth, during his presentation, suggested that we often believe certain things are priorities for us, yet when we look at how we actually spend our time it can become clear that they aren’t priorities, or at least they aren’t yet.

For example, I’ve said many times that nothing I do is more worthwhile than meditation, yet I have fallen out of the habit for long stretches, I still miss my daily practice on a regular basis, and I’ve still put off joining a local sangha.

Habit is such a strong force in life that our behavior can deviate from our values without our noticing. It is entirely possible that you would say, if asked, that health and fitness is a priority for you, even while you haven’t exercised regularly in two years. Or that maintaining friendships is important to you, when you are never the one that initiates the plans.

Living our values doesn’t happen automatically. We need to consciously think about what they are, and ask ourselves whether our lifestyles embody our values or not. A few exercises we did threw this phenomenon into relief:

J.D. had us each privately write down how we’d spend our time in life under three very different circumstances: 1) If we were financially independent; 2) If we had 5-10 years left to live and 3) If we had 24 hours left to live. I found that my answers were pretty much the same for each, yet they weren’t things I was currently making into priorities. They also didn’t require financial independence, or the urgency of a terminal illness, in order to pursue them. Yet somehow I’ve let other things come to crowd them out.

A few days later, Cheryl had each of us write down an unordered list of the qualities most important to our ideal life — and then order them in the following way:

a) Look at the top item on the list. Compare it to each other item in turn, asking yourself: if I could only pursue one of these two, which would it be?

b) Establish the more important one at #1 on the list, then move down to what’s at number two, and repeat with all the remaining items.

Essentially this bubble-sorts the list into a carefully-considered list of priorities. Almost everyone was surprised at what came out on top and what sunk to the bottom. I was surprised to see “Traveling the world” continually lose out to other values and drift to the bottom, even though it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think about my ideal life.

Meanwhile, “Cultivating and maintaining relationships” stayed firmly near the top, even though I have been almost entirely passive in creating relationships. I have almost always left it up to others to fulfil this value for me. Other people have almost always had to do the reaching out. And — bless them — so far they have.

Even though the results of the exercise surprised me, I knew it was right. I would give up all future traveling in a heartbeat, if I needed to in order to have close relationships with other people. But I didn’t realize that until I really sat down and looked at it.

These exercises and conversations set off spiritual alarm bells for me. I came away from the retreat with a crystal-clear awareness of how I’ve been misappropriating my energies in life, and judging by the reactions to the above exercise I think most of us did.

For me, the glaring holes were in meditation and cultivating relationships. I have done really well in other areas this last year, fitness and career-change in particular — but I’ve neglected at least two of my greatest values in the process. Other people had similar revelations, about different aspects of their own lives.

After the retreat, I did some solo traveling. I flew to the Galapagos Islands, and spent a bit of time in the Andean city of Quito. I had a great time and saw some amazing things, but I was surprised to find that much of the time the thing that excited me most was the thought of going home. Normally I never want to go home when I travel.

The feeling about “going home” was different this time, because for the first time in my life, I don’t dread going back to work. I love my work and the life I’ve set up here, and when I was in the Galapagos it seemed absurd at times that I was spending money to be away from that. That might be the biggest of the many revelations this trip gave me: that I have finally built a life that I don’t want to get away from.

Still, it was the travel that allowed this insight to happen. We need to step out of our lives in order to see them clearly — both what’s wrong with them and what’s right.

***

It’s good to be back after a four-week break, but I’ve got quite a pile of work and correspondence waiting now. If you’ve sent me an email over the past four weeks, I’ll get to it soon. -David

Photo by David Cain
Susan September 15, 2014 at 2:27 am

I was in egypt in 2010 and while I was enjoying the ride on a boat I pondered about my life. Finally I came to the conclusion that it is not at all what I wanted it to be. That I surrendered to the facts surrounding me, instead of trying to make it better.
After I returned, I made the attempt of getting my life in track, sadly my boyfriend left me and I broke down in shreds. It took me four additional years to cautiously wander around, taking every opportunity that came to improve my life a little. But this year I just realised this is it. I don’t want to do that anymore, I want change.
I will never forget that moment on that boat, when I realised how far away I am from what I really want and need. And it makes me cringe that I had gotten circumstances in the way instead of persuing my goals.
I agree with you, travelling helps you to see things clearer, even if it hurts.

David Cain September 15, 2014 at 10:30 am

Something about boats leads to pondering life. I think it’s the humbling effect of large bodies of water :)

A lot of times growth comes with pain because we have to cut losses and make readjustments.

lynn householder September 15, 2014 at 7:33 am

David,
I am leaving in 4 days on the first overseas trip of my 53 years! What a perfect article to find in my inbox today! While Ireland does not compare to Ecuador challenge-wise, I’m going solo…not my first choice but it seems to be what fate wants me to do. I would daresay, it is exactly what i need to break out of my complacency, and kickstart a more present life!

Thanks!
Lynn

David Cain September 15, 2014 at 10:33 am

Oh wow, bon voyage! Ireland really calls me and I’m planning a trip in the rather near future. Anyway, I’m sure it will give you plenty of opportunities for challenge and self-reflection, even without a language barrier. Enjoy!

Chris @ Flipping A Dollar September 15, 2014 at 7:48 am

The beginning of your post reminds me of a Zen Pencils comic! http://zenpencils.com/comic/73-mark-twain-an-educational-journey/

The rest is even different, but definitely hits home. My wife and I have moved to a new area and aren’t friends with a lot of people. One person at work invited us over their house and I was so surprised/impressed that they took the initiative. But really, it’s not that big of a deal to do that. You have to clean up the house and cook a meal, what, that takes a few hours of prep? But we blow it up in our heads to be such a huge thing and put it off because it seems so daunting.

David Cain September 15, 2014 at 10:36 am

Love that comic, thank you.

I am the same with the social initiative. For some reason I have convinced myself that everything is a big deal. I think a lot of it revolves around a very old fear of rejection — that they won’t like what I cook, or that we’ll all be bored and I’ll be revealed to be a lame host. The more I talk/write about it the sillier and more irrational it sounds.

Mark September 17, 2014 at 9:15 am

David, I can’t imagine anyone thinking you would be boring. You have such a way deep thinking and can communicate your thoughts so well. I think we all have a bit of self esteem issues that we need to just get over and be ourselves. Great article.

Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com September 15, 2014 at 8:09 am

Hi David! My husband and I are traveling right now in Southern Mexico and I so agree with you in that traveling helps us get out of our normal routines and look at the world and our lives in a bigger way. I think it is so important for us to stay conscious and awake to how we are living and to evaluate whether we are congruent to our deepest dreams or merely talking the talk. Fortunately at this time in my life I both LOVE to travel and to go home when the time comes but I have the advantage of doing it with my BFF who also loves the same that I do. We have also figured out how to work and live “on the road” so that we can stay away longer and longer as we desire. I too love my life, love to travel and love to stay conscious about what my choices are. Thanks for helping me realize that this morning. ~Kathy

David Cain September 15, 2014 at 10:38 am

I learned on this trip that I really need to learn to work on the road. My work is finally “location independent” so technically I can work from anywhere, but my habits all get turned upside down when I travel and it was really hard to get into a groove. For my next trip I’m going to make a more conscious plan to get work done while I travel.

Paul October 9, 2014 at 5:01 am

I was going to start a new thread, but figured it made sense to just piggy-back here.

Why not combine both?

But not combining travel in the sense you’re talking about – “backpacking” or short-term travel – with work.

Instead, actually living in a foreign country for 3 months, 6 months, 9 months – going through the associated culture shock, learning the language, developing new relationships, etc.

This accomplishes both of your desires: gives you the chance to maintain a productive routine, while still putting you through all the rigors (and reaping all the personal development benefits) of travel.

http://spartantraveler.com/20-things-i-learned-travelling-around-the-world/ (#17 and #18 are especially pertinent to my point – but the rest of the list is great, as well)

John September 15, 2014 at 8:22 am

Ah, the human tendency to be fickle. We like to say things about the way we live, but as you mentioned, we often do something else entirely. The ego is on a never-ending quest to defend itself…unless we remind ourselves that the quest is over.

David Cain September 15, 2014 at 10:39 am

The strange part is that we don’t even notice the discrepancy between our intentions and our behavior until we sit down and consciously examine both.

Nisreen Sinjab September 15, 2014 at 9:51 am

I agree that travel is an eye opener. For those who can afford the trip costs and have the privilege to access visas, traveling is a real cure from mundane existence that we tend to take fir granted. but what about those who don’t enjoy ir can’t access the above privileges? ???

David Cain September 15, 2014 at 10:40 am

Travel is only one of many tools for self-examination, and many are free. I feel very lucky to be able to travel but it is not essential to my personal development, or anyone else’s.

icebiker September 15, 2014 at 9:59 pm

I find i can stretch money, find adventure and break routine by cycling/hiking around for a few weeks at a time. There is plenty of adventure to be had seeing one’s own country.

Lara September 15, 2014 at 10:04 am

Would you mind sharing any of the other exercises you did?

fh September 15, 2014 at 10:34 am

In July I took an eleven day driving trip by myself. I thought I would get bored. Nope. I enjoyed the solitude. I listened to a couple audio books. I saw friends from decades ago and visited places I had not seen in almost 60 years. I was regularly moved by the sights I saw. I often slept in my little van and ate very simple food (fruit, nuts, sandwiches). I was happy to get home as well, but only because I like he what I do in my daily life (I’m a writer, not that it pays that well). Thanks for sharing I enjoy your blog.

Maria Long September 15, 2014 at 10:56 am

Every word so true. You don’t even have to go far from home. It does matter that it be a place you have never been to or that has changed a lot since the last time you visited. Recharging, refreshing, reframing.

Amy September 15, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Lovely post. After extensive travel overseas this summer (after many years only making duty trips to visit relatives) my family decided to move. We realized what a an amazing beautiful world is out there, and that our current city is not a great fit for us. Though I like the idea of putting down roots, it’s a big beautiful world out there. Our new home town will be much less costly, and we’ll have the freedom to travel much more.
My daughter had to write down her life goals for high school. For most of the kids, this means college, becoming a lawyer or doctor… but she wrote that she wanted to “travel the world, meet all kinds of people, learn a lot of languages and different ways to live, to be happy and to make a difference.” Sounds good to me! Travel is the best education.

Helen September 15, 2014 at 9:53 pm

I love your blog and it has inspired me to make some major changes to my life. New job. Less hours. More time with the kids. More focus on friends. etc. Still a work in progress but going in the right direction.

I am not in a position to travel at the moment, but have found my puppy to be inspirational. At 40 years old I got my first dog and he is the master of living in the moment. I have started meditating ‘by accident’ – sitting for a cuddle with the dog and admiring the view. We live on 2.5 acres and have an amazing view, but before we got the dog, I never just sat still looking out at the trees.

Exercise is not a problem – have to walk the dog twice per day which in itself becomes a meditation.

Anyway thankyou again for your blog – absolutely life changing for me!!!

Kaelow September 16, 2014 at 2:50 pm

The last bit of your post reminds me of a quote I wrote down earlier this year…

“Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.

Seth Godin”

Thanks David…K

nick September 17, 2014 at 3:15 pm

How’d it go with the DIY soylent, or the lack thereof?

jlcollinsnh September 17, 2014 at 6:18 pm

Hi David…

Wonderful to hear your Chatauqua was a great success. I wish I could have been at that one too. It would have been a pleasure to meet you and spend time.

We had a great time at ours as well and are already looking forward to 2015.

I hope one day our paths will cross…

David Cain September 24, 2014 at 11:19 am

Hey Jim!

It was great and I’m so glad I went. Our paths will almost certainly cross one day :)

Sebastian Aiden Daniels September 17, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Traveling is such an amazing feeling and time. I studied abroad in England for a time and it was probably the best period of my life. You really do learn so much about yourself in a foreign land. I can’t even imagine the resourcefulness that would be required if you went to a land where you didn’t even speak the language.

I am glad that your travels were able to help you appreciate where you are in your life now and what matters most.

interestingreadinglist September 21, 2014 at 6:28 am

That must be a great feeling wanting to get back to normal life. Settling somewhere is what can help you build your life and relationships, and travelling can help you to deal with the transience of life, roll with the punches and essentially deal with change.

Make sure you offer gratitude to those putting in effort to maintain you relationships, as sometimes if it’s one sided it can be hard to know if the other people appreciate the effort you put in.

Tawcan September 21, 2014 at 3:48 pm

I’m a true believer that you can learn a lot more things traveling around the world than sitting in a class room and reading books. Not only you learn about other cultures and histories, you also learn more about yourself. You become more comfortable going to a completely unknown city.

Leigh Shulman September 23, 2014 at 4:38 pm

This is something I think about often. Travel does keep you on your toes. You can’t just get comfortable and move through life by habit. At the same time, I can’t help but feel there must be a way to incorporate the travel view of life into the day to day.

It’s something I write about quite a lot.

Nancy September 25, 2014 at 10:04 am

While I have travelled quite a bit in my life, I am not a traveller. I think that travelling has definitely provided new perspectives and gotten me out of my comfort zone but, I have a two year old granddaughter and she is helping me see the wonder of everything in a one mile radius. Every rock, tree, set of stairs, squirrel, bunny, stick, leaf on the ground, pinecone, spider web, busy ant, etc. etc….is an adventure for her.
I have always felt that the romance and wonder that we seek in other places is available to us pretty close to home. My husband has a desire to take me to Italy where we could eat in restaurants where no one speaks English and drink wine late into the night. In theory this sounds great, but why can’t we do that here? Just asking. And not as a curmudgeon, but as someone who at 60 loves Raptitude, loves playing Minecraft, is very fond of my Samsung Galaxy 3 phone, listens to Milk Carton Kids, Haim and read Hunger Games before it was a movie….in other words, I like my life simple and not too stressful and if possible would stay home most of the time.
I think the person above me, Leigh, should try very hard to write about life like it is a travel adventure, because for me, and my two year old granddaughter, that’s exactly what it is. We’re flying out again this afternoon to the good old sidewalk and neighbour’s rock and Omi’s homemade sandbox. Wish us well on our trip! ;-)

P.S (I am realistic enough to know that she will want to wander farther afield someday, as my kids have done…darn them! And then I will have to travel to see her as I do to see them.)
Good blog as always David, you are a very inspiring person.

Cody Mann October 24, 2014 at 3:01 pm

This was a great article. I love reading about how people find their own path to discovery. I know for me meditation was definitely the biggest factor in my spiritual development. But I have not had the chance to travel yet, although I really want to as soon as I get the funds for it.

So you basically have to develop an entire identity when you travel and therefore it puts your own life in an entirely different perspective? I definitely want to get out and explore after reading this though. Lol

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