For the next 3 days, I will explore what the idea of DISTANCING might signify. I suggest that MINDFUL TRAVEL is a type of distancing that enhances our ability to appeciate the diversity of the planet, and to accept our human differences positively.
Let me begin with an entry from a journal which I kept many years ago, when I was teaching on contract in Transylvania. During that 4 year period, in the context of one of the most beautiful regions of the world, I learned a great deal about isolation and about communication in the absence of a shared language. Most importantly, I learned how to appreciate the space inside my own mind.
I made a decision, right at the start of my expedition to Romania, that I would travel by car, and on my own. I wanted to experience all the changes that are evident on a route that went from Edinburgh, through England, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary and beyond. Air travel and airports collapse the very differences that are the best reasons for travelling. Speed blurs our vision, and certain hotel chains suck the colour out of cultural diversity.
Over the period of 4 years, as I made that journey back and forwards many times, I had less and less desire to listen to music or voices on the car radio. I came to relish the silence, and the constantly changing landscape. I offer you these travel meditations because it strikes me that the lessons I learned then have a new significance now.
There is a road that goes from Budapest to the Transylvanian city of Cluj. Don’t bother trying to find it unless you have the time to desist the lure of the new motorway, the patience to snake along behind a loaded cart-horse, and such blind faith in providence that the absence of sign-posts will appeal to your taste for the rustic unspoiled.
In 1998, this road, the E60, was my Journey to the East. Unlike Hesse’s characters in the novel of that name, I was not searching for ultimate truth; just enough self-knowledge to survive the next stage of my life. It might well have turned out to be a clichéd, even an embarrassing interlude: the female equivalent of some ageing rocker hunched over his Harley bike, not in heroic pose, but because his second hip operation is giving him gyp. What saved me was the sheer reality of the E60. Even now, completely at will, I can transport myself back to the gritty concreteness of its post-communist sparseness, but the memories come like a series of pointillist images. I have to narrow the eyes of my imagination to get the picture.
I recall that, near the end of my first journey there, as the light faded, the sky turned into a huge mackerel, whose shiny belly was behind me and its great, dark tail was ahead of me, heralding night over the Carpathians. I felt suspended between West and East; between my past and my future.
That road is one less travelled now, replaced by a motorway that allows you to move from Budapest airport to Cluj Napoca without seeing the painted cottages, each with its own vine, scores of different types of church roof, women in their wellies, shepherds clad in sheepskin capes, haystacks the way I remember them in Scottish fields, and roadside stalls laden with vegetables.
That was a moving meditation within the silence of my metal box. Not travelling at 550 miles per hour in a jet plane, but stuck for hours behind the driver of a hay cart, often a man who evidently had no fear of being breathalyzed as he sipped his Palinka. I hope there are still travellers like that.
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