How to Maintain Your Spiritual Practice While Traveling, and Turn Traveling into a Spiritual Practice
By Natasha Friedman
Travel and spirituality have long gone hand in hand. Pilgrimage is a part of almost every tradition, from medieval Europeans walking to Jerusalem to millions of Hindus gathering at the Ganges for the Kumbh Mela.
Often, spirituality is spoken about in the language of travel: your “spiritual journey” or “path.” The Sanskrit word samsara, meaning cyclic existence within an illusory world of duality, can be literally translated as “wandering.”
For many people in my generation, this wandering is very literal. We’re backpackers, nomads, global citizens. Sometimes this life can feel like an unending pilgrimage to an unknown destination.
But constant motion doesn’t have to be a detour from the spiritual path. On the contrary, the outer journey can be an amazing support for the inner voyage, if you can maintain your practice and awareness throughout.
Developing a Spiritual Practice That You Can Take Anywhere
Consistency is essential for any spiritual practice. Though it might be much harder while traveling, in periods of instability it’s especially important to maintain a regular practice. Best of all is to choose something to do every day, a practice you can commit to no matter what.
When I am traveling, this practice becomes my home base. It might be my only point of stability and familiarity.
So how do you pick a practice to take on the road with you?
First, you will want something you can do anywhere, in case you get stuck at an airport or on a 12-hour bus ride. This rules out most Hatha Yoga practices, for obvious reasons (though you can probably get away with uddiyana bandha, nauli kriya, or pranayama).
That said, long hours of travel take their toll on the body. For this reason alone, I try to squeeze in as much asana practice as I can while on the road.
Meditation, on the other hand, can happen anywhere and at any time.
If you’re used to meditating in a quiet, peaceful corner of your bedroom, it can be a challenge to go into high concentration and relaxation while bumping around on a bus or squeezed into an airplane seat with crying babies on both sides. I’m not going to tell you that these are optimum conditions for reaching deep states, but I do have a few pointers for making the most out of it.
Let go of your expectations. Maybe you won’t feel like you go as deep as in a “normal” meditation, but it’s a different type of work: learning to surrender and be present under any conditions. Learning to let noise and sensations, frustration and chaos, pass through your awareness without reacting.When you can remain calm and witness intense external stimuli, it’s much easier to deal with the turbulence of your own mind.Anyway, if you think about it, how often do you really have “perfect” conditions for meditation? Even if everything is supportive externally, your mind can still go wild. It’s not about having the perfect setting, but what you do with it.
Allow sounds and feelings to arise without resistance. In a more peaceful setting, you might be able to go into laser focus and completely zone out any distractions. But, when meditating somewhere loud and chaotic, that forceful attitude is likely to result in frustration.Instead, simply stay neutral. Draw all these perceptions into the Heart and remain a witness to all of them.
Make use of any opportunity to practice. If you’re waiting for a train, do some walking meditation to make up for long hours of sitting. If you’re stuck in a passport line with a hundred other tired, frustrated people, do tonglen and absorb all their suffering.
Making Travel Itself a Spiritual Practice
By now, maybe you’ve guessed where I’m going with this.
Taking your on-the-road spiritual practice to the next level means that beyond trying to squeeze your practice into your traveling, traveling itself becomes a practice.
Travel can teach you so much about yourself. Taking you outside of your normal patterns of behavior, away from so many of the external factors that you usually use to define yourself, it’s an opening for something new to blossom. Exploring the world outside of your normal conditions allows you a glimpse beyond the level of conditions.
It teaches humbleness. Maybe at home you’re smart and successful, but here you are struggling to order in a restaurant, getting ripped off by taxi drivers, and washing your underwear in hostel sinks for weeks on end. At a certain point, the default is just to smile and move on.
Travel is often a crash course in non-attachment. First, non-attachment to belongings, as stuff inevitably gets lost, stolen, or simply left behind to make room in a loaded backpack. No matter how much you think you can’t live without something, it usually turns out that you do just fine without it.
You also develop non-attachment to plans, either when things go wrong or very right, like when you make some great new friends the night before leaving for Mexico City and decide to go with them to Guatemala instead.
There’s nothing like getting hopelessly lost in a foreign city where you don’t speak the language to teach you how to stay calm and positive in a difficult situation. Facing challenges like this brings a special kind of trust, a surrender to whatever comes, and the courage to step into the unknown.
Odd as it sounds, I learned how to come home by being homeless.
I love traveling. It’s been several years since I’ve had a good answer when people ask me “Where do you live?,” and I like it that way.
Yet sometimes, especially during silent retreats or towards the end of a long journey—like when I see the sun rising through the windows of an overnight bus—I am hit in the gut with an intense homesickness. Sometimes it’s nostalgia for my childhood home or places I used to know in Brooklyn, my last permanent address. Sometimes I don’t even know what the longing is for.
It was only in my last Hridaya Retreat that I began to understand what these waves of homesickness were about.
One of the strongest attachments human beings have is to “home.” “I’m American.” “I’m from So-and-so.” “I live here, it’s where I belong.”
From the perspective of Advaita, none of these identifications with places is real. On the ultimate level, I am not American. I was not born anywhere and I don’t come from anywhere. Wherever I think that I live is simply the form that is arising in my awareness at that moment.
Where is home, when you are pure Consciousness on a voyage through this world of appearances? Where is home, when your soul is yearning to break free of all attachments and fly into the source? Why do you feel such a need to have a place to call your own, when your nature is freedom beyond time and space?
A Sufi mystic once said that every desire is a restless movement in search of God. When you go deep enough into any desire, you find a longing for union with the Ultimate, a calling to dissolve into the essence of Life.
To illustrate, Sigmund Freud claimed that all human behavior was rooted in two desires: the sex drive and the death drive. However, with an understanding of the spiritual dimension, both of these impulses are clearly filters for the fundamental longing that all sentient beings have to return to our True Nature.
Sex is union, the illusion of separateness disappearing, which is the ultimate bliss. According to Abhinavagupta, the great master of non-dual Kashmir Shaivism, it is one of two experiences in life that is most similar to the mystical experience. The desire for sex is so intense because it gives a taste of Reality.
The death wish is actually a desire for the death of the ego. This limited form really is self-destructive in the sense that its final goal is to merge into limitlessness.
This bittersweet homesickness I feel—and that I suspect most nomads run into—is also a hidden longing for the Divine.
When I feel this strange nostalgia on the road, this ache for something I don’t really miss or can’t even put my finger on, it’s really a longing to be settled in the Heart. It’s a longing for the magic and beauty of a world without filters, stories, and illusions, for the infinity that my limited consciousness emerged from. It’s an intuition of Truth.
Long-term travel is not always easy. It challenges you on every level of your being, pushing you to go beyond your limits and always open more to the beauty and wildness of the vast world you live in.
Sometimes I wonder if my wanderlust is just a distraction. There’s a part of me that says if I were really serious about my spiritual aspiration, I would settle down in one place and just meditate as much as I can, without all the trouble of constantly moving. After all, what is there to see in the world that can’t be found inside? What’s the point of more sightseeing in samsara?
I don’t believe so much in this voice—at least not now. There is, of course, a risk in following the urge to wander. It’s easy to get lost in the adventure, thinking that happiness lies in the next stop on the itinerary.
However, the calling is there, and I believe it’s there for a reason. The open road has lessons for you. There is something the soul needs to experience in each place you visit, karmic connections that draw you to a place or a person you need to meet, for whatever purpose above your limited human capacity to understand.
The more you wander with awareness, the more you bring practice along on your travels and turn your traveling into a practice, one thing becomes more clear. Wherever you go, you are there. The Self is there. Consciousness is there, it is everywhere, and you can never go outside of it.
Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.