On Reading & Travel

“That is why, as soon as I was old enough to emerge from the control of my teachers, I entirely abandoned scholarship. Resolving to seek no knowledge except what I could find in myself or read in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth travelling… gathering various experiences, testing myself in the situations that luck put me into, and always reflecting on whatever came my way so as to profit from it… The greatest benefit I extracted from these observations was their showing me many things which, although seeming wild and ridiculous to us, are nevertheless commonly accepted and approved in other great nations; which taught me not to believe too firmly anything I had been convinced of only by example and custom. This would gradually free me from many errors that may obscure our natural light and make us less capable of heeding reason.”

— Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting one’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Senses

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In, “The Life that Lives on Man”, Michael Alford Andrews describes the bacteria, microbes, and other organisms that dwell on our bodies, and explains the codependent symbiotic relationships that we have with these microscopic creatures. None of us would not be able to survive without the bacteria that live in our intestines and help digest food, or the mites that live on our eyelashes and feed off of the waste produced by your eyes.

I read, “The Life that Lives on Man” in a fascinating class last spring, taught by a professor whom I deeply admire, love, and respect, Phillip Thurtle. As I understand it, Phillip’s point in assigning this reading in his course, “Eye and Mind”, is that if there are millions of organisms who dwell within your body and without whom you wouldn’t be able to survive, then who’s to say that these aren’t part of your very self? How do you define the line between where your youness ends and their otherness begins? To take this idea one step further, if we can open our minds to the possibility that these organisms that feed off of our cellular waste are, indeed, an inseparable part of our own bodies, then perhaps other things that appear to be outside ourselves but upon which are dependent are also part of our own beings.

Phillip Thurtle recently gave an inspiring Ted talk, in which he discussed the premise for his new book about superheroes. His thesis is that superheroes become super by absorbing elements of the outside world and allowing themselves to be affected by those elements. For example, Spiderman is bitten by a spider, and only then does he attain superpowers.

The message? Put away your hand sanitizer and let the world inside. To me, this is the essence of traveling.

I’ve been so lucky to travel to many different places, but I think the experience that represents the pinnacle of travel for me was my trip to India. India is a prime example of a supreme assault on all of your senses. In India, your eyes will be touched by saris woven of colors so vibrant, you didn’t even know they were perceptible to the human eye. You’ll eat foods that are so spicy, your entire being becomes consumed by the interaction happening on your tongue. You’ll smell stenches that are so powerful, you never knew that your nose was capable of so much disgust, repulsion, and fascination. And if you visit India during the right season, you’ll experience heat that seeps into your body so deeply, your blood might just steam out through your skin.

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When I’m living my regular life and following a daily routine, I subconsciously subdue my senses. I know what to expect when I cook my usual foods, and they always taste the same. When I’m driving on a familiar road, I even allow myself to doze off or blink one too many times, because I’ve seen the road before and I know where it turns. By inadvertently allowing my senses to become subdued during my daily life, I am closing myself off from the outside world, not allowing it to affect me or interact with myself.

Travel stimulates my senses in a way that forces me to interact with my surroundings and allow myself to be affected by the world around me. However, when travel is not an option, good books are another powerful way to internalize the seemingly external world. As Descartes says in the same text that I quoted above, “Conversing with people of past centuries is rather like traveling.” The ability to absorb someone else’s thoughts through their writing is a powerful thing, and to internalize these thoughts and allow them to change your character, change the ways in which you experience the world, change your assumptions and worldview – now that’s cool. (You see the reason why I get nervous about things like blog posts, where my thoughts are readily available to the 2.5 billion internet users on the globe.)

In addition to travel and reading, food and breath are two other very tangible ways of inviting the outside world in and letting it affect you. But that’s a different blogpost, for a different sleepless night. 🙂

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