Want to get away this summer? Remember the six stages of the transformative journey | Kiowa County Press

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Sightseeing buses at a popular stop for views of North America’s tallest peak, Denali, in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska in 2016. AP Photo/Becky Bohrer

Jaco J. Hamman, Vanderbilt School of Theology

In June 2022, I set off on a 10,650-mile, six-week motorcycle trip from Tennessee to Alaska and back again, packing little more than my GPS and phone. The ride kicked off a year of research travel – and despite the horror stories of delayed and canceled flights, I couldn’t be happier.

Just about everywhere I went, even in remote areas of the Yukon and British Columbia, people were traveling. Most trailers pulled were new, suggesting that the owners had purchased them recently. After yet another locked down pandemic winter, it seems people’s appetite for getting away from it all is just as strong.

But why do we travel in the first place? What is the appeal of the open road?

As a professor of religion, psychology, and culture, I study experiences that lie at the intersection of all three. And in my research on travel, I am struck by its insoluble paradoxes: many of us seek to escape in order to be present; we accelerate to destinations in order to slow down; we may care about the environment, but we still leave a carbon footprint.

In the end, many people hope to come back transformed. Travel is often seen as what anthropologists call a “rite of passage”: structured rituals in which individuals separate from their familiar surroundings, undergo change, and return rejuvenated or “reborn.”

But travelers don’t just care about themselves. The desire to explore can be a defining human trait, as I argue in my latest book, “Just Traveling: God, Leaving Home, and a Spirituality for the Road.” The ability to do so, however, is a privilege that may come at a cost to host communities. Increasingly, the tourism industry and academics are interested in ethical travel, which minimizes the damage caused by visitors to the places and people they meet.

The media floods tourists with advice and prompts on where to travel and what to do there. But in order to achieve the deeper goals of the transformative and ethical journey, the “why” and the “how” require deeper discernment.

During my literary research, I studied travelogues in sacred scriptures and sought out the findings of psychologists, sociologists, ethicists, economists, and tourism scholars. I argue that meaningful travel is best understood not as a three-step rite, but as a six-phase practice, grounded in fundamental human experiences. These phases can be repeated and overlapped during the same journey, just as the adventures follow one another.

About half a dozen people in brightly colored clothing sit and chat on a fence with hills in the background.
Tourists sit on public benches in Dharmsala, India, June 17, 2022. AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia

1. Anticipate

The journey begins long before departure, as we research and plan. But anticipation is more than logistics. The Dutch aptly call it “voorpret”: literally, pleasure from before.

How and what people anticipate in a given situation has the power to shape their experience, for better or for worse, even when it comes to biases. Psychological experiments, for example, have shown that when children anticipate greater cooperation between groups, it can reduce their bias in favor of their own group.

But phenomenology, a branch of philosophy that studies human experience and consciousness, points out that anticipation is also “empty”: our conscious intentions and expectations of what is to come could be met or dashed by some future time. .

With this in mind, travelers should try to remain open to uncertainty and even disappointment.

2. Leaving

Leaving can awaken deep emotions linked to our first experiences of separation. The attachment styles that psychologists study in infants, which shape people’s sense of security in their relationships, continue to shape us as adults. These experiences can also affect how comfortable people are with exploring new experiences and leaving home, which can affect how they travel.

Some travelers depart with enthusiasm, while others experience hesitation or guilt at the relief and excitement of departure. Mindfulness of the stages of the journey can help people manage their anxiety.

3. Surrender

Travelers do not control their trip: a flight is canceled or a vehicle breaks down; the forecast calls for sunshine, but it rains for days. To some extent, they have to surrender to the unknown.

Modern Western cultures tend to view “surrender” as something negative – like raising a white flag. But as a therapeutic concept, surrender helps people let go of inhibiting habits, discover a sense of wholeness, and experience togetherness with others. The perfectionist learns that a modified itinerary does not mean a diminished travel experience and lets go of the fear of failure. The person with a strong sense of independence becomes vulnerable when receiving care from strangers.

In fact, some psychological theories hold that the self aspires to surrender, in the sense of liberation: lowering its defensive barriers and freeing itself from attempts to control its environment. Adopting this perspective can help travelers face the reality that things may not go as planned.

4. Meeting

The encounter, the fourth phase of the journey, is the invitation to discover oneself again and to discover others.

All cultures have unconscious “recognition rules”, their own ingrained customs and ways of thinking, which make it more difficult to establish cross-cultural connections. Carrying conscious and unconscious stereotypes, travelers may view certain people and places as uneducated, dangerous, poor, or sexual, while hosts may view travelers as wealthy, ignorant, and exploitative.

To move beyond these stereotypes, travelers need to be aware of behaviors that can add tension to their interactions – knowing what conversation topics to avoid, for example, or following local dress codes.

In many parts of the world, these challenges are intensified by the legacy of colonization, which makes it harder for people to meet authentically. Colonial views still influence Western perceptions of non-white groups as exotic, dangerous, and inferior.

Beginning to overcome these barriers requires an attitude known as cultural humility, which is deeper than “cultural competence” – simply knowing a different culture. Cultural humility helps travelers ask questions such as “I don’t know”, “Please help me understand” or “How should I…?”

A man in a white shirt pulls two small suitcases down a crowded pedestrian street.
Tourists walk in downtown Rome on June 20, 2022. AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

5. Take care

Caring involves overcoming “privileged irresponsibility”: when a traveler fails to recognize and take responsibility for their own privilege, or fails to acknowledge the lack of privilege of others.

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Travel becomes irresponsible when tourists ignore the injustices and inequalities they witness or how their travels contribute to the ongoing climate crisis. From an ethical point of view, “empathy” is not enough; travelers must pursue solidarity, as an act of “taking care of”. This may mean hiring local guides, eating at family restaurants, and being aware of the resources like food and water they use.

6. Return

Trips come to an end and coming home can be a confusing experience.

Returning can cause reverse culture shock if travelers find it difficult to readapt. But that shock can fade as travelers share their experiences with others, stay connected to the places they’ve visited, deepen their knowledge of the place and culture, anticipate a possible return trip, or become involved in causes they discovered on their journey.

I believe reflecting on these six phases can invite the kind of mindfulness needed for a transformative and ethical journey. And in the midst of a pandemic, the need for thoughtful travel that prioritizes the well-being of host communities is clear.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on September 28, 2021.

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Jaco J. Hamman, professor of religion, psychology and culture, Vanderbilt School of Theology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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