Travel as Therapy: 10 Ways to Heal the Soul & Expand the Mind

Finally, after years of telling myself “I’ll spend this summer in Europe,” I got my act together and went for a monthlong trip to Northeast Europe. Not only was it a great experience, but it also reminded me of the power of travel to heal the soul and expand the mind:

1. You increase your patience.

As Americans, we’re used to instant gratification and attentive customer service. However, the rest of the world does not necessarily share this ethos.

So when it’s 7.50am and the trainee at the only open ticket counter of the Warsaw Central Station doesn’t speak English and is taking on average 22 minutes to take care of each customer, it’s a good time to practice your meditation technique.

And when the train’s stopped in the middle of Nowhere, Lithuania, for no discernible reason, breathe in and breathe out, because getting righteously indignant won’t solve your problem but might give you an ulcer.

Remember that you’re only traveling because you’ve got time on your hands, so relax, take a look around you, and know that what you call a problem now will be a funny story later. A mind at ease is more likely to find you a solution in any case. Which brings us to…

2. You become more resourceful.

At home, you know where to get good Thai food, set a dislocated shoulder or post bail – all in English. Not so in Vilnius, Lithuania, especially when you have no phone and no car.

So instead of the soft, coddled ball of unimaginative pudge that you’ve become, you need to get creative. Get a map and figure out where you are. Learn how to count, say hi , please , thank you , do you speak English and beer in the local language (especially in Poland – damn good beer, I tell you). Find an internet terminal and search for cool things to do in town. And make sure you check the other side of the Warsaw Central Station to find the ticket counter with no line.

And, if you’re feeling really daring, make friends with the natives. They’re better resources than any guidebook and the key to turning a good trip into an epic one. And then…

3. You open your heart to strangers and get better at giving and receiving love.

When you’re abroad, you feel like a guest wherever you go and thus carry yourself with a kinder, more open comportment. Especially when you travel alone, you have no choice but to make contact with strangers – to get directions, decipher a menu or have company. Necessity becomes the mother of connection.

This allows you to break out of your urban hermit shell, reach out to other human beings and find out that not only do most of them not bite, they even welcome your gesture of friendship. Trains, tourist kiosks, and park benches are just three of the places I’ve made long-standing friends on previous trips.

Every friend you’ve ever made was a stranger the second before the first hello. So dare to say hi – and perhaps discover a new friend.

I’ve also noticed that most people have a much tougher time receiving kindness than giving it (myself no exception). On this trip, complete strangers took me on guided car tours of their towns (thrice!), treated me to dinner, cooked for me at home, and took me on picnics.

It was difficult for me to accept all this unsolicited grace. But since it was even harder to say no, all I could do was accept and offer my gratitude – and promise to pass it on

4. You lower your expectations – and end up happier.

Let’s face it: we Americans are pretty spoiled. We want attentive customer service and we want it now; we want our accommodations spotless and super-convenient; we want stores to be open every day, around the clock; and want it all in English, preferably with a Midwestern accent.

Well, as it turns out, the majority of the planet does not operate that way. There is Italian time (slow), Spanish time (slower), and Rio time (slowest). There are communication barriers, scheduling irregularities (whaddya mean the museum’s closed on Monday?), regulations and customs that will make snags inevitable.

That’s okay, since the point of travel is not to know what’s going to happen next. So develop a habit of going with the flow. I love this quote from Chapter 55 of the Tao Te Ching :

The Master’s power is like this.
He lets all things come and go
Effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results;
Thus he is never disappointed.
He is never disappointed;
Thus his spirit never grows old.

One of my teachers, a Tibetan Buddhist lama, told us that the cornerstones of spiritual practice are reducing fear and expectation. So feel free to think of your next vacation not just as a joyride but also as a legitimate spiritual exercise.

5. You suspend judgment, becoming more tolerant.

Last week I saw a kid at a coffee shop with metal hoops in his earlobes big enough to put a baby’s fist through, and thought, “That’s freaky.” But when I saw that on a Berlin hipster, I thought, “Local custom – cool!”

And so you can chalk up pretty much everything to local custom and suspend judgment indefinitely. This allows us to see the world as it is, not the mental construct we usually impose on it which you mistake for reality.

Perhaps people harbor their most potent prejudices when it comes to language. How dare others speak differently – and how peculiar their languages! Yet to them, it’s the air they breathe and just as natural a part of their world.

With the pervasiveness of American media and English as the world’s lingua franca, it’s easy to fall into an ethnocentric trap. So maybe it takes a language like Mandarin, with over 600 million native speakers and a fiendishly difficult script, or Pirahã, an Amazon language of about 400 speakers, ten sounds and no words for color or number, to snap us out of our ethnocentrism and make us appreciate the existence of other equally valid worldviews.

While ruminating over my summer travels in Northern Europe, I came up with 10 ways the trip affected me positively.  Last week, I shared the first 5 ways travel can transform you.  Here are the rest of them:

6. You get to feel poor and develop your compassion.

The moment you cross the border into a country with a new currency is a humbling one, because you are literally penniless.  Nobody wants those bucks you’ve got in your wallet, so you’d better get hold of some euros, yuan, zlotys or kroons pronto if you want a popsicle.

Until you find a working ATM, you get to experience what it’s like to have no money at all.  Perhaps then you will have more compassion for Oliver Twist, as he stared, hungry and forlorn, at all the goodies behind the London shop windows beyond his reach.  Then again, if you’re in London in 2009, you’re bound to feel poor anyway, no thanks to the wimpy dollar.

7. You get to feel rich and develop a more expansive state of being.

Once you do manage to score some yuan or zloty in a place like Beijing or Warsaw, things start to look a lot sunnier since the cost of living in most parts of the world is lower than in America.

Some spectacular meals in Beijing cost me less than ten dollars, and a magnificent recital at the Warsaw Chopin Festival was a mere 6 beans.  But beyond just being able to afford more stuff is the expansion of the mind that comes along with it.  You feel wealthier, which in turn allows you to enter a more expansive state.

From there, more abundance is possible – and more munificence (try leaving a $10 tip in a small family-run restaurant in Costa Rica and watch what happens).  With this new mindset of abundance, you’ll carry yourself differently and think differently – and perhaps dare to achieve greater things.

8. You wake up to your senses.

I was in Berlin and stumbled upon a corner mom-and-pop produce store owned by a Turkish couple.  I bought a box of cherry tomatoes and bit into one on the way home, and – heilige Kuhe! (that’s German for ‘holy cow’)  It was like a bomb of flavor exploding in my mouth, dizzying in its intensity.  Who knew that tomatoes could bite back?


Your brain is supremely skilled at filtering out the familiar and telling you only about what matters – namely, change.  Travel bypasses that filter and awakens your senses by confronting you with the unfamiliar.  The mind then demands an explanation to the question, “What the hell is this?”  That’s when you start to see, hear, feel, smell and taste afresh.

Now you have to stop and really take in the baby-blue Art Deco building in Riga.  You have to listen to the folk singers in Warsaw Old Town Square and taste the cepelinai (zeppelin dumplings) in Vilnius.  You have to feel the lumpy cobblestone under your sandals in Tallinn and smell the damp, salty breeze coming in from the Baltic.

In short, you get to meet the world again, as if a child: “Hello, world.  It’s me.  Sorry I’ve been tuning you out for the past couple of decades.  I promise to pay more attention from now on.”

9. You get to stop compulsive behaviors.

I check email – a lot.  But on my deathbed, I don’t want to think, “I spent a solid 20 years of my life tapping the ‘Get Mail’ button like a narcotized rat – sweet.”  So it was a pleasant side-benefit that, during most of my trip, I simply had no way of getting online (except on the super-swanky wi-fi equipped Estonian bus lines ).  By the time of my return, I was detoxed pretty well from email and phased it out to checking it just once or twice a day.

The same can go for smoking (who wants to pay $10 a pack in London?), eating sweets, nailbiting, or booty-calling ex-boyfriends.  You just can’t do those things for a while, so your neurology gets time to let go, tune down, and get you back to normal.  By the time you get back home, you may even realize that you have the option to kick the habit for good.

10. You relinquish your so-called identity.

The elements of self are tethered to people, places and things: you live in the Uppity Northmiddle Side; you hang out with your college friends from Name Brand U; you Chase Bank (no need to make that one up); you’re Senior VP of Very Important Stuff; you drive a Prestigemobile.

But when you travel, you leave the neighborhood, friends, job, titles and possessions that you thought defined you.  And what’s left without them?  Someone freer and far more interesting, usually.  After introducing yourself as just plain George a few times (especially if your name isn’t George), you may start to appreciate the freedom of relinquishing the burden of persona.

This is the Buddhist principle of anatta , or no-self, made manifest.  You let go of the trappings and get down to who you really are, which is the witness.  The witness feels but is not the feeling; she sees but is not the scene.  As a result, she is lighthearted and free to see the world as it is without getting too caught up in it.

Some say this is the ultimate purpose of travel – and perhaps the essence of successful living.  In the last stanza of Four Quartets , T.S. Eliot writes:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

So you come back home and start to see it again – not as the world, but in the proper context of a much greater World.  Instead of being a tiny atom looking from the inside out, you are the more expansive version of you, looking from the outside in.  And with the Traveler in your mind and heart, the whole world is now your home.

The power is within you,

Dr Alex

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