THE BARDO OF TRAVELING

In LIFE by Anja Hartmann0 Comments

I confess that I travel much. Mostly for business. For half a dozen years, I held one of the highest status cards of my national airline: Not quite George Clooney’s ten million miles from “Up in the Air”, still that awkward situation where the purser greeted me by name as I settled into my seat and where I got picked up by a black limousine when I stepped off the plane. Unfortunately, this is actually a lot less glamorous than it sounds, because it factually means that during those years I spent an average of three hours in transit on every single working day.

Traveling so much made me think about traveling a lot. Many times, I dreamt of a life with less travel, and until today, again and again, I make – more or less successful – attempts to reduce it. Then, I got into the habit to use travel time for practice, doing wobbly visualizations, whispering recitations under my breath (shrugging off suspicious glances from fellow travellers), or telling my mind to just be in between crackly passenger announcements. And from time to time I felt inspired to reflect on the nature of traveling, its essence, its qualities, and its characteristics. The more I travel, the more I feel that the experience of traveling is one of our modern times’ equivalents to what Tibetan Buddhism describes as the bardo experience – a transitional state, in between something and something, where life is suspended, opening cracks through which to peek into spaces otherwise difficult to apprehend.

As I put this to paper, I’m borrowing heavily from the great masters of the past who described bardo states based on their own unsurpassable realizations. Many of them did never set foot on a car, bus, train, or plane, so I apologize for any confusions that arise from transposing their reflections of supreme visions into echoes of my mundane perceptions. All mistakes are mine. May my ramblings benefit those who travel, wherever they come from, wherever they’re going.

So, firstly, of course, there’s the overall Bardo of Traveling – the transitional state that starts when we take off from one place and ends when we reach another place. By and large (and regardless of booking class), this is a place of suffering. It’s usually either too hot or too cold, food and drink are mediocre at best, seat neighbors encroach on our privacy and well being with offending sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and – worst of all – unbearable physical proximity, we’re no longer here and not yet there – or no longer there and not yet here, and regardless of destination and means of travel, there’s always a faint anxiety of arriving. There’s also the constant uncertainty of technical problems, delays induced by unloading luggage, unpredictable weather, or badly managed departure slots, the pains of turbulence,  go-arounds, being rerouted, or not taking off at all.

However, while traveling, there’s also a wealth of opportunities: Very often, we’re on our own, alone with our mind and its workings, very often, there’s no (or very slow) internet connectivity to distract us, very often, there’s no particular need to do anything – and even if there is, we have credible excuses if we still don’t. So if we’re lucky this can be a time to build a nest for ourselves to relax our body (as much as we can, given the restrictions of seat architecture), quiet our speech (once we’ve shut down that garrulous guy next to us), and be with our mind. If we have a meditation practice, this can be an invaluable time to make use of it. Don’t worry if you start to feel peaceful – this, too, will pass…

Then, there’s the Bardo of Napping – the transitional state of not quite falling asleep when traveling, never quite losing the awareness of being in motion, never quite stilling the sounds of jet engines roaring or train carriages chugging along, never quite leveling out the mischievous bulges of worn-out seats predictably prodding the most delicate parts of our bodies. This can be a time to recall that all our fellow travellers are strangers to us as we are strangers to them, so nothing happening around us is personal, nothing merits our attention, nothing deserves our aversion. Coming to think of it, this might be a time to recall that our fellow travellers are in the same transitional state as we are, worthy of our compassion. And then, this might be a time to imagine that our travel experience is actually nothing but a dream – or maybe what we’re about to embark on as we disembark is a dream? Don’t worry if the cabin lights come on – this, too, will pass…

There’s also the Bardo of Gazing out of the Window – the transitional state in which our outer and inner senses drift into different dimensions. This is when there are glimpses into the relativity of space (Did all those streets, trees, and houses become small? Did I become big? Or both or neither?), time (Did a day pass by in just a few hours? Or did a few hours expand into feeling like a day? Or both or neither?), motion (Is the world moving around me? Am I moving around the world? Or both or neither?). So whatever we perceive is not what we perceive, it is just what we perceive, the moment we perceive it, and it is nothing but what we perceive. And that’s it. Don’t worry if you feel you’re floating into an ungraspable void – this, too, will pass…

Once off the plane (or train, bus, car etc), there’s the Bardo of Arriving – the transitional state between stepping off our chosen means of transport and stepping out of the arrivals building of the airport (or train station, bus lot, parking garage etc). This is a challenging phase, as we enter an unfamiliar environment full of unexpected twists and turns – while, most of the time we’re physically and psychologically worn out from the previous phases of travel, slightly dizzy and disoriented, and most likely distracted by anticipation of what lies ahead. There’s really not a lot we can do in that state, because there’s so much that can throw us off track. So this is the time to remember and stick to what we planned before we took off: Don’t divert from our premeditated story for the immigration person, get money inside the customs’ area (not outside where dubious dealers lurk), mistrust any seemingly helpful people trying to grab our luggage, go with the official taxi, not the hustling, bustling know-it-all who offers a much better price. As long as we cling to our well-thought-through preparations, things should be okay. And we’ll get out reasonably unruffled. Don’t worry if this feels artificial or remote-controlled – this, too, will pass…

Then, if we’re lucky, there’s the Bardo of Being There – the transitional state between settling somewhere and having to get up again. There’s nothing much to say about this. It’s either pure bliss or extremely ordinary. Or both, or neither. And the main thing to get used to might be the fact that, after all, there’s no difference at all between being there and not being there, traveling and not traveling, arriving and leaving, or whatever other distinctions we could give birth to. Don’t worry if this feels oddly familiar – this, too, will pass…

Finally, there’s the Bardo of Preparation – the transitional state between the first spark of an idea to go somewhere and the moment we’re seated in our chosen means of transport for the trip. This starts with a flicker of interest, followed by all kinds of thoughts about our destination, looking up information, browsing websites and guidebooks, talking to people knowledgeable about where we’re going, deciding on what to take with us, packing our stuff, and then, at some point, leaving for the airport or station. Through all of this, if we’re focused and purposeful, we might just be able to avoid the lure of over-involvement, of dreaming up too much, of hoping for too exciting a trip – only to set ourselves up for disappointment when things turn out differently (as they invariably will). Don’t worry if this feels like merging with some otherworldly reality – this, too, will pass…

May all travels be safe. May all reach their destinations swiftly. May all movement be auspicious.

About the Author
Anja Hartmann

Anja Hartmann

Anja was born in Hamburg, educated in academia, groomed at top management consultancy McKinsey & Company, and nowadays gives advice to executives in business, NGOs, and the public sphere. She’s a long-term student of yoga and meditation, proud mother of a five-year old son, and author of the blog Bucketrides on leadership, sustainability, and all things human. Other LEVEKUNST articles by the same author.

Photo by Unsplash

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