Chapter 8 of Jeffrey Kottler’s “Change”, entitled “Transformative Travel and Spiritual Journeys”, covers a specific type of “change” tool, popular in such novels as Eat, Pray, Love and Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The premise, in part, derives from several aspects of change. First, by undergoing a challenging experience (such as hiking the Pacific Crest Trail), you find renewed confidence in your ability to make changes in your life. Second, by pulling yourself out of your daily life, all the anchors that hold you in place — routine, work, life in general, etc. — are displaced, freeing you up to make a change, since many of your reinforcing resistors are missing. Third, since the event/trip is clearly aimed at making a change i.e. if it is a “spiritual journey”, you have already made a firm commitment, often the first step to lasting change. And fourth, the trip often lasts several days or even weeks, ensuring that it is not a simple one-off event that you can blow off the next day since when the next day comes, you are STILL on the journey i.e. it has an ever-increasing cumulative effect to distance yourself from your regular life and farther and farther from the “life you know”.
I confess, I’m not strongly attracted to this method as a change tool, partly because I think true change is incremental and a daily journey, not a “one and done” experience. For every transformation / spiritual journey that turns into lasting change, I suspect there are 10-20 others where the person goes right back into their routine when they come home. They experienced a profound experience perhaps, but they didn’t change their environment, and if you go right back to that environment, you relapse. Literally, in the case of addicts, who might get clean off in a rehab clinic (which is needed to ensure no access to drugs, for example), but if they return to the same life they had, in the same house or apartment, in the same job, with the same friends and family, the likelihood to relapse is pretty high. For travel, the premise in part is that you can “be” whoever you want to be, and that is extremely freeing. But when you return, you are much closer to your own reality than the invented one for travel. For me, it is a bit like relationships — anyone can have a good date with someone or even a weekend trip, but that is hardly an indication of a strong foundation for the future when people have to wash dishes, do laundry, and take out the garbage.
Kottler notes some interesting variables though. Where lasting change happened, the person was likely to have undergone an uncomfortable or even traumatic event that forced them to dig deep and find new solutions. A shock to their system, if you will, and they fought their way through. Overall, though, the list is pretty bland — a mind ripe for change, insulation from usual influences, problem-solving, new experiences/adventures, altered/heightened states of consciousness, and teachable moments.
However, what did interest me was on page 169, he lists approximately 25 “types” of transformative travel, and buried within the list, were certain types of “ritual” trips — an initiation ceremony, Aboriginal walkabout, rite of passage, vision quest, religious pilgrimage, or a ritual ceremony. Each one includes an act or a series of acts that says to the person “you are passing from one reality to another”. I see a lot of merit in this, although perhaps more as a final aspect of a change, something you do to celebrate your transformation, a graduation if you will, from your old self to your new. I hadn’t really thought of it much as a tool for change itself, but it is obvious that it could easily be used that way. I am also strongly attracted to the deliberate nature of the rituals, as opposed to some of the other types of travel that seems more “accidental happenstance” (business trip or tourist trip that goes awry or off the grid). On page 182, Kottler includes a laundry list of what may precipitate the desire for a spiritual, religious or ritualistic journey and while the majority are negative catalysts (hitting bottom, trauma), some are more positive (desire for communion with others or nature, internal resonance with the divine).
As an aside, I LOVE a list on page 172 of the reasons people travel. Separate from questions of change, it is a GREAT list of why people might want to travel and what they are looking for from their travel experience:
Escape from daily pressures. This is the type of typical holiday that people plan in order to rejuvenate themselves. The goals are selective and modest, focused primarily on entertainment, fun, and relaxation.
Pursuit of pleasure. Related to the previous category, these trips are designed to provide pure stimulation, accompanied by relaxation, drinking, massage, and other forms of recreation.
Time out for contemplation. In order to reflect on your choices and life path, it is often useful to get away from normal routines. Whether in a retreat setting or structured time for solitude, the goal is to sort out future plans and perhaps initiate an action plan.
Social interaction. People often travel to meet other people, or deepen relationships with existing family members and friends. In other scenarios, travellers join groups for the companionship as much as the convenience.
Adventure. People pursue all kinds of challenges to test themselves or feel a sense of accomplishment. Options might include river rafting, backpacking, mountain climbing, caving, or all kinds of exploration or discovery.
Education and learning. People choose to travel to see the sights, visit museums, or study art, architecture, culture, or history.
Service. Some people plan trips that involve some type of volunteer work to assist others.
At the end of the chapter, Kottler sums it up a bit too simplistically for my taste, but it isn’t completely inaccurate either:
To summarize, there are three distinct components of a life-altering trip. First is what happens before you leave and how you [pre]program the experience. Then there is the actual experience in which critical events occur and memories are created. Finally, last but hardly least, is what happens afterward and how the experience is processed, folded into narratives, communicated to others, and understood by yourself.
In short, it seems like the same issues when dealing with any traumatic experience — how did you view the event beforehand (if you knew it was coming), how did you interpret it during the actual experience, and what story did you tell yourself afterwards. If you saw it as something to endure, your outcome is going to be a lot different than something you willing experienced in order to test yourself and come out the other side, and how you tell yourself what it means when you’re done.