Travel as a Spiritual Practice

In the twisting streets of San Cristobal de las Casas, the mercado assailed my senses—vendors calling out in a multitude of languages, hawking their wares; the sweet stench of decaying fruit mixing with exotic spices; bushels of beans, of rice, and of freshly roasted ants the size of my fingernail; towers of CDs, umbrellas, shoes, and bananas; children underfoot, women balancing loads on the tops of their heads, men wheeling carts of fresh produce.  I was trying to keep up with the string of American touristas that I was a part of, yet not jostle these people who were just going about their daily lives, and still maintain my footing on the treacherously uneven ground, while not stepping in any of the more questionable puddles and piles.

Privileged American thoughts were flashing through my head.  Thoughts like, “These cobblestones are a lawsuit waiting to happen,” and “There’s no way a Fire Marshall would allow this many people in this amount of space with no exits; in an emergency, people would be killed in a stampede.”

But, of course, they had no Fire Marshall.  And the idea that any of these indigenous farmers would be allowed to sue anybody was downright laughable.

People were pressed so closely in that marketplace that there was no way to avoid touching; I saw people elbowing each other out of the way without a thought, but what really spoke to me was that the ones getting elbowed didn’t seem to mind.

It made me realize how much space we take up individually in the United States.  It made me wonder how much of that spatial consumption is really necessary.  Or even how much of that distance between people is healthy.

For example, what would your reaction be if I asked you to sit with your arms linked with one another, or hold hands, or sit so close together that your hips were touching, for the rest of the service today?  Don’t worry, you can stay where you are.  But imagine how you might react to that.  After the initial novelty wore off, how would it feel to be that close to someone?  There would probably be some level of discomfort, even awkwardness, because we are used to keeping a bubble of privacy around our physical space.

But maybe, once we settled into it for a few minutes, maybe it might feel comforting.  It seems to be a pretty rare thing in the United States for us to touch one another.

And yet physical touch is one of the primary ways we communicate love, affection, and caring.  A touch on the shoulder is a gesture of empathy and support.  What are we saying to one another socially, in this American culture where touching and physical closeness is taboo?

Are we saying, “I respect your privacy and don’t want to intrude where I’m not welcome”?

Or are we saying, “I value my own privacy more than I value letting you in, and you are not wanted or welcome”?

It’s a fine line between the two, and the post-modernist in me says that the answer is probably a mixture of both.  Plenty of gray area for interpretation.

But it’s something I never really thought about before I traveled outside my home country to a place where my ancestors didn’t come from.

In leaving my home here in Minnesota, I left behind everything that was familiar to me.  I left my home and my bed and my books and my cat.  I left my friends and my family.

I left behind my access to ready money, personal transportation, and instant communication with my cell phone.  I left behind my language.

I left behind the invisible structures that supported me.

I left behind my illusions.

When people asked about my destination, I hesitated to say “Mexico,” because as soon as that word left my lips, I could see the vision in their eyes of a vacation on a beach with cabana boys bringing me drinks while I worked on my tan.  And I can’t blame someone for making that assumption, because even a year ago, that’s what I would have thought if someone else told me they were going to Mexico.

But this trip to Chiapas—the southernmost state of Mexico, in the mountains near the border with Guatemala—this trip was more of a pilgrimage…a spiritual quest…a search for an awakening.

I used to be of the mindset that I didn’t have to physically travel when I could just read a book from the comfort of my own home.  If someone could take a picture of it, then why did I have to go see it?

Yet my spirit hungered for something I didn’t even have words for.  There was a need for connection that I couldn’t figure out how to meet.  I couldn’t understand the enigmatic smile that my professor got every time she spoke of her trips to Chiapas and Guatemala.  And I yearned to feel whatever it was she felt as she wept at memories that only she could see.

Nothing less than my full presence would satisfy that longing.  Not knowing what awaited me, I had to go.

Thus began my spiritual practice of traveling.

To turn travel into a spiritual practice, you have to pack so much more than just your bags; you have to leave behind so much more than just an address; and you have to journey so much further than just the miles to your destination.

In order for a trip to become a journey, you have to get out of your comfort zone and venture into the completely unknown; you have to let go of your assumptions about how the world works; and you have to let your heart break, knowing that it will never completely mend.

There is a prayer I heard once that has stuck with me ever since.  “Let my heart break.  Let my heart break again and again, until it has broken open so wide that it can let the whole world in.”

What an amazing vision—letting the whole world in.  Not just the people we know, but the ones we will never know.  Not just those who are healthy and educated and peaceful, but those who are sick and ignorant and violent.  Not just those who look like us and think like us, but those whose appearance might scare us and those with whom we will never agree.  Not just those who were born on our patch of soil, but the whole world.  Imagine that vision of your heart breaking open so wide that it can let the whole world in.

That’s the part of our heart that travel exercises.  It would seem that even heartbreak must be practiced.  It isn’t part of the workout we get by going for a walk or exercising at the gym.  We often hear about how important exercise is, but all too often it is limited to the physical aspects.  By traveling, we can stretch and strengthen our spiritual hearts.

I want to return again to this idea of personal space and the culture of touching.  As I said, it was first brought to my attention in Mexico.  Upon my return to the United States, I had the strangest feeling of isolation.  People stayed so distant from me!  The day after my return, I found myself fumbling to reconnect with the place I called my home.  Walking through General Assembly, I slid through crowds with ease, feeling there was a vast canyon between myself and the world around me.  I missed that contact, that affirmation of connection with other human beings.

And it didn’t even just have to be with human beings.  A month later, as I was driving to Phoenix, I found myself rejoicing that I had chosen to drive instead of fly.  For four days, I was connected to the Earth; I watched it roll beneath me as I journeyed ever deeper into the unknown.  I watched as trees flattened into fields; the fields ruptured into mountains; the mountains sighed into desert.  I could taste these changes in the air coming in through my open windows; I could feel these changes through the soles of my feet every time I stopped my car; I could even sense these changes in the way my car handled on these ever-changing terrains.  Instead of flying, I traveled at a pace where my spirit could keep up with my body.

I’ve spoken previously about my experiences in Phoenix, getting arrested with many other activists (UU and otherwise) while protesting the anti-immigration legislation.  And by the way, that action was a side-effect of my heartbreak in Mexico.

But even as my heart continued to break in Phoenix, I noticed a shift in the culture of touching when we spent the night in jail together.  There was nothing soft in that cell; the floor was cement, the benches had metal rods sticking out of them, the walls were cinder block, the toilet was stainless steel.  The air was cold, the lights were harsh.  Even the guards were unyielding.

The only thing we had in there was each other.  In some cases, they crammed 35 people into one cell, and we had to either keep ourselves curled into a ball or touch one another.  In other cases, we lay shoulder to shoulder, or leaned on one another, or spooned together on the floor, because we were each other’s only source of warmth that night.

And I’d like to clarify: When I say “we” and “each other,” I’m not just talking about the protesters.  I’m including the Phoenix inmates who were there for other reasons.

This is another side-effect of letting your heart break open.  When you travel as a spiritual practice, the walls separating “us” and “them” begin to crumble.  Or perhaps they just begin to dissipate like the illusion they always were.

As we neared the end of our stay in the 4th Avenue Jail, we sat in the holding cell waiting to be released.  Faintly, reverberating through those cold cement walls, we could hear a drumbeat, so faint it was like listening for your own heartbeat.  But it persisted.  We later learned that the protesters had been vigiling for us all night, and now they were drumming for our release.

An eternity later, we stepped out of the jail, trickling through into the sunshine in groups of four or five.  And we were met by a cheering crowd, pressed shoulder to shoulder, hands reaching for us, squeezing our hands, pulling us into an embrace, kissing our cheeks, weeping our tears.  I didn’t personally know a single one of those people, yet they were there to welcome me home into the world.  And my heart broke all over again.

How do you measure the distance a person has to travel to get to that point?

When there is no number to describe your trip, then it has become a journey.  When the things you’ve seen can’t be photographed, then they have become a spiritual awakening.


This sermon was presented on April 3, 2011 to Groveland Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in St. Paul, Minnesota where I am serving a quarter-time internship.  Responsive Reading #584 (“Connections Are Made Slowly” by Marge Piercy) and Hymns #315 (“This Old World”) and #159 (“This Is My Song”) were used from the UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition.  The reading was “The Place I Want To Get Back To” by Mary Oliver, from her book Thirst.  Our story for all ages was My Grandfather’s Journey, by Allen Say.


About Leaping Loon

I am an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister serving our congregation in Elgin, Illinois. While I am determined to embrace my propensity to wander, it oftentimes takes a leap of faith to do so. My life's motto seems to be: "Leap, and the net will appear." True to my spirit, and following Love's call, I must simply free myself to go. Where will I end up? Let's find out. Welcome to my journey!
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