I like to make an etymological introduction to the concept I am going to write about. The reason is that language is an expression of the soul of a culture and helps to comprehend the meaning through the stories it conceals. As I go deeper into the origins of the word, some revelations occur that I had never thought of. Since our topic is travel, let’s start by looking at the origins of the word.
From Arabic siyāḥa(t) سياحة “trip”, from the root syḥ. This word is the infinitive of the Arabic verb sāḥa “traveled freely, wandered” in the verb form fiˁāla(t). This verb is cognate with sāḥa(t) ساحة “free space” from the Arabic root swḥ. Another word used synonymously with travel is “sefer”, which means “to open one’s face, to dawn, to lift the veil”.
When we talk about traveling, we mean both seeing new places, having new experiences, and being able to open up a free space for ourselves. When we get rid of the mind-boggling problems of everyday life while traveling, even temporarily, we open up this free space for ourselves. This field gives us the chance to see things from different angles, to think outside the norms we are used to, even for a short period of time. The people of the place we are going to are dealing with similar problems in different ways than we are, or what we consider a problem may not be a problem there. We can find evidence of this in the meaning of “lifting the veil”, which is one of the expansions of the word sefer. Thanks to travel, we unload the baggage we carry in our mental baggage and every experience we step into becomes an exchange that nourishes and revitalizes us. Letting go of our burdens, our habitual ideas and prejudices makes us more listening, more receptive, almost like lifting a veil from our eyes.
For all these reasons, Sufis also attached importance to travel. When we examine the life stories of great Sufis, we see that they sometimes traveled on foot or on horseback for months and stayed away from their homes just to read a book. Traveling may seem like accessing a source of information for them, but in fact the travel itself – the experiences and insights gained during the journey – has been much more valuable. For them, travel is both an inner and a worldly journey to comprehend and understand what has been created by the Creator in the outer world and the signs in it. Bishr-i Hâfî, himself a traveling Sufi, said: “Travel and become beautiful! Because if water stays in one place too long, its taste changes!” Isn’t that a beautiful point of view? When we stay in our comfort zone for too long, the environment no longer nourishes us. Just as stagnant water becomes polluted over time, we can become materially and spiritually polluted when we flow and do not find our way.
Let’s take a look at how we travel these days. We hop on a plane and make a journey in a few hours that used to take months, maybe years. At the end of a hectic program that we planned in advance with the information we got from the internet or from our friends, not a second of which was wasted, we come back exhausted. There is no doubt that modern technology brings undeniable advantages, but it also makes us miss out on many things. Once I was able to stop and listen to myself, I realized that I don’t like to do this rushing around when I travel. Sometimes I try to leave everyone alone with the program they are doing, take my book and my camera and spend time in a corner watching people and listening to myself. This gives me more information than visiting many temples and museums. In these moments when I can slow down external time and my internal time, I have the chance to deeply feel people, their interactions with each other, the lines on their faces, the colors around me and the unique scent of each city. When I stop, time slows down around me; colors become more vivid, smells more distinct. My favorite thing in these moments is to let my eyes go where they want to go, not to direct them, and when they see something they like, to let them enjoy it a little bit more. I found that it relaxed me tremendously, allowed me to be in the moment and gave me more space. This new space also gives me the capacity to be more receptive, more understanding and more tolerant.
The way the ancients traveled was pilgrimage, while the way we travel today is tourism. The biggest difference between the two is that while the tourist travels to escape and get away from the responsibilities and stress of his/her daily life, the traveler travels to establish a more multidimensional relationship with life, to find answers to a question in his/her mind. For the tourist, the destination is important, while the traveler values the journey itself as much as the destination.
I would like to share the following story with you, which I have heard different versions of: A group of archaeologists who wanted to go to the Inca temples in Mexico set off with local guides and covered a lot of distance in a short time. After a while the guides decide to stop and sit on the side of the road and wait. Unable to understand this break for no apparent reason, the archaeologists set off again after a while. When they arrived at the temple, one of them asked the old guide, “Why did we sit and wait for so many hours when we were not tired and there was no reason?” The old guide replied, “We traveled so fast in such a short time that our souls were left behind. We sat and waited for them to catch up with us.”
So what does this story tell us? I think he’s saying two things; the first is that when we spend this life running around as it is imposed on us, when we spend the feeling of emptiness inside us always trying to catch up with something new, we miss the real meaning of this life, the lessons to be learned from the journey. The second is that in order to reach our destination, sometimes we have to stop and sit on the road and wait for our souls to catch up with the ones we have left behind. Isn’t this life a journey too? We came from somewhere and we are going somewhere. When we become too fixated on the point we want to reach, we increase the risk of missing the point – the journey itself. The Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl put it very well: “Don’t aim for success, the more you aim for it, the more you miss it. Because success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must come as an unwanted side effect of one’s dedication to something greater than oneself.”
Apparently, success, happiness or whatever goal we set for ourselves, the way to achieve it is to participate fully in every moment of life and to be on the road. It seems that we can achieve these things not by changing some external factors, but by changing our inner world, that is, by changing our perspective in the way we perceive the world.
From this point of view, it seems as if the whole point is to be able to travel in the household. To be able to open a free space for ourselves without being deafened by the noise of our selves. That opened area is actually our increasing capacity. At some point we may realize that the more we can increase that capacity, the more we enjoy this life. And this seems to be possible only by stopping and waiting for our souls to catch up with us.