I was couchsurfing recently in north Ghana where my host told me about his previous couchsurfing experiences. There was one particular story that really stroke me where he pointed out something in travellers’ behaviour that I had also been thinking lately: one day he brought his surfers to a bus station where two men helped them to find a suitable bus for them. The guests handed their luggage for the bus driver and were about to step into the bus when the two helpers asked them for two cedis (0,35 euros) as a tip. The surfers refused to pay, and that is when my host understandably got angry: how come they can’t pay such a small tip for the people who helped them to find a bus that probably saved them a lot of money? Two cedis is not enough to get anyone even a meal but they still refused to show this small gesture of gratitude! My host was very aware that travellers don’t have much money but he claimed that if they want to cheap up from this, they should not travel at all. This is just a small thing that happened to my host, but we both agreed that this behaviour is quite common among travellers. I begin to think further why travellers are so selfish despite seeing so much — and the more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that travellers should meditate. See, being generous should be an essential part of travelling as it is seen a part of the journey in meditating: in Buddhism, the cultivation of dana, generousity, offers the possibility of purifying and transforming greed, clinging, and self-centeredness.
Travelling and meditating have been the biggest things that, in the last years, have taught me the most. Either I learned from doing them or I learned indirectly from the skills I got by practising them. I believe the main reason why people practise both travelling and meditating is to find oneself. That, admittedly, is kind of a bad starting point for a hobby; do you really wanna pollute the whole world by flying to distant places just that you can find yourself? Practising meditation does not obviously pollute but sometimes it makes one more selfish: I have witnessed a passionate practitioner turning their back to a starving elderly begging in the street because “they don’t want that negativity in their life”. Finding yourself should not mean turning your back to bad things in the world. In my experience, meditation was never about the good vibes and travelling was never about the selfies in white, sandy beaches. There is something more. According to Buddhism, one needs to be compassionate and wise to realise enlightenment. I believe this would be a great start to do both meditation and travelling: to become wiser and more compassionate.
Until recent years, I never had the urge to try meditation. Growing up in the countryside, I had plenty of time for myself and loved to wonder in forests for hours thinking about life and listening to only my feelings. I have always spent a significant amount of time thinking and dreaming and I think that’s why I never had the urge to “find myself” and meditate. I was introduced to it through my other selfish hobby: travelling. A few years ago I was spending time in southern India — and you know for sure what one has to experience when in India! So I went to a zen buddhist centre for a week. There I tried to sit without moving, read a bunch of books about meditation techniques and non-religious meditation and wondered why the hell would I do this for hours per day. I know myself already. I rather walk in the woods than sit in an uncomfortable position for hours. After a while I stopped reading the books and just sat. I tried to freeze the anthill of thoughts inside my head and focus on breathing, just like the books had told me. Time went by and I realised I didn’t care about getting anything from it. I became aware of myself and, most importantly, everything around me. Sitting for hours a day made me to take distance from my problems. Small things didn’t matter. I stopped over-analysing and I let go of many things that bothered me. I begin to accept myself just the way I am and the surrounding environment just the way it is. I began to accept the buzzing fly around me as a part of the surroundings. I got more patience. I started to accept all the bad things that happened to me and let them go. This is only my personal experience, but after practising meditation for a few years, I realised something important that now helps me to understand life better. Meditation is not supposed to help me to find myself or be aware of only myself but it is a good first step in the process of becoming more compassionate. I also don’t think I could’ve reached this conclusion if I didn’t travel and get to know people who are very different from me and my cultural background. They taught me patience and compassion that made me more aware, and then meditation helped me to implement it to my daily life.
Why do I think that also travelling helped me to be more compassionate, and possibly wiser, instead of a polluting, self-aware douche then? When I travel, there’s the same anthill in my head and it consists of things like culture shock, outrage, denial and sometimes even anger. Every time I travel I have to let go the norms and behaviour I was used to before, then open up and listen, and finally accept things the way they are and be ready to accept other people the way they are. Like when meditating, the first step is to be aware of myself — to sit down and calm that anthill in my head. Before I could open my mind in regards of travelling, I needed to let go of many things I had learnt when I grew up and ignore many fundamental ideas from my culture. I realised I don’t need to fulfil the expectations that my society gives me. I don’t have to be like others. I can be an outlier and I don’t have to conform to all the social norms. When I realised and accepted the fact that I can’t and I don’t have to fulfil those expectations, it was easier to accept and conform to a behaviour different from what I was used to: if I don’t behave the way I was expected to behave, the rest of the world don’t need to do that either. We have to let others to be different from us.
So now, when I travel, I make sure I do some meditation. It’s natural that everyone gets confused in a new environment and gets annoyed when they don’t understand what’s going on around them. This is when I go to my room, sit down and let go of my ego. It helps me with patience: I can forgive myself for acting weird and embarrassing in new situations and I get more patience in listening and understanding other people. In this way meditation helps me to get to the roots of my problems. I remember when I first moved to Berlin and people seemed very rude. Customer service in the kiosks and bars seemed plain hateful. As I come from a country where people avoid confrontations and are always very nice and polite to each other, the rudeness of Berliners caught me by surprise. Sometimes, when visiting a shop, I just left my groceries on the counter and left angry, sometimes crying, because someone was unprecedentedly rude to me. Later I learned that there’s a thing called “Berliner schnauze”, which means the “snout of a Berliner”, that delivers a weird, rude behaviour. Eventually I had to stop being angry at a big part of the Berliners and find understanding for this, in my point of view, bad behaviour. After countless trials and errors, I found out two ways to respond to the famous Berliner schnauze: if I’m tired, I can just do what I came to do and ignore them or, if I’m in a good mood, I can respond with something witty and voila — we are now having a friendly conversation.
Why did I give earlier the example of the two travellers not wanting to give a single dime for the men helping them? Because they were selfish, they lacked compassion and understanding. They forgot the dana, the way out of greed and self-centredness. People like me search for new experiences through travelling but we should not forget the two fundamentals: compassion and wisdom. If the world revolves around our own needs, we will never get real experiences and we will never find what we’re looking for. I am only at the beginning of my journey of learning through meditation and travelling but I believe the thing most of us is looking for is not ourselves, it’s each others. I want to continue getting to know people different from me, let go, open up, accept myself and be ready to accept others. In my case, travelling and meditating opened a whole new world that doesn’t revolve around me. In the centre of this world is the dana: if someone helps you to find a right bus to travel, give them a thank you — in the shape of a smile or, in my friend’s case, money. Give them two cedis from what you have. We are all poor travellers trying to share the same world. By finding yourself you find everyone else.