• Heather Lilleston


Recently I traveled 20 hours in an airplane to a small island off the coast of East Africa. The last time I visited this same place, it was June 2001. At the time it was my first big trip overseas and I was full of anticipation.

I had no idea what to expect and I prepared for months. I had barely seen a picture of the island, there were no travel blogs to read beforehand and all I had for communication was my hotmail account that I could log into at an internet cafe, which couldn’t be found until we were in the capitol of the country, off the island.

Since 2001, I have been on hundreds of flights and traveled around the world and overseas more times than I can count. I barely prepare for my trips now, unless it is the day before my departure when I start packing. Preparing for trips these days doesn’t take the same level of effort as before because with smartphones we now have access to our bank accounts, emails, music, and any necessary communication back home to family or work responsibilities just depends on getting ahold of the wifi password.

In 2001, I was so moved by this island that I remember sitting out on a dock in the water at sunset and promising that I would return. I felt I was in a far away land, a mystical place barely touched by modernism in the way I knew it, where shells the size of my head lined the beach. So this June 2018, when I ventured back to lead a retreat with YOGA FOR BAD PEOPLE in Zanzibar, I had similar anticipation and excitement, but in all honesty, felt a little numb to the experience.

I traveled the same distance to the same island, and though it was a solid day of travel and time difference and the same feelings of jet lag, once I landed I didn’t feel far away at all. And despite the exoticism of the white sand beaches, the warmth of the turquoise waters, the sound of Swahili, the bright patterned fabrics worn by Muslim women on the shores of the Indian Ocean, I felt like this whole adventure had been entirely too easy, not “far away enough”, and strangely “like everywhere else”. It wasn’t that I was disappointed - Zanzibar is a stunningly beautiful island and it’s people are even more joyous and playful to get to know - but I felt like I hadn’t really “earned” being there. It was as if this place deserved a little more preparation on my part, the same kind as I had given it before. And it wasn't that I was underprepared either. I definitely overpacked and had plenty of toiletries and whatever else I might need for the retreat. 

Vaccinations, visas, days on end of errands and packing, knowing my flight numbers and departure terminals for weeks ahead (instead of just checking my app for that info in the taxi on the way to the airport), and the exhilaration of getting my passport stamped just didn't apply this time around. 

My question became - can we ever really go anywhere far away anymore? Is anywhere on earth still left to explore? Did the accessibility of travel turn what was once a sacred far away journey into just another trip to a beach? And furthermore, what made it sacred before - the preparation, the lack of technology at the time, my age, my limited travel experience? Have we traveled the world so thoroughly, scoured the mountains and valleys, sailed the seas, swam the beaches, jumped off the waterfalls, and hiked the glaciers to such an extent that there is nothing left to be discovered? Has google earth deleted the option for mystery and the unknown?

In sitting down with these questions, as I gazed out over this picturesque island that looked like pages from national geographic, I started wondering if the accessibility of travel was a catalyst for the current widespread interest in meditation and inner work? Since there is no where left undiscovered, do we now face the treacherous journey of turning inward? Is this the final frontier?

As I write this I realize I am also extremely privileged. There are millions of people around the world who have never traveled anywhere, and who may never travel anywhere in their lifetime. And if they were to leave, maybe they would experience the nervousness and exhilaration I did in 2001, despite technology and the fact that even in the poorest communities around the world, most people have smartphones and can google image the other side of the planet in a few moments.

Seekers wind up on the spiritual path because they are looking for the truth. They want to understand what the universe is made of, who they are and why things happen the way they do. In some ways this desire is based in a search for control, but also a wonderment and curiosity that ignites questions and efforts that would otherwise not evolve our understanding of the world and ourselves. Travelers go after the same - a desire to leave no experience unfelt, a desire to hear every language, feel every temperature, taste every flavor, leave no stone left unturned. With  modern day yoga retreats, we combine these two - seekers with travelers. We seek to experience the entirety of the world and in turn uncover truth along the way. 

When the Buddha sought enlightenment, he went in search of every practice, every teacher and every ritual that could potentially bring him to an understanding of truth. After trying them all, he ended up, sitting down, under a tree, not moving, not going, not seeking, and simply turning inward.

He finally stopped all the chasing and searching and just sat down, where he was. No special place, no special teacher, no special practice, but the practice of just being where you already are. And in that moment, when he dropped into the place where he already was, he achieved enlightenment, the most sacred experience of them all.

Now that we have figured out how to travel long distances in short amounts of time, how to communicate through space and time zones, and google mapped every street and path and mountain and lake, maybe now, we are ready to sit down under our own version of the Buddha’s tree and turn in. 

Maybe we will soon realize that as far away as we may try to go outside of ourselves, the real adventure, the next uncharted waters, are actually being where we already are. That the far distances we have traveled only lead us right back to ourselves in the end. This is not to say, stop traveling. I still have not been everywhere, and as Susan Sontag says, yes, it is on my list. But it is to say, that as the world becomes more immediate at our fingertips, we may realize that right where we are standing there is access to an equally exhilarating and unknown journey into ourselves. 

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