Legendary mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “We must let go of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Similarly, Kabbalah teaches that in every moment, we are, in a sense, reborn. With every breath, we meet the world as a different person–one who can decide to change simply by changing what we think or how we act. And when we step outside of our familiar surroundings, we double our opportunity for transformation. That’s because going somewhere new (whether near or far) adds that element of external novelty to the mix.
Campbell’s archetypal “Hero’s Journey” (outlined in all its glory in The Hero With a Thousand Faces) inspired me to think about all the ways we grow through travel. Here are three main stages which contribute to our transformation, loosely based on the famous monomyth:
1) The Call to Adventure
An invitation to a wedding… a wish to see a childhood friend… an illuminating book or movie… whatever it is that provides the impetus to get up and go, we just say yes! And with that decision, our minds take us to those far-off shores. We envision the beach at sunset or the snow-capped mountains. We make lists, contact airlines, and read guides for travel tips. And already, the health benefits are underway! Recent studies shared by Robert Sapolsky, author of Behave, showed that the anticipation of a reward (in this case, travel) releases more of the feel-good hormone dopamine than does the reward itself! That’s right–even entertaining thoughts of visiting new places is good for us. As a self-professed change junkie, I can vouch for that!
2) Crossing the Threshold to the Great Wilderness
From the moment we’ve boarded the plane (or boat or train or minivan), we’ve entered our version of the uncharted wild. We relish the green rolling hills passing by. We marvel at cotton-candy clouds or sparkling blue waters. Maybe we decide to chat with that quirky man in the yellow jacket and discover something surprising we have in common. In any case, we find ourselves settling into being unsettled. We relax, if even a little. According to a study published in Forbes, 89% of travelers interviewed reported lower stress levels after just one day away from their usual surroundings.
Once we arrive (if we’ve planned a destination), our neurons are still firing at peak levels. We study social cues, especially when exposed to an unfamiliar culture. We take in the rich tapestries, the rough-hewn ceilings, the graveled path through the pines. Even if we visit a place close to home but novel to us, we’re called to attention amidst all the newness.
We may hit a snag or two along the way; but then again, what mythic movie hero gets by without a little conflict? Right: none! Because there’s no growth in that. The dragon (either within or without) must be slain before anyone can become a hero. Thankfully, we don’t need literal monsters to grow through our travels. Moving past our fear of the unknown and embracing the beauty in the unfamiliar is already the stuff of legends!
3) The Return, and the Gift
Most mythic quests lead to a treasure or prize of some sort. You know–a room full of gold, a sword, an elixir, or another object representing the hero’s triumph. You and I may gather little gift-shop trinkets for our friends, but the real gift we return with is far more valuable. Studies led by Columbia professor Adam Galinsky have found that travel–especially overseas or across borders–increases “both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought,” along with “the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.” In other words, travel makes us more creative! And this is just one of its many gifts we can share in every other aspect of our lives. Added to this are the lessons and information we’ve learned, the new friends we’ve made, and the self-discovery that comes with every brave leap outside of our comfort zone.
Deeply ingrained in the human psyche, the hero’s journey has served as a blueprint for some of the world’s greatest tales. As Rav Ashlag said, “Once one has chosen an environment, one is subjected to it like the clay in the hands of the potter.” What we do with that clay is ultimately up to us.
This week, plan to explore somewhere new–be it across the world or on the other side of your hometown. You never know what adventure awaits… but you can be sure of this: When we dare to step out into the great unknown, we are sure to become the heroes in our own stories!