The Inner Journey

Digging Beneath the Surface

By Dave Fox

Your inner journey is more challenging to write about than your outer journey. It’s made up of everything going on inside your head as you travel — your thoughts, plans, hopes, anxieties, and the intimidating but delicious confusion we call “culture shock.”

Often in a foreign environment, we’re bombarded by so many new impressions, it’s hard to keep up with them all. Writing down our surface impressions of a new place is easy, but often, deeper thoughts in our mind get lost in the static. When we travel to a faraway place, we usually go there for the outer journey — on the surface at least. We go to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower and eat escargots, not to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves.

People who journal at home tend to write more introspectively than travel journalers because at home, we’re not flooded with new impressions of the outside world. When we travel, we’re bombarded by so many new stimuli, it’s easy to ignore what’s going on in our minds. But foreign travel enables us to connect with parts of us that lie dormant during our everyday lives at home. A deeper understanding of ourselves is a precious side-effect of travel. The more in tune you are with your inner journey, the more powerful your outer journey will feel, and the more alive your writing will be.

So how do we get at this elusive inner journey and weave it together with our outer journey when we write? It takes practice. The more you do this introspective sort of journaling, the easier it becomes.

Questioning Our Emotions

Travel stirs up our emotions in ways they don’t get stirred up at home. This is what culture shock really is — an emotional response to a foreign environment. Usually when we think of culture shock, we give it a negative connotation, but not all of the emotions associated with it are bad. Some of these emotions bring us joy. Then again, others don’t feel nice.

Travel amplifies many of our emotions. Let’s explore some of them :

Curiosity: Some people travel to learn about new cultures. Others just want to relax. Either way, when we take a vacation, we’re seeking a break from our everyday lives. We might be curious about how other people live, or what their food tastes like, or how their history brought them to where they are today. We might be traveling in search of nature, scenery, and unfamiliar landscapes. Or we might just be curious about how good the margaritas are at the bar by the swimming pool. In all of these situations, we’ve left home in search of something different.

Excitement: This is often a secondary emotion that is sparked when we begin to realize our curiosity. We spend months or even years dreaming about a trip. When we get there, we’re like kids again. There are so many new things to see and do, and we want to absorb all of it. Culture shock often comes with a giddiness attached to it. Write this giddiness down with as much description as you can. Not just, “I’m so excited.” What is it that’s exciting you?

Disbelief: Every time I get to a faraway place for the first time, my first 24 hours are tinged with a sense of disbelief. “I can’t believe I’m finally here,” I tell myself. When I arrived in Tunisia, I wandered the streets for my first few hours, just staring at everything, stunned that the country hadn’t been a figment of my imagination from a trip 20 years earlier. “I’m in Tunisia,” I mumbled over and over as I prowled the streets, trying to come to grips with my most intense culture shock in years. I tried to be subtle. People start to think you’re crazy when you wander the streets, repeating to yourself where you are. But an 80-minute flight from Rome, a city that to me is familiar, landed me in a completely different environment from anything I was used to. I struggled to wrap my brain around the reality that my world had changed so suddenly.

Pride: Foreign travel is full of challenges, and with these challenges come victories. These are often victories we know we will accomplish — seemingly little things such as finding our hotel when we can’t read the signs and don’t know the city. If we have an adventure along the way — an interesting encounter with someone who gives us directions, an aching back from an overpacked bag, an accidental detour that we finally make our way out of — once we accomplish our goal of getting there, we’re proud of ourselves.

Embarrassment: Sometimes we don’t feel victorious. We feel like idiots. When we’re at home, we know how to read the street signs, how the money works, how to flush the toilet, what to order in a restaurant, and so on. There are so many everyday coping skills that become impaired when we are foreigners. Our pride is wounded when we don’t feel we can get by. We don’t want to look bad. We don’t want to stand out. I’ve seen tourists in foreign places grow meek and timid. I’ve seen others lash out and get nasty.

Anger: Anger is usually a secondary emotion when we travel. It’s a progression of our fear or our embarrassment. This is something most travelers experience at some time. When you feel it, take a close look at your anger. Ask yourself what the deeper emotion beneath it is. It’s easy to get angry when you don’t understand what’s going on around you because your anxiety level has been ratcheted up. Some people direct their anger inward. Others lash out at the people who live in the place they are visiting. Still others just get fed up and kick the stupid toilet that doesn’t flush like a normal American toilet. (In my travels, I have encountered many interesting toilets, but never one that flushed when I kicked it.)

If you begin feeling angry or frustrated when traveling, don’t deny yourself the right to feel these things. Instead, ask yourself: Why am I feeling this way? And dig beneath the first answer that comes to mind. (“Because this toilet is stupid!”) Dig past the second answer too. (“Because these stupid people in this stupid country don’t know how to make normal toilets!”) What’s really going on? Thousands, maybe even millions, of local residents probably flush toilets like this one several times a day. The toilet’s not stupid, nor are the people who built it. You’re just frustrated because you’ve never been given the owner’s manual for this model. Push yourself in looking for answers to what you’re thinking. You may be surprised what comes to the surface after a few laps around your brain.

Admitting Your Prejudices

Another emotion many travelers repress is dislike. We deny our prejudices because we want to be culturally sensitive. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for cultural sensitivity. There are appropriate and inappropriate ways to deal with our biases. But pretending they’re not there doesn’t help us. If we refuse to acknowledge our prejudices, we can’t learn from them. We can’t explore where our attitudes are coming from.

I believe it’s a simple, sad fact of human nature that we are predisposed to criticize people we don’t understand. To co-exist on our diverse planet, we need to work to limit our prejudices. If we acknowledge these feelings honestly to ourselves, we can begin to explore them. Doing this in a journal is one of the most productive ways to do this. When we write our thoughts down privately, we don’t need to worry about hurting anyone else or getting in trouble for what we’re thinking. And if we keep going back to that same question, “Why do I feel this way?” we sometimes discover that our judgements of others really stem from our own insecurities. When we begin to understand these insecurities, we begin to change them, and we become happier people.

Coming Up for Air

There’s one final thing I should mention about writing down the inner part of your journey, because I don’t want you to have a nervous breakdown on your vacation. Some people carry around deep-seeded personal issues — traumatic events or other issues they haven’t fully dealt with. Sometimes, we push these issues down into our mind and pretend they’re not there.

When we start writing down our deeper thoughts, unpleasant feelings can bubble to the surface. Journaling about them can be an effective way of confronting them, but I don’t recommend doing this when you’re far from home, far from people who care about you.

As you journal and explore your deeper emotions, you might stumble upon things in your brain that are better left alone until you get home. If this happens, make a note about them. You could even send yourself a postcard to be sure they don’t just sink back down into your mental muck and stay there. But it’s okay to put these issues aside while traveling. If you’re in an exciting foreign place, let yourself have fun.

Writing down our inner journeys alongside our outer ones, we create a more complete account of what our trips feel like. When we get home and want to look back on our travels, we can see how we’ve grown if we document our thoughts and emotions. In the middle of the journey, we gain a deeper understanding of the profundity of our trip. The more honest we can be with ourselves on the road, the richer our experiences will be. And we’ll return home with richer memories of what it was like to be there — wherever “there” happened to be.

How do we begin tapping into our inner journeys if we’ve never done this before? What is it that keeps us from exploring certain thoughts? Are there shortcuts we can take to understanding ourselves better? (Believe it or not, yes.) We’ll explore these questions in the next two articles: Elude Your Inner Censor and Speed Journaling.

Published on Thursday, January 1, 2004

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