The “Be Here Now” of Travel

When I was 16 years old, I read “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass, a book that was then all the rage in certain circles.   An impressionable adolescent, its message touched me deeply.  For all the additional study and sophisticated scholarship I have pursued since that time, the core message of “Be Here Now” framed a set of questions and principles that I have continued to reflect upon, and which have influenced my work as a geographer, teacher, and  travel guide.

Undergirded by a belief in progress, mobility, and improvement, modern society generally and American culture in particular is highly focused on what comes next, on where we are going.  We give much less attention to where we are, right here right now. (And even less to how we got here, but that’s a topic for another post). Travel may be one exception that allows us to escape, at least temporarily, from that future-focused perspective.  Certainly this is part of the promise of travel, of its charm and appeal, of what it means to “get away”.  I say MAY BE, because much of our way or traveling, coming as it does out of the same culture, inevitably takes on the same shape, the anticipatory style, the focus on future.   After all, the very definition of an itinerary is a plan of movement from here to there, and then to there, and finally to there.  And the very essence of boredom or dissatisfaction is conveyed in the whining phrase “are we there yet?”

As with Ram Dass, the great philosophers and prophets of our religions and wisdom traditions remind us that in the measure of the value of our lives, and certainly in the measure of our happiness, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters.   Putting this in terms of travel, the journey, in one sense a movement, may also be thought of as a series of “here now” moments, each one of which may be savored, reflected upon.  One of the beauties of guided travel, which it shares, ironically, with aimless, unprogrammed wandering, is that it can free the traveler to NOT be concerned with what comes next and how to get there, and to focus instead on fully experiencing the here now.

I practice, study, and occasionally teach yoga.  One of things I love the most about participating in a yoga class is the freedom it gives me to rest in, explore, and work with the here and now of myself. To not be concerned, for the space of this class, about what I will do next.  I can leave that in the hands of my trusted teacher.  She says “triangle pose”, and I take the pose. She brings my attention to the alignment of my feet, the twist of my ribs, the spiraling of muscle and intention in my legs.  I notice, I feel, I focus, and I discover something new about this here now of my body, as I am allowed to be present to this moment, just this, a world to explore in the space of my yoga mat.  She says “downward dog”, and here I am, in dog, being, breathing.

Like a good yoga teacher, a trusted travel guide allows us to focus on the here now.  First of all, we trust the guide to know the road, and to keep us safe on it. In that space of trust and safety, they can bring our attention to the details, the things we often ignore about the world we live in, whether at home or away.  Did I know, before my yoga teacher pointed it out one day, that I even had an “inner ankle”, or the difference that keeping it from dropping could make to a challenging balance pose?  Did I ever look up, before my guide directed my eyes there, to notice the eaves or the pediments of a building, and be prompted to think about the story they tell, about who were its builders and designers, and how they understood the world they lived in?  Had I understood the layers of history, commentary, and literary references that came together in the naming of a corner café, or of an item on its menu?

To be guided to look deeply, to notice the layers, of muscle and bone, or stone and story, can open up a vast world of meaning in a space no larger than a yoga mat, a moment and a place no greater than here now.   Breathe, feel, look, listen; let me tell you a story . . .

Liz Vasile

Berkeley, CA