Monday, February 07, 2005

Intentional Travel

by Hakim Bey

Christianity once included a few orders of wandering mendicants (in fact St. Francis organised one after meeting with dervishes in the Holy Land, who may have bestowed upon him a ´cloak of initiationª - the famous patchwork robe he was wearing when he returned to Italy) - but Islam spawned dozens, perhaps hundreds of such orders.

As Sufism crystallised from the loose spontaneity of early days to an institution with rules and grades, ´travel for knowledgeª was also regularised and organised. Elaborate handbooks of duties for dervishes were produced which included methods for turning travel into a very specific form of meditation. The whole Sufi ´pathª itself was symbolised in terms of intentional travel.

In some cases itineraries were fixed (e.g.,the Hajj); other involved waiting for ´signsª to appear, coincidences, intuitions, ´adventuresª such as those which inspired the travels of the Arthurian knights. Some orders limited the time spent in any one place to 40 days; others made a rule of never sleeping twice in the same place. The strict orders, such as the Naqshbandis, turned travel into a kind of fulltime choreography, in which every movement was pre≠ordained and designed to enhance consciousness.

By contrast, the more heterodox orders (such as the Qalandars) adopted a ´ruleª of total spontaneity and abandon -´permanent unemploymentª as one of them called it - an insouciance of bohemian proportions - a ´dropping≠outª at once both scandalous and completely traditional. Colorfully dressed, carrying their begging bowls, axes, and standards, addicted to music and dance, carefree and cheerful (sometimes to the point of ´blameworthinessª!), orders such as the Nematollahis of 19th century Persia grew to proportions that alarmed both sultans and theologians - many dervishes were executed for ´heresyª. Today the true Qalandars survive mostly in India, where their lapses from orthodoxy include a fondness for hemp and a sincere hatred of work. Some are charlatans, some are simply bums - but a suprizing number of them seem to be people of attainment .... how can I put it? .... people of self≠realization, marked by a distinct aura of grace, or baraka.

All the different types of sub travel we've described are united by certain shared vital structural forces. One such force might be called a ´magicalª worldview, a sense of life that rejects the ´merelyª random for a reality of signs and wonders, of meaningful coincidences and ´unveilingsª. As anyone who's ever tried it will testify, intentional travel immediately opens one up to this ´magicalª influence.

A psychologist might explain this phenomenon (either with awe or with reductionist disdain) as ´subjectiveª ; while the pious believer would take it quite literally. From the sufi point of view neither interpretation rules out the other, nor suffices in itself, to explain away the marvels of the Path. In sufism, the ´objectiveª and the ´subjectiveª are not considered opposites, but complements. From the point of view of the two-dimensional thinker (whether scientific or religious) such paradoxology smacks of the forbidden.

The dervish travels, so to speak, both in the material world and in the ´World of Imaginationª simultaneously. But for the eye of the heart these worlds interpenetrate at certain points. One might say that they mutually reveal or ´unveilª each other. Ultimately, they are ´oneª-and only our state of tranced inattention, our mundane consciousness, prevents us from experiencing this ´deepª identity at every moment. The purpose of intentional travel, with its ´adventuresª and its uprooting of habits, is to shake loose the dervish from all the trance≠effects of ordinariness. Travel, in other words, is meant to induce a certain state of consciousness or ´spiritual stateª - that of Expansion.

For the wanderer, each person one meets might act as an ´angelª, each shrine one visits may unlock some initiatic dream, each experience of Nature may vibrate with the presence of some ´spirit of placeª. Indeed, even the mundane and ordinary may suddenly be seen as numinous (as in the great travel haiku of the Japanese Zen poet Basho) - a face in the crowd at a railway station, crows on telephone wires, sunlight in a puddle....

Obviously one doesn't need to travel to experience this state. But travel can be used - that is, an art of travel can be acquired - to maximise the chances for attaining such a state. It is a moving meditation, like the Taoist martial arts.

I confess I'm hopelessly romantic about the form of the dervish life, to the extent that for a while I turned my back on the mundane world and followed it myself. Because of course, it hasn't really disappeared. Decadent yes - but not gone forever. What little I know about travel I learned in those few years - I owe a debt to ´medieval accretionsª I can never pay - and I'll never regret my ´escapismª for a single moment. BUT - I don't consider the form of dervishism to be the answer to the ´problem of tourism.ª The form has lost most of its efficacy. There's no point in trying to ´preserveª it (as if it were a pickle, or a lab specimen)-there's nothing quite so pathetic as mere ´survivalª.

But: beneath the charming outer forms of dervishism lies the conceptual matrix, so to speak, which we've called intentional travel. On this point we should suffer no embarrassment about ´nostalgiaª. We have asked ourselves whether or not we desire a means to discover the art of travel, whether we want and will to overcome ´the inner touristª, the false consciousness which screens us from the experience of the Wide World's waymarks. The way of the dervish (or of the Taoist, the Franciscan, etc.) interests us - finally - only to the extent that it can provide us with a key - not THE Key, perhaps - but . . . . a key. And of course - it does.

One fundamental key to success in Travel is of course attentiveness. We call it ´paying attentionª in English & ´prÍter attentionª in French (in Arabic, however, one gives attention) suggesting that we're as stingy with our attentiveness as we are with our money. Quite often it seems that no one is ´paying attentionª, that everyone is hoarding their consciousness - what? saving it for a rainy day?-and damping down the fires of awareness lest all available fuel be consumed in a single holocaust of unbearable knowing.

This model of consciousness seems suspiciously ´Capitalistª however - as if indeed our attention were a limited resource, once spent forever irrecoverable. A usury of perception now appears: - we demand interest on our payment≠ of≠ attention, as if it were a loan rather than an expense. Or as if our consciousness were threatened by an entropic ´heat≠ deathª, against which the best defense must consist of a dull mediocre trance≠state of grudging half≠ attention - a miserliness of psychic resources - a refusal to notice the unexpected or to savour the miraculousness of the ordinary - a lack of generosity.

But what if we treated our perceptions as gifts rather than payments? What if we gave our attention instead of paying it? According to the law of reciprocity, the gift is returned with a gift - there is no expenditure, no scarcity, no debt against Capital, no penury, no punishment for giving our attention away, and no end to the potentiality of attentiveness.

In any case, the fact remains that unless we learn to cultivate such states, travel will never amount to more than tourism. And for those of us who are not already adepts at the Zen of travel, the cultivation of these states does indeed demand an initial expenditure of energy. We have inhibitions to repress, hesitations to conquer, habits of introversion or bookishness to break, anxieties to sublimate. Our third ≠rate stay≠ at ≠home consciousness seems safe and cozy compared to the dangers and discomforts of the Road with its eternal novelty, its constant demands on our attention. ´Fear of freedomª poisons our unconscious, despite our conscious desire for freedom in travel. The art we're seeking seldom occurs as a natural talent. It must be cultivated ≠ practised ≠ perfected. We must summon up the will for intentional travel.


Kris said...

I was interested in the commentary on Sufism. Rumi is my favorite Poet.

AJ said...


Absolutely!! I love Rumi... his poetry is fantastic. So full of ecstacy... so beautiful. Here's exactly what Im getting at about "religion". To me, there is more spirituality/religion in a Rumi poem than in most 1000 page holy books. Bashing Islam is popular in the US nowadays, but how many people are aware of the Islam of Rumi? Or of the sufis in general?

Is there currently a Christian version of this? An ecstatic, mystical, beautiful tradition focused on directly expderiencing the divine & mysterious? Perhaps the Quakers? Some rogue elements of the Catholic church? I know Christianity did have some of these (usually underground) mystical traditions... but its hard to find them now: the braying of the American Taliban seems to drown out all other Christian voices.

But really, who cares what label you put on it: "Christian" or "Muslim" or "Buddhist". Alan Watts had a great story about this. He talked about a conference between Christians and Buddhists. The Christian priests/ministers met with their corresponding Buddhist scholar functionaries. They argued about the nature of "God" or "Mind" or "Reality" and couldn't agree on anything.

However, while these people were arguing... the Christian monks met with the Buddhist monks and they had no problem understanding each other or agreeing. The difference, of course, is that the priest/scholars were locked in dogma and language and analysis... while both sets of monks immersed themselves in contemplation and direct experience. That's "reality".... words are just finite and flawed symbols-- and are inadequate to describe the infinite and seemingly paradoxical.

I only wish that the monk/mysical sects of these religions held more sway. But most people are hypnotized by language.

Kris said...

I first learned about Rumi, when I read a book titled: Learning How to Learn. I can't remember the name of the author of that book. When I dig through my notes and find his name, I will post it.

AJ said...

Definitely post the info about Rumi. Any other book recommendations are welcome as well. Im always searching for new stuff to read... the more powerful or crazier the better.

And thanks, Kris, in general for your many thoughtful comments.