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Originally on elephant journal

Why do we travel?

What’s so compelling about it that we’re willing to incur the expenses, battle the jet lag, brave the unfamiliarity, and disrupt our day-to-day lives?

I think what we look for varies greatly according to our awareness of just how much is possible for us through travel.

Some simply seek an escape. They travel to check out of their lives. They don’t enjoy all it has to offer, because for them, a brief interlude from real life is the most they’d hope to expect. They travel to resort towns with all the amenities in order to decompress from their day-to-day grind.

They’re vacationers.

Others seek to discover something through travel. Travel is their catalyst for change and growth. They know how life-changing travel can be and they take full advantage. They head to far-out places, seeking immersion into culture, happy to be removed from the comforts of familiarity. Travel is part of their identity because they’ve been so deeply affected by it.

They're travelers.

Vacationing and traveling do not offer the same experience. It’s not about the length of time, the destination, which sites we visit or the kinds of photos we take. It’s about our attitudes and how we approach ourselves and our surroundings when we go out into the world.

I’m a traveler, but I used to be a vacationer.

Before my journey into life coaching began, I had a corporate career and was on track for a cookie-cutter life. I felt trapped and overwhelmed and I wanted to see who I could be if I was, you know…free. So I’d book a vacation. I’d take time off, buy plane tickets and pack my suitcase, removing myself from the life I’d created and placing myself in some entirely different set of circumstances, expecting that a change of scenery would bring about a change in me—believing that my circumstances were the thing holding me back and that changing them would allow me to finally be my real self.

I’d think, if I go somewhere tropical I’ll be wild and free instead of stressed and uptight, so I’d show up to the beach in my new bikini, sip some fancy tropical cocktails, dip in the hot tub, have hotel sex, and wait for that feeling of freedom to hit me. But I’d still be the same me through all of it. In fact, the part of me I was trying to escape would be magnified amid the expectations of wild freedom.

I’d experience the phenomenon Anaïs Nin pointed to when she wrote, “wherever you go, there you are.” I’d find I couldn’t escape myself. None of us can. If we want to change, we actually need to face ourselves and come to terms with the perspectives and beliefs shaping our lives. We need to discover the true nature of our relationships to our circumstances so we can begin to shift those.

I remember going on vacation and having these perspective shifts, but as someone looking simply to escape herself, I found they actually left me feeling more confused. I would realize I had irreconcilable differences with the life I’d built, but I wasn’t conscious enough about it to mindfully and intentionally apply my new perspective to actually shifting my circumstances. I’d always slip back into old patterns as my day-to-day grind took hold of me again and, in the end, my vacations would leave me feeling even more trapped.

I know a lot of my readers will be able to relate to this. You could say our attitude has essentially been, “I need to escape my life for a bit and I know I won’t want to come back home because once I’m back, I’ll just want to escape even more.”

Imagine the possibilities if we’d instead say, “I’m gonna travel so I can shift my perspective enough to see another way, and I’m gonna make a pact with myself that I’ll act on whatever I see, even if it means doing big, courageous things.”

Which attitude sounds like more fun to you? Having done both, I can tell you that number two is the much more rewarding game.

Every time I set out on a new adventure with this attitude, I experience a rapid emotional growth spurt as my coach’s mind witnesses how I interact with new, unfamiliar settings. When I travel with other mindful people who can reflect and tell me the truth about what they see, that growth is exponential. Doing this regularly allows me to constantly make adjustments to my life so I keep in alignment with my evolving purpose and desire.

As a life coach, I wanted so badly for my clients to have access to this kind of growth that I co-founded a company which takes people traveling to far-out locations and facilitates intensive retreats-on-the-go. Because getting on the phone with a coach and talking about who we think we are and how we showed up to meet our circumstances last week is one thing (and it’s valuable in its own right), but seeing and shifting, in real time, the parts that emerge when we’re outside of our element is another.

It’s in exposure to other cultures, in navigating unexpected details of foreign customs, in witnessing awe-inspiring natural wonders, in seeing the juxtaposition of our expectations and experiences, in being witnessed as we show up to meet our challenges, and in doing so in community, that we really begin to see ourselves and our unique relationships to our world clearly. There is some alchemy in the combination of coaching and traveling that’s unprecedented in my half-decade in the field.

While travel never turned out to be the escape I was looking for, it offered something better and quite the opposite. It’s a reconciliation between myself and everything I want to escape (those pesky things in my life which I perceive as happening to me or just the way things are). This reconciliation happens naturally when I travel because with each new setting and each new circumstance, I see how I show up to to my life in the same ways, and I see that none it is about setting or circumstance, but rather about my perspective.

More than anything else, it’s travel that has allowed me to witness how I create my entire world through my interaction with it. The more I see how I create my experience of all these different cultures and landscapes, the less tempted I am to chase the fantasy that there’s some place out there where I could escape from myself.

The more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve become certain there are no external factors I can blame or credit. I’ve been to 17 countries in the past year and I am the same person in all of them. Every time I’ve wanted to blame my culture, my job, my family, my friends, my enemies, the government, the rules—I simply can’t anymore, because all my feelings and experiences point back to me and the fact that I’m still the same person when each one of those external factors is different than it was yesterday.

I could speak volumes on how liberating it is to have nothing and no one left to blame, to have the perspective to finally take responsibility for my experience without caveats. It allows for so much more adventuring, discovering and celebrating—and so much less languishing in helplessness.

So I have an invitation: Consider booking a flight to somewhere you’ve never even considered going. Skip the dream vacation (the one you’ve already got expectations of and a fantasy to live out in). Instead, choose somewhere off your radar and see who you are in that totally foreign and unfamiliar place that you expect nothing from.

Won’t it be exciting to see what happens, and what it reveals?