I’ve written a book about my “spiritual journey,” fully aware what an oft abused, dangerously clichéd term it is. The problem with “spiritual journey” (one of many, actually) is that it is usually used aspirationally. We venture far from home, in search of something, and so we convince ourselves we found it.
Just because we label a journey spiritual, though, doesn’t make it so, and the fact is: sometimes we’re better off staying at home. “The farther you travel, the less you know,” warns Lao-Tzu, the Taoist sage.
Yet this was the same sage who gave us the wonderful aphorism: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Was Lao-Tzu conflicted? Was he deliberately trying to confuse us?
I don’t think so. He knew that it’s not whether we travel or not, but how that matters. Travel, done properly, disorients us, and it is through this disorientation that any spiritual journey actually lives up to its name. This is the sort of travel Henry Miller had in mind when he said that “One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.”
If different places didn’t evoke different feelings, different ways of experiencing, we might as well stay at home, especially now, given the enhanced interrogation techniques that pass for air travel these days.
But we must choose our places carefully. Many supposedly sacred places disappoint. Freighted with history, and our outsized expectations, they collapse under the weight of their own sacredness.
Such a fate has befallen many a shrine or temple. Whatever spiritual essence once existed there has long evaporated, siphoned off by opportunists and posers. Today they possess all of the divinity of a Greyhound bus station. They are dead places.
Then there are places like Tzfat, in northern Israel. There, the air is soft and plush. It is no dead place. Ever since the 16th century, Tzfat has been a center of Kabbalah, the mystical arm of Judaism, and it still attracts those looking for taste of the ein sof, or infinite.
The denizens of Tzfat are spiritual free agents, cobbling together a bit of this, a bit of that, and somehow making it all work. It is one of those places that the early Celts called “thin places,” locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and, for perhaps the first time, we can taste the divine.
Eric Weiner iis a former foreign correspondent for NPR, a philosophical traveler — and recovering malcontent. His new book, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, is now available.
Eric Weiner is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Geography of Bliss and The Geography of Genius, as well as the critically acclaimed Man Seeks God and, his latest book, The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers. A former foreign correspondent for NPR, he has reported from more than three dozen countries. His work has appeared in the New Republic, The Atlantic, National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, and the anthology Best American Travel Writing. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and daughter.