Alain de Botton: Identify the inner journey before you pack a suitcase

Something to declare

Travelling is one of the most exciting pastimes of all. To follow the travel pages of magazines, the chief hurdles seem to centre around how to identify good hotels, find things to do after dark and learn the whereabouts of small and authentic restaurants.

But to derive the true benefit of travel, we need to go deeper. We need to make sure that the outer journey aligns with, and reinforces, the inner one. Before going anywhere near an airport, we should fix clearly in our minds where we are on this inner journey and then think very carefully about how we could match the inner destination with a place in the world that would assist us in appropriating it more successfully.

Every location in the outer world contains echoes of qualities that could support some inner journey. Unfortunately, we generally don't quite know where we need to go on our inner journey towards psychological evolution – and rush out to destinations that have been foisted upon us by the travel industry or some accident of logistics. We say that we'd love to see a desert – but we're often not clear why desert scenes "move" us. Yet to be moved by an image of a destination is, in essence, to recognise a congruence between a place in the world and a destination on our inner map. There is something in the scene we see outside that our inner eye knows we need inside.

Getting ready for a journey should involve working out what the next stages on our inner journey should be – and then taking these needs to a travel agent in order to find places in the world that could support them.

Currently, travel agents see themselves as responsible merely for making it easier to go where you already know you want to go. But their calling is at heart much more substantial. The travel agent's true purpose is as yet unexplored: it should be to interrogate where you are on your inner journey and then try to match these needs with places around the globe that can support the evolution you are being unconsciously pulled towards: travel as therapy.

In the therapeutic travel agencies of the future, someone oppressed by a strong super ego and preoccupied by cleanliness and routine, might be advised to visit French Guiana and participate in the communal dance of the Dionysian, sexually charged carnival king Vaval; whereas a squabbling couple, both of them younger siblings, could be awed into mutual respect through a well-curated encounter with the glacial landscape of the Norwegian island of Ringvassoya. The list of possible destinations would be as varied as our complaints.

The travel industry should not be allowed to escape the underlying seriousness of the area of life it has been assigned to oversee. We need to re-learn how to use travel as a way of maturing and developing in the long-term, rather than merely being momentarily entertained and tanned.

Alain de Botton is a writer and founder of The School of Life. A version of this column first appeared on The School of Life's website, The Philosopher's Mail (philosophersmail.com).

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