Monday, 14 September 2009

Human Geography: Cross-Cultural Travel as a Method of Consciousness Expansion

Physical location does not only cause problems for the body in existential terms, it also helps to establish a three-fold cycle of narrative, emotion and experience. The human mind maps any place (“city” from now on for practical reasons) in general, in which it resides in by recognizing life’s chronicles. This means that we identify places of symbolic content with which we have relation to and to people with which we interact, those who continuously represent potential interactions.

We can easily pinpoint our homes and our family's in the city we live in. We can also ascertain our workplaces and centres of government, of entertainment and of communal relations. In short, the mind takes note of determined meanings for the individual. My city (where I live in) is my knowledge of it, its living history and the possibilities for action that it allows me to undertake. My most intimate cycle is the basis of my relationship to my city. Family, friends and colleagues complement the affective and emotional link to any urban scene.

Knowledge of other situated structures permits identity to conform to a specific point of the city. I live in "X" neighbourhood and I relate to certain people that perform certain activities within set frameworks and in a particular languages, dialects or slang versions of them. Neighbourhood "X" is not neighbourhood "Y" or "Z", so I track down myself within a cardinal point of reference. Out of this and from the previous description of personal life in the city, emerges the idea of a "cookbook” that forms the "instruction manual" for any individual and his place in the city. This means that we could be either conscious or unaware whilst we relate to any city and its inhabitants, but we generally do this by referring to definite ways of behaving in that context. Our identity cookbook is part memory and part rationalization of any circumstances we may find ourselves in. So if we live in one place, we will basically use "recipes" that came out from THAT place because that is where we have lived.

If I journey into another city within the same nation I can easily take notice of the limitations of my cookbook. But if adjust its recipes to the cultural maxims of the new place I am in, I can be able to understand the realities that are experienced locally. There are countless types of countries and not all share a homogeneous socio-cultural distribution. But overall, they all tend to have things in common throughout. Populations can be and behave different, but it will always be possible to find shared ideas and responsibilities, thus opening an option for habituation.

The further I voyage from home, the more I will require additional information to break the stereotype of the place I’m venturing into, in order to more fully come to grips with its particularity by interpreting its own environment. Proximity in geographical and cultural terms facilitates acculturation. Any place will look more like another place that lies besides it and less than far beyond it. If a country consists of various modern and industrial metropolises, they will most certainly share many similar characteristics. Travelling within the same piece of politically branded land alters settings of representation. Nevertheless, a shared language facilitates the dissemination of information and its regularity. There tends to be a common tongue even in the most multicultural of nations. Television is a hyper-real instrument that distorts reality and is certainly no guide for comprehending particular cities; hence local knowledge is almost inexistent. So what ensues is to take into account cultural labels (not stereotypes) that emanate from individual places, to be able to form a preconceived picture of them prior to the intended visit, in order to successfully apprehend its distinctive features.

Whatever the backdrop of any decision to migrate, it is always identity that comes into question. A stable identity is established in relation to solid foundations whatever they maybe. If I am this or that, or if I live here or there, my identity conforms to that construction. Radical identities are built in counter position to some other identity, but relation to particular stories, persons, and or events too ultimately determines these. So if I move away from the place and the people that make who I am, I am questioning that "who I am". The more different the place that I move in, the stronger the claims to "who I am" will be.


There are numerous, arguably infinite dimensions of life. I can live an individual existence whilst simultaneously form part of a collective entity and also participate in the creation or reproduction of any or many cultural practices. My life can be described and analyzed as being composed of diverse elements and of various spatio-temporal realities. Whichever methods we may go through whilst conforming (or being a subject to conformity) into social selves, it is always a possibility to do otherwise, say for example, to empower ourselves in order to progress over pre-ordained and orchestrated social structured processes of identity formation. For it is custom, tradition, and unquestioned habit that cast an overwhelming shadow over our creative abilities to transform our immediate entourage and environment. Furthermore, it is our ambiguous but reasoning mind that enables individuals to adhere to collectivities, since reason is a very effective way of reassuring the known world to any individual by situating his personal narrative within a particular reality, one that is shared with others. This "cookbook technology" is not only effective in outlining social relations, including bonding processes. It is also helpful for synchronizing these with particular situational contexts. I am conformed socially as someone who knows himself thanks to and in relation, not only to the people I know (and who also know me), but can additionally position myself within that aggregate of individuals who conform "my social network".

Now, in order to comprehend how it is possible to break this cycle of self identity, spatial localization, and social links to both of them, we could take Travel as a variable that could function as a deflector of the “lived” or the “experienced”. But in order for it to do so, it must be a potential counterpoise to our cookbook. So wherever you got to must be substantially different in socio-cultural terms (including language), and to a certain extent, must represent a challenge. Once you are engaged within this new context, you will realize that your original cookbook must be disposed of if you wish to successfully adapt to this new location and social reality.

If you are fortunate by assimilating new rules and regulations you will be able to be conscious of the moment when personal identity cracks. And if I am able to harmonize with an extraneous culture, how then will it be possible to recuperate the original cookbook status that shaped who I was once I have returned home? On one hand, it is true that one could perfectly readapt to the recipes from the original cookbook. And it is additionally possible to completely change sides and factually become a part of any new tradition we may find ourselves in. But on the other hand, it could also be argued that once you’ve seen an alternate reality it is difficult, if not impossible, to restore an original representative diagram to direct our lives, whatever culture we wish to side with.

What is the point of wasting precious information and experiences that have been offered by the contrasting reality which we have come face to face with? Where does the God of my birthplace fit in now? How could I lay claim to an ever-present being, which is generally tied to a limited region? What is Christ’s significance in the Far East or the far south? What is Buddha’s or Krishna’s importance in the far west or far north? Where is the sense in “our” way of doing things if this compact and limited worldview represents our own and only “nation”?

At this time it is necessary to implement some kind of middle way between our discarded self-instructions and any new cultural particularities we may be facing. It is here that the mind suffers a transformation, because it becomes pressing to adapt to new circumstances without becoming a hindrance to their collective functioning. In your incomprehension of alternate events you could possibly impede the operation of a bus by blocking the ticket line or be ostracised for being bent on portraying your culture background as the appropriate.

Reason serves many purposes and it is especially helpful in understanding who “I” am and who the “other” is and how we all relate to each other. Reason has been the definite structure that has put us beyond other species in terms of social organization and in the specialization of tasks that has helped us to excel and to progress, thus avoiding extinction as a species. Following this line of thought, language and other symbolic faculties of the mind are attributes of reason and they have fantastically improved our livelihoods. Curiosity and empirical inquiry are additional qualities of reason. But the problem is that reason can encloister us within its own quadrants of certainty by dealing lethal blows to further questioning. Identity is generally crystallized within cognition, so once we have found a safe haven for ourselves inside our own minds, we build a cocoon to logically justify who we are and how we relate to others. This means that reason has the power to pollute streams of creativity that lie beneath it because we will tend to see everything from our stolid looking glasses and will make value judgements according to our ego-driven calculating mind and from our contextually conditioned memories, emotions and fears.

Language and every other kind of reasoned communication are competences of the mind that subsequently forms part of an all-pervading consciousness that can only project itself outwards in symbolic ways. This is because the true reality behind it all is consciousness. This means that every cultural convention or traditional behaviour is really the exceptional way in which a collective consciousness (as lived by a common aggregate of individuals) establishes a connection to any physical environment. So if we want to understand the Polish way of life we have to delve beneath its symbolic explanations to enter its own creative space. But once we grasp that space, it is not necessary to learn their particular language or to behave as they do to understand how is it that they operate as a culture. Once we have seen that alternate livelihood, we can incorporate it to our worldview in our own interpretative mode, and that by itself enlarges our consciousness. We basically grasp the fact that consciousness has to have a voice, wherever it manifests. In short, once we’ve witnessed the unfamiliar we transcend and include it by progressing to a “Think globally and act locally” mindset.

So if consciousness is beyond reason, and if reason dictates what is established in terms of identity, and if identity establishes, in turn, how we make significance of ourselves in particular settings - How then can we move beyond this scheme? How could we keep reason by making it more flexible in order for it to become the mouthpiece of an enlarged consciousness?

It is a fact that we have to live in a physical world, as consciousness inhabits human bodies that live social lives. But wouldn’t it be beautiful to move beyond contextually bounded and limited conceptions of identity that hinder our personal and globally collective transcendence? If you answer the previous question in a positive light what is recommended is to maintain reason as the main prism to visualize the world, but to abolish any fixed identities when you want to contemplate the other, because identity may obstruct any possibilities of really grasping others’ and their practices. In this sense, keep an open eye and hold value judgments to a minimum, and at the same time strive to interpret phenomena from the local standpoint as much as it is possible. It is inconceivable to try to make sense of what happens in absence of our conditioned mind wherever we go, but this is the key to it all. We try to become participant observers who both survey and engage with foreign cultures, by trying to impersonate one of their inhabitants. For this we take into account both empirical and subjective happenings - trying to stretch our mental limits to include alternative worldviews. We will slowly see emerge in ourselves the capacity to see how asymmetrical value-systems can actually come together and reveal their points of compatibility and harmony. Let me provide a graphical example of what I mean:

- Picture yourself - and others who you live with (including fellow citizens) - as  triangles. This is because the way your identity is formed relates to precise ways of coming to terms with your circumstances. Next, imagine that you travel to a place where you have to be in contact with squares. After that, proceed to a country where you interact with pentagons, and so forth… Ultimately, reflect on the following: Is the triangle better than the square, or the pentagon better than the hexagon? Wouldn’t it be wiser to see them all as closed circles that embraced specific geometrical shapes throughout the process of reconciling to particular backgrounds? -

The truth is that we humans are not the same, both in genes and social customs. We look, think and act differently. But the crux of the matter is to look for the essence (the circle in all of us, in the previous example) which is real and is identical in everyone - essence which is radiated throughout as unifying conscious energy, regardless of the natural and physical human process of accommodation to particular regions that fosters a perpetually separate and divisive existence.

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