My destination is no longer a place, rather a new way of seeing.
During my recent travels I had the opportunity to visit a planetarium in the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus in Torun, Poland. I was compelled to look at his birth chart and was particularly impressed by the conjunction of the Moon and Jupiter in the fourth house, which I read as his deepest yearning for distant travels, a need for ceaseless exploration, a dream to reach beyond the horizon. He did go very far indeed, but not in terms of physical distance.
A monument to Copernicus holding a Zodiac in Torun, Poland
“Eppur Si Muove!” (“And yet it moves”) uttered defiantly Galileo Galilei when facing the Inquisition. The earth moves together with other planets. The Greeks called the planets planētai, which means “wanderers.” What moves the planets causing them to wander? In his book Conversing With the Planet, Anthony Aveni writes that it is important to remember that for ancient Greeks the planets were not moved by gravitation, but they were looked upon as self-willed beings, endowed with life and soul:
Medieval minds conceived the power that connected all nature’s components as the pneuma, an elastic, airlike, invisible fluid that permeated everything and endowed the entire universe with a collective soullike quality; it was literally “the breath of the universe.”
Modern science proclaims a more mechanistic model of the universe but as I sat there at the planetarium watching the movement of the planets I knew that the Greeks were right.
Like the planets, our inner Self is always on the move. The man is a microcosm and “the revolutions of the celestial spheres” (the title of Copernicus’ revolutionary treatise) can also be applied to the inner workings of the psyche.
Like the solar system, the psyche can be symbolized by the mandala – a sacred circle constructed around a middle point, which is the most secret centre of the soul, the source of consciousness and spirit.
The centre of the mandala is a focal point for a process of circumambulatio, a Jungian term describing round, circular movement. All our outward journeys point towards this centre, all or explorations have one ultimate goal – self-knowledge and self-centredness. We all seek the treasure of inner self.
Remedios Varo, Spiral Transit
The act of moving around a sacred object is practised in many religions. There is a popular story about a Hindu god Ganesha, which is used to explain the origin of this practice. Once upon a time Shiva and Parvati wished to test their two sons – Ganesha and Karthikeya. “Whichever one of you goes around the world and comes back first is the winner,” said Shiva to his sons. The ambitious Karthikeya tried to circle the earth as fast as he could, but Ganesha simply went around his parents three times. “Why are you circling us?” asked Shiva. ‘”You are my parents and you represent the whole world to me,” said Ganesha, thus winning the contest.
I think this story is also an important reminder that we always need to consider whether the journeys we embark on are soulful or are just pointless distractions. Modern tourism often consists in mindless ticking off of destinations. I am reminded of a fantastic book written by Tiziano Terzani, an Italian journalist famous for his reporting work from Asia.
The book is called A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earth-bound Travels in the Far East and recounts his travels in one year of his life when he travelled all over Asia using all means of transport but the plane. A Chinese fortune teller had forbidden him to fly during that year. Although initially skeptical, Terzani decided to listen to the fortune teller’s advice and not fly during that year. Here are a handful of his reflections:
Suddenly, no longer able to rush off to an airport, pay by credit card and be swept off in a flash to literally anywhere, I was obliged once again to see the world as a complex network of countries divided by rivers and seas that required crossing. …
Covering great distances by train or boat restored my sense of the earth’s immensity. And above all it led me to rediscover the majority of humanity whose very existence we well-nigh forget by dint of flying: the humanity that moves about burdened with bundles and children while the world of the airplane passes in every sense over their heads.
My undertaking not to fly turned into a game full of surprises. If you pretend to be blind for a while, you find that the other senses grow sharper to compensate for the lack of sight. Avoiding planes has a similar effect: the train journey, with its ample time and cramped space, reanimates an atrophied curiosity about details. You give keener attention to what lies around you, to what hurtles past the window. …
As soon as you decide to do without planes, you realize how they impose their limited way of looking at things on you. Oh, they diminish distances, which is handy enough, but they end up diminishing everything, including your understanding of the world. You leave Rome at sunset, have dinner, sleep awhile, and at dawn you are in India. But in reality each country has its own special character. We need time if we are to prepare ourselves for the encounter; we must make an effort if we are to enjoy the conquest.
Frontiers, created by nature and history and rooted in the consciousness of the people who live within them, lose their meaning and cease to exist for those who travel to and from the air-conditioned bubbles of airports, where the border is a policeman in front of a computer screen, where the first encounter with the new place is a baggage carousel…
We have irrevocably lost the magic moment of ancient travels: looking at a new city emerging on the horizon. I sometimes feel nostalgic that we no longer conquer the world like Alexander the Great, on horseback. A famous Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, travelled in Asia for twenty-four years. His real travels were fascinating enough and are beautifully described in his travelogues, but there is a different book related to Marco Polo that I want to talk about. It is called Invisible Cities and was written by Italo Calvino, another brilliant Italian author.
It is a wonderful feat of imagination, containing 55 poetic descriptions of fantastic cities explored and described by Marco Polo to emperor Kublai Khan. The book deserves a separate post because it is so rich and imaginative, but I am mentioning it here because the key to the book is that all the cities the Venetian traveller described were in fact Venice, the city of cities, his hometown, the soul of Europe.
Marco Polo said to the Khan: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” The book, like the mandala, has a sacred centre, which is Venice, and every description of every city revolves around Venice and points to it.
Reading the book I thought this to myself: Every soulful journey, every soulful movement contains stillness coming from the central, focal point. I particularly remember this dialogue:
Kublai Khan: I do not know when you have had the time to visit all the countries you describe to me. It seems to me you have never moved from this garden.
Marco Polo: Everything I see and do assumes meaning in a mental space where the same calm reigns as here, the same penumbra, the same silence streaked by the rustling of leaves. At the moment when I concentrate and reflect, I find myself again, always, in this garden, at this hour of the evening, in your august presence, though I continue, without a moment’s pause, moving up a river green with crocodiles or counting the barrels of salted fish being lowered into the hold.
As Lao Tzu said: “The Sage travels all day yet never leaves his inner treasure.”