Joseph Anderson

The Silk Road Express

Today I came across an astonishing offer of a rail journey: the Silk Road Express will take you from Beijing to Moscow in 21 days! Volgograd, Tashkent, Merv, Dunhuang, Xian…wow!

On closer investigation I found any number of reasons why this is not the trip for me (extravagant cost, thinking again about how much fun spending three weeks on a train would actually be, wondering about the Chinese and Russian gazillionaires that might be in my car…). But for a moment I was Marco Polo, and it was quite a thrill.

The truth is that I love and have always loved the imaginative aspects of travel at least as much as the real thing. Projecting my mind through space and time to explore new territories is one of life’s great satisfactions. While I have a fair number of unforgettable actual travel experiences (Japan, Ireland, Cairo, Paris) my imagination will always take me farther, faster, and deeper than any jet or a train. 

The map is a fundamental part of the imaginative travel experience. Whether it’s poring over maps of places I’ve thought about going, but never went (Switzerland, Russia, Bali, the Greek Islands, Turkey, and on and on), or looking hopefully for the “Table of Maps” page in a history book I’m starting, or spinning a globe as a child, waiting to see where it would stop spinning under my outstretched finger (and then imagine going there)–the sense of freedom, motion, and vast vistas that maps provide have always powerfully fed my imagination and my spirit.

I’ve recently been reading Charles Foster’s Being a Beast, a very good book in many ways that deserves more than the brief description I’m going to give it here. Foster spent many weeks living in a quite literal way as various kinds of animals (badger, otter, red fox and more) – doing his best to mimic the lifestyle and experience of each animal. It is funny and full of amazing insights. One of the most interesting to me was the notion that humans, because they walk erect,have a very different relationship with the ground than many other creatures who live much closer to it. When we started to walk upright, we gained perspective, and we might think of that moment as the beginning conceptual thought, of abstraction. It’s a bit simplistic (what about horses?are what about giraffes?) but it is undeniable that humans have a unique capacity to step back and look at the big picture. That can be both a blessing and a curse, but it is the gift our peculiar consciousness gives us.

Maps are an extension of this human propensity for abstraction: they give us as a view of the landscape on a scale commensurate with our imaginative capacity. Maps show us where we are, where we have been, and where we might want to go. Maps help us understand the context for our experience, whether that context is around the corner or beyond the horizon.

These are all reasons why mapping our own experience is such a useful exercise. We don’t have to plod along like, say, a badger through the pathways of the forest. By mapmaking, we can get some elevation. Part of what we see is the messy reality that we live in, the constraints and barriers around us – not all of which are easily surmountable. With this perspective we can get the lay of the land, and start to see some possible pathways by which we might improve our situation. But beyond that, we can also recover our sense of broader horizons, the exhilaration of the big picture, the territory that is available for us to explore.

And with all this comes a sense of adventure: an awareness of expanding possibilities, excitement, and optimism that is such incredibly good medicine: it gives us back our youth, our vision, our energy, and our hope. I think all these things are crucial for manifesting change in our lives, for moving closer to living our dreams and being at peace with who we are becoming.

The program Victoria and I are leading on January 31 (details on the Center for Sacred Art website) has a long and juicy title: “Tracing the Path: Life’s Adventure, the Enchanted Forest, Creative Imagining, and Soul Cartography.” It is such a mouthful, but I love every bit of it – “Life’s Adventure” in particular.

I am probably not going to Tashkent or Dunhuang anytime soon (sorry, Silk Road Express!). But there are plenty of adventures, waiting to be embraced and brought to life within my world, and within your world too. And the map will help reveal it…