Travelling responsibly: stories from the bus

As a resident in Munich, Germany, with family in Scotland, I used to take the plane 1 to 2 times in the year to get to my parents' place because it was much quicker and cheaper than other forms of transport. However, it is generally recognised that air travel produces much more carbon dioxide than by travelling the same distances by train or bus (in most instances). Incidentally – at some point it you might want to listen to my song: Cheap Flight, a sort of black-comic look at the issues of flying, escapism, taking flying for granted, waking up and finding gratitude.

At the time, I had already completed a Masters course in human ecology which was all about the (mainly) non-biological interactions between humans and their environment in the context of understanding the causes of environmental destruction and possible solutions.

The course was a life-changer for me because it made me look personally at the question: “what is a creative, fulfilling life which replaces that inner void people have, which consumerism (the greatest cause of environmental destruction) so greatly depends on to prevail.

I became significantly more aware of many issues including global warming and the relative pollution-effects of different forms of travel. Nevertheless I still couldn't bring myself to do the more expensive, uncomfortable and time-consuming option, in this case – bus. In the late 90s the cost of a return train ticket from Munich to London was prohibitively expensive. I was the mindset: “it would mean too much hardship and almost everyone takes the plane anyway. I can't change anything." This was of course partly an excuse not to get out of my comfort zone.

It wasn't until I started to practice Buddhism where I was taught to start focusing on the power of a change starting with the individual, that my behaviour was transformed. I found a deep passion and resolve growing within me to start taking 100% responsibility for my own actions. I wasn't following any rules, the feeling just awakened and resonated with the Buddhist teachings. I decided to stop flying full stop. At first I was pretty dogmatic about it and could no longer see air travel as justifiable! With time I understand completely that the reasons for travelling by air range from ignorance and selfishness to humanitarian and productive.

But I thought to myself – I can't face living like a hypocrite. The alternatives can't be as torturous as what the people in poorer nations have put up with on a daily basis. So many Africans have to walk miles just to collect water and from a position of comfort, people in rich countries take things like flying for granted. I can't complain about global warming to people and look them straight in the face right now. I am just another pawn in the pollution process.

So I booked my 1st trip with Eurolines overnight to London and there changed to rail up to Edinburgh on a cheap advance ticket. Pricewise it came to about 2 to 3 times as much as a flight and would take about a day, but I was determined to prove whether my life was heading in the direction of real poverty and suffering or not because of my new lifestyle choice.

On that 1st occasion I arrived at my parents' pretty exhausted through lack of sleep so I tried to use the power of my mind to somehow find more rest the next time. Also, I was determined to meet interesting people. During my next trip to the UK I ended up sitting next to a kindred spirit with whom I became best friends. We had reams to talk about – she was also a musician who grew up near to Munich and was living in the quite alternative, ecological town of Stroud in England. There is a lot of interest there in self-sufficiency, nonmonetary exchange of goods and services, local organic food etc. I stayed with my new friend on the return stretch to Germany and even later played some gigs with her! I also managed to get enough sleep both times and needed no recovery the next day!

On another journey I met an architect who busks in Munich (like I used to do). We also became great friends and jammed at the back of the bus, taking care not to disturb anyone. He happened to miss his return journey by a day which meant that we were “by chance" on the same bus coming back. We took advantage of a 2nd opportunity to entertain other passengers and ourselves!

The usual bus driver on the stretch from Munich to Brussels was Belgian and only spoke French to passengers. I always greeted him in his own tongue, so when there was an enforced detour due to a traffic accident on the motorway near Munich, he asked me of all people to sit at the front and do a spot of map reading to help him find his way through unknown territory! On the return journey on a different, sub-contracted bus with completely different drivers, the GPS system broke down near Brussels. I was singled out for no apparent reason and asked to help map read to get into the City!

I even made repeated trips from Munich to Grenada in southern Spain (bus or bus and train) which took over one and a half days in each direction! The most memorable experience was where I met a French Algerian who warmly introduced himself at a bus station near the border with Portugal. We got on and headed straight for the back which, in case you are wondering, is an attempt to get a lying down possibility for sleeping! Another Algerian from Holland joined us, and the 2 countrymen started chatting enthusiastically. My new friend exclaimed how they were like brothers and had been sent together by Allah!

He was quite a burly chap with tattoos and told me how hard life was in the Paris ghetto where he was based -full of drug addiction, violent crime and pseudo-friends that became traitors, backstabbers and endless money borrowers. He had run out of cash himself and was forced to travel to his family in Algeria and where he would work to keep his head above water. He was suffering from schizophrenia and as a result of his medication and the uncomfortable bus environment, he hadn't slept at all during the last 2 to 3 days and felt “highly-strung".He nonetheless showed great intelligence and mentioned that he had read a fair amount of Chinese philosophy. But then he revealed that he was a kung fu expert and made it clear of his anger towards the Moroccan bus driver, who was admittedly quite aggressive and authoritarian in his dealings with the passengers regarding small details like eating inside the bus, which he forbid. The Algerian had already shouted at him a couple of times. Now there is a history of conflict between Algeria and Morocco going back generations, and more recently to do with conflicting oil interests. So I started to get concerned when the Algerian said he wanted to kill the driver. I tried to distract him at 1st with other topics of conversation but it came to a head when we had the next break at a motorway cafe for 30 min. Because the Algerian was still in deep conversation over a coffee, he forgot about the time, and after 30 five-minute driver (understandably) can to us and retorted that we should get back on the vehicle with its waiting passengers immediately. He then hurried back himself.

My Algerian friend was now fuming and it looks serious when he repeated that he was going to kill the driver. I felt like it was one of these situations where the Algerian saw himself pressurised on all fronts, and thought he had nothing to lose by lashing out. So I said all at once, “What would Allah say? Alloa would surely tell you that if you can find the courage within you to search deeply for respect for your opponent, and perceive him as another human being with his own weaknesses and problems, you will have already won your battle." He looked at me blankly for a second, but then his stressed out expression gave way to a broad grin. “You are completely right. That is so wise". He relaxed immediately and explained his new interpretation of events to his other compatriot sitting next to him. He was now chatting cheerfully like a child with a new toy! I then went up to the bus driver and apologised that we caused a delay, saying that my friend was suffering from mental illness and lack of sleep. He, too, visibly quietened down and we continued on our journey. That was the matter closed. Relief. I felt a surge of hope fill me because I had proven to myself yet again that amazing turnarounds are possible when one maintains clarity and offers a few choice words with a positive intention, at the right moment.

I have had many more eventful trips but I am not going to tell you about them here except for one last fitting account. On most of my trips to Granada I had to change in Barcelona with several hours to spare. I would hop on a local bus to a coastal nature reserve which was a pleasant oasis, full of interesting birds, and in order to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The 2nd time I had been given €80 by a couple of Romanian girls at the bus station in Munich, to transport a large bag to a relative of theirs who would collect it at the station in Barcelona. Legally speaking, I probably shouldn't have done this, but they seemed sincerely nice and I was persuaded that they were trying to save money by not having to pay for official delivery or take it themselves. A man turned up at the other end as promised, and gave me the cash. I then proceeded to the nature reserve with my binoculars, telescope and tripod for birdwatching and unfortunately, also my guitar in a heavy hardcase, because there was no room in the lockers in town. It had been a couple of years since I had last been in the vicinity. I couldn't quite recall which bus stop to get out at because it was one of the series just off the motorway which all looked very similar. I overshot by 3 to 4 km. It was a searing hot day at the end of May and padded off with all my gear, wearing too many clothes, sweating profusely, trying to recollect the reserve entrance. On my way up the road I encountered a pimp sitting on the deck chair in the shade of a large tree next to his mountain bike, and his several prostitutes spaced out optimally along the hard shoulder. I asked all of them where the reserve might be. They all convivially gave me the wrong directions but after much tramping around and losing copious amounts of sweat, it paid off to follow my own intuition. I headed to the shade of the reserve information centre where I chatted with the warden. As I expected, the expansion of Barcelona airport right next to this important and beautiful wetland, was swallowing up areas needed for wildlife. It seemed like a slap in the face, not only because of my efforts to reduce my own carbon footprint by avoiding planes. So I donated €40 to help the conservationists fight their huge battle to preserve what little is left of healthy Spanish (Catalonian) wetlands. 5 min after leaving the hut I was rewarded by getting great views of a family of great spotted cuckoos – a delightful bird species which I have never seen before!

The object of worship – setting priorities

The title here sounds like I am about to present to you the dogmatic proceedings of a sect. Actually what I am intending is to illustrate how important it is to:

  • identify the main priority we set in life
  • analyze the motive behind it
  • critically question if that is what we really want and how it will affect other aspects of our life
  • re-prioritize if necessary and set the number one goal to creating value for the whole
  • learn from desires in the context of working for the higher good
  • remain wakeful to any tricks of the ego to get the upper hand!

 

In many cases we blindly follow abstract and conventional goals that society dictates to us simply because we haven’t been trained to think independently of the status quo, or it is too challenging to do so. We aren’t aware of where we are heading and why! It could be anything from getting rich, wanting a family or the perfect partner, the most secure job, become the best painter etc. In themselves these goals are not “wrong”, but why we have them and how we deal with them has vast implications. 

 

Many goals are fear-driven, not by a rational drive to survive, but by the negative mindset that our culture of dependency promotes. We naturally organise our priorities according to the top one, so many sub-goals will also tend to be fear-driven. Even if with fear as a motivational force, we have strong drive, are highly efficient and organized and do manifest the goal we are aiming for, we may find out after years of labouring that it’s not what we were really looking for. We discover that the new situation has its own set of challenges and we saw it before as a kind of escape. “The grass is always greener over there” can be a strong motivation for perseverance and much activity but if it is the underlying personal trait, we will eternally be dissatisfied, ungrateful, and would have been better off spending perhaps much less time and energy in confronting and transforming our escapist habit. In that way we could have opened up many doors to real happiness and success.

 

I want to broadly identify the relationship between the matter of greatest value that a person gives in life, and the typical consequences of “worshipping” this object. As I see it, there are 2 types of worship which have massively different outcomes.

The creative form of worship is that of the greater good, of which one is part. It is done with the intention of gaining spiritual strength through learning and the use of free-will.  

The destructive form is to worship with the intention of dependency.

 

I use the word worship because attaching extreme importance to an aspect of life is equivalent to bowing down before it like a deity. We can do that consciously to grow, as I’ve stated, or blindly, habitually unquestioningly – expecting to be rescued from suffering by some external power. This is another form of addiction and is largely overlooked.

 

There is nothing wrong with concentrating efforts on attaining things that are greatly lacking in our lives – themes which cause suffering. These could be long-term or short-term efforts. The problems start, however, when the focus on the feature desired becomes the number 1 priority in life as a rule, taking precedence over our responsibility to the whole. When our humanity takes second place, generally, we will inevitably cause suffering for ourselves and others at some point. If this becomes habit, we not only lose strength as we succumb to fear-based decisions, but when we are faced with major problems, we might be reduced to behaving like animals, with negative consequences for everyone concerned. 

 

Fortunately we are always in a position to maintain our sense of humanity, even in the direst circumstances. It all depends on maintaining the fighting spirit and wakefulness to cause and effect. There have been many accounts in history of people, e.g. in poverty or war-situations who have shown courage, compassion and wisdom despite being under duress themselves. When we tap into our human potential in those worst times, we gain strength and hope and can move mountains. When we lose sight of our humanity, we operate solely on the level of fear, which is fundamentally weak. If we connect ourselves with the greater good, we can see many doors of possibility opening up and transcend the dependencies- and transitional nature of material existence.

 

Isn’t that something worth struggling for? The feeling of being completely alive, connected and eternal all at once?

 

The fantastic thing is, as long as we make the greater good our top priority, and I mean not just theoretically or with words, but with our full intention so that it infiltrates our thoughts, words and actions – we can use our desires as a motor for learning. We can follow our desires in order to see them for what they really are! Desires are a powerful tool, but need to be mastered, kept in check, recognised and accepted as they arise as an inevitable part of life, in order to learn more and expand our consciousness. If the basis for decisions now is the greater good – a higher life state, then following our desires becomes a liberating experience because it starts from the point of strength and consciousness.

 

If we choose to place highest value on the desire itself and commit ourself to that goal without greater perspective, it is like a headlong projection into a cycle of unconscious dependency from the starting point of worshipping dependence!

 

Once we have experienced the benefits of priority setting at this no.1 level, we can more wisely apply the techniques of  improving our ability to manifest our creative wishes. Most importantly, we should remain wakeful to the tricks of the mind (ego) which will regularly try to convince us to follow the path of fear and separation again! Thus the need for regular reflection, and the exercising of courage and strong resolve!

 

What is empowerment?

What do I mean by empowerment? Let’s first exclude the contradictory interpretations. I am not talking about the commonplace, materialistic notion of the giving of power, or enabling because this is by default limited to material dependency. It is not about having or enabling political power or the power to control or manipulate others, being at a competitive advantage, achieving unlimited technological progress or having access to vast choices of affordable material goods. It is not about licensing to destroy.

Whilst these features of a materialistic society might appear to seem beneficial in the short-term, it is only at the cost of others less advantaged and the environment. What goes around comes around: the greed, aggression, domination and all the symptoms of a belief that we live in isolation from one another, has bred more of the same.  In fact this belief, although part of human nature, is psychopathic, irrational and yet so institutionalized that it allows for extreme human rights abuses to be committed, and often directly or subconsciously hidden from others’ eyes, whether through media control, politically, or individual cover-ups. That world-view says nothing about how to enable the sense of freedom and hope, despite e.g. a lack of material possessions, low status in an official hierarchy, a period of illness or conflict with others. It only tells us how the material status can be improved for a limited time for a restricted number of people and ignores the costs to a dangerous degree because it doesn’t understand the concept of unity.

True empowerment is when an individual or group recognizes that they have a choice to push those limiting fears aside, the type of fear that constrains our creativity, love, wisdom, compassion, ability to follow our dreams. It is the enabling of courage to rise up out of incapacitating negativity and apathy, to move forward towards the desired situation. It is when we start to understand that our lives are inextricably linked to others’ in a vast network of existence, despite our differences, so we become more conscious of our responsibility to support the whole and not just the self. This allows compassion and wisdom to increasingly infiltrate our thoughts and deeds. Simply the connection with the whole gives a sense of place and meaning to life which, naturally, creates a deep feeling of happiness in itself. It is the use of free will to choose new, unexplored paths that broaden horizons instead of narrowing them. It is the creation of a vision of value for the self and the whole. In these moments we are empowered. We are then conscious of the power to change the course of our lives for the better, and how we can positively influence our environment. We can act, regardless of how hopeless a situation may seem to be at the time. The voice of hope becomes louder than the voice of circumstances. We cease to be the effect and instead become the cause. We see that problems are a springboard for gaining greater strength.

This is the greatest power there is to be experienced, because problems become our nourishment when they unavoidably arise!  When this all becomes the basis for our life, we will start to manifest amazing, ultimately desirable changes. Life becomes an adventure, something joyous, precious and full of meaning and patterns of causality. We become grateful for the wealth that life has offered us. Empowerment is the realization of happiness through unity and free-will. Once we become empowered we are in the position to make quantum leaps in personal development relative to the non-conscious state. We start taking full responsibility for our situation – we are the creators.