How Seneca Can Prepare You For India

India will not be what you expect. You will meet people that are friendlier and more generous than you ever thought possible. You will taste foods so delicious you’ll begin to wonder why Indian food isn’t everyone’s favourite. You will see sights so beautiful that they will remain embedded in your memory for the rest of your life. But you’ll also have to overcome challenges so great that many travellers write off India entirely. Logistically, you will face a myriad of transportation issues. Culturally, you will have some of your most basic assumptions about life and society come into question. And throughout your visit, a thousand and one things will threaten to make you sick. Your time in India will be uncomfortable in one way or another, but these challenges and the beautiful moments that inevitably follow are precisely why we travel: to get out of our comfort zone, challenge ourselves and broaden our worldview. Recognizing this goal and preparing yourself for the challenges that you will inevitably face can dramatically improve how much you enjoy your trip. The first century Stoic philosopher, Seneca, is the unlikely guide to the importance of mentally preparing for your trip.

Mumbai Street Food

Seneca was a Roman philosopher and senator in the first century AD. Born in Spain, he was brought to Rome before the age of ten to be educated in rhetoric and philosophy. Very little is known about his middle years, but it is clear that during his political career he had access to elite circles: in AD 41 he was accused of adultery with the Emperor Caligula’s sister and exiled to Corsica. He was later forced to become one of the tutors and then advisors of Emperor Nero. Initially, he was able to have a strong and positive influence on the violent emperor. But Nero became less and less inclined to listen to his advisor. After nine years of serving as Nero’s advisor and trying to temper the emperor’s volatile tendencies, Seneca was accused of contributing to an unsuccessful assassination conspiracy and forced to commit suicide. Although generally believed today to have been innocent, Seneca accepted this punishment and took his own life in 65 AD. Today, he is regarded as one of the most famous Stoic philosophers and is especially well known for his contributions to our understanding of emotions and how they impact our lives.

Seneca’s exposure to the violent and erratic behaviour of Emperor Nero made the importance of controlling anger abundantly clear. In his essay “On Anger”, Seneca teaches us that the key to managing anger is to manage our expectations. Anger arises when an event transpires that doesn’t align with our expectations. In Book 3, Seneca writes,

“Be prepared to submit to much. Is anyone surprised at being cold in winter? At being sick at sea? Or at being jostled in the street? The mind is strong enough to bear those evils for which it is prepared.”

Anger results from rational thought and can therefore be controlled – we just need to change our habit of thought.

Mumbai’s chaotic traffic provides a perfect example. An outsider experiencing the traffic for the first time would likely become frustrated or angry very quickly. This is because he entered Mumbai rush hour with certain expectations about how traffic should work. He would quickly become frustrated by the lack of lane discipline, the honking, or the disrespect for traffic lights and right of ways. But locals, accustomed to the noise and aware of the unofficial local traffic rules, manage to handle the situation calmly. The difference: expectations.

Mumbai Traffic
Stay calm, you’re prepared for this!

Sickness illustrates the point further. When you come to India from a foreign country, your body will be exposed to a multitude of foreign bacteria. While it is important to do your best to avoid getting sick (washing your hands, avoiding fresh vegetables, etc.), there is no way to completely avoid the new bacteria. If you manage to stay healthy for an entire trip through India, it’s nothing short of a minor miracle. So instead of viewing Delhi belly as the world conspiring against you and your perfect vacation, Seneca would counsel us to anticipate illness. Experienced travellers know that this is one of the many reasons not to plan too fast paced of a trip around the subcontinent (or anywhere for that matter). If you have an overnight train or flight scheduled every other day to ensure you hit every important site in two weeks, you’re not giving yourself much recovery time. But even if you don’t go as far as physically preparing for illness by taking it into account in your trip planning, mentally preparing for the possibility will reduce your emotional reaction when it inevitably occurs. And when your body is weak, such a reaction is valuable energy wasted.

Pani Puri
Sure street food might make you ill, but then again anything could…and pani puri is delicious!

Abstractly, it is easy to understand that popping a blood vessel every time something goes wrong is counterproductive. But despite this awareness, it is difficult to put into practice in the heat of the moment. Therefore we must actively and regularly work on accepting unexpected challenges and realize that they are inevitable parts of life out of our control. This is especially true while traveling in unfamiliar places. Seneca reminds us that working on this thought pattern is directly related to our emotional well-being. And if it can enhance a trip to India, then it is definitely worth the effort!