Week #2 of Travel: 10 Things I’ve Learned

  1. There are no mistakes. I know this to be true, and try to live by it in daily life. I think it’s especially important while traveling because there are so many decisions to be made – it’s like one rolling multiple-choice quiz. In the spirit of going with the flow and not worrying about the outcome, I ended up deciding, a week into my travels, to go against the flow of the crowd and come to a mindfulness retreat center, to volunteer and be a part of the community for two weeks. The goal? To practice presence, in the hope that I’ll remain present for the rest of my trip, rather than ticking off countries, taking photos, and generally just consuming, leeching and pillaging the way that I feel I do as a tourist. So I write this from here, where I’ve been working mindfully on the land or in the kitchen, meditating, doing yoga, connecting with people, swimming in the pool, playing guitar and generally just being… here.
  2. It takes time. What takes time? Everything. Some things take more time than others. Some things take no time at all. Why does this matter? It doesn’t matter – the point is that time is often the only thing that you can rely on to change everything utterly. Not your willpower, not your intention, not your destiny – just time, and relaxing into its flow.
  3. Mostly everything is a projection. Yeah, everything. When you’re traveling, you’re meeting people from so many different cultures that it’s almost like there’s no “status quo” on communication norms – the number of times I’ve heard mixed-race people asked what their “heritage” is has been quite amusing (no one would DARE in the US). More common, though, are the different styles of communicating, in terms of directness/indirectness, or warmth/coldness. It’s tempting and natural (for me at least) to take personal offense or an instant dislike to someone because they tell me how they are feeling, don’t sugarcoat their answer, don’t reply with a smile, or aren’t particularly convivial when they’re in a bad mood. I have been spoiled by the American way of superficial sunniness, and it would appear that others have been spoiled too by their own cultural norms. But nothing that transpires is truly my fault or is anything to do with me personally. I have haphazardly projected my own anxieties and inferiority complexes onto people, so it’s safe for me to assume that yes, they’re doing the same, and as long as I’m not a complete arsehole then I don’t have to be concerned about who likes me or doesn’t.
  4. I create needless waste. I came over here with my Hydro Flask, determined not to be one of those backpackers who bought bottle after bottle of water, without ever bothering to refill, simply because it’s cheap and convenient. It seems like they go through a LOT of plastic on this side of the world, and I feel somewhat responsible as a tourist that this is so. When I arrived at the retreat center last week, I was given a grand tour by a purple-haired Israeli girl who came for a couple of weeks and is still here almost a year later. I tried to nod along and follow her spiel, but all I was looking for was somewhere I could put my chewing gum. In the last five days, much has happened and changed, but that one fact remains – there is never a good place to put my chewing gum. Here, the recycling policy is pretty thorough and sophisticated. There’s a whole outdoor shed area dedicated to the separation of plastic, cans, paper, glass, foil, etc., etc. Everything organic is turned into compost, cow feed or duck feed. Even toilet paper is recycled. At the end of all this, there really shouldn’t be any “waste”. And yet, every day, I’m walking around with a big useless gob of chewing gum, which ends up in the bottom of my bag in a teeny scrap of paper, and then turns up later on the frames of my sunglasses or hidden in the middle of my book. Or (and this is what usually happens) I end up swallowing the damn thing, wondering how my poor, hard-working body is going to digest something so unnatural. But how did I expect the earth to cope? Why the need to create waste? Why the need to chew gum at all? It seems to be something that keeps me sane, gets me from A to B. It reduced cravings for other, worse things, but although it might be the lesser of evils, it’s definitely not harmless.
  5. I don’t have to be scared anymore. Thailand is full of butterflies and moths – big ones, little ones, ones that could pass for birds or other mammals, ones that are intricately patterned or completely camouflaged against the barks of trees or the large, jungle leaves. … I guess I realized that today is a new day, and can be the day that I shed this part of my identity that I’ve been clinging onto. It’s just another story. I’m not saying that my heart didn’t drop when that butterfly started attacking me with its kisses, but I’m saying that all it took was one little baby leap into that fear to completely rewrite my story from this point on. That beautiful creature hung out on my finger for about half an hour, and I got to put my face right against its face and observe details that I’d never known or been curious about since as long as I could remember. I wasn’t scared because I wasn’t telling myself that I was scared. I’ve been to butterfly houses in different parts of the world, fists clenched, trying to face my fear with force, exposing myself to gargantuan creatures that could take your eye out and gritting my teeth as I drag myself through their lairs, when all it took was this delicate little creature, a fresh attitude, and a genuine curiosity rising from a place of self-compassion. Not “all it took”, but seriously, everything about this felt like the easy way – almost too easy to be believed.
  6. I am too hard on myself. The monk said it, not me. There’s a monk visiting the retreat center for the week, and I got to have a wonderful chat with him the other day under the trees. We were talking about meditation, but I suppose we were actually talking about life in general (what’s practiced on the meditation cushion ought to be practiced in the real world, right?). He said, of my meditation practice that is often too forceful and self-critical, “You are hard on yourself? You are perfectionist?” I don’t think it’s even worth writing any more on my perfectionism, because most people reading this probably understand how it manifests, greatly or subtly, in their own lives. From a meditation standpoint, it manifests as me being unable to hold focus, getting perpetually distracted, and then dragging my attention back to the breath while cursing myself for my shortcomings. The monk’s advice was simple, “Let everything be as it is. Observe the distraction.” Simple, but also profound, because he wasn’t just saying that it’s alright to get distracted – he was saying that by refusing to acknowledge and observe our distractions, we are not truly present – we’re actually missing out. Relating this back to life in general, here’s #7:
  7. I should allow things to be as they are.
    • To truly know my mind, I must accept its craziness – not just say that I accept it, but truly get to know it, and observe it from the outside, from a place where I both deeply identify and completely disassociate from it.
    • To truly overcome craving, I must embrace it, not ignore it. By the time I notice my craving, it is at its peak, but there is a whole gradual incline that I am not aware of because I’ve never taken the time to tune into the subtleties of the actual experience of craving. Essentially, I treat craving the same as mind or any of the mental phenomena that arise – observe, don’t try to change. It’ll change itself over time.
  8. I’m energized by real connection, not by people. This is sort of the missing piece that I’ve known for a while but failed to understand or articulate. I get truly exhausted when I travel and have to have the same banal and hollow conversations with everyone I meet. It’s not that I don’t like doing it – at worst, I tolerate it and see it as a part of the package; at best, I actually enjoy the repetition and the detached superficiality. It’s more that, when all is said and done, I am still an introvert, as much as I seek to shed that label. I derive my energy from being alone; I need me-time to recharge. But when I come away from a good conversation, or when I observe a relationship deepening, I feel electric. I’ve often struggled to reconcile these two seemingly-contradictory parts of me, but now they make sense – both sides are real and true. 
  9. Opportunities arise from presence. This morning, I got to teach a yoga class. A knock came on my door fifteen minutes before class started, saying that the teacher was sick, so I said yes and jumped in. But that’s only come because I have been present enough to connect with the yoga teacher and others, enough for them to feel comfortable approaching me, I have also been present enough to show up to my mat and my yoga Youtube classes for the last two and a half years, which ultimately lead to me standing at the door of my dorm in a towel this morning, before sunrise, eyes full of sleep and head full of self doubt. I said no, then I said yes. As well as that, Since I’ve been here, I’ve had hundreds of ideas planted in my head about what I want to do with the next five months of traveling, or with the rest of my life. I’ve had the opportunity to visit places that I hadn’t thought of going, to extend my visa, to change my plans or my mind, to think about maybe pursuing different interests in the short- or long-term – all because I’ve been practicing presence. Helps for fun and fortuitous travel, but also for life and stuff.
  10. My behavior reinforces scarcity, not abundance. I have a bit of a checkered past when it comes to, say, taking more than what was “freely given”. I won’t go into it, but suffice to say that I shoplifted a lot (A LOT) during the years of my addiction, justifying it (and still do, to some extent) by “only” taking from faceless corporations and conglomerates, never from the guy who owns the local corner-store. Although, if I’m to be truly honest, I would tell you that even the corner-store guy was an occasional victim of my slippery morals; when you’re setting the ‘rules’ yourself, it’s almost impossible not to bend them. Now, though those days are behind me, avariciousness – a perhaps relatively modern and socially acceptable vice that is at the top of my personal deadly sins – still plagues me. It manifests in subtle ways probably multiple times every hour – in a sense, it rules me. An example is this – I’m currently at this retreat, there’s plenty of food to go around, and we are fed buffet-style three times a day. There’s no chance that I could go hungry – I am gaining weight (I think) and am full after every meal. Even if I wasn’t, I’m about a four-minute walk from a local store selling cheap food aplenty, and I am relatively well-off in Thailand, so even if that store were closed, I could get a cab to Chiang Rai for a few bucks and eat to my heart’s content there. Yet, when I’m in line at lunch or dinner, I have this gnawing anxiety, which makes me grab two plates (or a plate and a large bowl, to look like there’s some legitimate reasoning behind it) and pile them high with just-in-case food. For others, it could be shopping, buying things we don’t need (I used to do this). When I pocket a few packets of sweetener from Starbucks, I tell myself the same thing. When I make sure that I am first in line to buy a ticket to a show, or run to grab a seat on a train, I do the same thing. Or when I convince myself that I don’t have time to sit and chat with someone. But, as my friend Alex pointed out in a sharing circle the other evening (of his own behaviour, but mirroring mine), what is being reinforced, again and again, is scarcity; that life is not abundant, that there will not be “enough” of what I want (or need). Our individualistic Western society supports and even encourages this kind of behaviour. To our detriment, though; the more I act as though my resources (time, money, love, etc.) are scarce, the scarcer and more shrivelled up their springs become.

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