Weeks #3-6 – Things I’ve Learned
1. The value of community.
Traveling alone, I naturally thought I’d be spending a lot of time alone, and that really appealed to me, because I like being alone, am more of an introvert and probably selfishly enjoy the freedom of not being responsible for other people. I got a bit of a shock when I found myself thrown into more social situations than when I was living my regular life. As with everything, though, the opposite of all the above statements about my identity is true, and also, I took the reality of the situation and rolled with it, with the question “Hey Goddess, what are you trying to teach me?”*
Suspended in this flow, I ended up heading to a mindfulness retreat for two weeks, where I lived and worked as part of a thriving spiritual community called New Life Foundation. I realized that on my own, I’m good, but in a community, I’m sometimes better, and often worse, which is the perfect range for me to actually look at my shit and try to deal with it.
From there, I made my way to Pai, a little hippy haven in northern Vietnam. I checked into a hostel and was unpleasantly surprised to find that the dorms were windowless huts, the bathroom and shower was a short trek through the long grass, and there were very few people staying there. It was outside the town, and in a beautiful area, but for a split second I started thinking that I’d made the wrong decision. Then I remembered. There are no wrong decisions. So from my bunk that night, I uttered a quiet prayer for the lesson to be revealed.
What ensued over the following days was the unfurling of one of the most beautiful experiences of my travels so far. I became part of a family. Not just a family comprised of the people who owned and worked in the hostel, but a family that extended into the whole Pai community. On my first day in the town, I rented my scooter and took off in a direction, taking turns at random, until I found myself at another community who live off the grid, in the jungle, and more lust for life on their rugged half-acre than I felt in the whole city of Chicago in two and a half years there. I spent the day painting a mural on one of the huts and eating rice and papaya salad from shared plates.
So what does a community look like? The ones I’ve found here are all shapes and sizes, all colors and creeds, all nationalities and backgrounds, but they come together with a common intention, whether it be to live mindfully, to get fucked up, to live off the grid, to collectively create a thing or destroy their own old ideologies – whatever. It’s commonality, and I’ve long overlooked the importance of feeling belonging because I somehow got it into my head that being an outsider is cool. But I forgot that all the other outsiders and I are, together, insiders.
* Can’t remember where I picked that golden nugget up, but it was likely from my friend and unofficial spiritual mentor, Alex 🙂
2. The importance of self-compassion.
At New Life, we had evening meetings sometimes facilitated by community members. I went to a “social anxiety” one because, obviously. It was a fairly vague title. We ended up listening to a pretty popular Ted Talk by psychologist Kristin Neff on the difference between self-compassion and self-esteem. I grew up in the nineties, where the buzz-term “self-esteem” referred to an invaluable life-tool that parents were supposed to instill in their kids. Self-esteem, she argues, is conditional – it’s about feeling good about the good elements of your personality – your drive, your good-looks, your talent, your intelligence. It’s distantly-related cousin, self-compassion, she suggests (with a body of research to back it up) does the job that self-esteem fails to deliver on. Rather than being conditional, self-compassion accepts you exactly as you are, flaws and all, and enables one to look at one’s dark parts with a kind and loving gaze that sees both the shadows and the light.
Since I’ve come out here, I’ve had to come to terms with a lot of my addictive tendencies that rumble beneath and surface sporadically. Some of them have even ruptured through in full force, I assume because they’re begging me to deal with them. New Life was a safe space where I could suffer, and feel my suffering. Wat Pa Tham Wua (a Buddhist monastery between Pai and Mae Hong Son, where I spent ten days in silence) was a haven where I could heal. Without leading with self-compassion, which has a nourishment running through it, I wouldn’t have even ended up in these places, let alone flourished in them.
3 The body knows best.
TRE (Trauma/Tension Release Exercise) isn’t something I’d heard of before going to New Life, but when I got there I saw that two sessions were offered a week to the community, so I signed up. It’s a therapy based on the idea that when animals (including humans) suffer a shock or trauma, we release cortisol and other chemicals, but what you will see animals doing in the wild is shaking the excess energy out of them. Humans have conditioned themselves over millennia to not shake, to hold it all in – which is precisely where it stays. So TRE is a controlled way of letting out the trauma that is still stored in our muscles, fibers, tendons, and spirits. After a series of short exercises, you lie on the floor and your body will start to undergo these tremors – you’re essentially just shaking. It is firstly shocking, at times pleasant, and at times distressing. The idea is that you learn to regulate your own tremors, but in the beginning, you should do it with a trained facilitator. In my session, we were consistently reminded to let our bodies do the work, because the body knows best. So I relaxed into it.
Out of nowhere, after about ten minutes of shaking, tears started streaming from my eyes, and I felt waves of mild grief and slight anxiety washing over me. Without thought, my body changed its rocking motion from an up/down one to a gentle side-to-side rocking, like a mother would rock a child in her arms. Emotions flooded me so that I could barely tell which was which. The sadness was replaced by peace and appreciation for my intuitive, life-giving, nurturing body, that knew instinctively what I need.
I’ve also sort of ditched the alarm clock, or rather I take it as a loose suggestion, because I’ve found that my body will take exactly the amount of sleep that it needs.
A final kudos to the body – we’re on the other side of the world, dealing with all sorts of new smells and dirt and drinking waters, and (touch wood) I’ve not even felt the slightest upset. What a miraculous machine!
4. Listening to all of the emotions. Traveling, I sometimes deludedly think that I should be happy all of the time, because I’m “on holiday”. That’s what my mind tells me when there is sunshine and foreign languages – it’s just bred into you as an Irish person. But realistically, traveling and holidaying are entirely separate beasts. Seeing as I have no address or job to go back to, I’m essentially living nomadically, as opposed to just taking a break from the stresses/comforts of life.
As such, all of my troubles, habits, healing tools and nourishing routines must come with me. And with them, all of the emotional ups-and-downs they elicit. So, instead of denying my sadness because it’s not appropriate attire for this weather, I drape it around me like a soft shawl it and accept it until it passes, which it invariably does. I think in the past I’ve maybe over-indulged my emotions a little bit, wrapping the shawl around me like a comfort blanket, because damn! that can feel so good when you’re used to numbing out and not usually feeling the weight and texture of emotions!
But now, I don’t need to do that anymore. I’ve been feeling feelings for a while and I understand their importance as well as their futility. I understand that there’s a fine line between reality and fantasy; honoring the present feelings, not avoiding them, while also recognizing their transience and relativity. It’s like all the above is true once you step out of the dualistic way of looking at it.
5. Befriending the shadow. I took a trip to Mae Hong Son on my motorbike a few weeks ago to extend my Thailand visa for another thirty days. I’d originally planned on getting a bus to the town, about a three hour bus journey north through the mountains from Pai, but something hit me when I was in the line for the station. I was behind a group of irate tourists who were almost shouting at the cashier, both parties trying to communicate in extremely limited English. I was like, “do I wanna be on a bus with these people for four hours? And… why can’t I just drive?” So, even though I have extremely limited experience driving a scooter, channeling the earnestness I’d witnessed, I hopped back on my scooter, grabbed some warm clothes, and drove the three-hour journey up the windiest road I’ve ever been on, through the mountains and the jungle, and back again just by nightfall.
Sometimes you give it a go because you have no choice; sometimes you give it a go because some intangible force is pushing you to. Either way, I believe that the universe presents the necessary challenges to ensure that you continue to grow in this lifetime.
I had a lot of time to think. Based on a conversation I’d had with a dreadlocked-yogi named James that had spanned into the early hours of that morning (on my first night in Pai – I know, how cliché), I kept asking myself every time I saw a sign marking the distance to Mae Hong Son, “What is my shadow?” And tearing down these winding, opens roads on a scooter in the sunshine, growing hotter by the hour, I was able to answer and contemplate these questions without fear, with nothing but love.
Some things that came up – I’m eager to please; I’m selfish and manipulative; I’m (oh so very) greedy; I’m lazy; I seek external validation and am attention-seeking. These aren’t definitions of ME, immutable and infinite in the extreme. No, they’re just signposts; they’re not true all of the time but they are the markers of my lower self, so when I exhibit these behaviours, I know I’ve strayed away from the light and into the darkness.
As such, I am grateful that they exist, because they keep me in check. For that reason, I’m not scared of knowing my shadow, as some are. But I am petrified of not knowing it.