Dang it, why is growth so hard?

When I set out on this trip I had a few questions in mind: What do I want in life? What do I want to do next? What do I want to learn? What’s important to me, and how might I bring it into my life? Where do I want to live? And most importantly, who do I want to be? No big deal. Just small potato questions, right? 

Well, I’m six months into this eight-month trip and I have learned a fair amount about myself and some tiny fragments of the world. While I have a couple ideas about what to do next (up until April anyway), I’ve yet to answer most of my big questions. 

Frankly, I feel a heavy doubt in my chest that I’m missing the point. My wiser self knows that I’m avoiding truly confronting the core beliefs that are holding me back from being fully myself. I can see my own shaky foundation as if from a bird’s eye view, and yet it’s slippery and exhausting to address. That foundation, which I’ve neglected for as long as I can remember, is self-love. 

Here’s some honesty for you: over the year before I left on my trip I let my confidence and happiness slip and get beaten down. I think I might even be depressed, I’m not sure. Despite incredible opportunity, adventure and beauty around me, I’ve struggled throughout this trip to open myself up and enjoy it fully. I’m very quick to conclude that something going wrong means that I’m a shit person and not worth knowing. Intellectually, I’m pretty sure this isn’t true, but it’s difficult to really believe it in my gut.  

It’s time I dig into and reinforce my shaky foundation because even after these six months I sometimes wonder what I’ve actually gotten from this trip. I often feel like I’m not making the most of it, and fear that I won’t be in a fundamentally different mental place by the time I get back to Canada. 

So in an effort to acknowledge how I’ve grown over these past months, I wanted to take some time to reflect on what I’ve learned thus far. I’ve framed these skills as practices, because I think a practice better describes what it means to “learn” something, because it’s become desperately clear to me that I’ll never be done. So here they are, the six practices that are challenging me to grow during this trip.

I’m practising adapting.

This trip has taken me to four countries now, and I’m becoming more aware of the process of landing in a new city and the adaptation that follows. I know now that when I get to a new city I tend to dislike the first two or three days. I struggle to find my footing and feel uncomfortable and insecure in my new surroundings. This is worse if I don’t have my own space or a structure through which to direct my energy. But I know now that this tends to pass. It makes me wonder if I’m good or bad at change, and if I’m bad at change, why do I seek it out? I’m starting to see that my problem isn’t that I struggle to adapt to my current situation but rather that I’m trying to escape it. I’m starting to think that adapting is just being present regardless of one’s surroundings. When I let my mind settle back into my body I don’t need to do anything but enjoy where I am, and in doing so I’m suddenly at ease in whatever situation I find myself.

I’m practising patience.

I’ve become relatively comfortable getting through finite periods of time. It’s important that I qualify my patience in this way because while I’m patient in these finite situations, I can be incredibly impatient in open-ended ones. During this trip I’ve practised patience through a 10+ day silent meditation retreat, and through a 42-hour bus ride from Dharamsala to Kathmandu. My patience practice continues to be a challenge for me when it comes to my life in general. I’m impatient to know “what I’m doing with my life”, particularly as my trip enters its final two months. 

I’m practising minimalism.

I’ve traveled for six months living mostly out of a 22L daypack and an ~8L purse-backpack. Of those six months I’ve spent about three living in one place where I could temporarily settle in, but the restriction of having to pack up all my things and move to the next destination has forced me to check any gut cravings of buying new, beautiful things along the way. Of course, I would have loved to collect gorgeous items in India and Nepal, and now in Turkey where there are incredible fabrics, tea cups, lamps, artwork, jewelry, tea, specialty foods, and so much more. I would love to one day live in a home decorated with the treasures I’ve found around the world, but it’s been liberating to mostly write off the possibility of shopping and collecting trinkets. The small items I have purchased (postcards for my collection, some jewelry, and some Tibetan Buddhist flags) stand out to me as special because they were the exception. 

I’m practising slightly less vanity.

Like most people, how I think I look affects how I feel. And unfortunately, how I think other people think I look affects how I feel about myself. But travel, and particularly minimalist travel, has allowed me to release some of this preoccupation. A combination of being around people I’m unlikely to see ever again and the necessity of packing light have encouraged me to ditch mascara and basically wear the same five outfits for the last six months. It’s liberating to release the concern that someone will care that I wore this outfit yesterday, or that they always see me in the same shirt. I also enjoyed three months of not bothering to buy conditioner or hair mousse and when I chose to buy these again in Greece the silky smoothness of my hair was glorious. A pleasure I’ve largely taken for granted. 

I’m practising teaching.

For me, teaching is a practice of empathy, communication, collaboration, vulnerability and patience. Mostly my teaching practice has been in the form of leading yoga classes for refugee women and teenagers, and other volunteers on Lesvos. But it was also in the form of simple conversations in my volunteer role, helping people who came into our office with English speaking and writing, computer skills, and creative skills. Describing this as teaching doesn’t quite capture how it felt to me. It was practising self expression, listening, and applied empathy; parsing what’s important and what’s not, and giving guidance; making myself vulnerable to being wrong and foolish; and seeing myself become less self-conscious and more playful with time. 

I’m practising connection.

For most of my life I thought it was really obvious that I was an extrovert. I see myself come to life when I have a role to play in front of and with a group, and feel energized around people I trust. Over the last few years, however, I’ve noticed that I feel an uncomfortable, restless itch when I don’t have space of my own or time to myself (why do I like traveling again?), so I started to think that maybe I’m an introvert. Of course, extroversion/ introversion is a spectrum not a dichotomy, so I probably fall more in the “ambivert” middle, but the realization that I’m not strongly extroverted has challenged my assumptions about how to connect with others in a sustainable way. 

I’m not particularly good at meeting new people, or rather, I’m not very good at turning new acquaintances into more meaningful relationships. Most of my friends I’ve known for years if not decades, and making new ones is an almost intractable skill that mystifies me 95% of the time. I have done pretty well in connecting with loved ones from afar via messages, email, social media, and FaceTime hangouts, and I’m so incredibly grateful for this. But meeting new people and developing those fledgling connections is a weak skill that will change my life if I master it. Doing so will mean practising vulnerability, self-confidence, curiosity, and love for others. When I let fear and insecurity take over when I’m craving connection, I retreat from my largely extroverted nature and undermine my ability to gain energy and strength from the people around me. They say that loneliness is worse for your health than smoking so this is one of the most important practices for me to strengthen. 

I’m a firm believer that shame is the ultimate nemesis to growth, joy and connection; this belief is a fundamental reason why I want to share my thoughts with you in this blog. Sometimes it makes me nervous to be so open in a very public forum, but I know I’m not alone in struggling with self-worth, self-love and self-confidence. I’m also among the majority who struggle with vulnerability, connection and belonging. So I hope that sharing this reflection might make you feel less alone in whatever you’re struggling with, and with whatever you’re practising. 

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Fitting feelings of YOLO into a long-term life strategy

A few years ago I excitedly got on a trampoline for the first time since high school. Upon my first very normal rebound off the trampoline a wave of impact rippled through my joints, reverberating in my knees, hips, and up my back and neck. I stopped dead. Holy shit, I said out loud, that’s not at all how it used to feel. That’s when I realized, I’m getting older.

Graffiti quoting one of my favourite Grey’s Anatomy lines on a wall in my Kathmandu hostel.
That was three years ago. I’m 26 now and my own fragility has only become more apparent. Now, I recognize that 26 is not old, and if you’re much older than me you may be scoffing at my wimpiness. To clarify, it’s more the transition that I’m observing; compared to the carefree, resilient years of my childhood and teens, being in your 20s is the beginning of a confronting reality check—you are not invincible.

This new reality shows itself in big and small ways. Last year on a bike trip in Québec I had a small wipe out on a gravel path and scraped my knee. No big deal; it didn’t need much first aid, and didn’t inhibit the rest of my trip. But I was astounded when it took more than a month for it to heal, and a year later I can still see the white-ish mark where it had been. It’s possible that it always took that long to heal from simple injuries and I just never noticed, but it seems to me like my body’s ability to bounce back is a little bit less impressive than it used to be.

I also feel myself being more cautious than I was even just a few years ago. On my first trip to India, I was pretty well convinced that I could get through most things that might occur on my trip. As a passenger on the chaotic and dangerous roads of India, I acknowledged that I may very well die during that ride, but was able to mostly let it go. In planning for this trip, however, I found myself considering the odds of being in a car accident or train accident pretty seriously. It didn’t keep me from traveling, but it was a lot more apparent and disconcerting than it had been last time.

Paragliding in Nepal
Although it had been on my bucket list for a few years, I hesitated for about a week before I committed to going paragliding. I worried that I’d injure myself, particularly on take-off and landing. But I’m so glad I went for it! And it turns out that you land by just standing up on two feet, easy peasy.
More confronting has been seeing some of my friends and loved ones affected by serious illnesses, accidents, and the realities of aging. Every time something terrible happens I find myself thinking about what I want in life, and whether I’d do anything differently if I knew I was going to die sometime soon.

Since I’m on what looks like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, it may or may not surprise you that I would change what I’m doing entirely if I knew I was going to die in a month or two; I’d go home to be with family and friends. If I knew I was going to die in a year, I might keep traveling, but I’d want to do it with loved ones if at all possible. Clearly, if my priorities were set in order by a life-threatening event, I would lean way more toward relationships and connection, and away from seemingly frivolous adventuring. 

Meanwhile, with the optimistic assumption that I’ll get to live another several decades, I see obvious inherent value in the trip that I’m on. In the long-term this kind of open-ended exploration is an adventure, a challenge, and an investment in my future self. 

I’m left with a bit of a riddle then: How might I balance the liberating YOLO (You Only Live Once) mentality that often goes along with youthfulness and traveling with my desire to live a long, thoughtful and fulfilling life?

Let’s think this through then. Along with going home, what would I do if I knew I only had two months to live? 

  • I’d say yes more, just to see what would happen.
  • I’d probably go get those tattoos I’ve been thinking about for a while. 
  • I’d stop giving a single shit whether people like my true, vulnerable self. 
  • I’d start expressing myself fully, talk to more strangers, laugh more loudly, and cry more openly. 
  • I’d spend every single day with people that I loved and be present for every minute of it.
  • I’d sing and dance to my music as I walked down the street. 
  • I’d tell people I loved them a whole lot more freely. 
  • I’d enjoy every sip of gorgeous coffee and eat my favourite foods as often as possible.
  • I’d stop worrying about what job I’d have next and whether I’d make a good living. I’d just go find something interesting to do, maybe something that helps other people. 
  • I’d let go of my ego and apologize for things I’ve done, and forgive others for whatever pain they’ve caused me.
  • I’d knock down these walls I keep up to protect myself from the people around me. 
  • I’d stop caring about how I thought I looked to other people. I wouldn’t care if I gained any weight and I’d wear whatever the hell I wanted. Maybe I’d dye my hair a lilac purple. 
  • I’d be terribly sad that I’d never be a mother, and that I wouldn’t grow old with someone. I’d be sad not to see my sister and friends do the same. 

Sounds pretty great, minus the last point (and other obvious downsides of having only two months to live). In fact, sounds like a number of cliché-sounding pop songs from the last several years. There’s also a great (in my opinion) show on Netflix called No Tomorrow that plays out the scenario of having eight months to live and checking off everything on your bucket list in true YOLO style. It’s clearly pretty easy to buy into the idea of living like today was your last day.

Yet it seems to me that we rarely live like this for very long. Why? Because most of us have longer-term visions for our lives than the next few days or months. And that’s a good thing. I personally think saving for retirement is a pretty good idea, never mind the regret that might come along with those tattoos you got when you told yourself to live in the moment. A character on that No Tomorrow show runs up his credit card care-free so that he can live life to its fullest. That’s not exactly sustainable. 
It can also be pretty exhausting to maintain the belief that you might die at any moment. Adrenaline isn’t meant to hang around that long in your body, and emotionally it can be pretty draining. So should we do something about the insights we have when we’re reminded of our own mortality? How might we balance living like we actually appreciate each moment with looking ahead and investing our time and energy in the futures we want? I don’t have answers for this, but I think a big part of living within this balance is realizing that we (likely) have a lot more choice in how we live our lives than we think.

Over the last several months it’s really started to sink in that there are so many ways to live our lives. While I’ve worked within the assumption that my life generally plays out in an office, there are people out there who make their livings on YouTube, or by writing for magazines, farming, making movies, running a restaurant, teaching Pilates, or helping others settle in a new country. Some spend their whole lives traveling and working online, and others spend their lives raising kids and volunteering in their communities. Some dedicate themselves to public service, and others to storytelling, artistic expression, or pushing themselves to the edge of their physical abilities. While most of us won’t have a career on YouTube, thinking about these options makes it clear: the rules and expectations we live within most of the time are pretty much made up, by ourselves, our families, and our societies. The more we can step out of our bubbles and see our assumptions about life for what they are the more we can build our lives more freely and intentionally toward the things that really matter to us.

For example, professional success and earning a decent living are pretty important to me. But when I reflect on how much they drive my life, I realize that I’ve got pretty shaky definitions of success in these two arenas: I don’t actually know how much money is enough; and I have a fairly limited definition of professional success. More importantly, these two things aren’t ultimately what I’m after. What I’m really interested in is what they offer me: freedom to choose; safety and security security; the ability to provide for a family; the ability to enjoy my leisure time and relationships; interesting things to work on; the ability to change course and u-turn if I want to; and the ability to explore my passions and curiosity. With this clarity, it’s starting to sound like an office job and linear professional accomplishments aren’t necessarily the only way to achieve these things. As a prof of mine used to say, what’s the next right answer?

Sure, one of my possible futures has me working in an office, continuing the professional trajectory that I’ve allowed to be a driving force in my life. But in other futures my next step looks a lot more fluid than that. Maybe I’ll find a job online that allows me to travel and volunteer in interesting places. Or maybe I’ll explore my own country, teaching yoga and serving tables from coast to coast. Maybe I’ll find an inspiring organization to work with for a year or two and then take a sabbatical, much like right now. Maybe I’ll finally become fluent in French and bike across France. Maybe I’ll find myself having a baby in the next couple years, or maybe I’ll find myself in grad school. 

For me, it’s taken some time and space from the life I used to lead to start seeing these options, and honestly, they’re still pretty tame. But I hope that I can maintain and develop this mindset, and have faith in myself that I can find and create the life I want to lead regardless of which path I take.

Doing my best to stay safe while living dangerously.
Fortunately, finding a fulfilling balance in life doesn’t have to be expensive or dangerous. Many of the items on my two-months-to-live list above are, in fact, danger free. For example, I don’t have to run up a credit card or risk my life to express myself more openly and lovingly to those around me. While a lack of deadline makes some of these items a whole lot more scary (for me anyway), I know that challenging myself to be more vulnerable and courageous will pay off both today and decades from now, even if it sometimes makes me uncomfortable.

Sometimes when I’m having a rough time, feeling full of doubt, or completely lost or uninspired, I imagine 80-year-old me looking back on this time of her life with fondness, gratitude and wisdom. I hear her tell stories to her friends and grandkids about that time she took a risk that was probably stupid but led to an incredible adventure. Or that time she fucked up at work and thought the world was crashing down only to discover that life is so much bigger than that. Or that time she swallowed her pride and told someone she loved them even though it made her cry. I’m inspired by 80-year-old me, because she knows from experience that there are far fewer rules than she thought there were at 26.

That vipassana course was a breeze, said no one ever

It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to do a ten-day vipassana course. At its most concise, I think I can say that a vipassana course is like a self-imposed minimum security prison with mental solitary confinement. It’s a test of mental discipline; a roller coaster of emotional baggage repeatedly kicking you in the face; it’s experiential proof that meditation can be a really powerful tool; and maybe, just maybe, it’s the first step on your path to enlightenment.

Surprise! You’re here to meditate.

Going into this course, I thought that the hard parts would be not talking, writing, or using technology. These were hard, though not talking was actually the easiest of all of the rules to follow. No, the hardest part was contending with the TEN AND A HALF HOURS of meditation scheduled every single day. That is a long effing time my friends. A long effing time.

I must have read the schedule at some point months ago and thought something like, “I’ll get used to it. It’ll be hard, but I’m tough, and it’ll just kind of work out because that’s what everyone will be doing.” NO. It does not work that way. To give you the full picture, here’s the daily schedule for ten full days:

  • 4:00 Wake up
  • 4:30 Meditate in the Dhamma (meditation) hall or in your room
  • 6:30 Breakfast
  • 7:00 Rest
  • 8:00 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
  • 9:00 Meditate in the Dhamma hall or in your room (according to the teacher’s instructions)
  • 11:00 Lunch
  • 11:30 Rest
  • 13:00 Meditate in the Dhamma hall or in your room
  • 14:30 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
  • 15:30 Meditate in the Dhamma hall or in your room (according to the teacher’s instructions)
  • 17:00 Tea break (you get tea, a bit of fruit, and puffed rice instead of dinner)
  • 17:30 Rest
  • 18:00 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
  • 19:00 Discourse (watching a recorded Dhamma talk by S. N. Goenka)
  • 20:30 Group meditation in the Dhamma hall (required)
  • 21:00 Bed

I’ll say again, that’s 10.5 hours of scheduled meditation either in the Dhamma/meditation hall, or in your room. Oh, and every meditation period is opened and closed by 5 – 20 minutes of god-awful recorded chanting blared at volume over speakers in the Dhamma hall. The first moment I heard this chanting I had to actively stifle my laughter. You see, while the teacher who’d recorded this chanting (this guy named Goenka) could definitely sing well if he wanted to, he, for some unfathomable reason, chose to gurgle his chanting instead. Have you ever seen the movie The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Early in the movie an alien species called Vogon captures the main characters. These aliens are all bureaucrats by nature and love paperwork and boring policies and regulations. They also use their unique Vogon poetry to torture humans and individuals of other species. Although it’s not quite the same, this is what I pictured every time the chanting was played. Later on, some new chanting was added, which sounded very similar to Dori when she’s speaking whale.

I was not a very good vipassana student. 

Despite the, ahem, unique chanting, I really did try for the first 4.5 days or so. I even thought I was getting the hang of it on the fourth day when we started doing actual vipassana meditation rather than the preparatory annapanna meditation. Unfortunately, this feeling did not last, and I soon was finding ways to reduce the number of hours of meditation I was doing each day. 

One way to do this was by escaping to my room at every opportunity (leaving anywhere from 4 – 6 hours of unavoidable daily meditation). Fortunately, no one’s monitoring whether you’re actually meditating when you’re in your room, but you pretty much have to stay in there (in a 5 x 8 ft room in my case, which I was lucky enough to have all to myself). And, of course, you’re not allowed to write, read, use technology, or even do yoga while you’re in there. So, essentially, either meditate or have a timeout. To be clear, here are all the rules:

  • Don’t kill (not people, bugs, or animals for food)
  • Don’t steal
  • Don’t lie
  • Avoid “sexual misconduct” (abstain from sexual desires)
  • Don’t take intoxicants
  • Keep “noble silence”, meaning don’t talk, gesture, pass notes, make eye contact, or even walk with another meditator (though you can talk to the teacher during specific times to ask practical meditation questions) 
  • Don’t read or write
  • Don’t use technology
  • Don’t jog, do yoga, or do any exercise other than walking
  • Don’t meditate outside (apparently, nature is distracting. WHAT?)
  • Don’t mix with the opposite gender (basically impossible to do anyway because men and women are kept almost entirely separate)

The first thing to go was the 4:30 – 6:30 am meditation. Not because I didn’t want to wake up early–I actually don’t mind as I’ve gotten quite used to waking up at 5:30 during my yoga teacher training course. This was the first to go for two reasons: 1) because it was the time slot that was most in my control to cut out; and 2) I could try to sleep instead of being stuck having a timeout in my room. The day could just get a little bit shorter.

Escaping to my room at greater and greater frequency helped, but I had a lot of time on my hands and very little to do with it. Very quickly, the simplest tasks became focal points of any breaks or timeouts in my room. 

Napping became a genuine passtime. There was a day (when I was still attending 4:30 – 6:30 meditation) when I napped three times before 1pm. THREE TIMES. And it’s not like I was doing lots of physical activity to tucker myself out. That morning looked like this: I woke up, sat in a room for two hours, ate breakfast, napped; woke up, sat in a room for 1.5 hours, napped; woke up, ate lunch, napped. How is that even possible?? 

Other very, very simple activities became centrepoints of any free time I had. For example, needing to use the bathroom could be stretched into a solid 10-minute break if you walk slowly to your room, get your toilet paper, walk slowly to the bathroom, take your time, wash your hands slowly, and walk back to your room to return your toilet paper.

There were two exciting incidents in which I got to handwash my undergarments. I genuinely looked forward to this because I could take 30 – 45 minutes to do this if I tried. 

One time when I was “meditating” in the Dhamma hall I instead counted the number of bricks I could see in the section of wall in front of me (working around the curtains and the girl blocking my view, of course). There were 314. I remember because Pi. I later found out that I was not the only person to count bricks in the Dhamma hall.

Here are the rest of my key pastimes (that didn’t break any rules…):

  • Stitching up holes in everything I owned. (I managed to stitch up 8 small holes in some very worn-in pants, one hole in the crotch of another, and reinforce some stitching coming apart in my backpack. Thank god for my little sewing kit.)
  • Watching monkey parents teach their monkey children to climb things
  • Flossing and brushing my teeth
  • Plucking my eyebrows
  • Staring into the forest
  • Staring out my bedroom window
  • Staring at the ceiling
  • Organizing my tampon stash in its ziploc bag. Yep, did that.

Alas, even with all of these new pastimes, I still had a lot of time on my hands. So I broke a rule. Two rules actually. Or maybe I broke one and bent the other, you be the judge. The first, I started doing yoga in my room. After shifting my night table around, I managed to just barely fit my yoga mat in the space immediately adjacent to my bed, the door, the wall, and my night table. I even had to duck my head under my bed to do a wide-legged forward fold, but it was so, so worth it. I ended up doing yoga every other day or so and it made me feel normal again for a few hours.

The second rule I broke/bent/whatever was that I started doodling. I say bent because technically it wasn’t a rule that you couldn’t draw. Though I was supposed to lock up my notebook and pens along with my tech, valuables and book, so I admit that it was kind of implied. But this doodling was marvellous! Never have I truly appreciated the magic of how time passes when one draws. 

You start to lose it a little.

Despite this rule breaking, you start to go a little crazy. Once when I was trying to jailbreak from my timeout, I did my best to look meditative as I paced thoughtfully back and forth down a 100m path at the back of the property. (I tried to stand back here once staring into the forest and a teaching assistant kindly told me that it was meditation time and I should be in the Dhamma hall or in my room. So I learned to make myself look busy and meditative). I paced that path 20 times. It took me about 40 minutes. I wondered to myself whether it would take the same number of steps walking one direction as it did the other. Turns out it took 137 steps in one direction but 145 going the other. Fascinating. I theorized that it takes more steps to go downhill than it takes to go uphill. Around lap 8 I was thinking about how grateful I was for this little path, how it was keeping me sane. I started calling it the Path of Salvation, because it saved me. My neighbour entered onto the path and I welcomed her with open arms–come child, you are welcome on the Path of Salvation. I had to stifle the huge smile that burst out when I thought this to myself until she passed me so as not to look like a total weirdo. Around lap 12 I found that same neighbour next to the Path of Salvation picking something out of a pile of dirt. By lap 14 she was arranging small white pebbles into the symbol for Pi on a small concrete slab. The second time Pi had come up. Curious. I again stifled a hysterical smile and kept walking. 

Another time, I saw a woman sitting very close to a tree, meticulously examining the ivy growing on it. Someone else told me that she started counting the number of shades of green she could see, because she had literally. Nothing. Else. To. Do. 

So what? 

Going into this course I’d heard mixed reviews, though mostly positive. Many people say that vipassana has changed their lives. They start to break down their ego and experience the reality of the law of impermanence. Fantastic. I’d also heard of an experience in which someone desperately wanted to leave every single day. My experience was more like the latter, though I think many people experience both. 

But I think I’m glad I did it. Ya. Yep, I’m glad I did it. For one, because it was on my bucket list. If I hadn’t done it, I would’ve always wondered about it. Second, doing this has helped me discover other options for learning about and practising meditation and Bhuddism that aren’t so intense, which maybe I’ll try another time. And third, although I didn’t practise vipassana “properly” as Goenka would say, I did try to apply vipassana’s key elements: awareness and equanimity (neutral observation). Yes, I let my mind wander pretty freely during meditation, but when I ran into painful baggage that I’m carrying around, I tried to catch myself and observe my reactions with equanimity. Despite this not being quite the intent of vipassana, I found it very useful. I started to chip away at some of the negative stories I’m carrying around. It’s certainly going to take a lot more work, and I’m nowhere close to enlightened, but it’s a start, and that’s good too.

I do have one clear takeaway: with a kind of Bhuddist foundation, vipassana teaches that we should observe the law of nature that is impermanence. This law of constant change is called anicca (pronounced a-NEE-cha). When something happens, remember that it is impermanent. Instead of reacting, just observe the sensations that arise in your body. See how long they last. Watch them as they pass away. If there were a motto for vipassana it might be, this too shall pass. In day-to-day life and while traveling, I’ve learned that whether this moment is the absolute best or absolute worst you’ve ever had, remember, this too shall pass. So don’t get attached to this moment. Don’t crave it or avoid it. Just enjoy it while it’s here or take solace in the fact that the storm won’t last forever. 

Anicca. Anicca. Anicca.

Learning to enjoy my own company with 10 days of silence

Starting tomorrow I won’t talk, read, write, use technology, do yoga, or be in touch with my friends or family for ten days. Sounds a little crazy, but that’s how you learn vipassana meditation, apparently. 

Vipassana is a style of meditation that I actually know very little about. And yet I’ve signed up to learn it for ten days at a centre in Dharamkot, in upper Dharamsala, India. I’m a bit terrified about how this will go. I’m pretty new and unpracticed at meditation in general, and I don’t think I’ve ever gone a whole day without at least talking to myself. But it’s the extremeness of this course that I hope will give me new perspective on things. 

Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. Long lost to humanity, it was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth-realization by direct experience is the process of purification. The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism. For this reason, it can be freely practiced by everyone, at any time, in any place, without conflict due to race, community or religion, and will prove equally beneficial to one and all. 

– from dhamma.org 

Many people find it unthinkable to spend ten days in silence without any form of distraction. I also find it a bit insane. But should this be so unimaginable? Why does the idea of ten days with nothing but my own thoughts scare me and others in this way? Shouldn’t we be able to sit with ourselves and enjoy our own company? Not in this modern world, where spending 20 minutes alone in a cafe is nearly impossible to do without turning to one’s phone or book. 

A couple years ago a friend reminded me that the only person you’ll spend your whole life with is yourself–what a scary thought. Another wise friend of mine occasionally points out that in general, we’re terribly mean to ourselves; if we were our own best friend, we wouldn’t say 90% of the things we tell ourselves every day. You may not think this is the case for you, but it’s certainly true of my own self-talk. I’m much more supportive and understanding of my friends and family than I am of myself. Judging by my behaviour and addiction to distractions of every kind, it seems like I don’t enjoy my own company much at all. 

This is why I’ve opted into these terrifying ten days. Perhaps with some externally enforced discipline I might just get to know myself a bit, and hopefully learn to like what I find. I’ve talked with and heard about a number of people who’ve done a vipassana retreat like this, and most of them say that these ten days break you down completely and then, just in time, build you back up again. I hear that the breaking down part isn’t too comfortable–in fact, it’s very likely that most days I’ll desperately want to leave. But for those who stick it out the experience is often life changing. And I could use some of that. 

If this torturous experience sounds attractive to you, you can likely find a vipassana centre near you (or you can build it into your next adventure). There are hundreds of centres around the world, which you can find at www.dhamma.org. Generally, you have to do a ten-day retreat if you’re a beginner in order to learn vipassana, and then you can do three day retreats (if you ever want to do it again). Incredibly, retreats are residential, providing accommodations and food, and students just give a donation at the end of their stay. This way, students only ever pay for future students rather than themselves. I hear that you usually have to register two or three months in advance to get a spot so plan ahead! 

If vipassana sounds a little bit too intense for your liking (fair enough), then you can also do a tushita meditation retreat. My understanding is that tushita retreats are ten days and introduce you to Buddhism and meditation. These courses are still a serious commitment, but you’re allowed to read, write and talk (not sure about using technology), and silence is observed only some of the time. Sounds pretty luxurious to me right about now. There’s a tushita mediation centre right next to the vipassana centre in Dharamkot, and tushita centres can also be found around the world. I’ve gone to one drop-in meditation class there and it was lovely. Perhaps I’ll try one of their retreats later on. If you’re interested you can find information and register for a course at www.tushita.info (it’s a good idea to register a couple months in advance). 

Wish me luck! I’ll be off the grid until May 26. Hopefully I’ll be just a little more enlightened the next time we chat.

Dilemmas of a rolling stone, or Are we bound to settle down eventually?

Bittersweet doesn’t do this feeling justice.

In 23 days I’ll be on a plane to Barcelona. I know this because EasyJet keeps sending me reminders. I’ll meet up with my friend Sarah and we’ll end up in Istanbul, then to Mumbai and eventually I’ll be alone in Delhi where I’ll spend three or four months. This is the biggest adventure I’ve yet to undertake and I’m really excited about it. But it also means I won’t live in France anymore, and that thought breaks my heart more than a little bit.

I’ve become surprisingly attached to this place. Surprisingly only because I didn’t immediately connect with this city, maybe because it’s a city and not the southern French countryside and life in a city centre may not be for me. Starting my life over nearly from scratch definitely had something to do with it. I was beached on a bit of an emotional rock when I got here but that’s exactly what happens when you move somewhere alone and then promptly break up with your long-time boyfriend.

But now I love it. I have a small herd of reliable English-speaking friends, and a handful of French friends I’m proud to have made in the very grown-up fashion of actually participating in community events. I have favourite cafés, I’m a regular at a corner grocery store and at a bakery where the owners know my order, and my friends and I go dancing at clubs that have become habitually regrettable. I can give directions like a lyonnaise, I say “yes” when strangers ask if I live here, and I’ve come to do so quite comfortably in French. But there’s still so much of Lyon I don’t know. I haven’t come close to memorizing the Musée des Beaux Arts like I intended despite my free pass as a student, I still have loads of French to learn, and thanks to the ridiculous amount of holidays in May I’m continually finding new cafés and markets in corners of Vieux Lyon.

In short, I just don’t feel done here. But I suppose the question is, would I ever?

I spent four years in Kitchener-Waterloo doing my undergrad and even then I didn’t feel totally ready to leave. I don’t know if you can ever be ready to leave the people and places you’ve come to love. And yet it’s a position I’ve put myself in multiple times over the past year and it’s a position I’ll be in again as I start over yet again in India.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. On one hand, I absolutely adore travelling. I love it. I love exploring new places, meeting new people (when I’m not feeling overly introverted), immersing myself in new cultures and all that cliché tripe. And I’ve never been one to favour short stints of holiday visits to new places. If I’m going somewhere I go somewhere. I move there if I can help it. I can appreciate a week-long trip to Istanbul but I prefer three months in Delhi, if you catch my drift.

But inevitably, every time you move to a new adventure, you leave the previous one, and in my experience the exit is tear-filled and painful. On top of the difficulty of leaving, it’s no cakewalk to start up somewhere new. You don’t know anyone and you’ve literally left your comfort zone behind. (In an unconscious effort to find a universal comfort zone I often take to the bathroom; there’s something reliable and safe about a sink and a mirror and a bathtub, if you’re lucky. You can close the door, lock out the scary unfamiliar world, and no one will judge you for it–except maybe to think that you’re fighting off a bout of Delhi belly).

But even in the most comforting of bathrooms, feelings of loneliness can be downright overwhelming and I’ve found myself countless times questioning my own motives.

Why bother with all this? What am I trying to accomplish? Why go somewhere to build a life only to knock it down? Why don’t I just go home?

I’ve had this discussion with friends here and elsewhere who have or are currently facing the same situation of quasi-life abandonment. Most of them don’t seem nearly as concerned as I am, or at least they don’t let on that they are. The answers I get to my quarter-life crisis boil down to the same adage: live in the moment. Supposedly, if I just learn from what I’m doing, appreciate the people and environment around me while they’re there and grow as a person it’ll all be worth it.

But what if it’s not? Or at least, what if it’s no more worthwhile than living in the moment in one single place and skipping the heartbreak of travel all together?

Interestingly, the “live in the moment” advice is usually followed up by a complementary piece: Make the most of it, get it out of your system and then you can settle down somewhere [and really start your life].

But if the comfort comes from the solacing fact that I’ll eventually settle down–if the eventual goal is that I’ll be satisfied enough with the adventurous years of my youth that I won’t restlessly overturn my family life in a midlife crisis search for adventure–do these years of international displacements really serve anything more? If I could only come to these inspired moments of self-realization on my own could I skip the heartbreak and the adventure altogether? Could I settle down in Toronto, get a job, buy a house, have a family and a dog and just be happy?

When I think like this I immediately get a pang of pre-empive regret in my gut. Why do I feel like I’d be betraying myself to consider such a normal “end” to things for me? Why is it that I consider myself to have such an abnormally exciting destiny that Toronto seems insufficient, based on geography alone, regardless of what I might do there? (I can only hope that these pangs suggest high ambition rather than total self-righteousness).

But if I honestly consider the options, would it really solve anything if I settled down in London, Nice, Bangkok, or Madrid? Would moving across the globe every few years resolve it? Would a job where I travelled half the time do the trick? Or does my young and restless blood just need to chill out, grow up, and realize that at some point excitement in life comes from family, work and internal fulfilment rather than a plane ticket and recently updated vaccines?

I know that I can find my tribe pretty much wherever I station myself. There are interesting people everywhere and it might be true that “only boring people are bored“. But those interesting people are constantly in transition too. Life would move on around me even if I settled down. Perhaps that’s the lesson I’ve learned: everything changes, including myself. Everything is transient. Simultaneously, I am the only feature in my life that I will never escape. Wherever I go, there I’ll be, and I’ll be better off if I use this to my advantage; it’s myself who I have to rely on.

For now I’ll allow myself the silver lining to a pessimistic adage; if it’s true that we all die alone, you may as well see the sites.

Writing like a real person is the new black, or Why I love xoJane

I’m not saying we shouldn’t tip our hats to the grammar fairies every once in a while, but if I wanna overuse the word ‘wicked’ and curse when I would in normal conversation Ima do it. Restricting myself to real, politically correct words is so ten years ago.

I can appreciate the average politically correct, socially-appropriate-for-any-discussion-with-ones-grandmother-type writing. It’s great for press releases and makes it easy to glean breaking news from your choice of national news outlet. But in the age of (over)sharing on twitter, facebook and personal blogs, writing like a real person is a growing trend that I think could revolutionize the way we interact with the world and how we feel about our own stories.

Writing in a conversational tone, intentionally slipping in text lingo and cursing is the tip of the possibility iceberg. It’s when you allow yourself to write about your embarrassing mistakes, your epiphanies, and your big hairy audacious goals (that fail) that helps you realize how everyone makes mistakes, has epiphanies and failed attempts galore and that we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Shame is so high school, let’s move on people, don’t be ashamed!

xoJane.com is the revolutionary site that inspired how I feel about this. When I read about how Emily McCombes pooped herself and discovered the It Happened To Me section my mind exploded with the realization that I might be able to air out all the shit I sweep under the rug of polite social discourse. Just reading these stories makes me feel freer to be exactly who I am and if a new way of writing and storytelling in the world can make people happier to be who they are, I call that a revolution.

Some might argue that sites like xoJane create a forum for the 20-something generation to talk incessantly about themselves and their first world problems and generally not discuss anything of importance. But I believe strongly that talking about personal issues like what to do when your boyfriend cheats on you or when you cheat on him are not at all limited to the developed world and that it’s never a waste of energy or time to connect with another human being. Besides, it’s not just gossipy drivel. Writing like this chips away at the subjects previously cordoned of as taboo, helps you realize that you are far from alone in just about any experience you’re bound to have, and significantly broadens your perspective, if you let it. You can read about someone’s experience with IBS, hear about someone’s failed polyamourous relationship, and generally learn how not to be a dick to a larger proportion of your friends.

Writing like we talk is also a fantastically engaging way to connect with other people, especially in this world of online community where you may befriend somebody you’ve never and may never meet in your life. Never mind the value of differentiating real people from news reports and other boring generic media output (though sharing news like you’d share a personal story would be a compelling approach to news dissemination and engagement, hmm).

But, wait. Won’t swearing all over my blog, writing about my failures and how terrible I am at self-discipline and then linking such blog to my LinkedIn and making myself googlable (though googling me results in approximately 5 out of 24.5 million links that are actually related to me) hurt my chances of finding employment? Maybe. But do I really want to work for a company that would rather tell me to stop being personable and start sounding more like a press release? You would not want to read the press release version of my life, it’s just not that exciting.

And honestly, the savviest of employers value communicators who are personable and real (albeit with a vague radar of when it may not be appropriate to talk about poop). Brands that take to this style themselves are much more interesting, personable, and build stronger connections with their customers, especially their under-40s. So don’t overlook me because I’m oversharing personal details on the world wide web. Hire me because TMIs are the hottest new thing!

Besides, this is bigger than me and whether or not I get a job in the near future. When sites like xoJane talk about poop and masturbation and what it means to post underwear selfies on Instagram there’s suddenly a safe and exciting place to talk about your previously most embarrassing, deepest, darkest secrets (i.e. the comments section after each article is a hotbed of community support, laughs, and serious and respectful debate). Similarly, sites like Thug Kitchen and a plethora of personal blogs are rocking the world of communication, never mind how storytelling is used in radio shows like This American Life and others to produce and present seriously hard-hitting subjects in an engaging and majorly informative way (though they tend not to talk about poop quite so frequently).

It was storytelling like xoJane that made me feel like I had something worth talking about–here I am writing because of it. Pretty powerful stuff to help someone realize they have a voice worth sharing and even more powerful to help someone let go of their shame and be truer to themselves.

^^ Let’s all write as honestly as Joel Plaskett, he nails it every time.

A dose of humility

If I don’t even know how many teeth are in my own head, what on Earth do I know?

If you missed my last post I talked about how last Friday I got my wisdom teeth out, supposedly all four of them. I was under general anesthesia so it wasn’t until later Friday night that I took a look inside my mouth with a flashlight. All I could see were two gaping wounds, not four. In fact, I was sure I could still see my upper wisdom teeth just underneath my gums. No wound. No pain up there at all. I was in very, very little pain, and only in my bottom jaw. So little pain that I only took one pain killer Friday night and only because I was trying to stay ahead of the pain, not because I was in much of it.

I felt around with clean fingers, I had my friend Joe take a look and it became absolutely clear to me that there’d been a terrible mistake. They’d forgotten to take out two of my wisdom teeth and now I’d have to go through a whole other surgery.

I had to wait through the weekend before I could call the clinic on Monday when they reopened. The conversation I had with one of the nurses was shocking. I told her, calmly and sincerely without anger, that a mistake had been made. She insisted that it was written in the file that all four had been removed, she was sure of it. I told her I could still see the whites of the teeth through my gums, that there were no wounds, that I was absolutely, positively certain that two of my wisdom teeth were still in my head. She told me to come in for an x-ray to confirm that they’d been removed. Ok, I thought, I’ll prove it to her then.

I posted a facebook status describing this seemingly ridiculous scenario. I called my friend Emma and my mom. We laughed. It was hilarious after all, why wouldn’t they believe me? It was my own mouth! I’m not a trained dentist or anything, but come on! I should know.

It turns out sometimes it takes a trained dentist to know whether you’ve just had teeth removed.

I was starting to feel a bit crazy Monday night and began doubting myself. Was it just their authority that was making me question my own eyes? Why was I suddenly unsure? Joe and Emma came over and I had them take a very, very close look inside my mouth (we really could’ve used one of those dental mirrors). I poked around more ferociously with clean fingers. “I think I see a hole,” Joe said, “I’m pretty sure there’s a hole there.” He took a picture. The small gap I had previously felt, which I’d thought was a normal one, began to feel like a space where a tooth used to be. We reasoned that the whiteness I could see was in fact my jaw and probably some irritation from the surgery that had, indeed, occurred there. All four teeth. Were gone.

I started laughing a little uncontrollably. I breathed gross post-surgery breath in my friends’ faces with my mouth still gaping open, them practically inside it. If all four teeth had been removed, this had been the most miraculously pain-free wisdom tooth removal I’d ever heard of.

This morning I called the surgeon’s office and cancelled my x-ray. I apologized for my crazy and they were totally understanding. I was thrilled to tell them that they were such miracle workers that I could not in my wildest dreams believe that I’d had all four teeth removed.

You might be wondering about my pride. But honestly, I’ve never been happier to be wrong. I thought I was staring down more surgery, general anesthetic, antibiotics, recovery time, and the nuisance of convincing them to fix their mistake for free.

Despite looking like an idiot, I’ve learned so many things from this! First, this is exactly why getting mad and irrational in response to a mistake is a terrible idea. Because when it turns out that you can’t keep track of whether you’ve had surgery in your upper jaw, you can back-track like a champ because you weren’t an asshole about it.

Second, my mind is blown. Seriously, if I could be so absolutely certain of something I (thought I) could physically see with my own eyes, a part of my own body, and be wrong, I could be wrong about anything. This has given me an incredible dose of humility.

After all, you’d think a patient would be able to tell if they’d just had two or four teeth removed, am I right?