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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Traveling: feeling that door shut behind you as you wander down the unlit hallway of your life

Traveling is great and it’s also hard. It can feel shitty to talk about what’s hard about it because as someone who’s able to travel like this, I’m in a huge position of privilege and opportunity, and I’m grateful for it. But the reality is, nothing’s as perfect as Instagram makes it seem, including “the trip of a lifetime”. 

Traveling alone sometimes feels like this.
Traveling by yourself is an incredible feeling. You can go where the wind blows, learn what you’re capable of, face your fears, learn to navigate (or at least improve a little bit), and meet people you never would’ve met if you already had a friend or partner with you. But sometimes you don’t meet those new people, and sometimes you just get tired of having the same introductory conversations with new people over and over. Sometimes all you want is to go to dinner with friends who feel like that perfectly worn-in sweater, and have a laugh-filled conversation where you don’t have to try at all. 

The reality is, if you travel like this, you’re leaving a lot behind. You’re choosing one door over another. Even if the door in front of you is exactly what you wanted, it’s painful to close a door you’ve cared about for a long time. 

Years ago, I spent two months of the summer in the south of France with my then-boyfriend. When I got back to university that fall I was chatting with some friends about our summers. One person talked about how she worked in a trailer park running programming for kids, and shrugged off her experience as boring compared to France. But to me, it didn’t matter that I was in France and she was in Ontario. Our lives weren’t that different. Mine looked glamorous on paper and on social media, but my day-to-day was pretty boring too. I wasn’t doing anything particularly special, I’d just bought a plane ticket. I reassured her that what I did wasn’t any more interesting than what she did. 

Of course, I’m personally drawn to traveling, and I do love a lot about it. But sometimes I wonder why on earth I do it. Traveling has its moments–the views that blow you away, the people you never would’ve met back home, the conversations you have, and the skills, knowledge and empathy you gain. But you also have desperately lonely days, important events that you miss back home, friends and family you can’t be there for, and relationships that end. Is the trade-off really worth it? 

Most people don’t travel indefinitely. Eventually, after some amount of “getting it out of their systems”, most people settle down somewhere, put down roots, hang out with their friends, maybe have a family, and build a life. Now, I do believe that building a life can mean a lot of different things, and it doesn’t have to be one where you have deep roots in one place. But for me, after traveling for a while I start to crave the normalcy, routine, and old favourites that I left behind. I miss being able to see the people I love in person, our favourite dive bar, my yoga studio, the coffee shops I felt comfortable in, and the bagel shop that I would sometimes start my day with. 

As I’m settling into a new city, where I’ll be for three months, I feel itchy. I’m desperately craving places where I feel like I belong. After three months of traveling, unpacking my backpack feels great, but I’ve been here for three weeks and I don’t feel grounded. I know there’s potential here, and I know it takes time to meet people and get to know a place, but it’s this feeling that makes me want to just pick a place and root down deep. 

The trouble is, I don’t know which lifestyle I’m built for. When I lived in a place where I could’ve rooted down, I felt restless. And now that I’m completely free from ties, I feel aimless and alone. Maybe I’m not built for either. But then, what do I do? 

This feeling of restlessness and searching for purpose and belonging is in no way limited to traveling. I know that many people my age are struggling with these feelings too, and I’m pretty sure these feelings don’t magically go away when you reach some milestone either. So I’d love to hear from anyone with advice in resolving their conflicting desires for adventure and belonging, or about making friends as an adult, or whatever other advice you want to share. This happiness thing isn’t easy. 

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.

What makes someone a yogi?

Before coming to India for a yoga teacher training course, I hadn’t thought too much about what it means to be a “yogi”. I figured that if you like yoga and do yoga pretty regularly then feel free to call yourself a yogi (if you want). It doesn’t give you superpowers, nor the right to teach yoga or be superior; but if it helps you enjoy your practice and find other yogis to hang out with, then great! 

As you might expect, it turns out that being a “yogi” in India is a lot more intense, and the title is a lot more meaningful. To begin with, the study and practice of yoga is both more commonplace and far more spiritually significant in India. It seems to me that the title of yogi is a meaningful sign of expertise and dedication to one’s yoga practice. I should point out that, traditionally, yoga is much more than a physical practice. It’s a spiritual practice that gives guidelines about how to live, the goal of which is to control the mind so that one can reach enlightenment. (This is according to the practice of Ashtanga, or eight-limbed, yoga, which outlines eight elements of yoga, only one of which is the physical practice). So while there are many levels of yogi-hood, the great yogis are those who have reached what’s called samadhi, or enlightenment. 

I struggle with the concept of samadhi. One of our teachers (who considers himself a middle-of-the-pack yogi) describes the path to samadhi as one of detachment. (I’m about to get into some granola here so bare with me). Supposedly, most people spend their entire lives living in their first, second, third and, if they’re lucky, their fourth chakras. Chakras aren’t really my thing, but I’ll give a quick overview in case you aren’t familiar (feel free to skip the next paragraph if you already know this stuff). 

There are seven main chakras or energy centres, (though there are a bunch of smaller ones throughout your body). These chakras start at your tailbone and follow your spine up to the crown of your head. The first chakra, muladhara, is also called the root chakra because it’s located at your tailbone and relates to safety, survival, stability, food and other basic needs. The second, svadhishthana, is at your sacrum and relates to intellectual interests, emotions, relationships, pleasure and creativity. Manipura, the third chakra, is at your navel and relates to things like ego, power, respect and fear. The fourth chakra, anahata, is also called the heart chakra because it’s located at your heart and relates to compassion, unconditional love, passion and devotion. Vishuddhi, the fifth chakra, is located at the throat and governs communication, expression and relates to teaching. The sixth chakra, ajna, is also called the third-eye chakra because of its location just above and between the eyebrows. It relates to intuition (and even the ability to see the future), visualization, and balancing the inner and outer worlds. Last, sahasrara is located at the crown of the head and relates to samadhi (enlightenment), inner wisdom, a sense of oneness with the “universal consciousness”, and detachment from the body. 

My understanding is that one should generally aim to balance energy across all of the seven chakras, but that for just about everyone, their first, second, third and, if they’re lucky, fourth chakras are most active. Supposedly, most people want to expand their heart chakra (without knowing it), because they want to be happy, and value compassion, love, service, and helping others–all elements of an open or active heart chakra. 

Getting back to my point about yogis: apparently, a “true yogi” aims to move up into their fifth, sixth and seventh chakras, as they work toward enlightenment. A “true yogi” works to detach themselves from this world, which is why many people on this path become monks, giving up their belongings and families, perhaps eating the same simple food for the rest of their lives, and relying on the generosity of others to sustain them. This is because one can’t move into the upper chakras if one is distracted by the worldly desires and attachments of the lower chakras. “True yogis” even release their attachments to the heart chakra. They can show some compassion for others but, supposedly, they can’t busy themselves with helping others or changing the world if they’re ever going to reach enlightenment. 

The intention of moving into the upper chakras isn’t to deprive oneself of the things and people you’re attached to or enjoy, but rather that through one’s practice of pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation, and living in alignment with the yamas and niyamas (codes of social and personal conduct), one releases any attachment to worldly things like food, ego, family, and service. Eventually, a “true yogi” just becomes disinterested in the world, coming to reject their life as it was, and becoming a recluse. If they’re lucky, they release their attachment to their individuality and spend their time in samadhi, or oneness with the universal consciousness; coming to truly know that every single creature and thing in the universe is an individual drop of the same ocean. 

Now, I know I’m living it up in my first three or four chakras, but I’m having trouble with the idea that the goal of a yoga practice (according to Patanjali’s Ashtanga, or eight-limbed, yoga), is to detach completely from the world. In fact, I can’t help but think that the process of becoming disinterested in all of the pleasures and people that one used to enjoy, and becoming indifferent to life sounds an awful lot like depression. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for someone who’s reached samadhi to decide when they will leave this world, and kill themselves. 

When I asked about this, our teacher tried to distinguish depression from samadhi, saying that someone with depression is sad and feels stuck, whereas someone in samadhi is happy and free. I understand this for the most part, but I still don’t like the idea of becoming so disinterested in life that it would feel natural to leave this world rather than enjoy it. I suppose it makes sense that I feel this way–for now, I’m perfectly content to stick around in my first four chakras. Maybe one day, when I’m much older, it will feel perfectly natural to prepare myself for leaving this world by detaching in this way. 

Perhaps then I’ll be a “true yogi”. But in my opinion, being a yogi is like being a good person who does their best to live with intention and be happy. That’s certainly hard enough as it is, and it’s good enough for me.