Being away from home makes you more conscious. When you’re at home, each day is so similar that you can navigate most of it via autopilot, without much conscious thought.
From the moment we wake up, most of our decisions have been made already: what to do for the first half-hour of the day, what time we get dressed, where we go when we leave the bedroom, who we will interact with, what time we’ll eat, where we’ll be when we do, what we need to worry about and not worry about, and so on.
When you wake up staring at an unfamiliar ceiling, with unfamiliar sounds in the background, and no routines to lean on, the day has a lot more question marks, and they demand conscious thinking and decisionmaking.
You remember more of what happens when you’re away from home, because life resembles your past experience so much less. The days seem longer and fuller, and details appear more significant, because you’re too far outside your comfortable grooves to let your mind wander out of the present into idle, irrelevant thinking. Your attention feels like it needs to stay on your surroundings, which is not true when you’re living a normal day at home.
Personal growth happens much more quickly. You have more challenges — how to get hot water out of this particular faucet, or whether it’s even possible, or where to find breakfast nearby — or how to find the answers to any of these questions without using your first language. All of this requires much greater application of inquiry, observation, and decisionmaking than a normal day at home.
Most of all, you become more conscious of who you are and how you live, because both are reflected back to you constantly when you’re temporarily unable to be who you’re used to being, and to do what you’re used to doing.
So a stint of travel in an unfamiliar land is just about the perfect setting for self-reflection. As most of you know, I just got back from three weeks in Ecuador, where I presented at a chautauqua, organized by Cheryl Reed from Above the Clouds Retreats. The idea of the chautauqua was to get away from our normal lives, convene with somewhat like-minded strangers, and exchange our ideas about the big-picture things: life paths, outlooks, bucket lists, and happiness.
The retreat itself was fantastic. We had such a wonderful group of people. Everyone was interesting and engaging — we sat in random seats at dinner every night so that we’d each get a chance to talk to everyone else. We also had a lot of one-on-one conversations — some scheduled, some not — about our lives and where we’d like to take them next.
Throughout the presentations and conversations, a particular theme kept coming up: do you actually live how you say you want to live?
In other words, do you really walk the walk you talk, and if not, why not? J.D. Roth, during his presentation, suggested that we often believe certain things are priorities for us, yet when we look at how we actually spend our time it can become clear that they aren’t priorities, or at least they aren’t yet.
For example, I’ve said many times that nothing I do is more worthwhile than meditation, yet I have fallen out of the habit for long stretches, I still miss my daily practice on a regular basis, and I’ve still put off joining a local sangha.
Habit is such a strong force in life that our behavior can deviate from our values without our noticing. It is entirely possible that you would say, if asked, that health and fitness is a priority for you, even while you haven’t exercised regularly in two years. Or that maintaining friendships is important to you, when you are never the one that initiates the plans.
Living our values doesn’t happen automatically. We need to consciously think about what they are, and ask ourselves whether our lifestyles embody our values or not. A few exercises we did threw this phenomenon into relief:
J.D. had us each privately write down how we’d spend our time in life under three very different circumstances: 1) If we were financially independent; 2) If we had 5-10 years left to live and 3) If we had 24 hours left to live. I found that my answers were pretty much the same for each, yet they weren’t things I was currently making into priorities. They also didn’t require financial independence, or the urgency of a terminal illness, in order to pursue them. Yet somehow I’ve let other things come to crowd them out.
A few days later, Cheryl had each of us write down an unordered list of the qualities most important to our ideal life — and then order them in the following way:
a) Look at the top item on the list. Compare it to each other item in turn, asking yourself: if I could only pursue one of these two, which would it be?
b) Establish the more important one at #1 on the list, then move down to what’s at number two, and repeat with all the remaining items.
Essentially this bubble-sorts the list into a carefully-considered list of priorities. Almost everyone was surprised at what came out on top and what sunk to the bottom. I was surprised to see “Traveling the world” continually lose out to other values and drift to the bottom, even though it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think about my ideal life.
Meanwhile, “Cultivating and maintaining relationships” stayed firmly near the top, even though I have been almost entirely passive in creating relationships. I have almost always left it up to others to fulfil this value for me. Other people have almost always had to do the reaching out. And — bless them — so far they have.
Even though the results of the exercise surprised me, I knew it was right. I would give up all future traveling in a heartbeat, if I needed to in order to have close relationships with other people. But I didn’t realize that until I really sat down and looked at it.
These exercises and conversations set off spiritual alarm bells for me. I came away from the retreat with a crystal-clear awareness of how I’ve been misappropriating my energies in life, and judging by the reactions to the above exercise I think most of us did.
For me, the glaring holes were in meditation and cultivating relationships. I have done really well in other areas this last year, fitness and career-change in particular — but I’ve neglected at least two of my greatest values in the process. Other people had similar revelations, about different aspects of their own lives.
After the retreat, I did some solo traveling. I flew to the Galapagos Islands, and spent a bit of time in the Andean city of Quito. I had a great time and saw some amazing things, but I was surprised to find that much of the time the thing that excited me most was the thought of going home. Normally I never want to go home when I travel.
The feeling about “going home” was different this time, because for the first time in my life, I don’t dread going back to work. I love my work and the life I’ve set up here, and when I was in the Galapagos it seemed absurd at times that I was spending money to be away from that. That might be the biggest of the many revelations this trip gave me: that I have finally built a life that I don’t want to get away from.
Still, it was the travel that allowed this insight to happen. We need to step out of our lives in order to see them clearly — both what’s wrong with them and what’s right.
It’s good to be back after a four-week break, but I’ve got quite a pile of work and correspondence waiting now. If you’ve sent me an email over the past four weeks, I’ll get to it soon. -David