I’m home again after spending a week and a half in Ecuador, plus an election Tuesday in Miami and three days visiting in Toronto. That two weeks away felt like much longer, which is always a good feeling to have about a trip, because it usually means you learned something.
The time in Ecuador in particular was unforgettable, full of new friends and personal catharses. I was there as a presenter at a kind of retreat called a chautauqua, alongside J.D. Roth from Money Boss, Leo Babauta from Zen Habits, and Cheryl Reed, the retreat’s organizer. (I wrote more about the trip here.)
Essentially, a chautauqua is a get-together for purpose of exchanging ideas about how to live. A group of about twenty-five of us spent a week in a small mountainside resort in Ecuador’s cloud forest, reflecting on big-picture topics like lifestyle choices, personal habits, career moves and general well-being. There were day trips and activities, and a ton of conversations. We all sat in random spots at dinner every night so that every single person got to know everyone else.
We got to know each other so quickly that saying goodbye on the final Sunday was almost heartbreaking. I felt like I had known these people for years. By then, everyone had shared so much of what matters to them with everyone else: what moves us, what we love, what we fear, what we want to change about ourselves. We had gone from total strangers to a tight-knit tribe in which every member would do just about anything for anyone else. In seven days.
This is the magic of the chautauqua format. Everyone brings their own wisdom and experience to the group with a kind of generosity and acceptance I’ve never experienced in any other setting. Everyone is away from home and the superficial distractions of their normal schedules, so we were all very present for each other. We were constantly in conversation, constantly offering help with anything we can, constantly looking out for the whole group.
Human beings must have some deep-seated group-nurturing impulse that becomes suppressed in the civilized workaday world, where we can isolate ourselves with relative ease. We can self-medicate our bigger concerns away without actually addressing them, without reaching out to others or having anyone reach out to us. Wherever that impulse comes from, the format of the chautauqua allows this “No one left behind” ethos to come back to the surface.
These feelings of empathy and guardianship seemed to grow throughout the week, and peak on the afternoon of the last full day. At Leo’s suggestion, we all gathered in a room so that people could share the major insights they had gained during the week, and we could all discuss how each person might sustain them in their life.
I wish I could describe the feeling in that room. There was a palpable sense of abundance and excitement, but it was also very emotional. Behind that enthusiasm was a creeping sense that the energy generated by that week together was at its height and would soon be fading, so we needed to decide how to make our new intentions real in our lives. It was an extremely moving discussion and I’ll never forget it.
I’m still glowing from the experience, and still very vigilant about turning my own insights into concrete changes in my daily routine.
My insights all surrounded human connection. Long-time readers know I spent most of my life as an extremely shy person, always avoiding unnecessary interaction, terrified of mingling, utterly dependent on go-betweens to connect me to new people. This shyness has been easing for a long time now, but suddenly it’s dead. I’ll always be an introvert, which is just fine, but the ball-and-chain of social apprehension has disappeared. There’s no struggle now. I want to mingle, I want to chat up strangers, I don’t get nervous anymore in situations where I don’t know anybody.
That part—the conversing freely part—is happening naturally. But the chautauqua made it clear that there are two other realms of human connection that need some applied effort from me now.
The first one is learning new languages. The Spanish speakers on our trip were so helpful to monoglots like me, who could barely buy street food without help. The ability to speak to a whole new swath of humanity is such a powerful and liberating accomplishment that it makes no sense to continue to put it off. So I’ve returned to active duty in the learning of my second language, which is French, and after that, Spanish.
The other one is writing this blog. As I explained a month or two ago, in the past year I’ve become caught up in a misguided sort of quality-control loop where I’m tossing out 80-100% of the articles I start in a given month without giving them a chance. My process became bogged down by the belief that I always need to go deeper and better every time, which has only led to frustration and very low output.
So I’m determined to return to weekly blog posts. Raptitude has been by far the greatest source of human connection in my life, and I’ve made it into a kind of ongoing managerial problem rather than a source of connection with others. So I’m going back to writing freely about what moves me, with no other considerations. I’m going to leave my unhelpful creative inhibitions dead on the road beside the social ones.
In the two weeks since the retreat, we’ve all been reporting our progress to each other. And so far it looks like everyone is acting on their insights before they fade. That is encouraging, because insight alone doesn’t change anything if it doesn’t change your behavior. And the window for seizing that chance is small.
You can find a lot of clarity about something by stepping away from it. Our home lives are girded with habit, and habit allows us to move through the motions of life with almost no awareness of what we’re doing and what it’s creating (or inhibiting) in our lives. There’s a Buddhist adage about being aware of your experience as it passes: “If you can’t see the river, you’re in the river.” Stepping away from your home life gives you a chance to see it from the outside—and decide what you want to change about it—before you climb back inside.
(Nothing is confirmed yet, but it looks like I’ll be doing an Ecuador retreat again next year, if it’s something you might be interested in, and the time and cost is feasible for you. If you are subscribed to this blog I’ll let you know the details as soon as I have them.)