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Clarity Comes From Stepping Away

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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.)


Photos by David Cain

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John M. Perchalski November 21, 2016 at 2:21 am

Good morning David,

Thank you as always for sharing your experiences with us. The chatauqua sounds fascinating. I’ve heard of a few others’ experiences, but I think most of them were less used to self-examination and self-observation when they went…For them it was meant to be a single, sudden departure from otherwise frustrating lives. You approach it with more of a scope for how it is affecting you, and with different expectations than I gathered from the others I’ve listened to. More self-observant, already. You’re not seeking a new sudden revelation, you’re looking to expand a steady course of self-improvement, and I think that gives you a different insight.

But hey, I’ve never done it myself, so…

In any case, what I really wanted to say was about the editing/return to weekly posting. I will be happy to see more regular updates from you. I think one of the problems any creative individual runs into, especially as they seek to better themselves, is that “This next piece must be better than the last. Always, or I am not learning anything.” And as you have noted this expectation can be crippling.

I think there’s a lot to be said for how expectations affect our approach to our internal and external lives.

Anyway, I’m happy to hear you had such a productive time, and I do look forward to seeing more frequent updates, if that works okay for you!


David Cain November 21, 2016 at 9:23 am

It is quite different from a “vacation”, where the idea is just to temporarily get away. It seems like it would be impossible to avoid self-reflection really, because the theme of reflection is so prevalent. The follow-up we’re doing is crucial though, otherwise we slip back into the same habits.

I’ll be glad to get back to more frequent posting too. With creative work it’s hard to manage self-criticism — it keeps your standards high, but it can also keep you from producing.

Zoe November 21, 2016 at 2:23 am

That sounds incredible. I really wanted to go to the chautauqua, but we’d already planned a big US/Canada trip so funds were tied up elsewhere. And one of the pitfalls (and advantages, I guess) of freelancing is that income can vary greatly, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it to next year’s… but who knows?

The theme of disconnection strikes an uncomfortable chord today. I generally like people and enjoy talking to them (including strangers), but I seem to have entered some sort of bubble at the moment, probably partly due to freelancing – I don’t leave the house as much as I used to and have no direct colleagues anymore. Most of my social interactions happen online, so much so that I keep forgetting to pay my real-life connections the attention they deserve. The immediacy (and variety) of the responses I can get from social media makes it a very attractive thing, but at the end of the day it does leave an empty feeling. Like eating a picture of a meal instead of the meal itself (if that makes sense).

On a side note, I look forward to reading your posts as much as ever, David. I think that if you write about what’s important to you, others will follow. It might be a blunt way to put it, but I don’t think people always need a big slice of truth in everything they read. While it can certainly be helpful (and even uplifting), just reading about another person’s insights or experiences can be just as interesting and inspiring.

David Cain November 21, 2016 at 9:27 am

Totally hear you here. One big insight for me that I didn’t mention is the importance of the difference between online interactions and face-to-face. When you’re interacting with people online it can seem like you’re being really social, when you’re really just sitting in a room with your plants haha.

Zoe November 21, 2016 at 12:39 pm

Yep, or your cats. :-)
I get ridiculously excited now whenever we have any social engagements coming up. I think that’s a sign I need to get out more.

Ron Jones November 21, 2016 at 4:16 am

Good to see you landed in the place of just going with the flow, David, whatever happens to be moving you at the time of weekly production. We’ll see where the river flows. It’s bound to be interesting. Looking forward to it.

David Cain November 21, 2016 at 9:28 am

Thanks Ron.

Julie November 21, 2016 at 8:42 am

Hi David,
I’m glad you had a insightful trip and double glad you’re planning on returning to regular blog posting. As happy as I’ve been to read about your journey of self discovery and clarity lately, it does feel like a lot of similar posts about your own journey rather than the human journey. There’s more earnestness and transcendant musings and I miss some of your earlier humor and frankness. Posts like Why we F*$# and your experiments, the very entertaining Soylent journey… they were real, relevant, and although I can’t speak for all your readers, those posts made more impact on me than some of the more recent ones. I do always enjoy reading anything you write, so thank you for that and looking forward to reading more in the future.

David Cain November 21, 2016 at 9:30 am

Hi Julie. Thanks for the feedback, but it’s exactly the thing I’m trying to ignore right now. I’m only going to be able to write what I’m feeling at any particular time. So that’s what it will be. But it will be more frequent, which means more variety.

Meredith November 21, 2016 at 8:56 am

Thank you for your exquisite “love letter”.
Passing on your experience, hope and strength is nothing short of an act of love. I can feel your enthusiasm and renewed strength and energy. I believe your sharing, and am encouraged to go further. thankful for you as I bow in praising God for placing you in my life .. Here and now. Fondly, Meredith.

David Cain November 21, 2016 at 9:30 am

Thank you Meredith.

Daniel November 21, 2016 at 10:21 am

This article was just what I needed to read today and I thank you for sharing. I’m glad that you are going to write more freely and I look forward to frequenting your work more often.

Thank You!

David Cain November 21, 2016 at 5:00 pm

I’m glad it hit the spot Daniel :)

Jim Marjoram November 21, 2016 at 1:10 pm

Very inspiring. Makes me want to initiate something like it here in New Zealand.
Can you tell me about the basic logistics etc of putting one together? Were there any prerequisites in terms of topics for discussion, rules of engagement etc?
Cheers :-)

David Cain November 21, 2016 at 5:03 pm

Cheryl chose the general theme of the chautauqua and suggested what each of us might talk about, but it was up to the presenters to decide what to present on. Then there were scheduled one-on-one discussions between the presenters and attendees, which could be about anything. And there were activities throughout the week like day trips, walks, etc. As the proprietor you could choose whatever theme you want.

John Norris November 21, 2016 at 1:46 pm

Hi David, didn’t you recently do a questionnaire? I remember responding along the lines of “tell us what’s important for you”. Not for us. Please continue to share :)

David Cain November 21, 2016 at 5:03 pm

Yeah I wanted to get some ideas on what people wanted to read more about, but most of the responses were along those lines, haha. So i will.

Yasmeen November 21, 2016 at 3:27 pm

This is so wonderful to read. What you said about “suppressed in the civilized workaday world” I can relate to. It would be nice if we had institutions or holidays of some sort where this sort of engaging is encouraged. I’d be very interested attending one of these, if it comes together next year.

David Cain November 21, 2016 at 5:05 pm

We really are missing a kind of official day/week of reflection in secular society. It’s so useful but there are almost no cultural forces encouraging it. So little get togethers like these are such a breath of fresh air.

Daniela November 21, 2016 at 4:40 pm

Thanks for this David, it’s great. I had a similar similar experience just two months ago. After many stressful months in which my husband and I (willingly) uprooted ourselves and moved interstate, I had the fortune to go overseas for two weeks with my sister for a cousin’s wedding. The trip was so special on so many levels that I don’t know if I’ll ever be adequately able to describe it. I was feeling lonely and isolated in my new surroundings, and like you the importance of connecting really hit home. Things have been so much clearer – and better – since returning home and I know that we’re exactly where we need to be. :-)

David Cain November 21, 2016 at 5:08 pm

Travel has a way of making us more aware, because we can’t lean on habits so much. I figure that’s one of the reasons travel is so useful for growth and perspective. You get a different angle on yourself and how you relate to others. I used to think of travel as just an indulgence, rather than a practical form of self-reflection.

Jennifer L. Jennings November 21, 2016 at 5:04 pm

Hello David,
I am new on the scene. Just discovered your blog a week ago and have read most of the archives. Your experiences and outlook on life resonate with me. SO glad to have discovered you.

David Cain November 21, 2016 at 5:08 pm

Glad you found me! Enjoy the archives.

Kathy November 21, 2016 at 6:24 pm

Very interesting blog. I have never heard of chautauqua before and will read up on it more as the days pass. I related to your new view and commitment in perhaps another way of learning about this journey we are all on. In June, I finished up almost 8 years of therapy. Guess I had a lot to learn ;-), but I had finally grown to a point of needing to live what I have learned although there have been instances where I applied various tools it wasn’t until then that I actually felt happy deep down inside and for the first time I am finally okay. I recommend the book “Tribe” as it describes what your group or “Tribe” became with the trust and sharing and having the support of one another in Equador. Anyway, I wanted thank you for writing about this and the fact you needed to get back to writing as it has been quite similar for me to need to be inspiring or whatever else I need to be the best at instead of just a way to find my own thoughts and be clear of the direction I am headed. And I just today brought home the disc’s to learn Spanish so I think I am lucky to have subscribed to your blog and hearing your motivation reminds me I am not alone on my quest!
Thanks again

David Cain November 22, 2016 at 4:49 pm

Muy bien! You are the second or third person to recommend “Tribe” so it is going on the list. Best of luck with your quest!

Reto November 22, 2016 at 12:58 am

The description of your experience touched something inside me. I was moved to tears. Maybe because there is this craving for deep connections to others and it is so good to read that it is worth the struggle to overcome the hurdles that keeps us isolated. It is worth to go to the borders of our box, that keeps us in our comfort zone, to stay there, see what happens. Do maybe things that we do not know if they work. Endure the fear. Risk to look or act like a fool – in our own jugdement.

David Cain November 22, 2016 at 4:51 pm

I’m glad it touched something. I really got that same sense — that we are all craving connection with others but our fears and habits tend to isolate us from that possibility a lot of the time. Comfort zones are small places!

Vishal November 22, 2016 at 7:10 am

Awesome post, David.

I’ve recently discovered, despite knowing for years, how effective stepping away from an emotion in a situation is. I try following the Mark Bawden model in which I tell myself that there are much more important elements than the outcome of the situation. Breathing a little bit with this thought pulls the focus away from how much MY feelings matter, and instead spotlights how can I make the most of what I have.

Thanks heaps for this post. Off to share it.

David Cain November 22, 2016 at 4:52 pm

Thanks Vishal.

Curtis Smale November 23, 2016 at 6:03 pm

Hi, David. I would like to read a post about the difference between online “socializing,” and face to face human interaction. My mother died last Thursday, and I had a very unusual experience, in some ways a virtual funeral, as I was medically unable to attend in person. I’d be happy to talk about it privately if you want.

David Cain November 28, 2016 at 2:34 pm

That’s a good idea…. I actually have a lot to say about that, now that my online and offline world have crossed over so much, in these chautauquas and the recent conference I went to. Online socialization is no replacement for face-to-face, but it has an insidious way of seeming like it’s enough.

Michelle November 28, 2016 at 9:47 am

Let’s say you are not the only one who’s glad that you decided to continue to write freely with less considerations and leave your “unhelpful creative inhibitions” dead on the roadside. I also very much enjoyed your first short book, ‘This Will Never Happen Again’. I think you could take and manage more of that self-criticism once you decide to write a Volume II. On another note, do they do have a similar chautauqua sort of retreat anywhere in Asia?

David Cain November 28, 2016 at 2:33 pm

Thanks Michelle. They only do these in Ecuador, but I wonder if there are others out there doing something similar. If not I wish it would catch on! Southeast Asia would be a fantastic place for one.

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