Sorry.

You’re in a wholefoods shop and someone is absent-mindedly mulling over their buying decision right in front of the product you want to pick up; they’re in your way. Gesturing with your hand towards the shelf you say “Sorry…” You’ve been there, you know exactly the scenario don’t you, especially if you’re English! So easy to say sorry, right? It slips out of your mouth before you’ve even thought! It’s a shortcut though. ‘Just’ a turn of phrase. If we said what we really mean wouldn’t it be something like “i need to look at the stuff behind you, would you be okay to move aside?”

Think about what the word sorry means. When we say sorry it means we did something wrong. I’ve been thinking lately that when we say it so often and so glibly we’re conditioning ourselves, albeit in small and usually unconscious ways, to think that we’re not worthy or good enough or as important as another person. We’re repeatedly drip-feeding ourselves the subtle message that we’re doing something wrong when really we’re just asking for what we need, usually something simple that very likely will be given gladly without hesitation. The post-apology feeling in these instances is not a positive affirming one.

So, subconsciously, asking for what we need becomes synonymous with being in the wrong. So we don’t feel comfortable asking for what we need.

That example was just something small like needing to get to a shelf. If we’re in that habit though, then imagine how we feel when faced with feeling awkward about asking for something that we REALLY need! To be listened to, to be accepted, to feel trusted, to feel appreciated, to feel like we belong, to take a break from what we’re doing, some help… Chances are, if you think about it, when we ever need those kind of things, those very valid, very human needs, we often feel like we’re in the wrong for asking for them, and we’re extremely tempted to say sorry for needing them. I’m feeling the benefit of trying to change this for myself.

And what does the other person tend to say in response? “Sorry!” Why? What they really mean is “yes of course it’s fine for me to move aside”. All they’ve done is unintentionally hindered someone, no harm done, but instead they’ve subtly told themselves they were in the wrong.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that everyone is likely to start long-windedly trying to say what we really mean instead (although actually i’m trying it and I advocate it!) But I wonder if we became mindful of these implications each time we say sorry from now on, would it help us to feel less critical of ourselves? If you’re near me and you say sorry in that context, i can almost guarantee that now you’ll get the smiling response from me of “don’t be sorry! 🙂 ” Which is ‘just a turn of phrase’ for everything i’ve written here!

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“Sorry to hear you feel unwell.” Really? When we stop and think about this it’s obvious that we’re not sorry, we aren’t responsible for that person being unwell! But we’re not used to accurately describing our true feelings. Rather than feeling sorry, don’t you actually feel sad for them, frustrated you can’t do anything to help, a bit scared perhaps if the illness is serious? Or feel angry at the unjustness of it?

“I’m feeling sorry for myself.” This one was for a long time a particular habit of mine! When I’ve thought about this a bit more, I often realise that actually I feel sad or lonely, or I feel frustrated that I can’t control other people’s actions or control some aspect of my life. There are needs I have that aren’t being met. When I can manage to be really honest with myself, I might get upset in realising that it’s because I feel regret for something I’ve done that in the end had an effect I didn’t want it to have; it took me further away from my needs instead of closer to them. So instead of ‘feeling sorry for myself’ I now try to be sorry to myself. Tell myself i’ll try to be aware of that mistake next time and do better, I didn’t deliberately sabotage myself and I was doing the best I could at the time. Try to forgive myself, stop thinking about what i did but remember the lesson, and take responsibility for doing something different next time if I’m ever given the chance again. I think forgiveness has to start with ourselves, and only once we can do that can we start also forgiving others and freeing ourselves from the suffering of regret and anger.

Now think about how it feels when there really is something to say sorry to someone else for. It often takes time and thought to even realise that we might have something to apologise for: There’s just a gut feeling that something’s not right, there’s a lump in our throats and we feel very uncomfortable, there’s conflict and we feel frustrated. That’s pride and the need to be right, and it’s not a pleasant feeling at all! There are only three ways to stop experiencing it.

1. Bury it and avoid the situation, stay unaware that we did anything wrong, only to be faced with it again with someone and something else, probably very soon afterwards. Repeat. Ugh.
2. Get angry and find a way very rapidly to blame someone else instead, and let ourselves stay feeling self-righteously annoyed. (This 3-minute animation describes this brilliantly! )
3. Find the courage to overcome it, let it turn to shame and regret, then forgive ourselves and find a way to give the apology that we know is due and a way to move forward from there. Post-apology in this situation feels so liberating!

How many times have you truly said sorry after realising the consequences of your actions, compared to glibly saying it for accidentally brushing past someone or unintentionally being in their way? Worth an extra moment’s thought next time you say the word. Very few times in life do we actually need to say sorry, because very few times do we knowingly do something to deliberately give someone else unpleasant feelings. If we look at ourselves, we know this don’t we? Ask yourself how many times you are knowingly annoying, chances are it’ll be very few. So can’t we assume the same of everyone else? In my experience, when I manage to assume the best of myself and other people rather than assuming the worst, I feel much happier for it.

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Posted in People

Who do I think you think I should be?

Yep, for some reason it’s embarrassing. I assume it makes other people uncomfortable so I don’t want to tell them. People who used to respect me and now I have to tell them this! It makes me uncomfortable. What is my ‘shameful’ secret? I’ve got a decade-long reputable career behind me, a good education, plenty of good connections, but right now, finally back amongst friends in Hampshire, I want to work in a restaurant and a garden nursery.

Why’s that embarrassing? Because I’m judging myself. I’m assuming you’re going to judge me for making a decision to do ‘easy’ jobs that are not well paid. And I’ve come to learn, acutely, that if I think you’re judging me, it’s only because I’m judging myself. So actually I’m the person to whom I need to be brave enough to admit to wanting these jobs. And to admit that to myself, my heavily-conditioned ego needs me to be aware of a bigger picture; the reasons why even though taken in isolation those jobs are questionable choices for me, for my long-term plan they’re entirely right, and I know that because my gut says so.

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I also need to therefore admit that I have judged people because of their occupation. Ugh, that feels like an ugly thing to admit! But it’s true. I’m guessing you have too though, one way or another, so I ain’t gonna dwell on it. It’s okay, I understand why you would judge me if you are, because I remember the perspective from which you judge.

It’s not easy to brush off all of this judgement. I’m scared but I’m doing it anyway. Because why does everything have to be so serious! My fears stem from a very human need to belong and be accepted for whoever I am. But they’re also rooted in the messages I’m used to hearing: worries about the future, not having money invested in a house, not spending every day working towards retirement based on what I know today. That would be letting something that ‘might’ be the case in 30 years’ time dictate how I feel now. There’s a difference between being sensible and having a rough plan for later life versus letting that put me living in subtle fear and worry every day again, suffering from being locked into that miserable obligation. A wise person called Jack Kornfield said: “When we let go of being the one who suffers, we are free to bring blessings wherever we go.”

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“Careers are a 20th Century invention, and I don’t want one.” – Christopher McCandless.
Over the last 18 months, hands down the most inspiring people I’ve met have been men and women who are willing to turn their hand to anything, to be resourceful. Over the course of their lives they make decisions frequently, as many times as needed and for as long as is needed, that are different from what’s expected of them. They choose something that leads towards a goal of happiness in line with their values, instead of money. I’ve grown up in a society where we’re all conditioned to be money-oriented (to the point of insanity) and now I see that so clearly for what it is, thanks to these wonderfully valuable people along my way. But why is it so much easier to judge myself and be embarrassed than to entertain the possibility of people respecting me for my decisions instead? Because of the conditioning of my experience, the ubiquitous narrow-minded value system of ‘money is success’. I’m becoming aware of all of this because I’m curious about where the feelings come from, and I’ve got in the habit of observing my thought patterns. I’ve never studied psychology but I find it so excitingly fascinating what I can learn from just simple patient observation!

I tell my brain to imagine that I’m currently away from home travelling and I just need some work to cover my living costs in a single place for a while and hopefully a little extra to help me with my next plans. When I have that mindset I suddenly feel free to choose whatever work I think will be enjoyable for a bit – something sociable, with genuine and friendly people, something where I learn more practical skills that could be useful anywhere in the world, something in line with what’s important to me, making a difference to people more than to the numbers on a screen. Travel is a state of mind that I hope has started to become a habit for me.

Don’t read that and think I have it all sussed though. Haha, no! In amongst all of this my brain can still be in the old overdrive: I can only describe it as a sort of hideous flickering oscillation, back and forth, the antithesis of calm. It’s so easy for us to feel out of control! Reach for the gratitude: I’m thankful to be in an extremely fortunate position right now, supportive friends and family, no ties, but I’m experiencing lots of change and I’m very aware of the contrast in perspective between me and the people I’m reunited with. Any changes they’ve experienced in the last 18 months have been within their same frame of reference, the same context. Whereas to me even everyday stuff seems really out of place. Sitting watching someone scroll through channels on the telly gives me a feeling of a memory from another life, a bit like a deja vu where it seems familiar but definitely out of the ordinary, something’s amiss. I feel like an alien but I’m on familiar territory. Long may that continue!

In an indescribably beneficial 10-day meditation course, I heard a parable about having a familiar horse that you’re not letting go of before trying out a new horse that you know is much better quality. Therefore you have one foot on the new horse and one foot on the old horse, and that’s very unstable! That’s how I feel right now.

The world of the old horse is indoors and it’s clean, it has all the amenities you could need and more, it has me wincing at those people spending money just because they can, as if it were water; and using clean water as if it were limitless even though everyone knows it’s not. It has people complaining in local restaurants, paying normal amounts that never used to seem obscene to me. It has food plucked from a tree and instantly wrapped in double plastic. It requires a large salary. And it has a helpless acceptance of the way things are and it’s soulless. I know this world. “Those people” includes me. I used to know nothing else.

The world of the new horse has slowly unfolded to me. There’s a thrill of putting in effort in the kitchen at home to give myself and other people a healthy meal. I see all the things I now know I’m capable of doing and how satisfied they’ve made me feel when I’ve done them. In this world there’s a connection with nature. There’s a strong awareness of how much work is in an office, unchanging with the seasons except for the ebbs and flows of consumerism/the forced ‘seasons’ like Christmas. There’s Permaculture and a whole new hopeful way of looking at life. I personally don’t have this Romantic ‘amazing deep connection’ with trees and plants and leaves that some people seem to have from having ‘wonderful adventures outside in the garden’ as children. But after spending months outside, I can’t find the words to convey the fundamental benefit of it, the complete delusion I was in before, the deprivation (that I ignorantly used to want for myself) from this connection. In this world I’m aware that a civilisation where people are exposed to marketing accustoms them to inequality. How we think inequality is okay because intense marketing feeds our own deep cravings for the dopamine hit of ‘more stuff’, and that loud so-incessant-it’s-unnoticeable craving is making us unaware of all the more balanced instincts we have deep down for fairness, like the loud man in a crowd shouting out his opinion means we don’t even know what all the other people look like never mind what they feel. In this world I see people I know around the globe who are making decisions that really inspire me. In this world you work with what you’ve got and realise that you have a smile on your face. You realise that there really is no rush, that you can jump off that travelator that everyone’s on and slow down.

If it comes to a choice between either/or, it’s easy to hear negative judgement on both sides. Go back to what you did before and earn plenty of cash? “Pah, Emily you have no bravery or imagination or independent will.” Do something different and see what happens? “Emily you just can’t be content can you, stubbornly doing only what feels right, have to look for something new and different all the time.” So why listen to judgement?! Think about the positives of all your options instead. Where the cost is money, the payoff is experience and motivation and inspiration.

So who do I think you think I should be? It couldn’t matter less, and to be able to sit here and say that with honesty, and have the freedom to act on it, I am deeply grateful.

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Posted in UK

Assumptions and authenticity

It doesn’t stay away. The cycle of thoughts, and the challenges that accompany them, bringing (what I describe as) that sinking feeling…it doesn’t stay away, no matter what I do.

It never ceases to amaze me how writing about how things really are can unexpectedly make me feel better. That’s just my personal experience (I guess the facebook-fakery crowd must get different results, otherwise they wouldn’t do that). It feels like I’m only being my authentic self when I’m communicating out about the okay-ness of the darker feelings in life. It’s the bright source of my faith and hope to NOT keep this to myself; I currently believe that if everyone shared the whole spectrum of their experience, felt confident that opening up about how they feel would be met safely and with acceptance and consideration rather than fear disguised as judgement, then the world could be a better and more balanced place. I think this is a big shift from where we’re at now! I know what lots of people’s opinions are on all sorts of things, but I usually don’t know how they actually feel.

You might read that and think I’m wrong, maybe that it’s a bad idea to share feelings, or that I’m being negative, or that “it’ll never happen”, or maybe that you think it already happens enough and nothing needs questioning. My own experience guides me and tells me that my world is brighter when I manage to be open and am met with the same openness and deep honesty… and the world is made up of lots of people who have the same basic needs as me. So if I can improve my world by being open about my fears and sadnesses, and people I meet can improve their and my worlds by being open, then can’t more and more people do it too, and wouldn’t that by default improve the whole world?! But I think we need a new language. As people in general we need to learn a different response: true empathy, listening and showing that we’ve understood. Not pity, not trying to fix, not ‘reacting’ and not assuming responsibility or blame for other people’s feelings, but truly taking responsibility for our own. ‘Nonviolent Communication’ (Marshall B. Rosenberg) is interesting me a lot.

I’m not saying it’s easy to make this change. As I write this I wonder who’s interested any more, while my journey doesn’t involve picturesque exotic landscapes crossing cultural boundaries. There is doubt in my mind as to whether there’s appetite for hearing what I’m saying. I keep assuming that you’re going to label me as ‘depressive’ and ‘different’ from you, whoever you are, you who is fine and has your life all permanently enjoyable and full of peace and gratitude, wanting for nothing. But I’m writing it anyway, for me, because I can’t claim any responsibility for the reaction (or lack of) that occurs within you as you read this, but by writing and sharing it I feel more authentic, and that feels right to me, that’s my responsibility. 🙂

So, the sinking feeling. I didn’t say “it doesn’t go away”: It does. I’ve had some great fun so far volunteering for a few months, delicious joyful moments, (importantly) shared with other people. I’ve had calm, contented, happy moments; the progress I’ve made against depression means I experience a load of amazing stuff about my life. I’ve also had more sad, frustrated, painful or scary moments. (“Yeah, so do we all!” my mind’s voice tells me you’re thinking!) My point is that what I learn all the time is how conditioned I am to rejecting these moments, to wishing them away, shsh, stop it, be ok! But I really learn how these feelings are all part of life, they come back, they’re necessary, things to value and marvel at and learn from even through tears, and their value to me is increased when the thoughts are shared: I benefit from hearing other people’s truths, and they show me that they benefit from hearing mine. But it’s quite rare. Rare that I see people truly looking inside themselves and acknowledging all their feelings and sharing that with honour and responsibility, with no shame or filter or blame, and being received in the same spirit. When I encounter it, I’m trying to sit up and pay attention. I’m trying to listen to understand, when I feel able (which is not all the time), and I keep learning how that’s a difficult but deeply worthy and do-able skill. I’m feeling grateful to have found a volunteering place, for now, where it’s all encouraged.

Someone said to me that if we all focussed on sharing our difficult feelings all the time, no-one would do anything and it’s not feasible. I definitely see the point (have thought it myself sometimes) but my theory is this: that if we were in the habit of gently dealing with our own feelings properly as they arose, they might actually take up LESS time because they wouldn’t fester and become monstrous, they might no longer stop us from achieving things or truly peacefully enjoying ourselves! There’s no point in denying that those feelings happen; they do, and aren’t they a hugely influential part of each person’s own life? I see a lot of people spending their time trying to make money or distract themselves and a lot less time on accepting and facing their true feelings, or giving someone else a chance for their feelings to be really heard. Many people seem to have their ‘stuff’ going on, and it seems to have very similar themes at heart, but it’s all kept secret from each other. It can be better than this!

The other day, whilst alone picking up windfall apples, surrounded by greenness and birdsong in a grey sky, I felt gloomy but became suddenly very aware of my being free; that I have no debt and enough money for my immediate (frugal!) needs, and no obligations to do anything more than the pleasant volunteering work that I’m currently choosing in return for places to sleep, food in my tummy and new experiences and knowledge. In that moment, intellectually I was reminded that I was wonderfully free, but I didn’t feel free: Simultaneously a thought came up where I was instinctively comparing myself to another traveller friend who has more money than I do, and another thought comparing myself to more traveller friends who have someone with whom to share their freedom, and I remained gloomy, now hearing thoughts where I was judging myself for not feeling grateful for my freedom! (Crazy brain.)

What was I assuming?
I assumed that the gloominess (inside my own head, that only I am experiencing) is bad! That I’m ‘supposed’ to ‘snap out of it’! Er, according to whom?!
I assumed that I’m the only person feeling gloominess. As soon as I became conscious of that assumption, I knew how absurd it was…!
I assumed that I wouldn’t feel this way if I had the companionship that I often feel is missing in my life. But in fact it’s amazingly rare for ALL our human needs to be met at any one time, so even if this particular need of mine were met, my brain could easily soon focus on needing something else. (Maybe reading this you’re assuming that you wouldn’t feel gloomy if you were in my shoes rather than in your own circumstances…)
I assumed, in the moment, that nobody would want to know about all this.
I assume, in the moment, that people don’t love me and won’t love me because I think in these ways.
I assume, in the moment, that I’ve ‘forgotten everything I’ve learned’ and will remain and descend in miserableness from this point onwards.

All those assumptions and unrequested thoughts feel more real in the moment than my gratitude and my freedom. I know they’re not actually more real. All of this is conditioning, it’s a way that our human brains can work, for some complicated evolutionary and cultural reasons. My ongoing work has been to increase my awareness of this conditioning and step back from it. It helps. I’m now taking it one step further, beginning to try to consciously practice gratitude in the hope that one day it will outweigh assumption, or at least begin to level the balance! It’s all very very hard work!

Those assumptions are just the tip of the iceberg of assumptions we all make every day, big or small, and awareness of them makes a big difference. A couple of months ago I was thinking how everything is up in the air; I can choose so much, I have lots of life experience yet there’s infinitely more that I need to learn, I have no parameters within which to work, no anchored starting point (place, person, project)… and that blank white sheet I’ve created for myself at this point in life is the scariest thing I’ve ever, ever had to face. That fear sometimes weakens me, brings me to my knees again, and depressive thoughts sometimes slip back into my brain again. But no wonder! I have no particular role model or anyone who is truly ‘in my life’ with whom I can share ideas or direction on this uncertain path of life away from the mainstream blinkered money-machine system, yet it seems to be the only path my heart wants to choose. When I realise that I’ve been unaware of that perspective and have been assuming that I ‘should’ feel confident finding a whole new way of life, I feel relief. 🙂

So no, the sinking feeling doesn’t stay away, so if you experience that too, you have company. But I continue to work on accepting and exploring that, and when I do, well, it goes away more quickly, and stays away longer, and the truly joyful moments are undefeated and seem to effortlessly muscle their way back in. There is always hope…

“We make intellectual journeys and experience all the hills and valleys that we might expect upon a physical journey. We make emotional journeys and may at times find ourselves bent double seeking breath, exhausted and doubting our resolve. We make physical journeys and amongst the heights of mountains find our thinking stimulated and enriched with powerful insights that move us forward. The best journeys for me are those that dance the four great powers of the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual together – spun and woven as one cloth.”
Tim Macartney, Finding Earth Finding Soul

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Posted in UK, Volunteering

If the answer is ‘Happy’, what was the question?

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’
Best answer to that question I ever heard! A familiar question, right? But there are so many assumptions within it:

“What” – does it have to have a label? Does it have to be only one thing?
“To be” – does this mean a job? If so does a job have to define me?
“When you grow up” – do I have to feel like a grown-up?!

Someone very recently said to me that she always knew who she wanted to be when she grew up and she’s achieved it. When I pressed for details, it turns out she meant “what she wanted to do” but had unwittingly phrased it as “who she wanted to be” and it struck me that there’s a big difference, but the latter is a far more fundamental question at any point in life!

So I’ve been home for a couple of months now and no, I didn’t return with a better answer to that question than the one above! I wasn’t sure whether I would keep writing but rather than having nothing to say, it’s because I almost have too much to say. In many ways I feel like a fraud writing about depression right now, it’s not beating me at the moment, but perhaps that means even more that I should share why I feel like that? Frankly I’m amazing myself that I’m ok: history of depression followed by biggest post-holiday blues ever, plus being frustrated/disappointed to realise that things I’ve now come to value are difficult/impossible to find here… Basket-case time, surely?! Nope.

A list of some things that are helping me

1. Doing stuff for other people. No matter how big or small, helping others seems to help me. (This is one reason why I’m writing this – lots of people tell me it helps them, which makes me happy!)
2. Writing stuff down. I advocate this all the time – streaming a crazy whirlwind of thoughts onto paper can get them out of your head and knocked back into perspective where they belong.
3. Remembering to not believe everything I think.
4. Smiling! Things come back to me with smiles because I’m putting smiles out there.
5. Trying to appreciate things through the eyes of non-Brits I met travelling who see the beauty in Britain and can’t be here. There will be no “amazing” landscape pictures on this post, because it’s just more difficult to see something as beautiful when it’s so familiar, and I miss the mountains!! But as the sayings go: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes’ and ‘Don’t let comparison steal your joy’!
6. Continuing to challenge myself in small ways. Ok I can’t snorkel with sharks right now but I can do stewarding at a festival for the first time ever or be more honest with people than I’ve ever been brave enough to be before… instead of doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. (‘The definition of insanity’!)
7. Taking responsibility. Focussing on what I can do differently instead of what other people ‘need’ to do differently.
8. Continuing to watch my thoughts; trying to catch myself if I think of anything as a ‘problem’ and instead see it as an opportunity to think differently/get creative.
9. Letting stuff go (thanks to this awesome blog http://www.surrendertotheinfinite.blogspot.com ) and remembering to do that on a regular basis – there’s no “oh I’ve let that go now, I’ll never have to deal with it again”. Some things are easier than others!
10. Let myself be sad. I do miss some of the exquisite travel moments so much and it would be churlish to ignore that. The more I let the emotions out at the time they arise, the more quickly they pass!
11. Trying to remember that there’s no rush for anything. I don’t have to sort my entire life out right now! It can evolve.
12. Remembering to have gratitude for the freedom and abilities I have and the huge support that people are giving me.
13. Let myself fail. Sometimes I do none of the above and I feel rubbish, and once I realise that I forgive myself because no-one’s perfect!

Still, ‘home’ is a more difficult place to be, which on face value makes no sense. Home in any other setting would feel as displeasing. Home should not be offended; the people and things that are labelled with home should not be offended, I don’t love them any less, it’s just the sense of home that’s offensive after such treasured travels. Home is no more or less perfect than any other place. I try to give the place that tag as little as possible: home is just wherever I am! I stay a bit detached from home. These are my needs right now and I’m continuing to listen to them instead of letting guilt stop me; I’m not criticising anyone else at all, these are just my needs and I’m not apologising for them!

I’m not trying to find ‘a job’ right now, my focus is not on money and I’m lucky that it doesn’t have to be right now, but I’m definitely working towards ways of living. If I’m honest I currently feel less capable of functioning in the mad-paced life of work here! Yet deep down I know that I am still capable in the same way as before, I’m just continuing to determinedly focus on being capable of something else. So I’m still travelling: I’m wwoofing again, in Wales and Cornwall… I have some more observations to share and I’m meeting new people who have a broad view of life’s possibilities.

In one way, travelling in strange places forces you to accept limited choices, which helps you grow as a person, and in another way it broadens your choices to an almost infinite extent, because you realise you don’t have to listen to so many ‘should’ voices any more. This means you have to decide things in your life based on what you actually truly need (including happiness), which as Westerners we do far less often than you might think. And it’s actually harder (we’re out of practice!) as I referred to in a slightly different context a few posts and thousands of miles ago!

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Posted in UK

‘Life begins just outside your comfort zone’

Your comfort zone doesn’t challenge your thoughts. As soon as you’re outside of it, you start doubting yourself, giving you an opportunity to exercise that habit of recognising negative thought patterns and trying to stop yourself from identifying with them. Travelling (solo, importantly) affords me a sweet spot that makes me feel so alive and empowered, challenging me just the right amount, for so many different reasons. I find it to be especially true in countries where the culture is vastly different from my own, so arriving in Bangkok with little-to-no preparation felt good.

The first thing I was conscious of was how different it would be to be making ethical purchasing decisions here, compared to New Zealand, especially when in the past the thirst from the extra heat and humidity would’ve sent me straight for a Pepsi! This is something that’s been forefront in my mind for months now: buying local food, trying to avoid supporting multinationals, choosing to buy foods with as little packaging as possible, and so on. So instead of buying packaged food from the mini-market, I went to eat cheaply at a restaurant full of locals… three policemen on their lunch break must mean it’s a good place, right?!

The vast majority of travellers in this corner of the world seem to spend a lot of their time in Thailand, but I got up early to start a very enjoyable six hour train journey with the aim of spending my tourist dollars in a much poorer country instead: Cambodia. These are some of the challenges to my comfort zone that I’ve experienced in my month here. Some may be different to what you might expect!

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The backpacker uniform of a baggy vest/singlet and short shorts.
This struck me because in South America and New Zealand, there didn’t seem to be a ‘uniform’, everyone just wore what they wanted, everyone looked different so I totally forgot that sense of needing to ‘fit in’. Here, probably due to the predominance of young English-speaking tourists, so many travellers all dress the same! I found this challenging to be around.
My brain: “Should I be wearing this too?”
I wonder if I will have this feeling again when I’m back in the trend-and-image-conscious UK!

Why is everyone else having fun and I’m not?
…is what my brain would’ve said in the past. There’s a perception of travelling in South East Asia which is that it has to be a non-stop party. “It’s gonna be so crazy!” “Last night was mental!” etc. I had an intention (rightly or wrongly) to question my own perception of this while I’m here, which to be honest is (rightly or wrongly) that those people will just bore me. So I was going to take opportunities to challenge myself to get off my soapbox and ‘be normal’. For example, on the party island of Koh Rong, I knew the music would be playing loud all night and anyone who knows me knows that (when I’m in the mood) I LOVE to get on the dancefloor; I’d been missing it! So after some of my usual fare of in-depth happy conversations about my passions, I surrendered to the impulse and got up. As I lost myself in the music for hours, smiling from the natural high, I was aware that those very people repeatedly claiming to have such a “crazy” time were actually all just sat around lethargically trying to make themselves heard over the noise of the music, looking pretty bored, or complaining that the music wasn’t right to make the drugs they’d taken have the desired effect, or that there weren’t enough people dancing for them to want to dance.

Now I hear myself thinking: I’m really having fun, I wonder if other people can see that just from the irrepressible smile on my face even though I’m not saying it. I wonder if they actually had fun last night from the animated stories they’re trying to convince me of amongst their bored/tired-looking faces*… I think I’ll stick to my version of fun. I don’t want to be ‘normal’!

* I do acknowledge that sometimes people might have genuinely had fun. The point is that they’re not honest about the whole truth of it, which perpetuates a lie and unrealistic expectations and self-doubt in others.

Beggars and the disabled
Cambodia is not a country where the government looks after people who are injured or poor or uneducated or otherwise disadvantaged. It is still suffering all kinds of social issues following the Vietnam War and the total destruction of public systems and educated society under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, including a low-standard and corrupt education system, poor workers’ rights, no social security, child prostitution, human trafficking, poor land-owners’ rights… I’m no expert but I’m sure this list goes on and on. This means that beggars who’ve (for example) lost their legs through land-mine injuries, swallow any pride and approach tourists for handouts. There are lots of things to consider when faced with a grown man with flip-flops to protect his hands as he drags himself and his dignity along the pavement.

Lots of travellers here (I’m sure?) are the same as me – we want to help but haven’t come prepared knowing the ‘best’ way to do so. Thoughts cross my mind of not just giving handouts to individuals or encouraging begging (especially children, because their family then depends on them in this way instead of sending them to school/letting them enjoy their childhood) and how can I know how much will really make a difference to him? What about all the other people in the same situation who aren’t at my table right now? Anything I could give right now would still leave him returning to this same routine tomorrow and the next day and the next wouldn’t it? What else could I potentially do? How do I resolve the guilt of sitting here with all the comforts I need and saying no? Or ‘doing the right thing’? I don’t have the answers but I tried to treat him with respect and gave him a little money.

Then I met someone who thought differently, and later I read something that made me think differently again. An incredibly commendable fellow traveller went round the local clinics to source a wheelchair for a beggar who’d lost his legs, found out where his community lived, paid some rent for them and bought them two months’ worth of rice. Wow! That came straight from his heart and would’ve been way, way outside my own comfort zone!

My (at arm’s length?) inclination would be to support an organisation that knows better than I do how to help. Quickly in Cambodia I learned about so much corruption and destructive practices amongst NGOs and unnecessary-orphanages in particular. I was reading a book about organisations that are actually responsibly doing good work here in the right way (there are many). One story included a Western man who gave a lot of financial support to a family, only to return months later and find they’d needed to sell the things he’d bought, because their culture is so ingrained to live in the here and now that they couldn’t conceive of planning ahead and building a future. So he’s now changed his approach entirely and has set up a holistic charity working with communities and education. I’m pretty sure this would not have been inside his comfort zone when he first stepped foot in Cambodia as a tourist!

As I said, I don’t have the answers but surely doing nothing is not one of them. It’s too easy to spend tourist money here supporting the wrong things, but actually, it only takes a little effort to spend it supporting the right things. For now I’ve tried to stay in responsible-tourism guesthouses whenever possible and learn about the consequences of the dollars I spend. I’ll be thinking about this more, despite its uncomfortable nature.

Being honest with people
It’s not just the places and circumstances that push you out of your comfort zone when travelling but working out how to accommodate and tolerate all kinds of different people. Valuing myself enough to have difficult but open and honest conversations about how they make me feel, when necessary, is becoming just a little easier, though I still feel I have a long way to go with that! Remembering to try to put myself in other people’s shoes and question what assumptions I’m making about the situation continue to help. It’s interesting to me when people claim to be within their comfort zone yet use the words “I hate…” numerous times a day! Lately I’ve noticed myself more often pointing out the little things I love.

Giving people the chance to let me in
Going over to join a group, or inviting someone on their own to join the people I’m sat with – it’s clear that during the year I’ve got better at trying to make connections with more people, assuming that they’ll be happy to talk to me instead of assuming that they’ll think I’m weird. This has not always been within my comfort zone! But it’s less of a challenge here than in South America because here it feels like there are more travellers and they’re largely English-speaking. Once again I’ve met some awesome interesting people in Cambodia who I’d never have met otherwise!

Loneliness
As everyone knows, this can happen whether you’re with people or not. It’s only when I start to be hard on myself that I start to feel lonely; when my brain starts with the negative thinking, which I noticed happening here in the first week or so due to being in a new environment. I compare myself with others and this is a strong root of suffering for me. Each time I overcome that I gain a little more strength, so I’m glad to have gone through it!

On reflection I’m grateful to have had only fairly temporary travelling companions during this year because, much as I’ve really enjoyed the company of the ones I have found and often wished I could see them again, I can cherish every experience, memory and connection with new people as my own and mine alone. I know this kind of travelling isn’t for everyone but it is for me!

Climate
Dorms with rustic facilities and old-smelling mosquito nets, signs of poverty, litter, dirty streets, exotic food and the thrill of using non-standard modes of transport and having unforeseen experiences were already familiar to me but thick humid air is not! It’s very tiring. Perhaps this will make me more grateful for fresher cooler air when I get home!

Facing change
It might sound strange, but the thought of finally heading back to the place I call home is currently outside my comfort zone. My heart is excited to see the people there that I love, it’s been a long time and I want to give each of them my attention and a very big hug! But I’ve got very used to connecting with new people on a daily basis, finding my feet and finding ways to relate very quickly, and I will miss that wonderful freedom and sense of the unknown and chance and sharing. To me right now, strange places are my home comfort.

I’m afraid of depression sucking me in again like the vortex it can be.
I’m worried I’ll be judging myself again.
I’m worried I’ll forget a lot of the lessons I’ve learned.
I’m worried I’ll feel like I don’t belong anywhere, because home probably won’t feel like home anymore.
I’m worried I’ll find it difficult to relate to people who’ve been at home all this time and I will feel like I’m a bad friend!

All of that is definitely outside my comfort zone, but worrying and avoiding achieves nothing and actually, even writing those sentences down and seeing them from outside of my brain helps. So I’m going to face it all, accept it and deal with it, when the time comes. I remind myself that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And if the title of this post is true, then rather than an end, it must be another beginning, which has got to be a good thing!

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Posted in Cambodia, People

A journey like no other

No-one has ever had exactly the same journey as I just have. Even if I’ve traced the footsteps precisely of 100 people, through South America and New Zealand, the thoughts we each had along the way may well have had correlations and similar themes yet are unique. I find that quite amazing! But of course the same applies to our lives: we’re each unique but we all share the same needs, albeit that the details differ.

This blog was never, ever, about me wanting a pat on the head for “how well I’ve done” or showing off about the places I’ve been to. It was always just meant to be about sharing this bit of my journey in overcoming depressive thoughts, in the hope that anybody who is also suffering, whether you’re open about it or not (even in your own mind), can see that you’re not alone and you have choices about what to do about it; which voices to listen to, which assumptions to challenge, no matter what situation you’re in. I don’t think I’ve always successfully got that focus across, but I’ve just tried to be honest and give the real picture of what I’m going through, to show that your thoughts follow you everywhere and what looks amazing to some people can be a real struggle to others, and if you ever feel like that I promise you you’re far from alone. At the same time, hopefully it’s shown that even for someone who has been long-accompanied by ‘the black dog’, there can be respite from it, you can find genuine light-heartedness again, for ever-increasing spells, for much more than a fleeting moment. You can REALLY enjoy stuff again! And when you do, you’ll be indescribably glad that you tried so many different ways to find it, within yourself. You will still have days where you feel sad. But each time you have to be ready for the fight again, you’ll find it just a little bit easier than before, so you’ll keep fighting because you know the rewards will be worth it!

There are things ‘wrong’ with all of us and it’s ok, we didn’t ask for those things, they’re very human and the healthiest thing I’ve found to do is face up to them, admit them, be open about it, stop trying to pretend that we’re perfect. All I can share is my experiences. I feel I need more knowledge and wisdom to be able to write to you about what you can do. So many other people have already done that and are doing that much better than I can!

And if you claim to have never had internal critical voices demanding your attention, or anxiety, or self-doubt, then count yourself as lucky, be grateful that your experiences in life so far have kept you so free of this natural suffering. Don’t judge those who haven’t had your good fortune, but don’t pity them either, and don’t tell them what to do. Just really listen with compassion and try to gently understand. But also check up on yourself: if you’re brave enough you’ll probably find experiences you’ve had where you can empathise.

I’ve learned, reading about the mind, mindfulness, meditation, letting go of attachment and our inherent human aversion to doing that, personality or temperament types, food, medicine, questioning assumption, others’ experiences… I’ve given all of this my time and attention, and I’ve also given my time, attention and love to the many people I’ve met who have opened up to me about their experiences with this too. I’ve found it all to be so worthwhile, satisfying and fun!

Now I’m off to challenge myself again in another totally different environment. The relaxed nature of New Zealand has given me chances to learn about myself in different ways than South America did, but for the next month I’m ready for yet more external influences, unforeseen lessons, authentic smiles and treasured people!

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Posted in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, New Zealand, People, Peru

Shambhala

There’s a late-afternoon purple haze over the sea, and a driftwood fire crackling deliciously in the clay stove. Three fantails are chirruping and flitting around by the full-length panoramic windows. Out of the corner of my eye I see a swinging movement outside, and I’m recalling with a grateful smile a place and time not so long ago (in Bolivia) when that could’ve been a spider monkey!

This was Shambhala, an off-the-grid eco-hostel, an oasis of peace and calm, another place I feel lucky to have found out about and experienced, a perfect cosy retreat from a 3-day rare Golden Bay storm. It feels like it’s delivered me at a poignant time back to the arms of something I was introduced to about 20 years ago and then more deeply 5 years ago: Tibetan Buddhism and meditation. Some places quickly start to feel like home and this is one of them, so I stayed here three times after my short visits to the nearby intentional communities; the last time working for five days for my accommodation and food.

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During those three stays fantastic conversations seemed to be on tap; some places just attract awesome people! The two hiatuses involved some wonderful solo freedom camping, and a very special roadtrip to Farewell Spit with my new ‘little sister’ Ruby!

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We followed Shambhala with the only thing that could compete… it would seem absurd to leave New Zealand without multi-day ‘tramping’ staying in backcountry huts:
A snowy flat tussock ridge, sweeping views, icy wind and clear sunshine. In my head there’s an orchestral film score playing. A Kea! Swooping curiously right over our heads, bright red wing undersides, before perching arrogantly close-by. Magical. 🙂
Hut to ourselves, feeling like kids on a sleepover: in candlelight, mattresses excitedly pulled up close to the wood burner’s heat!
Honey-coloured sun and stillness, arms out to the sides, fingers skimming the long tussock grasses, walking along the ridge, mountain range one side, snowcapped mountain valley the other side, feeling so peaceful. Treasures of snow in little pockets where the day’s sun hasn’t reached.

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The compensation for having to depart Golden Bay was a final warm clear night camping right on the beach, and reuniting with a few more people who have quickly become very dear to me. I found it harder than they all know to leave!

I have so much love for the many people I’ve connected with on my travels through New Zealand and South America; you’ve all had more of an effect on me than you know, and I’ve felt so much love from you in return. I’m not sure how much I’ll be blogging in the last month of these travels, but this has been my constant invisible companion whilst in those crests or troughs between one wave of hugs and smiles and the next.

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Posted in Cobb Valley, Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, New Zealand, People, Wharariki Beach

The weight of possibility

Some blog posts just write themselves, but this one is struggling to take shape.

So I could tell you about the days and days of rain in a fruitless quest to spot a Kea (alpine parrot), or the 4-minute hot shower challenge; or how often I’ve lost track of when I last had a shower or washed my hair and it wonderfully doesn’t matter! Or about the stressful decisions I have to make about my last month or so in NZ, about whether it IS my last month in NZ, and the subsequent gaping questions about what to do with my life (as every ‘quit everything’ traveller has surely felt). It sounds like a wonderful problem to have, it is, I’m incredibly fortunate, but try telling that to the panicky feeling that my thoughts sometimes send radiating through my body! Then I realise they’re just thoughts, I have lots of ideas and options, and that stress just melts away, and I laugh out loud at how ridiculously ok everything will probably be, like it’s not possible for me to make ‘the wrong’ decision.

I could tell you about quirky New Zealand, how every time the map makes it look like the road carries on but you actually have to turn off to stay on the same road! How it constantly tricks you – the map looks empty and then you realise it’s bursting with things to do and you could spend a month in each place, and that’s before you meet the people and want to spend hours talking to them!

I could tell you about constantly keeping an eye on my budget: Two tanks of fuel in two days?! “What’s that done to the graph?…” 🙂

I could tell you about being excited to be around hippies again, another intentional community, some indescribably awesome girls I met there, swimming in Abel Tasman national park, a night dancing to a live local band at the Mussel Inn, followed by buying raw milk from a vending machine (Golden Bay’s “McDonalds”), chai tea, honey juggling, guitar playing and african drumming on a boat owned by Tom from Yorkshire who’s sailed round the world…

Or I could bring you back to the underlying point to my travels and this blog: depression and the voices that we believe inside our heads. It’s not something that just goes away but it CAN get a lot easier and it IS good to talk about it! The solitude I’ve had, whilst (crucially) reading a lot on the subject during these adventures, allows me to spend time watching my thoughts and noticing how much non-reality my mind creates. It hasn’t been remotely of a depressive nature lately because travel has been doing absolute wonders and often helped me to quieten all thoughts and just stay in the here and now, rain or shine.

I’d love to convey this feeling to you so you can benefit from my experience if you need to, but really it’s non-transferable, you have to go through a process yourself; I have to still work at this constantly. My mind’s voice tells me to make all my decisions based on the things it thinks the world expects of me. I’m meditating instead!

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Posted in Abel Tasman National Park, Arthur's Pass, Golden Bay, Lewis Pass, New Zealand, People, Tui Community

Beauty in the broken

Pretty much everyone (with the notable exception of Zara and Tom in Lake Tekapo) has said to me that Christchurch is still too difficult a place to be, more than three years on from the major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. So before I got there I decided I wanted to help with something constructive as well as looking for some of the positives… not just this:

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… but this:

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I can’t remember who told me about them now, but there are organisations who are trying to make creative and green spaces out of the (temporary; impermanent) devastation left by the earthquakes, including ones called Gapfiller, Greening the Rubble and – love this – the Ministry of Awesome! Having navigated through the crazy (temporary; impermanent) road system I somehow arrived at the inexplicably incognito Greening the Rubble community gardens, ready and eager to get stuck in and plant something! Sadly for Christchurch, the weekly organisation meetings have dwindled to nothing and it’s not easy for a (temporary; impermanent) visitor like me to help out. For anyone staying in the area though, I’m sure you could make a difference! Failing that just go and use the playful Sound Garden or Gap Golf course…

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I really noticed the music from this flute in the middle of the innovative re:start commercial centre.

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It would’ve been a poignant sound at this (temporary; impermanent) memorial to the lives lost.

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Depending on your (temporary; impermanent) life-situation as you read this, good or bad, this ‘Infinity Poetry’ wall might have different effects on you. I see some truths through new eyes, and it somehow breaks my heart happily.

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Give it a few more years, and although the Garden City will still only have remnants of its attractive historic centre, I’m sure many more people will see it as an inspiring place!

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Posted in Christchurch, New Zealand

Earth Hour

From Aoraki to Lake Tekapo and Lake Alexandrina, camping under another notoriously clear sky, where I ate dinner with a very lovely couple from England, and really enjoyed their company the next day too in the sun next to the Mount John observatory.

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My next plan was to get to a town called Geraldine for the Future Living festival, and I hoped to find some way of helping out in order to be a part of it, though I had no idea how I would do that. The festival started as a lantern walk to celebrate Earth Hour: a time for everyone on the planet who cares to stop using electricity for an hour and think about conserving energy, and is now a 4-day community event.

I drove into the town, looked around the farmers’ market and tried to be ok with that feeling I often get in NZ, that I’m neither carefree enough to be bypassing this completely in favour of sun and surf, nor settled enough to be ok with the ‘family fun!’ air about it. Sitting on a bench trying to write about that unease, a local octogenarian, George, came and sat next to me for a chat and offered me a cup of tea and a friendly ear, for no particular reason other than to cheer me up. 🙂

I then went to look at the homely little art-house cinema, being shown around by the charismatic owner, Calvin. As we chatted away, he said if I wasn’t careful I’d be roped in to help with setting up for the local band and festival party that evening, to which I of course said I’d be more than happy to help! So, that’s how I became a part of this community celebration without even trying! 🙂

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After the Earth Hour lantern walk, when I learned how Geraldine Cinema has hosted many more live local bands since the venues in Christchurch were sadly destroyed by the earthquake, I felt incredibly welcome at the party, and got introduced to numerous people including Young New Zealander of the Year 2013, Sam Judd, who’s involved in many environmental projects after starting a huge litter-picking initiative on the Galápagos Islands; close to my heart of course!

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After that heartwarming experience came a night accidentally stumbling across, climbing and camping near “the capital of Rohan” (Mount Sunday)… Then I enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of first Phil who I’d met earlier in NZ, then Matt who I’d met way back near the start of my travels. Travellers are the most awesome people and anyone I’ve met is more than welcome to come stay with me if and when I ‘settle down’!

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There’s so much more depth than the main stories I can convey on here: more and more I feel like I’m beginning to uncover the real New Zealand, in all its gentle diversity. I’ve been lucky enough to have already been exposed to numerous aspects and ways of life in this enigmatic country, which has so much more to it than mountains, beaches and government information signs!

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Posted in Ashburton, Christchurch, Geraldine, Lake Tekapo, Mount Sunday, New Zealand, People