12 Lessons From My Journey

Lesson No. 6: Who needs maps when you can follow the internal compass?

This is the third part of a three-part post dedicated to summarizing my career sabbatical. During this time, I devoted one month with my mom, followed by five months of circumnavigating the globe, solo. Read Part One and Part Two to get caught up.

The best education I get comes through travel — no offense to the fancy diplomas I earned at Northwestern University.

Academic knowledge just doesn’t hold a candle to experiential knowledge. Sure, you can read about people, places, customs and ways of the world. We have this knowledge, quite literally, at out fingertips nowadays.

But interacting with these people and places — and making mistakes through this interaction, even with an academic pedigree — takes learning to a much more meaningful level. Not to mention, it also serves up some pretty colorful life stories.

Over the years, I learned how to negotiate in South American markets and Middle Eastern souks. I learned how to truly appreciate art while lying on the floor of London’s fanciest buildings, staring at ceilings with an eccentric art teacher. I learned to be more alert to cultural differences after a scary sunset encounter in the Jordanian desert. I learned the beauty of improvising while cooking pasta dishes with a flirty chef in Italy. I continually learn how to be a better, quicker judge of character with each journey I take — for me, the eyes are always the most telling, no matter where I am in the world.

I realize that my opportunity to travel has been unique and privileged. South America, Jordan and Italy aren’t places most people will experience in their lifetime. But it’s not about where I’ve been so much as the growth that happened as a result of me stepping outside of my comfort zone into someplace new. I just happen to find that throwing myself into solo situations in far-flung lands has been a pretty effective teacher.

Given this, I knew that great lessons would come with my most recent solo venture: circumnavigating the world for five months.

But first, allow me to set the record straight. I did not initiate what ultimately became a six-month sabbatical because I was unhappy. Or needed to escape. Or felt burned out at my job. Or wanted to “find myself.”

I was happy. I had nothing in life from which to flee. I loved my job. I wasn’t experiencing an identity crisis.

So … why uproot all of that, you might be wondering? Click here for more insight into the why and how. This post is dedicated to what I gained from taking that risk. And by no means is this an exhaustive list. New epiphanies strike me in everyday moments all the time. Especially in situations that once inspired a certain reaction, but now inspire something new, something deeper, something more … present.

To those of who who wonder why I needed to travel halfway around the world to learn these things: I didn’t need to.

But my life is much more colorful because I did.

I have the power to make things happen.

Rather than allow life to happen to me, I spent these past several months really, truly making life happen. I was the creator, in other words. And it started with initiating the sabbatical itself. This was a monumental task that required a ton of tough decisions, organization and planning. It’s the most challenging project I’ve tackled in my life thus far. But: I did it. And as I journeyed through India, Nepal, Thailand, China, Canada and the USA, the course was decided, negotiated and often-times trouble-shooted by yours truly. This is confidence that I tap as I begin charting my next life chapter, especially when moments of doubt, hesitation and overwhelmment bubble up.

Taking risks reminds me that I’m alive.

If you want to feel alive, turning your life upside down (voluntarily or involuntarily) definitely does the trick. I left my job, my home and my family clutching a one-way ticket to Nepal. That rocked my foundation — and suddenly forced me to interact with the world with a new energy and heightened survival instinct. Was it dramatic? Sure. Was it risky? Sure. For me, being branded a “risk-taker” is a badge of honor; nobody got anywhere worth going by passively riding the wave of life anyway. We are meant to live, and “risks” have proven amazing propellers for this.

Every challenge is a lesson, and every lesson is a gift.

I faced challenge after challenge after challenge while on the road. If I whined and complained and took pity on myself each time I was cheated, delayed, denied and misunderstood, it would have snowballed into one hell of a terrible experience.

So when this is the lens through which you look at life — that challenges are ultimately gifts — it is easier to endure the shitty situations. I’ll admit, it’s not something that I typically want to hear from others when I’m in the throes of a problem. But deep down I know that somewhere down life’s path, the “shitty” situation is going to make sense or connect a dot somehow.

For instance, one of the biggest challenges that followed me throughout the journey was a back injury that erupted while studying yoga in India. It plagues me to this day. However, what on the surface was a problem — especially when wearing a 50-pound backpack aboard ferries and through crowded streets — actually opened doors to things I otherwise might not have explored. It increased my empathy for others with chronic injuries and taught me to be much gentler with myself. Plus, my quest to heal exposed me to some of the most amazing people along the journey: Reiki healers, Eastern-trained therapists, acupuncturists, Thai doctors, mystics and Yoda-like yogis.

Real patience is patience with the self.

I give thanks to India on this lesson, as the country definitely holds up a mirror to how patient a person you really are — or can become. I tell people to not think of India as a place to vacation as much as a place to grow. The country can be incredibly frustrating, upsetting and confusing for Western travelers. However, if you want to cultivate patience as a “life souvenir,” then there is no better place to test yourself.

In India, I encountered a dozen tests of patience each day. Getting a new cell phone took  nearly an entire day. Mailing something at the post office would take me several hours. Going to the grocery store involved a mile walk in each direction. Finding a tuk-tuk driver who wouldn’t overcharge me meant bartering with maybe three or four drivers. Those who are on the streets begging can be persistent and aggressive; patience goes a long way, in general, with so many who call India home. In the end, however, it wasn’t about cultivating patience with people and situations that didn’t serve me. Ultimately, it was about cultivating patience with myself. As I learned to play witness to this, once-frustrating situations took on a less-aggravating form — and life in India became easier.

The simplest of tasks can be a meditation.

While attending an ashram in Nepal, I had an hour of chores each day. It’s called “Karma Yoga” — a way for students to give back to the ashram community. This hour involved sweeping stairwells, cleaning statues, scrubbing yoga mats, that sort of thing. I found this daily “chore” to be extremely rewarding because it forced a single-minded focus on one simple task. I treated my task as thought it was the most important thing in the world — because in that moment, it was. Whether it was plucking incense from flower pots or chipping off old wax from the ashram candle holders, the task received 100-percent of my attention. There was a beautiful meditation in this sort of presence and attentiveness, something that I found more rewarding than sitting in the ashram’s meditation room for hours at a time counting mala beads and chanting “Om Mani Padme Om.” Staying present to such simple, otherwise mundane tasks was a meditation. It’s a challenging lesson to bring outside of the ashram walls — staying present to each moment — but I’m doing my best because I recall the extreme happiness it brought me in Nepal.

Life gets interesting when you surrender to the internal compass.

My intuition often gets vetoed by rational thinking. On this journey, I made a point to not let my brain get in the way. I tried my best, anyway. After all, the body has a remarkable way of telling you what feels “right” and what feels “wrong” — if you just stop and listen. Because I wasn’t really tethered to deadlines or timelines while overseas (aside from making flights, ferries and before-sunrise yoga classes), it gave me ample opportunity to listen to the energetic “yes” and “no’s” coming from within and respond accordingly. My internal compass pretty much directed the drive down the U.S. West coast, from Portland to Los Angeles. Sure, I had a map and some ideas. But when I wanted to stop, I stopped. When I wanted to linger, I lingered until I “felt” it was time to go. Had I not lingered longer than “necessary” in a tiny Oregon port town, I probably wouldn’t have joined a late afternoon whale watching excursion and saw whales up-close … for the first time in my life.

It never hurts to reach out and say “Hello.”

I think this is the most significant lesson of my journey: You never know who you’re going to meet or what you’re going to learn just by saying “Hello” to the person standing next to you. In everyday life, I’ve often found myself reluctant or embarrassed to do so, telling myself I don’t want to “bother” Person A or “say the wrong thing to” Person B. Not anymore. Whenever that hesitation bubbles up, I remember a specific vignette from my journey. While writing at a cafe in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on my second night in the country, I sat near a middle-aged woman who was doing the same. She was quiet and absorbed in her writing, but I sensed that she was friendly. So I decided to say “Hello” to her, just because. I’m so glad that I did. Had I not, she would never have told me about an amazing, secluded garden that became my favorite meditation spot during my month in Thailand. I cannot imagine my time in Thailand without frequenting this special place time and time again. And it all came about simply by saying … “Hello.” Now that I’m back in the USA, I am more aggressive with my “Hello’s.” And you know what? I’m meeting some pretty cool people as a result.

Don’t change for those who don’t “like” or “approve of” me.

In India, one woman I initially befriended turned against me. It was a blow that came out of left field, triggered by her dislike of me documenting my journey. I internalized it and thought about ways to modify so that she wouldn’t feel so threatened. I wanted to be liked. Everyone liked me. Why couldn’t this person? It pained me for a few weeks, and rocked the ego. Ultimately, the mirror she held up to my life with her rejection of me was a a valuable reminder: Not everyone will approve of me. Hell, there are probably numerous people out there, perhaps some reading this blog, who silently don’t approve. Learning of these people is a lesson of acceptance and understanding of projection — as it’s typically a projection of something bigger going on with those who become judgmental. All I can do is leave the door open, remind myself that everything I do in life is with good intent, surround myself with people who do value me, and move on. Changing myself for one person (or a crowd of people) as a reaction to bruised ego isn’t staying true to myself.

I’m never alone when I keep those whom I love in my heart.

Traveling alone can be lonely — if you let it. That’s why I always try to find a community, or build a community, wherever I go in the world. While I was in India, it consisted of the yogis with whom I practiced each morning. While I was in Thailand, it consisted of my classmates at Thai massage school. Nevertheless, it’s usually a circle of people who don’t know me well. So I still have my moments of loneliness. A defining moment of this happened while I was wandering the streets of Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Valentine’s Day. I was surrounded by couples walking hand-in-hand and friends laughing together. It was one of my first nights in the city, and I knew nobody. I wanted to cry. Then I saw a red lantern in the sky. Then another. And another. And another. I followed them to their launching site and stumbled upon a beautiful scene of people, some perfect strangers, releasing heart-shaped red paper lanterns into the night sky together. I thought about all of the people I loved back home, and which ones I’d love to share this moment with … and suddenly, I realized that they were all with me. Not physically. But with me. It was comforting, and it became a perspective I carried the rest of my journey.

Gratitude brings happiness.

My heart burst open on this trip. I started mirroring the people I met who had little in the way of material things, but had hearts a million times bigger than Donald Trump’s bank account. I was grateful for the woman who made fresh strawberry smoothies for me in Thailand. I was grateful for the little man who did my laundry in Nepal. I was grateful for each dazzling sunrise and sunset I witnessed over the mountains, beaches and city skylines. I even started a Gratitude Jar while in Nepal, on New Year’s Day 2014. Since then, each night before going to bed, I jot down something that happened during the day that filled me with gratitude — and tuck it into the jar. I’d rather go to bed happy, then frustrated and exhausted. Rather than bitch about what you don’t have, focus on what you do have and appreciate everyone around you in the present moment. This simple rule kept a perpetual smile on my face. I’m working on maintaining that smile in the midst of my transition back into American life by staying grateful — and paying a nightly homage to my Gratitude Jar.

Make an effort to touch at least one other human being each day.

I expanded upon this in an earlier post, click here for that reflection. To summarize, however: I learned the power of human touch in Thailand while attending Thai massage school for several weeks. I opened myself up tremendously to the giving and receiving of human touch by throwing myself into a situation where everyday I had to do so. It was a little frightening at first, but I got more comfortable with it over time. Walls came down. In turn, I became better at touching others — whether it be a hug or a hand on the back — with authenticity and love. Once upon a time, we were all helpless babies crying out for attention. As adults, we are still helpless babies to a degree, with an innate need to be held, to be felt, to be recognized. The simple act of touching another human being is healing on so many levels.

Life is more fun when you say “Yes!”

This is a lesson that I learned during my first solo trip in Egypt that becomes more and more pronounced with each journey I take. I guess you could say it’s my travel mantra. On that first trip, I had stayed open and agreeable to almost every opportunity presented while traveling from Cairo down the Nile to Aswan — and it resulted in an amazing journey that’s inspired many more over the years. As long as the “Yes!” doesn’t compromise morals or ethics, I nod my head to the opportunity.

On this latest journey, “Yes!” led me to swim with an elephant, para-glide above the mountains and conduct a choir in Beijing. All amazing life moments that could have never happened had I said, “No.” Sure, sometimes the “Yes” can lead to disappointment, but see Lesson No. 3. The results that come from saying “Yes!” while traveling are a reminder for why I should say it more in everyday life.

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