As I embark soon on a new adventure to a new place, one which is very likely to be less comfortable and entertaining from a Western perspective than my previous home base, I feel completely at peace with my decision. Driving around Calgary yesterday morning I imagined chatting with a local teenager about my choice and explaining to them the amenities that I will soon be without as I settle into typical town life in a West African country. There will be no shopping malls, no cinema, very little diversity in restaurant food and certainly no luxuries such as Apple Stores and Cirque du Soleil. I’m visualizing instead sunlight, warmth, a simple home with a simple office and some dusty roads to get from one to the other*. These images brings ease to my heart. I could imagine however that it would make my hypothetical teenager cringe in distaste. She would then turn to me, bewildered, asking “How the hell are you going to survive out there ?!?” wondering why on Earth I would choose to move to a place like this, and do it willingly.
When I think of the many forms of entertainment and distractions that my Canadian reality currently offers me, I consider why they exist in the first place. For some reason, ever since I’ve arrived back here from Africa earlier this summer, the topic of mental health here in Canada has often been on my mind and shared in discussions. I am told that after an economic downturn when Calgarians were earning the big bucks working for oil & gas firms there has been a slump, many lay-offs and consequently many people moving from a place of personal financial power to what can be seen as a fall in the ranks. They are dealing with life’s ups and downs, as we all do, and some are letting go of how things used to be with less grace than others. Depression and its extreme cousin, suicide, have already been present for a long time, and now, or so I am told, they are finding a stronger foothold. Calgary has been an economic powerhouse for many Canadians (and many immigrants) and has drawn people from outside of the province for a long time. Migration for the chance of better economic conditions happens all the time and everywhere, and it can also bring with it a lacking sense of community and belonging. If so many of us are from somewhere else and we have all essentially gathered here in the pursuit of the dollar, does this common purpose actually bring us together in any real, community-building way?
Human beings desire meaningful and lasting relationships with other human beings. No amount of facebooks, instagrams or facetimes can ever substitute our basic human needs as the social creatures that we are. If you think they can then I think that you are kidding yourself. Yes the online tools can be useful in so far as we can share basic communication and ideas with those who are far away, and with those who are nearby, at least in my humble opinion, they can serve to plan an actual face to face meeting.
Art, literature, entertainment, great food and beautiful shows can add richness and beauty to our lives, yet whether or not they can be a part of our long-term happiness depends on why we reach for them in the first place. Our own emotions and experiences of life can feel so overwhelming at times that all we want to do is to escape, and for that, I am unhappy to report, we have already found a million and one solutions. Consider every addiction ever heard of and every experience where we are stimulated and lose all sense of time – and therein we have found an escape. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m saying we need to be aware of it, and to be aware of why we are doing it. Escape once, escape twice and continue reaching for something to numb that which is alive and real in you and you are in many ways cheating yourself. This can be a calculated cheating and please believe me when I express my heartfelt empathy for all those facing huge losses and traumas in their lives. Nevertheless, my attention comes back to whether or not what are doing is done with awareness and if, with that awareness, we can begin to glimpse the consequences of these escapes. The less we feel safe with what is present now in life, the less that we can trust in a mysterious unfolding of events that so often we can not comprehend, the less we feel safe within ourselves.
What I felt like saying yesterday in this conversation with the Canadian teenager in my head, is that what allows me to live in places devoid of what some people might consider good living and good entertainment is that I have created – and I continue to create – safety within myself to be with myself. I realize now that any practice I have ever practiced in being gentle with myself, in being kind and considerate with myself in any struggle that I am facing has created a place of softness and relaxation within me. This softness allows me to breathe, if even just a little or for just one second more, and to be with myself as I am and to be in peace. If a situation still feels overwhelming I can choose to escape into a movie, a book, take a trip or grab a bottle of red and go dancing (yup, sometimes it’s the best solution!) then I do so consciously and not without acknowledging that I have taken the time, sometimes nothing more than a short minute, to practice finding safety within myself first. Practice, practice and practice more and what unfolds is a mind and an internal universe which is a place of comfort. It is a place where I happily go and I visit it not to judge, hurt and scream at myself but instead it is where I retreat inside to find understanding, to connect with peace and, as is often the case, simply to breathe, accept and to let it be. This place has become sacred and, over time, even enjoyable so that when I’m done connecting within and I’m reaching for entertainment I reach much more often now for that which will add beauty to this internal universe as opposed to reaching for something or someone who will help me to escape it.
Up to now I never fully considered what all of the readings and teachings in buddhism, yoga and meditation – everything that I learn and practice which rings so true in my heart about surrender, acceptance, non-violence and non-stealing – would really mean when put together. What I have recently discovered is that this trust in the Divine, the trust that I have in my own path and the understanding of how things truly are coming together to form an internal place of safety and light that serves me in any time and through any storm. And because this special place is within myself and always present I take it with me everywhere that I go.
I can only add that I would wish such a place of safety would be uncovered and accessible inside each and every person.
*That’s not to say that markets and musical concerts and shows in my African town don’t exist, because they do, but they certainly won’t be presented in the same way as we would expect it in Canada. This makes them interesting, yes, but rarely restful.
Image: practicing a 3-legged dog at yoga teacher training in Canada, summer of 2018. Photo credit to Inspired Yoga Institute