Taking a break to find yourself — radical mindfulness everyone should try at least once
I am on a dirt road in the middle of northern Italy, it’s the middle of nowhere, its pitch black, there are mosquitos literally ravishing my body in ways I can’t comprehend and I am waiting, waiting, waiting for people I have never met to pick me up.
This is safe right? It’s normal to trust people you have never met. It’s normal to book a flight to Italy to a place you have never heard of, to meet people you have never spoken to, to work on a project you care passionately about with five days notice. You will be trusting the advice of strangers, based on finding them in a google search and deciding within 10 minutes this was the best thing you would do this week. And it wasn’t expensive — the flight was €40.
It was by far, the smartest thing I had done that week and one of the many most amazing decisions and experiences I have had over the last six months on my walkabout.
So I hopped on a plane from Madrid to Torino and caught a train to a small village called Pinerolo to work with an amazing photobook publisher Akina Books to learn how to make handmade photobooks.
Jump back to meeting them on that lonely dark road surrounded by vineyards and after a few WhatsApp — where are you, I am here, no I am here, they arrive and without hesitation I jump into the car on this new adventure. Sounds like a joke but I get into the car with an Argentinian, Russian and Italian who says… I know a bar… let’s go. In unison, we all say — yes.
An awkward silence of first meeting does not dampen our enthusiasm as we drive for 20 minutes and get lost again, oh the sweet irony, following google maps — because she really has no idea where we want to go.
This bar, 500 metres from my penzione.. was in a field… no lights… no signage… it had only been open a week and full of Italians and Spanish in a small house surrounded by fields of vineyards and olives trees (and mosquitos, don’t forget the mosquitos). A small bar, filled with wine, local beer and a variety of spirits and liquors from Italy that would put sexy hairs on your chest.
There have been many experiences like this over the last six months and this one was special for many reasons. It showed me how far I had come on this journey and how many more amazing experiences like this I was going to have.
It would never have happened if I followed the a plan with the strictest of timelines and itineraries. It would never have happened if I had followed only Trip Advisor. Ok, google wins on the search, data always plays a role… but without serendipity as my guide and a whole lot of universe vibes, I would never have ended up in Pinerolo, Italy doing something I love.
So why give a damn about my crazy career break / swanning around Europe without a plan for six months as a privileged white woman?
You probably don’t, but, for the last six months I have been on a walkabout and I am going to try and explain why a walkabout could be the most important journey you will ever take in life. And why I want to encourage anyone who can — no matter how long or short takes one.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things — air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky — all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” — Cesare Pavese
What’s a walkabout?
While the sticky floors of the Walkabout pub was well known institution amongst Brits & Aussies in London, I hate to disappoint but it is not a seedy bar in London, full of bogan Australians but an Australian Aboriginal right of passage.
It is that time in life where adolescent boys disappear into the outback for a few months, for as long as they need, to fend for themselves, to understand themselves, what matters, in the wilderness all alone on the path to manhood. When they return they have join the community as men not boys.
While I feel a bit weird as a white Australian woman using this male Aboriginal rite of passage as a analogy of the last six months of my life it is very much something the Australian spirit (of any heritage or gender).
Australians tend to be travellers by design — to leave our continent is a minimum of 5 hours if you are from Melbourne (like me). That is like travelling from London to Turkey and you are still travelling over desert. So when we travel, a lot of us travel with purpose to fully immerse oneself in a culture, we go for a long time as often as we can to faraway places and often we go without plans to destinations all over the world. Just cos we can.
So in this context consider a walkabout simply about the idea of moving, this is about transforming and it is about finding yourself when there are no plans, no maps, no ambitions, no schedules and no clear destination.
This is a space and place where you can practise solitude and you slow down, stop and pause. This is more than mindfulness (which is also incredible) and goes beyond meditation, deep breathing and hippie crystals (which I did all of it over the last six months) it is a chance to reflect and learn what actually matters in life over time and out of the normal context of your day to day.
It is literally a chance to disappear into the world and oneself in an attempt to balance the mind, body and soul.
My walkabout — the hard stuff
My walkabout was a break from the rhythm of daily life, from my habitual identity, from routine, from a stressful and demanding career filled from 6am until midnight with meetings, schedules, deliverables, events, from the emotional rollercoaster of divorce and broken relationships, from socialising into drunken oblivion and from the end of the second stage of parenting where my son moved back to Australia to live with his dad and I was free to do as I wanted and needed.
When I started in March, I was broken, I have never been so lost. I left London with a sense of abandonment & heartbroken by people I thought cared about me. Yes, melodramatic but this was the feelings in my heart at that time and where my journey started.
I ran away before I even knew it was a walkabout. I was plain confused about what to do with my life, which is scary as a single mum, divorced 40 something woman who by choice left a successful job, a house, relationships and safety net of London.
Letting go of many identities & labels — mother, wife, girlfriend, manager, leader, boss, friend, lover and everything in-between leaves you pretty exposed.
This walkabout wasn’t all pretty picture postcard instagram stories of adventures down windy roads, which I posted many. As Brene Brown has said in Rising Strong — I was face down in the arena. I was wrestling with some personal demons — some pretty big ones. There was a lot of time locked in hotel rooms crying or sitting on trains alone in my thoughts. I was suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks and a whooping dose of full blown depression. I went from over-functioning to under functioning yet each time I recovered, got out bed stronger, happier, calmer and living my life in a completely different way.
It allowed me to clean out my life to give space and time to only things that matter.
Family, friends, creativity, encounters, experience and places.
And I started doing all the things in life that make me happy. The answer was actually really simple and in front of me the whole time.
A walkabout can happen at any stage of life, my period is common to the traditional mid life crisis, child leaving home to become a man kind of way. This is not my first. I had one in my 20s, two in my 30s and this is my second of my 40s. They were nothing like this. I feel this is the most important as it is the first one I have done on my own and truly for myself.
Now that I can reflect back on my life with a sense of wonderment, I can see now that each walkabout has allowed me to transcend into the next phase of life, purpose and meaning.
The fun story
So now that the sad story is over, I will also share the wonderment of my walkabout.
If you know me, I have always been pretty nomadic, I can turn up at the airport with no ticket and no destination and disappear for the weekend, week and have adventures that you can only have when you trust the universe. This has always been my way of travelling to escape the life of over functioning leader, parent & friend.
All I ever wanted though was the free spirit traveller Mel to co-exist with the work and organised Mel rather than a pendulum swing of two extreme identities and personas at any given time. Because when I am travel Mel — I am just me. I am relaxed, I trust the universe, time slows down. Everyone who knows me in ‘real life’ always told me to do these things and I would scream on the inside — I know how to do these things, you just never see it. Now it was time to merge the two identities and find balance.
This walkabout has been pretty extraordinary.
When I started all I had was an apartment for Madrid for 3 weeks. I decided where I was going to be and with whom often with days notice. Every time I started to panic about where I was going to be next, something amazing would happen.
Each experience a breadcrumb back to happiness and purpose in life.
I have travelled to 16 countries and travelled 70,000miles and I have more trips and countries planned. I aimed to keep my base in Spain, to finally fulfil my childhood dream and have participated in festival after feria from Falles in Valencia, Semana Santa in Cordoba, Semana Grande in San Sebastian. I have spent weeks learning & living & drinking and relaxing more and more into my favourite city in Europe — Madrid and my mad dream of living there is slowly becoming a reality.
I discovered that I love Provence in the South of France. I answered a random tweet to stay with a group of photographers in Arles, France for Recontre de Arles. I went to Pinerolo in Italy after following a google search for photobook publishers.
I went to Thailand and tried various healing and hippie treatments to heal the soul. Bikram yoga, crystal ball meditation, rebirthing, neurolight therapy, I tried it all and they all worked in some form.
Finally, and most amazingly, for a woman who cares little about football, I spent 10 days travelling across Russia with a man who became my spiritual cousin, prima and best friend as we partied hard on trains with people from all over the world for the 2018 World Cup.
In all this, I have discovered the kindness, unconditional love of friends, family, strangers and many people in-between.
Want a snapshot… see my picture perfect walkabout on IG… @melmcveigh
But just to rewind. This would never have happened if I hadn’t face my darkest fears, my own traumas and lived alone and in solitude for most of that time also.
“From a very early time, I understood that I only learn from things I don’t like. If you do things you like, you just do the same shit. You always fall in love with the wrong guy. Because there’s no change. It’s so easy to do things you like. But then, the thing is, when you’re afraid of something, face it, go for it. You become a better human being.” Maria Abrahamovic
Why it is the best thing you will ever do?
This is what happened…
My walkabout had two ingredients — time and space. The question became, how do I fill my time and what space do I want to fill.
When in survival mode, it is very hard to do anything. I have been in survival mode for years. When you stop being in survival mode you learn a lot about what makes you happy and what works.
I discovered myself and merged my travel Mel into daily life Mel.
This makes me happy because I really feel I can give back to my friends, colleagues and family in ways I haven’t done in years. This is why it matters. I am a better, more considerate, kinder person having time to pause and stop.
Relationships are everything.
Watch her amazing video to understand the inspiration…
Your relationship with people — family relationships, friendship, work relationships, colleagues, food, alcohol — you name it, the quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life
Before I left, I thought I had lots of great relationships. I thought I was in control of my life.
But I didn’t. I was surrounded by a lot of unhealthy relationships, I self medicated with alcohol and I was always too busy.
My first improved relationship was with myself. I drink less, I rest more than I have ever before. I give my brain and heart time to recover from sadness so I can enjoy the good times more. I leave space for people, places and encounters.
The best thing is when you leave, you pretty soon discover the relationships that really matter. You know I said, I felt abandoned when I left. Yup — those people completely disappeared, all of them and I was broken. I fought hard to save those relationships but then I tried something else. I did the opposite.
I stopped, I left space for people to enter my life just because they wanted to be in my life.
Seems obvious but what I learnt is all relationships are based on reciprocity and circles. We give and take all the time and relationships only survive with conversation & communication.
If you stop communicating then relationships die.
I learnt that I was always giving to people who rarely gave back. I thought giving was the most important thing but actually learning how to receive is just as important. When I stopped or decided on clearer boundaries, they vanished, some without even a good-bye. Totally sad and I was shaken for some time but it created space for the most amazing friendships to rekindle, reimagine and be part of my journey.
The people that matter… Are the people who check in to make sure you OK. The friends who join you last minute on any adventure around the world. The work friends who introduce you to their network and help in many ways to fulfil your dreams. All totally selfless. Some of these friends I have known for a few months, some I have known since I was 15 years old. Friends come in many flavours and when I let them help me and vice versa — amazing things happened.
And most importantly your friends are the ones who are happy listening to all your stories, the fun, the messy, the complicated, the downright outrageous.
This is what I do now, religiously. Share my life, my connections, my circles and my life. There is no separation, there are no secrets and their are no conditions.
This is for me, has become the purest form of happiness and unconditional love.
Asking for help
As a type A, over functioning leader, I was used to doing everything myself. I felt I had to. Asking for help felt like I wasn’t capable or good enough and showed weakness.
It was the hardest thing I rediscovered while travelling. I had to ask for help. All the time, in many forms. And I was frightened of rejection, that was what was stopping me. Then I learnt simply, asking for help is the most wonderful act and brings all kinds of kindness into your life.
And rejection is not that bad at all. It just means it wasn’t right for you in that moment.
Amanda Palmer’s — The Art of Asking has become my bible.
Time is everything — it is the only real currency we have
I now say this religiously. If you had no constraints, how would you spend your time. And… if there was no Plan B, how would you plan you time.
Time is the only currency we have, use it wisely investing in yourself, your friends, your work friendships & connections.
I spent years making poor decisions about how I wanted to spend my time. I prioritised work over relationships especially with my family. I invested in relationships that didn’t help me live a creative life.
I was scared to live wholeheartedly the way I wanted because it was easier to dream than to live.
Now I simply ask “Is this getting me closer, or further away from getting my needs met?” And those needs… does it make me happy.
The book that inspired me — http://www.thetimeparadox.com/
Trust your intuition & instincts not just data
Not everything is about plans, data or micro-planning every aspect in your life. If you stop, breathe and wait, the universe has a pretty good way of bringing amazing things into your life.
I lost my sense of intuition because repeatedly I was told I was imagining things and my feelings were not valid. I started to believe those words. My intuition is actually pretty good and what did I learn, normally I was pointing in the right direction even if I didn’t have all the facts, maybe my hunch was wrong, but my senses were strong. I need to trust myself more. You gut / intuition / feelings are your strongest compass.
When I ignored my compass I wasn’t following my path but the path of others and then I got lost – and not in a good way.
Leave time for mystery
Algorithms can only give you answers to questions you have already asked. A puzzle to be solved but no mystery.
The opposite to over-functioning and trying to control everything is purely letting go. The traveller has to let go and trust everyone and everything works out. Especially in a foreign country when there is a train strike and you have no accommodation for the night and 10 minutes later you are in a 14th century villa with a Michelin star restaurant.
Allowing space in life for mystery is key to fulfilment. If you have no time in your calendar then you can’t shift you trajectory or allow serendipity to send you to places you never imagined.
“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”
Sometimes you need a plan
Everything in moderation. But don’t follow it too rigidly. Allow pivots and evolutions. The balance is a mix of the two.
Sometimes you don’t need a plan
Sometimes you don’t need plans & strategies and endpoints. Sometimes you don’t want or need to know the final destination. Sometimes you just need to explore without expectations.
And that is crazy right? Everyone says you need a plan. I did, just before. But actually what if you allow the universe to give you ideas and opportunities to explore that help you decide. Is this what I need right now?
And life changes with tiny incremental steps. If there is something I have learnt from my career, agility and shorter milestones are the key to success.
Stress, anxiety, depression live in your body as much as your mind
Mind, body, spirit — everything is connected. When I started to relax, before my head went into a tailspin my body fell apart first. In March, my body was so sick I had so many symptoms and ailments, I literally thought I was dying. (yes, melodramatic again). After running every test possible, the diagnosis was simple — it was all stress related.
So now my daily to do list, isn’t a to do list. It is to feel list and to listen, to breathe, to relax and enjoy life.
Stress is real and it kills. Manage it before it gets out of control.
Busyness is not cool, ghosting is even more uncool.
We live in a time where busyness and unavailability are badges of honour (or at least in the UK, Australia and US) and where we treat relationships both professional and personal as something to walk away from without even a goodbye in the land of swipe right and swipe left.
Now, I take a more Latin view of life. When life is slower, relationships are more meaningful and time is fluid in a way that you can’t describe until you experience it.
Put it this way, limited plans means lots of plans as everything works out in the end to it’s own rhythm and time.
I no longer try and control every aspect of my life or my relationships. I just let it flow.
And I practise gratitude now as daily way of life. Not just notes to myself, which I write a lot but also simple things like saying thank-you and not ghosting. I find the whole act of ignoring people beyond rude and it has become the norm. So, now, if someone reaches out I reply even if I have to say no. And if more people do this, we will change how we treat each other.
So I will repeat, successful relationships come from communication and conversation.
It’s really that simple.
Bring your full self to the table
I used to split my personas. Try and keep parts of my live hidden and secret. Try and present the perfect version of myself depending on who I was with.
Now I live with all my imperfections and I am honest about who I am and what I do. I bring my full self to the table. I know I am not for everyone but that is OK now too.
Creativity is just as important if not more than data
Well for me it was. I used to be a photographer. I used to make things. And I let life get in the way. I had to, that was being a full-time single mum and senior leader.
As soon as I stopped and when I was at my worst, what did I do? I picked up my camera again, properly for the first time in years. And I have been taking photos every since. And I started bad, like an overweight person exercising for the first time. Those photos are awful and I am trained, I know how to do this. But slowly with experiments, watching the world more calmly, getting feedback, asking for help, showing my work in any form. The creativity has taken on a whole other dimension and my ways of seeing are different to ever before.
This has also led to new creative projects, my first series in 10 years, connecting with artists, photographers and curators again.
This was not my original plan, I was moving to Madrid to get a job in digital but my heart let me back to the place and thing I love more than anything in the world. Taking photos, talking about photos, immersing myself in photography while also working in digital & visual storytelling.
Life isn’t measured by your job title on LinkedIn
The amount of times I heard this in last six months, in fact last 10 years. The stress to better your career, that next ladder climb, all that matters is that title on LinkedIn. I was that person too, but I sacrificed too much to get there. And ultimately, it is not that important if everything else falls apart. By all means, go for it. I am still super ambitious also and want that great job titles / role but… I have balance now between everything else.
For me, LinkedIn has been amazing but it is because I am my true self now – all of it – which mean the roles, projects, opportunities I have been given suit me so much more interesting.
Simplify everything — living a minimalist life
You don’t need that latest bag, shoes or dress. I live currently out of a suitcase with my life in storage. My life will soon come out of storage as I settle into a space for a while but when you travel with only a suitcase, you learn you don’t need much to live with.
I have removed everything in my life I didn’t need. Everything has to fit into one suitcase. But I have my life, my camera, my clothes, my music and my memories.
To live and travel and work, my expenses have now halved, yes imagine that while travelling the world, staying in 14th century castles and eating at Michelin star restaurants. I am doing all this while… spending 50% less than I did when I lived and trudged daily around London on the tube. And the amount of sun I have see in Spain… WOW!
It is weird walking past all the retail stores and knowing you don’t need or want to buy anything. I don’t even see them anymore as I sit by the ocean and listen to the waves, eat pintxos with friends, hang out and work from any location in the world.
Imagine if those stores were about being wholehearted and fulfilled in mind, body, spirit not just clothes and more stuff we don’t really need and need jobs and more income to afford.
Or imagine you could travel, we all could with as much ease and just unpack our bags and make a new home for a week or two.
That’s what I do. I have my things that make my room / flat a home in every location I live in.
Forgiveness comes from strong boundaries
Let’s go back to the beginning. All those relationships that hurt me, I didn’t lose them. All relationships are symbotic — I was also a huge part of the problem, and to a large extent I attracted those types of relationships because it is what I wanted at the time.
I had an unhealthy relationship with myself. That’s the only story really. I didn’t particularly like myself. Now I do. And because I do, I have richer relationships as a result.
And those people who disappear still mean the world to me.
So, actually, I see it all differently way now. There is no blame, no attacking, no aggression because that is me putting up a wall to protect myself. I spent years pushing people away to protect myself. I lost a lot of friendships along the way with my own selfishness where I took my emotions & fear out on other people.
Now that I am centred and I spend my time as I need. Being creative and making things and telling stories, I have time to give back without expectation to everyone I care about.
I have left space for those people to re-enter and vice versa. If the universe feels we are ready, we will come back into each other’s lives. If not, I learnt so much positive things from these people I am forever grateful. They were important for part of the journey not all.
Follow your passions
You have heard that one before. A million times but it is true. When you follow your passions, everything just seems to fall into place around it. Mine are travel, photography and telling stories. Everything now works around this.
Finally… I know what happiness means for me
Happiness is made up of all the emotions. You need to feel the sads as much as the happy’s to find contentment. I have been on such a rollercoaster but life is not about extremes anymore. I have calibrated and way more balanced.
Which in short means…
- I have better, stronger, healthier relationships
- I am now getting opportunities for work, projects, etc that I would never have dreamed of 6 months ago
- I know my boundaries for what I need to be healthy
- I don’t hide my true self, my story anymore. All bits and if you don’t like, that is ok.
- I listen to my heart & soul more than my head
- I live a slow life not a busy one
- I am creative again
- And I am living Plan A
This is making me a better person to myself, my family, friends and colleagues and everyone I interact with.
It’s not over, my walkabout is coming to a close but this way of life has a rhythm I am still excited to explore.
Why you should consider a walkabout?
I get it, I come from a position of privilege and many people don’t get the opportunities I do. So, I respect that also. But no matter how you do it — if you are lost, confused, under pressure, don’t feel like you living a meaningful life. Do whatever it takes to get off the treadmill. Get out of rat race. Disconnect for as long or short as you need. Anything…
Because the western world is sick — more depression, more stress than ever before. Maybe I am looking for it or projecting, I don’t know, but certainly the stories and anecdotes people have shared during my journey suggest more people are struggling than we like to think.
But we are struggling because the head rules the heart and we are valuing things over people. And we worry about things that just aren’t important – like those shoes or that job title.
People are often scared to change. Yup — I know what that feels like. My whole career was built on change management for companies but I couldn’t even follow the principles myself. It was easier to dream and imagine than to do and move and evolve. Any kind of change is terrifying because it means jumping off the cliff into unknown territory.
Ultimately that is why changing is so amazing. With a strong network around to you catch you when you fall you will be fine. They will help put you back on the path until you know how to do it all on your own.
That is what the walkabout ultimately teaches you — trust yourself and trust the universe and trust your relationships.
If you have the chance to experience one, it will be one of the most important life changing experiences in your life.
For me now… I am sitting on the Mediterranean coastline in San Sebastián at the most amazing Basque Festival – Semana Grande. Surrounded by friends, family, ex colleagues, a woman I met in a bar who is just hilarious, my best friend who is in Biarritz and I didn’t know until yesterday who will join Saturday.
That’s not including the fireworks, the pirate boat race and music from every street corner between all the restaurants serving pintxos.
When I arrived I thought I was going to be alone all week and I was gatecrashing someone else’s holiday and would have to observe the festival from afar & all alone.
You know what I said about trusting the universe…
Trust me… serendipity is your guide… if you give yourself time & space to let her in.
“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm is all about. Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore.
PS. To every single person who has helped me on this journey… Thank-you from the bottom of my heart.