How the Scottish Highlands inspired us to leave Toronto for a residential mindfulness center.

Last September, my lady and I were lucky enough to spend a week on the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands — easily one of the most beautiful places we will ever see. While tending the fire in our cabin after 9 hours of hiking on a Hebridean coast, we decided it was time to move out of downtown Toronto.

Wandering the coral beach on the Isle of Skye at sunset.

Not that Toronto isn’t wonderful — it is. But from a distant vantage point, it was clear how frantic our lives had become. High rent and cost of living coupled with an ambitious culture has resulted in a fast-paced, stressful life we never wanted. Cramped schedules and competitive values permeate our lives. Forced structures stress and sabotage our personal interests and relationships. We came to Toronto for specific opportunities which have now passed, and now we’re still lingering here. How easily we become creatures of habit who fall into patterns, even when they don’t serve ourselves or other people.

Sometimes it takes shocking beauty and dramatic contrast to shake us out of our routine and remind us that this is a world of possibility. It’s so easy to forget when we have choice. We’re fortunate and grateful to be blessed with a level of freedom and opportunity that is not afforded to most people on Earth, and we don’t intend to waste that precious gift. Freedom means we can hold clear intentions of how we want to live and how we want to give back. In the warmth of that fire with a glass of Scotch in our hands, we chose to resist mindless lethargy and continue the search for a virtuous cycle of connection and purpose.

Figuring out where to go next.

A little collaborative jam session on how a few potential next steps might align with our personal values… sorry I didn’t take a better picture :)

When we got back to Canada with this decision in our pockets, the practical questions emerged. When would we leave? Do we quit our jobs? What about our finances? Where would we go? As a design thinker, my first instinct was to map everything out on the wall with sticky notes. We spent a day together capturing our intentions, listing the values close to our hearts, and figuring out how potential next steps aligned.

To push us out of our comfort zones, we included both practical options (nearby towns) and more extreme options (moving to a distant natural paradise). As a result, we drew some valuable insights to help us figure out a plan:

  1. Leaving Toronto is definitely a good idea for us. When we looked at Toronto against our personal values, we saw extremes. Many of our values are deeply represented which is why we enjoy the city, but some key values are simply not served (i.e. pace of life, potential to start a family, etc).
  2. We value our families and work too much to live totally wild. Moving to a distant paradise or remote farm seems romantic, but we get too much fulfillment from sharing our lives with family. And we also both value serving others through meaningful work in urban centers.
  3. There is a lot of uncertainty. Questions arose which were hard to answer. Logic and memory bias our ideas of what the future may hold. Committing to an option based on preconceptions of what it might be like seemed like an awfully big gamble. Like good designers, we need to prototype first.
  4. We were shocked to see one of our more extreme ideas end up being the most value-aligned of the bunch: moving to a monastery for intensive mindfulness practice. It was a powerful, counter-intuitive finding. Residential monastic training initially seemed at odds with personal values like starting a family or finding meaningful work. But as we explored more deeply, we felt a period of intensive practice would better equip us to serve these values in the long-term.

And so, off we go…

In one week, we are giving up our apartment, moving all our possessions into storage, and entering a monastery, where we’ll practice mindfulness for the majority of each day. We don’t intend to live there forever, but our intention is to stay with the community as long as is needed, and leave only when we’re ready to go.

Intention is deeply related to meaning and purpose. Our lives in Toronto began to fold in on themselves when we lost the purpose of being here and just started going through the motions. We’re taking this moment to explore, find new intentions, and pursue meaningful ways to serve ourselves and others.

We have decided to make zero plans of what to do after our meditation retreat. Maybe we’ll find a way to keep practicing longer, maybe we’ll travel around the area and get some first-hand experience living in different potential future homes, maybe it will clearly be time to try to start a family, or maybe we’ll be drawn to some other new adventure.

We’re already finding that keeping possibilities open is not easy. We keep catching each other scheming and plotting new lives and ideas. There’s something so tempting about planning ahead, as if the very idea of uncertainty is so scary that the mind can’t help but wander into brainstorming new directions.

As we simply notice this uncertainty and explore it directly, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that conceptually figuring out an easy answer is an exercise in futility. We can’t just sit at home, thinking these big questions through, and expect to find some logically optimal life. Instead, we’re going to put the work in to get out there and experience something totally different. Hopefully we’ll find a little more clarity and acceptance on the way. We’re not going to walk out of our monastic mindfulness practice until we’re ready. And on that day — not before — we’re going to decide on the next step of this journey.

Toronto, you’ve been great. We’ll come visit for sure. ❤

This was the first part of a series about our 2018 journey:
1) How the Scottish Highlands inspired us to leave Toronto for a residential mindfulness center. (this article)
2) You can’t strangle a flower from a seed.
3) Ensō: see through the stories which hold you back.