You can’t strangle a flower from a seed.
I’m writing this from the east coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It’s been 4 months since we abandoned our lives and jobs in Toronto and set off on a journey. We got rid of our apartment, quit our full-time jobs, put our belongings in storage, loaded up the car, and took off wandering. We ended up spending 2 months living a monk’s life, practicing intensive mindfulness in a wonderful monastic community in Vermont. Since then, we’ve been driving around with no permanent address and no destination, making extended visits with family and friends while exploring eastern Canada. Today we find ourselves at the proverbial and literal end of the road: the Atlantic Ocean.
This morning I spontaneously woke up with the sunrise in a very reflective mood. Today we’re going to start the long drive back home. Well, we don’t have our own home right now, but I guess what I mean is, today we’re starting the process of returning to society. A lot’s happened. When we set off, we knew it was time to leave our busy lives in Toronto in search of something different. We didn’t know what we were looking for. So now the big question: are we returning with a clear next step?
Intensive mindfulness practice is a real challenge. Monks commit themselves to an incredibly rigorous life. I don’t know why they do it. I don’t even know why we decided to join them. But I can say that our 2 months in the monastery made these seemingly “big” questions about the future feel very different.
Instead of revealing some great answer or some path to the perfect life, it has become very clear to me that there is no such answer. I have directly observed my addiction to the feeling of having an answer. In other words, I am witnessing the root cause of these questions in my discomfort with not having an answer. My parents have gifted me a powerful conceptual mind and it’s clear that I overuse that gift, trying to understand and frame everything I possibly can. Maybe instead of figuring out a next step, I need to figure out how to live without obsessing over next steps. Maybe we all do.
And so in that spirit, we left the monastery, and we set off driving. No plans, no reservations, no itinerary, and no next steps. At first, it took a while to readjust to society. We landed in Burlington, VT, and even this cute little town felt overwhelming. After meditating 10+ hours a day in a dedicated community for 2 months, it was clear we had to take it slow. We had ideas of heading toward the ocean — which, by the way, is now sitting right in front of me — but in that moment, we felt an overwhelming need to reconnect with family and friends. So we did that first, basking in the warmth and gratitude of having such wonderful family. Quality time is a gift.
Next, we decided to drive out to Montreal. I was born there, my wife and I met there, and over the months we had often discussed moving back there as a potential next step. We tasted what life in Montreal is like in this moment. We cut through our own delusions, memories, and fantasies of the city, and experienced it as it is: a wonderful, beautiful city, but of course, not the answer to anything or perfect by any means. Walking through the city, we could clearly see our grasping at the idea of “Montreal” as separate from reality.
We kept driving.
We went to the quaint and lovely Trois-Rivières, then witnessed beautiful sunsets in Rivière-du-Loup. We had some ideas of heading out to Gaspé, but when we saw how close we were to New Brunswick, we couldn’t help turning south instead. The Maritime provinces were calling to us.
While on the road, a job offer came up in the US. It’s a wonderful opportunity to contribute to society in the way that I know best, but far from family, friends, and our beloved home of Canada. Another potential next step.
Wait, what’s this!? It’s a black-or-white decision with many complex variables! Perfect fodder for my conceptual mind’s voracious appetite. I could feel my mind spinning into overdrive, desperately trying to compare moving to the US with moving to Montreal. Pros and cons, cost-benefit analysis, winding trains of thought, all the usual suspects made an appearance.
How quickly the mind reduces the infinite potential of the universe to the two options in front of it. To the frustration of my conceptual mind, I just admitted that there’s simply no answer to this question. There is no perfect decision. There is no way to truly compare the value of home and family to the value of moving for professional opportunity and a chance to contribute. I let go of both the apples and oranges.
There are way too many intangibles and unknowns to properly consider these options, anyway. While strategies can help, and a decision does have to be made eventually, I have trained my mind to be suspicious of certainty in complex situations. It is our mind’s favorite trick to simplify a situation to make it more graspable, come up with an answer to this simplification, and then fall in love with our answer so hard that we forget it was ever simplified. A perfect recipe for unintended consequences.
We kept driving.
The joy and challenge of travelling with no clear plan can’t be understated. It’s a perfect test of mindfulness to drive through unknown territory at 8pm and enjoy the sunset, despite having no idea where we’re going to sleep. A perfect opportunity to watch the mind fall in and out of balance. A perfect chance to notice discomfort arise amidst beauty — or perhaps to notice the beauty of discomfort itself— and live with both simultaneously.
We stumbled on a cute town on the Bay of Fundy called Saint Andrews and participated in their lovely Canada Day celebrations. Then we drove across the southern coast of New Brunswick. Saint John to Alma to Moncton then turned south into Nova Scotia. Sackville then Halifax: a place with all the amenities of a big city taken at a wonderfully slow pace.
In Halifax, the locals told us that Cape Breton was one of the most beautiful parts of Canada. So this morning, here I am, writing to you from the forested Atlantic coast on the far side of Cape Breton. Two deer just ran by!
Why do all this? Is it just for fun? Certainly that can’t be it. Travelling this way certainly brings pleasure, but it invokes a lot of challenge too. The challenge of long drives, the challenge of camping through the rain, the challenge of keeping sane with no feeling of “home”, the challenge of loneliness, the challenge of making decisions. But in some ways this journey has been a perfect prescription for us. As Marcus Aurelius puts it in his meditations:
“Let’s accept it — as we accept what the doctor prescribes. It may not always be pleasant, but we embrace it — because we want to get well. Look at the accomplishment of nature’s plans in that light — the way you look at your health — and accept what happens (even if it seems hard to accept).”
In this exact way, I have seen both the roots of discomfort and beauty in our discursive, conceptual, storytelling minds. It’s not that Toronto is inherently good or bad, or the monastic life is inherently good or bad, or life on the road is inherently good or bad. It’s not that moving to Montreal will solve all our problems, or following this job in the US will be some kind of true answer. These are all just the stories we tell ourselves, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Storytelling is what we do as human beings. Those deer are deer, and we are storytellers. It’s who we are.
When we directly experience and know our nature, we clearly see that trying to change that nature is like swimming upstream. Instead, we can accept that these stories will always be a part of our lives, but it’s up to us to choose how we relate to them. Do we really want our lives to be dictated by this abstract dream we construct ourselves? Do we really want to take every step based on some conceptual framework of reality based on our limited perspective? On the other hand, do we want to spend our days antagonizing our thoughts? Do we want to fight the stories we can’t help but tell ourselves? Do we want to feel a constant sense of failure toward our wandering minds?
Instead, I choose to let it all flow naturally. I choose to trust my experience first, and let the stories follow. I have loosened my grasp on next steps, and in the process, directly experience the natural flow of time. There’s no use in trying to strangle a flower from a seed. You need to plant it in the spring, nurture it, and observe it. If you’re patient, you’ll get to watch it slowly reach for the sky with a beauty you can barely fathom.
There is no answer. We have brought back no pearl of wisdom for you after these months of wandering. We still haven’t even decided what we’re going to do with our own lives. Instead, we are returning to society with the trust — or dare I say, the faith — needed to live life one day at a time. We return with the wisdom to identify when our plans emerge from fear and when they emerge from insight. We return with lived experience of a reality beyond the conceptual traps we set for ourselves. We are still those same nervous apes who book hotels, create schedules, plan itineraries and make reservations to avoid the terrifying reality that things might not go as we expect.
Well, things definitely won’t go as we expect. No matter what we do. If we can skillfully balance our need to control by accepting this simple fact, we will find ourselves in awe of the incredible beauty all around us. When we become aware of our true nature as storytellers, we can find meaning in meaninglessness. We can express an effortless and subtle engagement with the world. We can step out of the way, trusting ourselves and the world around us to find harmony. We can let go of our most demanding expectations of this life — they will rarely be met anyway.
Well, I better go pack the car up now. We’re leaving in an hour or so. I know these are just words, but I hope they’ve inspired you to experience life a little more fully and completely today. ❤
This was the second part of a series about our 2018 journey:
1) How the Scottish Highlands inspired us to leave Toronto for a residential mindfulness center.
2) You can’t strangle a flower from a seed. (this article)
3) Ensō: see through the stories which hold you back.