Why Travelling Won’t Set You Free
There I was on the roof of a hostel in Canggu, Bali. The sun was beating down on my golden brown skin, my hair was bleached blonde from the sun and I was thinking about my next surfing trip whilst taking a break from reading The Alchemist.
I was that traveller. I surfed every morning, enjoyed a £1 breakfast of pancakes and fruit, followed by a 50p one hour body massage and endless hours of reading in the sun.
I could jump on the back of a scooter and buzz around the Balinese streets whenever I felt like it and one look at my Safari tabs would show you just how much of a dedicated traveller I was. I had already “done” Vietnam and I was even considering a Buddhist meditation retreat in Thailand. Serious stuff.
My whole life had led to this moment. I was 7,758 miles away from home with just a rucksack and a phone to my name. I had planned this for months. I was living the dream.
The only thing missing was, well, to be honest — I didn’t feel like I was living the dream. I had to admit (not that there was anyone to tell) I felt the opposite.
I had injured my leg the night before while surfing so it was propped up on the table in front of me with a makeshift ice pack strapped to it. And I was currently checking my phone every 1- 2 milliseconds because my new travelling friends were not getting in touch at all.
Maybe the hostel wifi had stopped working?
Plus, the tropical setting wasn’t all that great. It was a little misty and the sand didn’t look as white as it had on Instagram.
Trouble in paradise
First world problems, I know. But the truth was, I felt lonely. I was isolated up there on the roof in the middle of paradise. Where was the white sand, turquoise sea, group of new life-long friends and internal self-discovery I had promised myself?
I had planned for a utopia, which would be a world away from the grey, rainy streets of my hometown. I had told myself that as soon as my feet touched the sand, all my worries would float away.
I would no longer be the girl who chose her relationships terribly, suffered from anxiety and couldn’t find her way in life. The world wouldn’t feel blunt anymore. It would suddenly jump into focus in a mirage of tropical islands, friends and surfing.
No matter where we are in the world, we will still be with ourselves. We will sit with the same brains, the same worries, thoughts and past regrets. And if we live in our heads, rather than focusing on the present we can wave goodbye to any hopes of liberation in paradise.
We have to be ready. No amount of white sand and palm trees will cut it. Realising our thoughts are simply tiny films in our head, and are completely made up by us, will begin to set us free (a Buddhist monk told me that during the meditation retreat in Thailand and it’s stuck).
Don’t obsess over your thoughts about the future because it will probably pan out differently. And let go of your regrets. The people concerned likely got over it a long time ago.
All we have is now
We hear this phrase a lot because it’s true. It’s the best piece of advice in terms of finding happiness and peace. Start focusing on the present moment. Don’t punish yourself for the constant thoughts you have, just be aware of them. Let them sail on past and watch them transform into a new thought or plan.
The more you learn to disconnect from worries and simply observe, the easier it will be to tune into the present moment. Doing this will help you to plan less, listen more and go with the flow.
In the end, the isolation I suffered whilst travelling (my billy no mates streak came with me to Thailand) was my saving grace. I became comfortable with myself. I realised the neediness I had for friends, liberation and some kind of internal peace was the barrier in my way. I learnt to let go of my expectations.
This spontaneous way of living, without planning or worry, is similar to the Chinese philosophy of Taoism,which is about living “a life of non-purposive action”.
The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything by Michael Puett & Christine Gross-Loh (which is a must read) sums it up perfectly:
“Ming (the animator of life) is not just about the tragedies that befall us. It’s about the good things, too; the unexpected opportunities, unforeseen chances to do something we love, the chance encounter with someone who will change the trajectory of our whole life. When you hold too tightly to a plan, you risk missing out on these things. And when you wake up one day in that future, you will feel boxed in by a life, that, at best, reflects only a piece of who you thought you were at one moment in time”
Sitting on the roof in Bali, with no way of communicating with anyone, may have given me a feeling of isolation, but it also lead to a profound realisation.
I had to stop planning
My detailed lists and months of preparation came to nothing when I accidentally hurt my leg and lost my wifi connection.
As much as it gives us confidence to stick to a plan, we cannot plan everything. We have to learn to let go of our carefully made lists, thoughts of the future and timeline of possible ensuing achievements.
By living truly in the present moment we free our minds to experience what is around us. We become open to new opportunities and exciting situations.
By putting our phones down, throwing away the to-do lists and letting go of our worries, we allow amazing moments of exploration and bravery to enter our lives. We stop creating unrealistic expectations of ourselves and start embracing reality instead.