How I began to answer the questions I never asked
What does it mean to truly love yourself?
To love the way your body moves, heart feels, brain thinks, soul…is
To love your core, what makes you you. That you that’s changed yet stayed the same throughout your life.
I know, I know. This all sounds very sparkles and rainbows ✨🌈
At least that’s how I used to hear it. Words like ‘essence’ would trigger allergic reactions 😷 — forget loving it, just trying to understand it was a futile intellectual exercise, a waste of time.
So I wrote these questions off as mushy-gushy fluff and just never asked them. I didn’t need to—I had a good job, a fun social life, a caring family—there was nothing to complain about.
I began to ask these questions because I began to taste the answer.
(just a taste, there’s still a long way to go)
I began to feel a type of self-compassion I’d never felt before — a strange combination of understanding myself so deeply and celebrating each part of myself, while at the same time knowing so little and being at peace with whichever way I went.
I began in
New Zealand, of course ;)
1) I began with solitude.
“…with solitude came the freedom to listen to no one but myself, the reality that I had no one but myself, and the slow, gradual, clarity from finally being able to hear no one but myself” — 1.12.17 blog entry
What a scarcity this had been in my life prior to traveling. From college to working life, I rarely got time alone. Uninterrupted, undisturbed, unbounded time to do whatever the heck I wanted.
Granted, it was only a scarcity because I made it so — the busy life was the good life of course! So I was naturally anxious when I decided to live out of a 🚗 alone in New Zealand for 4 months 😳
You see, so much of my life had been defined by others. What my friends and family thought. What society thought. It was driven by my strong motivation for excellence, my deep need for belonging, the traditional role of women in my cultures, and my highly mobile international upbringing where social adaptability was the🔑to survival.
So despite being pretty self-aware, it was damn hard to do me if someone else was in the picture. When I finally removed myself from people, obligations, and expectations, it was a strange, exhilarating, stress-inducing feeling of “now what do I do with myself?”
Well, the solitude wasn’t particularly exotic or sexy. I spent a lot of time buying groceries, driving, dealing with car troubles, cooking, walking, reading, and researching. I was forgetful, careless, and horribly indecisive.
But I was also resourceful, insightful and hilariously quirky. I was just hanging out with MJ, and in the process my relationship with myself evolved from ‘dating’ to ‘living together’ status. I got to know the whole person in the way words fail to describe, through life’s thousands of little moments.
2a) Added a shit ton of nature.
It was a shock to my system, in an incredible way. Being around nature on a daily basis — during the good, the bad, and the mundane — meant I experienced it in many ways. It was:
- Awe-inspiring: confusing, yet addictive
- Unpredictable: frustrating, yet surprisingly beautiful
- Meditative: anticlimactic, yet clarifying
Re: #3, I spent hours walking alone—no music, no podcasts—often thinking about nothing in particular… melodies of 🎶 I didn’t know the words to, philosophical questions I didn’t know the answers to (“how can society truly live sustainably?”), the 🌎 around me and its geological origins (“I wonder how that [insert landscape] formed”), the people I loved, my next break, or just where I was going to put my foot next 👣
I was mentally freeing myself again and letting my mind wander like I did when I was a child.
It was so different from my life before, which was so crammed with schedules/commitments/errands/THINGSTODO that any free time was quickly filled with TV chilling. It was a blast, don’t get me wrong, but there was no room for boredom, no room to let my thoughts meander aimlessly…
And as a result, no room for creativity.
Hiking in nature, the only ‘schedule’ I needed to pay attention to was my body’s clock 🍴💤💩, the earth’s clock ⛅️️🌌, the way of the route, and the frequent lack of schedule ☀➡️️⛈️. Aside from that (and the occasional photo or video 😏), I was left with hours of pure ‘boredom’.
2b) Waited, and became present.
“You cannot force yourself into this state of mind, anymore than you can smooth disturbed water with your hand.” — Alan Watts
Going into my travels, I had planned to sit and meditate regularly, but when someone asked me why I needed the ritual, I didn’t have a good answer. “Err because people say so?”
So I scrapped the seated meditation, and ended up finding my practice during the solo hiking time in New Zealand and South America. I was forced to be alert to avoid injury/getting lost, my mind could only wander so much before eventually returning to where I was (leaving a nice little trail of thought patterns), and in those moments of awe I felt that sense of complete oneness with the external world, that I was part of it and it a part of me.
That concept felt so different now.
It was no longer labels nor adjectives, thoughts nor emotions. The notion of self had expanded so greatly it didn’t even feel like it was something within my body!
It was so immense, so powerful, so complex that the only way to do it justice was to reduce it to a feeling. A feeling of one being, one connection, so entirely focused inward and inside myself, yet so entirely dispersed and outside myself. Confusing paradoxes ftw?
3. And then found intuition.
If solitude was my scarcity, intuition was my lifetime drought.
I had faced life using my brain. I prided myself in my rationality and thoughtful reflection—it helped me remain calm in stressful situations, find optimal solutions, learn from my experiences, stay positive, and have confidence. It’s what got me out of my darkest periods.
But while my brain was my inner pick-me-up, it was also my inner critic, armed with my deepest fears and insecurities. It chided me when I was inefficient, lazy, and confused; when I didn’t have it figured out; when I was different from others; when I wasn’t ‘perfect’.
More importantly, by using my brain for almost everything I did, I forgot how to use my gut. Cue MJ’s countless moments of indecisiveness—what to wear, what to eat, what to drink, where to study, where to work, who to meet, where to go, what to do gahhhh 😖🔫🔫🔫
My brain helped me be self-aware (perhaps too self-aware), but without the ability to hear my gut, I was destined to never reach that asymptotic state of awareness. It’s no wonder all these questions were such a waste of time.
But if there was one lesson unique to traveling, it was the practice I got in following my intuition. I gave the formal 👋 to all plans at the Argentina-Chile border in Patagonia and started living each day with no idea of where I would end up.
I didn’t discover my intuition overnight, but over months of constant “don’t think, just go where your body takes you”, that gut muscle grew stronger and stronger.
And gradually I began to hear it in places I never could before—like what mattered most to me, what I wanted to do professionally, or what my sense of purpose was—guiding me to a deeper understanding of who I am.
I began to hear it with my creativity as I developed sudden urges to doodle without direction.
By letting go of intellect and letting intuition guide me, I began to love myself in moments of doubt, failure, and uncertainty, love my body, and love the intelligence inside me that rests beyond my rational brain. My essence.
Alright, I know this still may sound all eat-pray-love-dance-around-trees-singing-kumbaya. Why bother with any of this? Why the need to ‘truly love myself’ if I’m doing just fine?
Well the way I look at it, our relationship with ourselves is the deepest, most personal thing we have that lasts our entire lifetime. I don’t know about you but that just feels important. Something to deepen, something to love, something to live by.
In doing so, what type of people could we become for each other? How could we treat our world differently — our work and commitments, our planet and communities, our friends and enemies— if we lived with more compassion, authenticity, creativity and centeredness? If we lived by our true best self — our essence?
All too often we see people blindly leading lives they find unfulfilling, being ridiculously hard on themselves based on definitions of success that aren’t their own. I was one of them. I was fortunate to have a year to start a journey of self-compassion that prompted these questions, but I don’t know how my life would have turned out without it—whether I would have been able to hear my gut and have the strength to follow it, or whether I would have been able to love myself through failure. I know for sure there would have been little scope for solitude.
4) And now comes reality
Kumbaya time is over and I’m back in the realities of normal life—plans, concrete, busyness, screens of all shapes and sizes. I can’t say I took it well.
“I was connecting with nature, and that connection kept building… and then I had to leave it.
And now when I see nature it’s trapped. It’s artificial.
It’s fish inside glass, grass inside concrete, trees inside metal.
It’s so cold and dark outside. Everything is in hibernation. Dead.
The only things that remain free and alive are the sun rising and falling, the river flowing, the wind blowing, and those birds.
Those beautiful harmonious birds.
Oh how they’re free” — 12.27.16 journal entry
I mean, how the heck do I practice self-compassion and recreate that paradoxical feeling when the ingredients that led to it are now harder to come by?
Well, I’m slowlyyy realizing that the ingredients are actually still here in front of me—they’re all technically within my control. They’re just accompanied by some new ones—family, friendship, community, purpose.
Combined correctly, they have the power to help me move beyond just tasting the answers to these questions to indulging in them. Combined incorrectly, however, and I risk forgetting everything I learned and felt.
The 🔑 to nailing the recipe? I don’t know for sure, probably a ton of trial and error. But my gut tells me the root of it goes back to that connection to my essence, to guide me through life’s decisions, distractions, and trade-offs. It sounds circular but perhaps this doodle can help:
Through the not-at-all-linear process of 1. beginning with solitude 2a. adding a shit ton of nature 2b. waiting, and becoming present and 3. finding intuition, I began to taste what it meant to truly love myself.
But the crux of #1–3 was giving myself the space to connect with my core—it’s what I believe will be crucial to maintain as I now experiment with new ingredients. That essence has always been there and will always remain. If I let it, it can serve as my compass to deepening self-compassion as I manage boundaries and balance between movement and stillness… helping me avoid becoming like this:
So there it is. My unfinished story of how I began to answer the questions I never asked. What is yours?