Friday, February 3, 2012

On Being Alone


(On June 11, 2011, at Wat Pho, the Reclining Buddha temple, a man gives alms)

“What are you escaping from?”
“What are you looking for then?”

The idea of traveling for travel’s sake is difficult for many to understand. The journey, the concept of moving from one place to another, has always been more important to me than actually arriving somewhere. And for me, the best part of any journey is the time I spend alone. It’s those moment spent sitting on the train in the middle of the raw countryside in central Morocco watching the skinny grass-fed cows that stick with me. Mostly, it’s the reflection process that takes place in those moments. Reflecting on the days that past, the people I met, the conversations we had, the moments we created. Reflecting on the next few days, the hope of some more moving trials, the dream of interesting people, food, experiences, thoughts, ideas, of more chipping away of the shell. Reflecting on my life, my ambitions, the way my brain works, the way this life is supposed to turn out. This is at the heart of why I prefer to travel alone. This world is jam packed with incredible and interesting people and experiences, and I’ve been blessed to meet and know so many.

There is something about having that time to yourself that brings about a certain dialogue that can not exist in the presence of others - the dialogue with yourself. The emphasis seems to always be on fostering dialogue with others, which is important. But what about that internal conversation you never have? The one you always push away and tell to shush. The one you think is a negative invading process, that gut feeling, those ideas, voices, geniuses, whatever you want to call them. They’re there, waiting for you to perk up your ears and listen closely. Know very well that the less you understand about yourself, the less likely it is that you will ever truly know anything about others.

And so, spend time inside your own head, take long train rides alone, walk through busy markets with nothing but your thoughts, and maybe a camera or a notebook. Learn to spend 24 hours completely by yourself. Be balanced: you don’t need to disintegrate from society to do this, you just need to take some time off. Come to an understanding, and then keep that understanding and that conversation alive - with yourself. Unfortunately, there is a societal (mis)understanding that people who enjoy spending time alone must be introverted or shy or somehow dysfunctional. Because most of the world has no idea how to be comfortable inside their own heads, it shouldn’t influence your decisions. The word ‘alone’ becomes automatically translated into ‘lonely,’ which are two very different ideas, and is a clarification that everyone needs to understand well. Embrace yourself while working on embracing others. There is no reason to become a hermit in a desert cave to accomplish this. You can chose to stay home for a whole weekend, take a course without anyone you know, attend a concert by yourself, go for a swim, travel to the next city, country, continent, without knowing anyone there.

My dad recently warned me that I will soon become lonely in this way of life. He said it will become more difficult to keep up and in touch with friends and have a stable circle of loved ones, which is something I have already begun to experience. But it is not loneliness that I fear, it is not understanding who I am that keeps me awake at night. It seems the harder you try to carve your own path in this world, the less likely it is that someone will want to walk with you. The uphill trek to the top of the mountain - whatever that mountain may be - is a path by which most are either intimidated or discouraged. But find that courage anyway. Challenge that mountain, find the brave souls who are also scattered along the barren terrain, find the faint traces of the trails others have left before you and let them criss cross your own trail, and just keep pushing through, carving that path, making those new trails. Bring your eyes down from that peak and look right under your feet. And one day, you will realize that the best thing you ever did was that you stopped looking for something and had the ability to understand that the journey, and that dialogue with yourself, matter more than the destination. And that ultimately, each of us is on their journey alone.

(This article I wrote first appeared on the SpeakOut Poetry Blog on February 3, 2012:

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