Sri Lanka: I went away to hear myself
I spent a week with a friend in tropical paradise. I felt the same way I do whenever I visit tropical paradises — delight and bliss at the richness of warmth and sun, green and color, wonder at the fact of being somewhere wildly different from the northerly countries I call home, and the background static of discomfort and grief about the reality of global inequality, the shame-inducing awkwardness of being served lavishly by people of darker skin, brief moments of envy that people seem to live much better connected to nature, community and tradition, then castigating myself for the impulse to romanticize the “other” and whitewash the terrible differential of power and opportunity that exists between me and them.
No matter which way I turn it, never visiting developing countries, never participating in their tourism industry does not seem to be the answer, either. To the best of my ability, I try to remain curious and aware, give my money to non-exploitative enterprises, not act like an entitled asshole, and be fully willing to feel the stew of emotions about what it means for me to be here, including gratitude, embarrassment, ambivalence, guilt, all of it.
All that considered, I had it on good authority that the particular experience I signed up for in Sri Lanka was going to be rewarding. An intentionally, lovingly curated experience of nature and silence and ayurveda. I had never been to the subcontinent, a real shame for a religion major. It sounded good. I came here to gather enough stillness to hear myself better.
Within a week, my persistent shoulder ache and the months-long, mysterious dull pain under my left clavicle disappeared. It may just be the tropical humidity, but so did my psoriasis and chronic sinitis. It took a week of 100% vegan, all-natural ayurvedic fare to completely reset my tastebuds. In the end, I couldn’t finish a shot glass size serving of chocolate mousse because it felt so aggressively sugary and rich. Normally, a whole pan of brownies is not a problem.
To my greatest shock, I completely forgot to crave alcohol. When at home, 1-2 drinks with dinner feels normal and necessary (as the baseline, I mean. Standards of socially acceptable prandial drinking are quite different in Korea). There was definitely a moment of watching a truly ravishing, papaya-hued sunset meeting the mirror surface of the ocean, when I thought, a really well-made tequila-something would be terribly apropos. Alas, the thought left me with merely a nostalgic smile, not a compulsive desire.
I’ve had enough of these cleansing-healing-retreat-y things to know what follows: a week back at home, I’ll probably be readjusted to MSG-laden, pork fat-thickened stews, washing it down with soju, habitually rubbing my aching “keyboard shoulder” again.
I know that, but that doesn’t make these experiences less of a treasure. I spent many hours in deep conversation, yoga, hypnosis and literary musings with my companion in discovery. I drank in the vainest offerings of natural beauty that the earth could offer up; daily herbal baths and swims reminded me of baptisms, the truth that you can live each day as though it is new, and as though you are new.
In every single one of my numerous solo trips to faraway places, I have not once been spared having to face myself. Every single time, I bring all of my inner angels and demons along and especially in my aloneness, there it is, the looping film of loss, trauma, fear, regret, and the mother of all pain, shame. Every time I was rejected and thought it had something to do with me, every time I betrayed myself, every time I broke myself and couldn’t remember how things get put back together again. I don’t know about you, but these are reliable guests to my experience of aloneness and stillness. I go away far so that I do not have the option of compulsively reaching for the easy numbing agents. Food, booze, Facebook, Twitter, TV, sex, people.
You sit with the pain. Well, it only looks like you’re sitting still but really, you’re thrashing and flinching inside because it’s unbearable. You’re looking for ways out, so you pay attention to breath, you keep your gaze fixed on the trillion shades of emerald-blue-grey of the ocean, you try to tap the ache in your heart away. You pick up a pen and start writing, and only then does what you know flow out from your fingers.
You remember what truth feels like.
You remember that truth feels like being seen for who you really are, by someone who is somehow, inexplicably, okay with it. Truth always makes my shoulders come down. Truth tastes like sober and generous goodness. Truth smells like unassailable, steely knowledge that gods (and good) are on your side. Truth is undefensive; it feels like the spaciousness to accommodate anything, everything; it feels like you’re drawn toward, expanding out, rather than pushed away from, contracting.
Truth feels good to your soul even when it’s uncomfortable to your mind; truth leaves you feeling flexible and able to act from the belly; truth dissolves fear. Truth feels like a steady hand on your back. Truth feels like the most elemental recognition of where you’ve come from and where you’re going, the place beyond birth and death, the place that connects every living thing.
So I remember slowly that everything that doesn’t feel and taste and smell like that is not truth. Then I hear the call, more often like a whisper than a siren, to steer back towards it, to wake up. Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.
And slowly waking up, gliding through that sleeping-waking liminal space, I remember that I needn’t live in fear of pain. The pain rises and destroys and rises and destroys but you are not the house that is being destroyed, nor the high wave of sea that is doing the destroying. You are the one who rests with the stars; you are the bringer of dawn.
I remember that my one and only contract is with God (or gods, or goddesses, or spirit, or the universe, or Buddha, or “Whatever,” if you are Martha Beck) alone. According to that contract, my job is to show up to today, the only day I’ll ever know; chop wood and carry water, materially tending to the quiet holiness of earthen existence; ally myself with cause of creation, of generativity, of love.
I went away to hear myself. I heard everything, all the things that were hard to hear, then I landed in the remembering of grace.