Recently I read somewhere that there are four pillars to meaningfulness in life: Belonging, which comes from loving another person and being part of a group or relationship. Purpose involves using our strengths to serve others and make a positive contribution to the world. Transcendence connects us to a better version of ourselves and closer to the Divine. And the fourth pillar, storytelling, is the narrative we create to describe our lives and how we see ourselves against the backdrop of the world.
I changed my life drastically about six years ago. I had a handful of reasons that I would dish out and serve anyone who asked. I needed some socially acceptable logic for quitting my academic career, selling everything I owned, embarking on world travel with no set itinerary (other than chasing summer around), and eventually leaving the man to whom I’d promised my whole life.
I wanted to sustain myself with less, to learn a different way of life in some other part of the world, to engage simplicity and non-competitiveness in every way. Once, when trying to describe my reasons for ditching the conventional lifestyle, I said to a good friend that I wanted to open a new box (at the time not realizing it was Pandora’s or an overused idiom). He said to me, “Colleen, you didn’t open the box, you blew up the box!”
From a beautiful house full of stuff we’d spent years accumulating, my then-husband and I set off with our backpacks to explore Europe, and eventually South East Asia, like gap-year college kids. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I felt good for having given up all my possessions. China and silverware that collected dust. Stacks of beautiful clothes–enough to dress a small Indonesian village and enough money spent on those clothes to buy a small Indonesian village. I was attached to toasters and goose-down pillows and feature walls like they affected my survival.
Trying on a different way of life instead of new designer jeans was vital to my happiness because if I continued living without a real sense of purpose, I would always want more, and more would never be enough. Even with all that stuff, I felt empty, void of gratitude, restless, and longing for something different. I didn’t know myself well. I felt a bit like a fraud living a life intended for someone else. Insecurity had me roped and tied. It whispered to me “you don’t belong here”. So I checked out.
The idea of escapism arose in the midst of this vast change. Is that what I was doing–just escaping the doldrums of ordinary life? Was I having a premature midlife crisis? Was I acting like a self-entitled spoiled brat because I didn’t want to work Monday to Friday in a job I didn’t love and have babies I didn’t want? Was I trying to run away from myself?
To anyone else, my set up appeared like a perfect life. To me, there was something fundamentally wrong with it–or with me, but I couldn’t tease out which one. (This makes me think of fake fruit or flowers. From a distance, they look good enough to eat or real enough to smell. But upon closer inspection, you realize they’re just glossy, plastic versions of the real thing).
But this all sounds serious and dramatic. No life-threatening disease plagued me. No one close to me had died. It was not the residual effects of childhood trauma. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I be happy with the life I had?
I yearned to learn something different every day, not from a textbook, but from touching, smelling, and tasting the world. I wanted to rattle my bones and regularly do something that scared me, even if I tried every time to talk myself out of it. Time was chasing me down a long dark corridor and I wanted to outrun it. I wanted to find something meaningful (a lot of time passed before I realized that I wasn’t going to stumble upon meaning any more than I would stumble upon a three-dollar bill. Meaning would be something I would create every day in small ways by being conscious of every decision I made).
When I write about it or tell people about how I leaped with blind faith, I realize that not only did I have a story to tell, I had a story to create. Uncertain as I was about the plot, theme, setting, and ensuing conflict and its resolution, that new adventure girl in me wanted a page-turner.
So, what did I do? Traveled aimlessly. Ate, prayed, loved (oh I loved!). Did yoga in exotic countries. Held noble silence for 10 days. Walked barefoot on beaches more exquisite than I could have imagined. Got my ass kicked by mountains. Walked across an entire country twice in one year because I didn’t know what else to do. Drank whiskey on trains in Sri Lanka. Spilled whiskey on old men on trains in Sri Lanka. Made a home in Indonesia and filled it with mantras handwritten on post-it notes (my new feature wall). Filled a thousand journal pages with the mental vomit that stole my sleep. Accused myself of having committed a gross human error and then forgiving myself for it. I got to know myself.
Some people understood my struggle, the one I created. Others thought (think) I was (am) a self-absorbed shirker of responsibility and my human obligation to society. The only real responsibility we have is to respond to life. I responded. And yet I skated back and forth between those polarities. Light, fluffy days of feeling strong and secure regularly intermixed with shadow days highlighting the fact that I had no idea what I was doing with my life.
Within all of those events, a million little things happened that altered my worldview entirely. From living amidst rock-bottom poverty to scary dogs and spiders the size of my head I discovered an incredible need to belong–to myself.
Over the past few years, I forged a new path with the help of yoga and Ayurveda. I’ve learned there are two important aspects of personal transformation. The first is awareness that something needs to change. For me, it arose from a deep fatigue with myself and the bullshit I was creating by cycling through the same destructive patterns of thought and behaviour that made me a victim of my own life. I learned (to be honest, I’m still learning) that I create my own experience from moment to moment, just by the way I think about it. This awareness crushes the tiresome victim mentality I had and makes me a more conscious agent in my life, which leads me to the second part.
Change takes work. Anything worth achieving requires me to put forth effort every day. It means calling myself out on my own bullshit. It also means observing my responses to events (both in how I project my crap on other people and in how I blow up in the face of challenges or avoid them altogether). So I began the inner work of listening to my shadow, and allowing her a space in my life; we were otherwise destined to be in constant battle with each other. Sometimes she sits in the dark corner of my mind throwing insults at me and everyone I love. Other times she manifests as that annoying person I can’t stand (probably because I share that person’s irritating qualities). She used to be just one more cigarette or glass of whiskey, or some other self-destructive behaviour. I’m grateful for this new yet familiar presence in my life because without her battling me so hard some days, I would never truly know myself. But it’s like an 800-km trek across a country: Some days I’m light on my feet under a beautiful sky. Other days I’m hiking on scree, uphill and under storm clouds.
For me, Ayurveda is not just about eating according to my constitution and learning a bunch of ancient and exotic sounding health hacks–though I do enjoy that very much. I’m rolling around in this fascinating wisdom and craving more every day. And because the universe responds appropriately when we’re on the right path, I scored this part time job writing about my Ayurvedic journey. I was approached several months ago with a vision for Jiva Botanicals and asked if I’d like to be a part of it. Ummmmm, is the sky blue? Do birds fly? Does walking require the alternating movement of both legs? The founder of Jiva was basically being offering to pay me to study Ayurveda. If all my decisions could be that easy. The beautiful alignment of my personal and professional journey has reaffirmed my faith that I am creating the right path for myself, so that everything I experience in a given moment, whether I assign it a value of good, bad, or somewhere in between, is exactly what I need.
So what is the role of Ayurveda in my life? If travelling was the necessary deconstruction of my old way of living, then Ayurveda and yoga are the scaffolding I need as I learn to rebuild myself, to care for myself in a way I can’t get from any doctor, psychotherapist, parent, friend, or man. And the best part is that it is 100% accessible to anyone wanting to embark on a journey of self-discovery.
On a final note, I saw this ingenious garden outside someone’s house and giggled at such a delightful blend of creativity and laziness.
Talk about fake flowers!
Colleen’s interest in Ayurveda grew organically from a curiosity in how to naturally improve her health and energy. During a trip to India in 2017, she became better acquainted with Ayurveda and yoga philosophy and has been studying the ancient wisdom ever since. Her love for nature, travel, and vegetables (ginger and broccoli) inspired her to become more consciously aware of how to improve our lives and eating habits. She’s the author of a self-published collection of personal stories about her experience living in Indonesia. Colleen is a certified teacher of Thai massage and hatha yoga.