“Home is where you go when you run out of homes.” ~ John LeCarre
Life has funny way of teaching you and reaching you in the most unexpected ways. I had the opportunity to live in a van, you might question if opportunity is the right word, but I assure you, it is. Without making this sound so dire; I ventured on a 6 month backpacking adventure to New Zealand, Australia and Thailand.
This story begins with all the ingredients for happiness right?
My backpacking adventures have long since ended and all that’s left is a homemade didgeridoo, a jar of sand and a slide show of adventurous pictures that scroll across my work computer on a daily basis.
My coworkers ooze about the magnificent scenery and I smile softly at memories of being transfixed by the silent swirl of outback dust against a burnt sunset, on roads so long and straight it felt as if I was going in slow motion.
When reminiscing, thoughts of freedom and adventure flood my senses. The taste of the ocean spray, the feeling of the cool water lapping my skin while diving into coral reefs and the overwhelming sense of awe upon discovering that a picturesque beach so long and soft was all to myself. I wish I could teleport myself to the past and bask in all this happiness.
But was it really as happy and problem free as my mind is making it out to be?
It may appear as if I’m trying to make you jealous with my confessions of powdery white beaches and I bet you want to put yourself in this picture right? But this story has a twist. Happiness is an elusive concept and through these experiences came huge lessons.
I was fortunate to catch glimpses of what I like to call snippets of wisdom. For the brief moment you experience these snippets they provide an overwhelming sense of formless universal understanding. But as quickly as they present themselves to you they slip away and you are back under tight control, habitual thoughts and limiting delusions of the mind.
Even though we live in a privileged society where endless possibilities are accessible, we still aren’t happy. Sometimes I feel as if everyone is wandering around with a mild dissatisfaction with life. We aren’t completely miserable or completely joyful but somewhere in a muddled fog like in-between state.
Do you believe that happiness will arrive when you find the perfect partner or job, or have the perfect kids? For me I thought happiness would appear when I reached the perfect destination.
LESSONS LEARNED WHILE LIVING IN A VAN: Lesson Number 1:
Vacations, hobbies and things (items or experiences of pleasure) are only transferring suffering.
Let me try to explain this concept a little better:
When I was preparing for my backpacking trip I worked two jobs, office worker by day, and bartender by night. I barely slept and I saved all my pennies in anticipation of this trip. It consumed my every thought.
Living in the moment didn’t stand a chance; I was dreaming of far away beaches, interesting people and days of freedom from work. My whole world was wrapped around an anticipated future adventure which was going to finally bring me the happiness that I so longed for.
Finally departure day arrived; a gruelling 50 hour combination of flights and layovers left me nodding my head in confirmation of impending happiness as we flew past rugged snow peaked mountain tops: it was just like I imagined after watching Lord of the Rings 5 times.
New Zealand is truly a perfect place for me being a microcosm of all the world’s natural attractions. I discovered beautiful meadows, pristine rivers and plains. I trekked the slopes of active volcanoes and tramped on some of the world’s best known tracks. I travelled through remote patches of virgin rainforest and discovered some of the world’s oldest trees. I swam with pods of playful dolphins and watched whales and penguins frolicking around our boat as we cruised on remote fiords.
I must admit happiness did seem easier when my senses were buzzing with excitement and newness, the promises my mind made were almost coming true. I was almost happy. Thinking back now I can almost convince myself it was perfect, until I read an excerpt from my journal. The mind is a real magician, it only remembers what is convenient.
Oct 24/04. I hate cold showers. The washrooms here are somewhat undesirable, it seems impossible to get clean. The ground is gritty dirty tile or maybe it just feels that way from all the sand grinding against my feet. The bottom of the stall is littered with empty bottles and old razors. My pant bottoms are soaked from the puddle of water that covers the entire washroom floor. I look up to a sign on the wall: “Please do not use your sleeping bag. They carry bugs: See reception if you need a blanket.” I miss home.
After a month in New Zealand we were on our way to Australia, the initial excitement was wearing off and the exhaustion of living from a bag was beginning to set in. If I’m honest I will recall the difficulties of my time as a van dweller.
Imagine awakening to an overwhelming urge to use the washroom, except you’re in a hot, crowded city, parked on a random street. You don’t need details, but frustration levels were high. Forget about your love of hot, steamy showers, the reality is pulling strings in the ice-cold shower stalls used for surfers on public beaches. I have strong memories of bug infested nights tipping 30 degrees and the putrid smell of our van for weeks after our orange juice container combusted from the heat.
And so life went on, much like life back home. I travelled, marvelled in new experiences and had some testing times too. Then something alarming started happening; I noticed that as time ticked on I was longing for my old routines: The gym, work and my apartment.
I was no longer living in anticipation of future happiness, I was now longing for the past.
I began to wonder if I would ever be happy. If travelling the coast of Australia didn’t pan out, it seemed an impossible unreachable goal.
Why are we so uncomfortable with living in the present moment? Why do we long for things to be other than they are?
“I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival; because life is the moment we’re living now.” ~ Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
The reality is I missed out on months of my life while preparing for this trip and ironically I also missed months of my trip while longing for the past. When I finally arrived back in Canada it wasn’t long before I was longing for my next adventure. Some might call this itchy feet or a sense of adventure, but I have now realized it was just a cover up, masking an inability and discomfort of living in the present moment.
Let’s take a quick look at this concept from another angle:
You have been dreaming about surfing all week. The weekend arrives and a wave of excitement washes over you. If someone asked you if surfing is a true source of happiness you would say “Yes, Of course!” But the right answer is NO, it is not a source of happiness. Why not?
If something is truly a source of happiness that means it will always make you happy, under any circumstances. Let’s look at surfing: You may enjoy surfing for the first hour, even two hours, but what if you had to surf for 24 hours straight? It would quickly become a source of suffering. Another example is your desire to eat a cookie. Your mind tells you it will make you happy, but if you eat cookie after cookie, then you have created a big problem.
In other words if something is a true source of happiness it can never cause you suffering. Take a moment and look inward at the things you think are making you happy. Can any of these things cause you to suffer?
This long explanation is simply saying: Happiness can not be found in future promises or past nostalgia. It can not be found in external objects, people, places or things. It can only be found from within. Buddhist’s believe that regardless of your environment or situation, you have the control and the power to experience blissful happiness.
“When each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises.” ~ Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Upon first learning of these concepts it left me feeling sad, I loved planning trips and dreaming of future plans. What is the harm?
Buddhism is not telling us we can’t find worldly enjoyment in people, places or things, it is simply telling us that they are not the source of our happiness. Many people form opinions of Buddhism without really understanding the concepts. There is nothing wrong with striving for goals, enjoying your children and spouse, or taking vacations. Non-attachment is not about shunning human contact. Non-attachment comes from the wisdom that these things are not the true source of our happiness. Whenever attachment is involved we become stressed and worried because worldly possessions are possessions we can lose.
True happiness can not be found in Australia, a cookie or another person. It has to come from the inside, once we reach that; no matter what the outside looks like you can achieve happiness.
My Buddhist teacher sometimes refers to a story about a remarkable women in Auschwitz who endured unspeakable suffering. Throughout her entire experience she somehow retained a peaceful mind; they could beat her, take everything away from her, but they couldn’t take away her inner happiness. On so many levels this tale is utterly inspiring to me. I fills me with hope.
LESSONS LEARNED WHILE LIVING IN A VAN: Lesson Number 2:
How Little We Actually Need to Survive
All the stuff we surround ourselves with is merely a distraction, we are filling a void. I mentioned in 10 ways to Save Money; “Money can’t buy happiness but it can buy comfort, after the initial comfort is satisfied that’s where our obsession with money should end.”
For some reason we can not let our mind be still, we need to be constantly distracting ourselves: Scrolling through text messages, while compiling to do lists and maybe eating a sandwich at the same time. Sound familiar?
We are bombarded by the media presenting promises of happiness through materialistic measures. It’s no wonder we struggle everyday. Resist those urges. It’s an empty path, it won’t make you happy.
It’s hard not to get roped into the consumerism trap. I need constant reminders that it’s a false sense of happiness. I enjoy stuff, but I also recognize that I don’t need it.
I mentioned in a previous post that my husband had recently lost his job; during this struggle in our lives I thought back to my 4 months in a van, solemnly wondering if we would be soon homeless. Maybe I would live in a van yet again!
During this time in my life I only had a couple T-shirts and a notepad for entertainment. But it was this experience that gave me the wisdom to know that no matter what happened, even if we lost everything; we would still be us, we would still have our inner aliveness and life would still be beautiful.
So now that we’ve talked about where we can’t find happiness, where can we find happiness? The only way to cultivate true happiness is through virtues such as kindness, stillness, love, patience and acceptance. We can practice these virtues through mindfulness, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way” ~ Jon Kabat Zinn. Pay attention to your actions, behaviours, speech, and thoughts.
Through mindfulness you will begin to discover inner peace and happiness will form naturally.
I realized my purest happiness comes from tugging on my dogs face while he looks up at me and smiles or from watching a crimson sunset while travelling along an open road with the windows down and my favourite song playing on the radio.
It leaves me frustrated that all these years I’ve been transferring my suffering, not really enjoying any moment to it’s fullest (but that frustration is only handcuffing me to past, so now I need to let that go too). All along I just needed to look inside.
You have the ability to be happy, no matter what your life looks like, you make the choice to be happy. You don’t need money, exotic destinations or the perfect partner; you have all the tools right now to make a huge change in your life. And thankfully you don’t even need to live in a van to realize this.
“The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.” ~ Paulo Coelho – The Alchemist
Note: I sorted through the hundreds of photo’s taken with my old pocket camera and picked just a few that captured the true beauty of these countries. One day I hope to make it back with my SLR in hand and visit some of these places again.
Recommended Reading: The Alchemist