…the more you can hear. (Ram Dass)
June 2011: The power is out. The storm rolled in within minutes and now I am in darkness. At first, I couldn’t believe my bad luck. Just one more thing gone wrong, along with the sprained toe, dead computer at school during report card time and an inexplicable noise in the car. Having no power in our technology-driven world feels like I’ve lost a good friend. It’s unnerving and uncomfortable to be in stillness. I never thought I’d miss the constant humming from the gadgets or the red glow of the digital numbers and power buttons. But I’m taking it as a sign. To stop procrastinating. Now I can’t get sucked into mindless reality shows or waste time on Facebook. I guess I’ll actually have to get some of my course writing done for my Religious Education course.
In a few weeks, I’ll be packing up and heading to Italy. While there, I will be completing my Specialist AQ course. The theme is Home. Interesting, isn’t it? The theme of a trip overseas is Home.
“Journal entry #3. Reflect on leaving your ‘home’. Who are you going to miss?” It’s only ten days. I won’t have time to miss anyone. “Who is going to miss you?” The cat, most likely. I’m not sure if she gets fed when I’m not home. “How will leaving ‘home’ allow you to enter into a deeper faith experience?” Now that’s an interesting question.
My friends, family and colleagues think that I’m taking this course just so I can go to Italy. They’ve always known me to have happy feet, the travelling bug, wanderlust, whatever you want to call it. It’s true that I have all of the above. But it’s more than that.
I took my Religious Education, Part 1 (of 3), over the summer at St. Paul’s University, here in Ottawa. It’s a small but powerful university that employs top-notch instructors and a library of religious works that is world-renowned. But the building that houses the university was constructed in 1965 and like any building constructed within this time frame, its aesthetics do not exactly inspire one to reflect deeply on the divine. So when I discovered the option of taking Part 2 in Israel, there was no question in my mind. Not only was it not in a dingy, beige classroom, it was in Israel – the birthplace of our faith. When I returned home, I had discovered that I had changed so much in just two short weeks that the thought of taking my Specialist (Part 3) in a classroom was completely ridiculous.
This is a faith journey. And faith is an intangible aspect of our lives, like hope and wonder. It quickly becomes buried in the mire of everyday chores and errands. Faith is internal and to learn about ourselves, to reflect and to grow, we need to be still and listen to how are hearts are working through what are heads are telling us. It’s like waking up in the middle of the night with the solution we’ve been searching for. Our hearts just needed some quiet time to figure things out.
This is a faith journey. It isn’t entirely about going to Italy. It’s also about leaving our comfort zone. The times of greatest change happen in times of unfamiliarity. To grow, we must be pushed to a place that is new so that we can absorb new information and adapt to new challenges. As Bruce Lee philosophized, “To fill one’s cup, one must first empty what is already in it.”
Every time I’ve gone away, I’ve learned something about myself. It’s because I’m away that I’ve learned these things. They would never have come to my attention from under all of the surface busyness still clouding my view.
My first life-changing travel experience was living in Russia. Everything was different. I mean, EVERYTHING was different. I grew as a person in my global awareness and my humility. Two years later, I went to live in England. I wasn’t expecting to suffer culture shock or any hardships at all, to be honest. But what really happened was that, for the first time in my life, I was faced with the darkness of humanity and complete and utter loneliness. I learned to differentiate between those I could truly trust and everyone else. Most of all, I learned to trust my own strength and resilience. I took a long time to regain my balance after living in England. Darkness is never easy to recover from.
Three years later, after graduating university, working a steady part-time job in Ottawa and having a strong core group of beautiful friends, I packed up and left again, this time to Japan to teach English. Japan was not just about adventure. This was also a professional move since I had just graduated with my degree in Linguistics and a Certificate to Teach ESL. This trip was different from all the rest because I was beginning a new segment of my life. I was emotionally balanced (or so I thought) and I knew how this trip would impact my life in the future (or so I thought). I was going into it with a different outlook on life.
But it was here, in Japan, amidst the daily 9-5 job and evenings spent with friends at restaurants or weekends quietly hiking the small local mountain, that I felt a blank space within myself. Not a hole, as if something were missing and not a discomfort, as if things were difficult. But there was a blank space, a silence, and I didn’t know what was there.
I mentioned this to a good friend when she’d called and she said, “I think you’re just growing.” She said, “I think that it’s these times when it seems nothing is happening that actually a lot of things are happening. We are being given the time to think and organize our thoughts so that when the time comes, we are ready for the decisions we need to make.” After that I started to pay attention to the things that were changing. After several months of “nothing happening”, I was making friends with a confidence and ease that I had never had before. I had realized that family was one of my top priorities and that being close to them was an important factor for my future decisions. I had learned some very important lessons about treating everyone with respect and expecting it in return. I had become spiritually stronger with the help of meditation and some Buddhist philosophy. But most of all, it became clear that leaving home had made all of these revelations possible. And I was given one year away to ingrain these new tools and lessons into my psyche before heading home and carving out my way in the world. But I couldn’t have grown as I did if I had been in my home environment with the same relationships that had been carved in stone years before.
When we leave home, we head out into the world with nothing but what we can carry on our backs. We take special consideration to leave behind all of the heavy stuff behind so we can travel light. We lay down our armour, our masks, our history, our heavy emotional baggage alongside our devices and we become more open to what is truly around us, more child-like in our wonder. It is this innocent lack of pretense when we travel that allows us to finally understand the divine. And I don’t think spiritual growth can happen when you are tied to your home – tied to your past, your job, your family – because to become enlightened, we need to be our true selves. And we can’t be our true selves when we have to be mother, wife, teacher, daughter – whoever – to so many different people.
In order to change oneself spiritually – whether that be deepening your faith or freeing your soul – one must be able to move the mind from the everyday mundane to the spiritual sublime. If faced with the typical challenges of our regular lives, we would never be able to make the shift in thinking. Because, not just change, but transformation must be utter. It must permeate every aspect of your lives. Otherwise, it is just modification. Leaving home – going somewhere else, where nobody knows you – allows us to make that shift. We are in a different state of mind – much like I am right now with no power, no TV, no internet, and no clocks. My usual routines have been interrupted and I have been reminded that I often get carried away with the superficial. I can make excuses for how technology has kept me connected to family or how watching a variety of informational shows has kept me informed but in reality, I’m just making excuses to be busy so I’m not faced with difficult spiritual or existential questions that I’m too burnt out to answer.
The power will eventually come back on and I will again be able to escape the bigger questions. For now. For ten days this July I won’t be connected and I’ll be given topics and time to reflect. And I’ll grow. After ten days on this pilgrimage to Italy, I will return home. But I will not leave the lessons I’ve learned there. I will carry with me a deeper spirituality and understanding of what is true and real; a more confident picture of my abilities and how I fit into this world. I now know that I am strong enough to carry these lessons of the spirit with me throughout the trials of the ordinary.