the characters that make up the stage

monastery living – day 4 – 6 hours daily meditation.

It’s amazing, this process of coming in to your own life. Of putting on the shoes that have always been yours and wearing them with pride. Tying the laces this time, rather than stumbling over them. It carries with it such pain and yet such sweet liberation alongside it, as you see that it could only have ever been this way, and you’re so relieved to have finally starting making the leap; to no longer be caught in the cycle of fantasy and disappointment that have done so well to obscure the reality for you. This is our life. This day, this hour, this moment. And these people alongside us are the characters that make up the stage, whether we love them or hate them, they are all we have. So all we have left to do is accept the here and now and try to live in it as best we are able. But bugger me backwards how I can avoid it!

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the monastery finds me

Everything is starting to make sense, and it’s making me want to cry. My life coming into sharp relief. How much running there has been. How much time wasted trying to get away from myself. And the reasons why. The sad stillness I find in the spaces, always waiting for me. And eventually you can run no more. Eventually it is time to say ‘enough’. To sit still and to face whatever it is that’s coming for you. And to make friends with it: your own lifetime of stored up loses. To make friends with your own pain and guilt and rejection. To open your heart wide to yourself and say ‘yes it was hard, and yes I can’t change it now, and that absolutely sucks… and I accept it.’ Because I want to start living my life now. In this moment now. To commit to that for whatever it may bring. Because this moment is all there is, and whatever else you think you’re working towards is only a distraction. And so yes I commit again to stepping into my own life, no matter how long it takes. Into this life with all the parts in me I’m ashamed of and want to hide, with all the parts of me that grate and ache and with all my share of strengths and joys. I accept this lot. And I will try and love it. All of it. To stop hating those ugly parts of myself; to turn and to say sorry to myself for these hard judgements I have whipped myself with. And to commit to giving myself a bloody great big bear hug 🙂

And it is with this love for myself, and only with this love, that I am able to love anything else at all. It all starts with us and we stretch out from there, to our partner, to our brothers and sisters and family, to our friends and our colleagues and the people on the tube on the way to work in the morning and, well, to the whole bloody world.

showstopper

I am in a government bus that may well have been used on the school run in the US in the 1950s. I am travelling from Pai to a Buddhist forest monastery called Wat Tam Wua, which is excellent to say out loud… We are climbing the highest mountain in Thailand in this bus, which is packed to the gills and resembles more a migratory caravan in search of a better life. The gradient is severe and there are increasingly moments where I doubt we will win the battle with gravity. We stop, midway through a corner, and the driver grinds on the handbrake which only slightly limits the roll backwards. It appears this is necessary because finding 1st gear is as complex as extracting a tooth. When he does succeed we hunch forwards at an elephantine pace that would make even electric lawnmowers seem like well-tuned dragsters. Suddenly 105km seems like a very long walk. But we are trailing through heavenwards ridgeways of jungle trees, the tropical pine-scented breeze is caressing me and no one else on the bus seems to be in a hurry. It is such a wonderful thing: not to rush. Just to stop and breathe and watch the show laid on for us. And yet I treat myself to it so rarely. Whenever did I learn to prioritise the getting to somewhere else? And it must be learnt, because folks simply don’t do it here.

from grasping to gratitude

I haven’t spoken to anyone in two days. After leaving Lea small talk seemed too irrelevant. I didn’t want to burst the moment. I find it almost impossible not to talk to people sitting next to me, nearly anyone, but I have resisted this time. This has also been because I’m going to a Buddhist forest monastery and I’m just passing through here. I planned this retreat a while ago but it’s come at a good time. My interest in new connections has entirely ebbed for now, and it’s time for solitude and deepening.

A shift has occurred in thoughts of Lea. I have left the grasping for her, the eagerness to hear she has changed her mind, and moved into a space of gratitude. She’s given me so much in so short a time: belief I can open and connect and fall; intense, piquant joy in our sharing of each other, in our gilt-edged memories of those few days; and also a little more confidence in my levels of attraction, a little more belief in the unspoken connections we all make between each other. And for all of it I find myself truly thankful, which has a tender quality of acceptance to it that is new to me. And that feels just a little bit Buddhist, which is pretty apposite right now!

better together?

I have always thought that finding your way in life was a solo enterprise. Any development I have made so far has constituted a series of small personal steps taken alone, with the guidance of my therapist. It has been so very individualistic, cocooned in a small office one-on-one, dragging myself through painful realisations about my past and my entangled inner machinations. Without doubt it has been invaluable and I don’t consider it an overstatement to say I am not convinced I would have survived thus far without it. There have been long periods of hopelessness, where all I have had left is to grope for his hand in the darkness and trust the voice of another telling me a new dawn may break one day. But beyond this vital relationship I have felt largely alone, sharing little but headlines of the process with my closest friends.

I do not appear to be alone in this. As a man I think I’m more open than most, and I don’t shy from revealing the more unsavoury truths. This extends to my tightest circle of friends, warm and embracing men and women all of them. But still our professional lives have seen us flung to all corners of the globe, or embattled in our own career trajectories. Even for the many of us that stayed in London, pressures of the urban landscape meant meeting up more than once a month often proved a struggle, and then the conversation was dominated simply by ‘catching up’, which meant whittling down a universe of rough-edged experience to a minaret. I remember when my oldest and closest friend told me one time he had been so plagued by his own demons that he sat on the street in Shepherd’s Bush and wept, so certain was he that suicide was the only way to short circuit the lightening storm in his head. He told me some months later. He had not thought to call.

We seem to live in our Western urban society as diffused particles of gas, bouncing off each other in random, unchartable directions, forever spilling out to fill the area allotted us. Coming to the East I imagined this legacy of solo travelling would continue. I pictured lazy hours spent in hammocks, mulling over Buddhist texts, scribbling snatches of illumination or incoherence into my journal. But the reality has been quite different so far. I have felt embraced by this culture, drawn into its arms and given a place to belong. Having escaped from the tourist web of Thailand my experiences have deepened and spread outwards. Long hours spent in the home of local people, sharing beers and smiles, has settled my restless soul with incredible speed. If I can feel a part of such strong community bonds in a day or two, and from it a fairly rare sense of well-being, imagine what a lifetime spent in such a nest does for the soul?

It raises a series of questions for me about the East and the West. What if this yearning to stand on our own two feet – this belief that we need to become a robust self-sufficient unit against the turmoils of the world – what if that is wrong-headed? Somehow inherently unhealthy and contrary to whatever our human nature might be? What if this self-reliance leads only to loneliness and a paucity of spirit, so often cited as the biggest problem facing the West?

I have often thought that one offshoot of this issue is the vast pressures it places on our romantic partners. Countless times I’ve sensed that people use this relationship, and this relationship alone as the conduit for a lifetime of frustrations and confusions. We broadcast our successes widely, but our failures are most often reserved for the bedroom. So is it any wonder that fissures start to appear under such an immense responsibility? That our divorce rates have rocketed to %50? For what single person can shoulder the burdens of another, especially when that other is also the person we have designated to shoulder our own? But our media driven obsession in this quest for ‘true love’, for perfect harmony found only in our couple continues. ‘When will I find the ‘one’?’ seems to have almost biblical, or perhaps more Yoda-like overtones. It reminds me of the motif someone described to me recently of a heart cracked in half, bonded seamlessly with another cracked heart to at last become whole again. This was upheld to me as a romantic ideal, but is it not more likely that two cracked hearts meeting will just fuck each other up completely? For what, realistically, are the chances of an alignment? Try as you might, you can’t fix a cracked vase with pieces from another one; they have to all come from the original. Generally it is unwise to bring ourselves too broken into a relationship, and yet more unwise to think that this relationship alone can fill the gaps.

And of course when babies enter the picture of the nuclear family, the stresses and strains simply escalate. Overwhelmingly here in the West the trials of parenthood seem to be considered the domain of the couple alone. It is considered lucky if Granny lives close enough to shoulder the burden with some midweek babysitting. When I consider this picture, it becomes ever less surprising that broken marriages are becoming the norm. I can hardy imagine the strength you would need to make it alone.

I wonder also if this is a recent development? The abundance of wealth and opportunity we have enjoyed over the last 50 years has meant we can first afford our own homes, and then afford homes big enough for ever child to have their own room for the youngest age. Ironically, this tide is perhaps turning now, but it’s still mostly the case that young adults aspire for their independence as early as possible. But do we really want this right to our individuality?

In Laos society operates very differently. The problems of a marriage are the problems of the whole community; they share the burden over the backs of many and try and find solutions together. Further each of them belongs not just within the nuclear family but within a whole network of extended family and lifelong friends who are rarely more than a stone’s throw away. A typical house will find three or four generations under the same roof and during a day’s work in the rice fields it is expected that Granny or Grandpa will entertain the kids. I met a privileged Laos banker who had studied a Masters in America. I asked him if he wanted to go back and would consider living there, but he said he could never imagine leaving his community. It would break him. He is currently living with his parents, sister, nieces and nephews. I have just signed a contract to work in Saigon for 2 years, where I know no one at all.

I am not holding this model up as an ideal, and I have heard others report it as stifling and riven with gossip. But I think there is a nugget of profound sense in it. And if you want evidence you can feel it in abundance in the warmth of people’s hearts. So it seems I left the UK to go on a journey into myself, and what I have found is a journey into each other. As Jack Johnson croons so joyfully, maybe we are indeed ‘better together’.

the ache

One thing I have conveniently forgotten in all my fanciful imaginings below. The decision is not mine. I am powerless. I am available and ready and waiting, but she is not. All I could do is try to influence that. But there’s also a question of how fair that would be. She’s young and confused and perhaps lost enough in her life without needing the pressure to take yet another direction from me. And whatever I do have to offer her is so fraught with difficulty. Her finishing her studies in Paris for a year and me living in Vietnam. What kind of future is that? It doesn’t seem fair to pressure someone into that, no matter how right it might feel. But doesn’t it just make you mother fucking ache?!

to burn bright and brief?

8th May

She has given me the first inkling of a little thing called love for the first time in quite some years. Perhaps stupid to use that word for someone you’ve known a week. But how else to differentiate between the thousands of fleeting connections that don’t generate more than a passing thought, and then the one that seeps behind your eyelids and charges your dreams with longing? I think, perhaps, our hearts know that we love long before our wary old minds will let it through, rather like an egg that’s boiled inside long before the cook dares crack it. And there was something in the way she looked at me, more the way she stared at me, a fusion of half-closed suspicion and wide-eyed guardless welcome: inviting, falling, daring to open despite it all, recognising something as familiar as an old family photo pinned on the fridge.

And then it is all changed by these trajectories that collide and part again. My Visa has expired and I am heading back to Thailand to a meditation retreat, while she continues south through Laos, ending up in Cambodia where her boyfriend is waiting for her. Yes that word. Perhaps making it all wrong on some moralistic level. But then what else to do with the force of the feelings? It seems a denial of life to simply let them slide. I tried and I couldn’t. Or wouldn’t: take responsibility man! Does it make it better they’ve been together only a few weeks before she left? Marginally perhaps. But then I think I might have done the same regardless, although not in the case of marriage and children. I couldn’t go there.

There are questions to be answered. Do I chase her? Do I try and find some more time together, follow the deep urge in me to explore, to discover, to share? Or is it only selfish? Should I respect that she feels lost and assume that she doesn’t need yet another potential path to tangle her way? Or is that presumptuous? Not my call to make anyway? But where could it go? Her finishing her studies in Paris, me in Saigon for 2 years. Where could it possibly go?

And yet I want. And yet I want. And yet I want HER! So do we only chase things that have a ‘future’? Can we only let ourselves love if there is a possibility of loving forever? Because don’t we lose everyone and everything eventually anyway? And isn’t it only grasping that tries to clip the wings of our love to keep it hovering nearby? Why not also subscribe to a love that burns bright and short? Even though we know that ultimately it will sear a place onto our hearts? And perhaps that searing is also what brands us as unique?

roots and wanderlust

8th May

And so I move on again. It’s getting harder and harder this leaving behind. This time there is Ugo, a true kindred spirit, a courageous searching soul who’s levelled chestnut eyes do not veer from the truth. He looks into you in a way that invites you to know him, no frills, no fuss, no image, just resting in an awareness of each other and of a shared life. A real partner on the road. And then of course there’s Lea. Who answered so briefly that yearning which lingers in us all, that makes the solo sleeper hug a pillow to their chest at night.
These are people I want to know forever, to tuck away into the backpack of my life after only a few days. It seems a paradox on the road that the connections are so amplified by an intensity of time spent together and an openness of heart, whilst at the same time by their very nature they are so transitory. We are mostly left with a small piece of someone we can hold close to us in our mind’s eye; a memory reserved for the rocking chair years guaranteed to raise a smile. And maybe it is better thus. An exercise in non-attachment perhaps?

But alone again I find myself tiring of the goodbyes, and conversely a small part of me is shrinking away from the new connections. I’ve begun watching people pass by more, happy to remain in my solo orbit and preserve my energies. A kind of more guarded solitude is emerging, and perhaps that is good, perhaps we need to reserve the true currency of our hearts a little. The transitory nature of travelling is showing me something about the importance of relationships and community. Laos is the most communal and happiest country I have ever seen, and yet paradoxically a solo traveller is perhaps the least communal you can be. And this contrast is teaching me the worth of roots, of settling and growing and watching things blossom for a time. Bit by bit I sense the wanderlust in me may give way to that greater goal. The goal of belonging. But belonging by choice which is so very different from being stuck.

a farewell to Laos

7th May

I am leaving Laos in an hour. It feels like parting from a very dear old friend, yet I’ve been here 30 days. The rolling forested mountains of the Nam Ha envelope us as we slip by countless villages with couples dozing in the shade, children coming back from school on motorbikes and an old lady grinning at the sole shop counter. I cannot describe what this beautiful country has meant to me. I have never encountered hearts so brimming with joy and with an eagerness to share. I’ve been invited to drink rice whiskey with old men who have blessed me, to drink beer Lao with young men who have made me sing Karaoke and promise I will come back next year, to share people’s food and sleep in their homes, and to hear their stories of heartbreak and hope.

It’s hard to enter a village without a chorus of ‘Sabaidees’ from children waving gleefully and screaming in delight when you wave back. It’s hard to get lost when everyone will lead you home and it’s hard to feel alone when everyone smiles at you. These people have suffered more than we’ll ever know at the hands of foreign invaders and homegrown communist repression. This little country has the ominous title of being the most bombed country in the history of the world, by American planes in the ‘Secret War’ alongside Vietnam. It’s also one of the poorest and least developed on Earth. It’s known years of tight government control with ‘re-education’ centres a common end for relatives torn from their families.

And yet… And yet… Despite this, or perhaps because of this, I have never met people so intent on finding the pleasure in every passing moment, and then knowing how to double their pleasure by sharing it. This is a land where one person’s problem is everyone’s problem. In an Akha tribal village I visited recently there was a new house being built. As far as I could tell almost every able man in the village was helping build it. Without pay. Knowing that one day they would need help too and the people working alongside them would provide it. If you fall sick here then it is likely 40-50 people will visit you in the hospital at one time. And a wedding is considered the most important event in someone’s life, so much so many families will spend their entire life savings on that one event and invite up to 2000 guests. There is no sense of saving for the future here, or guarding against it perhaps. It’s all about the moment, and what better moment to share than the making of a new family and the building of their community?

Many 1000s of Hmong immigrants (an ethnic minority in Northern Laos) came to the US from Laos during the 80s to escape persecution from the communist Laos forces, after they had valiantly helped America during the ‘Secret War’. A government leaflet on their arrival read ‘Welcome to a better life’. 20 years later the same immigrants were surveyed about how they enjoyed life in the US. Their worlds were dominated by their own state-funded apartments, wide screen TVs and gas guzzling 4x4s. And yet %85 said they would return to Laos over staying in the US in a heartbeat if they could. I’m telling you people we could learn so much from this place. Isn’t that an irony? Lessons in how to live from the poorest people on Earth. But then as my guesthouse manageress proudly claims when she wishes me goodbye: ‘Laos people are very poor, but always rich in heart. And that’s the most important thing isn’t it?’

Well isn’t it?

to find and to lose

7th May

It seems too surreal I will not see her again. But I am glad of her nonetheless. I sit at breakfast watching the empty bench where we drank beer and kissed and laughed and lamented the night before. My feelings for her bleed like ink into a bowl of water, spiralling out through my chest. This is the price you pay I suppose. To find and to lose, these two together always.