Why Bali?

Sanur Stories, Pt. 1

“Why did you choose Bali?” That night’s new arrival at the guest house asked me, as we shared travel plans.  

Her Dutch accent was light and soft, and draped her words with silky European elegance.  She was from a long line of Indonesian descent, and had blood that ran all the way back to one of the origin stories of  many local Island beliefs.  She spoke of Bali with experience deeper than her years of travel here – with a connection to the land inextricable from her bones.  Here on this lush island of art and flowers, she was among the most beautiful creatures I’d seen yet.

Every time I’ve been asked “why Bali?”, I’ve given a different answer… and I was a bit surprised by the California cool that came out of my mouth this time.

“Well, I’m pretty into the hippie-dippie stuff: yoga, healing, art… and I hear Ubud really has a lot of that going on, so I imagined I’d feel pretty comfortable there”.

My response shot a spear of inauthenticity into my ribs.  Though the conversation continued as normal with travellers getting to know each other, I was off.  I continued to be bothered by the way I’d refused to admit my inner pull to this place, my deep interest in exploration, the way my soul longed to engage on this trip.  As we talked, I began to sense that she wasn’t a skeptical stranger at all, and we’d connect better if I dropped my socially conditioned cloak.

Why had I presented this detached apathy?  Who was that person who had answered her question?  Why is this sharp end still in my ribs?

I slept restlessly that night as the conversation replayed itself in my head.  The past has a strange way of rehearsing itself in a divided mind.

The next morning over breakfast, I had to make myself whole again.  I opted for a side of vulnerability with my fruit and yogurt.

“I wanted to share with you – when you asked me last night why I’d come to Bali, I gave some answer, but the truth is, I don’t know.  I just know I was pulled here, and I’m actually fascinated to listen to the land, and let her tell me why she called.”

She simply nodded with a smile.  “Yeah, it’s like that.

For the next two days, we became travelling companions of the village around us, and the rich worlds within us.  She was, first and foremost, a storyteller.  Over beachside strolls and winding bike rides, her tales opened a window into the meaning of her world, her self, her people. As we explored, we formed a common feast for an entire mosquito family, and shared our love for our ailing fathers. She introduced me to the soul-storytelling tattoos called Ta’moko, and the Maori belief that our stories are already inked on us, many of us just wear them in our veins.   I introduced her to the zombie-movie sets of the abandoned amusement park,  and showed her the dark corners that seemed sure to hide their own primal histories.

We talked of skin and blood.  We talked of life.
To travel is bond quickly with new people.  And to bond is to share stories.  And to share stories is to be deeply, reflectively alive.  I still don’t know why Bali, but now I know, this is why I travel.

(This story continues)

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Afraid of Being Ripped Off? You Should Be.

Sanur, Bali

Soundtrack for an afternoon stroll:

“Yes, madame, where you going?”

“Hallo… yes? Come looking my shop? Special price, only you.”

“Taxi, ma’am, taxi? TAXI? Where you going? Want taxi? TAXI? TAAXI!!??… You clearly can’t focus on anything else with me doing this, so it must be working and I will not stop hollering at you until you drop whatever you’d planned and get in my car just to make me stop yelling!” (Okay, I added that last part.  Consider it subtext.) 

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How they think they’ll get a taxi through many of these roads at all is beyond me

Welcome to any tourist town in the “developing world”.  Welcome also, to the wildly inflated bargaining dance.

It’s interesting to me how unaccustomed to the street haggle I’ve become, with just a few years of not leaving the west.  It’s a strange feeling, being seen as a rich foreigner, or, to borrow my Swiss travelling companion’s term, a “walking ATM”.

It’s also incredibly humbling to pause for a moment and realize that the perception is rightly so, when in many of these places, locals are providing for families on just a few dollars a day.  The scrambles for attention and exorbitant price quotes aren’t intended to be rude or abusive.  You’ve simply entered a different culture, where you’re responsible for your own boundaries, and where even locals go into each transaction expecting a good nature’d price jostle.

I didn’t make it into town until about 4pm today.  And when I did, I noticed I was feeling a little reserved.  I was working on my computer all day, and feeling rather stuck in my head.  I am also keenly aware of my budget on this trip, and found myself shying away from any potentially costly social wrestling matches.

Sundays in Sanur are a bit  mad.
Sundays in Sanur are a bit mad.

I didn’t come to Bali just to torture myself with the world within my skull, though. Little by little, I tip- toed into engagement.

Selamat Sore, Ibu!” (Good afternoon ma’am), I’d call to the beautifully leathery skinned grandmas, who manned their stalls with visible years of laughter and tears etched into their faces.

Tidak sekarang, terima kasih!” (Not now, thank you), I’d smile and reply to the endless offers for clothes, food, massages, taxi rides, trinkets.

And finally, when a beaming 5 foot woman who soon introduced herself as Lulu asked me to follow her into her shop, I agreed.

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Lulu was a firecracker.  An endless stream of rapid fire questions, comments, and laughter, in a mix of Indonesian and English that somehow aligned quite well with my toddler-level local language proficiency.

Saya menulis. Saya tidak mau lupa.”  (I’m writing this, I don’t want to forget) I said, taking out my notebook to add the word lucu (funny). Lulu’s face was all smiles, as she became both shopkeeper, and guru bahasa Indonesia.

We spent the rest of the afternoon talking, laughing, teaching, learning, and I filled pages of my notebook with useful words for colors, textures, common phrases.  I didn’t really love any of Lulu’s clothes, but I did want to buy just a little something in thanks for her time and teaching, and we’d become so cordial by this point, that I simply told her so.

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Clothes and clothes and clothes and clothes

Lulu dove deeper into the stacks of merchandise, and together we hunted, determined to find something I’d love (and not regret having to carry aroud in my backpack for the next 3 months).  Next thing I know, Lulu’s magical selective hearing had kicked in, and “just one small thing” became “okay, so you want these four dresses and this cardigan?”.  

In the past, I’d’ve probably become frustrated and panicked that I’d never get out of this shop without being tricked into a whole new wardrobe.  Today I just laughed, and Lulu laughed too.

Eventually, the magic of Bali surfaced a dress that I did absolutely love. And since you don’t ask for price until you actually want to buy something in bargaining economies, now that climactic dance would begin.

 

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Isn’t she lovely?

We haggled. I scoffed. She told fibs that were quickly revealed. We each pleaded.  We put on our theater masks and performed with great style.  For the first time in my years of travel, the tourist-trap haggle took on a deep sweetness of shared humanity.  I realized I wasn’t just buying a dress.  I was buying language lessons, cultural immersion, the contagious effervescence of this little Balinese woman.  I was buying the connection with what matters, that I embarked on this whole journey to find.  For $6, it was the deal of the century.

As I waved goodbye to Lulu and her husband and they sent me off with the warmth of new family, I realized I was right to be afraid of being ripped off.  Not by the shopkeepers, but by my own fears.  My resistance to dive in had almost robbed me of a profound life experience.  My hesitation had tried to steal from me the magic of Bali.

A touch of Bali
A touch of Bali

“Madame, come! Look! You want!” As long as I choose to travel, those calls will be there.  Often enough, my own isolating worry will likely show up as well.  Now, thanks to Lulu yang lucu (Lulu the funny one), I know which one is actually a threat.

Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You: Book Review

Unfortunately titled? Perhaps.

Useful tools? Absolutely.

A personal training client of mine handed me her copy of Marc Schoen’s Your Survival Instinct is Killing You, one day after another of our great hikes shared lamenting the anxieties of modern life, and my near-daily mini-meltdowns about my impending international move.  Fortunately for my ability to willingly read the book, she disclaimed the triggering title, even as she told me about it.  I agreed to set aside the alarm bells going off in my head at merely seeing the cover, and give it a glance through.

I got a ton out of this book, and am really glad I was able to get over any initial off-put-ness I had around it.  I’m not someone who particularly appreciates unsolicited advice, so I found it interesting that I was able to  receive a book about escaping the crazy, and not be wildly offended.  Good first sign!  No doubt it made all the difference that it came from someone who’s known me and my many flaws for years, and still loves and appreciates me each time we see each other.  Pro tip: be sure to reflect on the nature of your relationship with anyone you’re considering recommending this book to, before you give it to them.

Cohen asserts that we all have an individual discomfort threshold, beyond which the limbic brain thinks our survival is in danger, and triggers all sorts of nasty reactions and often self-destructive behaviors, in a desperate attempt to get the threat to stop.  

Discomfort beyond your personal threshold => internal chaos

Now that’s part of brain wiring, and has apparently always been the case.  What’s different for us in modern life, according to Cohen, is that we’ve unknowingly lowered that threshold, and caused ourselves to be in “fight or flight” panic, way way too much of the time.  

We’ve done this by cultivating two states in modern society

  1. We’re always agitated.
  2. We’re too comfortable.

First, our frenetic, short-attention, constant stimulation cultural lifestyle puts us in a state of constant “agitance”, which elevates the intensity with which we experience even minor discomforts.  Can we say road rage?  In true modern millennium style, Cohen even includes a DIY quiz you can take, to check in on your own current agitance levels.  Of course, overachiever that I am, mine were at stellar heights.

winning

 

Secondly, we’re constantly sold the idea of the quick-fix, and the expectation of perfection. We pop pills at the first sign of  trouble, we keep our thermostats set to one unchanging temperature, and we’re trained to think that if we consume enough, we can buy happiness by making life go all our way.  Unfortunately, reality doesn’t line up, and our stressed-out hormone systems pay the price.

We have so many problems with anxieties, addictions, and, Cohen makes the case, psychosomatic physical diseases, that arise from this survival instinct firing out of our control, way too much of the time. The equation might look like this:

Agitance  + Unaccustomed Discomfort = eventual survival instinct mayhem.

Cohen spends a good deal of his book laying out that premise, and presenting enough neurological evidence for his claims to make any amateur brain geek like myself quite happy.  However, he had me on board with the first case study, and spending half the book continuing to lay out his argument was counter-productively contributing to my state of agitance, while reading.  Maybe he meant to do that?  A little Meta demonstration of his point at play?  

In any case, after my initial fascination wore off, I tolerated the continued first half of the book, asking as I read “okay okay, but what do I do about it?”.

Fortunately, the second half offered a big ol’ bucket of tools to address this two part problem.

First Cohen presents a bunch of ways we can reduce our agitance.  I do recommend checking out his full description of practices in the book, as many of them you’ve likely seen recommended elsewhere, but I think the context he presents of how they work neurochemically makes them additionally compelling.  Here’s a few highlights that stuck with me.

  • Meditation
  • Breathing Techniques
  • Getting some exercise (even just a few minutes to calm your nerves)
  • Taking time away from screens and electronic communication
  • Slowing down and paying attention to the present moment
  • Practicing better sleep hygiene

 

Second, Cohen lays out ways we get ourselves more accustomed to discomfort.  His practices are set up to actually re-wire the brain, so we give the rational cerebellum a chance to give the flighty limbic system a little calm reassurance, before it leaps to hit the panic button.  Again, it’s really worth reading his full instructions, but the super-generalized overview of how this process works is:

  1. Experience some relatively minor discomfort (eg: delaying gratification –  A compulsive eater might let herself feel a few moments of  real hunger before indulging the instinct to eat. Cohen lays out quite a few other tolerable discomfort examples in the book)
  2. Use breathing techniques for a bit of immediate relaxation – priming the brain to respond to our new conditioning
  3. Cultivate some safe, empowering state (Cohen runs through a whole bunch of them including noticing pleasant physical sensations, consciously inciting gratitude or love, or imagining one’s self as a warrior going into battle.
  4. Bring your attention back to the discomfort, and practice physically feeling the discomfort and the positive feelings at the same time. Repeat.

 

In this way, Cohen asserts, we’re re-wiring the brain, to link discomfort with safety and pleasant feelings, instead of having it linked to panic, as we’re set to default, from the caveman days.  Cohen explains that conditioning ourselves to welcome this discomfort is key to achieving the potential available to us today:

“Seeking and settling for comfort and familiarity now actually leads to rigidity and a constriction of our brain resources… Although our ancient wiring strives for familiarity and comfort because it allowed us to survive in the past, today it actually impedes our ability to function.”  

It’s not a one-time quick fix, but rather a reconditioning process, that happens with practice and over time.  Of course with my background in fitness training, my brain easily latches onto the idea of it functioning like an exercise program, getting our resilience stronger and stronger each time we safely push it toward its limits. Reaching for outside distraction (like TV and cell phone games), or chemical medication (like alcohol, or as in my case, food), actually weakens our resilience “muscles”, by reinforcing the brain synapses that say we can’t handle it on our own, and need that outside solution.  We have to repeatedly experience tolerable discomfort, and find calm and safety from within. That strengthens our coping and comfort “muscles”.  

 

It’s been a couple intense weeks for me since reading this book.  I packed up my life and prepared to move overseas for a while.  I said goodbye to people I love, whom there’s some small but real chance I may never see again.  I let go of control of key parts of my business and have had to trust others to care for my “baby” that I’ve devoted most of my recent life to building.  

Departure day . A heck of a lot of very scary and stressful work went into this.
Departure day . A heck of a lot of very scary and stressful work went into this.

I’ve had a lot of opportunity to practice using my life’s discomfort for my growth and mental health.  I’ve taken time to breathe and feel safe, while feeling anxious.  To breathe, and feel love, while feeling fear.  To breathe and feel powerful, while feeling helpless.  And I feel a difference.  There is definite growth in my capacity to be peaceful in an unpredictable world.  There is a definite decline in my sense of dependence on sugary snacks to ‘get me through” challenging times.  There is a distinct growing trust, in myself, and in the innate possibility for good in the universe.  

I won’t promise that reading this book will change your life.  I can’t say, nor do I think the author would say, that reading actually changed much.  But being willing to try the exercises has changed something.  Putting in the work has made a shift. Saying yes to visiting that neurological gym inside  just might shift your need to visit the fridge, or the medicine cabinet, or the doctor.

Certainly an experiment worth trying, in my opinion.

Available where ever you like books, or via Amazon.
Available where ever you like books, or via Amazon.

What Hong Kong Taught me about Saying “No”

There’s a lot of advice out there, encouraging us to learn to say “no”.  We live in an age and culture where attempting to be superhuman is quite normal, and where endless possibilities present endless opportunity for FOMO.  Anxiety and overwhelm run rampant, and It makes sense that saying “yes” to too much would be seen as the culprit for these ills.

I’m just not comfortable with a life philosophy that worships the invocation of “no” though.  Many of my life’s greatest adventures, gifts, and learnings have come from saying “yes” to an unforeseen opportunity that could’ve easily been a “no”, and that maybe I even felt originally inclined to say “no” to.  I simply don’t want to be the kind of person who says “no” to life.

Image source: Memegenerator.net
Image source: Memegenerator.net, from Hyperbole and a Half.

All those combined to make me quite okay with the idea of finding a little corner of the airport to call my own, setting up camp, getting a good night’s sleep, maybe doing some writing, and getting some nice morning meditation and exercise before my next flight. I was fine with this.  Okay, maybe a little uncertain about what I’d do with the evening waking hours, and just a bit afraid of falling into a horrible mood after such great feelings to start my trip, but for the most part, totally okay.

A conversation with my seat-mate mid flight shifted my perspective a bit though.  He’d done extensive Asia travelling, informed me that I didn’t actually need a Visa, directed me to which neighborhoods would have nightlife that I could enjoy, and highly recommended getting out instead of staying sequestered at the airport.  Suddenly my choice to say “yes” to the airport started feeling like a “no” to life. I started feeling like I was “the kind of person who say’s no to life”.  That’s not something I ever want to feel.

If you don't know Hyperbole and a Half, you should! http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.co.id/2010/06/this-is-why-ill-never-be-adult.html
http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.co.id/2010/06/this-is-why-ill-never-be-adult.html

 

Once landed, it was easy to use airport wifi to explore the possibility of a mini downtown adventure.  I had plenty of energy. The airport express train into the city fit my budget. I could go, and still get back with more than enough time to sleep and do all my self-care I’d wanted to at the airport.  So I said yes.

The bustle of Lan Kwai Fong
The bustle of Lan Kwai Fong

 I marveled at the beauty of skyscrapers swathed in moonlit fog, from the IFC mall roof garden.  I wandered through the rambunctious pub-lined sidewalks of Lan Kwai Fong, and explored the elevated pedestrian walk over SoHo.  I ate the dinner I’d packed, avoided ever having to get any HK Dollars, and made sure to catch the train back before night service ended, to ensure I wouldn’t have to wait until early morning to get back to the airport.

 

Nighttime in Hong Kong: A city bathing in clouds
Nighttime in Hong Kong: A city bathing in clouds

 

Sure, there were other neighborhoods to explore… sure, I could’ve taken out cash at an ATM, to ride the subway to the Temple night market.  Sure, I could’ve wandered through the fabled streets lined with neon in Kowloon… yes, I could’ve really made a night of it and caught the airport train back when service began again around 6am.  But I didn’t want to. I wanted my “me-time” more.  So passing on those didn’t feel like “no’s”, they felt like “yes’s”.  

 

I said yes to sleep, yes to my meditation, yes to my workout, yes to plenty of time and peace through airport check-in and security screening.  I was focused on what I actually wanted, and so it didn’t feel like I was giving up anything.

Sleepy Airport Cozies
Sleepy Airport Cozies

 

Every choice we make in life has an opportunity cost.  There is always something else we could do with that time, energy, or money.  By focusing on saying “no”, we’re turning down the cost of that opportunity, but we’re still keeping our attention focused on that cost.  If I’d said “no” to a trip into town, I’d’ve likely stewed in further indecision and possible regret, because there wasn’t something that I valued more that I would’ve been saying “yes” to.  When I did decide to say “no” to further adventures, it wasn’t for the “no”, it was for the “yes” of prioritizing the airport experience that mattered to me.  

The epitome of luxury
The epitome of luxury

I’m not suggesting we return to being slaves to saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes our way.  I’ve spent years attempting to “do all the things”, and I can tell you, it can have some pretty ugly downsides. (Ask the months I lost to adrenal fatigue, if you want to know more about that).

What I am suggesting is that in evaluating opportunity, we don’t have to look at it as saying “yes” (which feels positive and enlivening), or “no” (which by definition feels negative).  Instead realize there are different paths with either option, and our choice is simply which path we would rather enthusiastically say “yes” to.  Then once the choice is made, our attention will naturally be where we are, instead of wandering back to regret that thing we said “no” to.

Just a little morning airport workout

Hong Kong taught me to say “yes” at every opportunity.  Not necessarily “yes” TO every opportunity, but “yes” to my values, my needs, my self.  Whether that comes out of my mouth as a “yes” or a “no” to the particular thing being offered, inside my reality will always be “yes”, to my own path.