Tag Archives: Buddhism

Letting go of a place

I am in between. No, really, I am in between two places – Oslo and Stavanger – and I feel uneasy. 

Yesterday we sold our apartment. That last string tying us to Oslo has been – poof! – cut, and I feel it. When we bought the house in Stavanger, it was a big deal because it meant the move was happening. But we still had our real house – our place in Oslo – our beautiful, high ceilinged, central, old apartment in Oslo. Now we don’t. Someone else owns it now (or they will soon enough).

It makes me want to cry.

There, I am crying.

At the same time as all of this is happening, I am reading more about Buddhism. I am reading a fantastic book by Stephen Batchelor called Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, which talks about how he went from becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk at age 21 to renouncing his vows ten years later and finding a way to live from Buddhist principles without all the religion (rebirth and karma and prayers and chanting and stuff). So in a word, it is perfect for me. He is talking about how the Buddha created the Four Noble Truths not for monks, but for lay people – real people out engaging in the world – working and living in it, not just thinking about it. What is relevant about that now? Well, Batchelor talks about the second Truth, which is letting go of craving. He writes that we cannot remain constantly unchanged, whether that means being happy or suffering, for the duration of our life. When we really understand this for ourselves, craving – for one place, for things, for fame, for money, for food, and even for stability for example – falls away and we can more easily live in the moment. (Plus a lot more, but this post isn’t a summary of Batchelor´s book.)

So I feel like my craving for stability and friendships and the happiness I have had in Oslo isn’t bad, but it also isn’t based on reality. My great group of friends there started falling away mere months after I found them. I found more, and others fell away. This is life in general, but especially life as an expat whose friends consist of 99% other expats. After I am gone, others will in turn begin to leave. It is a good metaphor for this idea of a fleeting, contingent world that the Buddha taught about. And it helps pull me out of my mopey funk at “being pulled away from my friends” and “starting off into the unknown”. The latter happens every day, no matter where I am in the world.

There are some concrete things that make me feel better. First of all, the friends I have who are not moving anytime soon will only be a 50-minute plane ride away. I technically can still be a part of the book club I am in in Oslo, although I am not sure I am so excited about that anymore since the turnover has been so high. My sister in law lives in Oslo with her boyfriend and they have a guest room, so we can always crash there, although it would be wisest to get a hotel if we start doing that often – from experience I can say that couch surfing is not a good way to keep familial relationships strong in my family.

Finally, there is a lot to be excited about in Stavanger. We have access to our in-laws for that family feeling, for babysitting, and for advice/connections. We have access to the winter cabin and a fishing place that are too far from Oslo to use. There is a great organic farm here with two outlets for buying all our crazy ingredients, including our lots of organic fruit and veg, our favorite tofu, alternative grains, alternative baking supplies, organic snacks and organic meat, eggs, and cheese. It is a great place to meet people, too. People put up signs there about activities and there is even one from a women who is possibly even more alternative than I am, with her phone and email (although I tried to text her and got no response – meh!). There is a Friday playgroup not far from our temporary apartment. There is a new organic bakery and café within a short drive or long walk from our temporary place.

I guess I am actually looking forward to exploring and finding things here. What I will miss is running into my friends, or getting a text from someone I feel really knows me, saying, “wanna grab coffee?” or even asking how I am. That is the part that makes my heart hurt the most.

But there is hope. Yesterday, I decided to get out of the house a little bit, so I went to a shopping center to find some hand weights and check out a sale at a baby store, and I ran into the one person I actually personally know in Stavanger, with her baby, at the baby store! On the one hand that means: shit, what a freaking small town. I get a text from this store that there is a sale, and so does she, and we both are there at the same time. And my MIL said she saw her earlier yesterday too! What the… On the other hand, that means maybe it isn’t so scary. Maybe it won’t be too hard to find people here.

Lastly, I have been fantasizing about meeting my people – like those people, male, female, don’t care, whom I really click with. People who get me. People who question. People who think deeply. People who make me a better and more thoughtful person.

You know what, though? That is hard to find ANYWHERE. Childhood friends drift apart, college friends move away and get different jobs and do different things, work friends disperse, get promoted, and find new jobs, and people are all basically over the place. People are changing all the time. I have moved so much in my life and changed so much in my life that it is a wonder I have any friends left from the earlier stages of my life, sometimes. (Actually I only have a couple, but let´s not dwell on that!) I try not to label, but my current description of expat, stay at home mom, super-crunchy, extended-breastfeeding, co-sleeping, non-deodorant wearing, non-shampoo using, part-time vegan, business class loving, fancy car driving American makes me wary of finding people who aren´t put off by some or all of these things that make up my current persona. They aren´t me, though, and as reassuring as it is to find people who have similar interests to me, I don´t need to put myself out there as THAT type of person. I just have to be “me” as I feel each day and hope that people connect with that person. Equally important, I have to not judge people by their current actions – just as I try not to judge my friends and community and enemies and basically everyone, where ever they are in the world. If they parent differently and live differently, that doesn’t mean we don’t have some things in common.

So another part of letting go of Oslo is letting go of an idea that I am one certain kind of person and I only will get along with one specific other type of person, and that my eternal happiness depends on finding that type of person, in a couple of specimens, in Stavanger, within a few months, thankyouverymuch. That just isn’t reality.

I have to be open to the city and all its people and places and spaces.

Which leads me to close this post by mentioning another Buddhist aphorism. We live only in the present, but that doesn’t completely diminish the fact that the past set the foundation for it and the present sets the foundation for the future. The past and the future are important, in other words, but there isn´t anything we can do about them today!

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What did I learn from the world?

My friend asked me this the other day.

“You have to have learned something important from being away. You can’t just be away for half a year and not learned anything.”

Of course! I believe people are always learning something, everyday, but I know that isn’t what she meant.

I have been ruminating about this for a while. Were we just sun seekers, or did we have revelations that made us better people? Did we come back having gained something intangible? Were we wiser?

To answer that, I am going to tell an anecdote about a similar experience I had. When I was 17/18, I did a month long Outward Bound trip backpacking and rafting through Colorado and Utah. I asked my parents to support this trip because I wanted to find myself before I went to college. When you start out hoping to change your life, it does put a bit of pressure on you, but the trip did not disappoint. What I learned from that trip was that I could start over – do something I never had done before, stretch myself, challenge myself to the point of physical and mental exhaustion, and survive AND enjoy it.

But what about that trip proved that to me? Was it hiking up a bluff when I was totally exhausted in hot weather, but watching that my legs managed just fine? Was it cooking cornbread in a lukewarm pan and eating the half raw dough, and laughing about it? Was it leading the group by compass and being so scared we were going to get horribly lost? Or was it just something in the detail of each day, being outside, doing something different, being away, getting your head out of the minutae of normal life for long enough to make a real change? I think it was the latter, actually. And I think it was the same for this trip.

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12 Apostles rock formations along the Great Ocean Road in Australia

We saw so many cool things; it is hard to even relate to them. We saw Buddhist temples that have been around for centuries. We saw rock formations that were jaw dropping in their raw, physical beauty. We stood and looked at the view from one of the most beautiful vineyards in the world. We stood at the edge of an active volcano and watched it´s smoke drift out over the open ocean. Each one of these moments would have been enough to ruminate over for a year, but we packed them together like sardines in coach class. There was not a lot of time to process. 

But thinking back, those moments are stored in some deep place inside me now, to remember when I need to think about things bigger than the four outer walls of my apartment and the 1km radius in which most of my life takes place. And what´s more, it isn’t only those big moments. It is all the details of all the places we visited. The mundane.

  • The lion´s head on the manhole covers in Australia.
  • The fine mist in the morning in New Zealand.
  • That first view of the South Island from the ferry.
  • The chocolate aisle in Australian grocery stores and that amazing shortbread cookie in the supermarket in Cromwell.
  • The airbnb hosts in Kona and their friendly dog.
  • The loads of new people we met.
  • Driving on the wrong side of the road.
  • The wave of heat when leaving our hotel in Singapore.

Things that are different about waking up in a place with which you aren’t familiar.

What do they do to you? Do they change you? 

Yes and no.

Yes, because they remind you that you are one of billions of people living in one of millions of habitats. Because you realize how insignificant you are. And because of course – you experience things and people and sounds and smells and tastes that you haven’t experienced before. But that just widens your horizons. It doesn’t change you.

No, because you assimilate these new experiences into the core of you. I´ve been reading the Bhagavad Gita and to me it seems like this is the Atma – the real person you are, in my interpretation kind of like your soul. To put it another way, you don’t need to travel thousands of miles to find yourself, although sometimes it cant hurt to shake up your surroundings a little bit so you can get out of stale states of mind. Your self, your “real you” is there inside of you waiting for you to notice it.

Unfortunately, I am kind of stuck on figuring out how this applies to me. I think I need a little more distance. I have, however, seen an example of what I think I mean with my daughter.

Kiddo´s real self, as far as I can tell, was only made more apparent by the trip. The person I think she is – animal loving, music loving, mostly patient, very flexible, night owl/teenage sleeping, verbal, loving, goofy, curious – was not altered by this trip. She didn’t take in all these new stimuli and become some Australian ranger. She just added koalas and emus and kangaroos to her collection of favorite animals. She realized how much birds are exciting when they are all kinds of different colors. She realized she liked Hawaiian music as well as Psy. (Haha!) This kind of thing. No major changes. I think the only thing that we could only do on the trip, other than of course stay out all day in the sun and sand and water, was eat real Japanese food. Kiddo loves Japanese noodles. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that she loves Japanese food, because the list of things she didn’t eat was longer than the list of foods she scarfed down, but she did love the flavors. 

Japan was the first time I have watched her eat soup broth. Usually she picks out the big bits, like, I used to cook her veggies in chicken stock, but she would never drink chicken stock from a spoon. In Japan, she did. It was a very fancy bowl of clear soup, and she loved it. She ate loads of noodles – soba, udon, fried chinese noodles (aka yakisoba) and maybe others. She ate edamame and ikura and loads of rice. But she didn’t touch raw fish, any kind of katsu, anything with Japanese BBQ sauce on it, anything with Japanese pickles touching it, and so forth. So…it isn’t exactly as if traveling to Japan awakened her palate completely.

I think this is kind of an intensely powerful realization as well as a bit of a let down. Did we travel the world for nothing? I don’t really think that at all. In fact, if anything, this just reinforces what I am learning about Zen Buddhism (so maybe that is why I am having this revelation and not the opposite one!) – that the best way to live well is to be in awe of the world, to be rich from what you already have, to desire just enough to care for yourself and your family, and to practice compassion for all. Being in awe of the world can happen looking at a street lamp on your street, or looking at one on the other side of the world. We have many riches around us right now, where ever we are, and while of course there are tons more things to see in other places,  we don’t need them to feel better or different or fulfilled.

So, there you go, a really long post about how you don’t need to travel to have an awakening. : )