Setting goals and reaching them. Having ambitions. Going for the finish line. That’s how it is supposed to be done, right? It is so ingrained in most of us that we take it for granted. But does it make us happy?
As a recovering perfectionist I would like to provide a defence for “it depends”. I’m not saying that dreams, ambitions and goals are a no-no. I wouldn’t have moved onto a sailboat if I didn’t first dream about it. I wouldn’t have created this blog if I had no ambition to reach people. Creating anything at all would be exceedingly difficult without the ability to dream it up first. Flow psychology provides a clear correlation between goals, challenges, feedback and the enjoyable state of being in flow or “in the zone”. But there are times when the scale tips way over on the other side, and ambition becomes toxic.
When you feel guilty or pressured, when ambitions become more important than compassion or when reaching the goal makes you lose sight of what goes on right here and now – that’s when I’d suggest picking up the scissors and cutting it the f… out. That’s when I’d challenge you to take up the noble art of being idle, really savouring the moments when you do nothing at all. It’s easier said than done, dealing with the “but I really should…”-situations. When do we need to keep going and when do we need to stop and smell the flowers? Perseverance is crucial when we’re going through the bumpy parts of a ride that will take us somewhere we really want to go. But sometimes it’s just plain nonsense to suffer or struggle needlessly. Life happens here and now, in the process, while we are on the way. If we forget to enjoy the ride, we miss life itself. And all those goals and ambitions are really just tiny hilltops where we might get a better view of where we are, anyway.
Think big to think small. Space is vast, and we humans are really not all that significant by ourselves. There is a grace in insignificance. We are like the grains of sand that make up a beach. Whether or not we, as individuals, have reached every goal by the time we get washed back out to sea, is of no matter. None whatsoever. I don’t find that demoralising, I find it liberating.
I hope this attitude can provide an antidote to the yoke of perfection a lot of us carry. I used to be very driven myself. And I still am, just with a tiny, yet monumental difference to my approach. I have tons of ideas and projects and things I want to do! The way to balance it out, for me, is by tapping into what’s really important – a.k.a. the ride – and not getting too hung up on the outcome. If I had decided that the most important goal with my sailing adventure this summer was to get all the way to Lofoten (and especially if I had assigned a specific time frame), I would have missed out on so much! I would have sailed past places I wanted to explore and potentially gone out in weather conditions that could have been fatal. I would have run the engine a lot more, instead of learning how to sail properly. And I wouldn’t have ended up finding a wonderful winter home for SY Pyxie by pure serendipity.
I did have many, small goals on the way, giving me many small victories. Getting out of the Oslo Fjord was a victory in and of itself … And I had a longing for north. I longed to really feel north. So it was with joy and elation I crossed an invisible line, only seen on maps and somewhere inside, as I sailed into the county of Nordland on a clear, crisp September afternoon. I could smell autumn in the air. I could smell north.
With autumn in the north come storms. I felt a tingle down my spine as the air grew colder and I could see low pressure areas homing in on my weather map. I could feel a change coming. Brønnøysund was a necessary stop for bureaucratic reasons; I had to renew my passport in time for the Nepal trip. And while I was moored at the guest harbour, an old salt stopped by to have a look at Pyxie and we got chatting. We talked about boats and engines and he showed a keen interest in my electrical inboard. He told me about someone in the process of installing one, a boat builder called Sigurd Siem. The name had a familiar ring, and I recalled that I had just read about him in a guide book for sailing spots along the coast. His boatyard was on the list of recommended places to leave a boat over winter.
I phoned him as the rain was starting to drum on deck, and he promptly came to pick me up so I wouldn’t have to get soaked. Karma points right there. He showed me around the boatyard, where the sailboats were positioned in accordance to dominant wind directions and secured to 700kg cement blocks. No sailboats blowing in the wind if Sigurd could help it, I could tell. In the main building was a wooden schooner under construction, and there were various workshops where I could use the space and tools for repairs and upgrades come spring. Heaven! Oh, not to forget a shower, a washer and dryer, a kitchen, a sleeping loft and plenty of storage space. Way more facilities than me and Pyxie have had or even dared to dream of so far. So, yes, after a quick chat with sailing kitty First Mate Poesi I decided to make it Pyxie’s winter haven. Two days later she was on dry land, and the first real storm of the autumn hit. I was endlessly grateful for my decision to stop and go no further. And right there, as I had closed a chapter, I made the most amazing discovery. My “boat neighbour” was an 85 year old (or, rather, young) salty dog aptly nicknamed SjøBjørn. He had wanted to buy Pyxie back in the eighties, and even had the original advertisement for the Centurion 32. We spent several nights sharing sailing stories and cups of tea. I did most of the listening, mind, being short of a few decades at sea. He had visited over 150 harbours in just the northern part of Norway, where I had barely entered.
The best is yet to come. Obviously. Helgeland and the coastline north to Lofoten is considered the best cruising grounds in Norway by aficionados. Why miss all that by hurrying past in a gale? If I had a rigid finish line, I would have had to. But for me the end of the blue road is nowhere near. Right now I’m having an intermezzo enjoying other adventures in Nepal and on Bear Island. Then it’s me, Poesi and Pyxie again – and the horizon. Where we’ll sail next is an open question. Choosing to be a vagabond is to voyage with no set destination in sight.
Because the road goes ever on and on, and always leads us home.
I am a nomad, a sea gypsy on a sailboat, without a proper address. I’ve spent time in the strangest of places, like a country that doesn’t exist, and a desolate island in the Arctic. But does it always have to be that drastic?
To me following my wanderlust means living a life of deliberate and constant exploration. Both in travelling and, even more importantly, in exploring what lies within. It implies going inside with the same curiosity and joy as I bring with me on the road. The two complement each other, but I don’t think it is for everyone to travel far and wide. It’s not for everyone to sail across the sea or reach the highest summits. Paradoxically enough, I love travelling to faraway places, but I want to share how wanderlust can thrive through embarking on the tiniest of expeditions too. The great adventurer Alastair Humphreys call them microadventures. Just like with the big journeys, it’s all about getting out of the comfort zone and going somewhere completely new.
Some people wonder what travellers are fleeing from. Some people think they are are cowards, trying to escape themselves. My response and personal experience is that travel brings you face to face with yourself in ways you couldn’t even imagine. It brings out things you might feel a lot more comfortable not facing by going through the motions of a regular life, but it also makes you get to know wonderful sides of yourself you might never discover unless you actually step out of the comfort zone and into uncertainty.
One of the best things I’ve ever done in that respect is to take up surfing – in my mid thirties, no less. Because when you’ve reached thirty you don’t have to worry about being a natural talent and excelling immediately at everything you try. Here’s a secret tip: You don’t actually have to worry about that ever. Joy of living isn’t measured in achievements. Sure, mastering something feels great. That’s not what I’m saying, either. The art lies in exploring and enjoying the process and the practice, not just some imagined end result. The fear of failure is the main culprit that keeps us from living vibrant, full lives. What if you just decided to give zero fucks about what other people think, and go for what you wanted to do anyway? That’s what I did with surfing. I’m still super clumsy and falling off the board all the time and I get super exhausted and beaten up by the waves. These moments are amazing – because they are humbling and allow me to watch the stirrings of the ego while calibrating the balance between ease and effort.
I am passionate about sharing my adventures, both big and tiny, and I’m going sailing along the coast of Norway this summer. I’ll stop on some excellent surf spots, and teach yoga there too … If you want to get a taste of wanderlust and of meeting yourself all over, I’d love it if you joined me. Or join in for the big adventure this autumn, the Support Nepal Yoga Trek! Just drop me a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
yoginis feel sad too
Sometimes it’s just a tender ache, sometimes heart wrenching, face full of snot, ugly-crying sadness. Because, you know, life. The idea that yoga puts rose coloured glasses on everything is a myth to be debunked here and now. That’s not to say that yoga doesn’t make you feel good or isn’t helpful when life throws a shitstorm in your face. It is in fact immensely helpful. But not by zapping your emotions so that you will never feel pain, grief or hurt ever again. Let me explain.
There are times when my heart swells with joy and love and it spills over into social media. Then again there are times when a voice inside of me rebels against the shiny, happy, “oh, I’m so grateful and blessed” posts by myself and others that dominate my instagram feed. Because life has a lot in store, and it sure isn’t all blessed. Sometimes really horrible things happen, so horrible I’m not going to pull some BS about being grateful for the valuable life lessons they offer. Here’s the deal: Every moment is a valuable life lesson anyway. You don’t have to pretend the things that hurt don’t hurt and mask them behind a perceived obligation to be grateful for the lesson. Sometimes the lesson sucks. You’ll grow from it, sure. But you don’t have to pretend you enjoy it.
welcome to sad central
My mother is severely ill and I just lost two friends, one of them to suicide, the other to a sudden heart attack. I’m not going to smile and pretend a fibre of my being is grateful for this, no matter how much I will learn and expand and grow down the road. Because right now I’m just really terribly sad.
Yoga teaches us to be with what is, observing what is, without judgement. That means being with the feeling that arises as a response to our circumstances. It doesn’t mean you can’t allow yourself to think that something sucks. It just means observing that thought and the emotions surrounding it without judgement. It means accepting that feeling of sadness or anger or grief or whatever. Actually feeling the feelings as they arise is the key to emotional freedom. Taking time to notice what happens in the body is the deepest honesty you can give yourself. You can play the tape saying “oh, I’m fine” in your head until you’re blue in the face. The lump in your stomach, the shortness of breath, the pain in your chest – those are the real feelings. And they don’t need to be translated into words. They just need to be noticed and acknowledged. They’re there. Let them be there. Become aquainted with them. This is the practice.
be with it
It can be tempting to stop tuning into an honest awareness when things get rough. Under the pretext of having to care for others or having more important things to deal with, we tune out to avoid feeling the stuff that really hurts. But in moments of grief, I’d suggest that mindful awareness is essential, more than ever. It’s not about digging a hole in the ground and staying there, but about taking a few minutes to just step out of the loop to observe your own emotions with compassion. Sometimes even less than a few minutes, because it hurts so much you have to leave it. Sometimes you do have to let yourself be distracted for a while, to give yourself a bit of distance. But there is a fine balance. If the distractions take the place of true, raw emotion, we lose touch with who we are. We become fragmented. The opposite of yoga, really.
the blaming game
When my friend commited suicide my immediate response was not very useful, to say the least. I started thinking about what I could have done. I blamed myself for not knowing how she had been the last couple of years. I jumped straight into the blaming game, in truth a very egocentric game where there is no way of winning. If you play along, guilt wins every time. Guilt is probably my primal demon. Others have theirs. There was a time when guilt used to haunt me no matter where I turned. That was before I found yoga. Now guilt is more like an old aquaintance that I’ve realised drains my energy and thus choose not to hang out with anymore. Practicing yoga, both in movement and in stillness, is what brought that change about. Because it taught me mindful observation. Mindful observation and the acceptance of things as they are. “… if only” isn’t going to bring my friend back to life or cure my Mother. It is the way it is. I can choose to stay miserable and feel guilty for all the things I cannot change or I can move into a space of acceptance. For anyone struggling I do suggest the latter path. It’s a rough one, without the cushioning of wishful thinking or the pool of misery to wallow over in. But it is the one that brings strength, and down the road, happiness.
Get it out
Go find the ocean. Swear. Yell. Cry. Sing your heart out.
No ocean? Find a forest or a mountain or even just a piece of paper.
Take a breath. Deep breathing is a bit like coughing up hairballs of pent-up emotion.
Get it out. That’s what I’m doing now, I guess.
Disclaimer. For real:
Please note that this is just a reflection on dealing with the shitstorm of life when you’re in a place where you can actually do so. There are times when things get too heavy. If you are suffering from depression, eating disorders, self-harming, any addictions or have suicidal thoughts, please seek professional help.
What does it mean, this fancypants word that yogis throw out here and there?
On the one hand it is a common greeting in many parts of Asia. On the other, it has a specific significance. In the ashram in Nepal we had a poster on the wall that said something like the divine in me recognises and bows to the divine in you. The gesture of the hands in front of the heart and a bow is an acknowledgment of the soul in one by the soul in another. In Sanskrit the word is namah + te = namaste, which means “I bow to you”.
It’s a message of recognition, respect and equality. A pretty nice way of saying hello if you ask me.