Ta-da! If you are reading this on tumblr, then you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. Did I do a magic trick? Nope. Did I do a flip? Mosey over to this link and you will be enlightened. Now that you’re here…reading the same post… Over the past couple of months, I’ve been working on a massive overhaul of the good ole blog. Between teaching kids colors and various fruits in English and correcting horrible, glaring errors in textbooks – “May I play your ball?” – I’ve been slowly preparing what you see here.
Because I can. And tumblr is done-zo. I’m getting new followers everyday, and I love you guys for taking a second to click that button. Comparatively, I’m still a rinky-dink blogger, a drop in the ocean, and still I never thought I’d have this big of an audience. More followers create a problem that tumblr does not address so well: communication. I’m getting a few questions each week ranging from general comments on what I’m doing (which make me blush and keep me writing) to very specific questions regarding visas (thanks to China’s bitchy process).
Sometimes these are in the Disqus comments at the bottom of each post. I usually always reply to those. Often they are in tumblr’s own “reply” thingy. If I reply to those, it creates a separate post and sort of screws up the appearance that I’m going for, which sucks for me and isn’t fair to you guys if I don’t respond simply for that reason. Basically, it’s a headache to have any substantive dialogue with tumblr’s system that was so clearly designed for shorter attention spans. We’re better than that, right?
As I just mentioned, it will be much easier to comment, for me to see your comment, respond and get a nice discussion going. This month is going to be full of the things I dislike about China, so I’m sure I’ll get a lot of flak for that and it will be a great opportunity to put WordPress through its paces. I tried to keep the design as zen as possible to reflect my minimalist values and make it easily navigable now that there’s a few pages. Feel free to look through the archives and subscribe in the sidebar!
Okay, some of you may remember me shooting my mouth off about a future ebook. That’s still coming, even if by this point it sounds like I’m talking out of my ass. This upgrade to Spartan Wanderer 2.0 was quite impromptu and began with me just fucking around with WordPress during a break from lesson planning. I liked what I saw. Everything was put on the back-burner until this was finished.
Moving to WordPress means a new audience and I want to make it easy for them to get caught up with us tumblr veterans. They, too, should be able to see my early, mediocre ramblings. While there is an archive on WordPress, I will be making a downloadable, offline version. New followers will be able to download every post from the beginning in 2011 to the end of 2013 from the Kindle Store.
After the archive is easily digestible for the masses, I will resume going full steam on the ebook. That’s all I’ll say about it until I’m closer to getting it up on the web. I haven’t thrown up a T-shirt design in a while, so more of those will be coming to Skreened soon. As far as material goes…well, hehe…don’t you worry. I’ll be going to Harbin’s famous ice festival soon, and shortly after that, partying in Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year.
This is where I write about longterm travel and the minimalist lifestyle that makes it easier to pursue and enjoy. I write anything from personal travelogues, to articles on interesting cultural stuff, travel advice, rants and reviews for helpful things in my pack. If I get a lot of questions or comments about a particular issue, I’ll write about that. Minimalism is a huge thing here, but I am not part of the establishment that is going to tell you to throw out everything but 100, or 50, or 25 things – with many stipulations excluding cookware and underwear and whatever other mental gymnastics they need to do to sleep at night – in order to be happy.
My only goal is to show as many people as possible how positive a force for good travel can be, and how that lifestyle can be achieved by anyone who wishes to pursue it. Anything beyond that is just gravy. So kick back, open a beer and join the journey. I assure you, it’s still quite young.
I thought you guys might be interested in seeing our complimentary apartment in Daqing, China. The school pays for everything barring ~$50 in utilities every month, and it’s pretty amazing. Later on I’ll give a complete rundown of expenses, what the school covers and how to save more money than you’ve ever saved in your life. The contrast between the stairway and the apartment itself is pretty hilarious and it totally blew us away the first time we saw it.
I have cold, so I’m sorry if my voice sounds weird. If you like this video, please say so on YouTube and I’ll make an effort to have more of a presence there. If not…maybe I’ll make more just to spite you :)
“You only truly own what you can carry at a dead run.”
This quote from an unknown wanderer is something to be embraced as you plan to move to another country for a long while. Of course I can’t fit suitable attire for teaching, winter wear that will help me a avoid loss of limb in -30F winters and all of my gadgets in a small daypack, but I still meditate on this philosophy that is as I prepare for my move to . What do I need, what do I need, what do I need…and what would be nice to have? That’s the order of operations when you pack for a year.
Deciding what to cram in that suitcase and the anxiety of leaving something out can make packing way more stressful than it needs to be. First of all, you really just need to think about what you get on with in your day-to-day life. Those will be the most vital things to throw in. Of course the reason for travel matters just as much. Your results may vary. I’m moving to a very cold corner of China to teach English for a year, so I’ll just quickly document how I’m tackling this challenge for my own situation. Adapt accordingly!
What to Bring
1. Purpose - Why are you traveling? I’m going to be a teacher. So right out of the gate, I know I need some business casual attire. I have about five shirts and two pairs of trousers that are appropriate for work. If I could pack patience, I would. Luckily the school will be providing most of the teaching materials so we won’t need to worry about that. I won’t be working constantly, so I’ve also got about five t-shirts and two pairs of jeans. I’m also traveling to China because, well, it’s what I do! Travel writing is starting to become less of a hobby and more of a second job to me, so my and laptop are the first two things in my bag.
2. Health - China is, er…infamous for having some dodgy products that slip through the cracks of government regulations. I want to have time to vet some of these products before I apply them to my face. Therefore I’m bringing a complete starter set of toiletries that will last me a couple months or so. So there’s my toothbrush and shaver (both rechargeable - environmental win!), deodorant, soap, toothpaste, and basic first aid. China is also known for air so thick with pollution that you can pick some of the larger particulates out of the sky with a pair of chopsticks. I’ve got the ubiquitous M3 masks for the worst days as well as a ton of vitamin D3 and Nyquil if they fail me. Everyone I’ve talked to said that I will get some respiratory ailment within two weeks of being there. Fun.
3. Climate - Heilongjiang Province is the most northern area of China, poking Siberia in the ass above it. It will get COLD. -24ºF in the winter. Suffice it to say, I have packed my warmest clothes and plan on buying an expedition-grade jacket when I get there. I now regret not getting one of these when I was in Iceland. The climate should always be on your mind as you’re packing. Not only will you be uncomfortable if you arrive unprepared, but depending on what you’re doing there, carelessness is dangerous. I can tell you firsthand that pondering the future use of your toes is not very fun.
4. Interests - When you’re packing you should try to include a few things to facilitate your interests and hobbies. Maybe an instrument, some watercolors or underwater basket-weaving supplies. I love to hike, so I’m at least bringing enough gear that would be appropriate for some day trips. I still design things from time to time - mostly t-shirts inspired by my adventures on Footloose Fabrics - so I’ve tossed in color and graphite pencils, sketchbook and my Wacom Bamboo tablet. I also run and do yoga in my free time, which would technically fall under health, but I’m also interested in them and like having somewhat symmetrical paragraphs. So yeah, yoga mat and running shoes.
How to Pack It
1. Compression - If you don’t have one of those bags that allow you to squeeze the air out of all your clothes, then you’re doing it wrong. These are so helpful because air really does waste space in your luggage, unless you’re trying to smuggle a cat in there. I buy them from Eagle Creek and they’re very easy to use. Put the clothes in, close it like a Ziploc bag and roll it up to push the air out of the bottom. It’ll cut the size of a big stack of clothes down by 50% or more. This way your clothes do not have to rule how you pack.
2. Layering - Okay, this is Packing 101. You should be mindful of everything you put in your bag, when you put it in and how you do it. I recommend starting out with one of the more bulky, frustrating shapes you’ll deal with: shoes. Next, put some of your smaller do-dads inside the shoes and build around them until you have an even layer of stuff that reaches the height of your shoes in the bag. Then you have a nice, flat area to stack your clothes, books, etc. on top of. ‘Playing Tetris’ is a big part of layering. Play this in the background for effect.
3. Precautions - You’ll notice in some of the photos that I learned to store liquidy things the hard way. Changes in air pressure and the oh so gentle treatment your luggage receives from the airline can result in a toothpaste bomb going off in your bag. Zip that shit up and sandwich it between your clothes so it doesn’t get smashed. Also, stuff gets stolen from time to time. Keep the more expensive, important things in your carry-on with you. I’d also recommend stuffing an extra change of clothes in there just in case your luggage gets lost (which you should definitely pony up the extra $50 to insure).
Well, not ‘goodbye’ to you guys. But tomorrow I leave the States, spend 29 hours in airport hell, and finally emerge from my cocoon of airline pillows and blankets in China. Less than 48 hours from now, I will be dead to the world in my new apartment in Daqing with my girlfriend - who I haven’t seen in four months - by my side. It’s a strange feeling that combines Christmas morning levels of excitement with a nervous anticipation of experiencing the inevitable culture shock in addition to being completely burnt out.
I also sense that this will definitely be the advent of a new chapter for Spartan Wanderer. So far, I’ve been to some pretty vanilla countries, so to speak. Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and England may be different from the US in several ways…but this is frickin’ China! For a year! Whatever happens, it’s guaranteed blog security. Thanks for joining me for the journey so far, and you can bet your ass that there are going to be some interesting stories on here over the months to come.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: sabbaticals are awesome. If you’ve never taken one, do it now. Well, read this first. We need that extra bit of time free of obligations to pursue our passions, to chase those shimmering ideas that remain as unrealistic mirages on the horizon as long as we are engaged with other priorities for 40 hours a week.
I’m aware of how difficult it is to take a sabbatical in a country that does not value taking time off. America has the least average amount of paid days off in the Western world and is the only country without a government-mandated minimum of paid vacation. Thankfully, some companies are catching on. I, on the other hand, am between jobs. So it’s quite easy.
Managing my humble blog is one of the only responsibilities I’ll have between now and August, when I’ll be moving to China for a year to teach English. That is, unless I decide to find a summer job to make some extra cash(#reluctant to do so). But during July, I’m dropping off the radar. There will be no posts in July, because…
It’s time to be a predictable quasi-minimalist blogger and crank out, er, lovingly craft an ebook. My goal is to write a sort of how-to guide for people who would like to have a long-term travel experience, but don’t know how to begin, think it’s too unrealistic of an option or too difficult. I’ll tell you how and disprove the other two.
In a perfect world, I would finish this before I go to China where the internet can be quite dubious at times, as I can only imagine the special nuances involved in publishing a book to the Kindle Store from behind the Great Firewall. But understand that I am definitely not setting a public deadline because I don’t work well under those conditions.
This sabbatical will give me a good chunk of time to focus my energy completely on this short book. I’m really hoping it will help people who want to travel. I used to be the same way; I could never imagine seeing some of things I’ve seen at this point, and I’m not nearly as well-traveled as some of my friends. It’s so very possible, and if anyone realizes that after reading, the book is a win.
The Long Goodbye
I’m leaving the United States for a year, and will probably not be back during that time unless something bad happens at home, or I become alarmingly unwell. I owe my friends and family a month to be completely there. If someone says “hey, wanna hang out” my response should be nothing less than an enthusiastic “you bet!” They own me right now, and I’m looking forward to it!
So the way I spend my time the next month will have a clear division: %50 on the ebook and %50 on loved ones. Well, realistically some of that will be on preparations for China, like my exciting visa run to DC. Nothing mixes quite so well as mind-numbing bureaucracy and 100°F+ heat. Have no fear; I will definitely post on this later as I get a lot of questions about visas. There are so many conflicting things online I consider it my duty to report exactly how things go down.
Well that’s that. See you guys in a month! If you follow me on here on Tumblr, please stop by Twitter as well. I would say I don’t care because I believe in complete contentment with life without expectations, but I feel kind of lame with 13 followers. Stop by Google+ as well, if you’re into that. In fact, you can find my entire digital self here. Thanks all, vi ses.
I’m about to leave the United States for a year. It stands to reason that I can’t take everything with me. Throughout college, before I went to Sweden, and then Iceland, I’ve had manic purges of my material possessions, so I already don’t have too much. I’m now at a point in my minimalist journey that my spider sense starts tingling with just a quick glance around my room or into the closet. I know when it’s time to get rid of stuff, and I’ve grown pretty adept at cycling out the old for the new.
Moving back home for ten months absent fear of not being able to get my rucksack on the plane without paying oversized baggage fees has left me complacent. There’s a good deal I can part with before China, I just wasn’t ready for it before. That’s the thing with decluttering; it has to be done in stages because there is always something you’re not willing to part with at any given moment. Just give it time.
I thought I’d give you an inside look at just how exactly I’m getting rid of my stuff this time around. In my quest for carrying one bag into China I’ve risked the sketchiness of Craigslist, unloaded a few tomes at my local used bookstore, consigned clothes for cash, hocked old cellphones and even visited some pawn shops. And of course, when I ran out of methods to achieve some personal gain for my clearing out, I reluctantly donated.
I have varying rates of success with Craigslist. First of all, it really isn’t that sketchy. Just use your brain. If someone asks you to meet them inside a condemned building at 11pm (not joking) it’s probably not a good idea. You can usually judge by the wording of the emails if it’s a good offer. I do usually discriminate by proper spelling and grammar. This time around I’ve made off with about $100 from my CD collection and a few pieces of used hiking gear. Not bad at all; just a few bucks shy of covering my visa fees.
I frequent Edward McKay here in Greensboro, NC for my music and books, although recently I’ve been adding to my Kindle library. Thanks to George R. R. Martin’s literary crack I have no time to trifle with going to a bookstore when more of Westeros is just a click away. Ed McKay’s gives you the option of taking store credit or cash when you trade in books, CDs, DVDs and games. If it’s a lot of cash, I’ll take it. If it’s very little cash and a good amount of store credit, I’ll use the credit to get a book relevant to the country I’m about to go to. Just search for used book stores in your area and I’m sure you’ll find something similar.
I try to be moderately fashionable, and I usually spring for higher-end clothing that I know is going to endure the rigors of travel a bit longer than cheaply made stuff. It’s preferable to have one pair of super durable raw denim jeans over five pairs that are going to fall apart in a few months. It does save money in the end. Uptown Cheapskate is a high-end clothing consignment store in my area where I can buy as well as sell just the clothing I’m looking for. Right before I leave I’m going to exchange a big bag of clothes for store credit and hopefully pick-up an expedition-grade jacket from North Face before heading off to brave the -25 °F winter of Heilongjiang Province.
In my experience, pawn shops feel even more awkward than a Craigslist transaction. There are some that I would never venture into based on their exterior appearance. And I guess there’s that connotation of desperation that’s rooted in their origins as an establishment where people who have fallen on hard times go to borrow credit by giving up their most prized possessions as collateral. However, they’re still a great source of quick cash before a trip. Before I went to Sweden I sold some old coins and a silver bar I had been holding onto for $400. Not bad at all. I’ll definitely swallow my cynicism and paranoia to try this again before China.
There are some mobile phone repair shops that will buy your old phone from you - even with a cracked screen and other defects - because they can strip them down for parts. I sold my trusty HTC Incredible for a not-so-incredible $8, but there’s no use in having two phones, especially one with a cracked screen. My little Razr flip phone from my roaring high school years fetched exactly $1.00. I didn’t even walk away with a tenner but it’s the philosophy that counts. Some of the shittier phones are spruced up and sent to troops overseas, so that’s nice.
I always save donation for last, not because I’m mean, but for the satisfaction of dropping off a bag of your last remaining excess stuff. A weight is lifted and when you return home, and everything you see around you has some utilitarian purpose. There’s no more useless fluff. Also, you get that warm, fuzzy feeling from giving your things new life and knowing that someone that needs them much more than you will be able to use them.
The Sensible Thing to Do
Predictably, I’m met with mixed reactions whenever I tell someone that I’m getting rid of all my stuff. A lot of people understand immediately, because they themselves probably have a lot of clutter that needs chucking out too. But there’s always the other half, who are unaware or simply ambivalent to the rampant consumerism that is almost synonymous with the typical American lifestyle. They ask “why” in a way that suggests they’re a bit confused or almost threatened in some way. I’ll tell you why.
1. Everything I own has a purpose; there is no point to excess. Life is easier when I know exactly where everything is for a given purpose.
2. I don’t have to worry about where I’m storing everything when I travel. At the very most I’m only leaving behind a small plastic bin.
3. I can travel lightly. At the most, I’ll only be moving through the airports of the world with one checked bag and one carry-on, even for long-term moves.
4. I have a clear idea of what I need. There are no random shopping sprees sapping my bank account unless I have a legit reason for replacing something. More fun money!
5. In addition to being very “zen”, this way of living has a lower environmental impact. Nature takes less of a hit and I can travel lightly to see it more easily.
These are five main reasons I subscribe to the minimalist lifestyle of having less stuff. I’m sure I could think of more if pressed. For now, go here and here to read more about this type of thing. Later on I will write a post specifically about packing for China and what exactly I’m taking with me to get through the year. Until then, if you ever feel sad, remember there are trillions of cells in your body, and all they care about is you.
Okay, let’s be real, travel is a glamorous lifestyle to lead. You’re going to party like it’s 2033 (Svedka anyone?), eat a bunch of really strange stuff, and have transcendent experiences you could never anticipate, nor really be capable of explaining to anyone. Even the most miserable things that will happen to you make for great stories later on. If Anthony Bourdain and the Dos Equis guy got together, you fancy yourself their lovechild.
But what about the lulls between the adventures? As much as you may hate it, you have to go home at some point whether it’s to renew your visa, save up some money, or simply visit friends and family. Well, don’t be surprised if things have changed. Different people will react differently to your travels. Some will be ambivalent, others jealous, a few will feel alienated by your leaving, and the worst, some will act like something is wrong with you.
All of this can make for quite a lonely lifestyle. The time I spend at home is probably when I feel most alone for a number of reasons. I’ve just left a ton of new friends behind who, realistically, will eventually lose touch with me, although there’s a few exceptions. It’s mutual. We’ll talk on Facebook a few times, maybe even Skype, but ultimately it will fade. You really just meet too many people abroad, and when you leave them for home you rely on your buddies you’ve known for years. Unfortunately…
Your friends are travelers too.
This is one of the biggest reasons I find myself having more nights in than out when I’m in America. All of my best friends are traveling! When I’m here, they’re not. When they’re here, I’m not. Just the other day we had a small send-off (read: the two of us getting drunk and watching Year One while everyone else is asleep) for my best friend Dylan Waller who is returning to Southeast Asia for another round of teaching abroad. He was one of the few people that I have face-to-face contact with that understands. We can talk for hours about crazy travel experiences without wearing on each other’s nerves (the usual outcome in that situation).
People don’t understand you.
Whether they want to know or not, you will feel the desperate, involuntary urge to talk about your experience abroad. You don’t want it to end, and the best way to relive it is to talk about it. Sharing is caring, but they might not see it that way. Between bouts of verbal diarrhea, you may notice one of two things: 1) people seem to not give a shit, or 2) they stare at you like you’re an alien. Maybe it’s just that I’m from the South that it seems people become completely alienated when I say that I lived in a socialist country and loved it. When you live abroad - and not as a missionary - you’re met with that what-so-america-wasn’t-good-enough-for-you sentiment. ‘Murica. I highly doubt this is limited to the South though; it’s probably just reactionary, especially from people you know because you’re seen as sort of forsaking your roots. Whatevs.
You and your friends drift apart.
This is a pretty common thing that would have happened even if you didn’t travel. As you get out of that social framework of high school and college, your different interests become more defined and lead you to different places. That’s okay. You definitely shouldn’t sacrifice your goals in life to “continue the party”, so to speak. This phenomenon is going to be amplified by your comings and goings, and you’ll honestly notice a change each time you come back. I realize I’m painting kind of a depressing picture. In my experience, your besties will always be your besties, and that’s good enough for me.
Periods of self-deprecation and doubt.
After you experience all of the above, you may wonder if you’ve made some sort of mistake. Do the doubters have a point? You start to think that you’re not as awesome as you actually are. The Dos Equis guy would never hang out with you. If you’ve come back to make some money, you’ll feel like an unemployed loser next to people you know who have had a steady job for a few years now. After you’ve woken up at the crack of noon in your parents’ house for the fifth consecutive day, you feel like the embodiment of the plot of Failure to Launch (shitty movie but an appropriate reference). You have to keep busy and you have too look forward. Remember why you chose to travel and all the memories it’s given you so far. Also, you’ll feel better if you throw away some of those beer cans.
Bonus Pain: You met your GF abroad (and she’s still there).
So last summer I did my volunteer thing in Iceland. I met my girlfriend there, and of course we tried to “keep it casual” but that plan was doomed to fail. We signed up for the otherworldly cruel long-distance relationship, although we don’t really perceive it that way, but call a spade a spade. So far I’ve been there (London) once and she’s been here (North Carolina) once. It can be excruciating at times, although it’s been well worth it so far and we’re looking forward to spending a year together in China come August.
Deal With It
All of these things are beyond your control. You will feel alone. You will want to leave again just as soon as you’ve returned. And you will sit in a dark corner brooding over your photos and journal entries. You will have to actually make an effort to reclaim some semblance of a social life, as the sheer novelty of being from somewhere else isn’t good enough to get random people to invite you out.
There’s no silver bullet for this, so maybe I’m just ass for doing a post stating “this unavoidable bad thing will happen to you, so yeah” but it’s more of a cautionary tale. If you want to travel long-term, you will have to make some sacrifices. A normal, consistent social life is one of them. I started out ahead of this one as an introvert, but that doesn’t make me immune to the loneliness.
My best advice is to keep truckin’ as best you can: watch travel docs, read travel writing, plan your next adventure and get excited about it. You know how awesome traveling is and you can get through this brief diaspora from that lifestyle.
Let’s say, hypothetically, you know for certain you’re going somewhere interesting soon. You’re a virgin to this part of the world, and you’re ready to lose your innocence to strange cuisine, publicly botched social functions, and the local customs surrounding libations. There’s only one problem: that’s a few months away yet. You still have to work the job you’re trying to leave, participate in the culture you’re trying to escape.
How on earth are you going to keep from going stir crazy? For the person who feels like going postal after his/her boss interrupts their daydream of backpacking through Southeast Asia by asking for an expense report, there are a few things you can do. Don’t cause an incident at work when you’re on the home stretch. Lose yourself in your glamorous future by doing the following:
Watch travel docs.
When the biggest adventure in your immediate future is the daily commute, you might as well watch others have all the fun. While it might make you immensely jealous, watching a great travel documentary will give you a travel-boner that lasts more than four hours, motivating you to do relevant things for your trip such as researching the destination and making a packing list. These things are a pleasure to do when you’re in the right mood. A couple of my go-to travel docs are 180 Degrees South, which documents Jeff Johnson & co’s journey from Ventura, CA to Patagonia, and A Map for Saturday, which portrays the ups and downs of vagabonding quite accurately. A few episodes of Anthony Bourdain don’t hurt either.
Read travel writing.
Similar to the above, travel novels and memoirs can sometimes convey a wanderer’s profound experience on an even more personal level than film. You know what they’re thinking and feeling as opposed to guessing. It would be especially interesting to find a book written about the country(s) you’re going to live in so that you can compare your experience to the author’s, not to mention glean some valuable advice in the process. They also get your wanderlust juices flowing and may motivate you to keep a journal of your own. You’ll be the next Jon Krakauer! Go browse the travel section of your local used book store and lose yourself in another’s adventures until you can grace the general public with your own. I’ve been recommended Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts a thousand times so it must be good, while I can personally confirm that Tom Gate’s Wayward is as hilarious as it is epic.
Shameless self-promotion time! Not really. I do owe a lot to travel blogs, though. Travel docs and books are great, but there’s nothing better than reading about someone’s adventures in real-time. It’s a very personal window into someone’s life to read about their absolute elation and complete misery while they’re abroad.
Before I went on my first adventure to Sweden, I spent a lot of time over at Exile Lifestyle, authored by entrepreneur and world-traveler Colin Wright. I immediately thought, I want to do that. While I’m still not as cool as Colin, I owe a lot of credit for what I do here to Exile Lifestyle, and it continues to be a source of motivation to travel perpetually, no matter how hard-hitting the lifestyle can get sometimes. I’m also indebted to Wade Shepherd, who writes for Vagabond Journey, for my Iceland experience. His article about Iceland Conservation Volunteers led me directly to the application form, and to a pretty awesome girl.
Friends and family may feel bewildered and alienated at your apparently reckless decision to drop everything and move abroad. I find it difficult to have a candid conversation with some people about future travel plans; their questions and comments are dripping with skepticism more oft than not when what I’m really looking for is encouragement. Meetup is a great place to find groups in your area relevant to pretty much anything that interests you. Search for groups that meet to discuss travel and culture and you’ll find like-minded individuals with nothing but words of encouragement, and possibly someone that’s already been to your destination. You could also find a group that meets to practice the language of the country you’ll be visiting and get an early start toward at least pretending like you’re not a typical American abroad.
Prepare for your trip
Hey, you’re supposed to be doing this anyway! I have to say, sometimes all the visa headaches, invasive medical procedures, and deciphering broken-English emails can drive me to a pit of frustration that leads to the bottom of a bottle of beer (or five), but if you’re in the right mood (after your 9-5), making progress toward your ultimate goal of getting the hell out of here can feel really, really good. Doing a nice round of decluttering - figuring out what I’m going to keep, sell, or donate in an effort to whittle down possessions before I leave - is quite therapeutic. It definitely gets you in the one-bag spirit if that’s your goal. Getting an early start on a comprehensive packing list would be useful as well. Find out everything you can about the place you’re visiting to stay out of trouble as well as get into the good kind of trouble. If you have the courage, by all means pull up that visa application on country x’s embassy website.
Meditation is often seen as one of those ridiculous, new age things that can’t possibly be rooted in science. Why should anyone take sitting in the floor with your eyes closed while humming “ommm” to yourself seriously? I don’t blame anyone for scoffing at the practice. I usually tend to smirk to myself when I hear people talking about homeopathic treatments that have no scientific legs to stand on. But meditation has been subjected to many studies over recent years, and the results have been really exciting.
Scientists have been looking at meditation since the 1950’s and basically a new subfield of neuroscience has resulted. They’ve hooked all kinds of people to all kinds of machines to study how the practice affects the brain and the body. When they look at the meditating brain in real time, they can see that it’s actually rewiring itself. The unhappy are actively making themselves happier, the stressed less stressed, and those in chronic pain have found relief, not by way of any placebo effect, but through the mind-altering effects of meditation.
As a naturally stressed person, I decided to try meditation about a year ago after looking at all the research. I started with simple breathing for 10 minutes everyday, and then I began focusing on positive energy, until finally I was mostly reflecting on my situation and the greater questions of life. I have since backslid and want to pick it back up as I go through all the rigors and uncertainties of moving to China. I’m bringing you guys along for the ride rather than go through a refresher course on my own.
How to Begin
Meditating is one of those things that when you see it, it looks pretty damn easy. Sure, I can sit in a quiet corner for a few. But when you do sit down with the intent to meditate, you might find yourself at a loss of how to begin. You may ask yourself, “Am I doing it? Am I meditating?” Probably not.
First, set aside an appropriate time to meditate. I used to do it before I went to bed as a way to free my mind, but have since been corrected. Apparently the best time to do it is in the morning because it gives you new energy, and you’re essentially wasting it by going to sleep afterward. Well, excussse me (thanks Kate). Try to find 10 - 20 minutes after you wake up in the morning.
Next, and predictably, find a quiet spot. Indoors or outdoors both work, but if you live in the mountains, there’s no where more quiet and free of distraction (albeit not very practical to stop at your local mountain on the way to work). Switch off the TV, dim the lights, and if you have roommates, tell them to leave you alone. Pop a squat.
Close your eyes, and don’t try to (mentally) do anything immediately. Just relax, breathe evenly, and slowly drift into a state of relaxation. Slowly focus on your breathing, the air coming in and the air leaving you. I’m going to get crunchy here; feel new energy enter you as you inhale and negative energy leaving you as you exhale.
You can also focus on a mental picture, or a single thought. The point is to calm the storm in your mind created by work, errands, emotions, and people by centering it on one simple thing. For a few minutes every day, you are not stressed, you are not worried, you are not angry or sad, you are simply calm.
Different Types of Meditation
Focused Meditation - The process I described above is a very simple and beneficial meditation practice geared toward decluttering your head. This is simply a state of being that we’re often too busy to discover within ourselves. Once you begin to find this state of calm and quiet during your meditation sessions, you will train your brain to slip into this state with more ease throughout everyday life. Eventually you will be able to accept the same things that usually frustrate you with more peace than inward rebellion.
Mindfulness Meditation - During mindfulness meditation, you let your mind simply be aware of what’s around you. You don’t necessarily have to find a quiet spot, because any noise can become part of the meditation. Just as in focused meditation, breath at a natural rhythm, but don’t focus on anything in particular. Just let sounds drift over you, whether they be planes, screaming children, or noisy traffic. Your environment is the tide, and you are simply absorbing it as it ebbs and flows over you.
Happiness Meditation - We are actually ruled by our genes to a certain extent regarding our personal happiness levels, but meditation is something we can all do to rewire our brains for more positive emotion. Again, follow the same steps above, except this time you will focus on your thoughts and emotions. Push the negative feelings you have about yourself and others out. Don’t try to address or solve them, simple breathe the negative energy out, and on the inhales feel the new energy entering your body. Slowly, you will begin to feel more acceptance of yourself and others.
Benefits of Meditation
Meditation is good for so many reasons…some that have come out of several studies, and others that we will experience on a more individualized level.
No matter what meditation technique you choose, it will surely neutralize stress and hone your ability to deal with it in real time, when you’re at the office and not in your quiet place. Eliminating stress from your life will naturally lead to better health.
Constant stress keeps your body in a prolonged state of fight-or-flight in which your body is savaged by elevated levels of natural hormones and steroids that are only meant to be used for a short time. When the body must rely on these chemicals constantly for you to accomplish your goals, long-term health effects such as a weakened immune system and cardiovascular problems arise. Meditate, and your body will thank you.
Other people will thank you, too. When we focus on positive emotion during meditation, we become happier. Confronting our personal flaws, acknowledging them, and virtually making peace with ourselves will make us happier. Consequently, we are more accepting and kind to others despite their flaws. Can meditation cure my road-rage? I’m excited to see.
Meditation seems to be a silver-bullet solution to our physical, mental and emotional well-being, and I will definitely be keeping up with the thinkers who seem to be discovering more good things on this practice constantly. For now, find a quiet place, say “ommm” if you must, and reap the benefits.