The Portuguese Rainbow Gathering

Into the Abyss

It’s whatever o’clock. I’ve given up wearing a watch and abandoned the concept of time. I’m lying down on a rough patch of grass under some shade, with a distant beat of a djembe drum resonating somewhere in background. I think. I’m not too sure about anything these days. There’s dreamcatchers hanging delicately off a tree, and other handmade trinkets that I can’t quite recognize. An energetic dog brushes through my peripheral vision. Tents everywhere. I see a bunch of colourful hammocks erected on the trees around me, and a couple of Tipis too. I think I see someone in the full-lotus position—wait… no… yeah…. Definitely someone in the full-lotus position. Topless women are frolicking about with their children, giggling, and a bottomless man is playing the acoustic guitar.

Hold on, is this what the 60’s felt like? Why is everyone so happy? Why hasn’t the bottomless man been arrested yet?

Perhaps I got ran over an hour earlier at a pedestrian crossing in Portugal, and my brain is vividly dreaming up a fantasy land in a coma. Or maybe, just maybe, I’m living out another typical day at a Rainbow Gathering event.

 

Rainbow what?

No, silly, I didn’t celebrate Pride Week in Portugal. Nor did I spend a week in a drug-induced haze trying to collect tangible pieces of Portuguese rainbows in a satchel looped over my right shoulder. Though the latter sure sounds like a good time. Short of experiencing it yourself, it’s hard to summarize what the Rainbow Gatherings are and what the Rainbow Gatherings are about. I’ll try to do both concisely for now, but will gradually expand as I build up this narrative.

What they are: a loosely organized congregation of people in a secluded area in the woods, who share similar ideals, cultural beliefs. On the surface, the premise is the same like any other large-scale festival/camping event: x people at y location for the purpose of z activity. They attract 100’s of people (sometimes 1000’s for the larger ‘world gatherings’), usually last around month and peak during the full moon.

What they’re about: the people at said secluded forest all gravitate towards non-traditional societal ideals and values. Anti-consumerism, anti-commercialism, anti-capitalism, anti-electronics, anti anything that requires a hyphenated anti before it. Raw-diets, self-sustenance, alternative medicine, you’d find people practicing them all quite effortlessly, without even looking for them. The Rainbow Gatherings are more than a mere collection of people looking for a good time—it’s more so a profound stand against and re-interpretation of the way towards society is heading.

 

Feel the Rainbow. Touch the Rainbow. Taste the Rainbow.

The Rainbow Gatherings are essentially a hotspot for hippies. It’s a word loaded with a lot of negative historical baggage, but it’s still the one that fits most appropriately. Nature? Check. Good vibes? Check. Loose clothing, loose people, loose standards of hygiene? Check check check. Rainbow Gatherings are the perfect breeding grounds for the resurrection of hippie culture. So how do people spend their time?

You could find all the regular activities as a weekend camping getaway, in that sense it was no different. Sitting at a campfire, exchanging stories with friends, jamming out on a guitar, going for a dip in a nearby river, making food, eating food, relaxing, relaxing some more, etc… The non-traditional activities included tons of meditation, shamanism, poi and Reiki, to name a few. There were spontaneous daily workshops offered by those inclined to teach. Yoga was omnipresent and couldn’t have been any easier to find. Though one day I spotted something as obscure as Tuvan throat singing being taught in a group setting.

Demographically? I met people from all walks of life. You could hear a mix of 4-6 languages on any given day, easily. Yet if I had to generalize, based on the sample of people I talked to, I’d say it’s about a 50/50 split between ‘normal’ (mind the quotes) people and ‘nomadic people.’ Let me explain.

The normal people category included those, like me (my mom tells me otherwise), who either held some sort of job, were studying, or had some other semi-permanent commitment. This category of people had a home-base were and were vacationing, escaping, getting-away, rejuvenating, galavanting or wander-lusting.

The other category of people, the ‘nomads,’ included street-performers, buskers, vagabonds, van-campers, and, for a lack of a better word, homeless people. These tended to be the more creatively talented individuals, armed with a great finesse for anything ranging from juggling to fire twirling. These were the ones willing, sometimes out of necessity in order to make a living, to lug around their treasured acoustic or cumbersome drum. And they were damn good at playing them, too.

Without the shared context of being at Rainbow, on paper, both the ‘nomads’ and ‘normal’ people that I described above are inextricably different, and clash like oil and water. That is, of course, if we go by usual standards of categorizing people, like by occupation, appearance, or material wealth. Yet to my delight, regardless of the former differences unique to each category—differences that usually repel people away from each other—everyone got along beautifully. If anything, this mixture of lifestyles only brought extra diversity and richness to the Gathering. Everyone in attendance had some ‘hippie’ edge to them, true—some acute, others undeniably reliving in Woodstock—but regardless it’s so rare and incredible to attend a large scale event where everyone invited gets along.

Rainbow Culture: Sharing and Selflessness

I’ve noticed there’s a toxic culture embedded within big city life, where people treat strangers with a callous indifference. Anyone raised in the vicinity of a big Western metropolitan city, like Toronto, New York or Los Angeles can relate. There’s this mentality that goes something along the lines of ‘until this person proves their worth to me, they may as well not exist’. For whatever reason, it’s generally accepted to treat people you don’t know with suspicion and hostility.

That couldn’t be further from the truth at Rainbow; in fact, even within my first couple of hours there, I received unsolicited help a several times. For example, within minutes of hopping off the regional bus, a caravan full of supplies and singing passengers picked me and three others up and dropped us off at the entrance. After making the subsequent 30 minute or so trek by foot, I hit a ‘welcome area’ where coffee, ginger tea and fruits were served. As it was too late to set up my own tent, a random woman quickly escorted me to a large communal tent, with a vacant space for me close to the fire. These small acts of giving were rampant wherever you went, whatever you did.

Everything was shared at the Rainbow, never with an expectation of reciprocity or payment. It was discouraged to exchange any goods for money, or offer favours, for that matter. Everything was done selflessly, fuelled by kindness and generosity. People swapped food, people exchanged art pieces, indulged in face painting, offered rides, I could go on. People were even offering tobacco, something one sees drunk people desperately plead for in the patio of a bar. Seems idealistic right? So how did the living area manage to not collapse internally? Someone has to pick up the shit, literally.

Maintaining a family several hundred units large is no easy task. There a tremendous amount of basic upkeep required for human beings to live harmoniously together, including shelter, sanitation, water, cooking, firewood, etc. Volunteers ran everything. No, not people who signed up in advance, or those specially designated by a committee to do specific tasks. Anyone could volunteer to do anything, whenever they felt like it, on any given day, without any pressure. Yet somehow it worked: the fires kept burning, the poop kept being buried, the food cooked, the firewood gathered. It was an uplifting reminder that people don’t need to be coerced into performing important work, and will rise up to the occasion unprompted, as long as the purpose was clear and defined.

Norms and Beliefs

I’m especially well-versed in the unspoken norms that gently guide our interactions with strangers, like avoiding eye contact on the subway ride to work, or walking with a grave, intimidating expression on my face, because I’m gangster. Yo.

At the Rainbow? Not so. It was uncustomary NOT to give someone an affectionate hug the first time you meet them, many times breaking and greatly exceeding the normal 1-3 second hugs we’re used to giving in real life. I distinctly recall, on more than one occasion, women mentioning that it was the safest they’ve ever felt for a long period of time. Mean-mugging? More like happy-mugging. Teeth-revealing dimple-forming smiles everywhere, it was sometimes impossible not to return one back. And wasn’t joking in my introductory paragraphs at all, clothing really was optional and you better believe a ton of people took advantage of the opportunity to don their birthday suit.

Energy was the word of the day—hell, word of the month. There was an obsession to the word and its mysterious connotations, a word that doesn’t exactly surface often in daily office cubicle conversation, yet one that held profound meaning as one of life’s staples to every Rainbower. A word whose property I don’t quite understand myself, yet, it seemed, whose property the majority in attendance understood with complete certainty.  From good energy to bad energy; energy healing to energy destruction; “your energy is peaking” to “your energy is leaking.” You name it, everyone had their own interesting interpretation on this building block of life.

Second to energy, ‘healing’ was probably the second most tossed around word, and I saw various manifestations of it in many forms. For example, there was a special mini circle during meal times for those who preferred raw food as a way of cleansing themselves; an assigned ‘healing tent’ for those willing to dip into natural forms of medicine; daily yoga and meditation as a conduit to clean the soul; and everywhere I went, escapees expressing their profound love for their newfound liberty away from the soul-sucking cogs of society. In fact, if I had to pick an adjective to unify the entirety of my experience, ‘healing’ definitely makes a good case as a top candidate.

There were no strict rules or regulations that had to be followed. Common sense and respect for your neighbour sufficed. The experience was entirely secular and free from any unnecessary pressures to do anything you didn’t want to. There were, however, two notable activities that were followed dogmatically. The largest main camp fire was held sacred. Garbage was never to be thrown in it, and every effort was taken to keep it going late into the morning hours. The only other ritualistic part of the experience was the ‘food circle.’ Before eating either of the daily communal meals, everyone would hold hands, sing timeless Rainbow songs passed down through generations, and end off with a reverberating ‘ohm’ chant. If you didn’t want to participate, it was cool. Remember, no rules! I’ll admit, I was a little averse to the ceremony at first, but was glad to be quickly proved wrong. It was nothing short of precious.

Logistics

If your brain is wired anything like mine, then you have an insatiable appetite for wanting to figure out how and why communities, organizations, systems and especially, people work the way they do. So for those curious, as I was, about how dropping an odd-hundred number of hippies in a deserted forest didn’t turn the land into an anarchistic clusterfuck, I have you covered.

If not, that’s cool, feel free to skip this part, it’s why I saved it for last.

How long was I there and why Portugal? My current job endowed me with a generous 12 day Easter break, and to no one’s surprise, I’m sure, I decided to go travelling. I procrastinated looking into destinations, and with a limited budget, it was either fly into Portugal or fly into Portugal. So I flew into Portugal. I spent my first 3 days exploring Lisbon, the last 9 in a city called Troviscais, where the Rainbow was held.

Pre-Gathering Information:  There would be a group of ‘scouts,’ likely permanent nomads, who would search for an ideal place to set up camp within a country. Once found, they would notify others through word of mouth, and eventually word would spread unto the internet.  ‘rainbow-forum’ ‘Facebook’ were two reliable source to figure out when and where. The better organized Gatherings have clear-cut instructions on how to arrive, the others not so much. Click on the pics if you want to see a bigger version.

old school invite for the Rainbow in Spain. Yup, that's a hand drawn map to the location :)

old school invite for the Rainbow in Spain. Yup, that’s a hand drawn map to the location 🙂

A facebook invite

A facebook invite

a rainbow-forum invite

a rainbow-forum invite

Water: Every event takes place near a natural spring water source that doesn’t require filtration

Food:Bring your own bowl, mug and cutlery. A caravan regularly makes runs to a nearby grocery store to pick up essentials. Two meals a day, one in mid-afternoon, one at around sunset (remember, my concept of time was warped so I can’t say for sure)

Packing: Largely the same as a normal camping trip: tent, sleeping bag, toiletries, clothes, and whatever else one needed to be comfortable

Sanitation: Usually 1 or 2 designated ‘shit pits,’ that get covered up after use

Land: The area is usually graciously offered by a local farmer or host. There were clear marked boundaries where attendees could and couldn’t camp

Cleanup: There were organic composting areas, designated bins for recycling, everything else went in plastic bag and made its way to a dumpster

Supplies: Cooking supplies (large pots for example) and other main provisions travelled from one gathering to the next.

Money: Ah the dreaded M-word. somebody has to pay for all that food, right? There was a ‘Magic Hat’ (with an accompanied magic hat song and dance, of course), that went around after each meal. Think of that container being passed around church during a sermon for donations. If you were not in a position to donate anything, a simple smile sufficed.

Communication: People needed to be informed sometimes when a workshop was available or food was being served. This was done through loud chanting. For example: *softly*  “one, two three” *loudly* “FOOD CIRCLE!!! NOW!!!”

Wrapping up

So that’s my take on the Rainbow Gatherings. If any of this sounds even remotely appealing, hit me up and I’ll be glad to help you navigate your way there or give you extra tips on maximizing your experience. Or, likewise, if you think I’m a lazy, good-for-nothing, capitalism-hater, tree-hugging nutjob, let me know, too, I’d love to confirm your suspicions.

If I could leave you with one final takeaway it’s this: try something new. What do you have to lose? Novel experiences like this expand your breadth of consciousness, and allow you to better understand and relate to the human race. Human beings are curious creatures, and the further you stray away from what you’re used to and the more you begin to climb over the fence you’ve inadvertently built up around you, the more you realize how much the common web of human experience transcends race, gender, sexuality and other hallmarks that ordinarily separate us.

If you bubble yourself up in the same with the same people for the majority of your life, how do you expect to grow? Personally, I learned about community, friendship, non-judgement, freedom and happiness. You’d probably come out with a totally different array of knowledge than I did. Is there any merit to the alternative ways of thinking scattered throughout such events? Who knows. Maybe living the perma-nomad eco-village Rainbow lifestyle is the one for you. Like a fine glass of aged whisky, you’ll never know unless you try.

On Living Authentically: Part II

Click here if you missed Part I

I left you hanging last time, sorry, but it was for the better, I think. You get more time to absorb the last post and I get more time to draft this one. Win-win.

I’ve already cleared up what my version of living authentically is, and why it’s important to live authentically, true, but so where do we go from here? What’s next? Armchair philosophizing is fun, but even better if I can inspire at least one person reading this to stop what they’re doing, rethink the direction of their life, and transform into a better version of themselves.

I’m looking to uncover the subtle influence of creeping normality that has gradually picked away little chunks of your soul, year by year, little by little, forcing you to give up the things you truly love in life in favour of what’s ‘easy’ ‘safe’ or ‘conservative’. So stop neglecting about those dormant goals left idling in the backburner of your brain, take my guidebook, and walk with me on the path of self-improvement.

 

Let’s get started

Now that we’re fresh again, I’ll begin by asking you a simple question. This is important: note what comes up into the chamber of your thoughts right away. Don’t rationalize, don’t second guess, just allow whatever comes up to surface freely. Write it down immediately. Yes, on that scrap piece of paper laying in the corner of your desk. Please don’t make it into a mental exercise, allow your intuition to guide you. Alright? Let’s do it.

Ask yourself, as in right at this very moment, with absolutely sincerity: “am I living an authentic life?”


 

It’s a tough question to answer, right? Good, it should be, it means you’re taking this seriously enough.

I can’t answer this question for you. If I did, I’d be imposing my ideals and values on your life. My attempt to persuade you on how to live your life–detailing what my version of authenticity is, and undoubtedly, not yours–goes against the very basic tenant of authentic living. Because the only person who can answer the “am I living an authentic life” question is you. That’s the beautiful and challenging thing about today’s theme; there is not one universally correct definition of what an authentic life is, and the answer can and does vary wildly for each person.

The huge variance and inconsistency in the possible spectrum of answers to the previous question is a little intimidating. Why? We’re obsessed with absolutes and certainties in society, always attempting to quantify the incalculable and objectify the mysterious. Sorry to say, there’s no mathematical formula here. No fundamental answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. You must be the one to invent your own meaning, your own purpose, and it is you who must act on it. All I can offer is some lubricant for the turning gears in your head. I’ll buy you a swimsuit, friend, but you’re the one who has to take the plunge.

 

 

The previous question was only a warm-up, something to get the wheels turning. If you felt the previous question was too generic (it was), and your answer all over the place (it should be), rest assured that what follows will make more sense.

I’ll ask you a puzzling array of open ended questions, broken up in 5 convenient categories. It’s up to you to answer them honestly and critically. Take the time to think about each one, spending less or more time on each question, depending on what feels right. These are simple questions, yet, taken together, they have profound implications. We’re looking for that visceral gut reaction, that odd confusing epiphany, that unexplainable whirlwind of emotions… not reasoned justifications from the rational part of your brain.

 

There’s only 1 rule.

Be as sincere as possible. That means, I want you to ignore all the comforting filters that make uncomfortable questions easy. Rip off the blindfold your ego has tightly nursed around your precious psyche. Body slam that aura of complacence that’s so often convinced you to take the road more travelled. Take out your wire cutters, and liberate yourself from the fishing net of doubt you’ve cast over yourself your entire life. Get your shovel ready (or jackhammer, if you please) and dig down deep with me into the unexplored crevices of your deepest darkest corners of your mind.

Ready?

 

5 Pillars of Authentic Living

Individual

  • Do you feel like you truly know who you are?
  • Do you struggle with matters of personal identity?
  • What greatly frustrates you about yourself? What are you doing about it?
  • What human qualities do you deeply value in others? In a partner? In a significant other? In family? Are you acting in alignment with them?
  • What qualities make your best friend(s) your closest allies?
  • Do you make yourself vulnerable to others (thanks Carla)?
  • Do you have a mentor or role model in your life, someone to aspire to?

 

Society

  • Do you feel you fit in a preconceived label/box within society?
  • Do you share your values with a majority opinion?
  • Do you derive a sense of community within the neighbourhood or district you’re living in?
  • Are you content with the direction your country is steering towards?
  • Do you benefit from or are handicapped by the dominant culture in your city/country?
  • Do you revel in or suffer from the community/religion/culture you were born into?
  • Are there social stigmas that you live in defiance of?
  • What ‘big’ causes do you truly identify with?

 

Lifestyle

  • Do you feel “stuck” or “in a rut”?
  • Have you ever considered alternative ways of living day-to-day?
  • From the second you wake up to the minute you pass out at night, are happy with your daily schedule?
  • How many times this past month did you dread waking up in the morning (hangovers and Mondays excluded)?
  • Do you feel like you’re living to impress other people? To keep up with appearances?
  • What do you spend the majority of your disposable income on? Do you prefer buy goods or experiences?
  • What’s the minimum amount of material possessions you need to feel ‘comfortable’?
  • Are there situations or certain groups of people where you feel the need to behave differently, not being 100% yourself? How often?

 

Occupation

  • Do you feel your job defines an integral part of you who are, or is it merely an extrinsic activity to support yourself?
  • Are you a completely different person, an “actor,” at your workplace?
  • Are you expendable? Do you feel you hold a bullshit job, being a hapless cog in a ruthless machine, or are your efforts noticeable, appreciated or integral?
  • Are you doing what you always wanted to be doing? What did you want to be when you were a child?
  • Does your job bring you fulfilment in some form or another?
  • What external pressures are holding you back from achieving your ideal career? Family? Friends? A significant other? Debt? Health?
  • What internal pressures are holding you back from achieving your ideal career? Self-confidence? Motivation? Fear of change? Fear of failure?

 

Goals

  • Where do you see yourself in 10 years? This is a timeless interview question, but ignore your career for a second and answer it in the context of the other areas of your life.
  • What kind of activities give you the greatest sense of purpose?
  • From what do you derive meaning? What drives your will to continue living?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • Does the future appear bleak and uneventful? What are you doing about it?
  • Or full of possibilities and potential? What are you doing to make sure it plays out that way?
  • What motivates you? Money? Altruism? Family? Stability? Leaving a legacy? All are perfectly valid, but are you sure you know what you want?

 

What to do about it all

Phew. A lot to digest, right? Truthfully, I don’t yet know the answer to some of these myself. And let’s be honest here, it’s damn near impossible to. I designed the questions to be stimulating, get you thinking, and channel your thoughts to ‘big picture’ ideas. My list of questions is by no means exhaustive, and by no means is every question applicable to the entirety of the human race, but it’s a start.

If any of the questions made you feel uneasy, uncomfortable or puzzled, good. That’s exactly what we’re looking for. There are deep-rooted reasons for explaining why you feel the way you feel, and the longer and more frequently you practice introspection, steered by questions like the ones above, the more acquainted you’ll begin to feel with your true self.

If you’re serious about living more authentically, I recommend writing down your answers to the list of questions above, and make these answers as accessible as possible in your daily life. Or create your very own ‘pillars of authentic living’, with personalized thought-provoking questions that you feel are more relevant to you.

Print your answers out. Sharpie them on a bathroom stall. Add them into your favourite mobile ‘list’ app. Make sticky notes on your fridge. Tattoo them on your ribs. Read them on the subway. Glue them on the wall beside your bed so it’s the first thing you see when you wake up in the morning. Or, better yet, create an authenticity journal that logs your progress in answering these questions. Whatever you have to do, do it. Refer back to your list with diligent regularity, eventually so the answers are permanently etched in your brain. Everyone is different, so I won’t suggest an ideal method here, but the most important thing is to act, in one form or another.

Make it a daily goal to do one tiny thing, no matter how seemingly insignificant, that is in accordance with your answers. Buy a fruit from a local food vendor. Spend 20 minutes researching alternate careers paths. Book a plane ticket for a weekend getaway. Message an old friend. Invest into a new pair of running shoes. Meditate. Think about what truly makes you happy. Take half an hour to carve out your deepest desires and formulate a rudimentary definition of your meaning of life. Then write it all down. Then revisit it a month later, adding or subtracting to it as you see fit. Most importantly, don’t get stuck overthinking, make sure to actually act on your answers. We often get sidetracked, as I do, in romanticized bubbles of thoughts, yet forget to actually materialize anything we daydream about. Intentions are nothing without action.

Moving forward, you have two possible paths to venture on: the bumpy, unpredictable hill of authentic living or the smoothly cemented pathway of ordinary life. You’re in the driver’s seat of adulthood now, and the rest of your life will unfold in accordance with which path you decide to take. Choose wisely.

 

CONCLUDING REMARKS

I hope I got the ball rolling here and challenged you to look inwards, if only for a brief moment. Coming to grips with the fact that you’re living an inauthentic life is one of the hardest things you can do for yourself—yet one of the most rewarding. Most of my readers are about my age, 24, give or take, so heed this warning: Our brain becomes significantly less plastic after the age of 25, making dramatic changes to your behaviour or personality , and consequently, life, that much more difficult. This explains why most older people (though not all!) tend to be more conservative and safe.

While your precious dome is still malleable, while you’re still beaming with vitality and energy, before you lock down a permanent seat in the weekly Bridge game, and before life’s inevitable chains drag you down and solidify your place in this universe, DO SOMETHING. ACT. CHANGE. LIVE. Take risks, and reap their consequences. Learn from your mistakes, and evolve from your triumphs. Live a more authentic life!

Trust me, you have the capacity to change. Challenge the invisible paradigms that have compelled you to sacrifice the things you deeply treasure. Subvert those malicious thoughts that you’re too conservative, too unskilled, too timid, to change.  Smash your self-doubt into infinitesimal pieces. Take pride in your abilities, realize your potential, and bring your dreams into sweet fruition. Believe in yourself. It doesn’t matter if no one else does, I do.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Did all this make sense? Only some of it? Did I hit a sensitive nerve? Or am I just a big fat stupid doodoo head? All perfectly valid responses. Be bold! Let me know! I’d like to hear from you, and I mean it. Do you feel like you’re living an authentic life? Do you feel you aren’t? I’m here to guide you through one of life’s most difficult mazes, the labyrinth of authenticity. I don’t quite have it figured for myself, nor do I claim to, but having a helping hand or someone willing to listen is always useful.

I challenge you to ask yourself the questions that I laid out above. Remember, there’s no correct answer, this is entirely subjective. Take as long as you need. Just so you know, I hold an open door policy for discussing anything I publish on this blog, so message me if you want to bounce some idea off me.I hope you enjoyed your (brief) journey of self-exploration with me.

Take care, and in the words of a good friend of mine, ‘be real.’

 

 


Acknowledgements:

LITERATURE

After doing some extra homework on the topic, it turns out in existential philosophy writers like Sartre already beat me to the punch. We talk about essentially the same thing, but in different words. Sartre, in particular, describes a lack of ‘authenticity’ as bad faith, with some lucid examples on this wikipedia page to help explain what he’s talking about. Have a look if you’re interested in diving deeper about this topic.

 

PRIVILEGE

Believe me, before, and especially, during, writing this post, I realized how fortunate I was to be wearing the proverbial shoes I am wearing today. I benefit daily from a host of privileges—‘advantages’ that I’ve been gifted with through my completely random birth in this world—that have allowed, and continue to allow me, to take on new challenges, experiment with novel thoughts or ideas, and undergo new experiences . I profit regularly from the benefits of my linguistic privilege of speaking English, allowing me to move abroad and find work super quickly as an English teacher, though I never formally studied the language in any capacity. As a native English speaker, the world is my oyster. I can spontaneously pick a multitude of countries in the world that would accept me with open arms.

I was fortunate to be born into a caring and supportive family that helped fund my tuition fees, raised in a democratic country where I could pursue any individualistic whim that I so desire, and haven’t faced racism or oppression due to indelible attributes one is born with, like gender, disabilities or race. I don’t have to fear the repercussions of acting in wild defiance of a repressive culture I was born into. I don’t have any social stigmas to overcome or biases to defend. I have a roof over my head, food to eat, water to drink, good health, and a bed to sleep on, all of which are essential needs before one can even begin to entertain the idea of authenticity.

For all this I am eternally grateful.

On Living Authentically: Part I

Picture this:

Two men are sitting together on a boardwalk bench on a warm Sunday afternoon. They’re staring blankly into space, their entire attention consumed by the hypnotizing rhythm of the ocean waves. The two have never met before, yet impulsively, a conversation arises. Neither remembers who started it. Neither ones cares. Small talk plays out its usual course; Rob, it turns out, is a garbage collector, while Jim is a powerful executive. With perfect fluidity, the conversation treads into deeper waters, as meaningful topics begin to emerge concerning life goals, purpose and happiness.

Rob’s dressed in a pair of modest board shorts and a sagging plaid shirt he grabbed from the Old Navy clearance bin. He recalls his life story with a brilliant radiance, infused with the tranquillity of the passing fresh breeze, every word oozing with positive energy. Without inhibition, or much delay for that matter, he uncovers the things that make him happy: witnessing the fruits of his labour, helping others, camping, and playing with his 5 year old daughter. We learn he has been committed to his craft for a quarter of a century, feeling absolutely no pressure to please anyone or do anything else.

Jim appears to be hanging on to every word—a master of the art of fiegned interest, offering perfectly timed affirmative nods, grunts and ‘mmhmms,’ when needed—yet inside his brain malicious synapses are firing off. He’s subconsciously comparing himself to every anecdote, accomplishment and tale coming out of Rob’s mouth, sabotaging himself of any chance of empathy or true human connection.

After readjusting his Hermes belt and wiping a smudge off his Cartier shades, Jim strains for a positive twist to his life story, grasping at obscure past memories to no avail; his hardwired cynical brain quickly takes the reigns and vomits out a diatribe about the stresses that plague his life and the responsibilities that torment his soul. He details the panic and anxiety that overwhelmed him during last Thursday morning’s executive meeting, when he had to approve the layoffs of 100 workers to appease shareholder demands. He runs on no less than 5 coffees a day, routinely bails on everything from weddings to little Jimmie’s baseball practice, and feels a deeply supressed sense of remorse for it all. Moreover, what Jim doesn’t disclose is that secretly, ever since he was a child, he always wanted to be a veterinarian.

 

Breaking it Down

Alright. The characters are fictional, their stories fabricated, their journeys exaggerated, and I may have sprinkled a tad too much flavour out of my Hollywood spice jar than what this recipe calls for… yet the moral of the story here, I hope, should by now be plainly obvious.

What categorizes the difference between the two men? Could it be biological differences, like age? Physical attributes, like height or appearance? Material possessions? Accomplishments?  Or is it something more difficult to pinpoint, like their demeanour or moral compass? Could it simply be their personality (or rather, personality faults)? All valid ways we use to label people, sure, but not quite what I’m getting at.

I believe there’s a far deeper sensation at play here, hiding imperceptibly beneath all the former categories, connecting them all, tangling and enmeshing them all in a web of commonality. It’s a word so basic to digest, so easy to remember, yet so frequently abused and loaded with odd meaning.

 

The guessing game is over. One is living authentically (I’ll let you guess which one), the other is not.

Rob revels in his profession, an unsung hero that is steadfast in his approach to life and surefooted in deciding the things that are important to him. He treasures the things close to him, including his wife and daughter, and rejoices in seeing the positive effect of his contributions to society. His life has synchronicity and meaning, being true to his most intimate desires. He doesn’t crave much, beyond the occasional Klondike bar and 6pm nap. His modesty makes him who he is—and he wouldn’t trade it for the world. If he had to live his life all over again, you can be damn sure things would play out exactly as they did. And that makes him authentic.

Jim, on the other hand, appearing polished and composed on the outside, is experiencing internal strife. He is the by-product of a chaotic set of choices, with no congruity between his desires and actions. Every day he tangoes with only willing partner, Mrs. cognitive dissonance, steadily building up a backlog of cancerous journey entries in his favourite diary, Guilty Conscience, all neatly stacked in his repressed subconscious.  He has abandoned his childhood dream of treating animals as a vet, and instead, has resorted to treating his subordinates like Old Yeller. His personal relations are down the train, and he deludes himself every day, telling himself he’s happy, by indulging in some random expensive purchase. He continues to accumulate a plaque-like build-up of regret, immoral choices and shame. And he hasn’t visited a dentist in years. There is an undeniably massive gap between the life he’s chosen to live, and the life he yearns for, perhaps unknowingly, deep down inside. And that makes him inauthentic.

 

What is Authenticity?

Authenticity, like many words, is vulnerable to the bastardization of language, and could easily obscure in definition a century from today. Which really sucks (what did “really sucks” mean 300 years ago?), because if words had human feelings, I bet they’d be really upset about losing authenticity (see what I did there?)

So to be clear, within the context of this article, I’ll define living an authentic life as ‘living a life as close as possible to what your true self desires’.

“True self”? What the hell am I blabbering about? Is Benny an omniscient shaman who floats on a plane of consciousness above us mere mortals? Not quite (but probably so in a parallel universe). Yes, I’ve submitted to using the words ‘true self’ in my definition of authenticity above because they’re as close as possible to what I want to express under the constraints of the English language. After all, our perceptions, ideas, emotions and even the way we see the world is largely bound by the language of our thoughts.

By “true self” I’m referring to your very essence, to that intuitive hunch that senses and experiences the world. Your true self comprises your deepest desires, your most profound wishes and your most significant purpose.

I’m talking about that other voice living inside your head (I promise, I’m not schizophrenic) that’s been present, and in many cases overlooked, during your whole life. The little voice is your personal tour guide into your barren unconscious, swimmingly stealthily in the background, yet always there, by your side, guiding you throughout your entire life. The one that drives our intuition. The one that makes you second guess what your life has become and where it’s headed 2 am in the morning. The one that ‘feels,’ rather than thinks. You know the one.

 

You may not have noticed it consciously, but that little voice is quietly operating in your psyche every day. That little voice reaps the benefits or absorbs the losses of your daily battles of morality, choice and meaning. Ordinary parts of your identity like your occupation; common behaviour, like your treatment of others; and important decisions, like boycotting a company on moral grounds are all either in line or against this little voice. That is to say, that actions which are in accordance with ‘the voice’ draw your closer to you it, while actions against it draw you further away.

I believe the greater the distance you find yourself from this voice–your true self–the unhappier you’d be. And by contrast, the more aligned your real life is to your ‘true self,’ the happier, richer and more authentic life you’d be living.

Let me illustrate my point with a metaphor. Your ‘true self’ is a cerebral soup that has been brewing since birth. You’re in full capacity to change its flavour by adding ingredients, and you do so, at regular intervals, as you grow physically and mature intellectually. Each ingredient that you’ve added over the years is a choice, decision or action that has made your soup taste better or worse.This concoction, by the time you’ve reached middle age, becomes much thicker, making it difficult to discern each ingredient and taste every flavour.  You’re free to add ingredients whenever you like, but the more ingredients you’ve added, the harder it is to substantially change the flavour. The person who judges the taste of your soup is your ‘true self,’ your subconscious. The better tasting the soup, the more authentic you are, and chances are, the happier and more fulfilled you’ll feel.

Authenticity is integral to our conscious being. The aspiration to live authentically is universal and widespread to all cultures, religions, upbringings and identities. A universal truth rarely spoken about, yet cardinal in the way we perceive ourselves. Strip away all the comforts and facades of work, possessions, and status and you’ll uncover it as a very intrinsic, yet incorporeal part of every person. It’s a quality as integral to the human experience as sleeping, eating and reproducing.

 

Some real-life context.

Surprisingly, the topic of living authentically is embedded in all of our regular lives, yet we’re oblivious to its ubiquity. It’s present in many of our daily interactions, and pops up all the time, just camouflaged under a different theme. Is it a coincidence that we have expressions in the English language like “keep it 100” or “being real”? That we’ve had popular advice mantras cemented in our heads since childhood, like “just be yourself?” What do you think rappers are getting at when they rant about people “acting fake?” What are these celebrity suicides all about—don’t they have everything they want, and more, in life? These examples, in one way or another, all boil down to the same diluted version of the discussion about authenticity that I’ve been examining here. So why are rappers rapping, celebrities dying and people getting depressed?

Because the smallest accident or wrong influence can send you snowballing away from an authentic life. Think of all the peer pressure we experience in high school to do ‘what’s cool.’ Of the powerful brainwashing effect of the media, slowly pouring cement in the conduit between what you’ve been told to feel versus what you really feel. Of the crude advertising, rampant everywhere we look, defiling young impressionable minds to cave to the status quo. Of all the internal turmoil that forced marriages, forced careers and forced relationships create. These are all so painful because they’re all so incongruous with who we really are compared to who we want to be. They divert us from happiness and self-actualization.

 

Living authentically, to put simply, isn’t easy. Building an authentic life requires months, years, decades of hard work to establish, and a lifetime of willful effort to maintain. Is spending years preparing and is budgeting a six figure digit of expenses worth it to climb Mount Everest in Nepal? Is it mere boredom that makes people volunteer in a third world country, or is there more to it? Is running a triathlon simple? Have the indigenous tribes of Peru, long before commercializing into a contemporary tourist attraction, ingested potent batches of ayuhausca just to see pretty colours? Is raising a human being for 18 years, sacrificing sleep, personal comfort and sanity, an easily attainable goal? All former examples are profoundly difficult, unmistakably challenging, yet ultimately, rejuvenating for the soul. I would argue they’re all valid examples of people attempting an activity in sync with their version of an authentic life, pursuing their innermost desires, in line with their true self.

 

Concluding Remarks

Sound like too much work? There’s no shortcuts. And the risks couldn’t be higher. If you subscribe to any secular ideology that there’s no afterlife—meaning this life, indeed, is the one and only life that you have, and is your only chance to experience raw existence—then why wouldn’t you spend a lifetime trying to achieve the nirvana of living as closely as possible to your true self?

 


Well gee wiz mister, all this sure does sound fine and dandy, but what am I to do about it all? Settle down now, Sue-Anne, put down those Cocoa puffs and come hither. Scooch a little over to the right, Carl Jung, this couch is big enough for the both of us. In next week’s edition, Uncle Bernard will soothe your troubled heart with some good, actionable advice on living more authentically.

 
 
EDIT: I received a comment about my post on Facebook, and liked it enough to add it in here. Thanks Andrew

Whether you live authentically – really doing what gives you joy – will determine the quality of your life and will have a great impact on those around you. We are born and institutionalized from the age of 5 and basically have our entire psychology molded by a collectivist system. MOST people don’t take the time (because they think they dont have the time) to slow down a bit, and actually try to figure out what THEY value. Everyone has different values, and our system is not designed to help people find their unique values and prioritize them, but imposes a sweeping set of values on everyone.

Why I Dropped Everything in Toronto and Moved to Madrid

No more than five months ago, on a delightful September afternoon, I recall frantically stuffing all my essential belongings in a suitcase back in Toronto, energized to jumpstart my new life here in Spain. I left my job, cosy bedroom and comfortable routines all for a chance, a gamble to reinvent myself and start anew.

The idea of moving to a new country can be exhilarating yet intimidating, liberating yet daunting, and rejuvenating yet overwhelming. I remember people always asking me how I was feeling about moving to Spain months, weeks and even days before I was about to board the Sata airplane at Pearson.

The truth is, I didn’t know. I felt that I didn’t know how I felt. I recall juggling a mixture of insidious thoughts dancing around in my brain, namely: ‘how will I survive without my family?’ ‘Will I go insane without my close circle of friends?’ ‘How the hell will I get around without speaking a word of Spanish?’ with a much healthier mix of uplifting notions about how ‘I can’t wait to see how this plays out,’ ‘this will be an experience of a lifetime,’ and the ever-present ‘holy shit, this is really happening!’

So why did I pull the trigger?


1) An Opportunity to Learn a New language

One of our greatest gifts as human beings is consciousness, an evolutionary gift that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. The mystery of consciousness allowed human beings to use higher-level reasoning to build empires, develop societies, share ideas, and through this process, gave birth to many rich and beautiful languages, bringing us closer together than ever before as a species by allowing us to communicate.

I enjoy the pursuit of learning a language, none more so than Spanish with its silly verb conjugations, expressions, idioms and plethora of regional variations. It’s incredibly rewarding to go from having everything sound like incomprehensible gibberish to having a basic grasp of just exactly what it is the old man beside you is babbling about.

The truth is I felt myself slowly deteriorating in Toronto on a mental level, stagnant and sluggish, becoming too comfortable and accustomed to the repetitiveness of “responsible” (mind the quotes) adult life. I realize now, that on subconscious level, my mind craved a new challenge or deviation. And believe me, one of the greatest tests you can experience is the colossal task of mastering a new language as an adult.

Learning Spanish is one of the most useful languages a Canadian (or anyone, for that matter) can learn, opening up an entire continent, South America, for travel or work. And should I ever want to relocate south of the border to the land of freedom and apple pie, especially to the highly pop-culture fetishized state of California, with its massive Hispanic population, I can better pitch my case as a Spanish speaker when applying for an American visa.

Most importantly, I want to master at least a conversational grasp of the language, which, quite simply, would imbue me with ability to communicate with more human beings around the world. And I’m not talking about petty small talk and asking for directions in Spanish. I look forward to learning about people’s stories and reciprocate by offering a small, intangible slice of myself in another language.

2) Travel Opportunities

The super expensive price tag for a round trip flight from Toronto is often the most prohibitive thing that prevents people, like you, my beloved reader, from checking out a new city, country or even continent. I missed out on going on exchange during university, and what originally was a benign regret became a malignant virus that was eating away at my core. I knew I couldn’t go on living an insulated suburban life in Toronto, blind to the experience of immersing myself in a foreign country.

Beautifully situated in the SouthWestern part of Europe, the proximity of Spain to other European countries cannot be overlooked. Low cost airlines like RyanAir and affordable coach bus companies all over Europe make country/city hopping a breeze. For example, my recent trip to Germany, Czech Republic and Hungary ran me about 100 euros in flights and maybe another 40 in inter-city coach buses. An incredible bargain to see 3 new countries for the first time, and something I was only able to take advantage of because of my new home base here in Spain.

3) To gain a fresh perspective on life.

Ah, the wonderful novelty of everything being exciting and new. I’m referring to the infant-like sense of awe and wonder we often lose as adults, due to the adapting of our brain to a static environment or routine. Often times here in Spain I catch myself in the midst of a situation, whether day dreaming on a bus or in the peak hours of a party, and a take a second to collect my thoughts and practice gratitude for the present moment (future post on this). Feelings of thankfulness overwhelm me, sometimes yielding me a visceral rush of goose bumps, as I stand. Or sit. Or lie down. And contemplate. And contemplate some more. Contemplate about how fortunate and privileged I am to be where I am.

Moving here means I am in the midst of absorbing a new culture, spoiling my tastebuds with a new cuisine, and getting lost (sometimes on purpose). Living in Spain–or any new country for that matter–has challenged my paradigms about human thought and behaviour, endowed me with new perspectives and transformational clarity about how to live my life and constantly forces me to re-evaluate my definition of meaning and purpose (future post on this as well).

4) Seizing youth and mobility.

I’m exploiting the one time in my life where I’m unburdened with things that conventionally tie you to a fixed location. A spouse, children and mortgage are three common examples of things that people sink immense resources into–and for good reason too, I’m not putting any of these down. Whether it’s affection/time, DNA or money, respectively, all three former examples share a vice-like grip on your ability to sporadically relocate to another place.

Moving to a new country, for me, has been a formative developmental experience, as I feel there’s no better time in my life to drop everything and move abroad than now. I believe the vast majority of people are too timid about making a radical change in their life—constrained by things like ego, family and societal pressure—and don’t spend enough time exploring their likes, dislikes and preferences through genuine introspection and experience.

It’s super cliché, but you learn the most about yourself in difficult and unfamiliar situations, and only realize the worth of something once you lose it. For some people, being abroad serves as a stark reminder of how much they desire to be back home; for others, like me, it’s empowering and potentially solidifies the start of a new lifestyle.

To no surprise, I’ve received polarizing answers from other people in my situation when I ask them about their opinion on life as an English assistant abroad. It usually ranges from a definitive ‘hell yes, I’m doing this another year’ to ‘I’m miserable and can’t wait to go back to the States.’ I belong to the first category, and can’t wait to continue my adventure, but I never would have known unless I took that first crucial step and moved out here.

5) My recent ex girlfriend.

This list would not be complete, and certainly not be as honest, without talking a little bit about her influence in my move abroad. This isn’t ThoughtCatalog or Cosmo, (sorry ladies) so I won’t go into detail about why we’re no longer dating, but she was instrumental in making this happen. I feel obligated to give some important personal context to this post about her role in all this.

After dating for a little over a year in Canada, we were both feeling ‘stuck’ in our individual lives. This had nothing to do with our feelings towards one another, the relationship itself was perfect. I was unhappy with the direction of my life, uninspired and feeling spiritually vacuous. She was incredibly homesick was feeling gradually worse and worse about not completing a secondary education degree in Spain before coming to Canada. Doing it Canada wasn’t an option for her, since you’d have to auction your left kidney on the black market, liquidate your grandmother’s precious silver fork family heirloom and deplete your emergency reserve of cash stashed away in your mattress to study abroad as an international student in Canada. Tuition costs anywhere between 2-5x more for an international for the exact same program.

Inevitably, the topic of moving to Spain started popping up in conversations. I was initially taken aback by the notion of moving abroad, and firmly rejected the idea. However, after a lot of thinking, prioritizing, and entertaining the idea with some serious deliberation, we were able to both find a common ground to justify the move to Spain. Incredibly, went through with it. I recall an overwhelming surge of emotions flowing through my veins the minute the Spanish consulate in Toronto finally handed over my passport with a Spanish visa permanently etched inside.

Within a month of arriving here, my ex successfully enrolled in a local college and I quickly found work in a close by primary school as an English teacher. (future post on this, too). I cannot adequately express how incredibly appreciative I am for the necessary kick in the butt she gave me to jumpstart this whole process, as I probably wouldn’t be typing this post 1000’s of kms away if it wasn’t for her.





Food for thought:

Congratulations if you’ve made it this far. I challenge you to take a moment, step back, and reflect on your current situation. Are you happy with the way your life is progressing? What are some short and long-term goals you want to accomplish? What’s holding you back? If you ever feel ‘stuck,’ as I did, before my move to Spain, feel free to send me a private message and we can chat about things. It doesn’t matter if we’re close friends, or if I drunkenly added you to Facebook in a bar 5 years ago, I’m here to listen without judgement. Until next time 🙂

deconstructing the obvious

You’re tired, smelly and desolate. Your stale sandwich, made from leftover cheese and tomatoes from a hostel has never tasted better. You give your unkempt travel-beard a nice scratch, each stroke redefining your existential view on society and meaning of life. And yet at the back of your mind lies a persistent reminder to sort out the logistical nightmare of getting to your next city 1000 kms away. You’ve got the shivers of a crack-fiending Toronto mayor and the heroin craving of Trainspotting lead character for an internet connection in a foreign country.

Yup, sounds about right. All the signs of a long-term backpacker. You’ll do anything for a signal, leading you to search for your ‘high’ the most unlikely of places. What’s this? An ancient basilica, perfectly restored and magnificently preserved for public access? Sure, why not. You walk inside, stunned by its divine beauty. You submit completely to your senses, admiring every detail, only to be rudely awakened by an intrusive impulse: “does this church get wifi?”