Your Life's Biggest Failure can Open the Door to Stillness, That was My Case
Last week on Stillness Tuesday, we read about the perils of busyness and the power of sitting still. This week I’m sharing about the turning point in my life when I started the journey to stillness – the journey to self. Enjoy the read.
It was midnight in the cold winter of Hanoi, January 2012. A hundred of boys and girls at their twenty gathered in front of a hotel building, their excitement blended nervousness quickened in the air. Their eyes were fixed at three persons standing on the entrance’s porch, on which there was also a bucket of water. One of those three persons was me. Such peculiar of a scene it might seem for those who didn’t know of the youth-led organization AIESEC, but all AIESECers know what it is. At various levels – local, national or international – this scene means the announcement of the next term’s president, on whose head the water will be poured. I stood there with a pounding heart.
Being in the position to lead my organization in my own country was everything I’d ever wanted, since the moment I joined the organization in early 2009. 2009 to 2012, three years of transforming from timidity to confidence, three years of discovering my true capabilities, three years of 10 hours per day labor, three years of passion, three years of burnt sacrifice. Finally the moment had come. Scott, AIESEC Vietnam president at the time, stood up on the chair placed behind us, lifted the bucket of water above our head. The roaring clapping and shouting broke loose. Scott screamed: “The president of AIESEC in Vietnam in the term 2012-2013 is…”
If you’ve noticed the title, you know that this is supposed to be a story of stillness, and are probably wondering why I talk about election and AIESEC and someone desperately waiting for a bucket of water to be poured over her head in a winter night.
For three days, I’d tried to look back and find the connected dot that pushed me to the path of stillness and formed the person I am today. I struggled but finally traced back to that turning point, that night, that moment, when the water wasn’t poured over me, when my earnest desire collapsed, and when everything I thought I knew about myself shattered. The morning after, together with the alcohol vomit, a part of me went off to die.
I was smart, determined, ambitious, focused, on top of the world, on the high way to my destiny. And life gave me a slap in the face, elbow in the teeth, kick in the stomach. Then it shoved me down the mud. When this kind of thing happen, we begin to doubt everything we know about ourselves. Then, some seek withdrawal in alcohol, some sink in despair and grudge, some falter in pleasures, and some find a way to reborn. My rehab was a bit of everything.
By the end of February 2012, I knew I needed to get away. Through AIESEC, I applied for a facilitator role at a youth conference in Italy and right after that a ten-week intern job as English teacher in Poland. Both Italy and Poland said yes. The conference was in Catania but I wanted to first spend three days in the city many argue to be the world’s most magnificent. So there I was, wounded, disoriented, on a plane headed to Rome.
Alone, I wandered around the city. No phone, little money, a map in my hand. Without my home country, without family, without friends, without a title, without a job, without even the slightest assuring sense of self, I was stripped naked of what defined me. I recalled from The Zahir of Paulo Coelho a passage that had mysteriously lingered in me for a long time, yet I’d never quite understood, until that moment.
I opened the window and let in the icy night air. I took off my clothes and told myself that I could withstand the cold. I stood there, not thinking anything, just aware of my feet on the floor, my eyes fixed on the Eiffel Tower, my ears hearing barking dogs, police sirens, and conversations I couldn’t quite understand. I
was no I, I was nothing – and that seemed to me quite marvelous.
I danced through grand streets and small alleys in the City of God with the lightness of being nobody. I remember the moment when I held my breath, stood in awe in front of Fontana di Trevi; tears filled my eyes. One late afternoon in Piazza Navona, I listened to two street artists playing classical music by rubbing their fingers on the rims of water filled glasses. The sunken afternoon light kissed my skin. And my lips were cold, dipped in the caramel ice-cream I’d bought from a nearby gelateria.
I felt so fine.
Everything that happened in the past, hopes and pains, grew distant and disappeared. Everything that might happen in the future, seemed of less important than the laughter of the child sitting on a bench three feet away from me, and ice-cream cone I held in my hand.
Why did it feel so good? I’ve been wondering since I began to write down this story. The reason is: When I was forced to let go of everything I thought I knew about who I was, what’d left was a new, truer experience of me and the world. In those three days in the Eternal City, free from the fetters of past and future, breathing in and out each present moment, each mile I walked was one mile deeper I reached into my soul. And finally, I emerged. For the fist time, with a new and clear and expanded view of myself and the world.
That was my first taste of stillness.
in the past months, several times I attempted to write about this experience, but my clumsy command of the English language wasn’t quite enough. A couple of days ago, I luckily came across this beautiful passage in Meditation From the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga by Yoga Guru Rolf Gates
A spiritual practice is one that brings full circle – not to a new self, but, rather back to the essence of our true selves. The the end of the hero’s journey, he finds that he did not need to go anywhere, that all he sought was inside him all along. Dorothy, having travelled across time and space to the land of Oz, and having struggled desperately to find her way back to Kansas, discovers that she could have gone home at any time. In the end, she learns that her adventures have simply brought her to the point where she can believe this. It is the aim of all spiritual seeking to bring us home, home to the understanding that we already have everything we need.
That is stillness. The unwavering quiet knowing that you are home. And home is happiness. And happiness is peace.
Now looking back, I believed that failed election was meant to be. Tell me I’m crazy but I imagine in that cold winter night, something, or someone, or God, or Buddha, had stared at me in the face, frowned and uttered “It’s time.” I am grateful for that judgment.
I first experienced stillness in Rome, but you don’t need to travel across the world to reach deep into one’s soul. If you can afford travel, then do it, by all means. However, you can experience stillness in your bedroom, or kitchen, or office. That’s what I do every day.
Choose a practice that strip you bare of everything but the present moment. I chose to become a yogi. Yoga is one of the paths to stillness, and it is an excellent one. I know some choose meditation, some choose calligraphy, some choose running, some choose Tai Chi or Kung Fu. For many people, me included, extreme exertion of body-mind focus helps.
Now you know how I began my journey to stillness. I am still taking baby steps each day. I will continue writing about it on sTillness Tuesday so that you can walk that path with me, if you wish.
For now, relax, pause, soften your tight temple – release the skin on the side of your head behind your eyes. And simply breathe. You’re already a step closer to home.
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Photo Credit: solarisgirl on Flickr