Relax! Everything is Out of Control
After having completed a difficult project at work, a senior colleague and I talked about certainties, stability, perfectionism and the stress brought on by these states of mind. We both had backpacked around Europe years ago. She told me when she traveled around Europe during her youth, to overcome the attachment to certainties, she decided to not make plans for accommodation or any other activities but to hitchhike for a couple of weeks in the UK. At that time, hitchhiking was safe and it all turned out well. I marvelled at her courage and reflected that traveling does push us out of our comfort zones and for those of us who are highly organised ‘planners’, traveling could be both a rich and stressful experience at the same time.
Out of the Comfort Zone
On my around-the-world backpacking trip, my now husband, Jeremy, and I had booked accommodation days or weeks in advance in most of the places we stopped. It was a lot of work to work out accommodation, transport and our itinerary location after location. We became weary and frustrated so we decided to be more spontaneous.
When we arrived in Stockholm by train one afternoon, we strolled into the tourist information centre at the train station feeling confident that we could get assistance with accommodation booking. To our dismay, it was a national public holiday and on top of that, a popular sports event was on. The tourist information centre was packed and everywhere was booked out. After using up two phone cards ringing around and hanging out at the information centre for over 1.5 hours, one of the staff took pity on us and told us there was an available room in a “hostel” called Gustaf Af Klint. The place was conveniently located at the harbour, close to the town centre and the cost was more reasonable than we expected so we immediately made the booking and congratulated ourselves on our good luck.
Exhausted, we got the directions and set out to settle in for the night. However, the ‘hostel’ was not so easy to find. We realised after we found the street that the address contained no street number. Walking down the long street with our heavy packs, we wondered why we had not asked the tourist information centre to give us the complete address. Just as I was about to give up and throw down my heavy backpack for a much needed long rest. With his keen eyes, Jeremy found Gustaf Af Klint. It is a ship which operates as a youth hostel and a pub! We found it. What a relief.
We got on board and checked into our cabin on the lower level of the two story ship. The backpacks were thrown into a communal room, far from our cabin, a big pile of bags with nobody checking if people taking bags were taking the right ones! The cabin was tiny with no window to allow air circulation. There were 4 uncomfortable bunk beds and a tiny cupboard. Our cabin was booked by another couple as well even though the floor space only allowed two non-obese adults to walk around with little room to spare. We were flabbergasted by the poor condition of the place. I did not get much sleep that night anticipating our roommates to arrive. They arrived well past midnight, probably lost trying to find the ship as well.
The next morning, we were glad to not having woken up in Iceland or somewhere in the middle of the sea. But I soon came down with a bad cold with the full range of nasty symptoms including fever, sore throat, runny nose and headaches. What a gloomy start for a much anticipated visit of a beautiful city, I thought.
Concerned about me, Jeremy went out to find us better accommodation for the rest of our stay. I am not sure how he did it. Half a day later, he found a room in a B&B on one of the islands in the Stockholm archipelago, far from the town centre and run by a nice couple.
I spent the majority of the time during the rest of our stay in bed recuperating from the cold. By then, we had been traveling for over 2 months with a full schedule on most of the days. Even though I was not able to fully explore Stockholm, I got some much needed rest and time to read and write, what I had been wanting to do since we left home. I was relaxed and energised at the end of our stay.
I am not sure how things would have turned out if we had planned meticulously as per usual. In hindsight, it was a memorable experience – one of the anecdotes we told to our friend and family on our return. The experience was far from perfect, but it left us fond memories nevertheless, some much needed peace and quiet time to read, write and rest for me in the middle of our long trip and exploring Stockholm on his own and meeting interesting people along the way for Jeremy.
The Story of the Chinese Farmer
Recalling this experience reminded me of a well-known Chinese fable (赛翁失马 焉知非福). It is a story that illustrates how impossible it is to foresee the turns and twists in external conditions which may turn misfortune into fortune, loss to gain and vice versa.
Once upon a time, there was a wise old farmer who lived at the foot of the Great Wall. One day, his horse ran away over the Great Wall to their enemy’s (胡人Hu) territory. Neighbours and friends came to console him: “We are sorry for your misfortune”. The old man said, “This may not necessarily be a bad thing.” A few days later, his horse came back bringing home a small herd of Hu’s best horses. Folks visited the old man to congratulate him for his gain. The old man said, “This may not be a good thing.” With so many excellent horses, the old man’s son became very fond of riding. One day, the son fell off the horse and broke his leg. Folks visited the family to express their sympathy but the old man was not at all upset. He said, “Who knows. This may be a blessing in disguise”. Months later, the war broke out. All able-bodied young men were conscripted and most of them were lost in the war but the old man’s son survived because of his disability.
External conditions come and go based on cause and effect, manifesting and unfolding in a process of immense complexity. It is futile to cling to certainties or label situations as inherently good or bad.
Relax, everything is out of control.
In Chinese Daoism, it is the complementary nature of duality that forms the absolute unity of Dao. Duality is symbolised by Yin and Yang, the two halves coming together to form the whole. Good fortune and misfortune are two extreme ends of a pendulum that are interchangeable. This is expressed in idioms such as extreme joy begets sorrow (乐极生悲), and suffering and hardships have their reward (苦尽甜来).
Letting Go and Peace
The world is not linear. When we plan to go from A to B, any number of unexpected events may arise along the way. Allowing the events to unfold naturally and flow with life gives us a much better chance at enjoying our experience and being at peace. When any sudden turbulence comes in, instead of imposing a linear system of confirming and being driven along an emotional roller coaster ride, we could shift into a mode of observing in order to better respond to the changed circumstance with clarity of mind.
Tami Simon in her audio book “Being True” uses a clever analogy of being in dialogue with the world. She describes our relationship with external conditions as a conversational relationship. Just like when we are having a dialogue with someone. We say a few things; get feedback; listen and respond instead of talking for hours and hours and assuming the outcome. Similarly in life, when we take a step, we observe how the step is received; re-enter the darkness of the unknown and discover what emerges, trusting reality to give us the feedback we need at each step of the way.
If you let go a little, you will have a little peace.
If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace.
If you let go completely, you will have complete peace.
the drawings. See more at Perspective – View of the World through Illustrations