Lessons learned on a business anniversary

Fear, Authenticity, Self-worth, growth and not giving up

Facebook reminded me this week that 4 years ago today I graduated from my Yoga Teacher training in Byron Bay – I’ve not taught much yoga since but have done so much else and learned so many lessons which I’ve been reflecting on.

I’d quit my corporate career a few months prior and had embarked on a year out to discover my passions and try and find a new career that aligned with my values – and a new life really having just walked away from a seven year relationship too as part of a process that resulted in me come out.

This journey took me to places like Bali, the Kingdom of Bhutan, teaching English to novice monks in Northern Thailand, silent meditation retreats, debuting in public speaking, starting my own business and writing my first book.  A book that was published a year later and contained much more about the inner journey that had unfolded.

4 years on I look back, incidentally on the verge of a holiday back to Byron Bay next month with my wife to be.  I’m now an author of two books with my own business and invited to speak at events and conferences across the world.  I’ve discovered my passions and feel comfortable aligning with my values to be my authentic self – it was a long time coming and hasn’t always been easy but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Here are some lessons I’d like to share with you following that journey:

Just because you’ve never done it doesn’t mean you can’t do it

When I left my job I had no idea what else I could do.  I’d trained all my life for one career which wasn’t fulfilling me.  I didn’t know what else I wanted to do or if I’d be capable of anything else, I certainly wasn’t qualified.

When it came to running my own business I didn’t know where to start.  There’s been a lot of learning over the last few years, trial and error and a lot of failing too!  I’ve learned to do things like accounts, marketing, social media and more that I’d never had to consider in my former career. 

It’s also pushed me out of my comfort zone in other ways – networking, building a reputation and a brand as well as being the face of my business (having been someone who prefers to be in the background!)

I used to think – I’ve never done this before it’s not in my skill–set, I’ve no experience in this but I’ve learned over the years that just because we’ve not done it doesn’t mean we can’t, it’s just something we haven’t learned to do yet.

It’s so important that whatever we’re doing we make sure we always learn new things, push ourselves and take on challenges so that we learn and grow.  It also leads me nicely onto my next lesson

Get out of your comfort zone – don’t play it too safe

I avoided risks because I didn’t want to fail but taking on my own business, re-inventing my career meant I could no longer avoid this.  I had to take risks and I became familiar with failure as I battled through the trial and error of learning so many new things. 

I faced many fears as I embarked on this journey; leaving the certainty of what I knew, a career I trained 15 years for and knew well, a regular pay check and company car, an image people had of me – what would they think now?  What if I failed?  What if I’m making the wrong choice?

I had no choice but to get out of my comfort zone but sometimes it seemed tempting to stay there – better the devil you know!  As I stepped out of my comfort zone I faced the fears, uncertainty and risk and at times I also failed.

I put on events that no-one showed up to.  For the first couple of years I earned no money from my business.  Most of my speaking was for free and my first royalty cheque was worth less than $5.

After each rejection letter from a publisher I could have decided to give up.  In fact there’s been many times business got hard, I was out of my depth, I wasn’t earning money and it felt like I’d failed, reached the end of the line, I was tempted to give it up.

One of the things that always kept me going was asking “What has this taught me and what can I do about it?”  This solutions focused reflection forced me into action, rather than wallowing in the fact it was hard and I’d failed it immediately turned my mind towards – what am I going to do about it and scanning the options I had.

Failure is how we learn and grow and is often how we learn to succeed, it’s also something that’s unavoidable if you push yourself, take risks and face challenges, I now see how it can be a positive.  But we can see failure as a sign of our lack, a mirror of our self-worth and it encourages us to devalue what we’re capable of.

Don’t under estimate yourself – you’ve earned your place

We often doubt our abilities, underestimate ourselves or think that our success must have been down to something other than our ability – luck, a mistake, being liked etc.

Throughout my career I would wave away success and down play my achievements almost embarrassed by praise.  I can’t say I’m there yet but I have since learned to respond to praise and recognition with ‘thank you’ which is a good start!

For many years in my former career I suffered from Imposter Syndrome.  I didn’t get a degree, I left school at 16 and as I progressed into senior roles (where everyone had a degree) I used to feel like I was less intelligent, not as valuable or worthy – despite my performance and achievements.

Other people’s opinions seem to carry more weight than our own and it’s only the feedback I’ve had from others over the years that now allows me to believe I can do this and that people love what I do.

I remember worrying in my first workshop I’d been asked to do for a big business – am I qualified to do this?  Will they enjoy it?  Will it be good enough?  Who am I to be posing as an expert in this field? – all those questions played on my mind despite having written a book on the subject I was speaking about!

Late last year arriving at parliament to do the same workshop I finally felt like I belonged, that I’d earned my place and that I had something important to share that would be of value to those who’d asked me to come.

If you’re getting praise you’ve earned it.  The success you achieve is because you’re capable and have worked for it.  It doesn’t have to be perfect to be success and you also don’t need to have all the answers.

You don’t have to have all the answers

For many years I’d put off leaving the security of my corporate job.  I needed a plan first.  If this wasn’t my career I needed to know what was before I made any changes.  Where I’m at now I could never have foreseen then.  It’s been a result of the journey I’ve taken and the things I’ve learned along the way that have helped informed my next move, developed me and taken me to where I am.

Often we feel we need all the answers, to see the whole stair case before we take the first step and begin.

There was trial and error, trying things to know if that worked or not.  Training to teach yoga to see if this could be the future me or where else that might take me.  Whilst I had a plan, I had no idea where I’d end up and it was only as I made progress the next steps began to emerge.

Sometimes we have to be comfortable with uncertainty because we don’t know what’s next.  We might have a path set out but end up somewhere different, or sometimes we end up in the same place but take a different path or route to the one we planned, either way it works.  I’m of the opinion now that there are no wrong paths and there are lessons learned and experiences gained even from the tough paths I wish I’d not chosen – I wouldn’t go back and change it.

Align with your values – be yourself

For many of my former years I tried to be who I thought I should be, what the world wanted, to fit in.  I denied my sexuality for many years and took the corporate path of success as my own.  It was only when I realised status and salary were not markers of happiness that I began to look for work that aligned to my values – I had to figure out what those were.

As a young leader I felt there was a mould to fit.  I had to be a certain way to pass as a leader and as a result I devalued some of my skills that I didn’t think had a place at work.  I used to leave my ‘Jess’ hat at the door to put my ‘Leader’ hat on.  I now release these are the same hats and things like kindness, compassion and empathy are major leadership strengths rather than character weaknesses – what a relief because we all know pretending to be something we’re not is exhausting!

Being able to show up as my authentic self both in life and in work makes every day so much more rewarding.  It also allows people to trust us when we’re genuine and relate to us if we’ve walked in their shoes.

Choose your people wisely

I’m lucky to have had support around me, cheerleaders, people who believe in me.  Support from my family even though they had no idea what I was doing and feared my exit from a corporate well paid job to clean composting toilets in a yoga ashram may not be a great career move!

It’s taught e the value of those who surround us.  The people I’ve learned from and aspired to be who inspired me to carry on, even when it got hard.  But equally those who’ve challenged me to grow and pushed me.

I used to feel jealous when I looked at those who’d succeeded, like they’d done it right and I was doing it wrong; “why can’t I be on the stage at this event rather than in the audience?”  It made me feel like I wasn’t as capable rather than just on an earlier stage of my journey.  It’s important we respect these people, learn from them but never compare to them or feel their success threatens our own learning.

Find people who support you but challenge you positively to grow, respect them and be inspired by them but don’t compare yourself to them or feel jealous.  Avoid negative people who hold you back – surround yourself with those who’ll nourish you.

It’s also taught me the power of collaboration.  I’ve met so many amazing people doing similar kinds of work and often now when I organize events I’ll use it as a platform for other women to inspire my audience too and invite guest speakers.

I’ve also been fortunate to join business groups and communities full of supportive people willing to share their knowledge and time with me.

Often we’re taught to compete, that our success needs to be at the expense of someone elses.  I’ve learned that we are much stronger together than we are apart.

Find out more about Jess on her website www.jessstuart.co.nz  and visit the blog at www.inspireyourlife.org/blog

Take the risk, face your fears

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I’ve always had a tendency to play it safe. For many years, there were lots of things I liked the idea of doing, but the effort required go outside my comfort zone stopped me.

When I sat and thought about the risks involved and all the what-ifs associated, I always wimped out.

So this left me conforming to the norm, living a life others expected of me and generally putting my dreams on hold so that I could remain safe and comfortable. Except it wasn’t comfortable, I was unhappy and deeply unfulfilled and only when the cost of standing still exceed the cost of change did I finally get more comfortable with the idea of taking the risk and heading into the unknown.

I left a long-term relationship that I’d outgrown, I quit my soul-crushing corporate job and I traveled overseas on my own to see the world and learn about facing risks.

The risk of leaving a secure relationship and being on my own for the first time in many years filled me with doubt—what if this was as good as it got? What if I end up single forever? I’m getting older now, all my friends have settled down and started families, maybe I’ll get left on the shelf?

One of the most difficult things was the risk I took turning my back on an 11-year career, a well-paying job without any qualifications to do anything else. I ran the risk of running out of money, being unemployed and becoming homeless. It had been the security of my 9 to 5 pay check that kept me stuck in a job I didn’t enjoy for many years, scared of exactly these risks.

But I took the risk, I spent a year doing what I loved, I trained to be a yoga teacher, travelled, wrote a book and fueled my passions. I created a life I loved and whilst it wasn’t always rosy, I wouldn’t go back and change it.

So now, a couple of years down the track, you’d think I’d be used to taking risks, having faced the music, navigated the tough times and still remained happy. Surely risk taking is now within my comfort zone? Not so much.

Click here to read the full article and my top tips on how we face our fears and take the risk

A Rough Guide to a Smooth Life

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As we approach the end of the year the last 12 months I’ve spent trying to get my book published finally pays off and it is now available to buy!

You can click on the link to view the official trailer.  Full details are here; www.inspireyourlife.org/book

A practical self improvement guide on surviving modern life. Rediscover the art of happiness, find meaning and purpose and create a life you love. 

Jess uncovers the key to creating a happier life and leads by example. Her perspective shines a bright light at a much needed time. Let her guide you this book will help.  Shannon Kaiser, Coach & Best Selling Author of Find your Happy & Adventures for your Soul

For those who read the book, please leave a review on amazon and I’d love to hear your thoughts.  You can use the hashtag #RoughGuideSmoothLife when posting about the book.

To see how you can get involved and help support the launch click the link; How you can help or click here to support the launch through thunderclap

Wishing you all a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year.  Don’t forget to check out the new resources section on the website for free stuff I’ve posted for you.

Keep an eye out for events and give aways as I launch the book officially in the New Year.

All the best for 2016

Jess 🙂

Novembers newsletter and returning home

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You can now view this months Newsletter Nov for recent inspiration and information.

I have also just booked my tickets to return home to New Zealand after Christmas.  This has given me an opportunity to reflect on the nomadic lifestyle, having a home in a country not of my birth and the struggle many people have in accepting why nomads can’t stay in one place for long.  Here is the outcome of those thoughts:

Calling the nomad home

Pico Iyer, Travel Author, asks; “where is home?” “is it where you’re born, where you live, the place you love most? Or is it more than a physical place?” I agree with Iyer when he says “home is more about soul than soil”. It is what makes you become who you are and it’s what you carry inside your true self. It’s where you feel alive and the place you most want to be and that can be many places.

I am a Nomad. I don’t stay in one place for long and have loved to travel ever since my first trip backpacking to Australia in my early twenties. I fell in love with the freedom and adventure and have been doing it ever since. I am at ease living out of a suitcase. I don’t feel the need to have an address. I love the wonder and excitement of travel, different cultures and new people. It’s not that I am lost, nor am I searching for something I just love this way of life, the road is my home. The wanderlust, it livens my soul. I am captivated by the endless possibilities, the sounds, sights, tastes and smells.

I’m like a bird that needs to fly, I follow the sun and migrate when it turns cold. I feel unsettled if I spend too long in one place. I find my inspiration flows when I’m on the road, it aids my creativity and makes my heart sing. I also learn so much from different cultures and the people within them. I may touch down and take rest in many countries but it’s unlikely I’ll stay. My feet will itch and the road will call me once again. Like a bird I relish my freedom to fly, don’t try to clip my wings or keep me in a cage. It’s a life of adventure, a life many dream of but few live.

I spend time revisiting my birthplace to see family and friends who are dear to me. But there’s one place in particular I always return to. They call it the land of the long white cloud.

It is a place of stunning natural beauty, mighty mountains, clear lakes that shine like jewels, rugged coast line. Picture postcards views. A place where there are few questions and the answer is always ‘no worries’. How I miss the big green spaces, the clean air and the slower pace of life. I long to return to a place where I’m not the only one that says ‘Ay’ after a sentence! I have no physical place to call home there, no family ties yet something keeps tugging at my heart. A light burns bright in my soul when I hear the accent or see pictures of its landscape.

I have travelled to many places yet the natural beauty here is something I’ve never seen repeated. But it’s much more about what the eyes see. The heart feels the tug, the pull towards home. The soul feels the connection to a land that is not of my birth and when I am here I am home.

I can’t guarantee I’ll stay but I am always sure I’ll be back. When I leave I carry a piece of you within me. When I return that piece becomes complete. As I slip off my jandals and walk out onto the beach, my feet fit the earth beneath them like they were made to walk here. As I listen to the Tui and walk with the Totara, my heart sings and my soul breathes a sigh of relief.

From the tip of Reinga to the wild, west coast, through the mountainous desert in the shadow of mighty Ruapehu and the stillness of the vast Lake Taupo, this is where I belong. Aotearoa has my heart, there is an unseen tie that keeps me coming back. It’s a place I miss when I am not there and a place that will always occupy a piece of my soul. Never forget how blessed you are if you call this place your home.

Mindfulness: Coming Home

buddha garden

“I have arrived.  I am home.” It is the mantra of Plum Village.  or in French “Je suis chez moi, Je suis arrive”.  It is the mindfulness retreat in the south of France founded by Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh and where I recently spent a week.

I’d been on retreats before but I still didn’t know what to expect as I was new to this tradition. I was looking forward to some peaceful time, living simply, relaxing in the sun and being disconnected from phones and email.

The weather surprised me as it rained for two days on arrival and although it was August overnight temperatures were low. Not ideal camping conditions! This taught me my first lesson. How the weather affects my mood and the need to cultivate happiness based on your internal state not your external circumstances. As much as I’d love to, I cannot control the weather!

It took me a couple of days to settle in, to get used to the schedule and my surroundings. The day started at 530 am, there was morning stretching and sitting meditation followed by a dharma talk and breakfast. We were silent until after breakfast and other periods of silence ensued during meal times and in the evenings. Periods of walking meditations, free time, yoga, tai chi and qi gong were scattered throughout the afternoon but everything was optional. There was also the chance to get involved in sangha communities and be of service by engaging in working meditations in the village.  Anything from gardening, cleaning to preparing food. Throughout the day bells would ring.  A sign for everyone to stop what they were doing, return to themselves and focus on the breath.

Even the animals seemed to be affected by the peaceful energy that filled the village. Cats would roam in and out of a yoga class of 200 people and a magpie would come and check out bags, sit on our heads and speak to us as we sat in meditation. It was perhaps something I think could only happen here.

I was surprised at the amount of people there, it was busier than I expected but the segregation of retreatants into smaller communities or ‘families’ and the periods of silence meant that it never seemed as busy as it really was.  Although I am not keen on big crowds I felt optimistic that so many people were waking up and that as more and more people learned traditions like this it is really possible that we will change the world.  This thought nourished my soul.

People came from all over the world to share their own stories, struggles, journeys and as it appears amazing musical talents.  Impromptu concerts of guitar, piano, violin, mouth organ, bagpipes and singing seemed to pop up all over the hamlet during the afternoons.

Most evenings after dinner in our families, we’d gather for songs and would part take in dharma sharing where people were free to share their thoughts, feelings and inspiration with the family, without judgement. It was a great opportunity to practise deep listening and learn from the wisdom we were surrounded by. The monks in our family also offered wisdom and this, in addition to the morning talks, was priceless. To my surprise people really opened up in these sessions, even though we had only met for the first time on this retreat and by the end of the week were had a connection just like a family. This particularly surprised me as I had not even spoken to some of these people yet I felt deeply connected to them and a great love between us that I have not previously known for strangers I have known for less than a week and will most likely not meet again.  This taught me the importance of communication without words, and in a world that can’t stop talking this was eye opening.

I had read and wrote a lot about mindfulness and considered myself to be well versed on the topic but this week has taught me the difference between knowing something intellectually and understanding the theory and then really living it, experiencing it, feeling it and knowing it in your heart.

Mindfulness is meditation in daily life, it’s being in the present moment, without judgement, being awake, alive and aware and coming home to yourself and this week felt like that had truly happened. I was able to see the beauty in every moment, even if that was the rain falling from the leaves of the tree, the frogs on the lily pads, the earth under my feet or the taste of a carrot fresh from the garden.

Everything became a meditation, each task was turned into an opportunity to turn inwards and be in the present moment. Whether it was eating lunch, drinking tea, walking, helping on the farm or sitting in the meditation hall.

The meals are light, small, pure and clean, made up of grains and vegetables and strictly vegan.  I experienced a headache for the first couple of days as my body got rid of its toxins but after that felt amazing. The food was all from the organic farm on site and we were lucky enough to spend our working meditation time down on the farm.  Helping to pick, plant, weed and really connect with the earth and what we were eating.

In the same way the walking meditations really allowed us to connect with nature, listen to the wind in the trees, the birds sing and the feeling of sunlight on my face. As I adjusted it felt like a fog had cleared from my mind but also my vision. I was seeing so much more clearly both with my eyes and my heart. The colours of the natural environment I was in amazed me and the food tasted devine. It was like eating for the first time and it filled me with gratitude. Rarely in our busy lives to we take the time to truly enjoy our food, to think about where it has come from.  The sun, the rain, the earth that has made it.  The people who have tended it, picked it then cooked it for our enjoyment. I also found that by taking my time the food not only tasted better but filled me up despite the quantity being a lot less than I was used to. My relationship with food has never been a healthy one but coming here and appreciating such clean food, eating in moderation, sharing and being connected to the cultivation of this food and the nature that allows it to nourish us was truly awe-inspiring. Mindful eating is one thing I will be taking back to me daily life, but there is so much more.

This focus on introspection led to the arising of many emotions, long hidden in our world of busyness and distractions. One day out of nowhere I experienced my own breakthrough.  I had been working on (unsuccessfully) letting go of the need to control, the need to know, planning the future and working on ‘goals’ to achieve. Whilst a certain amount of planning is necessary as we navigate life, spending too much time worrying about the future robs us of our present moment and in reality we can never predict the future as tomorrow never comes. This is something that had been part of my life for many years and the fear of uncertainty, not knowing and not being in control was something that faced me most days recently.

As I sat in the Buddha garden, overlooking fields of vines, pine forests and sunflowers a distant church bell rang and a weight lifted from my shoulders. Out of nowhere, and so simply I got it. “I don’t need to know, because we never can know” these words were spoken to my heart and for the first time I understood. This time it wasn’t just an intellectual understanding of the words, I could feel them in my heart and at once my anxiety about the future disappeared. Words I’d been reading and saying to myself for so long now made sense, like a penny had dropped and I let go. I am excited by the opportunities that I am open to and the freedom this gives me and I trust that I will feel what’s right as I navigate each moment as my future unfolds as it’s meant to be.

We don’t always need a plan.  Sometimes we just need to breathe, trust, let go and see what happens.

Letting go of the future has increased the time I spend in the present, which is the only moment we have.  Life is the present and this is where we are at home. This has been another major breakthrough; I have learned that I have arrived, I am home.

I have been a nomad since I first started travelling and went pack backing to Australia in my early twenties.  I always felt like I was travelling in search of something and I was hooked on the freedom being a nomad offered. As a result of this lifestyle I have become accustomed to being at home wherever I happen to be. Home is wherever I am, because home is a place within. It’s more about soul than it is soil and it’s not a physical place I can point to but something I feel deep inside my heart.

It may well be that it is easy to be mindful at a place like plum village or hiking through the French countryside with like minded people whilst your dinner is cooked and your problems are left behind. What about real life? When we return to our home, jobs, traffic jams, emails and social activities? When we’re exposed to busyness, anger and suffering.  How then can we take what we’ve learned and continue to be mindful?

Because mindfulness comes from within, it is something that you can carry with you 24/7. It is something you can turn to regardless of what chaos is going on around you. It is a skill that can be applied to any task and a place to come back to when you need stillness.  It is your home from home and your place of peace and whilst these conditions are ideal for practice the more we practice the better we get making it easier to take what we’ve learned back into our daily lives.

Mindfulness is acceptance of what is, without judgement, being yourself, at home with yourself and seeing the beauty in every moment. It teaches us to slow down and notice more, this leads to a true happiness that arises from within.  Independent of external circumstances. Mindfulness brings us back to the present moment and back to ourselves, the home within.

If happiness was a place (Bhutan)

Taktsang Monastery or Tigers Nest

Bhutan has always held an air of mystery for me, I didn’t know anyone who’d ever been and most people I spoke to hadn’t even heard of it, but as soon as I discovered there was a place that put Gross National Happiness before Gross Domestic Product I had to visit.

I knew it was a special place before I’d even arrived. We flew through the Paro valley and approached the airport through the cloud covered Himalayas, gliding past mountains that seem to insulate Bhutan from the outside world, it felt like I was descending into another realm.

Known as the land of the peaceful thunder dragon, Bhutan is a deeply Buddhist country, with a population of 700,000. It is a small Kingdom steeped in tradition, many of the people still wear the traditional Bhutanese dress and the traditional culture is something they are keen to preserve and delighted to share. As a result of their Buddhist beliefs no animals are killed, this means meat is imported from India and street dogs are plentiful, however unlike most dishevelled strays on the streets of Asia these dogs look more like pets as they are so well looked after, it can get a bit noisy at night though!

Bhutan is the only country to measure its progress and growth in terms of happiness before GDP and is covered with 60% forest. It is a remote Kingdom between India and China yet nothing like either of its neighbours. It is an unspoilt place of natural beauty, the air is fresh and the rivers clean. Set in the beautiful Himalayas, the altitude varies as we travel though the country, some mornings we are high up and it’s barely above 0 degrees but lower down in the cities it reached 27 degrees. The altitude also meant that some of the treks were done at a very slow pace but this seemingly reflected the pace throughout the country at all elevations!

Bhutan has a serenity and calmness to it, the pace of life is slower and the people are satisfied with the little they have, it seems to work very well and they have something so elusive to many richer countries; happiness. Education and health care are free here and even visitors who fall sick are treated for free. Because there is not the same consumer motivation around money there is no hassle to buy things, no danger of being conned and no staff trying to entice you into shops and restaurants.

As our tour began in Paro I immediately noticed the unique architecture, all the houses, shops and government buildings are built in the traditional Bhutanese way, white walls with wooden carvings and intimate detail usually reserved for buildings of note dawn every dwelling in Bhutan. It is like stepping back in time yet Bhutan has managed to retain its traditions and culture whilst still keeping up with the modern world.

Once in the countryside the charm of Bhutan becomes apparent, the air smells of pine forests and at every turn there is a mountain view, a deep gorge or an untouched natural forest. We took time to trek up to one of the most famous icons of Bhutan, the beautiful Taktsang Monastery or Tigers Nest as it is known which perches perilously close to the edge of a cliff at an elevation of 3,500m but the steep climb is well worth it. The place feels sacred as soon as we enter as do many of the religious sites we visit.

The temples were many and part of everyday local life rather than tourist attractions. The fact that photography wasn’t allowed inside meant we spent more time enjoying the moment and our focus was on what we’re experiencing. Statues made of gold watched us as we moved through the rooms that were filled with an air of peace and tranquillity, monks gave out holy water and accepted offerings as the flames from the butter lamps flickered and the smell of incense hung in the air. Some of the temples we saw dated back to the seventh century, the walls were covered in the most detailed paintings depicting Buddhist stories.

Locals made offerings and walked countless times around the Stupas whilst clutching their mala beads. There are prayer wheels and flags at every turn in the colours of the elements earth, wind, fire, water and forest. They look magical flaying over the mountains and the people here have coveted one of their main economies, hydro power, to ensure the prayer wheels turn continually.

The tour took a more energetic turn as we embarked on an overnight trek up to one of the oldest monastery’s Jele Dzong over the Jele pass and camped in the mountains overnight. The guides looked after us at every step, hot meals appeared out of nowhere high up in the hills, our tents were erected and dismantled for us and the bags seemed to follow us everywhere yet we never had to move them. As we began steep climbs rather than the usual safety briefing, the advice was to go slow and enjoy the moment. I spent time watching the clouds move across the hills like smoke rising from below as the sound of monks chanting drifted across the dawn and rays of sunlight filtered down onto the villages below.

We spent a couple of nights in the countrys capital city Thimphu. The gorges here are not wide enough to fly into and it dawned on me as we sat having lunch that this must be the only capital city without an airport or a traffic light. They had tried to introduce a stop light at the busiest intersection (where dogs still sleep in the road) but it confused people so now there is a young, well dressed man in elegant white gloves who directs the traffic as if he is conducting an orchestra in a way that only the Bhutanese could.

On the way out of town we drove past the prison which apparently has 15 inmates, there is no capital punishment here, a life sentence is the penalty for murder but apparently there haven’t been any murders to test that!

As we left Thimphu we drove back up into the mountains and we were welcomed into a local farmhouse in the village of Gangtey for an overnight stay with a Bhutanese farmer and his family. Seeing how the locals lived and sampling the food they cooked for us was a real glimpse into Bhutanese life. 70% of the local population live rurally on farms so there was no shortage of food, the local food is both simple and delicious and defined by the frequent accompaniment (with every meal) of their favourite red rice and chilli cheese.

Full of surprises our next destination didn’t disappoint. We stayed in Lobeysa the home of the divine madman and seemingly the countrys centre of fertility. Paintings of large phallus dawn every building and the temple Chime Lhakhang is frequently visited by couples who are struggling to conceive, here they receive a blessing for fertility, a name for their child and promise to return once they have given birth to say thank you, apparently it’s 100% successful!

One of the things that surprised me most was the standard of English for a country not heavily visited and only open to tourists since 1974. They have been learning English at school since the 50’s long before tourism and it shows. I noticed at the front of the schools there were mottos such as ‘excellence in body, speech and mind’ and ‘meaningful living’; how I wished more kids across the world were being taught this sort of stuff.

Once we had done the most of our trekking we were treated to some scenic drives which my aching legs appreciated. We drove through the deep gorges of the magical Haa Valley and up to the highest road in Bhutan, the Chelela Pass where we caught glimpses of the snow capped Himalayan scenery through the mist. It was here at 4,000m elevation that we hung our prayer flags and began a trek down to the Kila Goempa nunnery.

We spent a lot of time driving such are the distances between towns and the mountainous terrain. Due to the monsoon seasons and an undeveloped road network, work is constant and ongoing. Our journeys by road were long, bumpy in places and sometimes terrifying as we clung to the sides of sheer cliff faces but also breathtakingly beautiful as the winding roads ascended through forests, mountains and villages, past cows, monkeys, dogs and villagers selling tea and dumplings at road blocks and school children cheerfully waving as we passed by. We also took the opportunity to stop and watch a game of archery, the national sport of Bhutan before heading back to watch a local cultural dancing performance in the city.

It is becoming easier to get to Bhutan but they are still determined to protect the country, ensuring sustainability and in keeping with their mantra of making decisions that are good for the people and good for the environment. All visits must be booked through a tour group and whilst there is no limit to tourist visas they are all subject to a daily visa fee (approx. $250US), whilst it may seem expensive the fee includes a guide, accommodation, food and transport and your tour can be as individual as you want to make it.

Despite the packed schedule, the days of trekking, cold nights camping and arduous road journeys I feel happy and at peace. Bhutan, its untouched landscape and its endearing people have made my soul sing and is unlike any place I’ve been before.

As I prepare to leave, I feel exhausted yet still wanting more, I’d love to spend longer here but also consider myself lucky to have been to somewhere so unique. It warms my heart to know that there is a place in the world like this and that these people are living according to what matters.

Gaining perspective in Bali & Lombok

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I recently set off on the trip of a lifetime, a month in Asia spending time in Bali, Kathmandu and Bhutan. As I sat at the airport waiting to leave I heard about the earthquake in Nepal. I managed to get to Bali although a day late but couldn’t get much further.

I like to have everything planned and this trip was no exception, the disruption made me uncomfortable and darkened my mood, as well as being told all my air tickets were non refundable and the insurance would not cover anything. I knew I should be grateful I was not in Nepal, I should also be putting this into perspective, my dramas are nothing compared to what these people are going through. I reasoned with myself that feeling this way was ridiculous, I was a glass half full kind of person but I’d lost perspective and I’d lost the value of the present moment.

I knew all this stuff inside out, I’ve written a book on it yet here I was given the ideal opportunity to practice it and failing miserably. It got me thinking about the difference between intellectually understanding something and then actually putting it into practice. It’s like dieting, we know we shouldn’t eat cake and take aways but sometimes we do anyway.

I had to have a very stern word with myself, followed by a long walk and some meditation a massage and a slice of cake! I began to gain perspective and like a fog lifting I realised I was lucky not just to be alive but to be on holiday in Bali. I felt grateful for what I had, that so many others do not have, particularly those in Nepal. I no longer felt uncomfortable with not knowing, I knew it could be worse and I also knew it would turn out ok in the end, whatever was meant to be will be.

We may not always get what we want, but we always get what we need and for me that was this lesson. This has taught me about perspective, positive thinking and not to be so hard on myself, we are all human after all. But the biggest lesson I take is about putting what we know into practice. With so much information available to us we can know so much but what do we practice and experience? It’s this that makes the difference.

And now for the travel bit……………………….

Bali reminds me a lot of the Thai islands which I love, the people are happy and smiling, they have little but seem to make the best of it, the local food is fabulous, sunny days, rainy nights and laid back beaches. It also has the same annoyances; litter, hawkers, stray dogs and drunk backpackers. However Bali is not new to the tourist scene, they are more savvy and as a result have made much more money, prices are higher (although still very cheap compared to dollars) and flash resorts and glass fronted shops are around every corner. It is much more westernised, they speak very good English and have a great sense of humour.

As I ventured away from the main tourist spots I started to see local life unfold around me and particularly once I left Bali I noticed things like the 4:30am call to prayer from the local mosque in Lombok.

I spent my first few days in Ubud, yes, mainly because I watched eat pray love! I went to yoga barn, stocked up on cheap clothes from the market, visited the monkey forest and was asked 100 times per day if I wanted a taxi. In fact I got so used to saying ‘no, thanks’ as I walked down the street that I pre empted one guy and said it before he’d finished his sentence. Turns out he wanted to ask me how I was. I felt rude so apologised, said “I am fine thanks, how are you?” He said “I’m fine, you want taxi?”

After dealing with the initial travel disruptions and finding I had more time on my hands I decided I needed to head to my happy place and be by the beach. Ubud is good to see but I miss wide open spaces and being able to walk in places that are not crowded with motor vehicles, pollution and people so I headed to Lombok.

Spending time in Lombok, which is not as busy as Bali and newer to tourism I found the people to be friendly and after a few days calling out my name as I walked down the street. They took a particular shine to my greenstone and some new about Maori and were fascinated to talk about NZ. The kids either wanted to hi-five me or have their photo taken with me, either way I felt like a bit of a film star walking down the street.

After spending a few days in Lombok I am ready to venture to the Gilli islands just off the coast. They say there is a gilli island for everyone so I looked at which may suit me;

    1. Gilli Trawangan – ‘party hard, backpacker heaven’ – no way, too old for this shit
    2. Gilli Meno – ‘not much here, perfect for getting away from it but don’t expect wifi and restaurants’ – what no food, no way!
    3. Gilli Air – ‘somewhere in between the 2, a laid back place, snorkelling, eateries, but not as crazy as Gilli T’perfect, this has my name written all over it

So next stop Gilli Air, for beach, yoga and snorkelling and if I’m feeling energetic there’s a 5km walk around the island. I’ve gained my perspective, I’ve learned a lot (mostly about myself) and I’ve gained a sun tan and perhaps a few extra pounds in weight but have been lucky to see more of Bali, it’s not a bad place to be stranded and despite using up huge chunks of my savings I’ve rebooked to go to Bhutan from Bangkok and hope to still be able to do that part of the trip before leaving Asia, but whatever’s meant to be will be, where we are is where we’re meant to be.

Travelling light

 What having nothing taught me about having everything.

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I’d just turned 30, in the prime of my life and I had everything; I lived in a house overlooking the beach, I had a top corporate job with a flash car, I was living the dream as some of my friends suggested but I was increasingly unfulfilled, I felt weighed down and trapped by the stuff I had and the rat race I was part of. So when I turned 31 I decided to try a different tact and opted for the simple life. I quit my job, my house and gave most of my possessions away. I wanted a taste of the simple life, made up of what really matters, making room for real things, the things that are necessary for happiness.

I took the advice I’d read about that seemed to work so well for others and got rid of everything in my life that didn’t make me happy and made room for the things that would. It was like unpacking the suitcase of my life that I’d been dragging around for the last 30 years getting heavier and heavier and I was determined to only put back what I needed and what was good for me.

I set off on a journey across the world doing the things that made my heart sing. I lived in Ashrams, volunteered in Northern Thailand and visited all the countries I’d longed to see. Before I left I’d laid out all the things on the bed I thought I’d need and then realised half of it was not going to fit in the bag and after much culling I had a backpack ready to go which I couldn’t lift off the floor. It’s surprising what you really need when you can only pack the bare essentials and nothing encourages you to pack light than having to carry it around on your back for 12 months!

I found that by clearing out the things I didn’t enjoy I had time and space to do more of the things I did. I realised I could make do with one pair of shoes, I didn’t need a wardrobe overflowing with clothes I’d only wore once, I could live without wifi if I had to as checking facebook daily was not as important as my useage suggested. If there was something I needed that I didn’t have I made do with what I had, found an alternative or went without. What really brought this home was seeing how others lived, the hill tribes villages of northern Thailand where the kitchen consisted of a fire to cook on and a floor to sit on, there was no oven, dishwasher, dinning table or dinner service. However the room was filled with what mattered; family, love, laughter and more than enough food to go around.

Spending time living the simple life you realise how little we actually do need and by not having it how much more room you have for things in your life that really matter. We have put too much emphasis on having many things and it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that if you have something you want you’ll be happier with more. We struggle in the modern world with debt, obesity and addiction as a result of this mantra. But as Seneca put it “that man is poor, not who has little but who hankers after more”

At some point in our lives we are forced to reduce the amount we have, whether it’s financial reasons, divorce, sickness, natural disaster or eventually death. Guess what we won’t take with us when the inevitable happens, everything.   Having less stuff does not mean less quality of life and this is clear to me now. It opens more space in your life for the fun stuff, the things that really matter, there’s less to clean, insure and pack each time you move!

Going on this journey taught me how to appreciate the things we take for granted each day. Cold fresh water, a comfy bed with a nice warm duvet, a spare seat on the bus, having your own room. Living simply has also taught me to be grateful for what I have. When you don’t have something and miss it you realise how grateful you are that it’s there, whether this is your bed or your family, it’s the simple things that matter.

In between thoughts

VipasanaIt sounded so easy, go away for a 10 day silent Vipasana retreat, away from the busyness of daily life, to have all your meals cooked, nothing to do but it was intense, hard going internal work on a scale I’d never tried before. This was 10 days devoted to working on awareness of the body and mind and I was surprised by what I found.

It was a beautiful place surrounded by nature high up in the bush nestled in a valley north of Auckland. My room had everything I needed which was nothing at all really – a bed, a bench and some hooks. No electronic devices were allowed, nor were reading, writing materials, intoxicants or communication of any kind. The idea was that all distractions were removed to allow your entire focus to be on the job in hand.

The rules were strict but the silence was deafening, although it didn’t seem to apply to the Cicadas, Tui’s, Possums and Morepork!  There was complete silence throughout the day which started at 4am when the wake up gong sounded, there was 2 hours of meditation before breakfast and after lunch no further meals, just some fruit and tea in the evening.  I found when all distractions and noise were removed you are given the opportunity to notice so much more; the nature around us, the thoughts in our heads, the way we feel; which isn’t always positive which is why I guess we devote so much of our time to distracting ourselves from it.

We know our mind is important, everything we do and feel starts in the mind, it dictates how we feel and how we act yet we pay it so little attention and in fact go to extreme lengths to avoid doing so. We seek to fill our lives with distractions, facebook and youtube are great examples of this along with TV, magazines, going to the pub, anything to avoid being left alone with our own thoughts.

After 10 days spent alone with my own thoughts what surprised me most was how much time my mind spend either going through past events (which I can not change as they are in the past) or day dreaming about future plans. It was never in the present moment, jumping from thought to thought many of which were of little importance. That’s why it’s called the monkey mind, maybe it’s always doing this we just never notice as we’re never watching it or perhaps it gets busier when we try to control it. Yet once you focus on what it’s doing and the thoughts begin to subside you get a glimpse of what a peaceful mind looks like, between the train of thoughts appears these moments of emptiness, space, stillness and it feels like bliss.

The people in attendance (about 80 in total) were from all backgrounds and all walks of life and whilst different reasons had brought us here we all had one goal; to find peace of mind and inner contentment. The centre is one of many world wide and all available due to the kindness of others, run on donations and by volunteers so accessible to everyone.

We had been warned that undertaking the course was like peeling back layers of onion and as we went deeper into our mind it had the same effect with some people brought to tears due to the nature of what they were working through, at times it was often more like a therapy room! Many of the participants had past traumas or addictions that had contributed to their reason for being here. Some craving their cigarettes or coffee, for me it was my notepad and pen. I realised we are all fighting our own internal battles, we just use different weapons.

We spent hours everyday watching the sensations that came up from within us and learning to accept what we found. I was having other worldly sensations in my knees after 10 hours a day of sitting cross legged. Over the 10 days we learned to maintain awareness and equanimity, giving all our attention to this present moment and accepting what it brings. There were difficult things that came up for every individual but as in life rather than trying to avoid these difficulties we learned to accept them and know that they will pass. In the same way when the pleasant thoughts arose, as in life our task was not to chase after them on a desire fulfilled pursuit but to accept they have arisen but know they will not last.

This is the main learning for me; everything is impermanent and the good news is that means tough times won’t last forever but the bad news is that means that good times won’t last forever either. Knowing this we can avoid the disappointment and rather focus on acceptance, making us stronger people.

Whilst I don’t necessarily advocate the particular technique used in Vipasana as there are so many good meditation techniques out there, what I do endorse is finding space, silence and peace of mind through whatever method of meditation suits you. It’s taking the time to be with yourself, focus on the breath and become aware and in between the thoughts find that stillness and peace of mind that is the antidote to so much of our modern way of life and can work wonders for your mind, body and soul.

For more information about meditation, the benefits and how to get started, click here to visit the meditation page