Sitting in a cafe with a couple of girlfriends one hot afternoon, our conversation turned to travel. We compared backpacking experiences, related funny stories and offered one another a glimpse into foreign cultures. Each of us encouraged the others to tell us more, to share more. We were all fascinated by these unique insights that we could not have found out alone, and the chatter rolled easily, until dusk began to fall, our heads filled with wondrous images of far away lands.
A common lamentation among us was the question: why do we not know about the special characteristics of the many cultures that populate our earth? Why did we not learn about these cultures in school? Why have we been taught, instead, that our traditions and ways of life are Right and our only options?
In school I learnt French, for eight years. Not only do I not remember any of it, but I also know nothing about the french culture, or french-speaking cultures for that matter. When I learnt Spanish, a decade later, I learnt it through observing Spanish speakers, from listening to them conversing, from curiosity – inquiring why a sentence was structured in such a way, why there are different declarations of love, what everything means. It bought out the inner child in me, which sadly was not allowed to blossom during my actual childhood, when I learnt languages in English, from a text book. It was much, much easier to learn a language organically, driven by interest. Through such a process I learnt about geography and history and literature without actively studying anything.
Why did it take me twenty-five years to learn about Buddhism?
Why did I need to travel to India to understand how the values of this spiritual practice influence the outlook of a nation? Again, travel allowed me to become a child, to ask the local people questions about what they eat, what they believe, how they live. The lessons I learnt from this discovery truly changed the way I live. When I catch myself indulging in a bratty thought, or lusting after a material item, I think back to the people I met in India and how they, without exception, expressed a gratitude for what they have, without lusting for more with no promise of satisfaction. When I am anxiously rushing around the house to prepare for a trip, or to catch a bus, I think back to Central America, and remind myself to calm down. That there will always be time, to enjoy the moment and to breathe. I am inspired by the people I have observed.
I am grateful to have had the opportunities to learn these lessons, though they were later in life that I needed them. I could have really used a lesson in satisfaction with your lot in life when I was screaming at my parents in a teenage rage, I could have really used a lesson in the power of rest and calmness when I was approaching high school tests. I could have really used a lesson in loving myself, in female empowerment, in feeling sexy with a curvaceous body as they teach their women in Brazil, when I was self conscious and staring at the unreachable standards set by models in fashion magazines. And to think that many people don’t have the chance to discover such important lessons.
The entitlement amongst the Western world, and English speakers in general is laughable once your mind is opened up to the world. One of my favourite examples is in medicine. When I was diagnosed with anxiety, my unusually open doctor suggested that before I rely on anti-depressants, I should try yoga. It would teach me how to control my breathing, how to release tension in my body and how to relax. Sceptically, I followed her instructions. I emerged from my first yoga class with a wide smile on my face, as I waited for the bus, I watched the birds flutter and marvelled at the beautiful colours of nature. I felt drugged, high but I wasn’t, I had just relaxed. And sure enough, my anxiety significantly improved. This is not to say that Western medicine isn’t a magical thing: it is a blessing. It is only to say that there are other methods. That many cultures have survived on the knowledge of naturally available remedies that they are incredibly skilled in using. That acupuncture really could work for you, and should not be shunned in favour of popping pills that you end up paying for because of internal industry politics and greed.
Don’t sniff at what is foreign, don’t dismiss what is strange, and don’t cling to what you know. I, in my few years on earth, have learned that this is what will help you grow and enjoy your life.