Costa Rica Lesson #2: No Matter Where You Go, There You Are
This picture, I found on the side of the fridge in our new place in Costa Rica after I spent much of the day thinking about this very thing. These words so aptly summarize exactly what I felt yesterday, so much so that a part of me feels like explaining is unnecessary—but it is.
The whole “happiness is about the journey, not the destination” thing has become a cliché, and I think, to really experience it deeply, we have to get specific, get real, get deep into those personal stories that reflect general, universal truths.
So here I go.
To begin, let us rewind about three years ago. In those days, I travelled about 2-3 times a year, sometimes 5-7. I went hitchhiking up to Sauble Beach. I went camping in Georgian Bay. I went to Montreal. I went to Cuba. I went backpacking in Europe.
Travelling, I thought, was essential to my livelihood.
And, each time I would find myself in some new place, I would feel a sense of euphoria. New places, new people, new experiences—all of these made me eye-rollingly, heart-pumpingly ecstatic.
And why? Some would say novelty. Others might say adventure. But I know the truth—each time I left my daily life, my inner cycles of anxiety and shame would be interrupted temporarily. For a moment, I would be free of my self-imposed shackles; I’d be free of myself.
And, of course, in a few days, it would wear off. The insecurities would return. The anxiety would come back full force, even stronger in a new place with new people.
No matter where I went, there I was.
Travelling, to me, felt almost identical to doing drugs. Once upon a time, the only way I knew to stop my anxiety was to smoke pot or take some hallucinogen. These drugs would make me euphoric, high on the absence of pain more than the presence of pleasure.
And even that wore off.
There were times in my life when I smoked pot every single day and, after a few weeks, the anxiety would burst through the drug-induced peace, rendering me, once again, a victim of my own chronic patterns of self-judgment and self-destruction.
No matter where I went, there I was.
Almost three years ago, I broke down and almost killed myself. Just over two years ago, I made an executive decision to share my authentic experiences with the world.
The journey from then until now was incredibly painful.
I gave up travelling. One day, I hoped I wouldn’t have to take vacations, but rather could be location independent while working online. I didn’t leave the Toronto area for three years. I was stuck with myself.
I gave up pot so that I could produce my own peace and my own euphoria, instead of dealing with my anxiety using drugs. I was stuck with my thoughts.
I gave up my mask so that I could fall in love with my naked face and my naked body, instead of dyeing, painting, and covering up my natural form. I was stuck with my skin, my face, my body.
I gave up dieting so that I could develop healthy habits of self-care that weren’t based on dogma or results, but rather daily routines of self-care and self-love. I was stuck with my weight, my cravings to binge, my desperate desire for an empty stomach.
I gave up hiding from people so that I could show up authentically and develop real relationships based on trust and love, rather than playing games and power dynamics. I was stuck with my awkward sense of humour, my sense of inadequacy in social situations, and my face that got red at the drop of a hat.
I was stuck with myself and, through that, I slowly learned to accept my cell mate.
I don’t make the cell comparison lightly. As I mentioned in the post I wrote right before I left Toronto, I spent the past year living in a tiny basement with one tiny window, working from home, and usually going out only to do groceries or take walks when the weather was pleasant enough.
I was stuck with myself. I had nowhere to go and nowhere to hide. No matter where I turned in my tiny little cave, there I was.
That year—the year after I quit my day job and before I left Toronto for good—was the most isolated time of my life. It was also a time of rapid growth.
All I did, all day, was work on myself. What else was there to do? I would work on myself and used the energy I created to help people and grow my business.
I spent my days writing, reading, working out, coaching, cooking, cleaning, doing groceries, and meditating. It was very rare that I did anything else.
In that time, I watched myself change.
From accepting my little cave and refusing to travel away from it, I learned to be grateful for it. I realized that having a space to care for is like having a body to care for. I filled that space, each day, with peace and love. And full of peace and love it became.
From living drug-free, I learned to be mindful of my thoughts and pick out the ones that caused anxious feelings. I learned to let go of those thoughts in my mind and in my body, consciously and lovingly. I learned how to do it on my own instead of being a prisoner of chemicals.
From living without covering up or dieting, I learned about the beauty of my body. I learned that, by living in a healthy way, I’m never going to be stick thin and that’s okay. I’m never going to be “naturally tanned” like the girls on television, and that’s okay. I learned to love all the little moles and stretch marks and hairs and dimples. I found reverence for my body, for this incredible external form I’ve been given.
From responding authentically in social situations, I learned to be comfortable with my quirks and with my reactions to people. I learned that, after every coaching session, I always walk away with my heart in a flutter and my skin sweaty. I learned that talking to people gets me naturally high, and that’s why my face gets red at times. I learned the true cause of those years of social anxiety—I was afraid because I really love people and love connecting with them. And that’s a beautiful thing.
I learned not only to accept myself, but to appreciate myself deeply, to be present with every part of myself, however “ugly” I thought it was. From being stuck with myself, I learned to be free.
Yesterday, when I stepped on the beach here in Playa Avellana, when I felt that sand between my toes and looked out at the waves rolling on the ocean and the blue horizon, I didn’t feel euphoric. I didn’t feel ecstatic. I didn’t feel eye-rolling pleasure like the kind you get taking a breath after holding it for too long.
I felt peaceful, calm, happy, quiet. I felt grateful. And I still do. I think I always will.
Walking along the shore, listening to the wind rippling through the trees, I realized how different my reaction was to this beautiful landscape than it had been to any beautiful landscape in the past. Historically, I was high on the beach. Now, I was peaceful with it, attentive to it, curious about it, at one with it.
I felt like I’d started a new relationship with this beautiful, mysterious place called Costa Rica, and like this was our first date.
And that’s a perfect metaphor. Because, when I hated myself, when I connected with some new man, I’d feel addicted to him. He would give me a break from the suffering within myself. I would quickly become dependent, clingy, needy. I would desperately seek to fill a hole within me with the presence of another person. I would shove sex, projection, infatuation into a love-sized hole, never knowing why it didn’t fit.
I think that’s what travel used to be to me. I was filling a hole. And that is why it was so euphoric: those moments on the beach, on the road, on the lake—those were the only times that I let myself open up and be 100% present with the world around me. Those were the only times I let myself live.
So, now, there is no hole. And my meeting with Costa Rica, with Playa Avellana, with the beautiful Pacific ocean is one of respect, honour, and curiosity. It reminds me of how I felt when I met Jamie: not dependent, needy, or addicted—like he was giving me something I didn’t have—but rather inspired, happy, and curious—like he was giving me an opportunity to explore my gifts, his gifts, and the gifts of life even deeper than before.
A client of mine once asked me: “What does being present feel like?”
I said, “It feels like whatever you’re present with. If you’re present with your anger, you’ll feel angry. If you’re present with your sadness, you’ll feel sad. If you’re present with your joy, you’ll feel joy. Presence is being there with whatever comes up, 100% there, not running or turning away. It takes the same thing to get out of a hole as it does to get up a mountain—climbing. By the same token, it takes the same thing to heal as it does to be happy—presence. It’s not a feeling. It’s a process. Asking ‘What does presence feel like?’ is like asking ‘What does cooking smell like?’”
Everything is a process, especially relationships—with ourselves, with others.
After we walked up and down the beach for some time, we settled at a local beach bar and stared out into the ocean, talking about choice and presence and identity.
Each moment rolled into another, and our conversation seemed to flow with the beauty of the outside world. And yet, we’ve had these conversations many times—on the bus, in the basement, in the snow, in Canada, and, now, in Costa Rica. We’re still doing what we’ve always loved to do: being present with each other.
So, here I am, present here with this beautiful place the same way I was present with the face I used to hate, the body I used to despise, and the anxiety I used to drug.
I am still me and I am still doing exactly the same thing as before.
I am here finding happiness by loving myself, loving people, and loving life—being 100% open to what I’m “stuck” with.
I just happen to be stuck with something most people would consider beautiful this time around. And that doesn’t make as much of a difference as the eyes I see it through.
No matter where I’ve gone, there I’ve been. And, for the first time in my life, it feels like a very, very good thing.
Some people claim to envy me, but I don’t think they see the real cause of celebration. Anyone can travel. Anyone can take a plane to a beach.
It takes real grit to change the mind that perceives that beach. That’s what really makes a difference.
Of course, it is easier here than it was in Canada. In Toronto, I had to perform hours of self-care routines to ensure that I was always present for my clients and inspired to change the world. Here, I missed two days of yoga and meditation this week, and it didn’t result in chaos.
Yes, things are better, but this move has not made everything better. My inner work made everything better. The wonders of this beautiful world just help me appreciate all that work I’ve done and to build on it in a sustainable, healthy, inspired, creative way.
Finally, I can appreciate all of the magnificence of nature around me without getting in my own way. And that is something anyone can learn to do—and I’d even say must learn to do—wherever they are.
I hope that, if you feel stuck somewhere, this can be inspiring to you. Because, sometimes, being stuck is what creates the most lasting and beautiful friendships, especially when it’s with yourself.
And don’t forget to find happiness along the road, so that you’ll find it again at the end of it.