The Mechanics of Happiness

I haven’t written about my last few days in Thailand, let alone any of the last month. I mean, I was busy having fun and stuff, but that’s not the reason I haven’t updated my blog. The reason is that in those last days travelling by myself, I went through a mental shift that I’m able to put into words only now.

It happened in Pai, that backpacker place in northern Thailand. One day I woke up and thought: “I don’t feel like talking to anyone. I feel like walking”. And I started walking. I soon left the hippy-hostel-hill and found myself in some fields, surprisingly alone. I was carrying nothing but a mango, which I ate once I felt hungry. When I was done eating, I came across a little pond in which I could wash my hands. And then, there was this big temple in a tiny village, and I meditated. I hadn’t drunk in a while but I was not worried. I wasn’t sure where I was going and whether I’d be able to return home if I walked too far. But I just kept walking, observing, breathing.

“The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention” (Julia Cameron)

There was a shop where I bought some water and food. There were some sad chained elephants, there were trees and little huts that looked like shepherd’s napping spots. After a few hours (two? three?), I was starting to feel tired. And then, someone stopped their motorbike and asked me whether I needed a lift. “Well, I’m not sure whether I need one, as such…” – “So, where are you going?” – “I don’t know, maybe the Pai Canyon [two more walking hours down the road] would be nice?” – “Oh, then you definitely need a lift.”

And so I had energy left when reaching the canyon, energy to climb around the sandy narrow tracks and listen to breezy music while looking down deserted landscapes. Hitching back to town was then very easy. Life as such was easy. I’d shifted from planning and worrying to doing and trusting.

Yes. Maybe travelling is special. Maybe it is not wise at all to take this exalted state of mind as a baseline for comparing all my other experiences to. And yet, I found it worth telling this story because I’ve been learning from it in the month that has passed since.

Life has not proven that easy, of course. But also not horrible. For New Year’s, I went to Oxford, the home I had until half a year ago, and I stayed for two weeks. I was pleased, because I didn’t miss Thailand’s hot springs and exploration tours – Instead, I was very excited seeing lots of friends and connecting to lots of other people (like when I organised a conversation dinner, which one of my attendees wrote about).

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I spent a whole day just working on my goals for the year, trying to distil my experiences (especially those after graduation) into an action plan, or at least a direction. Like many people who have finished Uni and don’t yet know what comes next, I have found thinking about the future quite daunting (and not just because I worry about humanity destroying itself).

More precisely: I spent half a year being overwhelmed by the task, and then went travelling to escape my own thinking. And, who would have thought: that was exactly the right thing to do. Suddenly, I was able to focus on the positives. I won’t starve during the next few weeks (probably months) if I don’t make a decision, and I’m free. If I really wanted to, I could literally just leave. Or do whatever.

At the beginning of 2018, I felt excited about the year to come. I mentally stumbled over my own excitement, because it was something I hadn’t felt in a long time. Buzzed by the energy of actually looking forward to things as opposed to reluctantly engaging in the things I felt I was supposed to be doing, I decided on my first goal for this year. Being excited to get up in the morning. I don’t only want to be excited in the mornings, but that was inspired by the image of a child waking up and running down the stairs in the morning, excited about the day to come. That’s exactly what I want to do. My other goals kind of contribute to that, because they, too, are aimed at making me feel good. I want to cultivate a social life that contains deep connection, I want to feel like my body is strong and trustworthy, and I want to be creative (that’s another thing I realised I enjoyed, but hadn’t done in a long time). And, crucially, I’m allowing myself time to not think about what I should be doing – most notably, jobs. My guess is that plans about the future will come to me once excitement about life in general has settled in. That’s reversing the dynamic I felt during the last few months, where I felt like making future plans was becoming impossible the more I tried to force myself, because I just got too stressed to really do anything. I’m giving Excitement until the end of March, and if life isn’t automatically easier then, I’ll just figure out another strategy.

So, I made these glorious plans. And then, I came back to Berlin. I was greeted by a minor snow storm that soaked me in ice. Making friends was hard, and exercising was an effort that felt far beyond me. My initial inner-child response was to sulk, and go like: “Oh, the problem is Berlin. I should just leave again”.

I spent a week making myself do things anyway, all of the things I knew were good. I did some creative writing every day (“You have to allow yourself to create badly in order to create at all” getting me through my self-criticism). I went out to do parkour with someone, but ended up dancing around on the stones instead because that felt more like playing, and I need play more than “serious exercise” right now. I went to a meetup without really knowing what it was about, and it turned out to be people organising techno parties for fundraising purposes. I couldn’t even tell what techno is when hearing it, but the people were fun and I congratulated myself for going anyway. I went contact dancing, learnt how to do animal moves at a workshop, had dinner with a group of law students, and made a summary of a chapter which I handed out at a group discussion on moral philosophy.

All of that was actually pretty hard at the beginning, because I find being around strangers exhausting, and activities continued being draining even while I was doing them. For example, at the dancing session, I’d dance for a few minutes and enjoy myself, and then curl up in a corner…until I was able to dance again. In the moment, I couldn’t even tell whether I enjoyed the experience as a whole, but I reminded myself that doing things is better than not doing things. And the positive effects have started arriving.

After a few days, I suddenly thought: wouldn’t it be fun to pretend I’m travelling through Berlin right now? You know, do all the random things that I really love when I’m on a trip, just being perceptive to opportunities and ending up doing something totally unexpected. To get started, I made a list of things I could do and then set off to do something else entirely.

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I cycled around and suddenly saw all these things, stopped to take pictures, walked along a bit of the Berlin Wall, and found myself in a free exhibition. In the evening, I went to a two-and-a-half hours training session, physically intense, but also requiring coordination, reaction, and weirdness. And instead of being drained afterwards, I asked myself: “What next?”. There was a radical-leftist space two corners further on, and they provided dinner on donation basis (VoKü, or Volxküche, as it’s called here). I’m not sure whether that was still the buzz of the travelling day, but I didn’t feel insecure walking into the dirty space with people I didn’t know anything about. Maybe I was just massively hungry. Over dinner, I started talking with an anarchist – new people, new views! I could have continued the night in some party I was invited to and I’m sure I could have turned my life from unexpected to surreal if I’d tried a bit harder, but I was pleased enough with the state of affairs as it was.

All of that made me hopeful that I can make the transition from travel happiness to settled happiness. I think – I feel – that this year still has the potential to be a great one for me. It might not happen by itself, but I am learning what I need, and I’m trying my best to do whatever will work.

And just now, I noticed that my blogging theme has shifted from what I called “the mechanics of fear” to what I might as well call the mechanics of happiness.

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The Mechanics of Fear (and climbing gear)

I’m standing on about three centimetres of stone, pressed against the rock at about 18 metres from the ground, as Dave shouts up: “You have to turn around! Spin a few times – you know, like a ballerina!”. Seems like I don’t need to hitchhike to experience the thrill of the adventure.

I am at a climbing spot just out of Chiang Mai (called “Crazy Horse”), because climbers seem to know each other across continents, and because I was lucky. A cool local agreed to introduce me to the joys of outdoors rope climbing, me who has only been bouldering indoors a few times and occasionally gets on top of the odd wall. She brings along Dave, who leads the way up the twenty odd metres of rock, and then says: “You go next”.

I start climbing, slowly feeling the stone around me, touching it, stroking it. It is reassuringly solid and gives enough space to be gripped and to hold my body. Nice! Indeed, the difficulty is not the technical bit of the climbing (which is good, because my technique is very basic), but the ever increasing height. Several times, I stop to shake out my hands, which forces me to lean back into the rope and trust that my belayer down below has got me. When I reach the top, I turn around and look over the trees into the valley and I see the others down below, gosh, am I high. But – gosh – this is great!

Later, we try a second route. It’s meant to be as beginner-friendly as the first one, but it looks more difficult. Maybe it’s because the stone has had time to heat up, maybe I’m just a bit tired now.

When it’s my turn to go up, I am secured by a Dutch guy we met at the site. He is only hardly more experienced than me, which makes it even harder to trust in the rope that should prevent me from falling. Said rope also starts twisting as I climb which forces me to play ballerina at height. At about four or five metres from the top, I am not sure what to do. There is a ledge at about the height of my chin which provides good grip. If I managed to get my feet onto that one, I’d manage the rest of the route. My hands search for something to hold – after hearing Dave make some comments on proper technique, I repeat to myself “hands high, arms stretched, legs bent” (“aha, exactly like when you’re hanging on a wall before pulling yourself up”, my mind adds). The technical advice isn’t really helping: it feels as if upon leaving the instinctive auto-pilot (“get up this rock”), my mind suddenly offers me helpful comments like “Do you really think your hand can hold this grip for long?”.

Well, and every time I search for a grip higher than the nice protruding edge, I imagine my hands sliding over the surface, suddenly at a loss for things to hold, me falling backwards. After a few minutes, I shout down that I need a break. “Gotcha” goes the echo from below, but it takes a while until I loosen the fingers clamped around the saving edge. I stretch them, I breathe. That’s hard, because I can already feel the storminess inside (if it pleases you to imagine my mood like a deep sea, it is one now slowly set in motion). If I listen, I can hear something very primal trying to get my attention to inform me that nonononono, I don’t want to be here.

Instead, I look up and see that there’s only two more hooks left before the end, and I can picture how great it would be to be up there, to accomplish my mission.

I remember: “bend your legs, then push. Your legs are stronger than your arms”. Since I cannot directly reach the edge with my foot, I put it halfway up and try to imitate what I’d do if this was a wall: push against it to get enough momentum to move my body up.

And then, my left foot slips. I don’t know if I dangle in the ropes for a second, nor what my hands do. I don’t even know whether I make the sound of some small, frightened animal. I catch myself again, holding on, leaning back just enough to remind myself of the reassuring draw of the rope that secures me. What before was a dark, but mostly calm, ocean, is now like a tsunami going in all directions simultaneously. There is no capacity for thought, just a nameless force making me want to not be here. But even going back down requires a minimum of coordination, and I panic because I’m not able to go down, and I have no breath to shout that I want to be lowered. I breathe, I’m okay. I try to take action, I’m not okay. The panic comes in waves and this time, I do hear myself producing strange little sounds when they hit.

And for some reason, I don’t want to go down because I am so close, because I’m ashamed of leaving this unfinished, and because I want to concede no points to this part of me that seems so uncontrollable. Maybe it’s that wish to take control that makes me try a third, and last, time.

In any classic story, this would be the moment where I succeed, where the tension resolves into bliss and accomplishment. But there is no way my stretched nerves would do any better than before, no chance to spot a previously unnoticed path. So I try, and I fail, and I hoarsely shout that I want to be lowered.

When I come down, I am shaky and a bit disappointed. For a while, my brain keeps generating anxious thoughts, which in turn annoys me. But then, I also feel a strange lightness. It takes me a while until I notice: This was actually a pretty scary situation. It’s fine if my body reacts that way in case of actual danger (my body doesn’t yet know that much about ropes, so it must have been as scared as you’d imagine unsecured climbing would be). And now that the situation is over, I can relax.

And then, I am pleased with myself: today, I tried something that was new and outside my comfort zone. I am excited about it for several days to come. Why then did I share the “failure” bit of it more lengthily than the “excitement” bit? Obviously: because I don’t think that we have to succeed at everything straight away. If I only did stuff for which success was very likely, I probably wouldn’t learn much at all.

Just like in my last post, which talked about my not-so-successful attempt at hitchhiking, I am starting to celebrate my tries more than my successes. And I think that’s a great thing for me to do.

Would love to hear your thoughts!

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To Hitch or Not to Hitch

It is morning and I still haven’t decided. Will I do it? How dangerous is it? Can I do it? At the thought of leaving the hostel to hitchhike the 300 odd kilometres to Chiang Mai, my chest knots itself up and my head goes spinning.

I spend some time on my newsfeed to procrastinate, I google road safety (Thailand is number second in death cases on the road, after Libya) and half-heartedly check bus timings.

Yesterday, I had an argument about whether to do it, in which I revisited a lot of my points from this earlier post.

I think the arguments still stand, but two things make this situation different. One is that I am more tuned in with cautious, or anxious, vibes than I used to be. Therefore, I am more receptive to people telling me that I’m about to do something stupid. Rationally, I still don’t find the particular arguments I encounter convincing (I still think that we tend to exaggerate some risks, like being raped, while neglecting others. I am definitely more worried about car accidents here than about malicious people. And my cursory consultation of the usual sources seems to have shown that, if anything, Thailand is one of the nicer countries for autostopping), but I am faster to doubt myself. But then, I want to update my beliefs on rational grounds, and not because someone got me scared.

The second thing is that, because of the recent changes in my temper, hitchhiking now carries another significance for me. And it feels like now would be an exceptionally bad occasion to not do something because I’m scared.

I decide to give it a go because I want to remind myself that I am able to do things even if I feel scared and that, once I’m in it, reality usually isn’t as bad as I imagine it before I set off.

Just before I go, I have a chat with a girl in my hostel who has hitchhiked in Australia and therefore is sensitive to, and concerned about, my lack of hat or other sun protection. I reply “I might find one on the road” and she laughs about my bad planning. Fifty metres along the main road, there is a shop that sells hats.

I walk on, soon soaked in sweat. “I’ll wait till I’m at the exit of Old Sukhothai, so it will be more obvious that I’m hitchhiking”. This makes me gain time to think, and to collect my thoughts. Whenever a vehicle passes, I find a good reason not to signal – there’s not enough space, it looks like a tourist bus, there’s not enough room to stop. After half an hour, I finally come to a halt, on a place as good as any. I’m having moral doubts, and I feel ashamed. Am I propagating an image of the Western backpacker, who has, or could have, more money than the local population, and yet doesn’t spend any? What are the most likely consequences of my actions? Is it wrong to ask people who probably have less than you for favours? How good is it to ask people for favours at all? Would it really be that much better to spend my time working, to then spend my money feeding the Thai tourist industry (which, in turn, feeds lots of people)? And once I start think about morality, these things are no options at all, go work and spend your money/time really helping people instead of going on holiday!

Still, if choosing only between the two current options – to hitch or not to hitch – it comes down to a question about my goals. If my goal were simply to reach Chiang Mai, I might as well just take that goddamn bus, on danger of never recovering from my persistent air-conditioned cold.

But now that I’m travelling alone again, I aim for experience, I want to challenge myself, and I want to observe how people behave over here.

I stick out my thumb, and alternate that gesture with downward waves of my hand, which is how people stop taxis here. No-one seems to understand. My body language is hesitant; I find it very hard not to cross my arms, occupy my arms, twist my legs. I remember the second morning of my marathon-hitch from Morocco and how I’d persuaded people to stop by what seemed to be sheer force of will; how I’d been sure of myself and trusting in fate; how I’d really made myself believe that this was a glorious morning which would end in an awesome day, and how no challenge was able to stop me getting to where I wanted to be.

It doesn’t work this time.

After a while, I get the first acknowledgements: people indicate that they don’t have space or are not going my way. I feel better – at least some people understand what I’m trying to do. But no-one stops. Someone from opposite the road calls me and tries to say something, but we don’t understand each other. He comes from within a building that looks like it belongs to a university or some ministry.

I tell him where I’m going and give him a text in Thai about what I’m doing and what hitchhiking means. He reads it out loud, slowly. Then he smiles and motions me to go inside his car.

I’m not sure he understood, but I let chance decide – we’ll see where he brings me. Indeed, we drive all the way back to town and, out of all places, he stops right in front of my hostel. However, he doesn’t look at it, but crosses the street with me – to the police station opposite. I’m pretty sure hitchhiking is legal over here!?

Soon, I’m surrounded by a flock of more or less helpful police officers in snazzy uniforms, always happy to help what they perceive to be confused tourists. Out of awkwardness face to all this haphazard effort to help, I nod meekly as one of them asks “bus to Chiang Mai?”. And so, I am conducted to the bus station from where I head to my next destination.

Thailand! Family holiday (Familienurlaub)

I have never so much as looked at a guidebook about Thailand (okay, I leafed through one for about five minutes once). Now, I’m on an improvised road trip with my dad, my step mum, fifteen Thai people and two Malaysians, somewhere in North Eastern Thailand. As much as I’d like to find out more about my surroundings, I am tempted to stay in the dark for some more time and see how things unfold.

Things are good at that, unfolding. We follow, we savour, we see. Toyota vans, noodle soup and other things, temples – wooden and mosaic, colourful and sobre.

We travel in a cloud of animated chatter, a flock of a species that enjoys, most of all, taking pictures, especially of each other and oneself. And us, of course. We enjoy ourselves, start learning the art of posing, and the art of enjoying the silence when it’s there.

We leave the group when they travel East while we want to go North West, there are lots of hugs and good-bye photos, we make plans to have dinner together back in Germany (two of them live in our German hometown, which is how this all came about).

Our next stop is a spa resort; which lies in stark, but not unpleasant, contrast to my usual travel surroundings. This is a moment that falls into a very clearly labelled “holiday” category.

I spend my time lying around the pool and then, I experience my first Thai massage in such a relaxing environment that I can’t help but look for the loudspeakers producing the chirping, which, instead, originates from real birds.

Once the external pressure falls off, my mind suddenly gets laborious. And so, on my first morning in paradise, I complete a job application, and start reading books on topics I usually find challenging, like statistical modelling. The thinking: “These are things I am usually scared of, so better get them done in an environment in which it seems impossible to be unhappy”.

While that kind of makes sense, I notice that it gets me agitated nonetheless. And on the second day of paradise, after starting on more “serious” reading, I decide that this is also a great place to let go completely, and I fall back on a well-tested relaxation technique of mine – I start reading a Terry Pratchett novel.

Today, we are leaving paradise for a fallen city, that is, the ruins of what once was a capital of Thailand.

After that stop, our paths will also diverge and perhaps that will be the moment to give my journey a twist by embarking on an adventure. (Question: can you plan adventures, or do they have to come as a surprise? Or both?)