In my mid-twenties, I departed the East Coast for romantic San Francisco. I had been dreaming about moving to the West Coast since I was a teenager and carted most of my stuff out there, imagining this would be a permanent move.
But things didn’t go as planned, and after nearly three years of living in San Francisco, I made the decision (more out of necessity than choice) to move back home to New York. I began the lonely process of unwinding my life, sorting through everything, donating and selling my belongings. I shipped the things I couldn’t part with to my aunt, who had offered to store them until I got settled—which meant that my aunt had about ten large boxes coming her way.
I began the lonely process of unwinding my life, sorting through everything, donating and selling my belongings.
Home shit home, I thought to myself as the plane touched down at JFK.
I was sad to be back. I felt defeated and lost. I had failed yet again. But this time I was thirty, so the shame and the failed expectations felt heavier, more monumental. I had departed, or more accurately fled, New York with the vision of a brand new sparkly life in California. In California, I'd have many friends, a loving, romantic relationship, a stimulating and fulfilling work environment. Everything that had ever eluded me would find its way to me in San Francisco.
Big fat surprise: I didn't find what I was looking for. As our wise friend Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us: Wherever You Go, There You Are. You can't run away from yourself, or from your issues. They tag along for the ride.
A friend of mine in a 12-step program told me that it was a well-known behavior in that circle—this fleeing business—and that a guy in her program announced one day that he had "done a location," meaning that he had moved to a new city with the idea that his new surroundings would magically change his life, rather than doing the inner work necessary to actually change. In that same sense, I too had done a location. I had “locationed” myself right back to the drawing board. No money. No career. No significant other. No home. Bupkis.
I moved into my cousin’s apartment temporarily. She and her boyfriend were living abroad for a period of time, so her apartment was empty. It was also empty of heat. There was a problem with the radiator and the super did not make it his priority to restore it. I was cold and lonely in that apartment. I brought very few clothes and personal items with me to my cousin’s home. I rotated the same two pairs of jeans more than I should admit.
My possessions were now scattered among three locations and I felt the same way. Scattered. Fragmented. Incomplete.
I drove to my aunt’s house, where I had shipped my boxes, several times throughout this period to organize and transfer some of the items to my mother’s home. My possessions were now scattered between three locations and I felt the same way. Scattered. Fragmented. Incomplete. During my first, cold week at my cousin's, I remember sitting on the couch alone, eating take-out and feeling like Bridget Jones. I cracked opened my fortune cookie, which read: "It doesn't get better until you get better."
I had no idea what my next step was or how to get better.
It turned out that my next step was a daily yoga practice—just moving my body and breathing and tuning in. I began, unbeknownst to me at the time, the process of slowly unwinding old patterns and stuck emotions in my body.
After about a year of yoga, meandering, eating ice cream out of the container, and, I’ll admit, reading my Zen tarot cards, I picked up the remainder of my stored belongings from my aunt’s house and proceeded to get rid of nearly everything. With each bag full of stuff I dropped off at the Salvation Army, I felt lighter, freer.
I had thought that skydiving, which I tried in San Francisco (among other misguided adventures), would be exhilarating, but the feeling of suffocating to death during the 90-second free fall put a damper on the experience. I couldn’t fly with the emotional baggage I was carting around. In my physical reality, I’d been moving my possessions with me from place to place for years. I'd been attached to my stuff, and, though I hadn't realized it, it'd been suffocating me. But what I found even more exhilarating and freeing than skydiving was shedding what I’d been dragging around from place to place for years.
I was realizing, through my hour or two each day on my yoga mat, that I didn't need much more than myself and my mat to be happy, to feel whole. When we slow down and bring awareness to the body, we can change unhealthy habits and patterns. The body is a reflection of the mind.
Possessions were becoming less important. I was less desirous of stuff or beauty procedures, like highlighting my hair (not that there is anything wrong with that, but my hair was in need of a break after a period of obsessive salon visits). Some of my armor was melting away.
Pema Chödrön, in The Wisdom of No Escape, discusses this idea of ridding ourselves of the armor we think is protecting us. “That’s what we’re doing here... removing armor," she states, "removing our protections, undoing all the stuff that covers over our wisdom and our gentleness and our awake quality.” (Chödrön, 69).
Around this time I had a dream. I was with an old friend, standing outside of her new home. It was a beautiful place I’d never seen before overlooking a clear, flowing expanse of water. “I didn’t know that you live here,” I said to my friend as I stared at my surroundings in awe. She said, “Yes, I live here.” And I felt perfectly serene and peaceful, like I was the flowing, clear water. I awoke knowing that I already resided in the place I’d been searching for. Then I remembered Chödrön's teachings on maitri in another of her books, The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness.
"When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they're going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. But loving kindness—maitri—toward ourselves doesn't mean getting rid of anything.... Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That's the ground, that's what we study, that's what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest." (Chödrön, 1-2).
So, you might say that my friend in my dream was just representing an aspect of me. And that the penetrating awe and peace that I felt was really a reflection of me accepting me, and that's why I woke up feeling that I arrived a long time ago in the place I'd been searching for.
Because, you know, wherever you go, there you are.