When was the last time you asked yourself “why am I here”?
And I don’t mean in the context of a three-hour meeting that is not needing your expertise after all… I mean existentially. As in, “Am I going to accomplish anything more in this life than turning food into shit?” (Leonardo Da Vinci thought that was all some people were good for…)
I find myself worrying about whether my salary will cover my rent, gas, electricity, over the next year. Because they’re going up and it isn’t. I worry whether I will make it on time to the next zoom call, and compulsively check the clock. These are small questions and anxieties. There are bigger ones that we forget about, too busy with these small ones to notice.
It takes quite the displacement and fulfilment of all my basic needs – for me to feel truly at peace – to be able to contemplate the bigger questions… like “do I actively want that promotion, or do I want it because that is the only thing available ahead of me at my current job?”. “Should I have a child with my friend, and co-parent it to adulthood, given I haven’t found a partner?”. “What would I write a novel about?”. “Where is a good place to grow old and die?” (I have borrowed some of these from a few friends)
The secret to being able to think like this seems to be a place. Here is a bit about how it seems to work.
It takes two weeks or more
Turns out we can’t flip a switch and be in holiday mode.
Thoughts lurk. Demands are still felt. It takes a bit of time to tune into holiday mode. And I also discovered that once you are a “countable” number of days from the end of the holiday… you count them. Some weird, self-destructive, mission impossible countdown mode.
So this is the trick: take two weeks. Or three. Not one. Don’t put yourself into countdown mode the second you tune into holiday mode. It’s not relaxing.
Fewer choices help
The island I go to has five beaches, roughly three cocktail places, and a handful of coffee shops and tavernas. Your decisions for the day are EXTREMELY easy to make. There is no decision fatigue.
Every morning you put on your bathing suit, go get breakfast at one of maybe six places, and go swim in one of the five beaches. When you get hungry, you go eat in one of the half dozen options available. Easy.
Use your feet
My island is absolutely tiny. 5.7 square kilometres. You can walk around the whole thing in about two hours.
So whenever you want food, whatever you want is less than a 15min walk away. Whenever you want to meet a friend, they won’t have to wait for you more than 15min. Done with the beach? 15min boat ride or 25min walk back to the village.
Walking is also an excellent flow-thinking method. When the body moves, the brain gets to work (possibly out of boredom), and you have your deepest thoughts and brightest ideas. It also feels like you are leaving the things weighing you down behind you and moving on.
Walking is therapy. And it makes an unbelievable difference from City life -or even island life in big places like Mykonos or Mallorca- where you have to drive eeeeverywhere. It is an embodiment of the 15-minute City… except it has been there since the Paleolithic. (yes, really)
Sea is therapy
Go to the sea.
Firstly, swimming is amazing exercise for the body. Secondly, dunking into cool salty buoyant and crystal-clear sea-water when you have been cooked by the sun for a while, is one of the nicest feelings available in this life shy of an orgasm.
So swim, and let your mind wander. You will end up with stronger shoulders, stronger legs, and comforted by the cradling of the sea.
Look up. Lift your nose from the ground, turn your gaze to the sky, and look at the blue. And the stars.
In the day time, you may be blinded by the sun. In the night-time… you will see millions and millions of stars, as well as the milky way, as if hanging above our heads.
Every time I go visit, I end up stopping for five to ten minutes every night, at a dark spot between the town and my hotel, to gaze up at the stars. It is soothing, and overwhelming.
It puts things into perspective. New thoughts form. “I am small; Tiny.”. “There is Scorpio! Sagittarius! The Milky Way!”. “No wonder Socrates started asking questions of everyone, if this was the sky he looked up to every night”. “My life is short… how might I make it count?”.
Start by looking up.
When the magic happens
About five days in, you will have read two or three books, had several meals, swam multiple times, and seen constellations in different places up in the sky; maybe learned where Cassiopeia sits, upside down on her throne. Or that the brightest star up there these days is actually the planet Jupiter.
You will have forgotten about work. Your body will feel a little bit stronger. Rested. The wind will blow around you… and you will turn to the person next to you and ask “So, what do you really want in life?”.
And it is from these conversations that you can reflect on your choices, ponder new ones, debate directions, values, and often come up with ideas for new things. For changing the world. Maybe only around you. But even the smallest change is a start. That is what Jane Goodall advises anyway. “Start locally, and see the impact you can make”. You will be inspired to do more, because you will learn that you CAN create change.
I personally do not know, just yet, what kind of changes I might make. There is a ridiculous idea for a novel. Another for an app. Another for a business venture. Several questions about what is next in my career. Unanswered. I need more sea and stars time to explore and contemplate them.
Some people need a sabbatical of six months. You will be surprised what you can manage in three weeks, given the right setting!
I’ve also found it often helps to be able to see an infinite horizon.