Travel and the Inner Compass of Healing
Travel and the Inner Compass of Healing
“A fresh attitude starts to happen when we look to see that yesterday was yesterday, and now it is gone; today is today and now it is new. It is like that – every hour, every minute is changing. If we stop observing change, then we stop seeing everything as new.” ~Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
I spent a few years of my life working abroad and while that time held some of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve known, it also contained long phases of loneliness, confusion and overwhelming doubt about where my path would lead. I grew accustomed to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and when I was in that space between – not entirely inspired, not totally lost – my perspective would feel dull like fog. It was during those emotional plateaus that I would long for the familiarity of home. But where was home? My mind would be restless, unable to fully land in my body – creating a sense of disconnect from myself and the surrounding environment. Everything and everyone would become strange, and I would begin to feel a rising vulnerability much like a still open wound.
The new world perspective I was catalyzed into after sexual violence, the recovery and re-organization of the pieces of my life afterwards reminds me of the roller coaster ride of my voyages. The impact of trauma itself can stir up a sense of foreignness both within yourself and the world around you – language escapes you, memory is out of order and things are not as they once seemed. You sit on life’s periphery looking from the outside in, never finding connection through the images and faces around you and no longer sensing it within your own shape.
For someone who hasn’t both traveled extensively (or who hasn’t felt themselves an “outsider” in a world where others seemingly feel at home) and also survived sexual violence, my suggestion that the two experiences are in some ways parallel may feel like an exaggeration. Yet, as a survivor, I look to any revelations I gain, however slight – on my yoga mat, in the woods, while playing an instrument, from the images in my dreams – and seek to weave them into the bigger picture of how I can experience and understand the fullness of my Self. I believe that my daily, seasonal and annual witnessing of the ongoing cycles of love and loss can teach me humility and compassion, while fortifying my courage to keep going forward. So, when a metaphor for healing emerges, I fully dive in.
Yet, can I really compare trauma healing to travel? Or, are there in fact ways in which we meet our true selves while traveling that is quite like the journey of self-discovery that comes with attending to the healing of the soul? Must I differentiate the travel we choose from that of the migrations that are forced upon the most vulnerable communities desperate to find home in a hostile world? Is it the nature of how we became strangers in our primary home (our bodies) that matters most in this exploration – or the mere fact that for some reason we ended up here, right now, in this temporary abode we call the body and that this is where our self-inquiry necessarily must originate?
With some distance (according to the calendar) from my most recent event of sexual violence, I can glance back and see the ways in which the changing tides of recovery – and the limbo between breaking through and breaking down – left me in an apathetic daze much like that of some very lonely times while living abroad. My nervous system having become accustomed to the flooding of emotion and the occasional waves of relief has had to re-learn after trauma how to become comfortable with rest and ease. My body adept at channeling and managing strong sensation – both positive and negative, now asks me to return to the seat of my mind so that I might learn to stay, to relax and to witness the simple comfort of stillness. There is a sense that the most difficult and most rewarding journey will not be found on any other road map except the one that leads inside. I am learning these skills of balancing active movement and intentional pauses, essential life tools that have been presented in front of me only because of a desperate post-traumatic search to survive.
Everything is New
There are the hard fought for peaks that we summit in the aftermath of sexual violence – we tell our story, we step back onto the dance floor, we explore intimacy with a lover, we burn the photographs and letters from the person who harmed us in a bonfire and we set ourselves free. There too, are the oceanic crevasses into which our dreams devolve into nightmares, where we cannot see the way out nor the way home, where all the beings we meet are foreign and frightening, and where there is simply never enough space.
In traveling abroad we encounter new languages, new perspectives, new cultures – everything is new. For a period of time it seems that possibilities are limitless, magical coincidences abound and the cluttered slate of our conditioned perspective is wiped clean. In travel, we can begin again and again. We are receptive, open and alert. In time though, we become habituated within our new world and the feeling of enthusiasm for all that is unknown, can devolve into a sense of not actually fitting in anywhere. Something shifts inside, and we are not who we have known ourselves to be all these year, and yet, we are not quite found. There may be too much surprise, constant uncertainty, and unconscious fears around trust – from the customs official to the vendor in a market – all of this alongside relationships whose context in your second language leaves you treading in a cloudy pool of anxiousness.
There is no solid ground beneath us on which we can rely. We begin to glimpse the possibility that there never really was – and then we are really falling.
On a good day, the sky is the limit while journeying the globe, while on a bad day you feel at odds with the world. It is as if you are meeting yourself for the first time. Who is this person writing in the journal having these unfamiliar feelings? Who is this person taking risks and being bold in ways they never thought possible? Who is the witness watching all of this unfold? Is this all just a dream?
The constant pull between the two extremes can be exhausting and the swinging pendulum leaves you always a bit dizzy. Slowly, you notice a consistent pattern of the inevitable evolution of your state of mind: sadness can follow bliss and often, grief can turn to gratitude. You learn to trust that however intense the current phase feels, the next moment of clarity of why you have chosen to remain on this unpredictable path awaits you, just beyond the next curve in the road.
Meeting Yourself on the Path
When we leave home, we adventure into a new life where all that is familiar – the identities we carry all shaped by the accumulation of experience, friendships, families and culture – instantly disappears. We can feel lost within the search to understand who we are without those long-attached histories, without the markers of our personality that we have assumed for so long. We may even become unrecognizable to ourselves. This can feel frightening and isolating, yet this phase of our solo journey is critical. In the absence of external reflections of who we are, we have to search internally, asking; Who are we at the core of our heart? Who is the “I” that has accompanied us for so long, yet may just now be surfacing? Can we let go of the strenuous effort to hold onto who we’ve known ourselves to be and simply clear the way so that the person we truly are can finally arrive?
Each survivor has their own path, their own map towards recovery. We follow a hidden code that only our spirits can transcribe. We draw the lines from point to point and make up the route between our starting place and our many, impermanent destinations along the journey. The lines we follow might swirl, move sideways, in reverse, and occasionally, they lead us to dead ends – which are simply new beginnings in disguise. We learn to expand our scope of options by not just embarking on the path ahead of us, but sometimes, marking our own. We are steeping ourselves in a process, both in our hearts and along the road, of spiritual metamorphosis.
Travelers often sense an inner compass, a feeling of being drawn somewhere and following – before even knowing why, without needing to know why – and sometimes we do not understand the significance of our unconscious desire until months or years after the journey has come to a close. We find old photographs and barely recognize the person in the image, yet simultaneously, we smell the scene as if it was yesterday we wandered upon those streets. We remember the details not like they happened in our heart, but rather, like a distant dream we were a mere witness to so many years ago. We might wonder, did that really happen?
In healing after trauma, a similar experience can emerge – perhaps we’ve known ourselves to be one way and yet the effects of trauma have made us feel like our reflection in the mirror is a stranger. Our friends and family remind us that we are not who we once were, which is more about their own confusion about how our trauma has impacted them and less a critique of our spirit’s natural inclination to grow. In ways, this process will be more uncomfortable for them than it is for us – we are the ones immersed in the waters of resilience. We may have no other choice than to be bathed by the truth of our own grief.
The evolution of our Soul happens inside our own heart, it accompanies us in our dreams and in our waking, and the subtlety of change becomes the only constant we can count on. Perhaps the only thing we know for sure is that life does not move backwards. Propelled like the turning of the planet with forward momentum, resistance to the inevitable is not only futile, it creates deep emotional and psychic pain. This stripping down to the core of emotion, sensation and faith when all hope has been lost teaches us that beneath the weight or perhaps because of the weight of trauma, we expand to encompass so much more. We are building a body that can tolerate, hold and nourish the great love and the great loss of being alive.
Resting on The Plateau
As a survivor, I am realizing that in order to sync with the currents of my healing, I must balance within this horizontal space – the space between total devastation and total bliss. This lateral range on the periphery of contentment is vast. The plateau may also bore a restless mind after having traversed the stimulation, however unpleasant at times, of the work of trauma healing. Being present and staying interested in the experience requires a strong internal focus and a reclamation of our childlike curiosity. My immune system has begun sending ever-frequent signals that it desires this kind of homeostasis – a place between extremes.
I am called to distinguish the nuance between my notions of peace and safety. For me, peace has to emerge from within, whereas the external nature of safety requires my forever grasping for that which can never be controlled. In order to be sustainable in my body and my life, I know that the landscape between intense pleasure and chest compressing pain is a terrain I must learn to embrace. Refining my metaphorical lens to admire the beauty of rolling, green pastures as much as that of jagged, soaring mountain peaks is a practice. I can still be in touch with all that the trauma holds, without relying anymore on its pain as my fuel.
Travel and healing provide a unique, although arduous, process for us to find ourselves – to recognize all that we are when we shed external expectations and start to cultivate the voice, perspective and insight of the soul inside. Eventually, having overcome the mountains that were once barriers to joy and having pulled ourselves up from the well of our isolation – we reach a smooth plateau. This requires a new kind of orienting, whether an international voyager or a survivor navigating the path back to themselves – to settle into the simplicity and quiet of the tender pause between the rise and fall of emotion. There is a steady flow of contentment that in order to tap requires a certain kind of slowing down. We no longer rely on momentous sensation to invite a poignant experience. We land firmly and fully in the wonder of the most basic awareness of the sustaining nature of our breath, which invokes the beautifully creative mystery of being alive.
Presence Paves the Way
As a traveler and as a survivor you develop, often out of necessity, a feeling of presence that magnifies every experience – bliss and despair alike. We have opportunities that come to us inevitably, where we must let go of everything that we are not, in order to recognize who we truly are. We traverse the boundaries of what we believed we could handle and what we had told ourselves we most feared. We begin to embrace the possibility that we were never really stuck – that movement, change and surprise are inherent along any journey. We need not cling to our plan, and in doing so, we can experience the flexibility and fortitude that is the nature of our being.
Unfastening ourselves from a fixed attachment to the destination is a challenge for any traveler – global or spiritual. We have a goal in mind – whether an ancient temple or a feeling of being “healed”. While the organs of perception can serve as tools to direct our quest, it is in surrendering to the parts of us that transcend the confines of flesh and bone that will teach us to abide with the dynamic sensations of simply being alive. The knowledge we seek, the possibilities we contemplate, the experiences that we crave, the roads we must travel – all lead us to rediscovering the abundance we already hold inside. What needs to be revealed need not be rushed – it is already coming – therefore, on this heroic journey, we must pack patience instead of pride.
At last, we might relinquish our constant wandering and give ourselves permission to settle into all that is available to us right now. Stilling ourselves with the grace of our own breath, we discover the miracle that is the inner compass of healing – a magnetic force always gravitating towards Our True North. Regardless of our current geographic or emotional location, no matter how totally lost or how far away we might feel – in an instant, it can emerge, ready to guide us home, eager to invite us back inside.
Travel and the Inner Compass of Healing was written by Molly Boeder Harris. Molly is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, as well as a certified yoga instructor teaching private and group classes for the general public and for survivors of sexual violence in Portland, Oregon. You can read about Molly’s work with survivors via the holistic practice of trauma-informed yoga and Somatic Experiencing by visiting her practitioner page.