Buddhists sometimes talk about moments that “stop the mind.” Those astounding, frightening, unmooring moments that suddenly and sharply pull the rug out from under you and your illusions. This is when your carefully constructed mask of competence, self-assurance, and trust in the world is stripped off. You are not the “rock” some of your friends think you are. You’re suddenly not the person people want around them in case of an emergency. Nope, you’re just the incompetent, scared, angry, nutty lamebrain that has been hiding behind the mask of someone who is pretty functional most of the time.
Nothing does this more quickly for me than bad experiences. And, I–like many people–have had a few. These stand out…
- When the doctor tells you that, yes, it’s cancer. And it’s pretty far along. “Your summer is going to suck,” the surgeon says.
- When your sister’s coworker calls you to say your sister suddenly collapsed at work. Paramedics are taking her to the hospital. Your coworker helps you find your purse and insists on driving you, because you don’t know it yet, but your brain has shorted out, you can’t form complete sentences, and you have to remind yourself to breathe.
- And then another, when you see your sister, unresponsive in the emergency room, missing one of her Birkenstocks, the other laying on the floor as if tossed there. A small bag of her belongings and her purse sitting in a corner. Nurses hustling, a resident doctor taking notes. And despite the horror of the moment, wondering where her other shoe is, because they were pretty new and kind of expensive.
- And when your husband is robbed by gypsies in Sarajevo and now all his money, credit cards, ATM card, and driver’s license are gone. Well, that wakes you up.
This brings me to travel, and why I love it so much. Take our experience in Sarajevo. When the gypsy incident happened about 10 years ago, it was not a simple matter to call your credit card company to cancel your cards. “Toll-free” is not free in Bosnia. “Things are different here,” we heard more times than we could count. One needed to know the language to even get an operator who could make this “toll-free” call. We ended up owing the hotel $200 USD just for attempting to make a few unsuccessful phone calls. We were told to buy a phone card, which we did, but still needed someone to make the call for us. I discarded my introvert mask in order to approach young Bosnians on the street, hoping I would find someone who could speak English. I was not worried about being ripped off at that point. I had to trust. It did not take long to enlist the help of a 20-something young man who told us we bought the wrong kind of phone card, but let us use his, and then helped us call our bank in the states. The hotel trusted us to courier the money to them after we got home. At that time, cash was the only form of payment they accepted, and we had nothing.
When you are in a place where you don’t speak the language, where you are unsure of the right thing to do in a restaurant, when you have no clue what you are ordering for lunch, when the police pull you over at a checkpoint and no one speaks English and you don’t speak their language–there is no time to construct a mask. You are just you. The world comes into sharp focus, and it’s just you in this moment. Even when it’s unpleasant, it’s energizing, but more importantly it tells you what’s important–what things deserve your attention.
So what if you can’t remember your Facebook password. Forgot to cancel that doctor’s appointment before you left? Oh well. Your friend seems to be avoiding you? It will pass. The daily hassles of your old life back home? Not important. What’s important is right here, right now. Now that’s something to celebrate! It’s also indescribably energizing to discover that part of yourself that’s been repeatedly pushed away. Hey old friend! How long has it been? Too long. Catching up with that true self, whose appearances in your life have been far too rare, is nothing short of a miracle.