“Are you going to find yourself?”
The question about my travel plans caught me off guard.
I was heading to Ubud, a town nestled high in the Balinese rainforest, renowned as a magnet for those seeking spiritual guidance and emotional nourishment.
There’s a whole industry wanting you to believe you can go to Bali and come back barefoot and zen-like. That’s a lot of pressure for a holiday.
“Finding myself” was not on the itinerary of last week’s work trip – a fortuitous appearance at a writers’ festival, which was reward enough in itself.
But as a single woman of a certain age, it seemed I was a prime candidate for a pilgrimage of self-discovery in the spa resorts and yoga retreats of Ubud’s foothills.
It was here that writer Elizabeth Gilbert completed a journey she described as “one woman’s search for everything” in her breakout memoir Eat, Pray, Love, which later starred Julia Roberts in the Hollywood adaptation.
More than a decade since the book became a bestseller, its underlying message remains firmly lodged in our collective consciousness.
If you want to find enlightenment and a deep connection to your soul, just quit the rat race, throw on a kaftan and escape to a tropical paradise.
The soothing soundtrack of wind chimes and frog choruses will melt away your troubles, leaving you physically and mentally cleansed with a psyche impervious to life’s stresses.
Jill Stark was asked if she was going to Bali to “find herself”, a mythical achievement that has had the hard marketing sell in recent years.
It’s a lot of pressure for a holiday. And yet, this romantic notion of the nomadic heroine throwing off the shackles of modern life to find emotional clarity sucked me in for years.
So many trips were taken with the belief that they’d be so transformative I’d emerge as a barefoot goddess of serenity.
I’d tell myself, this time it will be different. This time I’ll find peace.
When my time away invariably failed to exact any lasting change and I still grappled with the self-doubt and anxiety I’d struggled with since childhood, I’d wonder what was wrong with me.
If Cheryl Strayed could go from “lost to found” on her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in her memoir Wild, why couldn’t I “find myself” on my travels?
This endless quest for fulfilment has been a cash cow for the booming "wellness" industry, which has successfully commodified the fragility of the human condition by convincing us we can escape our worries with the swipe of a credit card.
It’s a business model that capitalises on our tendency to go looking for spiritual awakening when we are at our most vulnerable, grasping for an easy escape from our discomfort.
But the truth is, “finding yourself” is a far more complex process than booking into a luxury hinterland resort or embarking on a cold pressed juice cleanse as you #liveyourbestlife in an infinity pool overlooking the ocean.
Taking a break might provide temporary respite (for those who can afford it) but when we return, the household chores and bills are still there. And inevitably, so are our problems.
Despite what the wellness gurus would have us believe, we can’t outsource our emotional labour to a travel agent.
The greatest journey of self-discovery I ever embarked on did not involve a change of scenery.
It required an unflinching examination of my inner landscape, and the courage to not look away from the ragged parts of me that will always be there no matter where I travel.
It has been four years since I suffered an epic mental health breakdown that I nearly didn’t survive.
In rebuilding myself from the ground up, I peeled back the layers of my identity, trying to reconcile the successful, well-adjusted woman the world saw with the scared and broken human I knew myself to be.
I know now that I can’t leave my emotional baggage by the front door while I take a vacation. But I can learn to carry it with grace.
During those early months, when it was a struggle to get through the day, I bunkered down at a friend’s house by the beach, in the hope that its tranquillity would provide respite.
But when your brain is set to panic mode, the gentle summer breeze could be whispering sweet nothings and playing pan pipe lullabies and you still wouldn’t be able to relax.
After a lot of hard work in therapy – which I’m acutely aware is a luxury many people simply can’t afford – I have reached a place where I know and like myself more than I ever have, flaws and all.
I know now that I can’t leave my emotional baggage by the front door while I take a vacation. But I can learn to carry it with grace. And it starts with acknowledging there is no quick solution for life's big questions.
While holidays can offer the space to reflect, foster creativity and cultivate solitude, it takes commitment to practise these things amid the stresses and mundanity of everyday life.
For me, it means carving out time to meditate, or visiting my local park and listening to the wind whistle through the leaves of the ancient English elms while I let my bare feet feel the grounding energy of the earth.
It means giving myself permission to rest when I’m tired and going on solo dates to make sure I’m more connected to myself than I am to my phone.
And more than anything, it means accepting that true self-knowledge is not found in a 10-day silent meditation retreat or a trek around the Arctic Circle. It is a life-long journey that starts right here in this moment.
Jill Stark is the author of Happy Never After: Why The Happiness Fairytale Is Driving Us Mad (And How I Flipped The Script).
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