Three weeks alone in Costa Rica
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” –Albert Camus
In late January I packed a small bag, left my laptop at home, turned my phone off, and went to Costa Rica for three weeks.
This wasn’t a trip to explore the world, find adventure, or immerse myself in culture. It was a trip to find the parts of myself that I had been hiding away, to recenter, and to turn the volume on life way, way down.
For about a year I had known that something was off. Mini retreats, journaling, and taking time off were all helpful, but I still lacked the clarity I wanted.
So I put up the autoresponsers and extended absence messages and told nearly everyone in my life that I would be unreachable for three solid weeks. Then, half scared and half excited, I got on a jet.
Here’s what I learned from three weeks of reflection….
We trade speed and stress for wonder and enchantment
Three nights into the trip, I remember sitting on the beach looking at the stars and being overwhelmed by it all. Asking myself, “Why in the world would this all be here?”
Normally I’m plagued by questions like:
- “Is my business doing well enough for the risky move I’m considering?”
- “Am I meditating enough?”
- “Why was that person I love a jerk to me?”
- “Why was I a jerk to that person I love?”
- “Why aren’t I more successful?”
- “Is it normal to be this lonely, or am I doing something wrong?”
I get caught up in the minutia of my own life and swept away by stress, distraction, and manufactured drama. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of us do.
But these perfectly common concerns cast shadows over the most amazing part of being a human: the pure enchantment and strangeness of… everything.
Instead of stressing about the mundane and inessential things that often drag me down I became overwhelmed by the profound and asked myself new questions, like:
- “Given that there have been 20,000+ generations of humans what – if anything at all – is my role on this planet?”
- “If every star I see represents just a fractional part of my galaxy, which itself is a minuscule part of all of the world, what else is out there?”
- “Why do I often feel disconnected from others when everything I know suggests that I am deeply connected to them? How do I replace the illusion of separation with the reality of connection?”
What I learned is that if you step back from the normal stressors of your life (most posses no essential reality anyways) you can access a new level of enchantment and wonder. Doing this can have a profound impact on your life; the ability to access that sense of wonder is one of the distinguishing characteristics of humans.
I was ignoring a lot of pain in my life. Beneath it, I found a quiet sense of happiness
There were two levels of pain that I was either ignoring, or had grown completely numb to.
The first is the daily struggle just to be enough. Like everyone else, I am periodically subjected to a rotating cast of assailants that blend into my day: self doubt, comparing myself to the people around me (almost never favorably, might I add), the subtle but constant rejection and envy that comes from leaving the beaten path, and handling people and tasks I’d rather not deal with.
By necessity, we all grow numb to these (often internal) aggressors. But it doesn’t mean they don’t hurt us.
The pain just subtly creeps up, eventually gaining power and leeching our vivacity and vision. Slowly but surely we become the frog in the boiling water.
It is only in seeing and feeling the pain that we are subjected to that enables us to alleviate it.
The second is the grand struggle of true pain. Though I’m quick to acknowledge that my life is overwhelmingly blessed, it is not without genuine struggle and pain. None of our lives are.
Past breakups left me feeling hopeless of ever being loved again, friends and mentors who died well before their time made me feel lost and confused, people who got close only to intentionally hurt me left me afraid to be vulnerable, embarrassments and disappointments from the past made me reluctant to be bold again….
Though these experiences are deeply personal, I know that they are also universal. We all have experiences like this.
What I realized was that I was ignoring both levels of pain. During this trip, when I turned the volume down on my life, I was forced to confront it. I periodically found myself journaling or reflecting while choking back tears.
There is a certain magic in addressing and looking at the pain. It’s grip over me started to loosen. In it’s place I was able to find a quiet, calm, stable sense of happiness and confidence that I’ve never experienced before. Camus calls this an invincible summer, and for me, it required a long slog through a cold winter.
I think that most of us can access an “invincible summer” if we would only create the space and find the courage to be completely honest with ourselves.
Work took over my life and no one ever suggested that this may be a bad thing…
I was talking to an expat in Costa Rica who used to be a hotshot in LA. He said something I’m still digesting, “In the US, we always put our work ahead of our life. In Costa Rica, people put their life ahead of their work.”
This piggy backs nicely with something my friend Kyle pointed out last year about Americans. He said, “Most of us spend more time with our boss than our family.”
The communities that I exist in fall decidedly on the line of prioritizing work over life.
Of course few of the individuals in those communities would actually admit this, but all you have to do is look at how people allocate their time to find the truth. Nearly everyone in my circle spends more time working than playing, more time working than with loved ones, and more time working than enjoying the day.
Are working and enjoying your life mutually exclusive? Of course not, but that misses the point. We all make decisions (most of them passive and unconscious) that lead us to prioritizing either work or life.
If you are a Westerner, then your default life is to prioritize work. To prioritize life would require dramatic changes. You’d have to move, or switch jobs, or seriously scale your lifestyle down, or possibly all three.
But it might be the right decision. In fact, it’s probably the right decision. The challenging thing is that you have to leave the beaten path. The challenging thing is that you have to exchange a predictable tomorrow for an unknown tomorrow.
But here is the good part: if you decide you’d like to work less and live more, you don’t have to wake up tomorrow morning and suddenly make a dramatic change. You can move slowly as you shape your life. That’s the only sustainable way to create change in your life anyways.
How to create your own period of travel and reflection
Whenever I talk about this trip, my friends mention that they are jealous.
The thing is, it’s not difficult. I don’t have any secret permission from anyone that you don’t have, nor was it prohibitively expensive (in total I spent less than $1600 for the entire three week trip).
The only real advantage that I have over the average person is that it’s easier for me to take time off. However, with a bit of planning and saving virtually everyone can take a few weeks off.
Here’s how I did it…
Pick a place that is inexpensive to go to: Not all places are created equal. Costa Rica, Colombia, and Nicaragua are all going to be much more affordable than Canada, other US cities, and all of Western Europe. Start your planning by figuring out what is within reach for you financially. Keep in mind that you don’t have to go to another country. You could look into house sitting opportunities or borrowing someone’s remote cabin in your state.
As long as you find the surroundings beautiful and you keep yourself disconnected from your daily life, it will work.
Pack light: this trip, for me, was about the inner journey, not the outer. Looking back, I actually brought too much stuff. Here is what I recommend:
- A few shirts, one bathing suit, a few socks and underwear, one pair of pants/shorts (you can always get laundry done in country) one pair of shoes, one pair of sandals
- The basic toiletries (keep in mind you can buy anything you’d need in-country and Dr. Bronners will cover a lot of your needs in a pinch)
- Kindle touch
- A journal and pens
- An iPad and keyboard (I barely used this but it was useful for figuring out how to get around and keeping organized)
- A travel towel
- A lock
- Small comfort item (juggling balls, a stuffed animal, a few photos, whatever)
- Smartphone (but only for music and photos)
- A backpack (instead of a suitcase). I used this one and fell in love.
Create space every day for reflection: personally I meditated, did morning pages (three pages of stream of consciousness writing, and went on long walks), and regular journaling, almost every day. By creating space to reflect you’ll process a lot of what’s happened so far in your life. You’ll start constructing a narrative that will become surprisingly clarifying and enabling.
A secret email address and contact info: I strongly suggest that you avoid checking your normal work/personal email addresses while you’re on this trip.
But still, there might be people you want to speak to. What I did was I setup a secret email address and gave it to my family, girlfriend, and a few friends. I checked it once a week or so.
That way if something urgent happened, I would be aware of it. I also let my parents know the phone numbers of the places I was staying and told people to get in touch with them if something truly needed my attention.
Get flights inexpensively: I didn’t pay for my flights. Instead, I put them on points. I do have a slight advantage over the average person here because I fly a lot, but even if you only fly once a year, you can still get your flights for free. Here’s what you do:
- When you do fly, fly the same airline (or at least the same alliance)
- Get their credit card and book all your flights on the card
- Get a high value rewards card (I use the Amex SPG for work and Chase Sapphire for personal) and put everything on that card. NB: only do this if you’ll actually pay your card off every moth. Credit card companies are extremely predatory. If you can’t pay your card off every month, you’ll lose money with this strategy.
- Book your flight about eight weeks in advance and select less expensive dates. The amount of points required for a trip varies significantly depending on when you book it. Look on the airline’s site for the best deals
During your trip, keep (mostly) to yourself. I occasionally interacted with locals and tourists, but mostly, I kept to myself. Was I a bit lonely? Yes. But it was worth it because I had ample space for reflection.
If you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “I really want to do something like this” please do it. Start thinking of potential dates and locations now.
Instead of coming up with a list of excuses as to why you can’t take time to reflect, ask yourself, “What will I lose if I deprive myself of the time and space I need for myself?”, “What will other people lose if I am never my best self?” and “What is the real worst case scenario of me taking a trip like this?”
You will begin to realize that the biggest risk of all is failing to treat yourself like someone you love who is worthy of great things. In many cases, this means setting aside a significant amount of time to purely focus on yourself. Once you realize this, your journey has begun.
Photo credit: “Quiet” by Alessandro Pautasso