It’s easy, isn’t it, to read Andre Gide, “It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves — in finding themselves”, and suddenly get jazzed. To throw an assortment of clothes in a suitcase and purchase the cheapest ticket on Skyscanner and just take to it, damn it, “I want to go find myself!”
To think, yes, “I go to lose myself— / and to find truth. / To soften parts of me / I didn’t realize weren’t bone” (1).
To read, “he knows his own mind so well that nothing can take away his character” (2).
To read On the Road and highlight “I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted” (3).
I scribble a thousand of these quotes on coffee shop napkins, on the margins of used copies of Walden and Letters from a Stoic, on the pages of my battered notebooks. Furiously, desperately, my hands cramping with the speed of my voracious excitement, I get inspired.
Here’s what happens.
I pack a backpack, leaning more towards minimalism than being prepared, I’ll forgo the rain jacket, it’s bulky and I’m waterproof anyways. I’m inspired. I can do anything!
I bring my notebook and a book, leave everything else behind; I’m going to be too busy finding myself to have time for listening to music and connecting with people back home and etc. I pack only enough underwear for two days and a little packet of laundry soap and I leave conditioner behind, too, because all I really need is shampoo. And I skirt off to somewhere like Thailand for five days.
I think, “dwelling free means to follow the divine impulse, to live in a way that is not restricted to what others say and insist on, but to follow one’s broadest, deepest, sense about how to grow and live” (4).
I imagine that perhaps, with only a book and a pen to entertain me, I might get a little lonely. But then I read:
“She has had to make her way alone, through difficulties not commonly encountered, through shimmy muddy streets; she has known the dark night of the soul, Dante’s ‘dark wood, midway in the journey of our life’, and the sorrows of the pits of hell” (4).
I think, oh, perfect, really, so I shall look forward to feeling lonely! That’s great! I look forward to knowing the ‘dark night of the soul’!
I get to Thailand and ride in a taxi to the hostel like a champion because I’m following Jack Kerouac, right, like him I “dedicate myself, to my art, my sleep, my dreams, my labors, my sufferances, my loneliness, my unique madness, my endless absorption and hunger because I cannot dedicate myself to any fellow being.”
It’s brilliant fun, right, joyous and freeing.
I get to the hostel and I see that there aren’t really other people staying there, which is fine by me, because I’m going to be far too busy finding myself to have time to connect with other people. I unpack a bit and then stroll over the ocean and watch the sunset thinking, boy howdy, this is grand and just absolutely pleasant. I’m so inspired!
I shimmy back to my hostel eventually and tuck myself in.
And here’s what happens.
Perhaps not the first day, but inevitably, my inspiration withers. I long for my raincoat in the pouring morning rain. I get bored of reading. I spend the days going to one cafe and then coming back to the hostel for a nap and then going out to another cafe and then going to the ocean and it’s all mundane and empty because it’s one thing to be inspired, really, and it’s another thing entirely to know what it even means to “find oneself”.
It’s easy to get jazzed. But what does it even mean? How do I find myself?
I search for this amongst my papers, napkins, books:
“Go get lost.”
“Go on adventures.”
“Go be scared, put yourself out of the comfort zone.”
What is that literally? How can I fill my days with useful constructive self-discovery, and not just wait for it all to happen? I can’t rely on inspiration to take me to the depths. I don’t want these beautiful metaphors, I want the instruction manual.
I want to read:
“Begin the day with a cup of coffee and write 200 words that begin with the letter ‘m’, then do a rain dance (instructional video included) and follow that up with a nap because it needs to absorb in the subconscious. After the rain dance and the nap you need to wait for a friend to send you a message to hang out and you need to decline, politely. After you decline, you need to turn off all the lights and breathe five times, very deeply, with a straight back. You need to do this routine for two weeks in a row and then you shall find yourself.”
I look for that, too, really, scanning the biographies of famous writers and adventurers, pouring over Haruki Murakami’s daily routine, reading through Scott Jurek’s mindset, looking for how I could apply the same principles to my own life.
I try it out, sometimes. Waking up at 4 a.m. and writing for four hours, then going for a 10k run then finally eating breakfast, because being hungry is a way to get more into yourself. I try Scott Jurek’s post-run smoothie recipes and plant based habits, because that’s going to make me fast, too.
I try it for maybe two days, and then I miss my 4 a.m. alarm. Or I get real antsy after an hour and a half, and I end up writing absolute crap for the remaining three hours (if I can even stay still that long). I pass the jar of peanut butter and a packet of crackers and favor them instead of the kale and quinoa salad.
And then I read something like, “there is no drive-thru enlightenment” (4).
I don’t even know what enlightenment is. I don’t know what it means to find myself, I don’t know what it means to lose myself, I don’t know what it means to “come to the center of [my] own existence” (4).
It’s quite stressful, really, because I feel like I’m wasting my time. Here in Indonesia, especially, because many of the things I have identified myself with for so long (being outside, going for long runs, mobility and spontaneous adventure) are not accessible.
Sometimes I feel as if I were simply existing for when I would feed myself, when I would go to sleep, when it’s probably time to write a blog post. That I’m just filling in the rest with whatever I can think of. That I spend my days trying to not be bored, instead of finding myself.
Inspiration can only take me so far.
I have to take those grandiose sayings and deconstruct them. I can’t let them exist with out me. I need them to be internalized, desperately, individually. I have to study my own boredom, too.
What do I think about isolation? What is my opinion on solitude? What do I think about my own character?
This process of “finding myself” is way too abstract for me to handle. Instead, I favor “learning about my preferences”, “studying what makes me happy”, “experimenting”.
Ahh, even just writing those things brings release. I can fathom learning, studying, experimenting far better than finding.
I’ve got time on my hands, traveling alone allots me this (which is perhaps why everyone insists “solo traveling” leads to “self-discovery”).
But having free time is not what enables you to do these things. It might make it easier, but “not having enough time” should never be an excuse to not deconstruct yourself and learn, study, experiment.
There is no instruction manual, no “drive-thru enlightenment”, but there are more tangible practices to employ to seek out the soul. These are practices I’m trying out.
First, I’m asking myself three questions on repeat:
1. What did I want to be as a child?
2. What do I find myself gravitating towards?
3. Who do I envy and why do I envy them?
The first question revolves around innate preference. What did I want to be before I let “be realistic” seep into my soul?
The second question also revolves around innate preference. Are there things I do, sans any sort of money, any sort of external glory, just because I like doing them?
The third is extremely important. Envy’s got this negative connotation, right, it’s a sin to envy, it’s a horrid little emotion. But it’s quite human, and it reveals a lot. Envy teaches me about what I desperately want for my own life. By deconstructing why it is that I envy them, I let go of a significant portion of the negative emotion.
Second: I am deconstructing my five happiest days.
It’s kind of like The Blue Zones; I write out everything that occurred during each of these five days, in as much minute detail as I can muster, and I look for similarities. The patterns speak to my preferences.
Third: I am reading as much as I can.
Not self-help books, really, more books about the human soul and experience. Books like Quiet, by Susan Cain, and Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell and Sex, Surrealism, Dali and Me, edited by Clifford Thurlow.
I’m writing down what stands out to me, taking notes, getting a sense of what sparks my soul. Then I’m asking myself why? Why do I connect with that particularly?
Fourth: I am practicing free writing.
Just absolute stream of consciousness, Jack Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”. Because of this, there’s been an influx of poetry. Most of it, not so great, but a few gems here and there.
And poetry is an intimate form of communication with the soul, the bridge between the conscious and the subconscious, it functions against the lure of reality which is so useful.
I’m learning that finding oneself is more like understanding preferences. What makes me absolutely ecstatic? How can I reach that level?
Being bored, being lonely (which is much different than being alone); those things are useful because they give space. Encouragement, even. But neither solo travel nor deep periods of self-isolation is the path.
The path for me, as I am coming to find, is simply learning, studying, experimenting. Writing myself down and being aware. Deconstructing my habits and preferences and days.
“There is no drive-thru enlightenment”.
There is no instruction manual.
Just practice and adapting when it doesn’t work and reminding myself that I am a work in progress.
Peace and blessings,
Here’s a link to a page of my favorite “find yourself” quotes. It’s a good stepping point for introspection, contemplating what ideas and notions light the soul on fire.
Books and poems quoted above:
- “Go Get Lost” by Josie Rozell
- Empty Roads and Glass Bottles; In Search of the Great Perhaps by Charlotte Eriksson
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell