One month of solo travel felt like three years of living in NYC. When you solo travel, there is nowhere to hide from your deepest fears and insecurities. You encounter old demons you thought you’ve vanquished and new demons you never even knew existed. There is nothing you can easily turn to for comfort/distraction that you might’ve back at home, such as friends and work. I went through so many raw emotions from the purest form of curiosity and wonder to the darkest pits of loneliness and isolation, sometimes in the same day.
The first two weeks consisted of mental breakdowns, constant crying, and trying to adjust to an entirely new lifestyle I threw myself into. It felt like being shoved into a dark room and then expecting my eyes to immediately adjust. At the core of my being, I knew I wanted this, but on the surface, my body went into survival mode. The third week consisted of a physical breakdown. I caught a fever for three days and then had stomach problems for four days, which meant I barely ate for seven days. Finally, in the fourth week, I attended my first Zen meditation retreat at Shōganji temple. Every morning we meditated between 6-7 am, completed Samu, and cooked two meals together. I personally disconnected from all forms of input (no reading, watching, listening, and phone use). The only input I allowed were the interactions at the retreat with the people around me.
During my solitude, I began to hear the clarity of my voice. Something shifted in my brain when I disconnected from reality and actually sat with and within myself. My observations of the outside world and my inside world intensified. I became painfully present, mostly because I had no other choice. Boredom invited curiosity and creativity. I never journaled or drew as much as I have during my retreat.
On a spiritual level, I felt the crusty, hardness in my chest begin to soften. I detached from my ego. I forgave (and continue to forgive) my parents and more importantly, myself. I mourned the loss of my childhood and celebrated the birth of my newfound adulthood. This experience was transformational in the subtle, mundane way it allowed me to see the answers I sought were always within me. I just needed to carve out the space to be present.
Before I looked.
Now I see.
In the past four years, I worked on understanding my trauma through therapy, education, and self-reflection. I gained a lot of insight into where my thought patterns and blockers came from. But acknowledging the problems began making me feel trapped. Intellectually I moved beyond my trauma, but emotionally and spiritually, I felt stuck. I was held in a loop, with freedom within arm's length, but an invisible wall blocked me from ever touching it. Today, the trauma still manifests in my body.
Before therapy, I wallowed in my sadness. After therapy, the trauma became my identity, and almost like a badge of honor. Sometimes I feel like the media romanticizes trauma. Recently, I question if the trauma actually holds such weight on my life or have I placed the weight because I’m so comfortable with sadness, that joy makes me feel more vulnerable?
I want to challenge the stereotype of the suffering artist. As healing as my previous art has been for me, I don’t want to live in my trauma anymore. Shedding the sadness means gaining the freedom of unlimited potential, but I’m also terrified of never reaching this so-called potential. Worse yet, what if I disappoint myself and others?! I fear that this change will isolate me from the people in my past and, more so, that my art will become something people won’t connect with anymore.
The biggest questions I’ve been asking myself are 1. Who am I without depression and anxiety? 2. What does long term, high-quality joy look like for me?
It’s unrealistic to say I found my answers during a 5-day retreat, but it shoved me over that invisible wall. I feel inexplicably lighter even when I realize I don’t have all the answers to my questions (and I accept that perhaps I never will). Now, when I feel joy, I lean further into it rather than into guilt or fear. During my first solo hike, I almost cried when I reached the top of Misen. I felt immense gratitude riding the train to Kyoto, a place I dreamed of visiting for many years.
More and more, I allow myself to be happy and even prioritize ease and joy. I’m beginning to feel a sense of security with myself that I haven’t felt since I was a little kid. I trust myself. I listen to my body and intuition more than fulfilling other people’s needs of me. I am working through the trauma that’s trapped in my body without shame or judgment. Instead of focusing on all the ways I’m lacking, I chose to focus on the change I want to embody. Finally, I am shedding identities that no longer feel relevant to me and beginning a new book that focuses on long-term, high-quality joy, and hope.
Check it out
I’m beginning my artist residency at Almost Perfect in Tokyo and I am pumped. I’ll be creating 68 artworks to represent each day of my solo travels. The work I’ll be creating feels scary because it’ll be different from what I’m used to. I’ll share this secret with you here, since coming to Japan I’ve been wanting to use color now!! The reception is on December 14th and it’s my first solo show outside the U.S. To follow my creative process, check out my Instagram story in the coming weeks.
1/17/21 Update: this is what I created during the residency.
Three notes on gratitude
I’m thankful for my support system back at home. These people are there for me through the celebrations and disappointments. I wouldn’t even be in Japan right now if it weren’t for their endless encouragement and patience.
I’m thankful for the incredible people I’ve met through Couchsurfing. I definitely thought I was going to die, and instead, I was well-fed and cared for. I am amazed by people’s capacity for kindness and generosity. My trip wouldn’t have been financially possible without these strangers who welcomed me into their homes!
I’m thankful for myself for embracing a full spectrum of fear and diving into this journey anyway. This entire trip and experience is the best gift I’ve ever given myself—the time to grow, explore, create, love, and just be.
Side note: In the next newsletter I will have a fun travel recommendation section cause I know y’all are curious about what my favorite hostel/meal/shrine/hike/garden was in Japan! If you have any questions about my travels you want me to dive deeper into, please reply to this newsletter and lemme know. For example, do you want me to talk about my Couchsurfing experience, tips about solo traveling, how I traveled from the southern tip of Ibusuki to Tokyo, or how I financially made this trip possible?!