Dispatches from SabbaticalLand – Part I
Two months ago, I began a sabbatical* that I’ve been craving for quite a while. It’s been over seven years since I helped start EFL, and I burned myself out; more on this later. I’m currently horizontal, on bed-rest recovery for my retrocalcaneal bursitis**, thirteen days into a 6+ week pilgrimage on the island of Shikoku, in Southern Japan.
Hopefully this will be one update in a series where I stay in closer touch, practice my writing, and ask for some help in this next phase of my life/career.
I’ll break up details about the Shikoku pilgrimage itself into four dispatches, one for each prefecture, which represent stages in the pilgrim’s journey. The first, Tokushima (Hosshin dojo) is the Place of Spiritual Awakening.
Here’s what’s inside from the first 350ish kilometers:
- Why a Pilgrimage
- Acceptance, Beauty, and Gratitude
- Laughter (at myself, as I butcher all appearances and time-honored Japanese customs)
IAQs – Preemptive answers to infrequently asked questions, like: “You’re Buddhist?” [Not really] or “What are you doing next?” [No idea]
As our lives unfold across too-disparate locations and paces, I’m ever appreciative for those who keep in touch, even if it’s just a message out of the blue every once in awhile. I hope this KEtch-up-nugget will give an excuse to do so! ***
1. Why a Pilgrimage
A cynical explanation for “why a pilgrimage” is to automagically inject purpose to a terrifyingly unstructured, intimidating block of time off. But to better answer this question, I must first backtrack to “why a sabbatical” in the first place.
I’ve been threatening to take a sabbatical for a couple years, so I’ve gotten a lot of experience fielding people’s impressions of the word sabbatical – it’s a slippery one. Most people who take a Sabbatical do so as part of an official practice at one’s job, (think: professors, doctors.) Otherwise, you have to take your (capital C) Career so seriously that you can’t bear the appearances of leaving, or even breaking, for long durations without an easily digestible explanation.
Sabbatical is a magic word that, when properly used, can allow one to actually do something they’ve been meaning to for awhile, under the guise of personal development in service to a career. A sabbatical is a free pass for the social deviance of not-working-everyday. It’s also a CYA approach to keeping all options on the table while committing to none.
I’m doing a sabbatical to disentangle my identity from what I’ve been doing (and feeling rather passionate about) for the past 7 years. And because I believe in the transformative power of times in between the things we we’re supposed to be doing. And yes, because I can. I gave myself, and our 60+ employees, a sabbatical policy 🙂 .
Sabbaticals, like good vacations and bad wines, are measured in months, not weeks or days. They’re also scary. The prospect of coming off the rigor and rigidity of a career into a unscheduled swath is intimidating: Am I wasting my precious time? How can I cram as much into this period as possible? How will my choices look to friends/employers on the other end?
Conveniently, to be a pilgrim is to (quite literally) follow in the footsteps of people searching for meaning. Like any good workout routine, if properly adhered to, even the cynics can’t help but be transformed by the process. You’re learning by osmosis: touching and living the experience of great explorers before you. You’re interacting with people at similar junctions in life, (or more often, people experiencing hardships which downright humble your issues.) You’re mentally, physically, and spiritually vulnerable.
My first pilgrimage was joining onto the last 100+km of the Camino de Santiago across Spain last summer. Like my stutter-step adoption of yoga and meditation over the years, I quickly found that simply walking every day wasn’t what I wanted, but was good for me, and maybe what I needed. The Camino rewards you for slowing down, mainly by punishing you for underestimating the slow-motion decimation of the bottom of your feet. Magic happens when being present, and open to unplannable experiences.
After all, pilgrimages have always been more about the physical and mental ascetic training along the way than about the destination. They subject you to an alternative, raw experience of the world whose effects are real and all-encompassing, while at the same time completely voluntary. It reminds me of a central concept in Stoicism, specifically Seneca’s Letters, of periodically donning “scratchy clothes and low beds” to remind oneself to “establish business relations with poverty.”
To those ends, the first night on the trip found me asleep on the paved parking lot outside a closed temple, next to my partially-inflated Thermarest, which my splitting headache, from the pilgrim-uniform-mandated conical straw hat I had worn incorrectly since dawn, prevented me from exerting enough breath effort to fill. It has not been the last time I’ve fallen asleep outdoors, in a very public place, looking quite homeless, since the trip began.
I’m doing a pilgrimage to align my actions to the part of myself I’ve felt calling, but only invested in haphazardly. The desire to conduct a more rigorous and intentional search for “meaning,” the art of living, and practices which will further open that spiritual door. I hope to elaborate as it becomes more clear…
2. Acceptance, Beauty, and Gratitude
I’m constantly confronted with aspects of the trip I didn’t expect, and frankly, don’t want. Often times, it’s not beautiful here – I’m constantly trying to encapsulate what I see to describe it to people who haven’t visited Shikoku, let alone Japan. It’s often less an island paradise, and more a post-apocalyptic Floridian coast, where the plants have reclaimed buildings, which are stained a beautiful, decaying saltwatered rust. Other times, it’s like walking through a Stephen-Kingian alternative universe where bright, futuristic and omnipresent vending machines abut homesteaders, knee deep in muddy rice paddies, coaxing ancient machines to slowly till.
About 90% of the walk is on uneven, paved surfaces, modern roadsides lacking sidewalks. The island is considerably less developed and more rural than the rest of Japan. But the route, established centuries back, mostly sticks to its more populated edges. The daily experience asks: how do you react to something which isn’t the way you want it to be – what Buddhists think about as cravings (tanha) for that which isn’t real or possible? One thing’s for sure, you have a LOT of time to formulate your reaction: you’re walking for seven to ten hours daily.
Those hours are spent chasing away ever-raging mindstorms – regrets and reformulations of past interactions, desires for the future, or the stresses, aches, pains, and logistics of the present. You’re not supposed to suppress this unending stream with headphones; the obstacle is the way. You must be vigilant, persistent, and compassionate in your mental course-corrections: returning your attention to the present, your surroundings, the cadence of your footsteps, the feel of the ground on your soles, the smells…whatever is out there. Losing so many inputs from our day to day life heightens your senses. At first, the map book became my new cell phone – a thing to be checked constantly – and other distractions file in, as if from a line around the block of your skull. The key to mindfulness, they tell you, isn’t to deny entry, but to accept (and release) each thought and distraction as only a temporary visitor.
In spite of my prior description, there are many times where the beauty of the island is overwhelmingly beautiful, and ripe for marvelling. Several of the temples sit propped upon ancient misty volcanic ridges, amidst haunting bamboo groves, at the end of lovingly hand-marked trails guiding the pilgrims (called Henro) to their destination. But the challenge, and the reward, comes through being bowled over by the type of beauty Annie Dillard describes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: that which hides in the small flourish, a particular glint of light, and the subtle interactions of the “mundane”:
“The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside by a generous hand. But- and this is the point- who gets excited by a mere penny? But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.”
For example, I’ve spent days with a drab gray-blue ocean to my left, accompanied by a duller gray sky, with a bonus of smudgy gray rain. A friend, Masako, who graciously rescued me from an earlier day’s monsoonic deluge connected me to Leki, a pro-surfer turned indigo-dye aficionado in a small surfing community called Shishikui. There, I learned the story behind the name of the Buddhist monk for which this pilgrimage exists: Kobo Daishi, or Kukai. Kukai is a compound of the words meaning “sky” and “sea.” It is said he took the name upon emerging from his ascetic training in a cave on the southwestern tip of the island, where the only light visible from the cave’s mouth was from the intersection of the blue hues of the skies meeting the sea. In other words, the exact scene at which I’d been grumbling beautifully begat the namesake for the very path I followed.
Close your eyes for a minute and imagine yourself suddenly alone in a world where the only phrase you know is “thank you.” Let’s say, hypothetically, it’s a place which has 3 completely different alphabets, one which syllabically explains the borrowed alphabet from another country, so that this place’s own citizens can use the alphabet, and, oh…this alphabet is character-based, not phonetic. You’re walking all day, you have no access to books to study, and you aren’t allowed to use headphones during the day to listen to language tapes. (Again, totally hypothetically speaking.)
Survival in this state requires a complete reprogramming of your expectations involving just about every possible interaction. Like monks in the past, you’re living on alms of sorts. In this case, the local residents’ compassion and willingness to interact with, and assist, this foreign non-communicative man-baby in front of them. It’s a humbling experience which injects you with retroactive empathy for any impatience towards others in the past. It also heightens your senses of observation and, I’ve found, decreases your motor skills, increasing the chances of clumsiness and amassing opportunities to make a fool of yourself (more on that later).
You quickly find that your handicap is, in fact, a beautiful vulnerability-soil, fertile for unexpected acts of kindness, the tiniest of which can literally bring you to tears. Part of being a henro is donning an enormous traditional conical straw-woven hat, white garments with bold black lettering, a sacred colored sash, and carrying a walking stick with an ever-chirping bell on top. On the plus side, people can easily identify you, and it’s a tradition to give Ossetai, or gifts, to the pilgrims along the way. In other words, you’re given opportunities to use your one phrase multiple times on a daily basis. Whether it’s from caring retirees handing out hand-stitched tissue holders, or busy commuters rolling down their windows, hands outstretched with an orange or iced tea, it can be profoundly moving.
Your entire frame of mind shifts to acknowledge the gifts and sacrifices from others: by tradition, the gifts are shared unilaterally, as technically you’re only allowed to give back a slip of paper – called osamefuda – with your name, and a wish, written upon it. You begin to see people’s efforts as gifts as well – something as subtle as a retiree walking impossibly slow, scrunched by a lifetime in the rice paddies to a 90-degree angle on their walker, stopping to steady themselves, look up at you, light up with joy, and wish you well along your journey.
As difficult as learning Japanese has been for me, I’ve found myself deliberately prioritizing learning phrases of gratitude (“it’s delicious!”) over others. And I’ve started buying small gifts to preemptively give away to fellow Henro; hopefully something I can continue upon my return.
This may be the point – if you’ve even read this far – where you’re asking yourself: What happened to the funny, fun-loving DJ I knew? Has he shaved his head and gone all monk on me? There has been no shortage of hilarity on this trip, and karma-appropriately: the jokes are always on me.
For the purposes of a sabbatical, Japan is a great place to begin the process of breaking yourself down, looking at the pieces, and figuring out what to build next. This is because Japan does so for you, on an everyday basis, often quite publicly. Each meal is a test of your deductive reasoning skills, observational abilities, and memory, (is this edible? and where does that go? surely that’s not fish at this time of day?) Luckily, most Japanese restaurateurs assume you know literally nothing, and that you can’t use chopsticks. In many situations, you can mimic your neighbor, and things generally work out okay. For example, when you’re sitting next to someone at 5:30am and you watch them crack a raw egg into cold rice, stir it, add three drops of soy sauce, and chow down….you do the same.
But, try as you might, there are many situations where you haven’t been able to follow someone’s lead. Situations march towards you, with excruciatingly slow inevitably, revealing no clues on course of action. For example, yesterday, I rode my first Japanese bus into the city. I knew I had precisely 30 stops to sit, I had the ETA, and my GPS signal to boot. The guide book told me to board from the back and pay once I disembarked, and Google Maps had even told me the exact fare I needed to pay. Check, check, CHECK….what could possibly go wrong? I boarded the bus with my giant cone hat and jingly cane, and sat up front next to the driver, so as to be close to the action once everything inevitably unraveled. I sat down with a confident ‘Ko-unnn-ichi-wa!’ which he unceremoniously ignores.
The driver, like most Japanese in the service realm, performs his job with the utmost seriousness and professionalism. He dons a perfect uniform, with white gloves, and would probably never even conceive of texting his friends while navigating the city streets. Before each stop, he clearly announces the stop name (which of course means nothing to me, despite having all of the stops in English at my fingertips), and as each passenger gets on, a digital green Keno-looking board lights up with what appears to be a different fare readout per bus seat. Minutes in, however, my hypothesis about the green number system falls apart, and I lose track of the stop numbers. My anxiety begins to increase as the fare numbers stop increasing as people get on the bus; how does the driver know how much each person owes? How do THEY know how much to pay? Moreover, I notice that most people are paying with a digital card of some sort. All I have is a massive pocket full of coins, but of course not the correct change given by Google Maps.
As we draw nearer to my stop, the driver remains stopped an uncharacteristically long time, and begins calling something out to the passengers. I freeze, assuming I’d missed a cue to get off, or change lines, or that I’ll turn around and everyone behind me will have already left the bus, or that I’d be sitting in the handicapped spot and everyone would be disgusted that some old lady was forced to stand because of my ignorance – nay malice. It turns out a bookbag-toting kid had fallen asleep and almost missed his stop. A passenger nudges him awake, and he crankily trudges up to the front, thuds down the bus steps, and collapses dramatically on the sidewalk to tie his shoes. WHEW, still safe. But my stop was rapidly approaching. And despite having 53 minutes to prepare, I hadn’t dug out my change, still didn’t see the fare I anticipated on the green Keno board, and found myself lurching up unprepared when the blue GPS dot appeared to match my stop.
I stumble over my walking stick, which effectively introduces the scene with its ringing plunge across the aisle, blocking everyone else from leaving. As I bend over to grab it, my cone hat falls off into a lady’s lap. Flustered, I reached into my pocket, my fingers feeling like summer sausages as they attempted to differentiate between the various sizes and shaped denominations. The fare was supposed to be 470 yen, so I popped in a 500 yen coin. The machine sputtered, sorted, and poured out a handful of various coins in the collection tray. Now it all made sense. The driver noticed I was a henro, and was giving me the fare as Ossetai, and he’d triggered a refund! I greedily collected the coins and marched off the bus.
But my departure was met with undeterminable yelling from the driver, who clearly wanted my attention. Ah! He must have just given me a discount as ossetai. Got it. So, I launched back up, and tossed in a 100 yen coin. Again, mechanical sorting and processing sounds, like a moderate slot machine win, and again a number of coins fell into the tray below. At this point, I can no longer fit any more coins in my hand, the driver is looking at me, dumbfounded, when it dawns on me that I was putting the coins into a CHANGEMAKER, hence the patterned output of many coins for few coins.
The bus had already been stopped for way too long, and I nervously check behind me: almost everyone is out of their seats to disembark. My quick scan revealed a sea of the omnipresent public-transportation facemasks down the aisle, obfuscating the crowd’s exact mood, though the lady I spilled my hat onto glares at me with a unambiguously furrowed brow. I quickly turn back to the task at hand, and the driver is attempting to grab coins out of my hands with his somehow-dextrous white-gloved-fingers, while I also try to piece together how many coins he’s put in, and how much is left. WHY ISN’T THERE A DIGITAL READOUT? Our fingers bump while scrounging for coins, and half of the remaining handful clatters out of my hands and down the front stairs of the bus. My walking stick falls out from between my armpit wedge and clatters into his steering pod. He looks at me, says a few things in rapid staccato, and motions me off the bus. The lady behind me, as if anticipating I wouldn’t understand even this simple gesture, gently guides me by the shoulders down the steps and off of the bus.
As it screeches off, no doubt now uncharacteristically late, another school-aged child stoops to the curb to help gather coins, while I attempt to collect my composure. She says something in a matter-of-fact, but still indecipherable manner, turns and walks down the street, her stegosaurus-bag bopping from side to side.
Over the last decade, I’ve heard a lot from folks that I should write down more of my stories, (or maybe that’s just from my Mom, I can’t remember.) In other words: you asked for it, and now you have to read it :). I’m thankful for the opportunity to take time off like this, and for the support along the journey. I’d love feedback, updates from you, and please feel free to share these with anyone you think would enjoy it. I should note that I’m writing this on my phone, so please excuse the typos and insufficient editing!
* Fancy term for indefinitely leaving your job, in an attempt to make it sound like you’ll be advancing your career in the meantime.
** Fancy name for lame non-injury. I wish there were an equivalent fancy-sounding term for my quarter-sized mid-sole blisters as well.
*** Under no misgivings about its tweeny appearance, sorry/get over it…