Meditation: The Key to Managing Expat Stress

I can’t believe it! I’ve been living as a resident in France now for a year and a half! Pretty sure I was passing out with an anxiety attack in my French class about this time last year.

Life abroad has been an amazing, inner-strengthening experience. Thinking back, I used to get so incredibly upset over the most uncontrollable of things…as if that would help! Now, crap comes at me left and right as it always does and has, but I’m letting it roll off my back more and resting in trust.

I know there are other expats the world over facing unbelievable difficulties as they adjust (or don’t) to life in another land. And there are those ex-expats who’ve returned home to discover that they’ve changed and no longer seem to fit in. We’re a different breed…expats…with unique concerns and needs. So I want to share the things that have truly helped me in the hopes of helping others like me.

To what to I attribute the shift that took place within me?

praying-1051078_640A DECISION

It started with a decision. I remember the day. I was doing what bored expats do, watching a Star Trek Voyager episode online, during which the cool-headed Vulcan, Tuvoc, was teaching the character Kess how to focus her attention. Something struck like lightning. In that moment, the knowing that that’s what it all comes down to…the ability to control our focus….became a reality for me. And I decided right then and there that I was going to apply myself toward focusing my attention on the positive, on what I desired, and on my own happiness above all else. I’m sure this wasn’t the first time I’ve come to this decision in my life (I seem to have a short memory!), but something was different this time. Something struck deeper, was understood more intently. It was a “pivot point” that changed the direction my life was going…which was down hill!

MEDITATION

As a result of my decision, I turned my attention to meditation on a daily basis. I’ve meditated off and on for years, but now it became a matter of life and death to apply what I’d learned over the years.  Taking time every day to stop and empty myself of my fears, worries, judgments, criticisms, and need to control was crucial to changing the way my mind had been wiring itself since moving abroad and the stresses that entailed. I learned to spend hours just sitting, feeling the sun, smelling the grass, enjoying the breeze, watching the sky. Like most people, I had to work through the guilt and idea of “doing nothing”; I knew deep down that I was actually doing something more important than anything else could ever be.

SPACE FOR GROWTH

As a result of my decision to be happy and my dedication to meditation, I started to grow again in ways that felt beautiful. I practiced self-inquiry diligently and began to question my sense of self and the identity I believed myself to be…as well as the identity I believed I lost as a result of moving overseas. This added so much space to my life…space to accept things that previously would have driven me mad. I began to live less in the past, though I had a pretty good handle on that one to begin with, and less in the future, which had always been my weakness, prone to catastrophizing and projecting struggle and negativity into tomorrow. It’s so much easier now to notice when I’m doing that out of mere habit and to bring myself back to the moment…a moment which is a lot more pleasant that my warped imaginings!

Life isn’t perfect. I am and will always be a work in progress, I suppose. But now I can live with that. Meditation has been so powerful and so important to my ability to withstand my expat experience that I’ve decided to reach out to other expats to promote the practice of meditation among us. We are a unique group of people with unique issues…facing isolation, the breaking apart of the known and comfortable, overcoming and often failing to overcome language barriers, going through challenges the likes of which others can’t even imagine. Meditation is a lifeline throughout those experiences.

So, in addition to offering meditation locally, I plan on offering meditations via on Facebook through the International Daze page now renamed Expat Sanctuary. These will be video meditations that you can tune into and watch at your leisure. Please like and follow the page where I will continue to share my writings as well as tools and tips for improving well-being and inner happiness, all with the Expat in mind. Think of it as a place to turn to to retreat from the challenges of living abroad and as a reminder to spend a few minutes every day stopping, emptying and refreshing the body, mind and spirit.

What has been your greatest challenge to peace of mind as an expat and what have you found to help?

 

 

 

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From Expat to Refugee: Some Thoughts on the State of the World

heartyworldI know I am not the only person feeling discouraged and stressed out by the things taking place in our world today. The macrocosm is illuminating the dark and shockingly ugly underbelly of humanity as a collective, while each microcosm is being forced to face the shadowy aspects within as we all deal individually with the racism, corruption and greed, violence, hatred, powerlessness, and, well, the list goes on. These two cosmoses seem to be fueling, inflaming, and magnifying each other. Just as I find some peace inside myself with “how things are”, something else goes ballistic in the world. And just as I fall prey to my own sense of self-important worry, something out there gives me hope again. The dance makes it difficult to pin down reality…if there ever was one.

While a better part of me recognizes that what is happening is simply part of our evolutionary process, another part of me wonders whether we can build the momentum necessary to actually evolve beyond our self-destructive, self-hating habits as a species. Will we ever create a respectful, caring, just world with an appreciation for life? The forces of the status quo and egoic power have such an overwhelming drag effect. We may have to go kicking and screaming then to rise above it all and discover the illusory nature of self. What else is there to do? What else could possibly be of any importance?

I was excited at one time to be leaving the United States for France. I had no clue what expat life would entail, but I went for it anyway. Though I sometimes entertained the idea that I was “escaping”, I never really thought the US was all that bad. Nowadays though, between politics, GMOS, fracking, racism and gun violence, I’m feeling less and less like an expat and more and more like a refugee. What is happening to my country? What is this insanity that is seeping up through the cracks and crevices of so many city streets? And what, pray tell, can change the tide?

Personally, there is an almost endless onslaught of fearful thoughts about Brexit, making ends meet, the falling Pound, choices, finding work, moving or staying, unmet expectations and needs, not being able to master this language, needing to control…plus so many emotions, from guilt to shame to sadness to anger…and I don’t even know where they are all coming from! If I’m not careful, I am tuned into a station that plays negativity day and night, just like the news.

I have enough awareness and have done enough work to know that I cannot afford to entertain this onslaught. I unplugged from the influence of major media years ago, and now my work is uplugging from the 24/7 news channel in my head by placing my attention elsewhere. I take time each day to be in my body, stretching and moving. I take time each day to breathe and only breathe. I take time each day to listen to wise teachers and be inspired by their words. I take time each day to observe my mind without getting sucked into the propaganda that aligns so well with old wounds, ingrained fears, and ancient beliefs.

I don’t have the gall to compare myself to an actual refugee whose very life is dependent upon leaving his home. I’m aware of the plight of thousands rushing out of war-torn areas to face a world that doesn’t want them. And yet, putting the physical threats aside, I am without question a refugee from my own mind. My life DOES depend upon me leaving my thoughts, obsessions, habits, identification, preferences and aversions behind. If I do not learn somehow to let go of what I cannot control and allow life to be what it is, if I cannot cultivate an open-heart, forgiveness of myself and others, and an ability to be completely present and trusting in every moment, I’m as good as dead.

In this moment, I feel exceptionally blessed to be able to look out from my desk and see nothing but trees and grasses. Today the sun is shining, birds are singing and flying past, bugs are humming, and the donkey in the next field over is braying. There’s a cool breeze through the open window, and though I can hear the occasional plane or truck, there is so much peace here. Nature still has a hold here. And nature is keeping me sane.

My friends, wherever you find yourself, please heed me. Take time each day to unplug. Take a moment to recognize the truth of the moment in which you find yourself. Take note of the beauty that surrounds you. Set aside the swords you are carrying and the axes you’ve been grinding. You can pick them up again later. But give yourself a moment to let it all fall away. Let all that fear break into a million tiny, insignificant pieces. Breathe. Just breathe and know that you are okay. Everything is okay. If only for a moment, give yourself that gift. Give your body that gift. Give your heart that peace. Take refuge, my friends. The world needs our sanity more than ever.

 

 

Expat Life: A New Recipe

The other day, I shared a metaphorical cake recipe to represent the realities of life in a foreign land. Expat life can drive a person insane. Add to that a new marriage, significant loss, health and financial issues, and the added isolation of a countryside devoid of civilization and you have a recipe for…well, disaster. But life is all about choice. And while we may not be able to choose what happens to us on a day to day basis, we can choose what we do about it.

globeToday, I’m going to share with you my new recipe…one that is still experimental and open to adjustments. On most days, it’s quite palatable, and you can use as much or as little of each ingredient as you want, though research shows, the more you use, the happier you feel.

Gratitude.

I know it is kind of a tiring meme, but cultivate gratitude and appreciation for what you have on a daily basis. Chances are, you have it a LOT better than most people, even if you don’t think you have it all that great. Though in some respects, telling someone to be grateful is akin to telling someone to breathe; both are fairly obvious, both can be taken for granted. So inhale deeply and find as many things as you can to be grateful for.

Exercise.

I cannot begin to express the importance of exercise in my life. Actually, I don’ t even like the word exercise. I think I prefer movement because instead of thinking of it as sweating and working hard, it can be all manner of pleasures for the body to experience. It’s about expressing through the body, stretching and feeling good. It’s about moving out the emotions that would otherwise get stuck. It’s about moving forward when you feel completely frozen in so many other areas of life.

Do What You Love.

Being in a foreign land far from everything familiar has had a funny way of reminding me of all the things I used to love to do…even if I’d given them up. It reminded me of other times in my life when I started something new…like when I learned to play bass guitar or when I spent $50 on art supplies (a fortune for me at the time) to make art. Think about and reconnect with what you love. I’ve always loved ballet, so I started watching videos and shows about dance. Find a way to do what you love no matter how obscure it may be in your adopted country or lacking in opportunity. Create the opportunities. Heck, I’m even thinking of picking up the ukulele.

Recall the best moments.

I’m a writer and so have kept journals for years. I only keep the good stuff, though. The rest I toss. So when I go back and re-read my journals, I am pleasantly uplifted by the positive memories, important lessons, and insights and inspirations. In fact, my old journals led me back to myself in a rather profound way. I had entries about my values, my strengths, my dreams, and some of the most magical things I’ve experienced in life. Revisiting was like dosing up on happy pills…only much, much better. So, revisit your past through journals, photographs, or whatever you’ve got that brings good things and happy thoughts and memories to mind. And if you don’t have access to that sort of thing, start creating something now.

Force yourself.

There are days when all I want to do is hide in my room watching Netflix. Sometimes, in fact, that’s all there is to do. But on others days, I know there’s something going on “out there” that I might enjoy, and I simply have to force myself to get dressed and go. Sometimes, I’m really glad I went because I did actually enjoy myself or made new connections. Other times, the event can be a miss, and I’m just glad I got out of the house. The point is, it’s important to at least try.

Take breaks and chill.

The above being said about “forcing yourself” must be balanced out by taking breaks. For example, after a period of increased stress and anxiety, I quit my weekly French lessons. It felt down-right rebellious, and I didn’t regret it either. I really needed the break. I wasn’t integrating anything new and was having trouble accessing what I’d already learned. It was time to spend my time rediscovering things I enjoyed and less on things that added to my stress. Language was adding to my stress, therefore, the break. I returned to it with vigor after a couple of months.

Reach out for support.

When you can’t turn to old friends and don’t exactly have new ones yet, and when your partner is preoccupied or simply not psychologically equipped to be there for you, find someone who is. I’ve done two things since embarking on my expat life in France I’d never done until then. I called a support hotline! It was a bizarre but helpful experience. I also hired a counselor. She helped me maintain a healthy perspective and because she herself was an expat, she really understood the depth of my emotions and could help me understand them too.

Throw this altogether in a pan, stir until smooth, then pop it in the oven and bake until you feel better.

The expat life can be really tough. You’re not alone! For one thing, there are many of us out there with you in our respective countries, and for another, you have yourself…the best friend in the world to cultivate. XO

Ex-pat-e-cake

So, yes, this blog is taking a slightly new direction. In February, I came to France to stay with stars in my eyes and butterflies in my heart. It didn’t take long for intense grief, identity crisis, and culture shock to set in. Now, 9 months later, comes a gentle and humble acceptance of reality which includes a floundering marriage and many other surprises – some good, some…”meh”.

I certainly had no clue what I was in for. I think if I had, I would never have done it like I did it. Alas, I did the best I could, and now I’m a lot wiser for it.

If I were to bake my Expat-experience cake, up to now, the recipe would go something like this:

You’ll need at least 3 cups of the Great Mystery to set it all in motion
Add 1 cup of complete and total disorientation
Throw out all the comforts of home
You’ll need to process several pounds of the language but only have 3 T. in the cupboard. The processor will be broken due to overwhelming stress. This will lead to a bitter flavor, but make do.
Take 2 c. of complete and utter isolation and plan to do everything you love alone in your room.
In a separate pot, pour tears of grief over incomprehensible loss and mix with 2 completely different love languages that keep crossing wires. Stir in the following spices: nothing in common, unanticipated debt, and learned helplessness.

Strain the relationship. Set aside the juices of depression, aggression, tension, and early signs of peri-menopause including personality changes, distorted thinking, utter exhaustion, hot flashes and a myriad of other ludicrous symptoms that make you doubt your sanity.

Combine everything in every bowl in the kitchen so there’s more to clean. Use copious amounts of anxiety to help stiffen the batter so you end up in the hospital from a panic attack.

Image Source: Flickr Photo by: Michael Wilson
Image Source: Flickr
Photo by: Michael Wilson

For the frosting:

Melt a whole stick of mastering the standard car, 1/2 c. going to the store a whole hour away alone,  and selling a hand-full of articles with 1 c. of your very first art exposition. Add 2 T. of “Oh my God, I just managed to have a sort of a conversation with someone”. Stir in essence of walks in the woods singing at the top of your lungs. Add a friend and neighbor who actually takes an interest in your work. Stir well.

Spread the frosting on the cake to create many crests and valleys. Top with sprinkles of crushed heartache.

Serve with trick candles.

I’ve had my fill of this particular cake. I’m working on a new recipe now. Stay tuned…

Where to Land Continued: UK

Last post, I talked about some of the variables associated with living in France. This time, I will be ruminating on the pros and cons of relocation in the UK.

If, as an American, I applied for a spousal visa in the UK, it would cost upwards of $850. There would be postage fees and costs associated with obtaining my biometrics in Charlotte, a city two hours away and the closest immigration service center to me.

One of the good things here is that having applied for a Visitor to Marry visa not that long ago, I am quite familiar now with the UK visa process. The applications aren’t that different…just much longer in the case of a spousal visa. Since the visitor visa, once spread all over my floor, when compiled was about two inches thick, I’m thinking the spousal visa will end up being even thicker.

Do you have any idea what goes into these applications? I certainly didn’t. In some ways, it feels like everything under the sun…bank records, tax documents, birth certificates, divorce decrees, proof of marriage, what I’ve eaten for the last 3 years, and oh, something really fun called a financial requirement form. It looks like a real nightmare to fill in, but I won’t go there right now. (I’m just kidding about the what I’ve eaten part).

Now, one would think that since I had to have my biometrics taken for the visitor visa a few months ago that I would have already met that requirement. Not so! Apparently, I would have the joy of doing that all over again. No biggie; just a pain.

Stuart is currently in France. We are lucky though because he is contracted by a UK company and is paid in the UK, so establishing proof of income won’t be an issue. The challenge is that Stuart will have to find a place for us to live. While finding something is not an issue, timing certainly is. This application process can, according to a friend who went through it several years ago, take as little as three weeks. It can also, according to a recent article, take up to 12 months. Why should Stuart uproot his life in France now when it could take a year before we got visa approval?

Enter the cousins. We are blessed that Stuart has generous cousins, a married couple, who have offered to open their home to us so that we can take the time to find a place of our own. This makes everything so much easier. With an address, we can now apply for our visa without Stuart having to rush to relocate in the UK.

Apparently though, getting a UK driver’s license…I mean licence (that’s another thing…all those misspelled words over there!) is no less joyful an affair than trying to get one in France. The success rates are about even…44% passing. However, the fact that the test would be in English and not a language I barely understand is a definite plus. In fact, being in a country where I understood the road signs, the mail, the food labels and everything else would certainly make life easier. Documents wouldn’t need to be translated either.

The other benefit of living in the UK is that it would be so much easier for me to re-establish my client base, and I could be teaching workshops in no time. Plus, I could schedule book signings and increase my book sales there.

Sounding pretty good, ain’t it?

The main drawback of life in the UK is…well…life in the UK. It’s cold, it’s depressing, and it’s expensive. We’d relocate to the sunniest coast, but even in the height of summer, temps don’t generally break 70F. That’s practically still winter!

AVL
Asheville, NC

During my visit for marriage, one of the first things that struck me was how miserable everyone seemed in the cities. Living in Asheville for 10 years, one of the happiest cities in the US, has spoiled me so!

The area of Devon was nicer than the central areas, and I could see myself living in certain parts there even despite those narrow little roadways.

In fact, my whole life, I have wanted to live by the sea. So maybe, just maybe, the UK would be OK if we lived by the shore. And the grocery stores there, after having been in France, Eee!!! Delight!

But I also recall how upon disembarking from the ferry once back in France, the whole sky opened up and the sun shone down gloriously! I’m pretty sure I heard angels singing as I removed my “tea cozy” hat, scarf, and sweater (which I had to wear in September no less!). The whole world was smiling again.

But it would also be much simpler for us to eliminate the third country from a complex-enough two-country life. And it certainly would be nice to ultimately share a country with my Honey and not just be a permanently floating expat. Who knows? Maybe establishing residency and then citizenship in the UK is the best way to do that.

That’s all for now. Next time, considerations for the US…

Where to Land?

This is a complicated story, so hang in there with me. In 2013, I met, fell in love, and married my husband, a UK Citizen living in France. We met over the internet, on Facebook, to be exact. You see, I recently published a book, and he happened to be working for the publisher as the book’s designer. The internet is definitely closing the gap for love across nations, but unfortunately, we live in a world of structures that have yet to recognize this.

He said that when I friended him, his immediate response was, “I’ve got to marry her!”…this from a man who swore he’d never marry again. After a week of talking, I too had a knowing, “I’m going to spend the rest of my life with this man,” even though I had pretty much sworn off relationships. But neither of us were quite ready to reveal to each other the intensity of our illogical feelings. That came later.

Once we knew, it took a great deal of effort to arrange for me to get a Visitor for Marriage Visa from the UK. It was easier than trying to marry in France because of the language issues and quicker than trying to marry in the states. That alone was a huge decision-making and action-requiring process. (Being beyond that at the moment, I’m going to focus on where we are now and maybe return to the earlier stages another day.)

We got married so we could be together, but we’re finding it isn’t quite as easy as we’d thought…or at least hoped. So here we are, married. I’m in the US, and he’s in France.

Our current task is deciding who goes where. Here are our choices:

I move to France.
He moves to the US.
We both move to the UK.

Simple right? Wrong.

Honestly, I thought that would be such an easy thing to figure out. But it is proving to be extremely complicated. For one thing, each of us is able and willing to do any of the above.

So, I’m writing about this for two main reasons. First, I’m trying to sort this all out in my very confused head; writing helps me do that. And second, I have found so much support from and value in various expat forums and on blogs of others who have taken the international marriage plunge; maybe I can help some other couple by sharing my experience.

So I’ll get back to our decision soon…