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At the beginning of this year, our calendar was packed. We were going to fly to Austin for a Google talk, go to L.A for a documentary, fly to St.Louis to speak at the Financial Freedom Summit, visit friends in Colorado, and somewhere along the way, fit in a talk at a female empowerment retreat, and a silent ten day meditation retreat/Vipassana.
I never thought I’d get back on a treadmill after quitting work, but inadvertently that’s exactly what we did. By saying yes to everything, we had no time to think or reflect.
That all changed with the pandemic. We went from having a full calendar to a completely empty one. Suddenly, with our treadmill unplugged, for the first time, we’re stopping to think rather than just mindlessly jumping on the next exciting thing.
It was scary at first. You think being alone with your thoughts is easy but it’s not. Especially if you’re an A-type overachiever like me. I kept thinking I’d panic about the future. About not being enough. About other people getting ahead and me staying stagnant.
Until I realized that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with just existing and being happy.
Here are 5 realizations I made during self-isolation that I wasn’t expecting:
Stop Doing. Start Being.
North American culture trains us to constantly be striving. We worship accomplishments. We make it everyone’s life goal to be the best, to climb the corporate ladder, and to live for accolades.
But that all eventually leads to burn out, health problems, and a self-worth and identity that’s too wrapped up in our accomplishments.
This is why my family doctor told me that 20 years ago, 80% of her patients came in with health issues like cancer, heart disease, etc. But now, the ailments her patients are afflicted with are all related to lifestyle choices—anxiety, depression, stress-related health problems. And instead of changing their lifestyles to combat these issues, they turn to medication. Why change your life when it’s easier just to change your prescription?
I have to admit, I was guilty of that too. Before we become FI, I thought I couldn’t live without my anxiety medication and anti-depressants. Even during the peak of book promotion last July, I still kept a bottle of pills next to my bed, for those times I couldn’t sleep from anxiety.
But now, with my schedule wiped clean, I’ve been forced to sit and just exist without constantly striving for the next shiny accomplishment. I’ve realized how it important it is to “be” instead of “do”. It took me over 30 years to get here, but it’s liberating and absolutely worth it.
External Validation Won’t Make You Happy
Growing up, I thought my parents’ love was conditional. If you’re useful, you deserve to be loved. Otherwise, you don’t. That’s why I always chased external validations—good grades, awards, promotions to be happy. If I got the reward, I’d be happy. If I didn’t, I was a loser.
But when all your events are cancelled, and you can’t turn to accolades for happiness, you have no choice to but to turn inwards.
As a result, I’ve learned how to do things for the sheer joy of the process rather than the reward. Making dough, writing for fun, reading fiction have all been just as fulfilling as drinking in applause on stage.
I learned that chasing external validation is a recipe for unhappiness and true happiness comes from within.
Humans Are Surprisingly Adaptable and Resilient
Back in March, we rushed back to Canada because of a family emergency. The terrifying reality that we could lose an immediate family member hit us like a ton of bricks. To say it’s been a wild rollercoaster of emotional ups and downs from the scary medical updates would be an understatement. But, over time, we adapted to this reality and have learned how to cope with this serious situation.
We feel incredible grateful that we have the time and headspace to devote our energy to our family and not have to worry about paying off a mortgage or bills piling up. Of all the positive things that becoming FI did for us, this is the one that tops them all. The time you spend with your family is priceless—especially given that you have no idea how much time you have left with them.
Meditation Helps You Stay Calm
This pandemic proves that we’re not really in control. We may think we are, but so many things in life are completely outside of our control. The only thing we can control is how we react to it.
Unfortunately, the part of our brain developed from millions of years ago to protect us from predators—the amygdala—is also the alarm bell that can’t turn off even when there’s no real danger. That’s why I’ve learned that meditation is key to inner happiness, because it’s a healthy, non-addictive way to wean ourselves off of that type of response. The more we learn to calm our bodies via deep breathing and quieting our looping thoughts, the healthier and happier we will be.
When I started mediating near the end of last year, I couldn’t even sit still for just 10 mins. Even two minutes of silent sitting felt like an eternity.
But after meditating daily for 15mins in Thailand for a month, I’ve noticed a huge difference with my thought patterns. And now, having had the forced quiet reflection that the pandemic has pushed on me, I can now meditate for an hour without breaking a sweat.
I can now stay in the present without ruminating about the past or future.
(If you want to get started with meditation, I recommend the free “Insight Timer” app which has 45,000 guided meditations, and a community of over 1 million meditators! The content is so amazing I can’t believe they are giving most of it away for free. I love this app so much I signed up for the yearly subscription to support them.
Oh and I also love books by “Thich Nhat Hanh”.)
No One Knows How Much Time They Have Left
When there’s a deadly disease rampaging around the world, killing hundreds of thousands of people, you’re faced with the uncomfortable truth of your own mortality.
None of us know how much time we have left. Why waste it being stuck in the past, ruminating over the future, or fixating on minor grievances or obsessing over minutiae?
Reflect on what’s actually important in your life and focus on that.
For us, that’s our family and relationships. And thanks to finding FI, we’ve had the luxury of being there for family and spending as much time as possible with them, because none of us know who much time we have left.
After spending a lot of time reflecting, I finally realized something at the end of this shutdown.
I can now manage my anxiety and just exist and be happy.
With no gold stars to strive for, no accolades, nothing scheduled in the horizon, for the first time, I’m happy just being instead of doing. I’m happy being me. I don’t need to prove anything anymore. Not to myself. Not to anyone.
After a lifelong obsession with constantly striving for the next thing, I’m perfectly happy just sitting and being. I no longer get anxious from not completing my daily to do list. I don’t care about collecting accomplishments like a kid collects Pokémon cards. And as long as I can spend time with like-minded people, eat spicy Sichuan hot pot, and drink bubble tea, I don’t need much to be happy.
I am enough.
What about you? Has the pandemic given you pause to reflect on life? Have you had any epiphanies or realizations?
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