Spiritual Benefits of Living Abroad by Douglas E Morris
Life overseas has a reputation for being libidinous, debauched and bacchanalian. Certainly, it can be all of those things, and in my many years as an expat I have definitely pursued all those possibilities. However, life abroad can also be a path to spiritually enlightenment, mainly because being in another culture removes us from the familiar, expands our comfort zone, pushes us toward our growing edge, while offering a mirror in which to gaze upon our true selves.
Many spiritual practices, Buddhism in particular, teach a concept called “mindfulness,” living in the moment, being fully present, aware of what is going on around us. When in our home country, however, possibly because everything is so familiar, we can tend towards going on autopilot, and fall into an unconscious state of being.
Living overseas wakes us up from this slumber and allows us to move through our days in the ever-present now—Zen time—not worrying about tomorrow, not thinking about the past. When we are in another country we are forced to be mindful, simply because everything is so different we can’t just shut our minds off and coast through the day. When outside of the US, our minds have to be constantly engaged simply to get through the most mundane tasks.
Take the basic experience of simply talking to someone. If you are in a country where English is not the “official language”, communication is an intensely focused actively. Your mind cannot wander, you cannot think about what you are going to say next. You can’t listen with half your brain and plan your day with the other. You have to focus intently and patiently to the person talking, so that you can understand the accented English they are speaking, or decipher their native language.
Focused listening can get rather tiring, which is probably why we don’t do it as often as we should at home. In our native tongue, it is easy to pick up the thread of the conversation and ease back into the flow. As a result of this tendency to let our minds wander, many of us have developed exterior manifestations of good listening skills — gazing intently into someone’s eyes, nodding our heads periodically, making appreciative noises, etc.—but in reality we are somewhere else, multi-tasking, making lists, worrying about our busy schedule, and not being fully present, not really listening at all.
So without the help of gurus or swamis, spending months in ashrams, bending ourselves into pretzels on the yoga mat, or sitting for hours in meditation, expats, just by the process of living overseas, learn to live in the present moment.
Another spiritual behavior expats tend to acquire without realizing it, is patience. This most basic and fundamental aspect of a spiritual practice is developed everyday as expats navigate the uncharted waters of a different culture. Only by moving slowly, not rushing, having no expectations, all of which requires patience, can expats achieve their desired goals.
Being humble is also at the bedrock of most spiritual practices. Living overseas gives that to you in spades. Everything is different when you are overseas. There are unusual foods, unfamiliar ways to get from one place to another, diverse types of stores, and unusual social mores, values, and cultural expressions. Dealing with it all can be very humbling. All of these new experiences push us out of our comfort zone, knock us off whatever pedestal we created for ourselves, and bring us crashing humbly back down to earth.
In many ways, by living overseas we turn ourselves into children again, having to learn everything anew. Where can you find a phone cord in France, or non-prescription medicine in Italy, or a television license in England? Mundane day-to-day activities become steep mountains to climb, humbling whatever over-inflated sense of self we may have developed.
The most humbling experience of all is suddenly becoming functionally illiterate. As adults in our home country, we are used to being able to communicate clearly and effectively. In another country with a different language, we become effectively deaf and mute. People talk to us but we do not understand them. We open our mouths but no one can decipher what we are saying. Suddenly, in terms of language, we are infants. More than anything, this process of communicating overseas in another language can be frustrating, demeaning, and incredibly humbling.
However, from this position of vulnerability can come immense strength. Being humbled allows us to remove the defenses that have built up over the years, opening an opportunity to view the world and ourselves from a different perspective, allowing us to develop the confidence to grow, evolve and change.
Living overseas is also about letting go. Being in another country can help us learn to accept what is, and discard unrealistic expectations. Being able to live contentedly in any country is about accepting whatever happens for what it is, and not judging it or getting frustrated with it for what it is not.
Being confronted with new and different cultural situations can be confusing. Overseas, much of what we “know” is no longer valid, forcing us to re-educate ourselves to behave in a manner that is culturally appropriate. For example, the color white is acceptable to wear to a funeral in Asia. You should only eat with your right hand in the Middle East. It is expected of you to belch copiously during a meal in China. And when sharing a business card with a Japanese don’t just glance at it and stuff it into you pocket, stare at it intently, read off the person’s name and title, and only then put it away in a respectful manner.
These day-to-day experiences overseas, where everything seems as if it is reflected in a fun house mirror, allow us to put into practice the spirituality of being more mindful, patient, and humble. We learn how to let go of our preconceived notions about how things should be done and accept them for what they are.
I believe it was John Cougar Mellencamp who sang “Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.” When we were young, life seemed to come with its own soundtrack, grandiose music filling every banal scene with intense emotion making it seem transcendent and unique. Being older, often, means living through the same movie but without the evocative music. However, when overseas, where almost everything is new and different, the soundtrack returns with gusto and the joy of being alive re-emerges in full force, renewing our sense of wonder with the world around us.
Managed properly, approached thoughtfully, explored meaningfully, living overseas is probably the most mind-expanding and soul-enriching experience found outside of transcendental meditation, tantric sex, or chemically induced hallucinations. Though it does not guarantee development of an open mind and adventurous spirit, simply by virtue of being in new and interesting places on a more frequent basis, the potential for both is infinitely increased.
Bottom line, if you are seeking more enlightenment in your life, don’t forsake all possessions, wrap yourself in rags, go live in a cave and subsist on berries. You have another option! Just head across the frontier. Life is better overseas.
Douglas E. Morris is the author of Open Road’s Best of Italy. He has lived in Italy for over ten years and currently resides in Viterbo. You can contact the author through his website: www.TheItalyGuide.com.