#21: Describe a recent “eureka” moment.

“Follow your bliss, and do not be afraid.”

We drove in relative silence. The weather was remarkably warm for November, and I was in a good mood, albeit slightly nervous. My cousin was giving me a ride to the airport — Pearson International. It had become a tradition of sorts between us. Every time I’d left in the past, after all the hugs and goodbyes, it was always him that I would see last. He was my final point of familiar contact before leaving on a jet plane, not quite sure when I’d be back again.

The first time was thirteen years prior. Same highway, same airport, same cousin. But that had been the first time I’d decided to do something like this, so there was more ambiguity about how it would turn out. I remember being in the car then, driving to the airport, when my cousin suddenly broke the silence.

“I gotta tell you something, Shayan.”

“What’s up?”

“I’m kind of scared for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m scared. For you. If I was in your shoes I’d be shitting my pants. I would never be in your shoes. But even just thinking about it .. I don’t even know where you’re going exactly.”

“I’m going to Bangkok. In Thailand.”

“Thailand. Okay. Jesus. Have you been to Thailand?”

“Definitely not.”

“Do you know anyone there?”

“I do not.”

“Do you have a job lined up?”

“Nope.”

“Do you have any money?”

“I have …. a couple thousand bucks, give or take.”

“That’s not a lot! You’re gonna run out in like a month. And then what are you gonna do? Come back? Is this just a vacation?”

“I don’t wanna come back so quickly, no.”

“Then what the fuck! What are you gonna do? Where are you gonna stay? Do you have a hotel booked?”

“Not yet.”

“What??! You don’t even have a room booked?”

“I figured I’d just find something when I get there.”

“That’s just crazy. You’re crazy. This is not a good idea. You have no friends, no job, no money, you don’t speak the language, you don’t have a place to stay. Why are you going? What’s the plan?”

It’s not as though these things hadn’t occurred to me. It’s not like I wasn’t aware that I didn’t have a plan, but somehow, I had .. just .. not worried about it. I actively tried not to think about it and had instead clung to the most tepid of platitudes — everything would be alright. You know, things would work themselves out. Somehow.

But being asked these questions now, ten minutes away from the airport, three hours away from the flight, one day away from the next chapter that would define the rest of my life, I began to panic. What was I doing? Was this a good idea? Was it even an idea?

I’d decided to go to Thailand on a whim. I had literally flipped a coin three weeks earlier in front of a cute girl at the travel agency — remember travel agencies? — and it fell heads and, true to my word, I bought a ticket. Her name was Roberta. (It’s amazing how since that trip, I’ve met — befriended, partied with, slept with, and worked with — so many people, but most of them have slipped from my memory. I have forgotten more names and faces than I care to admit. But I never forgot Roberta’s name. Or her face. It was with her that the unplanned plan was hatched. Extemporaneously. Simply because I thought the coin-flip maneuver was cool.)

“I don’t know man, you’re freaking me out!” I told my cousin.

“You should be freaked out. That would be a normal reaction. I am going to be home in an hour smoking a joint on my couch. I know exactly what I’m doing next week. I have no reason to worry and I’m still scared for you. You should absolutely be freaking out.”

“No no. It’s fine. It’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. I’ll figure it out. Meet other travellers, I don’t know. Smell my way around.”

“You don’t know that though. You’re just saying that. I don’t understand why you didn’t plan things a little more.”

“I don’t like planning.”

“Yea well I don’t like going to the dentist but it doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to do it anyway.”

“I fucking hate the dentist. That scares me more than this.”

“I get you, but, Jesus. I don’t know. Please don’t die out there.”

“I won’t.

“Good. We’re almost there.”

This is not a story about what happened when I went to Thailand (then Laos, then Cambodia) thirteen years ago. Or how I subsequently ended up accepting the first job I was offered, teaching ESL to kids in South Korea. Or how over the course of the following five years I would traverse thirteen countries on three continents, effectively changing me as a human being for the rest of my life.

No, this is not that story.

The story I want to tell is one of conflict. Conflict between what a twenty-one year-old boy wanted to believe — wanted to be true — and how everyone around him said it couldn’t be the case.

I was twenty one, finishing up a lacklustre university career. One and a half years before Thailand.

At the time, I was captivated by authors who wrote about the path of spiritual awakening. I had already started down the path myself (when I ingested psilocybin with some friends one sunny afternoon and woke up for the first time in my life), and I wanted guidance. I read everything by Timothy Leary, then moved on to the likes of Hoffman, Albert, Strassman, Roberts, Huxley, Pinchbeck, Watts, Frankl, and Allen, to name a few. They all had fascinating things to say, but the thing that struck me was — despite them all coming to it through the lens of their own respective experiences, insights, and investigations — they were all saying the same thing.

The best and most succinct encapsulation of it came from Joseph Campbell and his famous, perennial credo: Follow your bliss.

Don’t worry! Don’t worry about planning — or devising — your future path. Don’t concern yourself with where the money will come from, or where you will rest your head, or what you will do, or how. Don’t panic about the unknown. Don’t live in trepidation. Take the first step, even if you can’t see the stairwell. Take the first step anyway. And then the second. And the one after that. Follow your bliss, and do not be afraid.

I bought it. I believed it. It resonated with me.

Maybe it was all the drugs I was taking. Maybe it was the fact that believing things will just work themselves out was a lot easier and far more tantalizing than the alternative, which involved a lot of planning, and a lot of sacrifice. I could have gone to grad school if I’d wanted, but I just didn’t fucking want to. All my friends — heck, everyone I knew, was preoccupied with advancement, with higher degrees and bigger salaries — on the fast track to marriage and a mortgage.

Fuck that, I used to think, I haven’t even seen the world.

No one agreed with me. But let me clarify: that’s not to say people thought traveling was a bad idea. Of course it’s a good idea, but to what end, they would ask. What’s the plan, they would wonder. My stubborn obsession with spontaneity, and refusal to plan a course of action, was seen as nothing but a thin veil, masking my fear of commitment and responsibility.

I was twenty-two when I left for Thailand. He’s twenty-two, they said. Let him go have some fun, explore the world, find himself. Good for him. Travel is important, at least for a while. He’ll eventually realize he can’t do it forever.

And he’ll be back.

Five years later, my cousin and I were on highway 407, once again en route to Pearson International. YYZ.

“So Colombia, eh?” he started.

“Colombia baby.”

“Any plans?”

“Negative.”

“You got a job? You know anyone?”

“Nope.”

“What about Spanish. Can you speak some Spanish?”

“I only know hola, gracias, and por favor. Also: uno dos tres cuatro cinco seis.

“And that doesn’t fucking terrify you?”

“I’ll learn.”

“It’s not that easy to just learn another language. You’re not ten years old. It’s gonna be hard, and lonely; you’re gonna get robbed, or kidnapped, or worse. You know there’s like, cartels and shit there. I don’t think this is a good idea.”

I was nervous, but I didn’t let on. Follow your bliss and fake it ‘till you make it. That was my philosophy. I’d had some practice at it by this point, and it was kind of working.

This second trip was different than the first. For starters, I had money this time — more money than I’d ever had in my entire life — thanks to a job that I’d have never found had it not been for blind luck (or following my bliss?) on the first trip. I also didn’t speak the language but, more importantly, was no longer a kaleidoscope-eyed twenty-two year old.

In the weeks leading up to my departure, my father and I had several, fiery arguments about my life and plans for the future. He never outright disagreed with my decision to leave the first time, but the second time was different. By the time my father was the same age, he had two sons, a marriage, and a mortgage. I had a backpack and a Lonely Planet guidebook.

Amongst some friends, but especially within my family, the rhetoric towards my behaviour was unanimous:

Shayan has lost his way. He doesn’t even know what he wants. Shayan has a fear of commitment, a fear of responsibility. Shayan doesn’t have the courage or fortitude to stick to something when things get hard. He prefers to escape, run away, avoid the real world, drown himself in a hedonistic swamp. Shayan is afraid.

But I wasn’t afraid. No matter what anyone says or thinks, I was not afraid. I was exhilarated. I was following my bliss. And that meant more traveling, new experiences, discovering the unknown. I did not want what other people wanted. I couldn’t put a finger on exactly what I did want, because I didn’t really know, but it wasn’t what everyone else thought I should want. I didn’t want a stable job, or a spouse, or a house. I wanted spontaneity, adventure, change.

“I don’t agree,” back to the car, on the way to the airport, Colombia beckoning. “Just because I don’t know what will happen doesn’t mean it won’t work out. I’m sure I’ll find a job at one point, something will fall into my lap.”

“I don’t think jobs just fall into you lap, man. You could’ve found one online, and gone there with some peace of mind, some security.”

“Nah, too much planning. Something will come along. I’ll know when I find it.”

“I really don’t understand how you’re not scared.”

“I am a little. But, you know, good scared. Like before a big game.”

“When have you ever played in a ‘Big Game’?”

“Okay fine. Not a game. Like .. the kind of scared you are before giving a presentation that you’ve prepared for. You’re ready, but it doesn’t make it any less scary.”

“I guess. Just, please be safe, for god sakes. And don’t do too many drugs, and don’t get killed.”

“I won’t. I promise.”

I ended up keeping only two of the three promises.

We live in a world where the majority of people’s belief systems are not developed, but rather installed.

Most people don’t come to understand things; instead, they are told to do so. Reinforced again and again via the different branches of institutional authority (familial, religious, political, financial, academic, and medical), buttressed ad nauseam by the media, and evidenced by the credulous adherence of the masses, it has become very difficult to believe in anything other than The Official Story, lest you be seen as “new-age”, a hippy, gullible, and naive.

In most people’s eyes, there is the truth, and then there is everything else. Ideas like mine — a belief in the notion that thoughts, feelings, and dispositions shape and create the reality that is experienced — are dismissed, outright, as completely starry-eyed and without merit.

We live in a world where worship at the alter of science and authority has eradicated people’s belief in their own ability to intuitively understand the nature of reality.

Look, I fucking love science, in particular quantum mechanics. I’m not a denier, nor am I suggesting we abandon science, or pay less attention to it, but simply that we should understand that the bigger picture is Far. More. Mercurial. than anyone could imagine.

The path forward is to be discovered, not choreographed. Life is effortless when you follow your bliss, and fraught with obstacles when you try to plan it.

Now, I realize that the reader may be rolling their eyes at such a comment, ready to unholster a scroll of evidence to the contrary. Planning is a part of life, they say. Plans provide structure, create balance, allow for flexibility, and safeguard you from future suffering.

You can’t accomplish anything without a plan, or so people say.

I don’t exactly disagree. Obviously, some planning is usually required. It’s not like I’ve never had a plan, or made one, or stuck to it. The point I want to make is that more powerful than planning, is believing. Believing that things will work out — even without a plan — as long as you follow your bliss.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

November, 2020.

My cousin and I are on the 407, driving towards the airport. It is the third time it’s happening this way, and once again, I am excited and nervous at the same time.

In the middle of an unprecedented, global pandemic — the likes of which no human alive has ever seen — I decided to give up my job, relinquish my apartment, leave my friends, family, and partner, and move to Europe. Counter to a government advisory against travel, in opposition to the advice of the Surgeon General, and in the midst of a recession, I moved to a country which, at the time, was the third-most affected in Europe by the health crisis.

It may not have been the smartest decision. Lord knows plenty of people questioned my judgement (there goes Shayan, running away again), but it felt right to me.

Is there anything else that matters at all?

Getting my affairs in order before my departure was very stressful, but since arriving in Barcelona, I couldn’t be more certain that I’m in the right place, at the right time.

A string of serendipitous events have already vindicated my decision. More steps on the ladder have revealed themselves. Steps that, only a month ago, were not only completely invisible, but in truth, inconceivable.

I don’t have a plan. I don’t have a job. And I don’t have much money.

I do speak the language this time (a result of following my bliss to Colombia), and although I know a few people here, I spend the majority of my time alone.

And I love it.

I’m in the right place, at the right time. I know it. I can feel it. I don’t know exactly where it’s going to take me, or how, but that’s okay. I don’t need to know. Trying to adumbrate the future is the business of fools. For now, I am happy in the knowledge that I’m on the right path. My path. My fucking bliss. And I’m excited to see where it will lead.

I am no longer beholden to the appraisal of others, believing that it is not of any intrinsic value. Nobody really knows who I am, so why should I care whether they agree with my decisions or not?

I turned thirty six last month, fifteen years after I first heard of Joseph Campbell. My most recent moment of “eureka” has been fifteen years in the making, and it happened yesterday, while exchanging texts with a friend.

Everything is possible if you refuse to listen to what other people say, she said.

My god. It’s true. It’s actually fucking true.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Joseph Campbell couldn’t have said it better himself. It is the simplest and most profound of realizations. The realization that you, and you alone, are the orator of your experience, the designer of your reality, and the judge, jury, and executioner of your fate.

All you have to do is:

“Follow your bliss, and do not be afraid. Follow your bliss, and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”

Sublime.

#thegravitasproject