Kim and I have just returned from two weeks in Ecuador. For a second year, I participated as a presenter for one of Cheryl Reed’s “Above the Clouds” retreats. Once again, the experience was awesome.
We spent the week of the retreat at the El Encanto Resort outside Los Bancos. (“Resort” is a strong word, in this case. The place was lovely, but it’s not a resort in the way I think of a resort. It was more like a standard American hotel.) El Encanto is located exactly on the equator, near (or in?) Ecuador’s cloud forest. When we woke each morning, we could watch clouds being “born”. Condensation from the river in the valley below would rise in slow, misty columns — not unlike smoke from a bonfire — to form clouds in the sky above. Once, on a bright and sunny day, a wall of fog surged in from the south until everything was dim and grey…and then the fog slipped away as quickly as it arrived.
Last year, attendees knew me as J.D. from Get Rich Slowly, which is how I’m accustomed to being identified. But this year was different. This year’s attendees were largely unaware of Get Rich Slowly before the retreat. Instead, they knew me because of this blog. As a result, they went into the week with a different preconception of who I am and what I do. It was interesting.
At Get Rich Slowly, I wrote about my struggle to overcome debt and develop smart financial skills. Over the course of several years, Readers got to see both what I did right and what I did wrong. I presented a real-time log of who I was and what I was becoming.
But here at More Than Money, most of my writing has been centered on presenting a (relatively) polished philosophy that I’ve been developing for a decade. My articles have been all about the things that lead to a happier, more successful life. I haven’t dwelt on my past mistakes, and I haven’t spent much time chronicling my current ups and downs. The result? This blog hasn’t painted an accurate picture of who I am today.
“I was so glad you wrote about your struggle with the doldrums,” Jen told me during a chat early in the retreat. “After reading your blog for several months, I’d begun to believe you were one of those folks who had it all figured out, who never struggled like the rest of us.”
I had to laugh at that characterization. Long-time readers (and those who know me in Real Life) are well-aware that although I’m always trying to become a better person, I’m far from having everything figured out! But Jen’s comment made me realize that even while sharing a well-developed philosophy, I need to leave room to explain the process that led me to these ideas and beliefs. It hasn’t been easy or quick! And I’ve made plenty of wrong turns along the way. Plus, the philosophy continues to evolve as I gain more knowledge and experience.
The core of the retreat was a series of two-hour presentations from three different speakers. Like last year, I spoke about defeating fear, creating happiness, and choosing freedom. (These are the very ideas I’ve been writing about at this blog for the past year.)
During her presentation, Cheryl Reed went into greater depth about what it means when you choose to be happy. She shared how she used to search for external sources of happiness (new clothes, new job, new home) before realizing that if she wanted to change her life, she had to change her self. She learned that she had to adjust her expectations. She had to change the way she thought and how she responded to situations. (Sound familiar? That’s because we talked about these ideas here at More Than Money earlier this year.)
David Cain (of Raptitude) talked about how to create a life of well-being. He delineated the difference between happiness, which is a mercurial emotional state tied to exceptional short-term circumstances, and well-being, which is a state of mind tied to more permanent long-term circumstances. “Happiness is like emotional weather,” Cain explained, “whereas well-being is like emotional climate. You’re happy because you ordered the salmon; you have well-being because you live in a city you love.”
I liked this differentiation between happiness and well-being. Sure, you could split hairs over terminology, but it’s the concepts here that are important.
Cain says that we’re taught to pursue happiness instead of well-being. Our biological makeup urges us to worry about threats, hoard resources, and eliminate risk and uncertainty. Deep down, we’re still animals just like any other; left to our own devices, our survival instinct takes over. We have to consciously choose to pursue long-term good over short-term pleasure. Meanwhile, society teaches us to compare ourselves to others and to always want more than what we have. This produces a constant yearning for something different. (In personal finance, we call this lifestyle inflation or the hedonic treadmill.)
With wisdom, we can overcome these outside forces to find a personal path to well-being.
In general, well-being is best pursued by:
- Learning to live in the present. “Suffering comes from resisting the present moment,” says Cain, “from longing for something other than what is.” Once the present is unfolding, it’s already happening and we no longer have a choice about what is occurring, so resisting it only brings unhappiness.
- Understanding our moods and emotions. There’s nothing wrong with becoming angry or tired or frustrated. But if these are a permanent state, they decrease your well-being. Instead of fighting bad moods or trying to figure them out, learn to “hang out with them”. Don’t make decisions while under the influence of strong emotions, but let them pass.
- Purposefully cultivating gratitude. Like many before him, Cain says that learning to be thankful for what you have is a key to long-term happiness. Waking in an uncomfortable hostel bed, for example, always makes him grateful for the comfortable bed he has at home. (Or that he even has a bed.) Driving through Ecuador made me thankful for the more calm and orderly roads at home.
- Learning about and training the mind. If you allow your “monkey mind” to control your actions and dictate your response to life, you’re abdicating responsibility for your well-being. Instead, learn how the mind works. Practice structured meditation and mindfulness in order to feel better and work better. “The more I meditate, the more beautiful I find ordinary moments and events,” Cain says.
Cain says that you ought to cultivate a vision of your ideal life. Where would you live? Who would you be? How would you spend your time? Give yourself permission to pursue this dream. Too many people are reactive, moving away from the things they don’t want instead of toward the things they do. “Fear and desire are competing forces,” Cain says. “But fear doesn’t give you direction and desire does.” (Please re-read that last bit. I’m glossing over it right now, but it’s very important.)
After our week in the cloud forest — which included hiking, a visit to a nearby elementary school, a tour of a chocolate factor, and more — Kim and I spent a couple of days exploring Quito.
Then, last Monday, we hopped on a plane over the Andes to Coca. From there, we took a boat ride up the Napo River and into the Amazon basin. (Never heard of the Napo River? Neither had I, yet it discharges roughly the same amount of water as the Columbia River!) We spent several days exploring the jungle. We saw heaps of bugs and birds and frogs, but also caught glimpses of monkeys and more.
It was a good trip. We learned a lot and laughed a lot and explored parts of the world we hadn’t seen before. But it’s good to be home. I’m ready to resume writing in earnest — both here and for other outlets — and I’m eager to focus on physical fitness once more. Because, as Jen discovered when she met me, I don’t have it all figured out. I’m still learning and growing, just like everyone else.