Living abroad seems like such a glamorous adventure. And often it is, at least when I look at it rationally. But I’d underestimated how big the challenge of adjusting would be when I left New York City—my home for 20 years—and moved to Portugal last winter. I didn’t speak the language, know my way around, have friends, or understand how to accomplish basic tasks like getting a mobile phone.
Even as I was diligently Instagramming my dream life, it was often through tears.
Plus, the potential romantic relationship that was another lure to Lisbon (oh yeah, there was that reason, too) didn’t exactly pan out according to the stupid Cinderella fantasy that I had somehow, despite my best intentions, managed to write for myself. I took it hard. With that and my general sense of dislocation as ammunition, I managed to undo years of meditation and therapy and destroy my self-esteem. Even as I was diligently Instagramming my dream life, it was often through tears.
When a long-planned trip to Kamalaya, a luxurious destination spa in Koh Samui, Thailand, came along (I’m a travel writer—these things happen) two months into my time in Lisbon, I couldn’t have been more grateful and relieved. I was counting on a weeklong escape from my frustrations. But what I got was life-changing.
Kamalaya is a special place. Its founder, John Stewart (no, not that Jon Stewart), spent 16 years as a monk in the Himalayas, then even more time creating businesses and jobs in Kathmandu, before he felt called to carry his message of wellness, stillness, and connection to stressed-out professionals from the Western world. “I’m taking the best of ancient traditions and making it contemporary and accessible,” he told me during my stay. “Most people don’t get to learn that.”
I went in with plans to follow the basic Relax and Renew program, which is kind of like a regular beach vacation, but with healthy food, lots of massages, and maybe some yoga classes. But when I saw a program called Embracing Change, that seemed like a pretty good idea.
It’s Kamalaya’s newest program, added three years ago and still a bit of an outlier—more guests come for rejuvenation, detox, or weight management—but Stewart says it’s drawn a lot of people after divorces, retirement, or children leaving home. I felt sheepish at first, as having a hard time with your decision to be an expat seems like the ultimate first-world problem. But even if it’s self-inflicted, change is change, and change is hard. I went for it.
That meant minimal gym time and maximum group meditation sessions, one-on-one consultation with former monks—Stewart recruited them from his monastic community, and the teachers are the real deal—and even acupuncture tailored to emotional healing. The ideas these teachers explained to me have been resonating more and more loudly in the six months since my stay.
Simple is not the same as easy, but much of their advice was simple. My problem, life enhancement mentor and longtime monk Vinod Krishna Srivatsan said in one of our private sessions, wasn’t that I was experiencing negative emotions. It was that I was trying to fight them to prevent myself from feeling. The crying comes from resisting sadness or frustration. So what if I tried to accept that I felt sad, a normal and inevitable human emotion, and just let myself feel it for 10 or 15 seconds? What if I focused on how it felt in my body?
I thought it would be awful, but I tried it…and it wasn’t that bad. There was pain at the base of my throat for a few moments, but then it went away. It wasn’t exactly pleasant, but if I tried things his way, it was temporary—even brief.
Srivatsan brought a useful metaphor to that concept that evening during a group meditation session. He told a story of a man who loved a clear, running stream. When he saw branches floating in the stream, they made him uncomfortable and he was compelled to take them out. So he was spending days and days clearing branches, but there were always more and they were making him miserable. But what if he had just said, “Okay, cool, there are some branches here and there, but it’s still my beautiful running stream?”
If step one was accepting negative feelings, step two was creating positive ones. In my next private session, Srivatsan talked about the six core human needs: security (knowing you have a place to live and food to eat), variety, love and connection (not necessarily of the romantic sort), growth, significance (recognition for your abilities), and contribution to something larger than yourself.
“Following your dream is no guarantee of an easy ride.”
Did I have all of those? Absolutely. Did I have them all in Lisbon? Yeah, actually, come to think of it, I did. And while no one told me to do anything as cheesy as writing a list of affirmations, they inspired me to make a conscious choice to focus on the ways all my core needs—especially variety—were being met, as opposed to the ways my life wasn’t completely charmed.
In between, I looked forward to my sessions with Bernie Schulte, a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine with a gift for using acupuncture to foster emotional healing. He sent me off with a parting present, a mini book of recommendations for happiness (“Following your dream is no guarantee of an easy ride;” “For the world to treat you well, you have to treat yourself well”) and instructions to think about one of them each day.
Before Kamalaya, I likely would have tossed it—too simple, too sappy. But after my week in Koh Samui, I was more open to it. In the months since, I pick it up from time to time, and think about all that Srivatsan taught me. I’m still not living my dream life (who is?), I’m not perfect (again, who is?), and some days are still hard, but I’m not overwhelmed by small disappointments. I have more control over my emotions. I’m happily in that same, evolving relationship, and living abroad is more like the change and challenge I expected. And sometimes even a glamorous adventure.
For more inspo: Here’s how believing she was enough transformed this woman’s life. And daydream about your next trip with this guide to wellness destinations around the world.