Gratitude. That’s a word and an emotion that is all too underused. That’s my personal guide. Lead your life with gratitude because regardless of how you’re feeling, what has happened in your life, be grateful for today.
I haven’t always been that way. I’ve been the victim, I’ve wallowed in self pity. I’ve mourned the loss of my entire family by the age of 26, I’ve been angry, depressed and a terrible friend when diagnosed with a severe chronic illness (I’m that 1 in a million to have it, seriously) and told that the mortality rate was 5 years of life expectancy. Guess what, that was 9 years ago and at this point in my life, I am grateful for every single day. I’m awed by what my body and mind are able to do after suffering a mild stroke 5 years ago and I have an abundance of love, friendships and experiences for which I am eternally grateful.
I got here by luck and perseverance. Throughout my entire illness I worked, and I worked hard. I had time off for recovery, I was supported by my organisation with salary continuance which very few are lucky enough to have however I didn’t stop to consider how this pressure for success was affecting my health or my state of mind. When I did, I made the difficult decision to leave a company I had been with for over 10 years, friends I had made, a team I adored and a career that was successful. I stepped out of my comfort zone and safety net. I decided to take my savings and have some time out. During that 6 months I traveled around Asia and I found myself through the experiences I had, the people I met and the lessons they taught me.
From the brilliant Angkor Wat tour guide in Cambodia, Mr Vannsak Se who is a father of two young sons, lost his family while very young and whose grandmother had to sell their family land simply to allow him to live his dream of becoming an official tour guide and share his passion for his culture with people from around the world. The young boy Hank who lived in Sihanoukville, Cambodia and sold his mothers hand made creations along the beach while she worked two jobs and had 3 older brothers who were apprentice monks to ease the financial burden on the family and to gain an education. Trust me when I say, this kid had spunk and his English was incredible despite the hardship his family obviously faced. There was the Afghanistan war veteran travelling Vietnam, Jeremiah, who had been through the horrors of war but had the most amazing lust for life, adventure and humanity and was quite possibly one of the best conversationalists I had the pleasure of meeting. There was the Vietnamese tour guide who took us through the Cu Chi tunnels on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City which were used by the VietCong and who, at great risk to himself, gave us the Communist Government tour with the addition of a non communist commentary and who, due to his daughter falling ill and being unable to return us to our hotel, called and paid for an uber to drive us home. These are just a few of the people who made me feel and completely be overwhelmed with gratitude for the first time in a very long time.
My life had been focused on my career, partner, my beautiful fur baby and having THINGS. Things that do not matter, material things that don’t bring happiness, health or make you grateful. It all just clutters the mind, the heart and ultimately your being. This feeling was so incredibly overwhelming that I knew I had to do something, for my own mind, soul, health and well being and importantly for people who showed far more gratitude for what they had in their life than I ever had and who had very little but lived a life filled with joy. To do that, I returned to a country and a city that had captured my heart when I spent a week there early on in my trip and this is where it all came together.
Luang Prabang is magical. It has the mighty Mekong, beautiful temples and it’s surrounded by some of the most incredible scenery. This is the place where I have left my heart and where I met people who have changed my life, not yet physically, but most definitely emotionally. Despite the many joys, travelling for months on end is hard on the body and the mind. You’re probably having a great laugh at that, but it’s true, it’s exhausting. You eat too much, drink too much, get tummy upsets, have to pack and unpack, spend time in queue after queue, meet arrogant and impossible people and your mind and body become overwhelmed.
To counteract that, I booked myself into a yoga retreat in a town North of Luang Prabang, Lao PDR called Nong Khiaw with a group called Luang Prabang Yoga at a resort on the Nam Ou River Mandala Ou it was here that my journey toward mindful gratitude began. Luckily for the 15 of us attending, it turned out to be one of the coldest weekends in quite sometime. Waking at 6.30am every morning and doing yoga with 4 layers of clothing, a hot water bottle shoved down the back of your pants and a blanket wrapped around you is a bonding experience, but the wonderful yoga teacher Julie Moksim ensured that not only did we connect with our own minds, bodies and spirits but more importantly with each other. We were a motley crew from Morocco, Britain, The USA, the Netherlands and beyond.
Some of us were experienced, some newbies, most healthy, two chronic illness survivors and backpackers needing a break from the constant travel. If everyone on the retreat walked away as grateful as I did then I’d imagine that some life changing experiences are happening across the globe right now. What Julie taught me, was to respect the strength that our bodies have, practice balance in all that you do and that not all yogi’s are obsessive weirdo’s who only practice for that great Instagram post!
As fate would have it, Julie was friends with a lovely guy Andrew who I’d met on the first trip to Luang Prabang who own’s the most spectacular bar in Luang Prabang called 525 Cocktails and Tapas. To celebrate the end of our 4 day retreat and return to the relative warmth (in comparison) of Luang Prabang, a number of us met there for dinner and drinks that night. Luckily for me that was where I met two more influential people who have guided me with friendship toward gratitude.
One was the beautiful soul Antje who not only drove me further for my love of yoga but who became a great friend during my month there. She also introduced me to one of the calmest, most serene and lovely gents I’ve met Clive who is a counsellor and Reiki Master that practices and coaches you on the link between your mind and body. Clive calls a spade a spade and not only did we work together, we also formed a bond for which I am eternally grateful. Clive was one of two people who truly cemented gratitude for me.
The other funnily enough, I met through Andrew as well. Her name is Sally Piper Pillitteri (you can read more about Sally and her work here). To put it bluntly, I want to be Sally when I grow up. Sally, like me suffers from chronic illness, although she has more than I do, yet every year she returns to Luang Prabang to educate teachers and rural women about menstrual health and hygiene. She is smart, engaging, funny and we share a love for a great novel and spreading joy to those around us. We spent almost an entire meal together discussing the importance of gratitude, of feeling it, of giving it back, living from a place of gratitude and of spreading the idea of it.
For me, I am grateful for every single person I met, formed friendships with and laughed with late into the night while in Luang Prabang. Each of them has played a part in how I now want to lead my life and of how I wake up every morning grateful for a new day and fall asleep every night with gratitude for the events of the day. Gratitude for my experiences both good and not so great are driving my own personal transformation; physically, emotionally and mentally. That has been a long time coming.
“Just for today, I let go of worry
Just for today, I let go of anger
Just for today, I will express gratitude.
Just for today, I will do my work honestly.
Just for today, I will be kind to my neighbor and every living thing” Miako Usui