It was a blustery morning when this group of holy men strolled into the parking lot of Legendha Hotel, where my family and I stayed on our vacation. The wind, crisp and relentlessly ruffling the ends of their saffron robes, didn't seem to bother them. My mom and some other hotel guests had lined up with packaged food in their hands, waiting for the alms round to begin. Growing up in Thailand, I'd never given much thought about monks and their extremely modest way of living. Seeing them roam the streets was as uninspiring as seeing a mailman put letters into my mailbox. To the young me, they were just boring orange people who walked around in the mornings, wore the same outfits all the time, got food for free, meditated most of the day, and didn't do much else.
As an expat revisiting my home country, I found this to be a lovely sight. The youngest monk in the middle was only six and had been ordained at the age of three. It would be preposterous to imagine a toddler saying, "Gee, I'm sick of having my parents feed and clothe me. I'd rather wake up at four every morning and fend for myself!" He apparently didn't enter monkhood on his own volition. And yet, he was one of the happiest kids I'd ever seen. Having to get up early, carry a heavy alms bowl around his neck, and walk barefoot for miles didn't seem to put a damper on his day.
To him, this daily routine wasn't drudgery. To him, not having a say in what he eats wasn't a bad thing. His eyes grew wide with excitement as he saw those people who showed up for the alms giving (although technically as a monk, he wasn't supposed to express any emotion!). He couldn't even really tell what kind of food he was about to receive, whether it would be some of his favorites or not, but he couldn't have looked any more elated and grateful. There was unrestrainable curiosity in his little face and a slight sense of mischievousness in his smile.
When I was his age, I was sometimes served breakfast in bed, my mother would never let me go outside without my shoes, and I'm sure my wardrobe was much more abundant and stylish than his. I had what's considered to be a normal childhood. Well fed. Well protected. Not neglected. Not abused. I also remember, however, a chronic sense of inferiority at that early age, due to the fact that my mother somehow managed to put me in a "rich kids' school" although our family wasn't that wealthy. Most of my classmates had cooler shoes, cuter barrettes, better toys, and were, of course, driven to school in nicer cars.
It all started from there--my lifelong habit of comparing myself to others, trying to be seen as "one of them," striving to be better than (or at least about as good as) those I envied. And it wasn't just about social status. Somehow the chronic sense of inferiority also made me view my copious quirks as personality defects. I often tried to cater to whatever "audience" I had in front of me; fitting in was my ultimate goal. I would only be my completely genuine self to those who, like me, had their own quirks. Needless to say, in my thirty-something years on earth, I feel like I've had tons of acquaintances and very few friends. Yeah, pretty fucked up.
I'm not saying seeing that child monk was my light-bulb moment. The encounter was more like a reminder of what I'd been contemplating. Before this vacation, I'd been tired of my old pattern of thinking for quite some time. I already reached some of the goals that I'd set out to achieve, which definitely gave me some satisfaction. But still, there was no real sense of contentment. I was still on the hamster wheel, constantly trying to fulfill the ideal concept of who I thought I should be, questioning what people were thinking of me and things I did, pathetically longing for others' admiration and approval. And then when I saw him--the child monk, so deprived of worldly privileges but so jolly and so unapologetically himself--it confirmed how crappy my lifelong attitude had been.
No, I'm not moving into a monastery. I'm not giving up HBO, my iPhone, ice-cream feasts, and late night margaritas. Neither am I taking a soul-searching journey across the globe like that lady who wrote Eat, Pray, Love. (Well, I'd actually love to but don't have that kind of budget!) But I've made some drastic changes. I quit my job (the good-sounding, nice-paying job I wretchedly hated). I'm taking a year off from working. I'm going to finish my Pilates teacher training, write more often, spend more time on my graphic-design hobby, go through stacks of the partially-read New Yorkers dating back to 2013, and do whatever my curiosity leads me to do. I won't call this a soul-searching journey. I don't need a flashlight, GPS or spiritual sherpa to find my soul. I've always known who I am and what I want. I've just never had enough courage or self-compassion to accept it. At this very moment, I still don't. But I'm working on it.