As long as you are ever thinking you need something outside of yourself to create inner peace, you will never find it. If you need to be in nature, holding a crystal, chanting a mantra, eating certain foods or any other such rules it will allude you. These things may help you feel peaceful for a time, but it will be fleeting, and only a shadow of what true inner peace is.
I learnt this lesson in a very troubling, and finally humbling, way.
In September 2000, I was backpacking through the Middle East with a friend, Natalie. We were on the Jordan-Israeli border when the Second Intifada began and renewed fighting broke out between Palestine and Israel. We were terrified. All of a sudden there were men with guns everywhere, crying in the streets of Jordan’s capital, Amman, protesting at Israeli police killing a young Palestinian boy. We went north into Syria and travelled up to Aleppo, thinking we could cross into Turkey and get out of the region from there, but we didn’t have Turkish visas. There were tanks and soldiers everywhere. All we had were flights out of Beirut in a weeks’ time, so we headed south again and crossed into Lebanon. That first night in Beirut, tired, dirty, stinky, anxious and hungry, we were waiting in line for falafel at a street vendor when a young guy in the line behind us recognised our accents as Australian and started chatting. His name was Safi, and he said “I’m sorry you’re here in my country at such a troubled time, but it is a very beautiful place, with lots of beautiful things to see, and if you like, my cousin and I can show you around” and he gave us his number. Nat and I had relied upon our intuition and gut instinct to get us out of so many sticky situations in the 5 weeks we’d been in the Middle East at that point, and both our intuitions said that this guy was worth trusting. So we called Safi the next day, and he and his cousin came and picked us up in their dodgy old Camry with clapped out suspension and drove us to their village in the hills outside of Beirut.
We arrived at Safi’s house to find that his Mother and sisters had been preparing food all morning, and all of their friends were there waiting. We sat on Safi’s balcony eating the most delicious food all afternoon and well into the night. After an interesting translated conversation with Safi’s mum about my vegetarianism and yes, we were two single girls travelling on our own, neither of which were concepts she could comprehend, we were totally accepted. We were sitting amongst a group of friends, both Christian and Muslim, in a house riddled with shrapnel holes from the civil war. As darkness set the electricity went out (because they only got electricity for eight hours a day) and the boys jumped up and turned on the generators and lit candles and the night kept going as if nothing had happened. And I was acutely aware that I was missing something. My vegetarianism and hippy jewellery and new age ideals felt like first world, indulgent, luxuries. My new friends’ external world was far from peaceful, yet their inner worlds shone with a peace that eclipsed mine. There was a certainty about themselves, their values, their friendships and loyalties, and a commitment to being in the present moment I’d never witnessed in any of my peers before. Their futures weren’t certain, yet they had a certainty of themselves I didn’t know.
It was a few years later and long after my return to Australia when it finally clicked for me. Someone had asked me which people had most affected me from my travels, and Lebanon and Cambodia came straight to mind. The two countries I’d visited with the most tragic histories, and the two countries where I’d met people who’d rattled me to my core. I realised in that conversation that what they all had in common was a willingness to gratefully receive whatever the moment offered. There was no room for sweating the small stuff, or preciousness, no sense of entitlement or new age sacred cows. I saw no pettiness or competition. It’s not that they didn’t have ambition or a desire to improve their lives either - far from it. They all truly had their priorities and values in order, and a sense of perspective I was missing. Their inner peace came from the value they brought each other in just being there, just being present. What I saw in the people I met was an ability to be in the moment, where ever that is on your journey, accepting it for what it is, and making the most of the opportunities present.
As for Safi and his family, they took us in and we stayed with them for a whole week. Various members of his family and friends took us to see all the sites of Lebanon, and Safi and I are still friends today. I will forever be grateful to him and his family, their generosity and grace, and willingness to take a chance in a moment that presented itself. I would not be who I am without what they taught me.