The Foreign Service Journal, September 2009

L ife overseas has a reputation for being libidinous, debauched and bacchanalian. Certainly it can be all of those things, and in my many years as an expatriate I have pur- sued all those possibilities. However, life abroad can also be a path to spiritual enlightenment. Being in another culture removes us from the familiar, expands our com- fort zone and pushes us toward our growing edge, while offering a mirror in which to gaze upon our true selves. Take themost basic experience: talk- ing with someone. If you are in a coun- try where English is not the official language, communication is an intense activity. Your mind cannot wander; you cannot think about what you are going to say next or listen with half your brain and plan your day with the other. You have to focus intently on the person talking, so that you can understand the accented English they are speaking or decipher their native language. Active listening, the cornerstone of any spiritual practice, can get rather tir- ing, which is probably why we don’t do it as often as we should at home. In our native tongue, it is easy to pick up the thread of the conversation and ease back into the flow. In fact, many of us have developed exterior manifestations of good listening skills—gazing intently into someone’s eyes, nodding our heads periodically, making appreciative noises, etc. —but in reality, we are somewhere else, not really listening at all. Expatriates, however, without the help of gurus or swamis, spending months in retreat, bending themselves into pretzels on the yoga mat or sitting for hours in meditation — just by the process of living overseas— learn to lis- ten in the present moment, intently aware of what is going on around them. They learn to be mindful. As they navigate the uncharted wa- ters of a different culture, expats also tend to acquire patience. For only by moving slowly, without expectations, can they achieve their goals. Being humble is also a bedrock of most spiritual practices, and living over- seas is a perfect way to acquire that dis- cipline. Everything is different there— unusual foods, unfamiliar ways to get fromone place to another, diverse types of stores and unfamiliar social mores, values and cultural expressions. Moreover, we suddenly find that we are functionally illiterate: people talk to us, but we do not understand them; we open our mouths, but no one can deci- pher what we are saying. All of these new experiences push us beyond our comfort zone, knock us off whatever pedestal we created for our- selves and bring us crashing back down to earth. Immense strength can come from this position of vulnerability. It removes the defenses that have built up over the years, giving us the opportunity to view the world and ourselves from a differ- ent perspective, allowing us to develop the confidence to grow, evolve and change. Living overseas is also about letting go. Being in another country can help us learn to accept what is and discard unrealistic expectations. Being able to live contentedly in any country is about accepting whatever happens for what it is, and not judging it or getting frus- trated with it for what it is not — in short, letting go of preconceived notions about how things should be done. Though a life overseas does not guarantee the development of an open-minded spirituality, the poten- tial is infinitely increased simply by virtue of being in new and interesting places on a more frequent basis. Managed properly, approached thoughtfully, explored meaningfully, living overseas is probably the most mind-expanding and soul-enriching experience to be found outside of an ashram. ■ Douglas E. Morris is the author of Open Road’s Best of Italy and other books. He has lived in Italy for more than 10 years, currently residing in Viterbo, where he awaits the end of his FSO partner’s yearlong assignment in Afghanistan in September. All of these new experiences push us beyond our comfort zone, knock us off whatever pedestal we created for ourselves. 80 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / S E P T E M B E R 2 0 0 9 R EFLECTIONS The Spirituality of Living Abroad B Y D OUGLAS E. M ORRIS