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Lily Pad Sutra: Living in Transit for Seven Years
Many books and blogs nowadays offer advice and resources on digital nomadism or location-independence, discussing how to live and work from anywhere. But those terms had not yet been coined back in 2009, when I sat my first 10-day Vipassana course and felt inspired to try location-independence, or as I called it, “lily padding.” Rather than follow any work requirements or a bucket list of travel destinations determining where I landed next in life, I would let the Dharma lead me instead.
Having had a Catholic upbringing and education, and having been seriously ill as an adult for several years, the stillness, spaciousness, and non-judgment of those 10 days of learning Vipassana meditation made it feel like my inner self was finally home. When I returned to my regular householder’s (lay person’s) life afterwards, no element of day-to-day life felt like home anymore. Remembering my vow to take refuge in the Buddha, I simply sat with the discomfort.
My first teacher came in the form of Graham, a homeless man I passed on the streets of Manchester, England, nearly daily. A gentle Rastafarian giant with dreadlocks down to his waist, he shared the most extraordinary stories with anyone willing to stop and listen. What fascinated me most was his refusal to accept financial donations and his conscious choice to sleep outdoors in the local park, despite various offers of help from strangers.
Every conversation Graham and I had left me feeling like I had received a great gift. These conversations continued for two months, until one day we both surprised ourselves and each other with news; Graham decided to move into his first studio flat, and I decided to dissolve my household (give up my house and bring only what I could carry) to look after a vacant out-of-season rental property in the south of France. My worldly belongings furnished Graham’s new home, and his stories filled me with the courage to start my new life and let the Dharma take the lead.
In 2010, I landed on my first feuille de né nuphar (French for lily pad) and—some seven years on—I’m still jumping from lily pad to lily pad.
What I write in this feature and future posts isn’t a chronological account of the different places I’ve lived, the characters I’ve met, or the adventures I’ve had as a result. Plenty of wonderful location-independent travel writing already exists. Instead, I’ll attempt to distill what lily padding has taught me about metta, mindfulness, mudita, and everything in between.
Metaphorically, each lily pad could be compared to a sand mandala that only lasted as long as required: some have taken the form of live-in jobs or voluntary work, while others have found me living alongside different spiritual communities. However, it is the lily pads that involve house-sitting where the Dharma teachings are most relevant. having me take over responsibility for a stranger's household while they are away was often their first taste of letting go, and their pets were unexpectedly some of my greatest teachers.
If the term house-sitting is new to you, I’ll explain briefly how it works. Pet owners often struggle to take extended breaks away, so they advertise for someone to come live in their home and take care of their pets in their absence. Traditionally, no money changes hands as strangers are doing one another a favor. House-sitting is popular with world travelers on a budget, local animal-lovers unable to own pets themselves, or digital nomads who can work anywhere as long as there is Wi-Fi. Personally, house sitting provided me with the time and space to deepen my meditation practice—a monastery of sorts. I was sitting to sit.
An actor friend, who moonlighted for many years as a zombie in an amusement park haunted house, once shared his observations on how the public reacts to fear. When he jumped out of the shadows in full costume and make-up to frighten people who’d actually paid him to do so, they either froze, ran for the nearest exit, or fought him! Believe it or not, something similar happens the moment strangers hand me the keys to their worldly possessions and say goodbye to their beloved pets.
What seemed like a good idea when we negotiated the agreement by Skype a few weeks earlier—complete with references and a police check—can suddenly turn into a zombie apocalypse. I’ve found myself helping to pack bags or even book airport taxis to make sure no one misses their flights. Some families spontaneously erupt into arguments, intense enough that only the United Nations would dare intervene. And every so often a homeowner will suddenly interrogate me: do I plan to open a brothel or sell drugs from their home? Could I facilitate a video chat with their pet every night they’re away? Would I like some career advice (i.e. no one in their right mind would be a professional house-sitter)? It’s sometimes hard to keep a straight face when confronted with these projected fears, especially if people combine all of them!
Once they leave, it’s my turn to imagine all the worst-case scenarios. Over the years, I’ve learned to limit this to what I call my mad half hour. Some of the scenarios my mind comes up with could put most Hollywood blockbusters to shame: the house could burn to the ground. Or it could be swallowed whole by a freak earthquake. Pets could get run over. Or be consumed by the same freak earthquake!
What helps most on day zero is the Tibetan meditation practice of tonglen: the simple act of breathing in collective fears and breathing out compassion, to all involved, has soothed many a departure. The Dalai Lama reportedly practices tonglen for 15 minutes each day, since (in his words) “whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind.” In fact, I often imagine him alongside me waving everyone goodbye with his warm smile as we all learn to let go.