by Walter Velazquez (2014 Byron Fellow)

One month after those unforgettable days we spent at Turkey Run, where I somehow learned to see the world in a different way, life once again kicked me out of my comfort zone. I traveled to Cuba planning to spend three months there before going back to Spain and start a new journey. Either intentionally or circumstantially, I have been stepping out of that comfort zone since very little. What I have come to realize is that we never get used to the experience in the sense that time after time the same feelings keep showing up. No matter how many deep and complex life-changing situations we’ve been through, it’s most likely that both mind and body are equally shaken the next time it happens.

If I had to name only one word to describe all that goes on when I step out of my comfort zone that word would be unrest. The length and intensity of it is determined by the extent to which this situation “attacks” our core values. The more the spear pierces into our beliefs, the harder it will be to deal with it, and we’ll need more time to settle and find peace, to expand our comfort zone so it comprises that new concept, situation or belief. The way we react when facing exile from our shelter may vary widely from one person to another; some may try to disguise their unrest with exaggerated extroversion, others may lock themselves in and avoid dialogue, and some of us will unsuccessfully try to “act normal.”

No matter how we react, the way we feel does not vary so widely; all our mind thinks about is how to get rid of all the anxiety, despair and vulnerability flowing through our veins. We are unable to deal with the situation because we are immersed in eliminating the symptoms rather than targeting the root cause. Even if we make an effort and try to act normal, to focus on whatever it is that we have to do, results will lack the quality that they usually have and new feelings of stress will add on top of everything else we are dealing with. At the same time our body responds accordingly and we can feel that something is not right, that suddenly no matter how we sit, stand or walk we irreparably feel misplaced.

The bad news is that, despite all this, it turns out that growing means continuously stepping out of our comfort zone and that “a dream is your creative vision for your life in the future and you must break out of your current comfort zone and become comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown.”1 So we are facing this dark, terrible panorama where our being may be located somewhere from “I’m not happy here” to “my world is collapsing” and yet we must deal with it so we can become one inch a greater person.

Provided that this is true and no matter how many times we have stepped out of our comfort zone we’ll keep feeling the same thing, then a question arises. How can we avoid the temptation of standing still? How can we deal with that unrest and prepare ourselves to face the challenge in sustainable way for our mind and body?

I remember one time in high school when a teacher began the class asking us, “how do you lock a rabbit into a dark room?” and then some of my classmates started coming up with all sorts of creative solutions, none of which seemed to satisfy our teacher. By that time I had been flirting with an idea that sounded way too naïve and stupid to say it out loud, but I suspected that this question was a tricky one, so I went out and said: “you grab the rabbit.” He smiled and started explaining while looking at all of us, “how do you pretend to lock the rabbit if you haven’t even grabbed it?” As simple as it may sound the first step to deal with the comfort zone dilemma is recognizing we’re out of our comfort zone. We’ll necessarily be doing something we’re not used to, whatever its nature, so that’s no help. The hints that will let us know we’re there come from our body, mind and soul. If we listen to ourselves, something inside will be crying out loud, demanding to be heard.

Now that we have listened and recognized that cry we have to give the second, more complicated, step. That “something” inside us is the key to overcome the situation, to make this new environment ours and expand our comfort zone. It is trying to say what’s wrong but we can’t understand what it is saying because the anxiety, stress and fear generated by being out of the comfort zone are too confusing and noisy. In order to move on we have to accept those feelings, honor and take them not as an obstacle but as a blessing. Those symptoms mean that we are struggling against the passiveness of life and pushing ourselves a bit further…that we desire to grow. And once we have accepted the inevitable presence of those feelings they won’t disappear, but we won’t grow tired of fighting the symptoms anymore.

Accepting the negative feelings instead of fighting them will give us the amount of peace and rest necessary to examine ourselves, to look inside and speak with that “something” and answer the question: what’s holding me back from thriving in this new situation? The length of the dialogue that comes after depends on our ability to be honest with ourselves, to speak with the people involved, to look for advice and certainly to avoid the baits. There’s no shortcut or spell to make it quicker, only our willingness to keep digging. Sooner or later we’ll have an answer and then beautiful things will start happening. All that noise suddenly packs its suitcase and leaves our ears, the anxiety runs scared out of our chest, and the fear becomes love. What made us so terribly unhappy and uncomfortable before is now a world of possibilities. It is up to us what we make of them.

Two months after Byron, clearly out of my comfort zone (and sometimes facing smaller shocks within a larger one), I have already been able to start that dialogue and introspection. By acknowledging the process of expanding our comfort zone, besides facilitating our own transformation, we can quickly start matching changes in our environment with the stage we are in.  Those positive results and interactions not only prove that we are moving in the right direction, they also give us strength to keep going and however small they can be they make us feel alive.

When I was able to honor and accept what was going on through my mind and body I was able to begin hosting the kind conversations I wanted to host. I asked a friend of my father whom I know since very little, “do you think it is possible to live a meaningful life without having a tangible purpose?” I deliberately chose to ask this question to someone that lives in a country where almost everyone’s purpose is surviving, whatever that takes, where you don’t have time to think about comfort zones because that time is spent either looking for money to buy food or trying to rest from all the sacrifice it took to get that money. However, I have to say in my defense, Manolito is one of the most sensible and perceptive human beings I’ve met, so I knew he wouldn’t answer with all those excuses.

And right there, on the garden of the house where I lived the first four years of my life, I sat down and listened for three hours until 5 am what I intend to share now.

Byron opened my heart in a way that I had never experienced before, and this allowed me to feel a connection and sense of belonging to the Earth that I also hadn’t felt before. The phrase on the back of our t-shirts reads “Place matters” and this seemed glorious to me, even more after spending five days at Turkey Run. But it scared me because I had chosen a lifestyle for the next few years that wouldn’t allow me to be in touch to places like that with the frequency I wanted. Then I realized that this wasn’t only me, that as much as in my vision I picture everyone living in a place with a strong presence of nature, we are a few generations away from that, and in the present not everyone has access to the sort of places that will make us feel part of a greater whole and will inevitably absorb us into their vortex of energy.

I had been thinking about this when Manolito put in words something I had been feeling but still wasn’t able to articulate. He said that it’s the small things what makes life meaningful. Rather than having a greater purpose it’s about always allowing the small things marvel you: the small flower that rises in the middle of a wall, a bird that stops in our balcony for a few seconds before taking off again, the breeze that shows up without previous warning in the middle of a hot summer day demanding you to stop and feel it. He called the ability to let this small things fill in your heart and move your soul “sense of wonder.”

Three weeks before having that conversation I went camping with some friends to one of the most beautiful places in Cuba called “El Nicho.” In order to come back after two nights we had to wake up at 5:30am to catch the 6:00am bus. That place is in a depression in the middle of the mountains, so in order to get out of there we first go up and then down in a small truck along a road full of trees and dangerous curves.  As we were going up the sun started sending stars to sleep and little by little the first lights began to show up. As each minute went by the sky turned more and more orange into what was becoming one of the most beautiful sunrises I had seen. I began to feel something moving inside me, and as the sky turned orange I felt happier each second.  As the bus came close to the highest point I could see the first bits of the sun rising on top of the mountains. Then, without thinking much something inside me made me say to myself, “I am thankful for being here in this moment in this place with all this people whom I don’t know but yet I feel that we all belong to the same place and are somehow connected.” My chest kept filling as if there was a balloon inside being pumped air. Short after I had finished saying this we reached a flat ground, right at the top before starting the descent and there’s where I saw a horse galloping in the middle of a field, with a perfect orange circle rising over the mountains and I was so full of life that I just started crying.

I realized that this experience two months after Byron was possible because I kept my heart open letting small things marvel me, because I didn’t lose the sense of wonder. The necessity of being in touch with places that allow us to have this kind of experiences is undeniable, but what makes it possible for us to live that experience when it shows up is the ability to appreciate the smaller gifts of life. When we’re able to do this nature becomes meaningful and it makes sense, no matter how small its presence is because wherever we are we are always connected to it.

1 Denis Waitley