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4 Ways to Cultivate Greater Self-Awareness

How to tackle burnout and creative stagnation, and learn to relish life by slowing down

Fossa di Vulcano, a dormant crater on a a small volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea in Sicily. The author discovers that nature is healing and rejuvenating in her book MAN FAST. Copyright: Natasha Scripture

I am a recovering New Yorker. While I love that city like no other –  and spent several years living there in my twenties and thirties – I have only known how to live it in a manic way. In this last incarnation, before I decided to pull the plug for my own sanity, I worked full-time in midtown at a demanding job, commuting from the far corners of Brooklyn every day on the subway; at the same time, I was up against a tight deadline on a full-length book that my publisher had imposed, but was struggling to find the time and inspiration to write in an intelligible way; and I was socializing and dating, a lot, in the hopes of meeting some wondrous, charming and virile man before my fertility window closed.

Ultimately it got to be too much – the long hours at work, the high cost of living, the disappointing dating merry-go-round—once a fun past-time that was making me bitter and jaded (and wreaking havoc on my liver). Worse, I felt creatively stifled, leading to a sense of despondence. Ironically, while artists of all kinds flock to New York for stimulation and material, I struggled to string a sentence together. And yet being an author was my childhood dream and I would never have forgiven myself if I didn’t deliver a manuscript I could stand by to my prestigious publisher. When I realized I was going through a major burn-out and needed – above all – a change of scenery, I quit NYC and threw in the towel on everything but my book deal.

What happened next was a nine-month adventure, which I coined a ‘Man Fast,’ that began in southern India and ended on a remote beach in Tanzania. It involved working on a farm, immersing myself in kundalini yoga, living at an Indian ashram and going on a solo-safari in one of the largest nature reserves in Africa, all of which I write about in my experiential book, MAN FAST: a memoir published this month. It was one of the most transformative years of my life.

I realize not everyone can just jet off somewhere exotic (though I did it on a shoestring budget and found a handy gig that allowed me to telecommute for several months). But there are a few key things I invested in during my ‘city sabbatical’ that personally helped me cultivate greater self-awareness and made me feel more ‘awake’ than I’d felt in years. Here are some tips for readers who may be looking for the same kind of recalibration I was after:  

  1. GET SOME SPACE. When I left New York, I was searching for a regenerating experience and I needed space to do that. In Japan, there is a word for it: yutori. I was looking for spaciousness. While I felt the need to escape city life, there are venues conducive to thinking and meditating and just ‘being’ in cities: parks, meditation centers, off the beaten path museums, to name a few. Also, every city – including NY – has an easy bus service or train to get outside of the city. Sometimes it just takes getting a little bit of time outside of the city’s circumference on the weekends to feel reborn. New Yorkers: Port Authority may not have much appeal, but it is a gateway to countless destinations, grand and small, that can offer just what you need to press reset.
  • NATURE, NATURE, NATURE. This was a recurring theme during my Man Fast. I felt starved for it. My job had become entirely cerebral, mostly computer-based, and I wanted to get my hands dirty, to feel the earth, to have her chalky, brown flesh under my fingernails by the end of the day, to experience her healing powers firsthand. Generally, if you have nature in your life, then you don’t know what it feels like to be imbalanced by the lack of it being there and to want it so badly. If, on a daily basis, you go from your apartment to the inside of a subway car to Grand Central Terminal, and then passed concrete building after concrete building, with a smattering of stark trees sagging from pollution, on the way to your own concrete building, and the reverse on the way home, only then would you know how empty and thirsty you could feel for it. Every place I spent a significant amount of time in during my sabbatical year involved nature: the lush jungles and backwaters of Kerala, the vast and alive landscape surrounding Mount Etna, where I worked on a vineyard, weeding and cultivating grapes; the Selous in southern Tanzania, where I was encircled by elephants and zebras and baobab trees in an almost mystical setting. Wherever you live, if you want to feel more connected to yourself and to ‘source energy’ just find nature—a park, botanical gardens, a forest, a river or canal; even walking on the West Side highway, alongside the Hudson River, is better than nothing.
  • Slow down. Ah, this one is hard because we all excel at being over-achievers, especially city dwellers. But the best thing we can do for our overall health and well-being is to slow down instead of trying to cram so much in one day. In New York, sometimes I would look at people and feel we were all safely sealed in a pseudocollective trance, frantically active in a way that swallowed up the existence of a meaningful inner life, almost as if we are afraid to have one. By the time I left, my relationship with my inner world was estranged, namely because I was always focused on what was next in my conquests. Yet in order to discover what would be truly enlivening for me, what was healing and enriching, I needed to slow down and do the whole mindfulness thing for real. But slowing down can be surprisingly scary because it opens up a space in which we fully emerge, whether we mean to consciously or not. That’s how I discovered Ayurveda – a sophisticated approach to wellness practiced in India for at least five thousand years, and that’s how I ended up in Kerala, its birthplace. Through the lens of Ayurveda, the act of slowing down is seen as fundamentally antiaging and the foundation of good health in general. It also helps us reach a higher state of consciousness.
  • Mindful eating. I love a New York slice as much as the next girl but I don’t know that I had the healthiest diet while I was hopping from studio to studio all those years I lived in the Big Apple, even as a long-time vegetarian. Miniscule kitchens do not lend themselves to gourmet meals, at least not in my experience. So one of the things I invested in on my Man Fast was healthy eating. In fact, Hindus believe that their lives are stages in the progression to enlightenment, that the mind is the cause of bondage and also the agent of its release. With less residue clogging the body, it is able to inform the mind and the soul; the pathways of communication are not blocked by things like chocolate-frosted doughnuts (tasty as they are). While away, I made an effort to gently nourish my body. I followed the principles of upayoga samstha, the art of eating in Ayurveda: I consumed warm food as it is better for digestion, unlike food that is too hot or too cold; I took my meals at the same time each day, sitting down in a calm, quiet atmosphere, where I did nothing else but eat; I sipped warm water thirty minutes before my meals and nothing during; and I ate with my hands instead of silverware. I knew all of this would help improve my ability to make decisions with my body, leaning on its innate intuition, get in touch with the somatic wisdom of it, instead of always turning to my fickle mind, which never seemed to have my best interests at heart but catered exclusively to my attention-grabbing ego. Not drinking alcohol made me feel more connected to my body, so I also kicked this habit while I was on my extended retreat. Word of advice, if you want to cultivate greater self-awareness, be careful with what you put in your body. It can make all the difference.

If you want to know how things turned out for me, you can read my book, MAN FAST: a memoir published on June 1, 2019, or follow me on Instagram. Just a taster: I never ended up moving back to New York, and I also met my sweetheart when I was least expecting to, and we are now living together and expecting our first baby.

Natasha Scripture is an author, poet, activist and former aid worker. As a spokesperson for the United Nations, Natasha covered humanitarian crises around the world, including conflicts and natural disasters in Ethiopia, Haiti, Libya, and Pakistan. Before the UN, she worked as a writer, producer and editor for a variety of organizations, including the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera English, TED, National Geographic and Condé Nast Publications. Natasha has a Masters of Science in Gender and Development Studies from the London School of Economics, and a Bachelors degree from New York University. She is certified in Ayurveda Foundations from the California College of Ayurveda and has studied the Ayurvedic art of health and healing with Dr. Vasant Lad, founder of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Natasha has lived in several different countries and travels frequently. Yet no matter where she is in the world, she seeks to inspire and empower women with her writing and storytelling.

Read more about Natasha’s tips for cultivating self-awareness in her book, MAN FAST: a memoir published on June 1, 2019.

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