I spent last year going to school in France and it’s been surprisingly hard to fit back in at home. Everyone here seems so focused on work. Over there I was amazed by how much freer it felt. I travelled a bit when I was there. Is all of Europe like that? Why is it so much more relaxed than here?
Congratulations on getting time in such a great place. Paris is one of my favourite cities. And your question is a good one, although you’ve actually asked two questions without realizing it.
Your observation is correct; French/European society places much more value on enjoyment in life. As a result, in general, they are more tolerant of people doing the things that lead to them enjoying their own lives. There is less judgment or guilt about foods, there is more energy invested in expressions of love. And rather than the citizens being afraid of the government the government is afraid of the citizens.
Surely we could find people that dislike how France is. And every generalization includes lots of exceptions, but on average, the French do work less and play more. And their stress levels are historically lower than those in North America. When you’re there versus here, the enjoyment of their own lives seems to be much more of a priority than it is for people here. In North America the focus has historically been more on success via status or ownership.
The second part of your question involves you. Because a lot of what made Paris great for you had very little to do with Paris itself and a lot more to do with you. The huge advantage you had in Paris was that you had no history. You had no old stories to tell yourself. No one knew who you’d been, so they couldn’t judge who you are.
We’re not conscious of it much, but we all live within a framework of stories we’ve both intentionally and unintentionally surrounded ourselves with. And you, or any of us, will feel vulnerable if we step outside of our normal definitions. We know this as being ‘out of our comfort zone.’ But new places give our minds more space to imagine other versions of ourselves.
Let’s say that back home you’re studying law. And let’s say that you’ve invested a ton of time, effort and money into your degree. But by a year in, you realize that you’re not enjoying it at all. If you float the idea of quitting, in North America it is highly likely that a large percentage of people will urge you not to waste your past efforts and to continue on.
They will see it as a good thing that they are motivating you towards finishing one of the stories you started. They won’t consider that you may have changed yourself and therefore where you want to go. In a lot of modern societies, our enjoyment of life will be seen as secondary to us succeeding at establishing some supposed future. People will say throwing away three years of law school is crazy. But I say it’s crazy to continue on to become a lawyer for the next 30 years when you already know it does not bring you joy.
When we’re in other places we relax our identities because there is no one around that we need to keep up appearances for. This loosens us to the point where we’re more inclined to be appreciative of experiences because they are new. So: is the food actually better? Or are you just paying more attention to what your food tastes like for the first time in a long time?
When we want we’re in ego, but when we appreciate we’re in spirit. And in appreciation we become more like the real us. But if we’re acting like a programmed ego, we’ll work hard to convince ourselves that our natural feelings are incorrect and that our thoughts about our life are more important than how our lives feel.
Maybe in Canada you have a story about yourself in which you are shy. And you know that story. It’s built into all kinds of locations, and situations, and your friends all know it too. Without even consciously knowing it, we all have scripts about what to do and when. And we will literally perform who we believe is acceptable to others. That’s what ‘peer pressure’ is. We create it for ourselves.
Of course in France no one knows who you are, so you can be bold if you like. You can see a guy and think he’s hot and, whereas in Canada you’d just think it, in Paris you’ll go talk to him. The boldness doesn’t come from Paris, it comes from you being less encumbered by your personal story simply because you have fewer reminders of it.
If you’re seeing all new people in all new places then you can begin to realize aspects of yourself that you suppress back at home, as a way of satisfying others. But you can move to Paris and, before long, the same thing would happen again. Just as you would in Tokyo, Istanbul, or Moscow, we live where our thoughts are. And we can change that at home.
The reason most feel resistance to that idea is that we’re insecure. We’re uncertain as to whether the real us is actually ‘better,’ or ‘more acceptable’ than our ego’s performance of us. And, like law school, you don’t want to toss out all of the effort you put into creating that ego identity without being absolutely sure that your new path is equally safe and secure.
In reality nothing is truly safe and secure we just believe it is under certain conditions. But we can ignore that and simply Be. There is no path through life that guarantees success, or advancement, or peace, or money. But we’re not looking for a road to a treasure, we’re looking for a road paved with awesome experiences. And those can be found in Paris. But what’s most important to know is that those profound experiences can be created at any time, and in any place, so long as you’re relaxed enough to be who you really are in any given moment.
Once you know how to see your life as yours, everywhere becomes like Paris. And that’s why people who avoid ego are so happy with so little. We’re always on vacation in an amazingly beautiful place no matter where we are. And you absolutely can do that too. You just have to lower your personal thinking about your wants and complaints, and instead just raise your awareness. That can make any life, any where, into something worth living.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.