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In a country that was at war for 25 years, she shows people how to solve their inner conflicts: “Really, it’s so simple, the truth”

Story published on

 July 8, 2019

Happiness Stories “I believe that the only way to achieve peace is to start with yourself. There’s no point in trying to change the outer world. You start with your inner world”. That’s how you deal with your inner conflicts and “become a more peaceful presence”. I’m in Sri Lanka, a country ravaged by a war that spanned for over a quarter of a century. What does peace look like here?, I ask Monica, an instructor in matters of inner peace, who moved to the country right when the war was ending.

Take most popular books, TED talks or viral inspirational videos these days. There’s a quest for meaning in this world that seems hooked on that instant – and fleeting – validation that comes with a like clicked by people you don’t even know, but whom a Silicon Valley company describes as your ‘friends’.

Traveling the world, this quest for meaning and for peace is one you can’t ignore. Because you’re on the same journey as they are – they, the yoga-loving, eco-friendly, experience-hunting, memory-collecting crowd that you cross paths with. Yoga retreats are a particular case study.

These are the places that best describe the pace of this world. Even when pursuing inner peace, we are still on the “fast track”. We cautiously look for reviews, the same as you would when booking a hostel – are the views nice? is the experience ‘authentic’? can the instructor ‘deliver’? will I leave the place after 2 nights feeling like I’ve suddenly found ‘IT’? In matters of the heart, happiness feels more genuine if the supplier has a five-star score on BookYogaRetreats.com.

A wonderful life

“To live in the developed world is to live in a consumerist society. Although the broader forces that created this society have led to unprecedented material abundance, scholars have maintained that these benefits have come at a significant psychological cost. An important question, then, is how these psychological costs can be minimized. This research indicates that experiential purchases provide greater satisfaction and happiness because: (1) Experiential purchases enhance social relations more readily and effectively than material goods; (2) Experiential purchases form a bigger part of a persons identity; and (3) Experiential purchases are evaluated more on their own terms and evoke fewer social comparisons than material purchases.”

Monica and I sit cross-legged on the edge of a beautiful terrace overlooking a majestic valley, deep in the mountains surrounding Kandy, in Sri Lanka. We’re in between our sessions. There’s no need for relaxing music here. At sunrise and sunset, the valley is mesmerized by the chants of a Buddhist temple.

She’s the yoga instructor invited at the resort. All the guests at that time are foreigners, most are European. Modern day yoga has become so popular, that people aren’t necessarily coming with that clear intention of finding their peace, she tells me. “The physical practice of it has become very, very popular. It’s a little like gymnastics”. Still, Monica, who also has a jewlery business, sees this popularity as a good thing. It is a way to “plant the seed”. Just being able to relax and disconnect the mind for the duration of a session is not to be frowned upon, since we live “in such an overly stimulated world, a digitally obsessed world”.

The shortcut to peace

I don’t wait too long to ask for the ‘recipe’. With the years and years the Monica has behind her teaching yoga, what has she learned about finding peace and joy?

Hers is the same answer as that of the Buddhist monk I met on the train track next to Ella: “I believe that the only way to achieve peace is to start with yourself. There’s no point in trying to change the outer world. You start with your inner world”. That’s how you deal with your inner conflicts and “become a more peaceful presence”

War and peace. The Sri Lankan version

Sri Lanka's Invisible Wounds
For a long time, Sri Lanka’s suicide rate was among the 10 highest in the world

According to the Government, 10% of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people suffer from some form of mental dissorder (NYT Report)

Of that, 800.000 of them are suffering from depression

Monica moved to Sri Lanka at the beginning of 2009. An odd time for a foreigner to do so, since those were the days of the brutal government offensive that ended the 25-year old civil war that ravaged the country. The UN estimates say that over 40.000 people were killed in the final weeks of the conflict. Other sources claim this toll to be much higher. To this day, 65.000 are still unaccounted for.

“The last few months were really tense, because things have reched critical mass. Because it was a 30-year war, a lot of the young Sri Lankan have never known life without it. There were street parties, people giving away food for free and celebrations, a great collective desire to have peace and prosperity and have tourism come back”

Have Sri Lankans reached peace, not just an armistice? She goes back to her yoga practice and the idea that, in order to make the world a more peaceful place, you have to work to solve your inner conflicts. “I think people are not there yet, because of that internal conflict. It manifests outwardly”

One thing that struck me, in my travels across Sri Lankans, is that people are not very keen to talk about the war – or peace, for that matter. The wounds of the past are so well bandaged, that it’s very difficult to find out if they’re healed. Faced with some of the tourist’s inquires, “a lot of locals visibly stiffen up and get on the defensive, because both sides believe they’re right”

Watch below how Monica describes the end of the war and the years since:

“It can all be gone tomorrow”

Does she practice what she preaches? Has she found her peace there? “Yoga has helped me enormously, it has brought balance to my life at a time when I really, really needed it”, she replies.

Monica is the kind of yoga enthusiast who talks about lights and energies within, about connecting with the source, the kind of things ‘practical’ people would frown upon. But, at the same time, she’s very candid about her journey and the worldly aspects of it: “I didn’t follow an ascetic path of discipline. I had a travelling life. I’ve enjoyed my pleasures, but ultimately it didn’t bring me lasting happiness. External pleasures don’t. It’s all transient. If your happiness relies on external conditions, you can’t place your faith in that. It can all be gone tomorrow”. 

You take the world less personally when you look at life this way. And here it is, in a nutshell: the antidote to some of the sorrows of our times. 

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