I Am: A journey to enlightenment
~ Stephen Shaw
The Journey Begins
I love airports.
I know many people dread hauling heavy luggage, standing in long queues, facing possible delays, the tedious waiting to board, being crammed into an aeroplane seat, and then being subjected to circulating germs and dry air on the flight.
But I love airports. I always feel the thrill of the adventure and the excitement of my impending destination. When I was a little boy I was filled with wonderful anticipation boarding a plane to fly across South Africa to see my mother (I only saw her once a year). Now as an adult I still can’t wait to board the plane, whether for a summer beach vacation, a sightseeing tour through Europe or an adventure in an exotic country.
I am pensively sitting in Heathrow airport in London. It’s late and I am waiting to board. I am going back to visit my country of birth one last time. It’s sad but poignant, as I will be saying goodbye to a beautiful country and a lovely woman. It’s an important flight and a bridge across my two worlds. I am happily settled in London now with a thriving therapy practice and I have no interest in ever returning to live in South Africa.
Two years ago I was torn by a number of unsettling questions: I have built a beautiful house near the ocean, I am living with a kind and loving woman, and life is good – so why do I feel so hemmed in? Why does it feel like there is so much more I need to experience and explore? Should I settle for a life that is good enough or do I dare risk everything to find my deepest bliss? What exactly am I looking for anyway?
I made one of the hardest and most painful decisions of my life. I left it all behind in search of something greater, better and more fulfilling. I landed in London, England, seeking fresh ideas, new challenges and a different life.
Leaving something good behind is very difficult. Saying goodbye is hard! Why can’t these transitions be easy?
They never are, Stephen. Life is like holding a beautiful rose, gorgeous to look at and lovely to smell, but the thorns will make your fingers bleed if you hold on too tightly.
I am startled by the foreign thought popping into my head. I look up and my eyes are instinctively drawn to a figure standing a few yards in front of me. I notice my heart is beating quickly in my chest.
The secret is learning to let go and stay in the moment. If you don’t let go of your past, you will not be fully present in the Now. And yes, I am speaking to you inside your mind.
I look around. People are reading newspapers and magazines, wearing tired faces. Some are munching on late croissants and sipping coffee. No one notices anything. No one seems to be hearing anything, apart from the drone of boarding calls overhead. I am bewildered. This can’t be happening!
It is happening, Stephen. I can hear your thoughts.
Did I eat something strange? Are we actually talking inside each other’s minds? Pull yourself together, Steve. I look at this man, and think: I don’t believe this is real or actually happening … so try this for size: how many fingers am I holding out behind my back?
And just a few yards away, he holds up four fingers.
Now I have two choices: engage with this man or run madly to find the airport police. I am trying to slow my breathing and remain calm. I look around; there is safety in numbers. If it’s something I have ingested, it will soon wear off.
I don’t know who you are and this is scaring me. What do you want?
I suddenly sense an extraordinary calmness flow over me. I feel my shoulders relax and my breathing deepen. A peaceful energy courses through my body, making me feel a little spaced out. I start smiling like a lighthouse on a dark shore.
I feel confused and elated at the same time.
Tell you what, Stephen. I will see you in South Africa. On Clifton Fourth Beach in Cape Town. We can chat then. Enjoy your flight.
I am looking at this man: pure white hair cascading over his shoulders, white eyebrows, white moustache, white eyelashes and amazing almond-shaped piercing blue eyes. He looks vital and fit. He has the typical white complexion and ruddy cheeks of the British, but he sure looks different to anyone I have ever seen.
I look at him and manage to think-mumble: See you then. And he turns on his heel and strides away into the busy airport. Suddenly we are boarding and I don’t know what to think and there is no one with whom I can share this. I secure my seat on the plane and order a little bottle of whisky and some ice. I settle down for an uncomfortable and probably sleepless night.
Cape Town, South Africa
I am staring at the ocean steeling myself for the difficult conversation ahead. I have been away for two years and I don’t think she expects me to return to South Africa. There are still feelings of love and my heart aches. My decision is weighted with guilt and I do not want to hurt her. I am going to leave her the mortgage-free house and house contents. There are no children, she is young and she belongs
here. She will be fine.
It is always windy on Bloubergstrand. This beach holds a classic view of Table Mountain. In fact Bloubergstrand means ‘blue mountain beach’. Up ahead is the Strandloper (‘beach walker’) restaurant, if you count an open-air barbecue on the beach among your restaurants. I have fond memories of delicious seafood sizzling on the barbecue, fresh salads and good wine, romantic sunsets, candlelight and soft kisses.
On a clear day it is gorgeous here – white beach, turquoise sea, blue mountain. A piece of paradise. But this world seems small and far away from my new life in London.
The house I built is a few hundred yards away. I take a deep breath and begin the long walk.
Two hours later I am back on the beach. It is raining. I can’t distinguish between my tears and the rain pouring down my face. The wind is buffeting my body and I wish I had worn something warmer. My heart feels ripped open and my mind is screaming. Oh, these hard, hard choices! I walk for ages along the dark beach,
sobs drowned by the raucous weather.
I am sitting on the wet sand, drenched and emotionally spent. The waves across Table Bay are churning under the faint moonlight. An eerie calmness comes over me. The wind becomes a faint noise in the distance and I can sense my heartbeat.
My hand stretches out and it does not seem my own and I notice droplets arriving oh-so-slowly and splashing onto this palm.
I suddenly recall the strange encounter in the airport. What was that message about roses? Did he invite me to meet at Clifton Fourth Beach? What a crazy idea.
I wonder if he will be there. I don’t even have any contact details. But he knew my name and he knew where I was headed. Maybe it’s worth the trip. Perhaps something good will come of it.
I stand up and brush the sand from my clothes. The bed-and-breakfast is not far
from here and tomorrow is another day. I will go to the strange rendezvous and see what happens. I look around thoughtfully. I used to love this beach and now it’s a bit like a graveyard.
* * *
I open one eye and for a moment wonder where I am. I can hear the sound of waves cascading gently onto a beach. The sun is streaming in and that sky is so bright. The South African sky is so much brighter than the English sky – brilliant is possibly the best description. I gaze out the window at the ocean glimmering beautifully in the distance. I glance at the clock: it’s past nine. Hope I haven’t
missed breakfast. I brush my fingers through my hair and splash my face.
I bound downstairs and greet the owner. He seems a little brusque with me. Am I late? “Your breakfast is ready,” he says “and I’ll need you out of here in half an hour as we are doing some repair work today.” I agree cheerily and devour the farm-fresh bacon and eggs. A quick cup of tea and I am out the door. In the parking bay is my guilty pleasure: a hired fire-red open-top sports car. The one thing I do
miss in London is the gorgeous African sun soaking into my body.
I am driving top-down, absorbing the lush Cape Town scenery. Drifting alongside the Table Bay beaches, through the Cape Town city centre and then hugging the coastline around Lion’s Head. It’s an incredible view – rugged mountains rising up
on the left and stunning beaches below me on the right.
Clifton Beach is made up of four coves and the beaches are called First, Second, Third and Fourth. When the summer south-east wind blows, the Clifton beaches are usually well sheltered. First and Second are quite private and people often sunbathe and swim naked (although the water is pretty cold). Third beach is
known as the glamour beach and is usually populated with gorgeous topless women and athletic hunks playing beach tennis.
I am walking down the stairs from the road to Clifton Fourth. This beach is known as the family beach. There is no nudity and the water drops off very gradually from
the beach, making it safer for children. The beach is also longer, lending itself to leisurely walks. My feet arrive on familiar territory with a squelchy sound and the fine sand runs between my toes like a timer.
The pristine beach is quite empty and it’s lovely to be alone and so close to my
much-loved sea. Small seagulls swoop over the water making hungry cries. The early morning breeze is cool and the hairs on my arms are standing on end. I wonder what I am doing here.
Right on time, Stephen. Let’s get started …
I spin around. How did he find me? He looks exactly the same: radiant, fit, healthy, long white hair, almond-shaped piercing blue eyes … just one obvious difference.
He laughs and for the first time I hear his smooth voice land serenely on my ears: “Did you know that over 80% of the South African population is of black African ancestry? I simply changed my skin colour to blend with the dominant local
Yes, this strange man is now black-skinned instead of white with ruddy cheeks. I can’t stop myself from laughing. Partly from the shock of seeing him again, partly because my mind is struggling with the idea that he can simply change his skin colour, and partly because he will clearly never completely blend in anywhere.
He is smiling broadly and with such openness. What a crazy situation. I realise that I have not greeted him so I extend my hand. “Hi, you can call me Steve.” I am Jay. He shakes my hand and peaceful sensations stream into my body, leaving me a little light-headed.
“Who are you, Jay, and what’s going on? What do you want from me?”
You called me into your reality, Steve. You seek something that you can’t explain – it’s something you feel, something you have felt your entire life. There is something wrong with your world but you don’t know what. This has been driving
you and chasing you for as long as you can recall. Do you mind me speaking directly in your mind?
“No, I am getting used to it. It is nice to hear your voice sometimes though.”
Aaaallrighty then … let’s find a nice spot and get you on the rollercoaster.
We sit down together; bizarrely, it feels like I am having brunch with an old friend. Is this how the mind adapts? So quickly? Or is it the unusual peace that seems to
emanate from him? Whatever it is, I feel calm and relaxed.
Jay points to the sky and I watch dozens of seagulls congregate, forming a huge circle. Soon more of them pour in and the circle becomes thick and dark. I look
around and an early morning ice-cream vendor has put down his cooler box and is staring into the sky. He has seen it too. It is not just me.
This is your first lesson and the most important one. Pay close attention. Those
seagulls have formed together in a special way. Is there anything in the circle?
“No, it’s just sky. The same bright blue sky that is on the outside of the circle.
Everything is just sky but those birds have created a circle.”
Brilliant, Steve. This is all you ever really need to know. Hold on to this learning, no matter what you experience, no matter what you go through on your journey ahead.
The ice-cream vendor is standing in front of me offering me an ice-cream. Can’t he see I am supposed to be gaining some great lesson? “No, thank you,” I say politely. He leans forward like an overbearing salesperson and places a hand on
my shoulder. His voice is gentle and kind: “Hold on tight, Steve. Jay is showing you a pathway to ultimate freedom and bliss. This path will often challenge and confuse you but it will be worth it in the end.”
I am looking up at the vendor, annoyed, confused, incredulous. Who on earth is this person? I am feeling a little out of control, yet there is still that peace running in the background. The vendor just smiles and walks slowly away, leaving no
footprints in the sand.
“Jay, what is going on here? Who are you? Who was that?”
Just a former student. Just a little encouragement. Now back to that circle.
I am trying to focus on the circle but my mind is full of questions. I have moved
from my normal reality to something far beyond my world. I feel a little anxious.
Jay’s eyes are supportive and flowing compassion. Tell me what you see. Is there anything but the sky and the gulls?
“No, Jay. There is nothing but the sky and the gulls.”
What about the circle that the gulls appear to have formed? Does the circle have an identity or a personality of its own? Does it actually exist on its own,
independently of the gulls?
“No, of course not. There is just sky and an illusion of a circle formed by the gulls. As soon as the gulls fly away that circle will be part of the sky again.”
Excellent, Steve. This is your most important lesson. Keep hold of it. No matter
what anyone tells you or how things may appear, remember: that circle does not really exist. It is all sky, which is obvious when we remove the birds.
Jay waves his hand and the gulls squawk and disband, revealing clear blue African sky.
Now, let’s talk about you. Who are you?
It’s a big question. I don’t know where to start. My mind is still trying to understand the first lesson. The morning is warming now and I sense that glorious feeling of
the sun soaking into my being. I take a deep breath of the fresh, invigorating sea air and stare into the soft sand for a while.
“I guess I am many things. I grew up in a South African culture which dictated
some of my thoughts and values. My father instilled in me strong ethics of fairness, justice and hard work. School had definite effects on my way of thinking, as did my university education. The media influences me every day of my life as it circulates social beliefs and values through magazines, films, television, radio and
newspapers. And I have grown up in a world of capitalism, democracy and free speech. I suppose this has all contributed to ‘me’ and built who I am.”
Interesting. And what about on a spiritual level? And physiological?
“I inherited certain emotional dispositions and talents from my parents. I am male so I am driven by particular hormones. And I have had exposure to religious beliefs and spiritual values like the majority of us.”
So who you are is defined by your genetic inheritance, your childhood, your
parents, your schooling and your society, as well as the surrounding culture, politics, economics, religion and media. It sounds like you are the result of thousands of imposed programmes.
“What do you mean, Jay?”
Are you the sum total of all these influences? Who would you be if you had grown up in India? Or been born in a female body? Or had different parents? Who exactly is the real you?
I am wondering what I am learning here. I studied psychology at university and I understand the human mind. What is he trying to teach me?
“Babies and young children are dependent for years on the kindness and security of their parents and society. We absolutely need these authority figures for food, water, protection, affection and survival. In exchange, we readily consume all the beliefs, values and ideas that are pushed upon us by these authority figures. This
is called socialisation and it shapes every one of us. It’s a necessary part of fitting into society.”
Oh, I see … And who are you beyond all these biological constraints and imposed social ideas?
What’s with all these deep questions? Where is he going with this? I rub my eyebrow. “I am unique. All these constraints and ideas made me who I am. However, I am an adult now. I am free to make choices and live my life as I
choose. I plan my life, chase my dreams and pursue happiness.”
Those blue eyes gaze right into me. You have been alive for over three decades. You are healthy. You have a good education. You have earned well. You have built a house and been in a loving relationship. Are you truly happy? Are you full of joy?
I suddenly feel naked and transparent on the fine white sand. I stare at my feet uncomfortably. This is one of my deepest secrets, one I seldom ever throw a glance at: “I have never really felt happy.”
Jay is quiet for a while. When were you last happy, Steve?
I hastily search through my memories; it is hard to recall happy times. “I remember being a young child, running freely in the autumn rain, dancing and
singing among the flowers. There were many moments of such playful abandon. Not thinking or being told what to think; rather, times of just being. Then the
happiness got slowly pushed out by the thousands of messages telling me what to do, what to think, how to behave, how to fit in, what to achieve, how I should contribute to society and who I should become.”
Do you think there is a central thought or feeling behind all these messages?
“I am never good enough, Jay.” I sigh deeply. “And I never feel satisfied with myself or anyone or anything for very long.”
The central message of your world is You Are Not Enough. Everyone walks around with this message firmly ingrained in their deepest mind. Most people live their
lives unconsciously repeating the same mantra over and over: “I Am Not Good Enough. You Are Not Good Enough.”
I wonder if this is true. At school we had to be athletic, academic or physically
attractive, or we did not fit in. As adults we are measured by our education, earnings, status, title, possessions and attractiveness. We talk about our achievements and vacations as if they dictate our value. Society frowns upon
beliefs and ideology that challenge the political establishment. Magazines dictate ideal body shapes, fashions and social behaviours. The media pummels us with the idea that owning a bigger house, a flashier car or the latest gadget will
somehow make us happier or feel better.
That sounds like a crazy way to live …
Am I teaching myself? Or is Jay teaching me? All these thoughts that usually loop quietly in the background of my mind are suddenly becoming clearer.
If the central message from authority figures and society is You Are Not Good Enough, then what is the powerful message that naturally follows?
A flash of insight. I know! “You Must Change. You Must Be Fixed.”
Brilliant. The lie that You Are Not Good Enough naturally leads to the deception that You Must Change or You Must Be Fixed. These messages are the disease of
“Yes! And so we are driven to do, to achieve, to attain, to acquire, to compare, to judge, to compete, to buy, to consume and to better ourselves. And we absolutely cannot accept ourselves or others just as we are.”
And what are the emotional experiences resulting from these deceptive messages?
“The sting of social criticism and the pain of being labelled and judged usually leads to self-criticism, self-judgement, low self-esteem and lack of confidence. It also results in thoughts like ‘I dislike myself’, ‘This aspect of me is unacceptable’
or ‘I’ll never be good enough’. This often culminates in anxiety, depression, comfort eating, excessive use of alcohol or drugs, and other forms of escapism, attention-seeking or antisocial behaviour.
“I think the majority of us are tired of having to perform and continually better ourselves. We are constantly pushed to improve ourselves in business or at work; and we are always trying to be a better partner or lover or parent and trying to be
fitter or healthier or more attractive or more socially adept; and the list goes on. I wonder how many people feel that even with great achievements, status or attractiveness others will eventually see through it all and discover the hidden truth:
You Are Not Good Enough No Matter What You Do.”
You know what’s curious? Almost everyone on this planet feels the same way but no one ever mentions it. You all keep the same insecure secret.
The gulls are screeching overhead, frenzied by a delicious discovery. They look hungry and deliriously happy. As for me, I am feeling quite tired from the warm sun
and fresh air, and from having such intense thoughts pulled out of my head like spaghetti.
But Jay is already on his feet. I am going north for a while; there are a few things I need to do. You’ve done well today. Let all these ideas settle for a while and we’ll catch up in Luxor.
I quickly get to my feet. Luxor? Where is that? That’s not in South Africa. “Jay, we’ve only just met. When will I see you again?”
When you’re ready, Steve. I will be waiting in Luxor. Laso lok je ge!
And then, like it’s the most natural thing in the world, Jay shimmers brightly and disappears, right in front of me. I am astonished. What have I gotten myself into?
The squawking in the sky draws my attention upward and the noisy seagulls have patterned themselves into a huge circle again.
Maybe I do need time to digest everything. I feel in the mood for a cocktail and
some fresh seafood at Blues restaurant in Camps Bay, which is just up the road. Blues offers white tablecloths, palm trees and stunning views of the turquoise
ocean. Oh, and excellent cuisine.
I spend the afternoon pondering the teachings and mystery of Jay from under a huge umbrella. The sun is bright in the sky and the sea is so beautiful. Only a few more days of this gorgeous weather and then it’s time to head home.
Manage Your Items