Thursday, 28 July 2016

Vanity in Lefkada

My wife and I recently spent our honeymoon on Lefkada, a beautiful island in the Ionian chain off the west coast of Greece. Our good friend Kim Bennett runs a holiday company out there (specialising in holidays for solo travellers with optional meditation and mindfulness classes; She always takes the hot mid-season months off, so offered for us to come and stay for a couple of weeks in one of her apartments. The location was absolutely stunning, right on the beachside, and the weather was hot and sunny every day! Thank you so much Kim for inviting us!

Now I'm not used to walking around in just a pair of shorts or going out to lie on the beach in the sun. With so much of my body exposed (not all of it mind...) and much of our time spent on the beach, I felt the arising of feelings of vanity much more than usual, especially around the idea of getting a tan.

Why do we want a tan? 

In the old days only people who worked outside in the sun (like farmers or labourers) would have tanned skin, so wealthy people would want to avoid getting a tan in order to show they're rich enough not to have to be outside. This is what led Queen Elizabeth I to whiten her skin. More recently, as more people worked indoors and rich people were able to take holidays to sunny places, having a tan became a sign of affluence – of having enough money to be able to lie around doing nothing on a beach far away.

These days, the likes of EasyJet and Ryanair have made going to spend time on a faraway beach much more accessible, so is having a tan still a sign of richness? Probably yes. In equal measure, people (at least Northern Europeans) generally look more healthy with a bit of colour in their skin, so with getting a tan there's perhaps a sense of wanting to look healthy and well. It's also an obvious outward sign for others to show we've been on a sunny holiday. 

Lying in the sun

Our apartment in Lefkada was right in front of its own little beach, and Kim had very kindly left out two sun loungers and a parasol for us to use. Usually, she commented, after a couple of days her guests are "velcroed to the beach"! So what is it that velcroes us?

Lying there in the sun reminded me of our lizard ancestry – basking in the heat and soaking up the warmth. I'm not a particularly cold blooded person, but I came to really enjoy basking until I began to sweat. So when my intention was to soak up the warmth like a lizard, that was one thing, but when my intention shifted towards "I want a tan" that was another. Wanting a tan is pure vanity, wanting to bask in the warmth was simple in-the-moment pleasure.

There were times when I'd come out of the water and want to dry off and warm back up – then I'd lie in the sun. But what about the other times? Why was I not satisfied with lying in the shade under the parasol, letting my body tan as it needed from just living outside more? Because some part of me wanted to get a tan – wanted to look a certain way. 

I occasionally found myself moving different parts of my body into the sun with the intention of evening up my tan – like a rotisserie oven...! Again the intention is the key – moving because one part is hot is sensible, but moving to even up the tan is vanity. 

Vanity ultimately arises because you see yourself as having a separate self that wants to impress and be "better", nicer looking or more handsome than others. It's delusive behaviour.

Body dissatisfaction

I also noticed increased feelings of dissatisfaction with my body shape. Walking around our holiday apartment with far fewer clothes than I'd normally wear at home, I'd catch myself in the mirror or look down at my uncovered chest and notice yet again the overly forward tilt in my hips, the lifted left shoulder, the uneven tan on my arms, or that wonk in my spine.

These feelings also crept into my daily yoga practice. I've found myself focusing (more than usual) on stretching out my hip flexors and lower back to help straighten my posture, or stretching to the left side to counter my wonky spine.

My yoga was not yoga any more, just like my lounging on the beach was not lounging on the beach anymore. Both became anxiety-filled activities centred around wanting to be something I was not. 

Of course that's an exaggeration! It was a wonderful honeymoon full of amazing experiences and lovely people (including my wonderful wife). Nevertheless there were moments when that anxiety-filled self-interest arose. 

What do you do in that situation? I tried my best to acknowledge it, allow it, and see the patterns of how and when it arose. I didn't manage it every time, but that was my intention. Once it's acknowledged and seen it no longer has any power over you.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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