The first time I heard about Byron Bay was over a year ago in Beijing. I was having brunch on an outdoor patio and was introduced to a guy who had just been travelling across Australia. He told me his favourite spot was a place called Byron Bay, “if you ever go to Australia, go to Byron, it’s the best place. There’s surfing, waterfalls and hippies everywhere” he said grinning widely. I smiled back as my imagination began generating an image of Byron. I visualised little unkempt roads saturated in golden sunlight, people with sun-kissed hair and bronze skin biking to the beach clutching their surfboards under their arms. I imagined people lounging in warm waterfalls, dancing in the water and playfully splashing each other. I figured it was a small town that very few people had heard of, like a little secret utopia. I pulled out my phone and typed “Byron Bay” into my notes to Google later.
Almost two years later, I finally made it. Although it's not a secret little utopian town that very few people know about, it still somehow holds on to its small town, hippy charm. There are little sunny roads covered in potholes as people bike to the beach holding surfboards under their arms. There are cars with dreamcatchers hanging from the rear view mirrors and ‘save the ocean’ stickers stuck on their rear windows. There are people who bathe in waterfalls and practice playing their didgeridoo or fire throwing techniques. They wear flowy vintage clothing and walk around in bare feet; they have bronze skin and messy, sun bleached hair. They talk about saving the environment and the cool new things they bought at the farmers markets. There is just something about the energy of this place that somehow disrobes us from the hustle and bustle of the nine to five life and reveals a way of living that operates on a slower, kinder and more peaceful frequency. People walk slower and smile to each other, they get around by hitchhiking. They trust each other.
I was lucky enough to find my regional work at a yoga retreat in Byron Bay. In order to get a second year visa in Australia we need to complete 88 days of specified work in a regional part of the country. As you can imagine, I won the jackpot in terms of regional work. Many people become fruit picking slaves or are stuck in the middle of nowhere nannying a bunch of wild, feral children. Instead, I spent my time in a peaceful yoga community surrounded by the most unique, authentic, and self-aware people I’ve ever met. I lived in a little caravan with two other girls, did yoga nearly every day, ate delicious vegetarian food, sang my heart out at kirtans and spent my evenings dancing to drum circles on the beach. It was the most supportive and healing environment for me to be in. Everything about these past three months have been so good for me, especially living in a close knit community with all my friends. I can’t remember the last time I felt such a deep sense of connection and belonging before.
One thing I observed throughout my time in Byron is how uncomplicated and simple it is for humans to feel connected and supported. I would watch groups of retreat guests come and go, all of them spending hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars to take a break from their busy lives to reconnect with themselves; to be surrounded by nature and sometimes even connect with others. Some arrived looking tense and guarded and left looking visibly lighter and happier. I found it interesting to see that something as simple as being in nature, practicing yoga and sharing meals with other people has now become an expensive luxury to human beings. The way we connect to each other in the modern world is so different nowadays. We can be on a beach in Australia and facetime our family back home, or we can scroll through our friends facebook photos of a recent vacation they went on without having to ever physically speak to them about it. But with this we’ve lost the real time connection we used to share with other human beings before Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg changed the way we socialised. We were not designed to sit in front of computer screens to communicate with other human beings, we were meant to do this face to face. We are social animals, we don’t do well in isolation. We thrive when we feel a sense of belonging. Our detachment from others amplifies our loneliness and often leads to depression. It’s no wonder there has been a rise in mental illness. Western societies have become so overstimulated by technology and disconnected from the human experience that we are willing to fork over thousands of dollars to revert to a much simpler time; a time when we shared meals together, sitting by a fire and connecting with each other. Isn’t it strange how it’s brought us back to our most basic roots? I suppose being here has made me realize how much I needed this and how many others out there could benefit from it too. Particularly if they are struggling with a mental illness. It doesn’t always have to be as immersive as living and working on a yoga retreat either. It can also be in the form of building a little community garden, taking part in local events, or volunteering for your local community centre. There is also a great app called Meetup where you can find and meet other people who are interested in the same things as you.
Although I’m sad to leave this place behind, I’m so happy I experienced it. Living and working with people my age who enjoy yoga, eating healthy and who constantly strive to be better versions of themselves has been so healing and transformative for me. I’m so grateful.
I may not know where exactly I’m going from here, but I do know who my kind of people are and the type of lifestyle I want to lead from now on. The rest will fall into place. My heart has expanded by being here, it’s made me a better person. I’ll never forget it.
BY KIMBERLY HETHERINGTON
Kimberly writes a beautiful blog called Dear Elizabeth, an ongoing virtual letter to her big sister Elizabeth who died in October 2013. You can read more at https://eclecticwave.wordpress.com/
We are so happy to welcome Kimberly to the team at The Happiness Compass.