Sunday, November 08, 2020

The Spirituality of Living Abroad

I just stumbled across an intriguing Foreign Service Journal article. As a new - really new - ex-pat, the author expressed an aspect of ex-pat life better and with authority than I can. - Gary

by Douglas E. Morris

Life overseas has a reputation for being libidinous, debauched, and bacchanalian.

Certainly, it can be all of those things, and in my many years as an expatriate, I have pursued all those possibilities.

Path To Spiritual Enlightenment

However, life abroad can also be a path to spiritual enlightenment.

Being in another culture removes us from the familiar, expands our comfort zone, and pushes us toward our growing edge while offering a mirror in which to gaze upon our true selves.


Take the most basic experience: talking with someone. If you are in a country where English is not the official language, communication is an intense activity.

Your mind cannot wander; you cannot think about what you are going to say next or listen with half your brain and plan your day with the other. You have to focus intently on the person talking so that you can understand the accented English they are speaking or decipher their native language.

Active Listening

Active listening, the cornerstone of any spiritual practice, can get rather tiring, which is probably why we don’t do it as often as we should at home.

In our native tongue, it is easy to pick up the thread of the conversation and ease back into the flow. In fact, many of us have developed exterior manifestations of good listening skills — gazing intently into someone’s eyes, nodding our heads periodically, making appreciative noises, etc. — but in reality, we are somewhere else, not really listening at all.

Forced Mindfulness

Expatriates, however, without the help of gurus or swamis, spending months in retreat, bending themselves into pretzels on the yoga mat or sitting for hours in meditation — just by the process of living overseas — learn to listen in the present moment, intently aware of what is going on around them. They learn to be mindful.

Develop Patience

As they navigate the uncharted waters of a different culture, ex-pats also tend to acquire patience. For only by moving slowly, without expectations, can they achieve their goals.


Being humble is also a bedrock of most spiritual practices, and living overseas is a perfect way to acquire that discipline.

Everything is different there — unusual foods, unfamiliar ways to get from one place to another, diverse types of stores, and unfamiliar social mores, values, and cultural expressions.

Functionally Illiterate

Moreover, we suddenly find that we are functionally illiterate: people talk to us, but we do not understand them; we open our mouths, but no one can decipher what we are saying.

Vulnerable – Outside Your Comfort Zone

All of these new experiences push us beyond our comfort zone, knock us off whatever pedestal we created for ourselves, and bring us crashing back down to earth.

Immense strength can come from this position of vulnerability. It removes the defenses that have built up over the years, giving us the opportunity to view the world and ourselves from a different perspective, allowing us to develop the confidence to grow, evolve and change.

Letting Go

Living overseas is also about letting go. Being in another country can help us learn to accept what is and discard unrealistic expectations.

Being able to live contentedly in any country is about accepting whatever happens for what it is, and not judging it or getting frustrated with it for what it is not — in short, letting go of preconceived notions about how things should be done.

Open-Minded Spirituality Potential

Though a life overseas does not guarantee the development of an open-minded spirituality, the potential is infinitely increased simply by virtue of being in new and interesting places on a more frequent basis.

Managed properly, approached thoughtfully, explored meaningfully, living overseas is probably the most mind-expanding and soul-enriching experience to be found outside of an ashram.

Reprinted from the Foreign Service Journal, September 2009 (with added subheadings), The Spirituality of Living Abroad, by Douglas E. Morris
Mr. Morris is the author of Open Road’s Best of Italy and other books.

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