The Art of Letting Go

Life of PI

by Sheela Sarvananda

So here’s the deal: you work hard, rise to the top in your career. Make more money than most and you’re wearing all the trappings of success. To most people, you’ve got it made. So what do you do next?

Give it all up and get out of town, of course.

Or at least, this was the unexpected twist in the tale of 48-year-old Mark Chaves, a Filipino-American who has been living in Bali for the past year. He teaches yoga at the COMO Shambhala Estate, a high-end health spa retreat in Ubud, a long way away from the Ohio steel town he grew up in, with his parents, an identical twin brother and a younger brother.

“I was probably what most Americans would say was successful, by that standard. Unfortunately I don’t think I was a very happy person,” he says. Today, Mark emanates the calm and the poise you expect from a yoga teacher, with a kind smile and twinkling eyes.

His family moved from the Philippines to the United States when he was four years old. Fitting in while being different in so many overt ways wasn’t easy. Mark and his siblings were the only Asians in school. This played a part do well early on. Mark earned a Master’s degree in computer science, and worked his way to a senior management position with a biotechnology company in California.

And as is the case with many achievers, he played as hard as he worked. Mark was accustomed to 20-hour days. He was a family man with a wife and two children, and mountain biking, snowboarding and surfing were his outlets.

But the frenetic pace and constant drive to excel in all areas came at a price. Having his shoulder to the wheel began to take its toll, on himself and the family. “I was very tough on myself. Some people might have said I was a perfectionist, and I didn’t know better,” he says. “Now I know it’s actually very, very toxic and controlling behaviour.”

In a bid to mitigate stresses, the family turned to therapy. But Chaves says this was of little help in their case.

“I went through some family crises,” Mark confesses, “and I ended up being frustrated with Western-style therapy. I decided then to turn to yoga, to begin the healing process.”

He discovered this physical and spiritual discipline while looking to become a better surfer (it would help improve his breathing). But the draw of the big waves took a backseat to the call of the calm and peace he experienced.

In 2010, Chaves traveled to Ubud, Bali to be part of a teacher-training course on yoga. It was his first taste of being back in Asia, and the trip brought everything to a head. Now a divorcé with two grown children, Mark knew that he would be returning to the region. Bali felt like home.

“My mind was saying: ‘This is crazy!’ My heart was saying: ‘Wow, Bali is inviting me to come back, and I should really go,’” he described. “It wasn’t a question of, should I do it or not. I was following my gut intuition.”

Today, Mark teaches and manages the activities portfolio full-time at the Como Shambhala Estate. Giving back is also big on his agenda: he’s a volunteer yoga teacher outside out the resort, helps at a cat shelter and works to restore coral reefs in local waters. One program he and his team implemented teaches rock-climbing to children in the area, as well as equipping the kids to be instructors themselves.

Not many would embrace this shift so easily, but Chaves says he knows he is not the only person wanting more out of life than blindly engaging the exhaustive rat race.

“It actually seems much more common that one would think,” he says. “I've met a lot of people since moving to Bali who have undergone the same transformation, or what I'd like to call ‘awakening’. There were many factors involved for me personally, and the seeds of adventure were planted a long time ago.”

It’s apparent that Mark’s intuition has served him right. “Staying present and centered is the practice. We will always have our memories and our experiences but being ‘bound’ to them, clinging onto things that don't exist and that we cannot change, does not serve us. If anything, I appreciate the journey, like most journeys we all take. But there’s a twist here. I usually hear how people's journeys make them who they are. Now I know that really, our journeys only help us reveal our true selves.”

In the balance, Mark does recognize that such journeys are not necessarily a silver bullet.

“I guess if I wanted to say anything, it is don’t take my word for it. Try to prove it to yourself. Become your own guru, become your own teacher. Because a true master would actually only show you the path. Question everything and figure it out yourself. And don’t worry, there will be loads of guides along the way.”