Photo Essay


by Emiliano Zúñiga
In this meditation, Emiliano shares his spiritual journey to the deepest and darkest part of his own self in a process of personal deconstruction that led him to see beauty in discomfort and uncertainty.
He was standing at the edge of the road that connects Dominical with San Isidro de Pérez Zeledón. I decided to stop the car and give him a ride, maybe because his appearance bordered on the fantastic, and it reminded me of one of my favorite childhood characters: Merlin the Wizard, from The Sword in the Stone, with his long white hair and a luminous beard extending to his chest. Don got on the car barefoot, he told me that he had preferred to wear his natural shoes for years now, he also told me that he was going to Alajuela to visit a friend who had broken his hip and that he would take a bus from San Isidro to San Jose. In the dash of the car there was a book that a friend had put there: "Be Here Now" were the words that I heard Don read from the cover, I asked him if he had read it and he said no, but that maybe he knew what it was about. I mentioned that I was interested in questioning who I was and in learning to live in the moment, his response to this was undoubtedly what triggered the beginning of a friendship that has been growing since that morning of 2013 until today: "Maybe you do not need to learn but unlearn."

After that encounter, I decided to attend one of the free workshops that Don facilitated in a house he looked after in Platanillo de Barú. "Embracing the Shadow" was the name of the workshop. In it, other participants and I committed ourselves to spend most of the time in absolute silence and not make eye contact with others. I remember above all an exercise that consisted of sitting in front of another participant and, while looking them in the eyes, repeat the sentence "I am" and each time add an adjective or quality to the sentence; this lasted for approximately fifteen minutes. That was the first time in my life that I could see clearly behind how many concepts and words I hid my fear to admit that I did not know who I was, and that every word added to "I am" was nothing more than an attempt to define myself. In the end, the only thing that prevailed during this dynamic was the certainty of "I am", the rest was done and undone at each new attempt.

For a long time, I did not know who Don was, I did not know anything about his past or where he came from, I did not know what had started his search, nor his decision to be there offering that service to others. In one of the visits I made to Platanillo's house I asked him. He told me that one of the first steps he took towards his transformation was in Alcoholics Anonymous, he was referring to a specific session in which he had a conversation in which he expressed feeling hopeless to transcend his condition because he believed that God was angry with him, to which one of the collaborators replied that maybe his concept of God was the obstacle and not God himself.

Nine years ago, Don decided to give up his life in Texas, USA. He tells about a recurring dream he had in which he saw himself walking backwards towards the edge of a cliff, getting further and further away from everything he thought he was, knowing that he was going to fall into the unknown and only clinging to the confidence that the fall would actually be the beginning of his freedom. He came to Costa Rica with a small package, a guitar and a laptop, looking for self-sustainable communities that were being established in the country; however, he never found anything that appealed to him. He got a job as a caretaker of a property in the area where that day I felt compelled to stop the car.

At the beginning of 2014 I was almost finishing my university studies and I felt pressured to find a job, although I also knew that this was not what I wanted to do, but that I was looking to appease an internalized judgment that demanded me to achieve what many others called independence; and that seemed almost a requirement to fit in. As I was also searching online, one day I received an email about a six-month volunteering at Richmond Vale Academy in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a country that is quite unknown in the Caribbean. What attracted me the most was that it involved living in community with people from different parts of the world. For me it was very important to face something so far from my own reality, so I did not hesitate to ask for support from my family to leave in November of that same year.

Arriving at the academy was like getting in touch with a part of myself that was asleep. I felt that I belonged to community life and that in fact most of us who were there, beyond the university degrees or professions we had, deep down did not know what we wanted to do with our lives.
My attention was caught by something that repeated itself every day at lunchtime. The dynamic was to serve ourselves a plate and sit at the tables of the common room to share with each other, but there was a girl who always left the room and went to eat alone at her room. I interpreted this as shyness, maybe because I felt identified, given that since childhood I have always been quite shy and I have chosen to be alone and in silence.

Over time, I eventually learned that the girl's name was Natsuko, and that she had just arrived from Belize where she had been doing social work in one of the rural areas for six months. Since she was Japanese, I established conversation with her by asking her if she knew Kurosawa, or by telling her about the great influence that Dragon Ball Z had had in my childhood. We built a great friendship almost from the beginning.

During her first four years of university in Yamanashi, Japan, Natsuko spent the day studying biotechnology and at the end of her lessons she traveled two hours by train to the area where she lived to get ready to attend her job as a waitress in Starbucks, where she worked the last shift until eleven o'clock at night. In addition, she also worked as a tutor for English, math and science for children who needed extra-class tutoring. When she concluded her university studies, conscious that she had completed them to obey her family’s and society’s expectations and not for a personal motivation, she decided she would work to save money in order to afford a trip to some unknown place, that represented practically the opposite lifestyle to the automaticity required to fit into the social and commercial life of Japan. After two years working as a Starbucks waitress during the day and bar waitress at night, she finally had the money to pay for the trip to San Vicente and Belize.

One day, while doing research for an artistic project that I was going to develop for the academy, I received an email from Don inviting me to do a process that he had just finished writing called "The Journey". I answered that I was in San Vicente and that I thought I did not have the necessary focus to do it, so he told me that maybe for the future, once I had finished my period abroad. This contact was very important for me, suddenly the memories of the workshops came to me with great intensity and also I told Natsuko about a somehow fantastic friend that I had, and about what his friendship had meant to me.

When Natsuko's departure time approached and it seemed evident that she would return to Japan, she did not hide her great sadness and disappointment. For her it meant returning to a lifestyle that would imprison the freedom and connection with herself that she was experiencing. She told me that imagining herself back in the environment she had left was something that did not seem clear to her but that she felt it was what she was supposed to do. After that, we had several conversations about this "having to" and "wanting to". One of the things I remember sharing in these dialogues was that generally one does not live according to what one deeply wants due to a lack of self confidence. The fear of going out of the expected, to get out of what seems normal, eventually alienates you, until that construction of the "I" that one comes to model becomes the reflection of a dissatisfaction, which deep down knows that one exchanged his own life for the need to feel accepted by others.

It became very evident that one possibility of continuing our search was for Natsuko and I to come to Costa Rica. The initial plan was to make paintings and print photographs to sell them, but that did not work. We started making a probiotic drink called Kefir and we also made jams and sold them in business. This for us was an invitation to open up, to question once again what we thought we were and the image we wanted to project before others, once again, the only thing that prevailed was the certainty of "I am."

One day Natsuko and I visited Don, we had started to do the "The Journey" process that Don had offered me. It consisted of 7 questions and 40 focused meditations, designed to make us aware of the judgments and beliefs that we unconsciously repeated to ourselves and that prevented us from clearly listening and following with absolute determination and confidence our own inner voice and our potential. After finishing the process and growing more comfortable with each other, our desire to live in community reappeared.

​We began to envision an initiative that would promote the introspection, healing and liberation of those who would like to visit us from any part of the world. A place where we would also cultivate our food and generate renewable energy projects. We named the project "The Costa Rica Initiative" due to a Facebook page that Don had opened when he first arrived in this country. We felt that it was like finally giving life to an idea that seemed to have been waiting for years. The first step was to rent a small house in Atenas de Alajuela, where we learned to live as a small family and where little by little we began to receive people who heard about us through social networks and our website. After a year and a half, a friend of Don who had attended a workshop offered us her retreat center located in Los Angeles de Rivas de Chirripó, whose infrastructure has many of the things we dream of in our first vision.

It seems ironic but, from what I know, that which comes closest to what I define as an ideal tribe, in which harmony, respect and service for others predominate, I found it among people who instead of seeking to satisfy the expectations of others, have focused with great determination to deconstruct themselves, to question their desire to fit and to confront and make friends with the unknown, allowing themselves to bet on the spontaneous, which is perhaps a face of freedom.

To reach a level of internal discomfort that makes evident the need to build a new world, with the premise of a healed Self, is the beauty of dissatisfaction.


Photography & Text
Emiliano Zúñiga


2018. Costa Rica

Published in June, 2018
Volume 1, Issue 11



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The incomplete story of a family album


A story of an inner landscape shaped by post-glacial rebound


A space to reconnect with our bodies’ wisdom.


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