BudaPest, Hungary

"Panoramic view of Budapest 2014" by Katonams - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panoramic_view_of_Budapest_2014.jpg#/media/File:Panoramic_view_of_Budapest_2014.jpg

Budapest is one of my new favorite cities! It’s rare to see a historic city with lots of modern touches and a culture that is very friendly and accommodating to match. Hungary has seen a lot of tragedy and the memorials there were fantastic; there is an obvious Jewish heritage and luckily I was able to stay in Mavericks Hostel which is in the Jewish quarter. I will admit that I saw more traditional Hasidic Jews in Boston, but I definitely saw the tall point black hats and sideburn curls on several occasions.

Budapest is the largest city in Hungary and its capital, one of the largest in the EU. The metropolitan area houses 3.3 million people while the city proper has a population near 1.74 million and covers 525 square kilometers, though the older and most beautiful part of the city could be covered by bikes in a day (which we did!). In 1873 Budapest became a single city when Pest and Buda joined from opposite sides of the Danube river.

It was originally a Celtic settlement that became Roman, then Hungarians arrived in the 9th century and it was pillaged by the damn Mongols in 1241 (those jerks really kicked ass). It was re-established in the Renaissance (15th century) and was heavily affected by both WWI and WWII, because of its importance to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which fell after WWI. After WWII, the country struggled with communism until the fall of Soviet Russia in 1989. To put it simply, the city has a ton of history.

It is also home to the largest thermal underground cave system in the world, the second largest synagogue in the world, both of which I was able to visit and can say that they were both incredible experiences.

I also spent a couple of nights out which were just as fun as touring during the day. I met people from all over, including an Australian guy who had traveled through all of South America in the same way that I traveled through Southeast Asia; it was a blast to share the experiences because both were rough and extremely rewarding!

The architecture of the city is breathtaking; spires line the skies and buildings hundreds and hundreds of years old are completely commonplace. Statues line the streets and sit atop rooftops, though the river is definitely the central point of the city. All of the bridges were destroyed by Germany during WWII, so none of them are nearly as old as the Charles Bridge, which I mentioned in my article about Prague.

The weather was spectacular, but very cold during certain parts of the night so I could have used a warm jacket. During the last day we visited one of the 80 thermal springs in the city that was in a cathedral-like building, and enjoyed 100 degree+ water. One of the nights where we ate at a nice restaurant across from the Opera, we were able to catch a classical band performing. It was an amazing city full of experiences I will remember for a long time; I would love to visit Budapest again.

Today I am in the city of Zadar and have a lot to talk about from Croatia, next stop is tomorrow in Split. Yesterday we spent the day in SplitVice, in possible the most beautiful national park I have ever seen. Feeling so grateful and lucky to be where I am, above all with my family to share it all together.

Check back soon for more updates on the trip

Acceptance

rickshaw Dhaka

There is a certain point where I realized that there was nothing I could do to save anyone. There’s no saving. There’s always suffering. And thinking otherwise is simply idealizing and overgeneralizing.

Suffering is an unavoidable aspect of this world. You are not a victim, but instead an inhabitant; viewing suffering as against you or attacking you will only increase its power.

Instead we should acknowledge our state of suffering and enjoy it; if everything was easy, life would be so boring, so monotonous, so pointless. We wouldn’t have to learn, adapt, change our behaviors, or do all of the amazing things that humans do.

Accepting the state of suffering is the only freedom we have in the world. To enjoy the sun, a nice meal, the people around you, despite where you are, the ailments you have, or the desires that go unfulfilled. No one can do it for you. And the experiences of others are pretty irrelevant to you; you are a world in and of itself. A consumer of the highest order, no matter what you forego when you eat or the type of lifestyle you live. Accepting this leads is a key to realizing what you are. To know the truth is to set yourself free from the hatred of suffering, instead you are able to enjoy it.

When times get hard, appreciate them. This is the forge of character, shaping your being into what you need to be here. When times are easy, be grateful. Ultimately, gratitude is the greatest gift you can give yourself. With it, you are free to accept your suffering as an aspect of reality instead of fighting and pushing your self deeper into states of anger, frustration, greed, and jealousy.

Acceptance and gratitude together are freedom that only we can give ourselves. No one is going to save you or do it for you. Eventually, we will all be gone. Clinging never helped anyone that was too heavy. We will all fall in the end. Enjoy the climb.

Returning to the West

Dhaka Streets_1

The past few days have been a difficult adjustment period. The accumulation of stress over the past few months was nothing short of monumental and I needed time to allow everything to process.

Budget traveling in Asia was fun, rewarding, and a life-changing experience. I would do it again, but I would have planned things much differently, spending more time in Myanmar rather than Vietnam and Thailand because of the touristic climates of the latter two countries. Vietnam is also particularly difficult as an American; there are massive amounts of propaganda about the war and people just aren’t excited to have you in their country. At least that was my interpretation of my experiences.

India was exactly what I needed; a combination of challenge and pure peace, allowing me to move far deeper into my yoga practice and mediation than I had anticipated. Nepal was a much-needed rest and I feel so lucky to have avoided the earthquakes and the devastation that they caused. Then Dhaka happened.

After I while, I realized that the east is so similar to the West; we are all essentially the same in our humanity and have differences and unique qualities that separate cultures, individuals, and groups of people. And in that uniqueness, comes a diversity that is relatively similar; there are always good people and bad people, people looking to take advantage of you and people looking to help you.

This is why perception is such an important part of the human experience; we base our decisions off of what we have experienced in the past.

Dhaka was so hard because of the way that their society is organized. People are willing to be completely wrong when trying to help you, as long as they can feel like they’ve helped you. They look up to white people and at the same time despite them. It seems that every sword has two sides.

Dhaka was probably the hardest day of my life, but it was also one that gives me the most hope. When people work together we can do anything we want. The way people worked together to help me was truly an incredible thing to witness.

I need to return to Myanmar because I was only able to visit Yangon, but the people were so nice. They went about their business until you came into contact with someone at a restaurant, or through whatever interaction and they were so kind. Far nicer than any country besides India, which I found to be somewhat similar. Thailand was close to Myanmar, but the people seem to be so sick of tourists. Though Bangkok is not really a city I am looking forward to visiting in the future, the north of Thailand was breath-taking and the locals were so nice. But I think they were as sick of the foreigner party scene as I was.

The came Vietnam, which I had always heard great things about. There is probably a lot racism against Americans because of the Vietnam war and the people seem to have taken on the victim mentality completely, like they are entitled to things because of it. And its hard to argue that they shouldn’t.

In the south of Vietnam I was scammed at every opportunity possible, there seemed to no stop to what people were willing to do for a bit of money. The only reprieve was from the people we were already staying with, who tended to be very kind and thoughtful and wonderful towards their clients. There were a lot of very nice people, but there was a lot of dislike directed at me for no reason by people in general. It was probably due to being American, which I think is obvious when I travel.

Coming back to the West through Berlin was great; the country is very in touch with its history and many of the exhibits of the wall in the city are completely eye-opening, full of facts and personalized stories, and bring the situation to life. It was nice to see both sides of the equation as well; how Hitler and the Nazi party came to power and why it was even a possibility in the country. A nice change from the one-sided propaganda in Vietnam.

Now I am in Prague, but spending the day recovering rather than traveling around. Two more days here should make for a lot of history and good food, site-seeing, and spending time with my family. I’m going to write an article on Berlin after this, so stay tuned for more experiences about the journey I am on.

 

The Wanderer, Part 22

"White Mountain CA" by JonathanLamb (talk · contribs) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White_Mountain_CA.JPG#/media/File:White_Mountain_CA.JPG

This story is part of a series, this is the twenty-second part.

You can read the first story here: The Wanderer, Part 1

and the most recent story here: The Wanderer, Part 21

Tas woke up with a jolt. Chills coursed through his body; the alpine air was fresh and crisp and their fire had died down to embers. Yao was snoring loudly and his wispy white beard floated with the wind and his loud snores. Tas’ eyes were hazy and his mind was blurred with fatigue from the day before, but the chill seemed to take only moments to wake him.

They were out of water, but during the past days Yao had taught Tas to build sturdy fires in the cold, to melt snow, and even a bit of rudimentary hunting, though he hadn’t shown Tas any of his expert trapping yet. The old man had caught three hares in a single snare two days ago, but he insisted that Tas wasn’t near ready yet and that he would simply hurt himself if he tried. Tas couldn’t argue; he had never seen snow before the days they had trekked up into the thin mountain air and he was still adjusting. He had never hunted. It was cold, harsh, and darker here, though the sun seemed to shine brighter during the day.

There was a dusty layer of snow on the ground so Tas took to cleaning out their temporary fire pit in the ground then went to collect more dead branches from the bottom of trees. He took his time to build the fire in a square with plenty of space in the middle for dried pine cones, pine needles, small sticks and some other kindling he could find. Using the flint that Yao had given him, he sparked the fire after only 10 minutes of trying; Yao could do it in just a couple, but it had taken Tas nearly an hour the night before.

The fire began to build and Tas took the small copper pot Yao had brought and began to fill his water skin first. When he was done, he woke Yao, knowing that it was time; the sun was rising in the sky and they needed to keep up their pace. Who knew how long they had until Grethatch or Melkar would find them.

Tas woke Yao by prodding him with a stick in the arm; the old man shuttered awake and for a moment his eyes were wild in defense and he looked ready to spring upon an assailant. Tas had learned to stay away from the old man when he woke him from snoring. He laughed as the old man gained his bearings, then moved closer to the fire, a grin of pure satisfaction crossing his lips.

“Good work boy! Maybe your cause isn’t lost after all,” he winked, and took the pot from Tas, filling his own skin, then drinking from it. He had another small vessel full of small leaves that he added to the water, then invited Tas to share in it.

“You think Grethatch will find us?” Tas said wearily. It was undeniable that his body was tired from the long days of trekking to higher and higher altitudes. His breath grew shorter faster and he found his muscles beginning to fail him at times.

“Yes.” Yao said sternly. “He has methods of doing so that I don’t understand, but they are powerful. You saw Melkar’s attack on the monastery; it was planned to perfection. Except for his overestimation of his own strength. It is probably his greatest weakness.” Another wide, this time sinister grin returned to Yao’s bearded and wrinkled face. “The only exception might be his underestimation of me. And by extension, you.”

Tas sat and thought for a moment while drinking the warm tea, feeling his entire body elevate with the hot liquid coursing into his body. It was ecstatic.

“We have two more days until we reach the village where I was born Tas. So now, you need to learn my story. Why I am who I am.”

“I know you were born a hunter Yao, then banished, but I don’t understand why. What happened?” Tas had been waiting for this since he had met the old man. Had it been months, years? He realized he had no idea.

“I wasn’t banished boy, I was exiled. The difference was my choice to leave. There was a corruption in my village that would have strangled me if I had stayed. I did what I had to.”

“What do you mean?” Tas was confused. This was not what he had understood from the little conversation they had shared on the subject earlier.

“My people are bloodthirsty Tas. The same rage and thirst runs through my veins, but I have tempered it, mostly with Fei’s help.”

“He disappeared!” Tas exclaimed. “Do you think Grethatch or Melkar capture or killed him?”

Yao laughed wholeheartedly in response, giving Tas instant relief.

“Fei may look harmless, but he’s as slimy as a snake and quiet as a mouse when he needs to be.” Yao’s expression grew more serious, “Never under-estimate the power of a monk, they dedicate their lives to learning themselves and by extension, their world. You saw Paj’s power. Fei’s is even more potent, which is why he commands the respect of the entire monastery.”

“It’s hard to think of him as so powerful; he’s so kind.”

“Fei is rare indeed; power nearly always corrupts those who grasp it. Honestly, he is one of my few friends in this world, Tas.”

“All of mine have been left behind.” Tas said, lowering his eyes and thinking back to his village. Tears suddenly welled in his eyes as his thought of his mother and father; where were they now?

“We leave behind everything in the course of our lives Tas. But looking back is important.” Yao said with a weak smile. “The past will always be behind you and that’s where it belongs.”

Tas didn’t really understand what Yao meant, but it comforted him all the same. He thought again to where they were going, taking Yao’s advice.

“So we are going to the village where you were born? Do you think we will be safe there?”

“I do not know.” Yao said seriously, his expression grew darker. He refilled the copper pot with snow and placed it near the fire, that was beginning to turn to embers. But it was still hot.

“My people are warriors, Tas. They do not know sympathy; they deal in death, honor, and strength. We will have one chance to find safe haven amongst them. I can only hope that chance will be on our side.”

“Chance? What does chance have to do with strength and honor?” Tas said curiously.

Yao laughed again, his normal hearty chuckle that Tas had grown terribly fond of. “Everything Tas. And do not be deceived by the tenets of honor; men are deceptive and sometimes evil beings. We are easily corrupted Tas. My biggest fear is that Melkar, or perhaps his allies hold have over my people.”

“You think he might have already been and corrupted your people? What drives that demon anyways? What does he even want with us?”

“He wants me dead. That is sure. As for my people, they are not easily corrupted; but I have thought the same of friends that have fallen to the shadows. So truthfully, I do not know.”

“And Melkar?”

“Melkar is a being of hate and greed. He likely wants your apprenticeship to wound me. That is why I believe he let you live while only corrupting you.” Yao grinned again, darkly. “A big mistake on his part.”

Tas thought back to the nightmare where he had been corrupted by the wyrm. Yao had to be right; Tas should have died that night.

Yao began to pack up their blankets and packs and they put out the fire. Tas felt rested and a bit worried, but happier to know where they were going and why. He couldn’t help but think that Yao was so different from his expectations. Gritting his teeth, Tas hauled his pack, took a long swig of cold mountain water, then followed his master up the slope into the chilled air of the alpine.

 

Diamonds in the Rough

"Rough diamond" by Unknown USGS employee - Original source: USGS "Minerals in Your World" website. Direct image link: [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rough_diamond.jpg#/media/File:Rough_diamond.jpg

“A diamond has the highest hardness and thermal conductivity of any bulk material; it can be contaminated by very few types of impurities. Most natural diamonds are formed at high temperature and pressure. A material with superlative physical qualities, most of it original from the strong bonds between its atoms.” -Wikipedia

Sometimes, people rise above their circumstances to greatness. They are forged, hardened by pressure and time to rise above their surroundings and to become more than anyone thought they could become. I’ve been lucky to witness this in several people from all over the world. People all over the world have the capacity to be greater than their circumstances would “normally” dictate.

There’s a popular saying going around now: “Everyone is doing the best they can with what they have.” I have come to believe that this is completely untrue and a complete idealization; all you have to do is look at the amount of corruption in much of our species to know that people often take the easy way out. Look at the US senate, can you really say they are doing the best they can with what they have?We are lazy beings, like all other mammals we want to be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the sun and the food it grows. (in balanced quantities of course)

This isn’t to say that people will always take advantage of everything they can; instead, its acknowledging that there will always be both sides to the equation; those that take complete advantage and those that take none and in fact give willingly with no thought of receiving. I’ve witnessed a lot of both lately while I’ve been traveling.

Yesterday was a rough day for me; the traveling and budget have gotten to me and I’m exhausted (you can read yesterday’s article on my mental fatigue here. But the equation will always balance itself out. Today I met an absolute gem of a woman on my way to the Minh Mang tomb. Her name was Rei Nguyen.

Rei was a farmer and told us that she and her husband made around 5 million dong per month (about $250). She sent her kids to a school that cost about 2 million per month, in the city of Hoi.

My girlfriend and I rented a scooter for $4 and headed to the tomb this morning, pretty excited to see the most renowned tomb in what appears to be the cultural center of Vietnam. Largely affected by the Vietnam War (known locally as the American War), we were able to see a lot of the effects of the war in our travels, most particularly the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). There was a good amount of propaganda at the museum, especially geared towards the use of illegal chemicals such as agent orange, the US’s involvement in the war, and Vietnam’s victims. This is not to say there wasn’t massive effect from illegal chemical weapons used by the US, but there was no mention of Russia, or of the civil war in Vietnam. As usual, there was a scapegoat to take the blame and the US took full brunt force of it; it’s probably deserved. (again, I’m not saying I know the situation, but I’ve seen this before in WWI & WWII propaganda, Civil War propaganda, and pretty much every war in history is necessarily affected by propaganda where one country is blamed for the entirety of the war)

Rei’s english was incredibly good for anyone in Vietnam, let alone a farmer with an education that ended when she was 12. She works 10 hour days out in the fields with her husband and eats mostly rice and noodles, though she wasn’t malnourished as far as I could tell. She was extremely kind to us, showed us a shortcut to the tomb and then invited us to her small house by the river to talk and have some tea.

The tomb was incredibly peaceful; death has a way of making the life so powerful.  We walked around the tomb for a couple of hours in the scorching heat and humidity, then returned with her to her home.

Happy_in_Vietnam

I noticed she was lucky enough to have electricity and running water; he house was small, with wooden walls and a tin roof and she graciously offered us tea while we spoke about her life and how my life was very different from hers. She ultimately ended up asking for money for her children’s school, but it was far more of an afterthought than most of what I have experienced in Vietnam. Most will ask for money, then turn their back and mutter under their breath when you refuse their service. She offered us a kind smile and sharing of words and experiences that has been unique in my trip to Vietnam.

In this trip, I’ve met people poorer than you can imagine that still show kindness and refuse to take extra money no matter how hard you try. I’ve met people who I’ve gotten along with like I’ve known them my whole life.

One sterling example of this is one of my Muslim friends from Yemen; probably the one of the nicest and friendliest people I have ever met. He owns about six AK47’s at his home and Yemen and left to pursue a more peaceful education in Mysore. Yemen is currently in Civil war and he has been directly affected by it with the death of some of his immediate family members, yet still he pursues kindness and happiness relentlessly. I was with him while it started and there was definitely a lot of swearing and frustration, but it didn’t change his outlook. He goes against any stereotype I could have held against someone of the Muslim religion.

The owner of the Chakra house, Rajesh was like this as well; one of the nicest and most relaxed people I have ever met. He and I will be friends just like the day I left if I ever return to Mysore (which is highly probable). It’s funny how you meet people who you feel like you’ve known your whole life when you travel.

People are individuals and that’s how they should be treated. One is not representative of the whole, because there is so much variation in our species. So at the same time that there are all of these awesome people I have met, there are also some abominable ones.

Let me give you some examples, from history. I don’t like to talk about negatives in reality because people can change and who am I to judge them. With that said, world leaders are different and I feel at full liberty to judge their decisions. There are some terrible people in our world: Kim Jong Il, definitely not doing the best with what he has especially after his most recent execution; neither did Stalin, or Hitler, or Mussolini. Even American leaders smell of stank corruption that can ruin the people: George Bush, Dick Cheney, Nixon, Ulysses S Grant, Kennedy. Even the greatness of America has such powerful potential for corruption because of the essence of its power.

The truth is, humans will look out for themselves before others and in our modern world we absolutely HAVE to expect this from everyone. Think about it this way; even if you are about self-sacrifice, you would give to your children first and foremost the greatest opportunity to succeed in the world. We look out for ourselves before others and this isn’t a bad thing, it’s simply the reality of humanity. This is why the US is struggling right now, our system of checks and balances has become completely unbalanced in the wake of our economic prosperity in the 80s and 90s and leaders continue to take advantage of the people they rule just as they have since the beginning of time.

Unfortunately, this can even apply to our immediate family. You see celebrities with major mental and stability problems, likely because they can’t even trust their support systems and families anymore (this is just my observation, feel free to comment on it). It’s really sad, but that’s how money can corrupt people. Greed, it seems, is simultaneously the great human strength and weakness.

But on the other side, there are people who will give without even caring about what they receive; they give kindness freely and love as often as they can, as long as their basic needs are met. Sometimes, they even defy those. Remember to think of it as an equation, because that’s what the world we live in requires.

Writing yesterday made me feel so much better, today the same. I really hope that these comments are misunderstood, I am trying to be very objective and am applying my experiences to the greater scope of the world we live in together. I walked around today with a big smile and decided that I would kill my fatigue with kindness and it has worked. I feel a hell of a lot better.

Please let me know what you think of this article in the comments, or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/padayoga

I always love to hear from readers.

Exhausted in Vietnam

dark_cave

At this point, I am ready to leave Asia. This journey has been a long one; its been almost four months since I left sunny California to head to India.

India was rough; I got food poisoning 3 times, the third time for an entire week before I was able to get my hands on some probiotics and it was not a fun experience. I continued my Ashtanga practice the whole time and it was definitely an empowering experience, but one that I don’t ever want to experience again.

India became very peaceful for me. I was free to meditate for 3-4 hours a day and write stories and make music when I wasn’t meditating. Boredom was absolutely a big part of India and I was already excited to go back to work after a month. By the end of my time there I was so sick of the extra attention of being white and not having anyone to really connect with. When I’m on long trips like this, I always start to miss my family and friends… A lot.

My progress in the Ashtanga practice was unmistakable, but by the end it really wasn’t important to me anymore. Where was I going anyways? So now I can do full lotus, supta kurmasana, and I can pretty easily get one foot at a time behind my head; but so what? What does that mean for my life and my happiness? Absolutely nothing. I listened to Alan Watts a lot in India and my favorite quote of his was: “So when you have achieved enlightenment, so what? What now?” and that’s where I think I’ve ended up.

So by the end of India, I was exhausted. It’s not easy to live in a third world country; the boredom alone is enough to drive you a little insane. But then I headed to Nepal.

Nepal was a breath of fresh air and a nice rest for me. I stayed with people who didn’t hesitate to act when the quake happened; which I was very lucky to avoid. These guys enjoyed their lives so much and I met people from around the world that I had an absolute blast with. I stayed in the city the whole time because my budget over here was very strict; I came over with less than $3,000 for 4 months of serious travel and I’ve been to 6 countries, all of which are very poor.

After leaving Nepal, I was lucky enough to meet up with my girlfriend/best friend. She was a much-needed break from being alone. We planned to meet in Myanmar, but a technical difficulty with my flight on Biman Bangladesh airlines (NEVER fly with them if you can avoid it) left me stranded in Dhaka for an overnight stay in the airport.

I was lucky; a family that I met in the airport randomly and extremely kindly  offered to let me spend the night at their apartment. They gave me kindness that I won’t soon forget. Then, in my first real terrifyingly close encounter with extreme poverty conditions (which I was a part of for a solid day) where I begged for water and for help. A girl named Anna came to my rescue and helped me to find the family’s apartment that I had completely lost. Another stroke of luck and kindness that I won’t forget; neither will my stress response system.

After narrowly avoiding some terribly consequences in Dhaka, I was able to get a new flight to Yangon, Myanmar and was excited to see a tiny bit of westernization for the first time in months; sky scrapers, parks, and paved streets were never so beautiful to my eyes. And I got to see my girlfriend again, which was what I was really looking forward to. The culture of Myanmar was the easiest for me to cope with in Asia; people were kind and treated you like a human rather than a commodity. Bangladesh was the worst; people will absolutely take as much advantage of you as they possibly can and all of the westerners that lived there looked completely exhausted as a result.

We moved on to Thailand which was surprisingly touristic, but again nearly everyone was more concerned with your money than with anything else about you. It gets exhausting over time to have people trying to get from you and sell you on things. In Thailand, we visited Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai, and flew from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Bangkok was not fun for me; it reminded me of a combination of India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, but at least they were used to tourists.

Ho Chi Minh was far different from my expectations; most everyone in the city is trying to take your money by offering Rickshaws, taxis, even random scooterers will stop you on the side of the street and try to get you to ride their scooter. And people are always trying to please you, even if they are completely wrong. This is part of the reason I got so lost in Bangladesh; if someone doesn’t understand you, they’ll make something up that they think you want to hear. It’s frustrating to say the least.

So we took the night buses from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang, which was another breath of fresh air; kind of. Out hostel was amazing, I highly recommend Mozjo Inn if you are ever in Vietnam, the hostel alone is worth a trip to that city. We went scuba diving there and it was amazing! No license required.

Hoi Anh was next, which is an extremely touristic town and didn’t have too much history, though the influences of China and Japan were incredible to see.

Today, I am in Hue, which is a great city, but relentless. I am tired of the extra attention, tired of people trying to sell me things, tired of people who are trying to take money with a huge smile on their face. Most act like they want to know where you are from then are quick to turn around and try to sell you things. It’s nearly impossible to actually meet anyone over here, especially due to the fact that they view you as a commodity. We’ve exchanged some nice jokes with our hostel owner and a couple of waiters, but most aren’t interested in us unless we have money. Its disheartening to see, but it goes to show that human are the same; we love to idealize about the peacefulness of the East, but the truth is that its even more chaotic than America.

This becomes obvious when you pay your first 5 dollars to enter a Buddhist temple. Money runs the world now and its painfully obvious here with the amount of poverty that exists.

Surprisingly, just writing this article has made me feel a lot better. It’s so tiring to be harassed ALL the time. Sometimes, its nice to just be able to share a smile and continue on our separate paths. It’s also weird to miss America, but I know that this will pass, just like all things and I will be doing my best to enjoy these last few days to the fullest. But man, I am tired. Ready to meet up with my mom and sisters in Germany and return to the west… and I am very excited to come back and keep teaching yoga, making music, and to see all of the friends that I miss a whole hell of a lot. Its been a long journey and I am seeing the end in sight and am happy about it; a sign that I am where I need to be.

Please don’t take this as a negative review of Vietnam; this has just been a long, arduous trip for me, partially due to the budget, partially due to the amount of ground that I’ve covered in the past month and a half. But keep in mind that the people here in Asia will get everything that they can from you, just like in the rest of the world. I know that once I am in a comfortable bed again, I’ll look back with fondness on these hardship and eventually, I’ll want to do it again 🙂

 

The Wanderer, Part 21

mountains_w_path

This story is part of a series, this is the twenty-first part.

You can read the first story here: The Wanderer, Part 1

and the most recent story here: The Wanderer, Part 20

Tas woke with a shake, not sure where he was. He panicked immediately, remember the night before. He twisted to his left and hit his head on something hard. ugh, what was that? Clutching his forehead, he slowly opened his eyes, trying hard not to think about much his head hurt. He could see a dark, starry sky on the ceiling slowly come into focus. He sighed with relief. The stars were meticulously placed and he had often sat beneath them late at night, learning their patterns and locations ceaselessly. He was in Paj’s study.

It was a second before he remembered everything. The monks panicking under the shadowy sky, Melkar and Grethatch’s attack on the monastery and then his dark dreams. Where had he gone the night before? How had Grethatch found him? He was so confused. The memories came rushing back to him as he rustled his body awake; it was still sleeping.

Paj awoke as Tas stood, though the old man tried to return to sleep. Tas grabbed his arm to wake him again and the old man’s eyes flickered open, panicking in the same way as Tas had; but one glance at Tas and the old man was awake.

“Tas! You’re alive. Thank heavens.” Paj rustled himself awake, taking a few moment to stretch. “Let’s wake the old man, shall we,” Paj said sarcastically and in a slightly disgruntled tone. Tas could hear Paj’s bones crackling as the old man got up to his feet. Yao was on the couch to their left; still asleep. There was a small, charred scar on his forehead, though it was barely noticeable. Paj moved towards Yao to wake him, moving with the slow grace that was always with the old man.

Instead of grabbing Yao’s arm like Tas had for Paj, Paj threw a cup of water on Yao’s face. Yao sputtered to life, his guard came up immediately as he jumped to his feet. Paj watched the Yao as he swung at the air, and laughing heartily at Yao’s reflexes. Yao cursed strongly, but his anger faded immediately. Tas took note never to wake Yao up forcefully.

Once Yao’s eyes fell on Tas, his jaw hardened. “Time to leave.”

Tas sighed in exasperation; he need answers. “Can’t we talk about what is happening? I want to know what in the hell is going on, I’m terrified to fall asleep again!”

“You should be.” Yao said heatedly, checking his pockets and obviously getting ready to depart. Paj shrugged as Tas looked to him for help. “GO GET YOUR THINGS BOY! MOVE! NOW!” Tas didn’t even have time to think to respond; he hurried down the stairs to get his things from his room. He couldn’t believe he fell asleep the night before; this whole ordeal was his fault.

He rushed down the stairs, noting the emptiness of the monastery. Where had all the monks gone? Tas hurried to grab his pack; thanking himself for having already gathered food. He knew Yao would be ready to leave the second he walked upstairs to the main entrance.

He hurried back up the stairs; there was no time for farewells or goodbyes, even though one of the cooks he often talked to tried to talk to him. He was the only person in sight, but Tas knew he had to leave. He didn’t know if Grethatch might appear from the shadows, or if Melkar was coming after them as he rushed up the stairs. His mind was racing. He found Yao in the entrance and together they left the monastery, moving at double pace; he hadn’t even said goodbye to Paj. Tas looked back with apprehension; he would miss his time in the solitude of the monks.

Yao noticed and for the first time; comforted Tas. “We will see them again, boy.”Don’t you worry. With us gone, those monks will be safe. Paj is stronger than you think. The old man has survived worse. But he is powerful in ways that I am not.” Yao sighed. “I will miss him” Even as he glanced back for a moment, Yao kept up his blistering pace, heading for the forests to the south. Tas had no idea where they were heading so he asked quickly, saving his breath for his legs.

“Its better that you don’t know right now. We will be safe tonight though,” Yao said with certainty. Tas didn’t know how the old man could know such a thing, but at this point he trusted Yao with his life. He had saved it enough to earn that trust.

“I just want to know what’s happening to us, Yao. I don’t think I will be able to sleep tonight.”

Yao raised his eyebrows without stopping. He gave a soft chuckle. “Have you forgotten what its like to travel with me boy?” Yao was right, but Tas’ body felt oddly strong, was Yao slowing down? Or was Tas becoming stronger? “You will sleep well tonight, my boy. I will make sure of that.” Sure enough, Yao picked up the pace. He must have noticed Tas’ lack of fatigue.

They walked through the forest for the rest of the day, steadily climbing up-hill. The trees grew sparser and larger as they ascended and Tas could tell that they were heading north-east now; towards the mountains if he had to guess, but he had never been. Paj’s maps were his only source of guessing as they continued a rigorous climb and Tas was steadily growing exhausted. Yao was right; he wouldn’t have trouble sleeping tonight.

The air was crisp and chilly by the time they stopped for the night. Yao began to build a fire; Tas had never seen the old man so happy, but Tas was cold and the sweat on his clothes was a source of complete discomfort as he tried to warm himself by the fire.

“Tas, tonight, I want you to clear your mind completely before you sleep. Meditate yourself into nothing before you rest; it will keep you safe as you dream.” Yao pulled out a long pipe from his jacket pocket and began filling it with a green plant, something that Tas had never seen before. As he lit the pipe, Tas could smell a sweat, but strange smell emanating from it, unlike anything he had ever seen. “This will help you to have dreamless sleeps as we travel. In three days, we will reach our destination and there you will learn what is happening. But until we arrive, we are not safe from the demons that pursue us. Here smoke this, then you can meditate yourself to sleep.”

Tas didn’t even want to think about arguing; he was exhausted and knew that tomorrow would probably be even more arduous. The mountains were still countless miles away and Tas guessed that they were headed somewhere in the high ranges of snow caps you could see from afar.

As he inhaled the pipe, he found his mind growing blank, entering instantly into his meditation. His mind buzzed for a few moments, then cleared itself completely. He felt his muscles and stomach relax, easing him into the darkness once again. He leaned against the old man next to the fire and Yao covered him with their only blanket as Tas fell back into the darkness of his mind.

Constructs of the Imagination

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The human mind is constructive. We create our world, inside of our own heads. To understand the way that we as individuals think, the way that we construct reality, we have to examine some of the moving parts of the consciousness system that are involved. Some of these parts are cognitive, some emotional; things like abstract reasoning, probability prediction, sampling,  grouping, chunking, compartmentalization, and relationship architectures are all necessary to understand how we construct the world around us.

The first and easiest places to examine when talking about the functioning of consciousness are the senses. Foremost is sight, simply because we have more built-in equipment for sight than any of the other sense. We fill in the blanks with out eyes, sometimes seeing things that aren’t there to make sense of patterns. Then sound, which is continually processed; touch, which is a pressure system that is built to feel things outside, but simultaneously internalize them as part of ourselves, such as hugs, touching which releases oxytocin, kissing, etc. The senses construct the mental world inside of our brains and allow us to interact with it.

We also construct socially. We imagine what others may think about us, or even what others may be doing in comparison to our own activities. There is also a an imagined hierarchy that normally forms due to various reasons; usually strength is a deciding factor. We have groups of people that we consider to be part of us, clicks, friend groups, religious communities, etc. This helps to give us a sense of worth by belonging to something, which is why community is such an important aspect of healthy living.

Humans also have a sometimes tragic flaw, called hubris, or pride. We believe ourselves to have accomplished something when we put forth great effort and achieve desired results, which can lead to a sense of accomplishment. This is most certainly a constructive process where we place a sense of value on ourselves for something that has been completed or finished with our participation. This also provides us with a sense of worth and accomplishment.

Humans also project our judgements onto the things around us, sometimes in terms of morals, sometimes in terms of positive or negative. This gives the object a perceived value and allows us to make judgement calls for very important things (i.e. the quality of food that you eat). This also allows us to manipulate the environment in a positive way for our own circumstances, in a similar way to a bird building a nest. It helps us to survive in a very real way.

Humans also have an ability to reason abstractly to plan. It allows us to save food and other resources during harder times and to effectively project ourselves into the future to deal with our environment. This is probably the reason for our massive success on the planet; we have the ability to forego now for later. This is tremendously valuable in social situations, especially those involving trade and bartering, because we can amass specific resources in an efficient manner to trade them for other valuables. This concept is what originally allowed humans to begin agriculture, which then provided us with free time and the ability to work less because we don’t have to always be focused on survival.

However, this amazing ability to plan also has a dark side; fear, anxiety, and idealization. We always want to hope for the best, even if it is an unreasonable outcome of our current situation. We sometimes create false realities because of our own fears and idealizations which then can cause negative effects. We get anxiety for future situations because of past situations that we have already experienced, or we think we know the outcome of a given situation simply because we have experienced a similar one. Fear is the epitome of this dark side, sometimes leading us to create false realities known as neurosis. But in judgement for survival, fear is absolutely necessary.

Fear is possibly the most constructive aspect of the human mind. It gives us the ability to avoid things we have experienced, to efficiently escape certain environments, and to react effectively when faced with danger. However, in social situations, fear has almost no value and can completely degrade relationships. Have you ever been in a relationship where the other person is overly jealous, or protective? This is a perfect example of a fear that degrades a relationship and that is completely unnecessary until some kind of evidence appears.

Humans can construct completely different realities. You can see this in cultural and religious values, where some people believe that the “right” way to live is what they have been taught; or when someone goes into neurosis because of over-stress, or simply genetic factors combined with the environment. In the modern world, stress is almost always the result of imagined or projected fears, which is why it is such a powerful force in our lives. Our ability to deal with the stress physiologically is almost always dependent upon our beliefs about the stress. Sometimes, this can force us to construct completely different realities to allow us to cope with the stress from the environment.

There are a few other things that we make up to deal with the environment; time, measurements, communities, languages, mathematics, mythologies, religion, and stories. Stories are incredibly fascinating, because they allow us to ‘tap in’ to the experiences of another consciousness through communication with our ability to reason and construct abstractly. This can allow us to learn, without really experiencing anything significant in the environment (of course you are reading a book, which is a part of the environment).

These are some of the different ways that we construct reality within our minds. This is why the concept Maya exists in eastern religions. Fear is an extremely interesting phenomenon in humans, almost certainly one to be avoided in social situations. So while you are out there, remember that YOU are constructing the subjective world that you live in and that it is specific to each individual.

The Wanderer, Part 11

wandering_stars_in_the_sky

Please read the first parts of the story here:
The Wanderer, Part 1
The Wanderer, Part 2
The Wanderer, Part 3
The Wanderer, Part 4
The Wanderer, Part 5
The Wanderer, Part 6
The Wanderer, Part 7
The Wanderer, Part 8
The Wanderer, Part 9
The Wanderer, Part 10

Tas woke up comfortably, soft cushions and a mattress supported him on the cool stone floor of the monastery. He was excited; today was his first day of training with Fei at the monastery.

He woke slowly and stretched, then dressed and prepared for the day. Fei said that he would begin training today, so he was excited to get started.”

He moved with the sea of monks from the lower levels of the monastery up to the ground level. They rose on the steps slowly, each taking their time and moving fluidly together while Tas walked awkwardly, accidentally bumping shoulders and occasionally walking a some toes on accident. But the monks didn’t seem to mind, a few even smiled when he miss-stepped. Tas had never seen men that were so peaceful.

He watched and waited during the morning ceremony, Yao was missing from the balcony this time and only Fei stood alone, reciting incantations and chants for the rest to follow. After they were done, Tas climbed the stairs to the balcony to meet Fei for training as he had requested the day before.

As he approached, Fei resumed his wide smile, looking happy as could be. Tas was very excited, though he had no idea what the old master had in mind for training. He had trouble sleeping the night before because he was thinking about what how Fei would be training him.

“Good morning Tas!” the monk said gleefully. His smile was unwavering, but it was comforting. This man didn’t seem to have any worries.

“Good morning, master Fei.”

Fei’s smile faded for a moment, “You do not need to call me master, Tas.” His smile returned in full force. “Are you ready to begin your training?”

“Yes, of course!” Tas said exasperated.

“Good! I am glad to see you are excited. You will spend the morning with Shu. He will train you in meditation. At lunch, you will eat with a very old man name Paj. He will train you in clairvoyance and astrology for the afternoon and night.” Tas looked up to see Fei suddenly look very serous, “Don’t take his lessons lightly. Master Yao told me that you should pay special attention to the astrology lesson.” Fei looked curious at his own words and Tas’ grinned. Even though the old man had left, Tas could still feel his presence, a lingering shadow.

“Thank you,” Tas said, bowing his head to the master, Fei’s smile fully resumed and was beaming.

As Tas finished walking down the stairs, a tall man with a long, dark beard approached him. His head was bowed until Tas reached him, then he abruptly raised his head to a huge watermelon shaped smile with only one tooth at the center top of his mouth. Tas almost fell over in surprise.

He regained his composure and smiled back at the monk, sure that he had made a weird face at the man. But he simply continued to smile, then took Tas by the hand and led him from the front entrance, into the grounds of the temple. Tas had spent a little time walking through the flowers the day before, but Shu led him past the garden into a thicket of trees. Sitting against the trees, monks were meditating, their eyes closed and many were using prayer beads. Some were making small rumbling sounds to themselves, others lay on the roots looking up at the leaves of the trees. They seemed to form a kind of big circle and Tas almost felt guilty breathing in it. It was so quiet here.

He slowly moved following Shu, mindful of each step, each breath, each thought. He felt as though he had entered into a different world.

One monk caught his attention, he was upside down on his head, with his feet up on the tree. He was so still, his legs did not waver or sway, but held firm, risen against the trunk of the tree. Tas took a slight right from Shu to take a closer look; he had never seen anyone standing on their head before. Tas realized suddenly that the man’s head wasn’t touching the ground. Tas was shocked when Shu took his hand again and led him further into the circle of monks. When they arrived at the center, Shu showed Tas a tree and asked him to close his eyes. Shu explained that he would return after a little while of letting Tas be by himself. “In the meantime,” he said, “close your eyes and try to feel your breathe only. Focus on it and let your thoughts pass as distractions. Return, always, to breath. I return soon.”

So Tas sat under his tree, closed his eyes and focused on his breath. It seemed to come so easily here, in the deep silence, with the monks all around him. Occasionally, he would open his eyes when he was distracted, but he felt the time slip away as he drifted into the small breeze, the rustling of life on the forest floor, and his own breath. He felt free for the first time since the night when Yao had first taught him meditation, while he was starving up in that ancient tree.

After a bit longer, when Tas was starting to get restless, Shu returned. “This time,” he explained, “You will keep your eyes open, but only on the floor. Try not to look up. Focus on your breath.” And again, Shu left him in the peace and quiet of his own breath.

For the next period of unknown time, Tas looked at the floor, seeing all manners of ants, little flies, pincer bugs occasionally, and found this meditation to be a bit easier than the first. The ants were the most interesting, constantly moving, constantly working, building, gathering, never stopping. Tas wondered why they never rested. It seemed like such a waste to work so hard and never rest.

After more time had passed, Shu returned to Tas. “Now, I will teach you how to flow with the wind.” Tas’ interested peaked. “Now you will control your breath. Count to 5 on each inhale, and 5 on each exhale. After 500 breathes, you can walk back to the temple.” and suddenly as he had appeared to Tas, Shu disappeared into the forest. Tas was a bit startled because Shu hadn’t seemed to move, but he stayed seated and began to breath.

The last meditation was by far the most tedious and at the end Tas was exhausted, but felt so free. He understood what Shu meant by flowing with the wind now, he felt as light as a feather. He left the circle of monks to return to the temple grounds. On the way, he looked to see if the man standing on his head was still there, but he was gone. Tas was so happy with his morning; surely he would learn about god here, surely this was it! The power and concentration of these men was incredible, Tas was inspired and felt as though he couldn’t wait for his meditation the following day. He wondered if that was what he would be doing.

He took his time to walk back to the monastery, but felt his feet moving much faster than he was used to. Flow with the wind indeed, he felt as though he must be moving twice as fast as usual.

He arrived into the upper dining hall to find it empty. He wondered when these men ate, he had never seen a single one eat so much as a grain of rice.

He was served a bowl of rice and some vegetables by a monk who seemed very friendly, but didn’t talk. As he was finishing, an older man with a beard down to his belt and hair as long a wispy as the clouds. Tas saw him slowly limp over, his back was hunched and his age obvious simply from the way that he walked. This was the oldest man Tas had ever seen.

He sat across from Tas without warning, and looked directly into Tas’ eyes. Tas felt himself getting pulled into the old man’s watery blue eyes, almost like he couldn’t look away. Suddenly, he saw his father, his mother, then his friends and the other villagers he had left behind, glimpses of the old man, and the city, then the jungle and finally he re-arrived where he was. All of this happened in the course of 5 seconds, but Tas felt his breath leave his body. He had just relived his entire life in 5 seconds. The old man made a crooked smile with no teeth, but his eyes seemed to show that he knew. Tas was shocked, he had not expected anything like this.

“So Tas,” the old man said warily and tired. “I know you now, thank you for being open to me. It seems as though you are on somewhat of a quest!” He said that last part with a bit of humor and awe. Tas was still recovering from shock.

“Well, I suppose I am, sir” Tas said slowly.

“Good!” the old man said enthusiastically. “Don’t you forget it!”

“Did you see my entire life? In just five seconds?”

“Kind of,” the old man explained. “a glimpse of your life. The events, but not the effect of them, if that makes sense.”

“How?” Tas asked, exasperated. He had to learn how.

“I cannot explain my gifts, as you will not be able to explain yours, my boy.” The old man laughed. Tas thought he seemed much younger when he did.

“Now, follow me. Fei said that you could use some lessons in clairvoyance and astrology. So we will learn together for the afternoon and as long as I can stay awake.” He chuckled a little, but with a heaviness that Tas couldn’t explain.

They walked to the tallest tower of the monastery, the entrance was concealed in the lower levels so it took them some time to arrive. Once they did, the old man sat in a chair and mentioned for Tas to do the same. The room was filled with books and charts, most were depictions of the stars.

“Paj, what are clairvoyance and astrology? I’ve never heard of such things before.” Tas talked in a depressed tone, he felt stupid.

“Of course you haven’t boy!” Paj said louder than he had talked before. “Not just any twat can look at the stars and the sky and know what is happening in the heavens! It takes mastery and skill, the type of which your master has in handfuls.” He grinned.

“Yao knows astrology?” Tas asked. He had no idea if he was right, but was what the old man must have meant when he said he had found Tas with the stars?

“How do you think he found you, Tas? He is completely clairvoyant, he sees what he wishes to see in the world. As I taught him to,” the old man said with a small “hmphf”.

Now Tas understood. This was one of Yao’s masters! He quickly grew enthusiastic and was impatient to get started.

Paj could tell and said, “good, now that you’ve realized that, let’s get to work.” He sighed, as if he were going into a long lecture. Now, clairvoyance and astrology and intricately related my boy. You can’t have one without the other, but clairvoyance is the obvious desire for most people. This, however, is an illusion. Clairvoyance is both a gift and a burden. As you will soon learn.”

“How do I know that I want this burden? Paj, what if it makes me unhappy and sad and angry?” Tas said the obvious answer that came to his mind, but Paj laughed.

“You are here, aren’t you?” Paj spoke as if the answer were obvious. “It is not so much of a burden, unless you use the gift poorly, for your own means.” He smiled, “do not worry Tas. I will teach you enough control so that it won’t affect you if you don’t want it to.” Paj’s eyes glinted.

Tas trusted the old man, but he knew that this would change him. He wasn’t so sure that he was ready, but he trusted Paj and Yao, so he decided that he would continue and learn the stars.

Despite the introductory conversation, the work was extremely boring. Tas spent all of his time mapping stars and planets and trying to figure out where mercury was, where Mars was, where the andromeda galaxy was. Nothing special occurred that night, except Tas got a huge headache and went to sleep exhausted from trying to memorize names, figures, charts, and movement patterns of the stars. Paj wished him a good night and told him to just return to the tower tomorrow after lunch, that they would continue their lessons. He seemed satisfied, but Tas didn’t care. He stumbled down from the tower and found that his room was not to far from the stairway to the tower. He fell on his cot and was instantly asleep, the world around him forgotten until morning.