The Shaolin Letters: Genesis

If you’ve missed reading about my little adventure leaving it all behind and pilgriming all the way from Egypt to the Shaolin Temple in the north of mainland China to learn Kung Fu, Qi Gong meditation and zen Buddhism, here’s a recap:

That Awkward Moment in Kung Fu camp 

Shaolin Temple Kung Fu School

Snapshots

Kung Fu Cuteness

Breaking Through

Xiao Hong Quan – first form

They Don’t Sell Deodorants in Dengfeng

Post-It: Time On My Hands

World Knowledge in Dengfeng

Bridges Make Me Smile

It’s All Relative

Post-It: Gunfire and Whips

A Glimpse Into My Training

Post-It: Kung Fu Graduates

Buddhology

Shaolin Humor

From the Center of Heaven and Earth (aka Shaolin China)

Dress Rehearsal

Mànhuà-inspired Silliness

Post-It Shaolin Tip

A Documentary on Shaolin Wushu and Zen Buddhism

Snakes, Maspero and Shaolin Dreams

Post-It: Rain

Post-It: Qi Gong

These were all posted less than two weeks into my journey, and I have been here 10 weeks and very prolific. Take a look at the entire archive of my Shaolin China posts if you’d like to jump forward to a date and see my May and June posts, or to get the whole batch of letters I’ve written to the world from ‘the Center of Heaven and Earth’: http://pakinamlights.tumblr.com/archive

Hope you enjoy reading them, please do send me your feedback, here or via email at pakinamamer at yahoo dot com.

Love and light x

A meditation on time, the ‘great illusion’

Time is at its most beautiful when you’re spending it in the arms of your special person, or lying on your back, on the grass or sand, early in the evening watching the stars twinkle into being as you whisper sweet nothings into the ears of your loved one — your fingers interlocked.

Relativity: For observers, this kiss may have lasted 20 seconds. For the lovers, it might have felt like a day.

At those times, the hand of the clock may tick a wee bit faster as if rushing to deprive you of the moment’s bliss — or to make it memorable precisely for its fleetingness. At others, it winks at you, skips a second or two between tick-tocks and with that simple effortless gesture restores your faith in heaven, earth and everything in between.

In good times, you’re seemingly whisked away to a different dimension where the newtonian laws of physics don’t apply — and they don’t! It’s at those very moments that you’re willing to swear -in court as a primary witness if need be- that time can never be absolute. It’s completely, and utterly and deliciously relative, you’d say, wearing a wide sheepish grin on your face.

When you’re hearing bad news, time behaves differently and the three dimensions of space may disappear. You become time. You’re the moment. A point or a straight line extending into eternity — depending on how your mind reacts to bereavement. In this case, time is also relative. It always is, was, always will be in that moment.

Memory, not just the clock, plays with that relativity, stretching into ages time during recollection, or condensing and fuzzing it into non-existence as it wears off. Dreams have this talent, making a few seconds of REM sleep last a century in our heads.

It’s so playful, Time, that you almost feel that you can manipulate it yourself, that you can make it stop, or perhaps you may one day find a way to rewind it. In times of regret, when you feel you’re willing to give away your left arm to undo a past mistake … or say a word … or unsay it, this feeling is most profound.

Our experience of time renders it the most magical of all elements that govern our existence.

Modern physics tells us that directions in time, forward and backward, are treated by the same laws. However, the arrow of time mysteriously keeps moving in one direction, forward, as you may have observed. I was recently reading a book by physicist and mathematician Brian Greene, called the Fabric of the Cosmos, which explored in part this question and showcased theories explaining the ‘one-way arrow of experiential time.’ Some of those theories I understood and others have taught me that perhaps at 29 I’m too old to re-learn physics. Nevertheless, the puzzling nature of time has sent my mind wandering.

Time: Does it sometimes bend over backwards to please?

Can we erase the past? Or at least can we reshape it -repaint it if you will- as we do with the future. Well, the Quantum eraser experiment hints at it, albeit subtly. How? In layman’s terms — which quite honestly are the only terms I fully grasp– this can be done by doing the closest thing to eliminating the past: erasing its impact on the present.

If we –like Scully and Druhl of this experiment– find a way to make the history leading to where we are, now, at this point in time, unknowable or say irrelevant (that no one version of history leading to this point can be singled out), then the path that led us here becomes one of many potentialities, and those can be erased. In turn, as humans we can focus more on the present moment, because this is what’s existent now, and move on.

Am I being painfully philosophical? Of course! We all know, this is not how memory works. But for a second, if we pretend we are photons fired at slits, it may work. Minds can be manipulated too. Take a for instance …

Say I –let’s call me Laila– am an Egyptian ballet dancer, living alone in Cairo, watching Star Trek the original series at 6:00 am since sleep is eluding me, hair is tied up in a dull bun, eyes are bloodshot from lack of rest and hysterical crying, a large bowl of popcorn that I’m munching at rests on my thighs making me feel guilty and fat though I barely weigh 43 kilos.

Now, imagine my story is as such: I’ve just moved out of my parent’s apartment following a huge fight. I was also dumped by my boyfriend of two years (a thing I blamed my parents for). I have very few friends in Cairo to turn to, since I spent the first 20 years of my life abroad (my dad’s an ambassador), and I’m taking out all my misery on myself by binge eating and masochistically watching a TV show that my ex-boyfriend loved and I passionately hated. His favorite character was Spock. So every time Nimoy utters a word on screen, I break down in tears. I’m alone and single with no one to console me.

Now consider this scenario. I’m awake at 6:00 am, because I just dropped off my boyfriend at the airport. He’s off to Oxford for two years to read Geography, and that’s why I’ve been crying. My work schedule and my budget don’t allow for frequent travels, I will not see him for long, and we kind of agreed to break off our relationship since we both know long-distance doesn’t work. My parents are living with my brother in Canada, and I’ve cut off most of my friends when I started dating (stupid me!) That’s why I have no one to turn to. I decided to watch Star Trek because I’m secretly a nerd, and my boyfriend hated it (and judged me for it) so now that’s he’s gone, I felt free to watch Spock all I want, in an effort to cheer myself up. But the act only reminded me that my boy is not there. I’m alone and single with no one to console me.

Or perhaps, I’m awake at 6:00 am because I had an awful performance the night before, and I fell several times on stage. I’m depressed. My trainer gave me an earful, and my friends -instead of being supportive- giggled when I messed up. At that moment, at 6:00 am, I reminded myself that I don’t even have a man whose shoulders I could cry on. I have never been in a long-term relationship to begin with. I cry more. I’m watching Star Trek because it seems to be the only thing on TV, besides Bollywood ‘classics’ (satellite signals are scrambled so most channels are on the blink). The sets for that show are primitive and laughable, at best, so I’m not amused. This pointed-eared alien with two skewed lines for eyebrows is particularly getting on my nerves. I’m alone and single with no one to console me.

So in a way whatever circumstances led to that moment in time at 6:00 am for Laila become irrelevant if we erase or choose to ignore their impact on the present.

There may be many possible reasons why this girl is crying. Nothing in the past changes the fact that she is now. And that in the future she will stop.

Bear with me. If we forget (or pretend to forget) what led to that moment, it’s easier to isolate the moment, realize it could be a product of many possibilities, focus on the present and make nice projections for the future. If the past can be seen from this point of view, the boyfriend or the lack thereof wouldn’t matter at 6:00 am when I’m, Laila, alone and unconsolable. Since his past presence or the lack thereof –as illustrated in these three scenarios- most probably won’t change the situation now, for Laila, at 6:00 am.

Therefore, I have no choice (across the three scenarios) but to deal with the present moment (it’s the only thing I’ve got whatever preceded it), stop blaming the past (since many potential ‘pasts’ may have led to this point anyway), and get a grip and pull myself together — and perhaps put aside the popcorn and make a healthy salad.

This way, I have not only exercised control over the present moment, but also the past and the future — in a way reshaping them. And  may be this is what life should be about: creating paths, and if they don’t work, starting from the ‘now’ and considering the past only a mere possibility of many.

Changing trajectories, constantly. At every nasty turn.

To be honest, Time, and how it manipulates us and us it, has been on my mind lately — especially when I started reading about ‘energy work.’ But how Time plays out in the spiritual and holistic realm is perhaps a subject fit for another post.

I recently wrote in a letter to a friend that “time is magic.” I told the friend to repeat this like a mantra.

Time is magic.

“Time is magic,” I wrote. “It moves forward, it waits for no one, it bores us, it tricks us, it eludes us. It’s relative. It’s an illusion. It’s there, and it’s not. It’s linear. It’s circular. It slows down and builds up speed (read Einstein!). But it also heals and it makes everyone forget, and as it passes, makes the past look so small, so insignificant, so miniature and almost non-existent that sometimes we laugh at how much we thought it was important.”

Magic, I tell you. And I’m starting to believe that may be we can all learn a trick or two — fulfill that ancient dream, play with it, make it collapse or roll it backwards.

The short version of my 1700-words meditation is? Well … that time stops at moments and sometimes, it flies.

Listening to: One of my kitties playing ball with a piece of rolled-up foil.
Mood/State: Insatiable, slightly irritable, plagued with thought.
Wants from the Universe: More dreamy and deliciously slow time when I’m with special people and loved ones.
Existential question of the day: Are we human, or are we particle? (Blame ‘The Killers’)
Interesting find: This link and the question it poses — Can humans have a wave-length? There’s an experiment to prove it, if you have two cats, a devise that erases which-path information, a detecting screen, and some time on your hands, about the age of the universe take or give a few years … it’s doable!

Apologies …

… for falling off the grid recently. I have no excuse. But I must confess I have been turning more to writing letters to beings above and on the Earth, some of them dear friends, others are gods, and this has distracted me from the Watchtower (i.e. this blog). I promise to be less sporadic and more prolific. And in the course of the next few days, I will collect some material from personal emails, and anecdotes from trips to the desert, and turn them into proper posts that I can share.

Thank you for reading, and happy 2011. Two-thousand-and-Ten was nothing short of dreamy and beautiful, despite loss, deep pains and a set of troubles. It has taught me much. I have learned that the desert casts enchanting spells on gullible travelers, that words can break your bones if you let them, people can move on but sometimes they don’t, love is just around the corner but only if you’re ready, personalities (and body weight) are not set in stone and both can be lost for the good, friendships can be resurrected, fears squished and buried deep, that some bridges need to be burned to the ground, a listening ear is precious, that the past no matter how pretty can get boring, karma works, some hurts persist, the Universe listens, authority figures are always flawed, the essential is invisible to the eye and that you become responsible forever for what you tame. And oh, fennec foxes can get too friendly — but that was just plain fun to learn.

For 2011, I have decided that this Calvin Coolidge quote is my new year’s resolution: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Listening to: Songs from a time well past and gone
Mood: Hopeful
Wants from the Universe: Strength. And the courage to feel and act upon intuition and feeling. Love. Light. To hear the voice of God. The door that opens when others are closed. Peace of mind. More helpful hands for my projects. More luck. Also, and while we’re at it, an iPad and a Kindle.

I turn my hourglass …

… and lose myself in thought about the journeys we make.

Journeys. Such a loaded word.

As I read Eat, Pray, Love –a book which I was fiercely cynical of until I started leafing through and relating to the author Elizabeth Gilbert– I wondered about my own personal journey.

During a ride back from a festival in Wadi El Gemal, down south, I began a brief conversation (more like a monologue where I was reciting the lines) with a travel companion, one which later continued on in my head, about the nature of travel, and the kind of people it attracts. I came later to the loose conclusion that the people who travel cannot be classified, simply because everyone does — in one way or another. Gilbert traveled to forget a man, to connect with God, to eat and to find love. Others do it to escape war, death or poverty. Some do it to bring those three on others.

We travel, therefore we are.

I thought of my own journeys in the now aged 2010. The Cairo-to-Shalateen trip was about the conflict near the borders with Sudan, the mystery of tribes I have not met and the companionship on that trip — I was curious, not about destination per se, but the prospect of discovering myself in the process of talking to people and seeing a place that, as me and my co-writer have put it, is stuck “between a rock and a hard place.” Perhaps, on some level, I related to Shalateen’s demise and innocence. On another I related to the journey — to the idea of crossing points on a map but not stopping on each for too long; the “not belonging” feel of a roadtrip was part of its magic. All the better, I didn’t feel the need to belong anywhere.

On my return to this spot earlier this month where the tribes of Beja (now more familiar to me) lived, I confess, part of it was about tasting again that bitter sweet Jabana coffee made with ginger, seated on the ground, in wadis between the mountains. It was also an exercise in familiarity, or rather the flaunting of it. The pride of feeling or saying that “yes, yes, I’ve been here before. I know the laws, and the dances, and the coffee — I even have my own Jabana set.”

Bedu men making Jabana, the Wadi, November 2010

Recently, a friend talked about a “treasure hunt” he had done with the Bedouins using a metal detector in the Sinai desert. The prospect immediately fired me up, and suddenly Sinai was not just a place to observe the mountains as they hug the sea, but a place perhaps to explore and search for hidden things. If he keeps his promise and takes me with him to hunt for shiny metals, it won’t be for destination –like always– but the very, very small and rare possibility of finding something precious beneath the sands. And it’s more about the process of finding, the hunt if you will, than the object sought.

Same with the desire to explore the Gilf, that stretch of remote land elevated over a plateau whose name means “The Great Barrier” and who’s been enchanting travelers like Lazlo Almasy and Mohammed Hassanein with tales of lost armies and a dried oasis hidden from our eyes. For me, it’s about the caves that have yet to be discovered, not the ones that already are. It’s also about the silence — another reason I go to places. I search for it in the hope that the silence without will create a silence within, that the gibbering voices in my head will finally decide to let go and move out.

Am I the kind of traveler who wants to stumble into places, get to know the culture and people, eat local food and take pictures of temples and revered walls? No. At least not at this stage.

A new travel idea I’m developing — a rather personal and private one which, surprisingly, I’m willing to share — is to go to Munich, where my father lived for six years as a young man. There, he knew a woman, who I believe was his first love (a very unfounded conclusion reached after listening to accounts and snippets of stories from aunts and uncles who recite them like family lore and profess knowledge that I think is beyond them, but nevertheless find entertaining).

My father (on the right, black shirt) in 70's Munich

I heard of letters (whose fate is unknown), and the investigator inside of me wants to find those letters, track down the woman in Munich and meet her — it’s a small journey inside the mind of my own father, as it is inside the city which shaped a lot of his beliefs and world-views. Needless to say, my father doesn’t get personal with me, and he would probably go berserk if he knew I’d want to go on such a privacy-inflitrating personal assignment (especially that I ritualistically lecture my parents on respect for privacy and the need for space even within a small, tight family).

It’s such an offensive on privacy, I know, to sift through someone else’s decades-old secrets.

But my nose-poking and shameless prodding is justified by one thing; I feel that my father’s history is also a part of mine. In a way, it’s part of my heritage. And yes, that includes his secrets. Even the ones that he doesn’t care about anymore. And perhaps his own father’s secrets, if I knew of a way where I could ever come to those.

It’s a flimsy argument, very shaky. And I might not even find those letters with the 35-plus-year-old-address of a woman, who might have moved out of the country, changed her name or gender, or died. It also carries the prospect of not hearing anything from anyone, having a door slammed violently in my face or ending up meeting an over-weight, foul-mouthed German who doesn’t speak English or doesn’t recognize my father’s name. The city itself has been reshaped over the years — perhaps it gained weight too, or lost it, in a manner of speaking. The Munich that my father loved is no more, and that “thing”, that needle in a haystack, which has made up a part of his inner him, may be lost even on a passion-filled, genuinely enthused, ever-optimistic seeker like myself.

My father as a young man, with his camera. He wrote letters too.

But this remains a small travel fantasy, that has nothing to do with “discovering a new place” or “flying by the seat of my pants.” Perhaps the fact that I blow its cover here, and talk about something personal to me and my father, has more to do with wanting something about my father to be exposed to the world — something that may stay on after the two of us are gone, and would keep us both alive. Perhaps it’s for my future kids, or his grandchildren. Here is something about your grand-dad, his story. The storyteller in me wanted something about him to be out there, something personal, a testimony to his presence.

“Here’s a man who loved and lived” kind of thing. “And this man is my father.”

In Wadi El Gemal, I listened to this astronomy session beneath the stars (one which helped me know where the direction of Mecca is at night for the following two days, and which works well when you want to boast about basic knowledge of star alignment to strangers). I looked up at the stars, and I wondered whether I travel because I can’t commit. My temperament is ever changing — this has been my constant– and so are my ideas. I wonder if the idea of “home” is one of them. I wonder if curiosity about new places, is actually a search for something else entirely, perhaps for a certain brand of commitment.

The journeys are personal — that much I know.

But I don’t know yet what makes them so.

Hmm, these two sentences rhyme.

Some time has passed since I began my musings. I turn the hourglass.

Listening to: Girl, the Beatles
Favorite bit: “Is there anybody going to listen to my story … All about the girl who came to stay? … She’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry. Still you don’t regret a single day.”
Mood: Happy and hopeful, perhaps without reason.
Wants from the Universe: Travel with purpose, with love.

Do girls forget love easily?

At least three people I know got married or got into committed relationships less than six months of their break-up with ex-boyfriends. A friend seemed to find this surprising. I, on the other hand, think it’s natural since time in some relationships and their aftermath is an irrelevant element.

A girl just wants to feel loved

Do girls forget easy? Do they move on faster than their male counterparts? I don’t think that’s the right question to ask. The right one is: How much time and emotions did the girl invest before realizing she’s hit a brick wall and that she has to turn back? The answer is crucial. Because once that brick wall, that barrier against passion and emotions, is reached, there’s no point in remembering or forgetting. It just is and the girl accepts and turns her back to the one she loves.

A person close to me told me of an old love story. Of an ex-fiance’. For two years, she held on, fighting for him inside her heart despite flaws, enduring blow after blow to the extent that the man thought she’d never leave, no matter what he’d do. He can get away with anything, he thought. He even tried to make her jealous by flirting heavily with other women, or flaunting his female friendships in front of her. And she’d still accepted him. Until one day, she sent a long letter saying she’s leaving the relationship, sending her engagement band in the same envelope as the letter (that was around 40 years ago, mind you!). He laughed, and called it a bluff. It turns out it wasn’t. More than thirty years later, he confessed to close ones he always regretted taking her for granted, that he never forgot her and that she’d stayed in his heart ever since. He even said he often dreamt about her. Back then, numerous attempts to make her take him back failed — she didn’t even read the tens of letters he sent. They were thrown away unread. She had sworn to herself that he’d never see her face again, and he didn’t for many years.

So why does this happen?

Simply because a girl gives her all before she decides to give up. I’ve read that women are often reluctant to end a relationship even if they’re more miserable than their men. So they try to fix it. Once. Twice. Numerous times. But at a certain moment it reveals itself as “un-fixable” and there’s no way but out.

And “feelings” are also irrelevant in this affair.

It’s a Eureka moment; a sudden discovery that you’ve done your part, compromised, explained, left no path untaken, cried your eyes off, pleaded and implored, swallowed the pain, and there’s nothing else to be done. There’s no energy for more, even if you want to give more. Your resources are depleted, and you’re filled with peace — this peace that comes with letting go.

So the girl lets go, walks back slowly and smiles to herself because she’s at least tried. There are no regrets, just a calm serenity.

And moving on, a day later or 6 months on (it’s all the same), and accepting love from someone else becomes easy (and much needed), since at this stage, the girl is hungry for love and affection. And part of the beauty of love is having it returned — by both words and action.

It’s a simple fact, but men seem to ignore it: Many a girl loves a guy because he’s nice to her, not because he’s drop-dead gorgeous, a rock star or a rocket scientist (it’s about her, partly, not just him). She loves him because he makes her feel beautiful, without make up, on a bad hair day, even when her nose is red and her eyes are full of tears, even when she’s weary and tired and not in the mood, even when she’s gained a few pounds for whatever reasons, even when she’s stopped feeling it herself. And it has nothing to do with empty compliments, but very, very small things that make a huge difference.

Fights, even small ones, let-downs and bickering, and accumulations of “the small stuff,” can bring one down, and eventually take the relationship south, no matter how big the love is.

Here’s another fact: Love is not enough. We stay with others, because they have a capacity to always make us feel good about ourselves. When this stops happening, more often than not, we ride into the sunset. Without looking back.

Listening to: beautiful silence
Mood: contemplative
Wants from the Universe:  A man who treats me well, and makes me feel loved … who will also make me laugh and bring a smile to my face when I’m down. One who tells me I’m beautiful. One who says he’ll be there and keeps the promise.