Some books recounting the life of Buddha, especially of Western origin, tell the story of Prince Siddharta Guatama like a fairy tale, a myth.
Not this play, by Paul Carus.
It thoroughly dwells on the mood and the state of mind of Buddha before the enlightenment, before the mystical transformation, the crossing of man from the realm of humans to the realm of gods.
In some tales, Buddha is depicted as a one-dimensional character, shielded from the idea of suffering. His predicament begins after he accidently witnesses a funeral, signs of old age, and a sick man, all in one day, in additiong to glimpsing a monk, a man of God who seemed detached from the world, after which he decides to leave the palace of his father (the King) in search for answers.
But Carus takes us into the mind of the Buddha, before he became one, and hints that his journey had started long before that fated encounter with death, sickness, and decay. It started when Buddha became disenchanted with the old gods, realizing they brought him no peace, when his mind started to wander outside of the walls of the palace, long before his body did.
Carus puts it simply, speaking of Buddha’s first step on the path, he says “He ponders on the problems of the world. He ponders on life’s meaning much, investigates the origin of things.”
But those around Buddha were worried; they didn’t understand what burdened his heart. He had a wife, riches, a new-born son, and a “religion” that should save him. In vain, they tried to pull him back into their world.
But apart from spiritual and mental burdens, on the personal level, I find great signficance in the fact that we get to see through this play that enlightnment does not begin with a desire for knowing but begins with character.
One needs to carry certain attributes … before God or the Light could ever enter him or her, before they ever decide that departure from their old world is essential.
Enlightened beings are not born in piety but in revolution; awakening comes first in recognizing one’s need to stray from the crowd, come what may. Enlightenment begins with a measure of indepenence, and a fierceness in refusing false security and authority.
And as we see, social norms and the powers that be, embodied in Visakha the minister of state in this play, fights this blossoming independence with all their might.
Because free thought is “dangerous,” because in Visakha’s words, it’s a threat to “the sanctioned order of our institutions,” says he, who is at once a man of state and a man appointed to guard the religious institution of the time.
A man, like Buddha, who rejects the socially accepted, government-sanctioned godly “practices” and views of the time is bound above all, to leave “the Brahman ritual in deep contempt.” The Brahmans were the priests of the ancient Hindu/Vedic religion, who were responsible for ritualistic sacrifice. They were the first to fight Buddha tooth and nail post-enlightenment.
God has no place in Visakha’s arguments, or the Brahmans’. It’s order that concerns them; mainting the distinction between ranks of this Hindu echelon. It’s about running a tight ship; it is as simple as that.
Those who have not experienced such turmoil that Carus speaks of when he speaks of Buddha––the God-shaped void and the need for answers, or more likely the right questions––or never faced such resistance by the Visakhas of the world may never know how it feels.
For those who do or did, the following may be relatable.
From the play “Buddha: A Drama in Five Acts” by Paul Carus:
Suddhodana, the king [Buddha’s father]: My son Siddhartha [Buddha’s name before enlightenment] truly loves his wife,
And since their wedlock has been blessed by this
Sweet, promising, this hale and healthy child,
His melancholy will give way to joy,
And we reclaim his noble energies
To do good service for our race and state.
New interests and new duties give new courage
And thus this babe will prove his father’s saviour
For he will tie his soul to life again.
Pajapati, the queen [the King’s wife but not Sidharta’s mother]: I fear his grief lies deeper than you think
Suddhodana, the king: What sayest thou, my trusty counselor?
Visakha, the minister of state: This is the last hope which I have for him,
I followed your advise and tried all means
To cure Siddhartha of his pensive mood.
I taught him all that will appeal to man:
The sports of youth, the joy of poetry
And art, the grandeur of our ancient lore,
The pleasures even of wanton sense; but naught
Would satisfy the yearnings of his heart.
Suddhodana, the king: Yet for religion he shows interest: He ponders on the problems of the world.
Visakha, the minister of state: Indeed he ponders on life’s meaning much,
Investigates the origin of things.
But irreligious are his ways of thought.
He shows no reverence for Issara,
And Indra is to him a fairy tale.
He grudgeth to the gods a sacrifice.
And sheddeth tears at immolated lambs.
Oh no! he’s not religious. If he were,
His ills could easily be cured by faith,
By confidence in Issara, the Lord.
Suddhodana, the king: What then is your opinion of the case?
Visakha, the minister of state: Siddhartha is a youth of rarest worth,
And he surpasseth men in every virtue
Except in one. ––He is too independent:
He recognizeth no authority,
Neither of men nor gods.
[More and more impressively]
From the incurable disease of thought.
Suddhodana, the king: Cure thought with thought, teach him philosophy,
Show him the purpose of our holy writ.
Instruct him in the meaning of the Vedas,
Reveal to him their esoteric sense.
Visakha, the minister of state: My lord, I did, but he is critical,
He makes objections and will not believe.
He raises questions which I cannot answer,
And his conclusions are most dangerous.
Pajapati, the queen: It seems to me that you exaggerate;
Siddartha is not dangerous.
He is As gentle as my sister was, his mother,
And almost overkind to ever one.
Visakha, the minister of state: I know, my gracious lady, but even kindness
May harmful be, if it is out of place.
Suddhodana, the king: I see no danger in his gentle nature.
Visakha, the minister of state: But he lacks strength, decision, warlike spirit.
Suddhodana, the king: That cometh with maturer years.
Visakha, the minister of state: I doubt it ––
Your so, my Lord, not only hath no faith In holy writ, neither does he believe
In caste-distinction, and he would upset
The sanctioned order of our institutions.
He would abolish sacrifice and holdeth
The Brahman ritual in deep contempt.
Suddhodana, the king: Your words alarm me.
Visakha, the minister of state: Rightly so; I fear
That he will stir the people to rebellion;
But since a child is born to him, his mind
May turn from dreams to practical affairs.
There are some men who care not for themselves,
Who scorn high caste, position, wealth and honor,
So far as they themselves may be concerned,
But they are anxious for their children’s fortune,
And so Siddhartha soon may change his views.
Suddhodana, the king: Let us be patient for a while yet longer.
Keep everything unpleasant out of sight,
Invite him merry company. Remove
His gloomy cousin Devadatta. He tries
To reach a state of bliss by fasts,
His very play is penance and contrition.
I leave you with this thought. Peace and Amituofo.
Note: According to lore, Buddha lost his mother either in childbirth or when he was a week old, and was raised by his aunt. So the queen in this play is his father’s wife or his aunt, but not this mother.
This is the second post in a series by yours truly meditating on the life of Buddha. The first is right here.
“All the commentaries have said that Buddha renounced the world. It is not true. The world simply fell away. It has ceased to have any meaning for him.” –– Osho
When Buddha saw it for what it is, when he saw death, sickness and old age, he became disenchanted by the world, and declared, “I cannot fool myself anymore.”
What made the prince declare he was “sick unto death” and drove him out of the palace of his father? What did he do next when he saw that “diamonds” were dust, as scriptures put it? Where did it all begin?
During the next few weeks, I’d like ––in short notes here–– to share some excerpts from literature on the life and teachings of the Buddha, Siddharta Guatama, and general comments on his life and teachings. In my view, some of Buddha’s thoughts are timeless and illuminating.
But before I do so, let me first dispel some stereotypes about Buddha.
And I ask you, while reading this, to please start with a clean slate and forget what the West has promoted about Buddhism. Forget the Dalai Lama, or even the highlighted practices that new age Buddhism has been associated with. Read this with an open heart.
Buddha was not, and is not, a God
He was not a god or deity per se, at least not in the traditional sense or in the way that people in this part of the world define the word “god”.
Budda was a human being, who was as lost and tortured by reality as many around us. He wanted to understand, and he left the familiar in search for meaning. He was a rich prince who had it all, including money, power, a wife and a small child, but one day “having seen everything, and found nothing,” he simply turned inward. He abandoned his life and riches, and the palace of his father, and went on a long journey that ended with him “reaching enlightenment.”
Or rather began with that.
He returned to the house of his father years later, a different man, and then continued speaking to whoever would listen about his experience. He lived a simple life after. His own father and wife became part of his following. Buddha was not a god, he was a prince, a warrior, a swordsman, and one of the best archers of his time, then a monk and a seeker. He was a son, a cousin, a neighbor, a brother, a husband, a father, a teacher and finally an inspiration to those around him.
What is enlightenment?
In the Buddhist tradition, enlightenment is an act of self-destruction and annihilation at its core, its aim is to reach a state of emptiness, and reception of the truth. Buddhism does not define truth, but alludes to it. In its heart of hearts, it has very few absolutes if any.
Enlightenment is returning to the state of godliness –– what some mystics and Sufis call unity, or merging with the divine, becoming one with it, to the point when the seeker is not distinguishable for what he or she seeks. And from there, the idea of Buddha becoming a “god” has emerged; in the end it’s nothing beyond the idea of Buddha attaining a state of transcendence.
But again, Siddharta [the Buddha that we know] is not unique in that. Buddhism believes that this state of enlightenment ––absolute sight, reaching a knowing, becoming a mirror that reflects truth–– can be reached by anyone. Everyone has the potential, but few of course reach this level of purity, and so they’re revered as ‘super beings.’
Perhaps the term god, in our books, is not the best way to describe the experience, because we use it exclusively to refer to the Creator or the Higher Intelligence that governs the Universe. And in this respect and translating this state into our terms, Buddha, even by Buddhists standard, is not a god, but a human being that saw what others have not yet seen, but which could come to see if they take the path. His state would be similar to what Sufis would refer to as ‘3aref’ or ‘3arefeen.’
In fact, in Sanskrit, buddha is a general term that refers to the enlightened among humans, whoever they are, and Buddha, capitalized, usually refers to the most famous of those, the enlightened prince Siddharta Guatama, the subject of this post.
Buddhism is not a religion
The ritualistic quasi-dogmatic institutionalization that Buddhism is experiencing now is nothing but an innovation by its followers. When Buddha died, around 70 schools of thought were born, each approaching the philosophy differently, and adopting different texts and different degrees of rituals and dogmatism. But original Buddhism is not a religion. In fact, in its pure form, it’s everything but that. It’s merely a signpost, a way of looking at life’s biggest questions; a mystical tradition if you will, and a path that has a very good chance of pointing people to truth. And that’s that.
Only crucial moments are highlighted in the story of Buddha
Buddha never claimed he’s either a deity or a god. But a human being who found a truth he cannot put into words, but so can only describe a possible path to. In fact, the major schools of thought differ on the relevance of the details of Buddha’s life (including when and where he lived precisely) because, in the words of Karen Armstrong, “they were more concerned about the meaning of historical events.” Some stories were there only for allegorical or symbolic meaning, important for their significance regardless of historic accurate detail.
Armstrong says, “The scriptures show that the first Buddhists thought deeply about several crucial moments in [Buddha’s] biography: his birth, his renunciation of normal domestic life, his enlightenment, the start of his teaching career, and his death.” The incidents of great importance are the subject of scripture, which derives its teachings from Buddha’s experiences. “His was essentially an autobiographical philosophy,” says Armstrong.
As Buddha puts it: “He who sees me, sees the dhamma (the teaching), and he who sees the dhamma sees me.” Again quoting Armstrong, “it follows that understanding the Buddha’s life, which is to an extent fused with his teaching, can help us all understand the human predicament.”
Buddha: A guide or a superhuman?
Some monks simply regarded Buddha as a guide and an exemplar, others began to see him as superman. According to Armstrong, traditional scholars used to see the former as a purer form of Buddhism while the latter was seen as a corruption. Modern scholars see both as authentic.
Guatama [Buddha], says Armstrong, “did not want a personality cult, but paradigmatic individuals such as himself, Socrates, Confucius, and Jesus tend to be revered either as gods, or as superhuman beings. Even the Prophet Muhammad, who always insisted that he was an ordinary human being, is venerated by Muslims as the Perfect Man, an archetype of the complete act of surrender (islam) to God. The immensity of the being and achievements of these people seemed to defy ordinary categories. […]
“After his enlightenment, we get no sense of his likes and dislikes, his hopes and fears, moments of desperation, elation or intense striving. What remains is an impression of a transhuman serenity. The Buddha is often compared to non-human beings––to animals, trees or plants–– not because he is subhuman or inhumane, but because he has utterly transcended the selfishness that most of us regard as inseparable from our condition. The Buddha was trying to find a new way of being human.”
He is not the only buddha, many came before, and many would come after, he said
“[Buddha] would have said that there was nothing unique about his life. There had been other Buddhas before him, each of whom delivered the same dhamma (teachings) and had exactly the same experiences. Buddhist tradition claims that there have been twenty-five such enlightened human beings and that after the present historical era, when knowledge of his essential truth has faded, a new Buddha, called Metteya, will come to earth and go through the same life-cycle.”
Buddha’s Prophecy and the last buddha
Metteya, the buddha of the next age that Buddha spoke of, is commonly represented sitting on a raised seat, his feat resting on the ground, a sign that he will arise from his seat and appear in the world. The Sanskrit word for the name Metteya means “friendly and benevolent” and/or “love.” And unlike, the thin famished-looking Buddha of that world, depicted in meditation, with his eyes closed, in a state of “listening/reception” or “waiting,” the Chinese depict the next Buddha in an image of abundance and joy and he’s usually smiling or laughing. Metteya, whom Buddha spoke of, would achieve complete enlightenment when he appears and would teach the purest form of the Dhamma (the teachings that lead to enlightement or illumination). He will appear in a time when this Dhamma had been forgotten.This Metteya, according to ancient Buddhist scripture, was expected to come in the future as the last of the earthly Buddhas.
This is a mysterious aspect of Buddhism, this prophecy, and many Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars have elaborated on this concept of Metteya (as well as many claiming to know who he was). And what I personally found interesting is that some Sanskrit researchers, including Muslim ones, have concluded that this “last and final awakened Buddha” is none other than our Prophet Muhammad, the last of this heavenly kin. According to some versions of the prophecy, Buddha said that Metteya would appear “in the West,” which to India and China, is our part of the world. He would appear in a distant future before the “end of time.”
In the words of Osho, “There have been many buddhas before him and there have been many buddhas after him –– and as long as every human being can become a buddha, new buddhas will go on springing up in the future. Everyone has the potentiality … it is only a matter of waiting for the right time. Some day, tortured by the outside reality, in despair of having seen everything and found nothing, you are bound to turn inward.”
Buddha has not abandoned the world, he just saw it for what it is
“Buddha has not renounced the world, he has renounced his illusions about it,” says Osho. “And that … was a happening, not an act. When renunciation comes as a happening it has a tremendous beauty, because there is no motive in it. It is not a means to gain something else. It is total. You are finished with desiring, you are finished with the future, you are finished with power, money and prestige, because you have seen the futility of it all.”
Buddha on the nature of truth
“Whether you believe or not makes no difference to truth. But if you believe in God you will go on seeing––at least thinking that you see––God. If you don’t believe in God, this disbelief in God will prevent you from knowing. All beliefs prevent you because they become prejudices around you, they become ‘thought-coverings’ –– what Buddha calls avarnas.
The man of intelligence does not believe in anything and does not disbelieve in anything. The man of intelligence is open to recognizing whatsoever is the case. If God is there he will recognize––but not according to his belief. He has no belief.
[…] You cannot see something that goes against your belief; you will become afraid, you will become shaky, you will start trembling. You have put so much into your belief––so much life, so much time, so much prayers. For fifty years a man has been devoted to his belief––now, suddenly, how can he recognize the fact that there is no God? A man has put his whole life into communism, believing that there is no God; how can he come to see if God is there? He will go on avoiding.
I’m not saying anything about whether God exists or is not. What I am saying is something concerned with you, not with God. A clear mind is needed, an intelligence is needed that does not cling to any belief. Then you are like a mirror: you reflect that which is; you don’t distort it.”
Buddha on Knowledge and information
“Buddha is not knowledgeable. An intelligent person does not care much about information and knowledge. An intelligent person cares much more for the capacity to know. His authentic interest is in knowing, not in knowledge.
Knowing gives you understanding; knowledge only gives you a feeling of understanding without giving you real understanding. Knowledge is a false coin; it is deceptive. It only gives you the feeling that you know, yet you don’t know at all. You can accumulate knowledge as much as you want, you can go on hoarding, you can become extremely knowledgeable. You can write books, you can have PhDs and LittDs, and still you remain the same ignorant, stupid person you have always been. Those degrees don’t change you; they can’t change you. In fact, your stupidity becomes stronger; it has degrees now! It proves itself through certificates. It cannot prove itself through life, but it can prove itself through the certificates.
I have seen intelligent farmers, but I have not seen intelligent professors. I have seen intelligent woodcutters, but I have not seen intelligent professors. Why? What has gone wrong with these people?
One thing has gone wrong: they can depend on knowledge. They need not become knowers, they can depend on knowledge. They have found a secondhand way. The firsthand needs courage. The firsthand, knowing, only a few people can afford––the adventurers, people who go beyond the ordinary path where crowds move, people who take small footpaths into the jungle of the unknowable. The danger is that they may get lost. The risk is high. When you can get secondhand knowledge, why bother? You can just sit in your chair. You can go to the library or to the university, you can collect information. You can make a big pile of information and sit on top of it.”
Buddha on death
Buddha chose the color yellow for his followers’ robes. Yellow represents death, the setting sun, the evening. According to Osho, “Buddha emphasized death, and it helps in a way. People become more and more aware of life in contrast to death. When you emphasize death again and again, you help people to awaken; they have to be awake because death is coming. Wherever Buddha would initiate a new sannyasin, he would tell him, “Go to the cemetery; just be there and watch funeral pyres, dead bodies being carried and burned … go on watching. And remember that this is going to happen to you, too.” Three months’ meditation on death, then coming back–– that was the beginning of sannyas.
On Godliness and the moment of illumination
“The human being becomes the center of religion, his innermost being becomes godliness, for which you do not have to go anywhere, you simply have to stop going outside. You have to remain within, slowly, slowly settling at your center. The day you are settled at the center, the explosion happens.”
On the enlightenment of Buddha
“It rarely happens that a human being becomes enlightened. It is such a rare and unique phenomenon that the very soul of existence waits for it, longs for it. Thousands of years pass, and then somebody becomes enlightened,” says Osho.
When Buddha reached that state, he sat in silence. He found no use in speaking. Higher forces, call them deities or angels, came down to earth, touched his feet and asked him to speak, urging him, telling him that existence is waiting.
“But Guatam Buddha has his own arguments,” says Osho. “He said, ‘I can understand your compassion, and I would like to speak. For seven days I have been wavering between the two, whether to speak or not to speak, and every argument goes for not speaking … I am going to be misunderstood. I am going to be condemned; nobody is going to listen to me in the way that the words of an enlightened man have to be listened to. Listening needs a certain training, a discipline; it is not just hearing.”
The beings, after deliberation, responded telling him that he can go misunderstood by the majority of men, but if he is understood by only one percent, then this is enough, “it is not small in this vast universe. Even if one person in the whole universe becomes enlightened because of your speaking, it is worth it.”
Buddha preached for forty-two years after enlightenment, and until his death. And those who become enlightened “did not become enlightened because of what Buddha was saying, they become enlightened because they could feel what Buddha was––his presence, his vibe, his silence.” Tradition has it that only a few reached that state.
That’s the first of my posts about Buddha and his life. In later posts I will share more of his words, and wisdom, in the hope that whatever your religion or faith is, or the lack thereof, his philosophy can help you ponder on the beauty and mystery of life, and of the inner self, and its potential for complete illumination. For me, faced with the teachings of Buddha, I find myself quoting النجاشي the King of Ethiopia’s words to early Muslims بتصرف, directed to my Buddhist brothers and friends:
.والله إن هذا وما نزل على محمد ليخرج من مشكاة واحدة
Peace and Amituofo.
Note: Dhamma or Dharma: Law, or natural laws, what sustains the order that uphold the Universe, a body of teachings, or sometimes it also means religion and duty or the knowledge of and the duty to the conduct set by the Buddha as a way of achievening enlightenement.
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:
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.
In this city, sometimes I feel like I’m watching people through a giant fish tank, one that I’m trapped in. Through the glass, I can see their lips move but I can’t hear a word. Other times, I feel like a solid object floating in a sea of noise — an incessant chatter. And I could hear neither my soul nor God. The universe is closed to me.
The Bedu, those who roam and wander in the desert (and we all know thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien that “not all those who wander are lost”), are very silent people. When I meet some of them in journeys that go into the depth of the Sahara (Arabic for desert), I always regard their “silence” with a mix of envy, reverence and dread — the latter resurfaces when I remember my own episodes of silence. It’s not easy, sometimes, to be alone with your thoughts. We have also been conditioned to associate silence with loneliness, waiting — and worst of all– with separateness.
Silence is a presence, and on that day less than a month earlier, I felt I craved it.
I was at a rowdy party with some friends, including a young avid traveller who takes frequent sojourns with his ghosts into the desert, when the notion of going away popped up. It began with the both of us saying that we miss the desert. “Do you want to go now?” He suggested. “Right now?” I asked, with a smile. “Yeah,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. We managed to find two other friends who would join on the spot, and a couple of hours later, we were heading to the nearest strip of desert in the vicinity of the Greater Cairo: The Petrified Forest.
It was a small spur-of-the-moment decision, and all we needed was an able 4X4, which my friend owned, some food, drinks and enough water. One of us had an iPhone to track our route once we’re on sand, and the friend with the car provided jackets for everyone. His car already carried a blanket, a head-torch and two carpets. A matchbox to light a fire using wood from the small ‘desert’ was all we needed.
Mind you, we were not all dressed for it — but this turned out to be one of the fondest memories of this small adventure.
In ‘V for Vendetta’, both the Graphic novel and the movie adaptation, there’s a scene where V’s girl Evey Hammond –played by Natalie Portman in the movie– ventures out on a balcony after a horrifying albeit liberating episode in her life. Under the pouring rain, Evey stretches her arms, soaking wet, and announces, “God is in the rain.”
God is in the darkness, I thought as my friend maneuvered traffic in Cairo with his bulky Wrangler, the music of Dream Theatre emanating from the vehicle’s stereo.
No, I corrected myself moments later, he’s in the singularity which encapsulates both the darkness and light, and all the opposites, the feminine and the masculine, space and sea, Yin and Yang, good and evil. He’s in the silence. And the silence is Him. Whoever is your God — even if it’s yourself– you’ll find Him in the desert, the silent womb that hides us from the world when it becomes too mundane, too un-God-like … too loud.
We were soon driving through the ‘circular road’ (al-da’ery) heading to what is crudely known in English as The Fifth Settlement or al-Tagamu al-Khamis, which the Petrified Forest is near. The ‘forest’ itself is a small protectorate surrounded in the distance by gated communities and some roads. But some parts of the forest are less elevated than others, drowned between small hills, so they hide any sign of civilization from view, including the nearby dirt roads.
The area is void of any flora or fauna — but insects and small snakes, and perhaps fennec foxes, have made appearances to visitors of this area. There are of course petrified trees, which the forest is named for — and if you are lucky, like my friend, you can find an ancient log of wood which you can carry or pocket (depending on its size) for keepsake.
Entering into the forest was a bit tricky, since the strip of desert was surrounded by small hills of rock. We scoured for a suitable entrance for a few minutes, driving along the stretch of sands on both sides of the road, before we found a small passage (for those of you who would like to visit. These are the coordinates of the entrance: 29°59’22.33″N 31°28’6.58″E. Use Google Earth). We were solo, and getting stuck alone was something we tried to avoid — our friend who was driving was confident he could press past a rather nasty-looking pile of rocky sand, very well near the entrance, which was what stood between us and the desert ahead.
But of course, the desert mocks in its own peculiar ways, and we were soon stuck, a minute later actually. Mind you, we left the party back in the heart of Cairo and went straight to the desert — without changing. So you can imagine how out of place I might have looked in that barren area, digging out sand from beneath the tires, in my short dress, coat, and ballet shoes, pushing and shoving rocks, along with others, and trying desperately not to make a hole in my favorite pair of pantyhose or chip off my fiery red nail varnish.
Four people, and it took us around 20 minutes to get unstuck, the last five of which, we were pushing the feisty vehicle like there was no tomorrow. Then again, the remote area near the suburbs of Cairo is infamous for thieves and pillagers, and we didn’t want to catch their attention so close to the road — where only a dull-looking tractor passed in the time it took us to release the car.
But the God who lived in the silence of deserts was generous, and we merged our wills with His, and after a thrust of force, the car moved past this spot reeling into the desert, its engine roaring triumphantly. Cheers and high-fives followed — the stress we all seemed to mask so well while we wondered minutes earlier “What if we can’t get out of this?” was released from bondage, and we were laughing with relief again.
Two kilometers in, we chose a nice spot to set camp — the flatest ground we could find– since sitting near a small hill or rocky pile meant insects and creeping lizards could pop out. One of our friends kept insisting that the area had ‘vipers’ — not a good thought when you’re already there. We soon brushed off the image of ‘vipers’ from our heads, instead diverting our attention to making a bonfire. We used wood from the area. We started brewing aromatic tea with “marmariya” from Sinai — its smell bringing sweet peace to our small gathering. The stars twinkled above, and the silence was … beautiful.
Nearing dawn, a fog started to creep in. So did the cold. I pulled a blanket tightly around me and was soon lost in thought.
A fog tip-toeing from all directions was a different sight in the desert — the white clouds created a surreal dreamy atmosphere as it hugged us and concealed everything else from view. At this point, we were all huddling in a small circle around a dying fire. The friend –the traveller– was struggling to keep the burning timber alight. He had once told me he liked looking at the light of fire. And it looked like, as he turned the wood, blew at the flames, and just watched it grow, that this was his form of meditation.
Bouts of silence punctuated the quiet chatter, and the stillness was a field of energy in its own right.
The desert, and its elements, teach you to love your mind, I thought. But you have to hate it first. You have to endure its venom, before you learn to forgive it. Unlike the heart, it’s the only piece of us that feels like someone else’s — like a different person. Antoine de St. Exupery once wrote that, “one must have ruined oneself for generations keeping a crumbling chateau in repair before one learns to love it.” My mind is this crumbling chateau, and in those hours, when I’m blessed with a friendly encounter with stillness, is when the repair takes place. I tell my thoughts I forgive them, and I love my ghosts, like Saint-Ex, “with the only love that matters.”
At some point, looking at the fog (or failing to look through it) as we sat in its stomach, I thought to myself, perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps, God was in the fog after all. Or maybe like religions profess, he’s everywhere — and the fog is his hand, reaching out.
Listening to: Radio in the a.m.
Useful tip: this trip can be made in Wadi Degla, however the gate closes at 5:00 pm there
Wants from the Universe: more travel, more stillness, more inspiration, Love and Light, as always. Friends.
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.
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.
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.
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!
We’d moved to a theater in downtown for our training, which is the venue we’ll using from now on. The blackbox we used yesterday is definitely much more equipped and spacious than the studio in Mohandiseen. I’d been moved to a new group, mostly all younger and the girls are more giggly, but they’re just as fun as the first ones I’d trained with. Fun to be with, and even more fun to watch (Yup, some scorn seeped into that last sentence there. I’m not good, I know!).
After the usual meditative and slow movement exercises, we started some light games. Trainer operated the light board, and along with the haunting music, he started switching on and off spots, increasing and decreasing the light intensity, asking us to pay attention to the light, interact with it, move around it, bask in it, watch the rays fall on our bodies and glare into our eyes, stop and talk to it in short sentences without over-acting or saying something that we didn’t actually feel at the time.
It was like a surreal dance as people moved slowly, ventured into the light, covered their eyes from it, explored the darkness around it, watched it, shouted at it, whispered to it, and on and so forth. Slow motion was key there, also keeping the concentration gained from meditation exercises was important. Moving around the room, you were supposed -through light and darkness and how your body felt as you moved- to explore the space you’re in. Feel it through moving in it.
You’re required to be in your head, in your body, aware, vigilant, yet honest and in touch with your feelings while keeping the calm and the transcendence that has been previously infused in you in previous exercises. At times I was struggling; I didn’t realize (until I started to attend these classes) how “scattered” I am.
It was like trying hard to contain your soul and mind, consciousness, within your body, as they keep slipping away. Anyone out there know how this feels? How difficult it is to be one?
It’s like when we stand in prayer sometimes and fight to enter our inner space while being aware of what we’re saying and doing, with eyes wide open. If anything, this validated my idea that living in the city corrupts. We can’t be still inside anymore, and it’s a constant struggle to be whole … complete, body, mind and soul.
You pull yourself together. You fall apart. You relax. Only to get tense in moments because of the smallest distraction. You enter that empty space in your mind. Then something pulls you out, a thought, a memory or a speech that goes on in your head between you and “the other” (the Voice?).
In brief moments, the light intoxicated me, and there’s something weird that happens when you finally look into the source of light in a dark room; it’s like looking into the face of God … you suddenly feel the desire to confess something, as if this artificial light at its most intense can see through you. As if the light already knows what’s being whispered inside your soul.
Poetic and melodramatic? Of course. My mind knocked itself out. It’s a drama class. And there was no better time to indulge in pseudo-philosophical thought.
The next exercise was based on improvisation again, and assuming characters. And it turned out to be much harder than I thought it would. Four chairs, one white and three black ones, were placed centre stage, light flooding them amid a patch of darkness. The white chair is occupied by one of us, a guy or girl, and the rest by members of the opposite sex. I was chosen twice for this one. In one scene, the guy occupying the chair was to play a boy who dated the three girls occupying the other chairs at certain junctures in his life. The situation preceding the meeting was not spelled out, but they were somehow trapped now into sitting together.
They all loved the boy while dating, he was selfish and nonchalant to their feelings, scornful of romance, in short a typical player. They were wounded and hurt, and now for some game of fate the girls are all friends. You’re not supposed to attack him, or touch directly on the issue, but instead use body-language and implicit references to get back at him.
It went horribly! (in my very humble opinion) The conversations were superficial, gestures exaggerated. You know how bad acting goes? Add to that uncreative, self-conscious improvisation and lack of experience, and you get the picture.
The opposite happened, and I was chosen for the white chair, the self-centered girl who played with the others’ feelings and now feels no remorse but almost amusement and a touch of embarrassment for running into people she used and abused emotionally.
What do you dig out in order to conjure up such feelings?
In my head, I couldn’t evoke one situation where the setting made sense. It made me wonder about the mental and dramaturgical powers that some might gain from being betrayed, heartbroken, from playing with people’s feelings and from manipulating, hurting and being hurt. Don’t get me wrong, I have no envy for those whose hearts were wrenched and minds blown apart in relationships. But suddenly, I appreciated certain human experiences, and how useful they could be in such professions.
Since we all went wrong, we were lectured for half an hour on why we did. Mostly, we couldn’t appreciate silence in such situations, and we couldn’t use the body and the eyes to communicate messages. And we should have.
The trainer said some words at the end, that sounded magical to my ears (simply because I agreed wholeheartedly): “People in the city have forgotten how to become silent. We’re flooded by so much noise that we always need the feel to speak out, to hear our voices. The intensity that comes with silence is sometimes much more powerful that the one that comes with speech and blabbering. Silence is a statement too.”
Listening to: ElTanbura (as recommended by Ashraf Khalil. Find them on YouTube)
Mood: that calm that comes with finally letting go
This was my first acting workshop. During the interview, I bluntly explained to the trainer that I have no acting experience, no interest in the art beyond observation and that I do not intend to become an actor. When he asked me, why I was there, I simply answered, “as a confidence exercise” and that was that.
I was on time for the first class, so were a few other participants. As we waited for others to arrive, a conversation with another participant, a psychologist called Maram began. She was there for “boosting confidence” as well, besides vocal training and blocking exercises, and I was re-assured I wasn’t the only one seeking this fleeting, almost abstract notion.
Maram said she specialized in psychosis but she’s also a relationship therapist; I’m not sure if that has a clientèle here in Egypt. I’d imagine that couples having relationship problems would opt for consulting friends, family members, websites and people like Marwa Rakha, experts only by trial-and-error and not by scholarship. But her clinic seems to be thriving, at least according to her.
She started telling me about how this was not her first stab at acting, that she began “drama” exercises first with a psychoanalyst called Dr. Sherif Fadel, who uses psychodrama as a way of therapy. She explained that a psychologist named Jacob Moreno had invented this method, using theatre for mental and psychological healing. I’d never heard of the method before, as she told me and the few others who were listening how people can overcome painful experiences through re-playing them on stage. “It helps you look at a situation differently. Some people have a breakthrough in the way they think as a result.” The situations and role playing are often based on true events, but they don’t have to be necessarily factual, there’s space for improvisation and interpretation. To be honest, I thought the idea was brilliant and I made a mental note to try and interview Fadel for a story. Another psychotherapist walked in, but this girl was younger, perhaps 24 or 25. I began to think about the people that this art attracts. I couldn’t make generalizations on the spot, and I’m glad I haven’t. In addition to the young psychologists, there was a model present (she chatted a bit about modelling in Egypt and how she eats all she wants but still manages to stay thin). As more people walked in and introduced themselves, it was clear that the group of ten, despite being all young, were more diverse that I had initially thought.
The hall where we began the workshop was dark, as classic music wavering from thundering to soft and meditative, played in the background. The first section of the workshop was like a Yoga class. Actually, I felt more like I was in a Buddhist retreat, as everyone stood there in the darkness, in a circle, focusing on balancing their energies through breathing, humming and NOT thinking. Eyes closed, I could feel something flowing through me. In a long time, I hadn’t felt my body as such. It was a silent meditation on the inner space, a journey within, as you tried to feel your body, limb by limb, bit by bit, fingers, shoulders, hands, backbone, feet, legs, toes.
It felt like my body was asleep for so long, and that then it was awaken. I enterprised and imagined the energy as light moving through me, healing as it flows, shinning through my skin and that suddenly I was overflowing as others were with this light. My feet held me strongly, I felt my weight, but I also felt light (and light-headed). As if my head was up there in the sky (longing for it), and my feet were deeply rooted in the Earth. And I became unaware of space or time anymore, only of being. It was strange. And all my worries seemed to be in a past that I was disconnected from, a past that might have well happened a hundred years before I was born. I was not there. I was here. Christian, Muslim Sufi and Buddhist-like chants reverberated across the room, and vibrated through my body as I took part in them. The sounds were coming from deep within me, and through me and around me. I wondered if you have to be a believer to feel this effect. And I questioned why I hadn’t meditated for long. When it was time to be “awakened,” I decided I’m absorbing this light back into my body, into this small bundle that I’m keeping within me, as a source of protection. I remembered a recent trip to Sinai, where at many points butterflies were fluttering around me (well, and probably others, but I chose to ignore that) and decided to believe the myth that butterflies come to healers, and so it follows that I was one.
Second exercise was about movement: how to awaken the body from this trance and control it. “If you can’t move slowly, if you can’t walk slowly, if you’re unable to slow down at will, then you’re not in control,” bellowed the trainer. I tried to keep the motion slow, but my knees started becoming wobbly and my body was not responding as I’d wanted to. It was indeed about control and at this point I realized that it was my head and body that were leading me, not I them. And it does look like I’ll need some training before I can be in control.
Next were eye contact exercises. Keeping eye contact. Locking eyes with the person for the purpose of knowing them, without body-language, without frowning or laughing, or moving a lot. Being comfortable with looking in the eye, in addition to watching the face, communicating without talking, which was also the next exercise; “send the person a message with your eyes. Speak. tell a story. Repeat the message.” I played with that for a bit. But for me, it was as much about communication as it was about observation. I barely remembered people’s names but watching them, I felt a little bit connected to them, and above all I appreciated them.
At that moment, I remembered my trip back from London, three weeks back, when I decided to switch between on-flight movies, watching the actors faces instead of the stories. I tweeted about it a day after I got back. And this is what I said back then:
“I relaxed, watched bits and pieces of different movies, watching the movement of actors, their faces, without really concentrating on story, thinking there’s something graceful about humans when they speak, cry, scream, smile. It’s beautiful to feel you can pay attention to this, and really take everything in, absorb people’s movement, watch it as if in itself it’s art. A touch of hand, a twitch in the face, and suddenly I felt I can relate to people.”
I felt something similar during the exercise. Suddenly, every single person that I gazed upon looked much more beautiful than when I’d seen them less than an hour earlier. Some’s personalities – or at least vibes- seeped through their eyes. Some looked away, couldn’t keep the eye contact, some were more daring. Some looked intimidated, some intimidating, some pained and some reluctant and hesitant. But it was all beautiful. It was like looking at a deep well, a store of secrets and non-secrets … or perhaps a painting, trying to understand what the painter is trying to say but also projecting your own understandings, insecurities, fears, likes, dislikes and questions.
Next was role playing, “proper acting”, all improvised. You had to go in minutes from pretending you’re doing final touches to your ‘best friend’s’ hair on her wedding day, to relaying bad news to a colleague, to trying to act all girlish and soft while making up with your ‘boyfriend’ (always difficult when you barely know the guy :D) to consoling your daughter who just broke up with her fiancé and is crying her eyes off (I have to say the girl doing the daughter opposite me was very good) — all the while while trying not to give your back to the camera. It all went from difficult, to boring to hilarious, especially as people either laughed or took themselves too seriously. At points, my voice was obviously (and embarrassingly so) shaking. And at a certain point, I had to stop and tell the guy who was doing one of those two-minutes scenes with me to head this way so we won’t give our backs to the camera. And he did so, without getting out of character. By the way, I also failed to mention I was the least experienced, but this might be clear by now, and in some instances, I was ostensibly (and unashamedly) scared.
The class went on from one exercise to another, ending with the most difficult of all: recounting a painful experience, “something so painful that the memory could make you cry” in front of the group as they were instructed to cut you off, make fun of you, ridicule you and try to drown your words. “It’s all about concentration. No matter what your colleagues do, you have to tell your story, with the same intensity, till the very end,” explained the trainer. I decided to talk about body issues, the most personal of issues for me, and about how I struggled with my body image -and still do. It was liberating to shut off the noise. The participants apologized to each other after this exercise.
“Were we too hard on you?” asked one of them laughingly. Well, I didn’t even hear anything they said. “Would you believe me if I said I heard nothing of what you said?” Another one agreed saying that he too had to stop listening to concentrate.
The biggest struggle for me was not to shut off the sound, that bit was easy, but to go on telling my story as the noise continued. Because even if you don’t hear what people are saying sometimes, even if you shut them out, it’s still a struggle not to be forced into silence.
Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me, so the saying goes. The last was an exercise on precisely this.