Twice a week, just as the city is starting its day, I sit crossed legged on a raised wooden platform that is covered in shawls, flowers, and tapestries. I sit in baggy clothes that drape and flow from my sides … Continue reading
The N train into Brooklyn was running late. I wasn’t rushing anywhere important, only running errands. Nothing notably spectacular was going on.
I had just come from yoga and my head was clear. My mood was a very perceptive one and I was ready to share the good feelings. The train pulled up and I stood in front of the closed doors. I felt a slight breeze as they parted and I walked in. I gazed to my left and saw a homeless man sprawled out with his belongings; a few large rocks, torn magazine pages, and a couple half-smoked cigarettes. He took up the entire side of the cab. No one dared sit near.
I took a seat across the aisle, between two very doubtful subway riders. They gave up their positions as soon as the subway approached the next stop. I watched this man organize his belongings over and over. His eyes drooped with fatigued and his pupils dilated with inebriation. Every few moments he’d fumble his feet and slur some words, grabbing random railings to steady himself. He was contained in his solitude, not looking to escape. He was of no harm, nor meant any ill will. He was in pain. He was hurt.
The rest of the train scowled. As we approached new stops, passengers entered only to exit, leaving this car for the next. Some held their nose, others held back their stomachs. The man was filthy, but he was still a man. I kept my gaze on him, trying to see myself in his eyes, but the only thing I could see was the separation between myself and the crowd.
This man was on trial, for crimes he’d already commit and the verdict was guilty. He had no home, no job, no money. He smelled like trash and urine, looked like he rolled around in garbage all morning, and sounded like a madman. His actions were unfamiliar and made others uncomfortable. He was homeless. Less than human.
I started to feel bad. My sympathy was overwhelming, so much so that a deep valley of compassion was carved in me. I hoped there would be help to uplift the despair on this train. I sent love to the depths of the ignorant. I asked how I could help change the reality of it all. How could I be a beacon, an example of kindness, love, and empathy? And amidst the glares, judgements, and beckons of the other passengers, I sat firmly in my seat, smiling at this gentle, homeless man.
The people on the 2:34 N Train into Atlantic Avenue made my heart sink. Their disdain and utter disregard for another human being was so cold, so unyielding, that this man never had a chance to change. His position in this world was sealed by the reactions of his peers. His peers—yes, because we are all living on this Earth together—who were going about their days running from work to home, home to work, store to store, place to place, could not afford to give him a simple gesture of kindness. Not even a smile.
Not even an empathetic thought.
I felt bad for that people on that train. For each and every one of them. The only soul that escaped that late N train without an ounce of my worry, was that homeless man clutching his bag of half-smoked cigarettes and absurdly large rocks. He was safe in depths of his solitude from the follies of mankind.
But then again I wondered, how could I love the others? They were me, too.
There is nothing worse than the feeling of pain. It stings. It burns. It penetrates. It hurts. Pain is the bitter end of a faded sweetness. It is a remnant of a decision that influences all future decisions of the like. It is a signal, and like all signals, it is meant to guide. Where and how we left pain guide us is completely our choice.
On a physical level, pain is a sign to stop doing something. Get your hand out of the fire. Don’t walk barefoot on broken glass. Get away from that beehive. Pain is the body’s recourse for conscious decision-making; it is a physical action that is translated into a mental activity. Neurons react to exterior stimuli, sending messages to the brain that implement positive change. On a physical level, the necessity of pain is blatantly obvious: survival.
It is less obvious to see the purpose behind pain in the mind, or suffering through emotions. Much like physical pain, mental pain is also a necessity to living a healthy life, but the difference between the two is that mental pain comes in forms of emotion. These less tangible—but often more painful—forms of suffering can include general sadness, anxiety, depression, and anger. These “negative” emotions cause varying levels of stress, and this stress is the signal that tells the mind something needs to change. (I keep negative in quotations because every emotion is positively relevant in the pursuit of experience and therefor cannot be condemned to a positive or negative judgment). Just like physical pain, mental pain is attempting to teach the mind a lesson.
As hinted to earlier, the main difference between physical and mental pain is tangibility. Physical pain is much easier to spot and—subsequently—fix. If I am stepping on a rock, I understand that that rock is causing infliction and removing it solves the problem. It is more difficult to identify and solve mental pain.
A good example is the all to common problem of missing someone. Everyone at some point has to say goodbye to someone they care about. It could be a lover, a friend, a family member, or even a pet. When we walk along our individual paths and have to leave something important behind, it hurts. Identifying this type of pain is very easy, but understanding why it’s there is difficult. Many reasons seem plausible. In the case of longing questions like: Am I missing this thing because I need it? because I want it? because I am accustom to it? because I am afraid of not finding it again? etc, car arise. Here, the “rock” is identifiable, but the reason for its infliction is buried. This makes solving the problem ever more challenging. Yet, solving the puzzle of pain is only the first part, learning from it is entirely another challenge.
As mentioned, the point of pain is to learn. Learning from pain points us in the direction of not having to feel that pain again. In order to learn from pain, we must understand everything about it: what hurt me? why did I get hurt? how can I stop the pain? In emotional pain, the answers may not be so transparent, but they do exist. Reaching them requires patience, a willingness to feel the extent of the pain, and an open mind to understand what choices led to these consequences.
We so often repeat the same mistakes, only to be brought back to the same problem, the same pain. Many denounce pain and run from it. Often times I fail to understand that my suffering is the greatest teacher I have. It is a stern instructor that does not bend under the suffering of its students. It is a consistent reminder that there is a better way to live life. Pain’s ultimate goal is to provide its subject with an evolved way of being. Pain is the path to self-evolution.
Although I hate feeling pain, I know deep down that whenever I feel it I have the chance to grow. Pain makes us feel alive because it threatens our stagnation; our comfortability. It gets us moving when we have become still. It pushes us to expand the limits of our selves. Whenever I feel pain and can pull my ego out of self-pity, I know that I am on the verge of doing great work.
A yogi friend of mine once told me, “The depth of our pain carves out our ability to feel empathy.” I understood this as “the more pain I feel, the more I can relate to the pain of others,” which is correct. What I was missing was the empathetic knowledge of the self: the more pain I feel, the more I understand myself. Becoming intimate with aversion brings one closer to knowing affection. And through pain I understand more about who I am and how deep I can become.
The first thing I noticed about Oaxaca was its streets: imperfect cobble-stone pathways paved the way from order to chaos as one moved from the city center to the peripheral. The layout began in squares, but it ended in hopeless circling zigzags.
As the flatness of their beginnings gave way to the steep and curving hills, the roads could no longer hold their ground. Instead they erupted with the mountainside in a frenzy of dismay. In their hopes to conform nature to civility, a natural conformity took place.
These paths were meant to connect lives. They were strewn together long and far in the most awkwardly and amicable ways. They navigated obstacles, rerouted traffic and ultimately delivered people to their destinations.
It was during a stroll on one of these streets that I realized the adaptivity of Oaxaca. The place itself is an enigma of clashed cultures. One of the only remaining Mexican cities that has successfully retained a large portion of its heritage, Oaxaca is orgullosamente Oaxacan. Food, language, music and dress are proud areas that point to the rejection of the hispanic conquest.
Oaxaca may seem resilient, but what keeps its culture alive isn’t its stubbornness. Instead, it is Oaxaca’s ability to bend. During the Spanish conquest, instead of seeking to fight, Oaxaca chose to negotiate. This standard of attitude kept Oaxaca on the post-hispanic map. This liveliness can be seen in the high tourist attraction rates, which rival some of the most popular Mexican beaches. This is all due to Oaxaca’s ability to adapt.
When traveling the number one quality to have is adaptability . Backpacking through countries with unreliable bus systems, sketchy border crossings, and a money hungry police force can result in a few unforeseen changes. That’s why when I came to Oaxaca I instantly fell in love; change is an openly and widely welcomed part of life in the Land of the Seven Moles. Change is a part of life and when traveling it is important to adopt a flexible mindset.
My personal practice of letting go of the known is simply by getting lost. Taught to me by an exceptional traveler, who took a day job as a Spanish college professor, the act of intentionally losing myself in another country has been the most instructive practice I’ve ever been taught.
Disorientation and venturing into the unknown are two concepts that are usually avoided at all costs. Most people would think that engaging in these uncomfortable situations would be even more ludicrous while abroad. Yet, the practice of getting lost has brought me more insight than confusion.
What I usually do is pick a street. I walk as far as I can until I find a fork. It could be a 4-way intersection, a park entrance or a simple right or left turn. I take the turn. I usually walk uphill. I always walk away from my orientation. And I make sure to take the longest route possible; no shortcuts. I do this for about an hour— sometimes longer if I have time. The length of my walk isn’t important because it’s not a destination I am looking for. I am searching for a feeling.
There is no name for this feeling. It is a mix of childish giddiness and supreme satisfaction. It is a liveliness that only a place can give you. It is a feeling of knowing nothing and being ecstatic about it. I imagine it must be a tenth of what the first explorers felt when they discovered new lands.
The symptoms of this feeling are outbursts of random cheers, an embarrassingly uncontrollable smile, and a new set of eyes that place a glaze of spectacularity around everything in sight. This feeling is the metric I use to measure how well I am living my life.
When a space is carved out inside of you, it may feel empty. In most cases, this emptiness follows an uncomfortable change. It could be losing a job, getting a new one, meeting a new person, moving cities, or simply traveling alone and getting lost. What I have come to realize is that, yes, that emptiness is very uncomfortable and it is the unknown quality behind it that creates fear. Venturing somewhere new—both mentally and physically—is sometimes scary, but what follows the emptiness is worth every moment spent in fear.
When you carve a space out inside of you, you also create a space to be filled. A vacuum-esque effect takes place and what once was empty is now full. They saying “build it and they will come” doesn’t just apply to casinos and Roman empires. It also applies to the fulfillment of your Self. What once was unknown becomes known and feeling of comfort is expanded. Clearing space is the hardest part. Letting the powers that be find a way to fill it is effortless.
As for finding my way back home, I usually feel out a general direction. Also, being up high helps me find landmarks and other identifiable objects. Speaking to people is also very helpful. But most incredible is that the high I obtain always leads me in the right direction. I reach a certain harmony and that flow guides me out of my geographical confusion.
On a daily basis, getting lost and going with the flow are the most valuable things you can do for yourself. These things can be done any time and anywhere. It could be talking to strangers, taking an uncertain financial risk, signing up for an art class, or just walking a new path. Doing these things in other countries only multiplies the effect, increasing the risk but also the reward.
Oaxaca offered me a chance to experience her beauty and I took it. I had to sacrifice my comfort zone to understand the true offerings of the culture and the people. I had to get lost, losing track of myself in order to carve out a space larger enough for the splendor of the city. On my walk under the Oaxacan sunset, I sought out my spiritual terminus. And although I was completely lost, the promise of the windy Oaxaca streets delivered me to my destination.