Mindfulness & The Big City: Lifting the Veil

{Photo by Red Circle Media}

When you eventually see

through the veils to how things really are,

you will keep saying again and again,

'This is certainly not like we thought it was!'

- Rumi

I’m grateful to be back in Cairo.

One of the big perks of being an international school teacher is that I have long summer holiday and a salary sufficient to support an adventurous spirit. Another big perk is the wonderful feeling of coming home after having been away. In this blog I would like to reflect on some of the mindfulness lessons I learned this summer.

This summer I am thankful to have had the opportunity to travel to Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. Tales of the fascinating historical sites, amazing works of art and architecture, and wonderful people I met there would be enough to fill an entire blog, but even as I was enraptured by rich cultures, I found myself wondering about the source of my wanderlust. What is my purpose in traveling?

As I was struggling to adapt to having to wear a veil every day, a piece of the answer came to me from the pages of a book of Rumi’s poems, sold to me from a used bookstore in a small town on the Caspian coast.

“I” and “You” are the veil

between heaven and earth;

lift this veil and you will see.

Traveling, living abroad, even being aware of the minutiae of daily life is a process of removing the coverings. The more I think I am learning about other cultures and other peoples, I am really learning about myself. Interacting with others gives me a mirror into myself. Traveling, yoga, and meditation are about learning to strip down the layers for veils that we use to shield ourselves from reality.

After backpacking, I returned to the U.S. to attend graduate school, and at first I was shocked by how much the culture had changed. No, I reminded myself, the U.S. is like it always was, I had changed. My graduate program in leadership focuses largely on self-development, for one cannot lead others until one is comfortable in one’s own skin. This summer the focus was on communication, beginning with clearly identifying the emotion that is motivating the communication and the underlying need that is driving the emotion. Like so many others, I was shocked how impoverished my vocabulary is for emotions and how little awareness I have of the underlying physical, mental and emotional needs. Modern society encourages us to be strong and help others, not to dwell on our own neediness.

I was made painfully aware of my discomfort when I was standing in line at the supermarket that night with a small basket of groceries. A shimmer of emotion started to wiggle its way into my consciousness, and I immediately reached for my cell phone, knowing full well that I had no service. Divest of the marvel of digital distraction, I thought about if it would be feasible to make emotional reflection a part of my daily routine when I return to my real life. At home I have so many coverings to protect me: my iPhone, being over-busy, TV, the internet, and over-eating among other things. But as Brene Brown points out in her TED talk, one cannot deaden only one emotion. People can kill uncomfortable emotions, but they also kill joy (if you haven’t seen the TED talk, it’s really worth watching. Here’s a link to it here).

Now I am home again, my summer journeys completed. Sitting with my cats on the floor, listening to the rush of Cairo traffic, I wonder if I can begin to remove the layers, one breath at time. I will need to reestablish my meditation routine and start doing yoga again. I wonder when I will be ready to accept realities that make me uncomfortable: my family gets older each time I leave, some of my beloved relatives may get sick, I fear being not thin-enough/smart-enough/pretty-enough, social-enough. Cutting through my coverings seems an impossible task.

In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama extols the importance of self-empathy, and he laments the modern Mensch’s lack thereof. Self-empathy means embracing the difficulty of facing reality and accepting what is as what is. Self-empathy means being patient with myself so that I can be patient with others. Self-empathy means sitting on the floor at home and petting the cat, instead of unpacking my suitcases.

Mindfulness is a journey, and I am glad that you all are along with me for the ride.

*If you're interested in the books mentioned above, here are their details:

Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. New York: Random House Large Print, 2016. Print.

Rūmī, J. A., & Barks, C. (2004). The Essential Rumi. New York: HarperCollins.