The Children of Hope

‘When you close your eyes and think of peace, what do you see?’


Following the seacoast, the drive from Beirut to Saida is around forty minutes and I still remember how disappointed I was when my plane landed it was late and dark so I missed my first impression of the place. Leaving the hustle and bustle of Beirut, one arrives to Saida and finds a small fishing town with a colorful souk, an imposing crusader castle and the beautiful seafront. It was here that I will spend my next two months as part of a teaching project that works with the Syrian refugees– so I embraced it and decided to discover it bit by bit.

However, that was the easy part. It was arriving to the Ouzai refugee settlement that left quite an impression on me. I never before saw a refugee camp. I did not expect – yet I was struck by the greyness of the concrete structure situated just at the entrance of the city. The missing windows would give a hollowness to the whole building, yet the colorful clothes and rugs hanging here and there gave a sense of liveliness, of stubbornness to resist this dump air surrounding the place. Once arrived in front of the entrance, smiling girls and boys would approach the car, saluting and playing in their reckless ways. It was all that I needed.

Once it was supposed to be a university campus, but since the project was abandoned, the building became the second SB Overseas centre for Learning and Empowerement and it was opened in 2017 ( Beirut, Saida, Arsal). With the headquarters in Belgium, Sb Overseas currently runs three centers in Lebanon, the one in Saida being the newest and largest project – housing 1500 Syrian refugees. Around 320 children are registered to attend school, accommodating their levels and ages as well as preparing them for public school –so crucial in their chances of success.

Children and youth in Saida are attending Arabic, English, math, science and general knowledge classes; awareness and wellness sessions led by SB’s psychologist; art and sport activities; and homework support sessions designed to help students catch up in their classes at public school. Besides this, there is also a Woman Empowerement Program which offers Arabic, English and fitness classes. There are also literacy programmes for younger and older refugee women – as a means to empower them and help them better integrate in the society. However the primary focus is to provide them with a marketable skill– courses such as sewing, embroidery, knitting, doll making, jewellery, and hairdressing – in actually being able to earn an income.

As the countries bordering Syria have seen a massive influx of refugees, nowadays, one in every three people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Despite the fact that it has crippled the Lebanese public system in many aspects, the refugees are in need of support as the children risk of being a lost generation. Displacement, trauma, poverty, abuse and loss of dignity – these are some of the critical aspects that the victims have to deal with in order to rebuild their lives and to prevent them from turning to bitterness, hatred and violence. Besides, the moral dignity of these people should be dealt with as they are constantly called under ‘refugees’- they have lost their sense of identity and now are considered just a number in statistics.

Due to the high numbers of refugee children, the Lebanese state has failed to place all these children in public school – therefore, many of the refugee children have poor access to schooling – or none at all, therefore it is imperative to set up non-formal schools and activities that will enable the kids to catch up and work their way to the public school and later on, a means to support their families.

According to a report from United Nations bodies, 17% of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon are run by women. Besides education and material needs, the women and girls living in refugee camps are suffering from trauma and bereavement. As many of them have lost their loved ones – husband, brother, father- they are now faced with the need of providing, they have become the breadwinners for their family. They have left from being a child to being an adult. Such a sharp switch. Yet, they need the time and space to grieve, so psychological support and counseling are particularly important.

But the question is how? They lack sufficient income to ensure food and shelter for them and their families. They are not permitted to work, they might not even have the competences and preparation necessary, therefore many women and girls are at an increased risk of facing sexual and gender-based violence.

Marriage – unfortunately – is seen as a solution – and although the girls are not prepared, although they are giving up their childhood and the possibility of being educated, their parents consider this as an immediate solution, as a way of escaping the harsh and overcrowded conditions. Besides, the lack of male family figures cause some females heads of household to worry for their security and reputations – marrying them seems a way of protecting them from exploitation or abuse. Yet, don’t think that the camp is a sanctuary for the women! As they have left their husbands, brothers and sons behind, now they are preyed by men roaming free in a lawless place such as a camp. While kidnapping and selling girls for prostitution is common, marriage has become the religious seal of approval for sex – regardless of age, girls become vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Child marriage, prostitution, domestic violence and child labor are the devils to escape from in these harsh conditions. But then, who to turn to? Who will listen or give a hand in a foreign country that does not acknowledge you and where you are considered a mere ‘refugee’? Raising awareness – of gender based violence, the rights and responsibilities of a woman, the fact that she is entitled to have a safe space where she can seek help or advice – where she could share her story of violence and abuse and see that she is not alone! This- although not only – could be helpful in healing and eventually building their confidence and self-esteem.

All in all, the children of yesterday became the adults we see today – and yes, I can say that I have never seen children as I have seen in Ouzai. Their jolliness, their dancing, their passion for music and laughing around are overshadowed by the load they carry – their lack of safety, their responsibilities, and overall their circumstances have left a deep imprint on their spirits. Their eyes seem vividly aware of this all chaos, this all mess we live in, and yet they cannot do anything. They are too small, yet they dream big. Their solutions are not more than mere jokes –but still – they know. They have a sense of dignity that I have never encountered at other children. Yet, most probably, ‘haneen’ is the word which best describe it – the longing for something you have lost.

Many times I would find myself stuck – in understanding either how can they do it? There are so many stories to tell, so many tears to still fall, yet – there they were – screaming and shouting and rebelling against each other with these bursts of energy only a child has. I would find myself stuck because it was still incredible to me, in explaining myself – in which world am I living? Why all these kids have grown up that early while others are left with no care in the world? Why these kids have a swamp for a playground? Why did they have to run away? From death? There are many kinds of death – and although physically alive, although apparently functional in the everyday activities, the heaviness of the memories, the loss of your loved ones, the harshness and cruelty, the hurt and despair – all these are just another way of saying that you are dead emotionally, as a child, as a lover, as a mother.

Yet – there remains the longing – there is still hope. I have met many children, mothers, fathers in this position – and yet – they do! They hope because this is the only thing they still have. Now it is on us if we encourage this hope, if we alleviate their needs and make a difference. I cannot say much of the difference I have made but one thing is sure – I will not stop – yet!

(For any questions please feel free to comment below and for more info about the volunteering opportunities, please check out the main page of SB – http://www.sboverseas.org)

Lebanon – the hidden jewel

I have travelled to Lebanon for a volunteering project – teaching Syrian refugees – for two months (will talk about it in a separate article). It was a perfect excuse to also come and visit the beautiful country of cedars and to immerse myself in all these contrasts that eventually make this country so unique. Lebanon and its ancient Christian monasteries and  mosques, its ski resorts and fancy clubs, its women in bikini at the beach versus veil wearing women, its twenty four hour nightclubs and its traditional coffeehouses, it is modern and yet traditional.
The birthplace of Khalil Gibran and Fayrouz –  and the most liberal country in the Middle East, Lebanon not only confirmed the fact that it is a country of contrasts but even surpassed my expectations and so I have come to discover that it might be one of the most complex countries that I was to discover. Often called ‘the Switzerland of the East’, it is one of the smallest countries in the Levant – and yet – even if you can do the tourist attractions in 10 days ( you can basically ski in the morning and swim in the evening), there is much more to it than that!bdrNow if you do not know much about Lebanon but have tasted the food – then you know it is true. Lebanese food is exquisite – a mix between the Middle Eastern and Western cuisine. My all time favourite is hummus – a dip made from chick peas with sesame paste, lemon juice, garlic, salt and olive oil. Then there is the falafel – a sesame sauce and veg, but more often in a rolled sandwich. You will definitely see manoushi fast food places quite often – a kind of pizza with different toppings. Last but not least, salads are quite popular here – also as part of meze – and tabboule – a parsley salad with mint, tomatoes, spring onions, bulghur (crushed wheat), olive oil and lemon juice as well as fattoush – a salad served with crunchy bread and pomegranate syrup. Lebanese cuisine is not famous in vain – it is truly delicious – and while you are here, you must not keep away from the desserts and definitely not the ice cream ( as it is actually rivaling the Italian one!). Also, keep in mind that Lebanon is one of the oldest sites of wine production in the world so wine-tasting must be on your list.btyLebanon’s diversity of people and religions should be traced back in time. Composed of different religious communities (18)- some Christian – mainly Maronite, Greek Orthodox, and Greek Catholic, others Islamic ( Sunnites, Shiites and Druze)-  apart from the Armenians, all the Lebanese communities- Christian and Muslim – have historically spoken Arabic and shared an ‘Arab way of life’.In antiquity, the Phoenicians, established a number of flourishing city-states along the stretch of the eastern Mediterranean (mostly today’s Lebanese territory).  Then there were the Persians, the Greeks and after the death of Alexander the Great, the territory of present day Lebanon became part of the Hellenistic Seleucid Kingdom. The Roman conquest followed and they ruled until the seventh century. It was during this time that, Lebanon, along with the rest of Syria and much of Anatolia became a major center of Christianity.In the late 4th century, a hermit named Maron established a monastic tradition which focused on the importance of monotheism and asceticism at Mount Lebanon. The monks that followed spread his teachings and so they came to be known as Maronites. They were living in the mountains to avoid persecution by the Romans, and as we will see later – the Byzantines as well as the Ottomans. When – of course- the Arabs came – and until 1918, Syria, including today’s Lebanon formed part of the territory of a succession of Islamic empires ruled by caliphs or by sultans – except for the period when they were under the Crusader domination (1098 -1291).With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the European victors proceeded to divide up much of the Levant between them, and  France was given the mandate to rule over Lebanon; its linguistic and architectural influence can still be discerned in the city today. French rule continued until 1943, when Lebanon finally gained full independence from France.  Discontent finally boiled over in 1975 and for the following 16 years the country was under civil war, resulting in massive loss of human life and property, while devastating the country’s economy. It is estimated that 150,000 people were killed and another 200,000 wounded.bdrToday, Lebanon is a confessional democracy – which means that every religious community is represented in the Government. Beirut has been rebuilt – seven times! and parts of it are as cosmopolitan as thirty years ago. There is a lot of healing and reconstruction that the country and its people are still going through – and despite this – it has managed to accommodate a million Syrian refugees (let alone the Palestinians beforehand). That is Lebanon, it works, even if you don’t quite understand how that is possible.The country is blessed with magnificent mountain vistas, long stretches of pristine beaches and impressive ancient ruins that you mustn’t miss. Hence, apart of the coastal cities, the Lebanese territory consists mostly of mountain and hill country.  Which cities? Coming down from the north, Tripoli (definitely the best city to go for authenticity, history and nightlife), Byblos, Jounieh, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre- are the main attractions of the country. Byblos was the first Phoenician city and now is still one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (5000BC). Then there is Baalbek which is a must for the ruins – one of the most well preserved Roman sites to this day. And for sure, the exquisite Qadisha Valley – home to the legendary Cedars of God, the most highly prized building materials of the ancient world. The valley is a UNESCO  World Heritage Site because it is the site of some of the earliest Christian monastic settlements in the world, and still represents an example of early Christian faith.btyBut what about its people? Lebanese people are warm-hearted and welcoming. They are easy going, opened people that still have their smiles on their face even against financial difficulties or political issues. Besides, it must be mentioned that Lebanon is the country with most refugees per capita in the world! Currently, there are 4 million Lebanese living in Lebanon and 1.3 million Syrian refugees as well as approx. 260.000 Palestinians.The next door conflict in Syria and the influx of refugees endangers the internal social balance in the country. The situation of the refugees though it is not that bright – many  complain that the system allows local governments to steal, divert or withhold aid. As long as they have minimal legal rights and live in such scarce conditions, it’s difficult to imagine these people living in camps and such conditions indefinitely, but at the moment there is no foreseeable solution.
bty

Iran-why not!?

Even if it might be difficult to admit it now, I must say that when I first thought about going to Iran I saw it more like a challenge than a ‘must do’. Of course everybody knows about the Persians – with their famous  rugs, cats and of course, Persepolis- the capital of the empire. However, due to the wrong image that the media portrays about Iran, many still think that Iran is an unsafe place to be, mainly because of political and strategic reasons (will not go into details) when actually it’s completely the opposite! I have felt safer in Iran than in many European countries and I assure you, the Iranian people are some of the most welcoming people I have ever encountered. But of course, you must get out there and see it yourself.

So I have decided to break some of the myths that are linked to this country – and how to do best than through interacting with its people. As I have come to understand, the generosity and their most welcoming attitude is something cultural – they will do their best to make you feel like home and not only. I have met people that really made me feel like I was part of the family.

Also, in case you are wondering, wearing a hijab for a month was not that bad as I got some pretty fancy scarfs and eventually it mostly became a fashion statement.

I was first impressed by its clean streets, where driving is not stressful even if there is so much traffic. The people are mostly calm and patient, they seem to have all the time in the world and whenever needed they will always offer their unconditional help ( and I must underline unconditional).

The youth in Iran has impressed me so much though. While media portrays this general aversion towards Western countries and especially the US, I have not encountered anyone that would have a negative or incriminatory attitude in this respect. With such a thirst to understand and to learn about other cultures, I got the feeling that they would most surely want to express themselves more ( needless to say that the ‘nightlife’ as its commonly understood is inexistent and probably the only activities that exclude doing sports are going to coffeeshops or some fancy restaurants) and this liberal attitude is strongly influencing the way they relate to foreigners. They still can have it their way  through organizing reunions with family & friends as for example dancing in public spaces is forbidden.

I have also got that there is a frustration that somehow stands out as to how people nowadays see Iran which by all means they want to change. ( one time I was stopped by this man in the centre of Yazd who after asking where I was from – told me that he would like to send me some pictures about Iran so that I could show my friends and this way prove that Iran is not as it is believed to be).

The older generations, although more conservative, still they retain this welcoming attitude and are sometimes visibly honored that you bothered to visit their country. I have also met old men in the bazaars that would start conversing and nostalgically tell you about their eventual trips to some Western country or their wish to do so – always accompanied by a whole-heartedly ‘welcome to Iran’.

Other than that – let me not get started to talk about the incredible food – I have ate ( oh yes!) the best chicken curry, best rice (made in a special rice-cooker), best yoghurts and rosewater scented sweets ever! The list could go on but the point here is that Iranians do know how to cook! Also, i would strongly recommend to try the ‘ash’ (some delicious soup) and the saffron ice-cream!

Well, in terms of sites to visit and jaw-dropping landscapes – Iran has been secretly hiding twenty-two UNESCO world heritage sites, as well as ski-resorts that are world-renowned and even if not many know – also if you are in search of more exotic shores- there are in total forty-three islands in the Persian Gulf only! (out of which nineteen are uninhabited).

Surprisingly, backpacking in Iran was never a challenge –  although I have even been a bit worried due to not being able to speak the language. Moreover, I fell in love with its music, colorful architecture, tasty food but mostly its people. That is why the small details – like the credit card situation ( Iran, as well as Cuba – is a cash country) or the internet difficulties *and so I discovered the VPN* as well as the hijab being compulsory do not stand the chance!

I will be back to Iran sooner or later and once again, I must repeat, it was the best decision I have ever made in terms of traveling. Grateful for all the beautiful experiences and hopefully the passing of time will keep the warmth and dedication of the people unchanged.

Egypt – above and beyond!

With a month left to go and here I am sitting in my comfortable balcony, watching the sunset and thinking of the place I now call home – Egypt.
I don’t really know how these two months have passed and in between the school, trips around and friends I have settled for a life I know I will miss.
Well, let’s just say that working with kindergarden kids has proved a bit challenging yet inspiring and fun. In this learning process I have become a kid as well. It was the time to remind myself how easy things unravel and how we always look for problems instead of laughing at life. For as a great sage one said – ‘if it can be solved, there s no need of worry. If it can’t be solved, worry is of no use’.
Therefore, working in an environment where I am surrounded by women and children became something that I was looking forward to each morning. Still, the time will come when I shall leave and remember these days with great joy and happiness.
Exploring Egypt was a wonderful experience as well as I have been longing to see what it had to give – and yes! I have discovered that there are so many colorful streets in Cairo with simple people living in more than simple conditions yet still smile and greet and invite you to dance at their weddings.
I have walked through the streets of Alexandria, drank coffee and ate sweets while its breeze caressed my cheeks and know that I will one day be back for more.
Then, there are the pyramids which have been my uttermost dream to accomplish – and there they were, majestic and solemn, unmoved in their greatness.
Surely was worth the long trip (around 13 hours) to visit Dahab, see the most amazing sunrise from Mount Sinai and Catherine’s Church… What an exquisite place to be. What silence and what peace resides there in each and every rock you see, in each and every corner you could turn.
There have been moments when I wished for time to stop, to be more patient in it’s pass – for I wanted avidly to capture them better. To colour, to explain, to address myself for it was just such a miracle that I was there! Of course sometimes life takes you by surprise and by the time you know it you are just a moment away from what you ultimately desired for – belongingness and connection with it all….
Last but not least, the people that I have met so far have been graceful in their humble way of showing me how welcome I was and constantly questioning ‘why..why on earth did I choose to come here?’
This question always puts a smile on my face now. I still haven’t found a more ‘convincing’ answer than ‘because I always wanted to come to Egypt’. Satisfactory or not, this is the best I can say, however maybe in short time I would be more inventive.
For now I can only say I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to live this experience and am looking forward to this last month still to come, for more adventures, more beautiful souls and more shores await for me. =)

Meditation on Life or Living Meditation

‘Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.’
Sonmi-451: Cloud Atlas

‘One’s responsibility to the world is the responsibility of understanding yourself.’
Jiddu Krishnamurti

There are moments in life when one has to go through periods of transition, when one shifts and redirects his actions. Have to say the reason why I write this is because personally, a new adventure unfolds as the period of cocooning and cozy home time are done. A new moment of awakening has come. However, I will take advantage of this and dwell on the idea of change and explore more what does it mean for me this entire idea of transition, change and shifting of consciousness- at a higher level.

Ever since I have discovered and got in touch with myself, I have unravelled an important element that I hold precious and I know I can always count on. That is my inner child, that pure self that is being neglected and surfaced as we grow and become ‘adults’, people with responsibilities, zealous and high-reaching.

Through meditation and long periods of silence, through yoga and conscious living, I have come to experience how crazy and immensely complex my mind was. So discipline was needed. Discipline has to be maintained though, and due to the fact that I have a ‘worldly’ life – as I like to call it- being conscious and present is a bit more challenging but once you get the grip of it – there is no bigger satisfaction.

To put into practice the stillness, the breathing, the compassion, the observation of your mind and body – one needs patience and perseverance. One of the main aspects of that satisfaction is that you begin to understand more the mechanics by which you are reasoning, acting, reacting,the root of all those tensions, patterns and obsessions. Have to say that each moment is a new lesson. Next, the fact that once you have connected with yourself and you have come that far – you will know there is no need to search outside, as everything you need to know is inside; all the answers you are seeking are deeply imbedded into your core. You are your own teacher, your own student.

Here, just in case you still doubt it, have to underline the fact that there is no one that can release you from that misery, that loneliness, anxiety or anger – rather than you. No spiritual leader, no theory, no ritual or object could do that for you. Is like saying someone else should eat as you feel hungry. Laugh as you want to feel happy… So it was understood as self knowledge and self inquiry have been used for millennia as important tools to conquer happiness, be in harmony with ourselves and with the world.

If we look back in history, turns out we’ve had too many spiritual leaders that have taught us, led and tried to show us the Truth. Even now we are surrounded by religions and cults and promises of liberation that it almost seems surreal as we live in a world of conflict, war, separation, racism and greed. Belief helps, faith restores and lightens up someone’s life. However, in the long run, it does not work. The truth cannot be taught. The truth can only be experienced. Krishnamurti once said ‘you cannot find religion if you are blind’ – we cannot see our own tragedy, and as we seek for someone to forgive us, to lead us, to promise us everlasting peace- there is an internal war going on.

We should really understand that we are all one – as each and every one of us experiences, throughout our lives the same misery, deprivation, search for happiness. We are hurt, we suffer and we feel lonely. Once one understands that – really understands that – there will be no more discrimination; only then the change can start. ‘When there is love, there is revolution, as love means transformation from moment to moment.’ A full act of meditation.

How to do that? Start questioning your acts, your way of being, examine, observe life every moment and capture your own ups and downs and what’s their causes. Be a constant observer and bear in mind that only once you have united the observer and the observed, there will be no contradiction and you will reach peace. As long as there is an authority that commands, the conflict will not cease, we will still judge according to the image that the observer has towards the external and the truth will be distorted.

Have patience with yourself, forgive and love yourself. Give space, allow the inner child to speak as it has been silenced for too long. There must be a change in human being so that the society can change. People expect miracles to happen – new elections, new government, new political system – these are all ideas, theories, abstractions, diversions. The history repeats itself. We are the same old people in search for meaning.

Awakening – what a big word! I am in this search as well as you. Even if sometimes I feel great hopelessness and frustration for what happens in this world as I turn to myself I understand that I am part of this process.I have started my inner revolution. We are all part of this battle we call life. Just remember that the only code of conduct you should lead yours is according to your natural way of being. You are the light of your own life.

India through my eyes

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
― Jalaluddin Rumi

‘We each possess within ourselves not only the answer to our own problems but the potential to live our lives on a much higher level than we currently imagine possible.’
– Lama Yeshe

Coming back to my initial intention for this last trip to India, I can say that it has the flavor of a pilgrimage, not just a random, usual get-away or touristic trip but rather something that changed my perception about world. Time flies so fast and when I look back, four months ago, seated in this same room, at home – I had a lot of doubts and fears about this trip. I was waiting for it for so long! With the passing of time I have realized that I will never feel prepared enough for India and had to just go for it, surpass this feeling of uncertainty that pushed me backward and just go with the flow. So I left and decided to give up all my expectations and just embrace whatever will be there to experience.

And so it happened that I slowly felt in love with this crazy place called India. From its southernmost extremity – Thiruvananthapuram – up to the old Himalayas, in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, I have explored and experienced with all my senses the most culturally diverse country I have been traveling to so far. I can honestly say it became my home and its people my own family. This article represents just a short outline of my search of moral and spiritual significance.

It is a true fact that people from all over the world come to India in a spiritual and mystical quest. We live in a continuous change and the capitalist and materialist tendencies make this quest grow even more. People with different backgrounds and wakes of life flock to discover the traditional Indian way of life that has thrived and flourished for ages. Of course, one that is on this search will be astounded with the number of paths, books and theories on one hand and spiritual leaders, gurus and saints on the other – all that shared their part delivering a message of peace, brotherhood or quest to inner exploration.

Take Bhagavad-Gita as an example of an ancient and very much respected Hindu scripture described by Herman Hesse as a ‘beautiful revelation of life’s wisdom which has made philosophy blossom into religion’. It is the sealing achievement of the Hindu Synthesis, incorporating various religious traditions. It also beautifully describes yoga as the science of the individual consciousness attaining communion with the ultimate consciousness. You are on the path to attain this ultimate consciousness:

‘When you have overcome the delusions of your understanding sprung from self-centred attachment. Then you attain a state of indifference towards all the past experiences and the others yet to be had’.

Thus, through its broad religious influence, meditation, yoga, ayurveda and philosophy, India still sets an example in spreading the message of compassion, harmony and wholeness for the entire world. Here, all that exists in the universe is perceived as the ultimate manifestation of God. Generally speaking, the people here have a great respect for all living beings, as well as for nature and all its elements. This sacredness combined with a positive and healthy lifestyle provides an ideal harmonization of the spirituality and religiosity and represents a never-ending journey to develop one’s own consciousness.

In this light and out of my own experience I have to admit that this short pilgrimage has changed me a lot. One of the most precious souvenir that I brought with me from India is the exercise of mastering my own mind and to have the courage to face the fear within, to accept it, express it and transcend it. We often forget that our mind is our true home. That wherever we go, it accompanies us. So often we feel lost, we feel empty or missing something or someone. There is always a lack and a quest for happiness that comes from the exterior as we fear to face our own selves. We are so much satisfied with theories or practices that promise to make us happy that we forget we are strangers to this ‘I’ we often mention. We are slaves to our minds! Who chooses then when you should feel joy, misery, sadness or excitement if not you, through your mind? Joy is always within you, and once you will discover that the true happiness comes from the inside you will want to change the patterns of your mind – as the only thing you can actually change.

One of the most incredible memories of this trip is when I met the Dalai Lama. His energy was so powerful and as he was spreading compassion and love just by his gentle look – ( and then I understood the real meaning of the saying that the eyes are the mirror of the soul) instantly tears started coming out of my eyes and I felt such a deep peace and joy that I almost felt I want to explode. I then came to better understand that he is the true embodiment of his teachings!

‘Whether we are eating, sleeping or doing business, we should constantly check our intentions, check our body, speech, mind and actions for even the subtlest negativity’.

I believe it is such a precious gift we are offering to ourselves when we create this space and we try to understand our own nature as well as recognize our false conceptions and mistaken actions. Therefore, take a pause before judging, before getting angry or showing any kind of negative emotion. Be in control of yourself and each day you will feel more peaceful and joyous.

All in all, I can only bow my head to all of you that have crossed my path, accompanied or showed me the way in this crazy labyrinth called life. I am grateful for each and every moment of this journey and will keep them all in a warm and safe place in my heart. There is one thing I am sure of – that I will be back one day. I have received so much and time will come for me to give back to the world!

Namaste!

Spiritual India: Vipassana and the art of living

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5)

We spend our whole life trying to understand what is this all about – to figure out who we are, what do we stand for, what is real happiness and where shall we seek it, what are our ambitions and goals, what does society wants from us and what do we expect from the society? We color our lives and sometimes the others have more to say about it. Added to our background and education, there are so many people that influence us- from parents, partners, friends, colleagues and spiritual teachers – all are indicating a certain path and way for us to be HAPPY. Because this is what is all about after all – to live a happy life and avoid being miserable.

We struggle as we fall and break open when we realize we have too many expectations and eventually we draw back and enclose in ourselves. And how many times we gave up, drew a line and started all over again!? It’s damn hard to realize it has been for nothing, that we have lost everything and we feel so lost again. How many more times we should reach that point though?

Each human being has a story. Once we reach that point when we feel so distrustful of whatever has been told to us we start a different journey. We go back again. We let it go and commit to a new path and eventually on the way we strongly thing this is the way. This is certainly what we were looking for. But is it? YOU can only know by experiencing it. If it’s true for you then it should make a difference to the world. Not because you will preach it but because you have faith and you are living it. You are a living example of your own truth. And you are free to share it to the world.

Spirituality is a vast subject. Since ancient times we have been studying the stars and the influence they have on the people. From there to religion, psychology, art, yoga, reiki or tantrism (just to name a few) – let’s just admit it – we don t lack WAYS to choose from. So then be it – we start our quest- we start experiencing, learning and committing and this keeps us busy for a while. We leave the country, we want to know and see as much as we can. Or we just stay home and live our ‘society life ‘ that gives us a balance between struggle and confort. That provides us enough reasons to wake up in the morning. Either way – we keep up with it and eventually, sooner or later, we have a revelation.

We focus so much on the exterior, on the material, on the others’ stories or needs that we completely forgot the essence of life. When all religions have this one thing in common – know yourself and you will find God. Live in the now. Be conscious. However, we are conditioned to assume that all that it is to this world is outside, therefore we will always seek input – physical and mental- from the external reality. We would go to the moon and back, explore the deepest debts of the ocean than focus the hidden depths of ourselves.

Couple of days back, I have experience Vipassana meditation in a 10-days retreat. Since I became aware of my search, I have been seeking, asked, read about and experienced different views on spirituality and self-fulfillment. This time it completely changed me.

It was actually the best thing I have done for myself!
Vipassana means ‘insight’ in the ancient Pali language of India. It is the essence of the teaching of the Buddha, the actual experience of the truths of which he spoke. In fact meditation is primarily what he taught. The problem remains of course how to understand and follow the instructions. And then, the interpretation of his teachings is difficult without the context of a living practice. But if a technique exists that has been maintained for unknown generations, that offeres the very results described by the Buddha, and if it conforms precisely to his instructions, then that technique is surely worth investigating. Vipassana is such a method, it is a technique extraordinary in its simplicity, it’s lack of dogma and above all in the results it offeres.

Basically during these ten days you are supposed to remain within the area of the course site, having no contact with the outside world. You would refrain from reading and writing and suspend any religious practices, working exactly as the instructions are given. You should also follow a basic code of morality which includes celibacy and abstention from all intoxicants. Furthermore, for the first nine days you should maintain silence and avoid contact.

Now the popular belief is that meditation is easy work, relaxation where you close your eyes and sit in this or that posture and concentrate on one particular object, sound or image. Well, have to say- it is hard work! Meditating 10 hours per day for ten days it certainly needs a bit of craziness but hey, it is so much worth it. The most difficult times are when 80% of your body is in pain and you feel like running away – but you have committed for the times so let’s focus on the breath. You are actually observing the reality as it is- not as you want it to be. Because this is what it is about! To observe yourself and your reactions to pain and pleasure.

The first three days you start with focusing on your breath ( to clear all those thoughts that are rumbling in your head and keep you busy) followed by the rest when you have to focus on the sensations you experience in your body – however trying to train your mind not to react to them. At times it may seem that instead of finding inner peace one has found nothing but agitation, pain, frustration. But day by day you understand that everything, sooner or later – starting from your physical pain- will fade. Everything arises and it passes away. After all this fighting with your mind, after remembering so many things – not that pleasant about your actions- you learn to let go, to accept the unacceptable – you have made so many mistakes, in so many ways…Can it be that it was you all this time?

My experience taught me that after you clear all those conflicts and uncertainties in your mind you will find the child within- that innocent person- your true soul- and realize it is so simple. No wonder they say ‘know yourself and you will know the world’- we are all the same. Our core is identical – we are all saints or potential killers. It is us that decide which path to choose but the truth is only one. What we want is to be happy, we want liberation from all suffering. What could be better in life than harmony, peace and unconditional love? And what makes a wise man if not that person that stands in front of adversity with the smile on his face? ‘By yourself committing wrong, you defile yourself. By yourself not doing wrong, you purify yourself.’

After all, your life may end in a second – what will you be left with? Not your Porsche, nor your bank account or your house by the sea. You will be left with a pure heart and a history of love and kindness that you have spread around to other people. But time is so precious and many of us spend it so purposeless. As Marcus Aurelius so beautifully put it – ‘ your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.’

India- the land of the wild

We always have a choice whether or not to take that one step, beyond which there’s a whole new world waiting to be explored. Two years back I have started planning my trip to India. Couple of years later and I am living the dream.

India was on my ‘must see’ list since I was a child, watching documentaries. Its ancient history, spirituality and civilizations always fascinated me and it just seemed the place where all this mysticism was molded into such colorful and diverse ways!

Later on, I have discovered Mircea Eliade, read more about hindu and buddhist philosophies, saw some Bollywood movies, and eventually I came to know that the romani people ( also called gypsies’) actually originated from the nomadic tribes of north India – Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana. (I must say I have a great respect and admiration for their unity and the way they preserve their culture.)

I knew this trip will be a lifetime experience, a challenge, a sort of ‘once you’ve made it in India you’ll make it anywhere’ – which by the way it is a bit true. For me, it was like a coming back to the roots, to the center – this not only because of yoga, the mysticism or spirituality, but also for it rich culture, mix of people, different languages ( total 1600!) and religions (Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jain, Sikh and Parsi).

In a country where there are 1.25 billion people, that come from so many backgrounds, so culturally diverse – what they all learn and have in common is their humbleness and tolerance. Here you see the poorest slums and the most marvelous palaces. After all, India is the land of contrasts, where people learn to adapt from an early age, to accept the others as they are, to be creative and accept life as it is ( also due to its caste system).

In a world of endless possibilities, where everyone has its own dreams and goals in life, every day seems like a fight for survival. Although the British rule left a strong imprint on the country, India will always get away with it. In India everything is possible; in India you can make it happen! Add a cup of chai, a puffy idly cake as well as a nice sitar tune with a view and you’ll get the picture! (See ‘Shantaram’- Gregory David Roberts – must read)

Honestly, India for me is more than a destination, it’s not just an another country to visit. It’s a fight with your own self. It builds your character and makes you understand that what you’ve previously considered imperative in your life is just a commodity. It makes you stronger. The fact that India strikes you with its poverty and magnificence (holy cows walking free on the roads along with high class cars, great palaces along with miserable slums),it’s music, scents and colors, but above all, the people that make this country so special- yes – we have to admit: India has its ups and downs, but if you’ll survive it – one thing is sure – you’ll never get enough of it.

“Sometimes we love with nothing more than hope. Sometimes we cry with everything except tears.”

Back to the Jungle

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‘We have to learn to come back to serve the nature, cherish and sustain the fertility and diversity of the nature, look with humor at our place as biological beings, as part of the cycle of life. We can learn how to take care of each other’ Dennis McKenna
<Ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis Caapi) and the leaf of the Chacruna plant- the two make a potent medicine which opens the door to the energetic world the underlies the world of everyday. Named after two Quechua words- ‘aya’ which means spirit, and ‘huasca’ which means vine, rope- therefore the vine of the souls. It is also known as yaje, Caapi,natema, pinde, daime. It plays a central role in the spiritual and cultural traditions of the indigenous peoples of the upper Amazon, Orinoco plains, and the Pacific coast of Columbia. >

I got to Pucallpa – Santa Rosa de Dinamarca-in the middle of the peruvian jungle on 24th of December where I was warmly welcomed by the family of Don Antonio Velasquez. The Shipibos are one of the largest ethnic groups in the Peruvian Amazon (they currently number 20,000 people) they are spread in the Pucallpa/Ucayali region and highly regarded as being the masters of ayahuasca.

Before I got to Peru I felt I had like a thirst at the physical and emotional level, something that was missing and even if I knew the answer was there, in front of my eyes, I couldn’t t see it. I had questions and doubts, problems that I thought I have sorted in my head- however I do recollect a lot of moments in my everyday life when I sensed that I am still the product of my ghosts- those tiny little problems can get bigger and bigger and start haunting you. Therefore, I had to clean myself in a way or another. Find peace with myself.

I found out about ayahuasca through documentaries and yes- the shamanism, the mysticism, the opening of the mind – attracted me. It all seemed to be like a type of knowledge that doesn’t t reveal itself so easy and it’s not accessible to everyone. It is not easy but if you really want it, if you are opened to whatever its new, you give up prejudice and expectations – each and every one of us can see what is over there.

The first ceremony – the night revealed surrealist sounds coming through the almost a tent-like accommodation called ‘maloca’- the round place where the ceremonies take place. The strong metallic smell and taste of the ‘purga’- the ayahuasca drink- combined with the tobacco and the smoke that was taking amazing forms in the candle light- but most of it all- the ‘Icaros’ (songs of the shamans) that seemed to be outside of this world -made me envision a world long forgotten but to which we are strongly knit. All these consist of some initial memories that always connect to a specific state of distress, of struggle and release.

I had a lot to put up with all the obstacles and labaerints of my mind that’s why in the first session I couldn’t t concentrate properly. Obviously I was analyzing too much- thinking about what was supposed to happen and didn’t, what I wanted to see, and as I will found out later on – the plant is not at all predictable- sometimes it’s very powerful, sometimes very subtle. The important thing though is that you have to get the message, to see beyond images and symbols, flashes and memories from your childhood- or generally through any kind of way it is transmitted to your body. You have to acknowledge and let go of all the negative coming out of your past.

During the following days I understood that what I was going through was a complex process of desintoxication- psychologically and physiologically- apart of the bioenergetical unblock- where all these visionary experiences come from- memories from childhood, visions related to molecular and organic world- and later on- access to other dimensions.

It was simple to liberate myself and what seemed to be a barrier between the conscious and unconscious- now was demolished and I was able to see.

From the third ceremony on- I realized that something was different about me, that I have changed and I started to take my notebook with me so that I can write the words that I felt like spitting and letting out. I felt easy and light again. I cried for three hours and when don Antonio finished singing I got out in the jungle, sat and listened to the other song- the song of nature, the song of aliveness and of freedom, the song of everything. I felt an infinite peace and a primordial harmony all around me and just being aware of this sensation made me part of it all. It is so easy but unfortunately too far from this civilized world.

For the first time I was vibrating with nature and even the last of my pores felt happy and connected with the universe. It was then when I understood the words of the well known Dennis McKenna -‘ we need to wake up to what is happening to this planet. We have disconnected spiritually and we have been seduced by the impression that somehow we are important  in the picture- but we aren’t!’

The sessions ended and although it was intense- I did 8 ceremonies in 10 days- I am still learning to this day and I can only say I will always repeat the experience. That long forgotten place really got to me.

Now I understand a lot of things and I continue this cleansing. I understood that we all have the answers deep inside us- there’s this old room, dusty and with dim light with a lot of drawers and secret passages where only our inner pure child has access. I understood that there are a lot of bad habits that control us without realizing that we live mechanically, almost robotic and we forget about our true essence. Furthermore, I understood that instead of denying what’s bad or negative we can take our time to be present and accept ourselves as for who we are and who we can become. I understood that the ayahuasca experience opened up my horizons and that besides investing in ourselves, we should also take care and cherish everything that surrounds us.

Unfortunately, we forgot where we are coming from in this long journey we call progress. The unfortunate ‘drunkness that we call human history’- kept us busy but the truth is there we just have to see it.  We only need to open our eyes and be present..

I will conclude here not before I leave an open space for all the inexplicable and impossible to put in words- since such a personal and out of the ordinary experience it’s  difficult to describe thoroughly. The bottom line is that ‘ if you want to change the world you need to start from yourself’.

Are you there yet?

Isle of Pines, New Caledonia

I am a spiritual person and I have always been keen in discovering new ways of unraveling myself – of finding who I really am. Everything that surround us represents something we could connect with- something we could experience and learn from. And it is through experience that I think that we all want the same in life. Love, peace and joy. However, while we’re all part of this dance of humanity, very few understand and even less know it.

Thing is, what we sometimes forget is that we aren’t here to compete, we are here to collaborate, to learn from each other, to encourage and support each other’s growth. The whole idea of growth – outwardly  and inwardly – is merely related to connection with others and with your own self. And how do we better connect than when we’re traveling? It is then when we’re out of the comfort zone, out in the open, vulnerable and authentic, with no masks and no roles to play.

The unknown always excited me and I’ve always had a predilection to surpass my limits, to reach for more and for the unusual. Traveling for me is almost like a condition, a disease that helps me hope and want to be better each day. Seven years of traveling and still I haven’t found peace ( far from it)! It’s going to last for life this sickness of mine.

Now you might be one of those that say – you don’t have to travel to know yourself. Silence, introspection and maybe a bit of discipline can do the trick even at home – but as for what I am concerned, it is the best way to befriend, embrace and forgive yourself.

You need to lose yourself so that you find who you truly are. And how can you love yourself properly if you have a job that keeps you in distress 5 days out of 7 or if you have to constantly think about paying your bills and pleasing others. Been there, done that! I never had time for myself. Eventually, I kind of wanted to lose myself even more, ironically to forget that I am not who I wanted to be but what society made out of me. A comfortable, predictable and average life.

The outcome is that we forgot to search for the mystery, for the unknown, for the beauty that always lies in the small details – we forgot to live in the present. To be grateful. To say I am sorry. To give before asking. We forgot we have a mission. To be true to our own selves and how can we be true to ourselves if we have no clue who we are or what do we want from life?

Who are you? Do you still see that innocent child that lies within! Do you still listen to his voice and fears and needs? Being innocent means not only being vulnerable but also implies great honesty and conviction. I have a goal, a place to reach, a mountain to climb or a sea to cross. Then from the moment I set foot for this purpose ’till I arrive it’s magic.

People, places, tastes, smells, novelty and change, sacrifices and desperation, innocence- it’s basically going nuts and coming back all zen at the same time. It’s an art to control them both and have a balance.

It’s the intensity of life that always makes me wanna hit the road again. The fact that today I can be sitting in a restaurant, reading a newspaper in Bucharest and the following day I am in the southernmost part in India, drinking masala tea with a stranger that I feel I know for ages.

Now I do understand we’re not all the same- we weren’t all born to travel.
Fair enough. Imagine how would that look like? Crazy stuff! What I am saying is that there still should be a form of search, a wonder and a thirst  for fulfillment- and this is me reminding you to start now. To live fully, consciously, to be present. To smile at life and be grateful for its harmony. Last but not lest, to love. We attract what we are. Be love and you’ll get love back. Give and you’ll receive.

Never forget about yourself. You are unique- limited edition- so don’t listen to what others expect you to be. Just be the person you wanted to be when you were a kid. Be happy with yourself and you’ll make a friend for life. Be your partner not your enemy. From now on- you are in control.