Cambodia: Meditations, Transformations, and Lionheart in Love

Photo on 2011-11-27 at 18.13 #2

Lionheart. A pendant I started wearing after I got off the streets in 2010 when it caught my eye in a Los Angeles mall, just after dad died and everything that had gone to hell was beginning to balance itself back. It comes from a video game, and to me, aside from looking cool, I think more of Richard the Lionheart from the Crusades, and Lionheart is synonymous with exceptional courage and bravery, due to his valor in battle, making it a very high praise. For me, it is a constant reminder to never give up, never back down, never give anything less than 100% of my best effort. Even before I started wearing it, that was the philosophy that got me through the trouble on the streets of New York and New England after dad died and everyone abandoned me, and I had no money.

My pendant Lionheart has always been a topic of conversation for people who notice it, from video game lovers to people who just think it looks cool and enjoy the symbolism behind it when I share it with them. Over the past three years, Lionheart really represents me and is almost an inseparable part of who I am. I am an intense person, there’s no doubt about that, but in being my authentic, true self, it allows me to filter out those who do not appreciate that and let those who do feel special around me, for they enjoy the genuine love I share with them since I appreciate them too. It is easier to point and laugh at someone who bares his heart to others and lets them decide if they want to treat it well or stab it, but very few people have the courage to expose themselves constantly. I have learned the rewards are much greater than the risks, which is why every action I make and every person I meet is a gamble for me, but I would always prefer to be me. Every criticism I get, especially writing here, is more than countered by the friends I have met who started following me because they fell in love with my writing.

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A conversation I had last week when visiting Cambodia for the Khmer New Year from one of my new friends whom I met at my hostel affirmed this for me, when a week of knowing her, we grew to love each other like family. She told me that most people see that openness and vulnerability from being myself and laying it all out for people to decide is in her eyes a strength, not a weakness, because I keep doing it even when I know it has caused much pain before, and realized that the joy I get from it is all the more enjoyable, not just for me, but for her, since she can be herself around me and know I won’t judge her, and I make every effort to ensure the happiness and well-being of her and all those whom I love and call my friends, my family, my jeesh, an Arabic word for army, but in many contexts, can mean a sacred circle of close people with a shared higher cause. And yes, they associate all of that with me and Lionheart.

Today at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, I saw this and chuckled because it’s more synchronicity at work:

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Ever since dad died, I really had to embrace practical spirituality for solace and for recreating my energy into something more positive, because there would be nobody there to hug me and tell me it would be okay. For almost three years since his death anniversary next month, I have had a total of only six hugs before Cambodia where I met three people who now mean the world to me and are my friends, my family, my jeesh. As a result of opening up to the universe, then living to add more love and kindness in the world, I have been rewarded a trickle at a time from the vast ocean of existence, and have had way more positive experiences than negatives in retrospect, especially when looking at the synchronicity since my decision to do good for this world.

But I have to backtrack about six weeks before I continue with my Cambodia story, for things really started in Timor-Leste, where I was working in March. This is a prelude about synchronicity that started when sleeping in a haunted guesthouse (because it was the best choice compared to the other bug-ridden hovels with no air conditioning or electric fans). I was meditating during a storm and looking out the window at the green hills and had this sudden thought about crocodiles. That night, underneath the mosquito net, I dreamed I was in pitch black and standing in front of the nose hole of a great crocodile, in a strange communion. The next morning, I woke up and found the island of Timor is believed to be the back of a giant crocodile, and is a sacred animal in Timorese belief. On the way back to Bangkok, I stopped by a friend’s home in Bali, and opened up his book on mudras, and found an interesting one for energy called the Makara mudra–and it turns out Makara means “crocodile” in sanskrit.

Around the same time, I had been planning to go to Cambodia to Angkor Wat, where I had been wanting to go to for three years since something had been calling me there. I realize the Khmers used to feed their enemies to the crocodiles found in the old moats around Angkor too. When I shared this with Erin, she told me her friend in Cambodia was named Makara as well; and when I shared that with my Taiqi sifu, he told me crocodiles represent the second chakra and transformation from fear.

It gets weirder with many more bizarre coincidences/synchronicity, but the last bits two days before leaving Bangkok for Siem Reap were for more ominous. First, opening up a guide to Angkor and landing on a page about Tha Prohm, where the Crocodile Tree is. That same day, I opened up a book on the cosmos, and the page I went to was about Aztec astrology, and the first sign was the crocodile. Put in my birth data, and I’m a crocodile in that cosmology.

By the time I arrived in the hostel in Cambodia, I saw a girl walking towards the front desk who had looked strangely familiar, as though I had known her somewhere before. We both thought we knew each other from somewhere before, and got lunch together…then she and I quickly became friends, and that evening, introduced me to her two travel buddies, one of whom I was immediately stricken with. That same one decided to accompany me the next morning spontaneously to the sunrise at Angkor, and most of our time was spent talking to each other about dreams and really getting along well. I was very attracted to her, but was under the assumption she was attached. Skipping the details, she wasn’t with anyone, and was mutually attracted to me too, and we really matched well. Maybe it was when I was taking pictures with her and doing yoga poses to be silly underneath the Crocodile Tree or just underneath Bayon in the shade as the heat became too much, but this is where the magic really began, as Angkor and Cambodia are known to change people’s lives, and mine has been thoroughly changed, reinforced by falling in love (albeit briefly), and making new lifelong friends.

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Over the week, I learned a lot about myself. I thrive in Cambodia, which is the Wild West and total chaos, and amongst travelers outside of their comfort zone. It’s what I grew up in all my life, and being able to offer both comfort, loyalty, and friendship that allows people to quickly find their bearings when alone and knowing nobody else, especially when other foreigners are looking to take advantage of each other too, mostly for sex or drugs. I defended them from purse-snatchers, consoled them when emotionally vulnerable and not happy with the unexpected dirty life there that scared one, taught them all the body hacking workouts, yoga, meditation, and Taiqi I learned to create my own circle of peace when I had nobody to run to. I shared my experiences as a traveler and the wisdom from the books I have read, but what was most important to them was my genuine self and my dedication to making a difference, bringing in more kindness and love in the world, that they could see from my actions to be all that I can be for them as a friend with no expectations. It wasn’t that I told them I was going to make a difference in every country I travel to and at least donate blood to the children’s hospital and invited them to consider joining too, it was little things like asking people if they were okay when they looked hurt, writing letters of support to read on the bus to Phnom Penh after leaving, running out to buy pizza for them so they wouldn’t have to leave the private movie room we rented out and lose the space to other potential guests in queue when they were hungry–all these little considerations came out of a genuine desire to ensure their happiness and well-being, which in turn inspired them to bring more love and kindness to the world too. And they knew it because they could see from the smile on my face and “fierce but kind look in my eyes” as they described it that they could trust me.

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It just goes to show that you can have a PhD and have a long list of accomplishments on your CV, but if you can’t swim when the boat you are on capsizes, or you can’t connect to people in situations where having friends saves you from both danger and boredom, none of that matters in real life, as the “professional” world is only a small part of life and is not reality.

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But the part that really changed me was not just the friendship with the girls, but falling in love with one of them and the aftermath once I left Siem Reap. I gave it my all and my best effort, which caught her off-guard, since it was only a week. She appreciated the “better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all” outlook I have, but some words she said really resonated with the two of us. When I shared with her my story of coming out of hardship all my life, it inspired her, especially with my drive to be kind. When I told her details I rarely share with people on one of our dates, which I did because I would rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not, she told me that instead of pushing her away as I was expecting, she said it made her appreciate me more, especially because she knows that my smiles for her aren’t just rare and special for her, but are rare in general. Surviving what I have is one thing to respect and admire, but it’s keeping a kind and loving attitude while staying true to myself and dedicated to making a difference in the world, despite all the evil that I have seen and been victim of, that makes me loveable in her eyes.

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In all honesty, in the past four years, I have never been happier in my life since that week with her, and our other two friends. I had not felt the loving embrace of friends and family since dad’s death that I had with them, and my affection for the one I am enamored of is as deep as oceans and great as mountains. I know I probably shouldn’t have told her I was in love with her, or that I loved her, but I would rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not, and in all honesty, when you travel and are in extreme situations, that’s when your real self comes out, none of this guarded stuff people create to protect themselves in industrialized urban societies.

Yesterday, I believe I would never have done what I did today. I feel like something important has happened to me. Is this possible? I just met her, and yet… I have fallen in love with her. Belief, like fear or love, is a force to be understood as we understand the theory of relativity, and principles of uncertainty. Phenomena that determine the course of our lives. Yesterday, my life was headed in one direction. Today, it is headed in another. These forces that often remake time and space, they can shape and alter who we imagine ourselves to be, begin long before we are born, and continue after we perish. Our lives and our choices, like quantum trajectories, are understood moment to moment, at each point of intersection, each encounter, suggest a new potential direction.Isaac Sachs, Cloud Atlas (film)

It’s a lot of pressure for anyone to have and very fast, I know, but this is who I am, and there are no surprises there, and I’ve found that following my heart has been what brought me the most success in life. Love is not coercion or obligation: no relationship can survive if it is built on that foundation; I’d rather be rejected now and have time to begin healing, but I’d still be happy for her because she’s following her heart instead of feeling trapped by emotional blackmail into a relationship, which doesn’t just make her miserable, it makes me unhappy too. Could it work out? I mean, she lives back in North America, and the guy she admires might not be the same person anymore, resulting in her guilt, even though I would move back to pursue something (following my heart). She could do the vagabond life and anti-sabbatical life like me too, where life is spent up to a year working to earn and save enough to spend most of our lives traveling, as opposed to working many years only to have one year of freedom. I could even arrange to fly back and forth between Asia and North America if she were willing–but everything is always contingent on one factor that, no matter how dedicated and ready I am, means nothing if it’s not reciprocal feelings and commitment.

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Realistically, most people will say it’s time to cut my losses, and I’ve been mentally and emotionally preparing myself for that. It was today when not getting enough sleep and making a decision to give myself enough time to meditate and reflect on our time together and the road ahead of me (or us) lies, that I realize Cambodia did transform me. Though my love interest was also a big part of it, it’s the aftermath that shows how much I’ve grown in the past three years since dad died and when I was last in a relationship, the past year since grad school, and the past summer.

No matter what happens, whether she reciprocates and commits to something more serious with me or decides to go her separate way, I will do the same thing in either scenario: continue to love her and be her friend, as I would for anyone else. Love is not conditional or contractual, love is freely given, and I don’t need a relationship to feel love, I am living love by sharing my own for the world and my friends, and I have people who truly love and cherish me for being me. So one less romantic interest and relationship is not the end of the world for me, and it’s no reason to cut her off because she’s not fulfilling a desire I have.

Besides: I have spent three years alone, single, without a lot of support after dad died and everyone turned their back on me, leaving me on the streets to die, and abstinent. I have developed the mental, physical, and emotional armors that prove to me I can survive and thrive, and that I still choose to be positive and help others even if I don’t get what I want. That is a sign of maturity for me, instead of crying and whining about not getting my way. I’ve come this far and can deal with (potential) heartbreaks and setbacks with grace and dignity.

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My Saturday in reflection started at 6:30 with an hour in meditation, a half hour each in Taiqi breath work and body hacking workouts, then went to the mall to watch a movie, enjoy a burger and smoothie, then drip coffee at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre before wandering through the exhibits and gift shops. In-between, my iPod was my other friend, and these songs really reflected some of the thoughts I had when ruminating about our brief romantic rendezvous:

Later on, I remember the freedom I had last year, dance-walking around San Diego, Singapore and Hong Kong, after withdrawing from grad school, being free to enjoy the ecstasy of life and not give a damn about what people thought as I not only listened to music that made me happy, but experienced it with my entire being, letting it carry me around, engrossed in the audio oasis from the desert of society’s self-conscious ego insecurity prisoners, hearing this song, which also had lyrics that reflect my lessons:

I have my meditation and my martial arts, I have my friends, my workouts, my knowledge, my accomplishments in work, the thank yous from the many people I have helped traveling the world, even if for just being me–I have enough to be happy and heal myself, without needing a relationship to experience happiness and define me, even though a relationship is generally when I am happiest because I can express myself completely–not just in the ways I already do, but in ways that are specific to a romance, and it’s not just sex and deep kisses. I liked making her feel special, because that’s what she was (and still continues to be) for me. It is this gratitude I have for life that allows me to grow from both the heartbreaking and heartwarming moments, and it’s a real celebration for me since this inner peace is the reward.

But as I posted at the beginning, synchronicity is there for the universe to show me I am on the right track, where the lion tea had my name underneath it. I read a couple New Age books as well out of a strange instinct to read something on this year’s astrological forecast and the Kuan Yin Oracle book, figuring it couldn’t hurt. According to the best advice from the forecasts for me and my three beloved friends from Siem Reap 2013 for me means to follow my instincts and help others (looks like I’m already on the right track!); the girl I fancy is recommended to go outside of her comfort zone and take more risks to be truly happy and successful both romantically and professionally as she redefines herself (travel is already doing a lot of that) instead of sticking to routine or security; the other two had parallel fortunes, one being told that every decision this year will affect her greatly, and the last one to open herself up to things outside of her line of conditioning (again, travel helps). The Kuan Yin book said don’t go to extremes, find the balance, that family is as important as ever and that a serious relationship just may work out–and it relates because I do see them as family and it’s reciprocated. I’m of course going to be cynical about relationship advice, because I don’t want to set my expectations up for disappointment, but so far, the universe has always surprised me with synchronicity and serendipity.

At BACC, I was compelled to go downstairs below the ground floor, where I discovered there was an arts library and exhibition space I never knew about before. And it was about Thicht Nhat Hanh, one of my favorite spiritual teachers dad introduced me to, whose calligraphic meditations are what I’ve been posting all throughout this entry since they matched so well with everything today and the past few weeks.

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It’s how I also realize how important other people are to me, because loving people and being loved in return is one of my biggest strengths that keeps me fighting to be my best, and then discovering I still have to be better than that to return tenfold the support they give me.

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I heard once that we are the emotional and intellectual average of the five people closest to us, and I am glad to have removed myself of all the toxic, that included trying to please the wrong “friends”, ex-girlfriends, and blood relatives. This is why my friends are my family, because they give back to me only what I give to them, and it’s nothing but love.

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As the clock on my laptop approaches quarter to two in the morning, Bangkok time, I close this long missive with a mix of emotions, that include longing and loneliness for the girl I love, inner peace and satisfaction at having come as far as I have over the past few years, gratitude for being surrounded by wonderful people who love me as much as I love them and the lessons I leave learned over the years, and hope, because hope is the one thing I have held onto that has kept me strong. Hope: whether it is a memory of something that once was or a dream of something that may one day come true, it is something I have.

Thank you, life, and thank you, friends and loved ones. Please guide me and help me with my heart’s desires, and give me the strength and support I need to heal when I am unable to have them. Until then, I shall continue being me and appreciating both the people around me and the lessons life has for me. I have come a long way, and every step of the way since climbing out of the wreckage, I know that I am truly blessed. And because I am blessed, I will continue doing what I can to spread love and kindness.

I close with a revelation I shared with my friends in Siem Reap during a post-yoga workout meditation session: every kindness and cruelty births our future, for our lives are not out own. Cruelty is a result of lacking love, and it is sad that people looking for love do not realize it is all around us and within us, not in relationships where we place our expectations and demands for happiness and well-being to be fulfilled by others who are seeking the same thing for themselves. This in turn results in other distortions to fill in that void, from buying things to presenting an image for approval, and approval is not love. People commit cruelty because they have forgotten not only how to love, but how to feel love. But it’s there, and always has been: that’s why we are all here and why life continues. Knowing this, especially with all the cruelties I have endured in nearly thirty years of life, why should I add more, when I can put forth more good into this world through my art, my acts of kindness, and living by example with the attitude that emphasizes gratitude and love? I don’t need revenge on the world for all who have wronged me, I need the world to heal itself, and I am part of the process of healing. Thank you, my life, thank you, my friends and loved ones.

And if the girl who holds my secret self in her hands is reading this: know that I will be fine and it is okay to follow your own heart, even if I am not part of it. I am grateful for our brief moment of complete happiness: it is a memory I will hang onto so that I can continue to be strong for whatever comes my way as I continue on my own golden path. Thank you for your time with me, and thank you for being you. Whether we are friends or lovers, know that nothing will change, and you do have my love, now and forever, just like everyone else does–but you know that you have something more and will always have a key to a special place in my heart, no matter what. Thank you.

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