A Modern Journey for Ancient Reasons

Noh masks

The first part of the journey by aeroplane is short and still within the west. Europeans move around comfortably, smug about the cheap flights they have found. I sit next to two young teenagers who are playing with their new video camera, making short films of themselves at arms length, then laughing hysterically during the replay. Businessmen plug in their earphones between meetings, and a young student works on her lap top across the aisle. I sit with my ancient mirror close to my heart, adorned by the modernity of this journey.

The gods of time and space are seated all around me, the work of the mind stamped into every device and motive, the musak piped around the cabin keeping the fears and pain at bay for the time being. Almost everything here is experienced at a distance, as a concept. It is empty of the heart. My own heart aches a little as I think of you on an impersonal train back to the city, and the empty apartment full of our memories and shared expressions. You will probably set our letters on the polished emptied table and then sleep obliviously, your habit when things overwhelm you.

How can letting go of you like this show my love for you?

You had asked this question so many times, and I had attempted an explanation an equal number of times.

 I am not a commodity that you own, my love. I am pure energy, which is attracted to your energy. Our energies are indestructible, only inhabiting in the human body when we are ready to learn about the heart. If you have total trust in me, then you must realise how important the next stages of my journey are. You know, I’ve been on this pathway since I was a child.

My feet are hot so I reach down to undo my boots and slip them off under the seat. Due to the long night vigil at the airport, I have not been able to do my regular practice of walking. I wonder if I can walk in the air. It is simply a question of taking energy down to the feet and imagining. So, because of my confinement in the cabin, I am unable to prepare my feet for the sort of walking I will be doing soon after landing.

It is a cold spring day with hot sun, and as I leave the plane, my black suede boots back in place, I undo the buttons of my winter coat, and look out over the northern German hills. It is a beautiful view, and I can just see the tree-lined banks of the great winding Rhine at the end of the small airfield. This country airport is so familiar to me, close to Strasbourg where I lived and worked for a while.

A large group of young people is here to spend a short holiday with German families. They are returning the hospitality shown to their children in Britain the previous year. I sit in the small arrivals hall watching them being introduced to their families for the first time. The nervousness of these meetings is tangible, different cultures and yet so similar. But they are kind outgoing families, with a will to share their cultures among members of their European family.

Then Kati arrives, thrilled as ever to see me, picking up my bags energetically and showing me to the car. We talk excitedly, catching up with each other and making plans for the few hours we will spend together before my onward flight to Burma. I have sent the very last text message from the airport to you, and have heard back that you are lost so have decided to go to bed for a few hours. You sound so sad, but I know that this is for you to deal with alone now. I cannot help to detach you so that you can experience true happiness. No-one can.

I write,

You have not lost me, but instead have taken a step even closer to me, moving outside your pain. Smile. We will be together soon again – in the Far East!

This close high-tech contact, which we have always had, will not be possible for a while. Kati bubbles on, asking many questions about my plans and arrangements, and about you of course.

You must be so sorrowful at leaving your love. You have spent so many months intensively together now, both put so much energy into your relationship.

I nod in agreement and begin to tentatively move my fingertips over the surface of how I am feeling, unsure of how I will be able to put these fingerings into words to share with her. I pause, looking down, knowing how difficult she found her recent separation from her partner. I can see you tearful and desperate at the airport, and try to examine closely what that sight does to me. I speak with difficulty.

Naturally, I feel sad, but not for myself. I have the greatest compassion imaginable for her loneliness and the sense of abandonment, but I believe that we are still together now as I speak of this. The physical closeness and sharing is just one tiny aspect of this significant fusion of two minds and hearts. We each have to work separately for now.

Kati looks across into my eyes as we inch along in a traffic queue. She knows that these words are empty, formal. She slowly looks ahead and engages the gear stick, moving off ponderously, waiting for my empty words to fill up. I realise that the words I first said came from my head, rational, mature, but that she is waiting for those from my heart. In a way, I am aware that my headwords are to protect her from my strong emotions, a habit I have had since being a young child with a sick brother looked after by an anxious mother. But now, as an adult, my heart has begun to open and remain open for longer and longer periods, and I recognise this as reality.

Kati waits patiently for me to move down from my head to my heart. She encourages me, reaching across to touch my knee, gently reminding me that we have a number of hours together before I leave.

And the heart duly opens.

We are on the same journey, and without the fetters of time and space, inevitably our paths will converge again. In many ways it doesn’t matter when because I am not waiting; I gave that up many years ago. But yes, this whole thing was born from a random kiss on a city street, a kiss that could not lie, perhaps the only kiss in my lifetime which has no trace of lust or desire. For me sorrow concerns loss and disappointment, and I feel neither of these things. Only the body can be lost and disappointed, never the spirit. Our spirits are always close. The bond unbreakable.

I think back to those last weeks before I left. The semblance of irrational anger without a target; the simulation of distance imposed between us to practice our separation; needy bodies fighting and protecting themselves by isolation. Then one day, the appearance of the ship’s trunk delivered from a local shop, to be packed and sent on ahead, somehow gave us permission to be as close as ever. And again the desperate short-sightedness of our bodies as we perambulated around the deserted airport waiting for my late flight.

I continue from the heart and Kati becomes satisfied.

 The moment I disappeared out of view into the departure area, the very first step I took out of that visual field, there was nuclear fusion. I can still feel that step now. The strong heel releasing downwards inside the smart suede boot; the instep rolling forwards and the balls of my feet propelling me into the alloy of the metal of our hearts; then stepping across the threshold of the plane, and again a sense of our spirits united as one, the physical bodies only an accessory to that.

I hesitate to go further as I know that Kati finds a number of my beliefs difficult, but I am aware that for once she is resisting mocking me. I look at her and she is smiling, anticipating that I will stop at this point. She glances at me.

Go on. I promise I won’t argue with what you say. It’s too serious for that, and I truly want to hear it.

I take courage.

We are so desperate not to lose touch with people when we are physically absent from them. This is a constant need for attention and acknowledgement of where or who we are. But it’s also about reference points for the mind in case it gets totally lost. The heart, on the other hand, does not need this, because it functions on faith alone. The heart knows in a direct way, which supersedes the knowledge and fake-permanence that the mind craves. If the heart is allowed to, it will lead us into a situation where we can learn and develop, a place where we can practise what is the real imperative in life, which is to love unconditionally.

I look straight ahead, not seeing the beautiful forest scenery as it flashes by, glittering in the sunlight in the Rhine hills. I must concentrate utterly on these words I offer her, which must not betray even a hint of dishonesty or delusion. Kati is still quiet.

I am able now to listen to my heart and so have no doubts about the next stage of my own journey. Some may say it’s selfish and inconsiderate to follow my heart in this way, but I do not have any choice. It is impossible for me to ignore my heart. So, I am taking what could be perceived as a huge risk, as you also have done. I must know the world directly, and to do that I must be able to say ‘goodbye.’

Kati drives effortlessly through the country roads, the land stripped and bared ready for the sowing of the first cabbages and potatoes. And as the houses become fewer, I realise that over on the low hills that divide France and Germany, there is snow.

Snow?

Yes, it’s been freezing here. Colder than most winters.

I hadn’t expected this I suppose. What’s the lowest temperature you’ve had?

Last night it was 2 degrees below zero.

Amazing! I heard yesterday that it will be 38 in Bangkok when I arrive tomorrow.

Travel. Time. Weather. Has no one ever questioned the dream of it all? We accept the voice of science as proof, but there must be something more. I wonder if we are truly adaptable to different cultures and climates. The East and West are so very different.

We drive across many crossroads, between the large thatched farmhouses with their lightly smoking chimneys, winding down the windows and catching the gorgeous aroma of logs burning. It is certain that the people in these villages have not lived with many Asians, unlike in Britain. Kati and I talk about the multicultural nature of Britain. She is envious that I grew up with Sikhs and Moslems mixed in with Irish and Caribbean, and she starts to get upset about the past of her country, its insistence on ethnic cleansing, the Nazis.

I put my hand on her arm as she drives, to close the wound shut again.

Kati, you are not your country. Nationality is only a notion. It’s all a question of energy.

She is thoughtful, her strong analytical mind coming into play.

And East West differences? Are they a myth?

Spirituality is not a culture. It is simply a collection of people who have direct experience of reality instead of intellectual concepts. The greatest concentration of such people happens to be in the East. Culture is almost whimsical, people’s likes and dislikes, traditions, climate. But spirit is not about those delusional things. It is about the kingdom of the heart where the mind is quiet.

She is thoughtful, longing to disagree, but knowing well that I will not argue with her.

You’ll see for yourself soon.

She will soon depart for Burma to see her beloved Alexander, just as I am leaving and on my way to Japan.

We drive up through deciduous forests, the hills opening up through gaps and the blue of the sky breathtaking. She parks the car and we get out to walk.

 This was such a lovely idea my love. And I can’t believe my last taste of European snow!

Well, this is specially arranged for the beginning of your new journey.

Yes, and it signifies many changes for you too. Your doctorate almost finished, and the time approaching when you will have children and come to live in Asia. We will be neighbours again.

She links my arm and we walk happily up the steep track. Then I stop suddenly, and before she realises, I have taken off my shoes and am running barefoot in the snow, shouting with glee. Snow on the earth’s crust! I close my eyes and bend my knees a little so that the weight of my body is transmitted directly down into my heels and the balls of my feet equally. Kati watches silently, smiling, but slightly distressed that I will get too cold. Eventually she whispers that I should put my boots back on, and kneels to touch my feet to check their coldness.

You’re warm!

She stands and looks sceptically at me.

 How d’you do that? Are you a witch, as I’ve always thought?

My eyes closed, I defer to my feelings rather than the sight, denying the visual beauty around me. It is hard to release the direct touch of the frozen earth, but Kati is curious, so I open my eyes. She implores me,

Teach me about feet.

Just experience them directly without concepts or judgments. Intimately know if they are cold or hot, and where on the sole is colder or hotter. Teaching is for you to do. I cannot tell you how you feel.

We walk higher towards a castle, the air thinner, the sun hotter. The night’s vigil at the airport and the tragic parting seem to have inflicted a bloodless wound deep in my chest, which flairs and then fades. My boots back on, as we walk, I probe for it in the short silences among the exhilaration and shallow breaths. Then I realise suddenly that it is not our separation that hurts, but my compassion for your pain. We walk up through the stone arch, the cobbles uneven and frozen.

Much later, as the evening arrives in the speeding spacious train, I struggle with awkward items of luggage and full baggage racks. I am leaving for good, so must carry everything I need with me for the high tropical temperatures of Burma, and the cold clear Spring and cherry blossom of Japan, my final destination.

As the train pulls into the small city of Frankfurt airport, I am uncertain which station among many to get off at, struggling with bags and the darkness outside the train, peering to try to read station signs in an unfamiliar language. The young couple wait to get off in the hallway wearing elegant alpine ski garments, absorbed in each other. They do not even see me rapidly alight to leave the heavy case and smaller bag on the platform, and then rushing back on to collect the remaining bag before the doors mechanically seal and the train disappears back into the dark. People here are absorbed in their own deluded minds, ambitious, ruthless.

There are so many transport levels where buses and planes and trains converge on this airport colony. Miles of shining marble floor and acres of glass punctuated by shiny steel rods and geodomes, and the continual multi-lingual announcement, all raised up against the false black sky. I fail to find the correct terminal for my flight, stepping constantly on and off low-loading buses manoeuvring around tight corners and countless intersections. Lifts are not working, escalators are blocked off, and luggage trolleys are not allowed past certain areas or on the robot-driven monorail vehicles connecting various terminals. I constantly load and unload and reload my heavy bags. Tiredness is beginning to have its effects, but I smile when I think of our miraculous meeting back in London, and how we will guide each other along this long road.

I long to take off my enclosing boots, to stand in snow again, but there is nowhere in this chaos of vogue for me to sit or walk without my roving mind. Nowhere to light a candle or spend a second or two making sure that the thick stick of incense is glowing red so that the curls of aromatic smoke will start. I feel as if I am on fire, as if the soles of my feet are burned with the friction of going round in circles, carrying meaningless belongings.

As I trudge down yet another concourse flanked by endless counters and conveyor belts to carry luggage behind the scenes, the agony of strained fingers and shoulders swinging the dead weight of bags around, halts me. I change what my mind is bullying me into feeling. I slow down and become light, feeling my feet making skin-on-skin contact with soft earth, and am surprised to find that I am carrying nothing but an umbrella and a simple begging bowl.

Oleanders and tea flowers line my route ahead, and my steps are slow, each one absorbing me equally. I have the same feeling of sauntering towards a fragrant life as I do in my dream when the white robes are handed to me in the mirror. It is a deeply peaceful feeling where all the obsessions of the mind’s rantings have disappeared. It is a simple and silent fascination with energy, all energy, and before I know it my largest and most cumbersome bags have been checked in and roll off along one of the many conveyors, and I am directed to the correct departure lounge. Screens indicate that the flight about to remove me from this acute centre of chaos created by the limited human mind, is now boarding. I sit and nibble thoughtfully on the package of sandwiches Kati sent me off with, and wonder if I am wearing a smug expression on my face.

Flying over India, Pakistan, its Asian cities and river delta patterns unable to properly sustain populations, causes me to smile widely out of the window at first light. There, lives are lived in the eye of death, but I am strangely at ease floating in the air above them. During the night on the huge airbus bound for Bangkok, various curtain combinations were organized around me by Thai male stewards, who changed their uniforms numerous times, each one more stunning than the last. I have remained seated for 8 hours, constantly being supplied with food and drinks.

During the night, the stewards were very vigilant about cabin lighting, watching their charges with a mother’s love. There were islands of light where people read, and flashing screens attended to by people wearing sterilised earphone sets. The man next but one to me, a free seat between us being extremely welcome though uncommented upon, ate and drank nothing. He requested an eye-mask almost immediately after take off, and then slept for the whole night.

This is a dream. The galley area in front of me consists of rows of containers for all that is needed to keep passengers happy during their time in the air. They are battered and worn with the constant latching and unlatching executed by beautifully coiffured Thai beauties, silk clad, with faultless smiles. They are assertive, and brandish broad mid-west American accents.

When I finally disembark and find the first trolley to carry my awkward bags, a strange vague cloak of sweat covers me. Of course, I am still dressed in city winter gear, my slightly swollen feet forced with great effort into the suede boots. I marvel at how easily they fitted in after standing in the snow back in Germany. Time? Place? Swellings? How do they all fit together, or are they all an illusion.

It is lunchtime in Bangkok airport and obvious to me that this is not Europe, despite my lack of sleep and my strange dislocation from the life that I have been living for the last year. That strange coalescence of the odours of decay, jasmine and orchids present in the Tropics, engross me as I walk up and down the vast neon corridors for walking exercise. Outside, there is a dramatic storm, heavy rain steaming across the runways.

I smile at the occasional monk in ochre robes amongst the smart duty-free fragrance counters, and the dream is over.

thai monks at the airport

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