I think it's easy, in portraiture, to aim for a safe but joyous smile or perhaps that sexy smolder you've been working on in the bathroom. But the kind of portrait that makes you think, and wonder what he's thinking--I adore those. The ones that make me pause, stare, and ponder some more. My dear friend Andrew and I were talking about a movie about first loves and how it feels when you're deep in it. That first love that only first loves can make you feel and move you. Shortly after I asked to take a photo. This was the result. Not too long after that, I grabbed a sweet smiling portrait. Both are beautiful, but the former, something about the eyes just keep pulling me in. Soulful strong yet vulnerable.
On my last day in LA, Christmas afternoon, Khalid (IG @lord.farqu) invited me to shoot with Lunch On Me , a beautiful nonprofit organization dedicated to feeding the homeless of Skid Row. It is so heartening to see people love without reason. Giving just to give. Kindness from strangers is the most pure and wonderful thing. It never ceases to amaze me how we all have the power within us to bring warmth, smiles, and laughter to fellow kindred spirits.
Faces of Skid Row is a short photo essay that documents a small slice of fellow souls who live in this 50-block radius of Los Angeles. These people are like you and me. Just trying to figure out how to live in this thing called life.
And they need help. If you're in a place to give, please donate here.
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I admit it.
Being present and mindful sound so cliché. Buzzwords. The next big thing. A fad (Do people even use the word “fad” these days?). You get the idea. I remember when I first learned these concepts, I got the general sense. Like, I get it. But they just sounded like fufu language to me. Just buzzy, fluff words to add to your everyday vocabulary. But what do they really mean? You hear those words so much, they begin to feel weird and foreign, that they start to lose their meaning. It’s kind of like the word hipster. Let’s be honest here, what does it mean to be hipster anymore? Aren’t we all hipster to some degree? I’m pretty sure most people own flannel, skinny jeans, and a beanie at this point. I said hipster three times (now four) in a matter of four sentences, and I’m still not sure what the word entails. See what I mean? Anyways, I shall not digress…
In the same vein, I’ve been hearing the words mindful and present casually flung around, because it feels apropos to the conversation. Meaningless. So how do you do it? How do you live with mindfulness? How do you live in the present?
Anecdotally, it seems like people become mindful of mindfulness when it’s conventionally useful. Generally speaking, people consciously practice mindfulness during the tough moments and hardships. Those times when you feel like the walls are closing in, and all odds are against you. When your hands get so clammy that you sincerely hope no one goes up to you to shake your hand during a very important meeting. When your heart drops and your stomach churns for an hour-long minute right before you have that tough conversation with a loved one.
Yes, mindfulness most definitely can help turn tough situations into opportunities to reflect and gain perspective. But in the course of my travels, I’ve come to realize mindfulness can be practiced every day, every waking moment whenever wherever, not just during those rough patches in your life. With the help of mindfulness, I can see the world in a glass half full kind of way, so that I sip and savor those positive moments, too.
And even those seemingly boring moments, the ones you typically forget the next day or even two minutes after the fact—being present is your free pair of 3D glasses, and mindfulness your free ticket to make those very mundane moments an experience so vivid and rich that it gently teases a cheeky, knowing smile back on your lips.
Lately, mindfulness has become a much-needed friend in my life. It’s not just me, myself, and I anymore. It’s Me and my new mate, Mindfulness. After all, I am solo traveling, which is a lot of alone time with one’s thoughts. And I can tell you for a fact that traveling alone is not all glitz and glamour. Traveling has its dull moments, like anything else. The novelty dies. Like everything else. But when Mindfulness accompanies me wherever I go, she has this incredible way of warming my heart, making me smile, and sometimes even crying some very happy tears.
If you’ve read this far along, I’d like to share with you what a day looks like through the lens of living presently and mindfully. I’m sharing this with you in hopes so that you can apply this realistically to your daily lives as well. Making the minor adjustments can truly make the world a better place in your eyes and others. I can certainly tell you that writing this post alone has definitely reinforced good mindful habits and way of thinking.
The exercise is quite simple. Below is a timeline of what’s going on in my headspace as external events happen around me in a day. I decided to use October 19th, 2017, as my backdrop since that was the day I solidified the concept for this blog post.
Some definitions to note as you read the timeline. These are not official by any means. They are just my personal way of seeing and understanding these concepts, how I get them to wrap around my head, if you will:
Mindfulness: I personally define mindfulness as the ability to see the world without you being the star or the victim, to be able to consciously and holistically see the situation as it is, and not color it with just yourself in it. When I am mindful, I try to consciously think about the causes or conditions that led someone or something to act and behave the way they are at that moment. I don’t look on the bright side per se, but I rationally think about what I can do when these external events unravel around me. How do I react to them? Do I hold onto these feelings, or do I let them go? In the practice of mindfulness, I tend to let them go. And I don’t take things personally. Easier said than done of course, but I do my best.
Present: I define being present as staying focused on what’s going on around you and just being in that moment. To not be trapped in your own head with negative thoughts. Or even excited thoughts about the future. To not worry about what you have to do a week from now. Or build crazy expectations for yourself and those around you. To be present is to feel and experience the environment, the world around you with all of your senses as it unfolds. Time is linear for us on Earth, so remember that you’ll never experience that same moment ever again. I’m getting older as I’m writing this, and you are aging as you are reading this. So be present, and savor these precious moments however bad or good they are because this, too, shall pass. When you are truly present, you’ll be surprised by what you notice. I mentioned in my previous post about how living presently can make your days feel rich, full, and long, no matter how simple or complicated your day may seem. Being present helps you to stay grounded in the current so you’re not swept away by the ever flowing current of thoughts coming from that brain of yours.
Keep these definitions in mind as you read through my day. Some may seem very obvious, and some not so much, and that’s ok!
And so I present: A Day in the Life of Mindfulness. Just sit back, relax, put on your mindfulness goggles on, and let’s go!
A Day in the Life of Mindfulness
6:00AM: By all accounts, my day started pretty shitty. I woke up at 6am only to discover that my travel credit card, the one I pay beaucoup money to have around was gone. And it was my fault, no one else’s (On a side note: I think I low-key manifested this because the night before I thought for a second that I might lose it if I didn’t bring it back into my room after booking my flights). I frantically search everywhere and turned my room inside out, checked the common area. No cigar. I check my bank account. No weird charges. Well, at least there’s that.
6:15AM: I stay outside to enjoy the sunrise overlooking the Mekong River. It’s absolutely breathtaking; I’m talking the kind of view that never gets old. Pink cotton candy clouds. The river, usually a muddy tannish brown, looks golden under the morning sun. Not one person is up in the guesthouse either, except for me. For a few minutes, I feel like I have my own large private balcony. If I could get a nickel every time this brings a smile to my face…
7:00AM: I failed to find it, and I’m wracking my brains trying to think where I left it. Aware that I’ve already spent an hour aka way too much time thinking about this, I decide then to go through my morning routine. I go outside to pour water and say my morning blessings, then I jot down my daily list of 10 things I’m grateful for (great habit to have by the way). I’m happy and appreciative that I’m consciously practicing by doing post-temple stay. Self-discipline for the win!!
8:00AM: Reception opens. I pounce at them, and asked anxiously (but politely) if they found a credit card last night. They say no. My heart drops. Sigh. I’m sad, mostly disappointed. Breathe, Ada! I take a deep breath. Then I think to myself, I’ve done everything I could possible do at this point. I’m about to experience a new country, Laos. I was intending to use cash anyway. If I really did lose it, I can have a new one shipped to me in 3 business days. I acknowledge my feelings and my losses, then I let go. I decide to wait until tomorrow to get a new card in case it turns up.
9:00AM: Off to the border, we go! It’s called the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. Not as a cute as it sounds (but I digress). Process was pretty smooth, overall. Once I get into the Laos side, the first tuk-tuk driver lures me in with me 100 Baht offer into the city center. I’m game, but once I tell him where I needed to be dropped off, he demands 300 Baht. I’m slightly taken aback, I feel Iike I’ve been gipped. But then my innate (yes innate) haggling skills kick in. I get it down to 200 Baht. I’m fine with that. Also, Ada – this is just a few bucks. Don’t let this ruin your day! You’re in Laos! Always gotta give yourself some leeway for first timer mistakes when you’re in a new country, anyways. And think about the money and hassle you saved because you didn’t have to pay fees to exchange Kip for Baht! (Note: Kip is Lao currency, Baht is Thai currency). I relax, and settle into my ride, taking in the new scenery as tuk-tuk chugs along the road.
10:00AM: First stop, Wat Sisaket. The Wat of 10,000 Buddhas. I walked inside only to be stopped by a guard who told me I needed to wear a psin, a traditional Lao skirt to cover my knees (Note: you always have to cover your shoulders and knees up as a sign of respect). Lucky for me, I brought pants! Hehe. I put them on. There really are 10,000 Buddhas. It’s staggering, a bit overwhelming, but the total effect—beautiful and striking. I realize I’m among 10,000 Buddhas. OK, kind of frickin’ cool. I then head into the main temple, pay my respects and say my blessings. Buddha, you are awesome. Thank you for being born and deciding to share your dharma. :prayerhands:
10:30AM: I step outside, ready to check the khoutis, the dwellings that line the inside of the the temple borders.
I meet Sisop, a monk who’s been ordained now for 4 years and a novice or 6 years. He’s 24. He just started learning English about 2 months ago, and was excited to practice with a native speaker. He worked up the courage to approach me, and we conversed about topics like his monkhood, where he’s from, his favorite Lao food. Quite a lot for 2 months’ worth of English! Man, I am so fortunate that I speak English effortlessly and how convenient, that this also happens to be the current lingua franca of the world. It’s partly what has empowered me to solo travel. Can’t imagine what it would be like if I didn’t have a command of this language… I’m learning to not take this privilege for granted. More :prayerhands:
[Side note: I’m smiling as I’m writing this. The interaction we shared was so sincere and earnest, and I hope our interaction encourages him to continue his English]
11:30AM: I stop at a French café to grab a pick me up, and omg they have vegan chocolate cake!! I just became lactose intolerant recently, and my body hates it when I eat anything dairy. Feeling grateful that this little coffee shop in Vientiane has amazing coffee and vegan chocolate cake [!]. I then used their restroom, and omg they have western toilets! The little things I tell you.
12:00PM: I then proceed to lounge as the French do, and give my dear friend from home a call, 10,000 miles away. To think that this could not have happened 10 years ago. What’s more our conversation was deep, honest, and funny. It was one of those conversations where we tried to end the conversation 4 or 5 times but then we always had one more thing to share. We learned a little more about each other that day. It was lovely.
1:00PM: I make my way to National Lao Museum, to learn some history. Always interesting to learn history from a different country’s perspective. Learned that Vietnam War also wreaked havoc on Laos as well…America dropped millions of bombs by air, of which millions have yet to detonate. Sudden explosions of these bombs still affect locals to this day…
2:00PM I continue on to see the rest of Vientiane by foot. I walk to Morning Market, and explore, explore. I get lost, knowingly. I take in the sights and smells. New plastic mixed with a soft yet pungent wafts of street stall food carried over by the outdoor fans. Quiet thrum of people strolling speckled with some hagglers fighting to save a few kip. Rows and rows of clothes and other gadgets that will probably call nowhere else home. This is their home. Some twists and turns later, I eventually reach the end. I then discover this tented outdoor area that housed some local artisans, diligently using blowtorches to melt gold and rework them into intricate, delicate filigree patterns. It’s incredible. I’m just impressed.
3:00PM: I power walk through the main road of Vientiane Xang Lane, and see the Arc de Triomphe of Asia, Patuxay, then scurried on over to the famous Pha Tat Luang. Breathtaking. So much gold, impressive. And done tastefully, in my opinion.
4:30PM: I decided to tuk tuk back to make it back in time for the last bus back to Nong Khai departing at 5pm. I make it with 15 minutes to spare. Wanting to try some famous streetside Khao Jee (Lao version of Bahn Mis), a street stall vendor kindly directs me to another street stall across the street to find some Khao Jee. I purchase and scurry back.
4:55PM: Ready to hop onto the bus, I realize I lost my bus ticket in the process of buying my Khao Jee. I panic, and the cashier just told me to go. I try to enter the bus, but the bus driver doesn’t let me in. I try to communicate that the cashier told me it was ok to go; I’m struggling. Then out of the blue, the bus attendant luckily remembers my face and understands more English. He let’s me in. I sigh a huge breath of relief. Thank you!! What would I do without kind strangers in my life?
7:30PM: I make it back to my guest house, just in time for a nice hot cup of tea. Just as I walk back to my room, the receptionist calls my name, and said, “Ada! You dropped your credit card last night, I tried reaching you this morning, but you weren’t in your room. Here you go.” I. Am. Elated. I thanked him profusely, and told him he made my day. Strangers, I’m telling you!
9:00PM: I catch up with my dad in China and my sister in Orlando. We update each other, share our thoughts. I recount my day over my soon to be inhaled Khao Jee.
And what a day it was.
The clarity hit me like a ton of bricks.
My friend asked me yesterday if I found my stay at the monastery “productive”, and “productive” didn’t feel quite right—there’s this implicit notion that you get something out of it, and I told myself coming in that I would not have any expectations and just observe, be present, and be mindful. No, that’s not the word I’m looking for…
And then it dawned on me.
What I realized was peace and equanimity.
Living here at Wat Rombodhidarma for the past week has given me much insight and perspective on what it means to live a happy and fulfilling life. The community that the head monk Luangpor has built is beautiful. The people here—the monks, nuns, and laypeople, don’t have much by any means, and yet they are warm, giving, and incredibly kind. It’s obvious to me that they are happy and lead rich, fulfilling lives. And I attribute that to their ability to be present, aware, and live their true selves. They do what they can to help one another out, and that is good enough.
When I was observing the first few days, I felt like they cheated life a bit, and found this shortcut to happiness—almost like they were running away from the “real world”.
Their way of life is simple and slow by Western standards, but as I live their way of life, time does not fly by but feels full and long. By being present and aware, I am able to drink in the smaller details—the symphony of nature’s musicians—crickets chirping, birds singing, the leaves rustling as the wind whistles through. I particularly enjoy the earthy, dewy smell that settles in after the morning rain while I sip and savor my cup of coffee. And the night sky. Man, I can see the Milky Way every night. Yes, it’s that clear. It’s delightful, and brings a smile to my face every time.
I realize then that it’s just my ego talking and my attachment to what I think happiness should look like. Up until yesterday, I felt like the only deserving/worthy way to be happy is by joining the rat race and succeeding professionally, romantically, etc., when in fact there’s no shortcut to happiness. There’s only happiness, and it comes in all different shapes and sizes. And differences are meant to be celebrated not judged or scorned.
I’m learning to not put attachment to attaining something, even if that something is good or well-intentioned. Or even happiness, for that matter. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this desire to do good because I feel like I’ve been given this intellect and circumstance to do so. Ironically, this attachment of doing good, of being happy has been the undoing of me. I’ve felt paralyzed, embittered and deeply unsatisfied because of it.
I’m learning here to instead just ไม่ (mai) through โพล่ง (plong), or let go of attachment by giving and radiating out. There’s a firm belief at the monastery that all people are good, and we are all naturally aware and mindful. When we cross the street, are we not aware? Don’t we look both ways before crossing the street? I can’t help but agree.
And most importantly, I’m learning to embrace that I will die. We will all die. Life is inherently impermanent. But the way many societies work, at least the one I live in, there’s vehement attachment to material things, to youth, to thoughts and ideas that will inevitably come and go. If I will die then, there’s no point in fearing failure—if I fail, I fail. If I succeed, I succeed. I’m here to enjoy the roller coaster that is life, and there will be ups and downs. All I can do is see things as they come, acknowledge them, then “mai.”
There was one particular conversation that really resonated with me. I was talking to a nun, Mae Sasi, and she asked me how I was doing, and I told her that I was really enjoying my stay, and being present, just taking everything in as it comes. I told her I’d like to take away some of the beautifully simple yet mindful practices at the temple and bring them back with me when I return to the States.
She interrupted me then and said, “No, Ada, don’t take, just do. Give and radiate, and share the blessings.”
Mae Sasi, I will and I am doing just that.
Sou, saatu, blessings to everyone.