Human: Part III

If you separate yourself from your accomplishments, titles, and possessions, then who are you really? At work, I am Ms. Naima, the math instructor. At school, I am an unfamiliar passerby on the campus of George Mason University. And on Instagram, I am Naima, the yogi, contemporary artist, and blogger. But if we tap into our subconscious mind and explore our inner selves– strengths, vulnerabilities, aspirations, fear– then we discover the aspects that truly define us. Apart from being an employee, a classmate, a community member, or otherwise, who are you? We make myriad assumptions about other people every day, an automatic process conducted by the subconscious mind.

As I stood in front of a college class for a presentation today, I couldn’t help but wonder about the gaps that my audience may have filled in their minds regarding who I am. I shouldn’t be concerned with directly influencing others’ perception of me; doing so is just as ineffective as beating a dead horse. But observing the nature of perception (of humans and the world around us) is intriguing because our thoughts are presumably flexible, and thus, subject to external influence. It is often that I spend the nights in quiet introspection, as I lay my thoughts on the floor of my mind and pretend to be an outsider. These thoughts are organized based on category: art, religion, culture, politics, academia, and more.

I challenge myself to consider the counter-view of my beliefs so that I may gain an awareness of diverse perspectives. Some may call this practice “walking in other people’s shoes.” My history professor and I call it “mental flexibility.” During this process, I observe the contours of my face and employ the imaginative part of my mind. I imagine myself as a single individual among billions of humans. These people do not have unique countenances– no unique race, religion, background, or character. We are truly a unified human race in this scenario (which only exists in the boundaries of my skull). We do not compare each other on the basis of financial status or ridicule unique gender identities (many of which were recently introduced by the millennial generation). We are mind, body, and spirit . We are one collective whole on this planet. We are not a dollar amount, a simulation of photoshopped magazine covers, or titles upon titles of resume-perfect accomplishments.

We are thoughts expressing themselves through character and action.

We are vulnerability– embraced by the self or not.

We are human.

The Embodiment of Free Expression

Writer’s Note: This story is one of my most powerful recent works, as it challenges the notion of what it means to be alive, as I strive to become the embodiment of free expression. Thank you so much for reading.- Naima.

    The Embodiment of Free Expression

         “You’re not really living. You’re just surviving,” she says. I notice that my breathing becomes constrained, lungs filling with discomfort. It is a skill to awaken the subconscious mind and enable it to coexist with the conscious mind, as I strive to do during meditation. But to deny my efforts to live fully is nothing short of offensive. I turn red. The mind is a philosopher whose tongue is tied. My words are lodged in my throat, eventually diminishing into the back of mind so that they may arise as an afterthought. I don’t really begin to breathe until she leaves. What can I do to rid myself of frustration? How can I prove that I am truly alive, despite that I am destitute of the roots of a healthy mind? Can I build health and happiness in spite of difficult circumstances? To rise above the weight of these desperate matters? I will use my mind as a resource so that I may learn to live fully, learn what it’s like to truly fill a canvas with freedom.

My car zooms down the length of Richmond Highway as I anticipate my workout. The elliptical awaits my presence, the yoga studio growing impatient for my arrival. And finally, I have reached my solace, my euphoria, my gate to freedom. I increase the resistance of the machine with haste. My mind’s eye observes adrenaline climbing to its peak… slowly. The minutes fly, and eventually, time becomes irrelevant. There is no greater extent to which I can be present. My mind, body, and soul is here… and alive. Techno music strikes the match on adrenaline. I speed up. Euphoria grows closer to its peak, and fatigue cannot hinder my pace. I dismount the elliptical and rush to the yoga studio.

During the gym’s final open hour, I turn down the lights, let lyrics flow into the mind. I focus on breathing. Inhale peace, exhale release. My eyes gently close, as I pedal my feet in downward dog. Listening to the sound of my breath, I notice as peace flows through my temples. Open the body as you stretch into three-legged dog. Inhale peace. Ground your heels on the mat, and tip your hips toward the ceiling. Exhale release. Movement begins to flow, as energy surges through my veins. This mode of self-expression leaves no room for shame… or judgment. I am present and aware of my body. My back arches to make space for oxygen, my body performs countless turns as I lose myself in a whirlwind of pure joy. One Republic’s “Apologize” begins to play. I place my hands in prayer and sit at the center of my mat. The eyes close. Oxygen fills my lungs, and serenity grounds itself in my heart. Tears fill my eyes, nearly tipping over the lower eyelid. “Alhamdulillah.” I whisper.

Gratitude floods my heart and spills over the expanse of the yoga studio. Pure joy sits in my throat, waiting for the tears to spill over the edge. Can I whisper the word “alive”? Better yet, can I bottle this feeling and hand it to those who told me I was merely surviving? Can I paint the town in the word “living”… in the word “present”? Place my name right beside them. I am alive. I am present. I am awake. The conscious and subconscious mind have found unity in this very moment, and I have only the shadows as my witnesses… the very reflections in the mirrors. I don’t need to repeat “alive” until I become that which I strive for. We are what we repeatedly do, and I—I have chosen health and exercise as an eternal realm of freedom. Free expression will imprint itself in my very being until I have become the embodiment thereof.

Tell me that I am merely existing. Tell me that I am merely surviving. But it is in the wake of these euphoric peaks, in the exhilaration that forces tears of joy to spill over the eyelids, that I become alive. Alive, and awake, and present. Here. Present.

I prepare to leave the gym, slowly putting my shoes on. Attention is diverted, as I cannot help but to replay the beautiful dances that I performed. The mind’s eye watches my graceful body, my arched back, my pointed toes… as I made space for freedom. Still, I crave to relive these moments that occurred in the very recent past. But without a doubt, I will recreate them. Undeniably, I will become them.

Freedom Living

Lying on the ground, I acknowledge the rough carpet touching the small of my back. Blood pumps through my temples, my arms, my neck, as I rest calmly. I close my eyes, placing my left hand over my stomach, the other over my heart. Visualizing the dance that invited this restfulness, I relive the burst of creativity that I experienced as I improvised dances to countless songs. My mind’s eye watches as my body stretches into a standing split before gently collapsing into corpse pose.

As I was dancing, I occasionally closed my eyes. I couldn’t see my body but I could feel… feel energy rush into my lungs, fueling a fire in my veins. The music notes have become a part of me, they live through my very being so that they, too, may be present in this moment. I arch my back to open my lungs, briefly resting both hands behind my head. Oxygen is a luxury, neither scare nor too abundant. My heartrate quickens as the dance intensifies. Standing split. Bridge. Warrior two stance. Corpse pose. Stretch every muscle in the body, feel the limbs take up more space. I open my eyes. It appears that the ceiling is growing further and further away from me. Creativity has no bounds, space is limitless, and I— I have found my outlet for free expression.

Emotion versus Logic

Writer’s Note: I am so excited that I have been experimenting with diverse genres lately. This piece will certainly catch you by surprise. I’ve written a play to illustrate the conflict between knowing what is morally right versus choosing whether to act on such knowledge. I hope you enjoy this quirky, yet meaningful, short play. -Naima

Emotion versus Logic

Emotion: Oh my goodness, hey! How are you? I’ve missed you so much! It’s been a while since we last met.

Logic: Indeed it has been. We’ve been apart for quite some time, but it’s vital that we reconvene. I’m doing swell, how about yourself?

Logic takes a seat in the interrogation room, as emotion paces about with excitement.

Emotion: Oh, don’t worry about me! I’m so excited to see you, but I’ll admit I’m a bit nervous. I feel I might explode!

Logic: Well, why don’t you have a seat and we’ll talk things out.

Emotion: Alright, fine. Whatever you say. You are the better decision-maker.

Logic: So, Emotion, tell me what’s on your mind.

Emotion: Well, I can’t seem to build a healthy distance between myself and cultural expectations. I want my values to be the core of who I am, but at the same time, I just really want to fit in.

Emotion’s face turns red as he rests his arms on the table and slouches.

Logic: Emotion, you’re right. It’s important to feel a sense of belonging amongst our friends and family. But you have to ask yourself if fitting in is worth sacrificing your values.

Emotion: Yes! I just want my friends to accept me. If I just give in to all my wishes, don’t you think I would be happier?

Logic: Emotion, you might experience a temporary boost in overall happiness. But you must consider the long-term. Which do you value more, your values, which are the very core of who you are, or your appearance?

Emotion: Ugh! I just want to look and feel… well, beautiful, and confident… ooh! And smart! Eh, whatever, scratch the last one. I’ll never be that.

Logic breathes deeply and adjusts his neck-tie.

Logic: Giving in to the pressure will only create more room for more… well, pressure. It is crucial that we don’t lose ourselves in the temptation to please others.

Emotion: Well, duh. But if other people accept me, then we won’t have to worry about this whole “belonging” thing.

Emotion crosses his arms defensively and rolls his eyes. Logic continues to listen patiently.

Logic: Emotion, before you worry about anyone else accepting you, you need to accept yourself.

Emotion: Alright, Logic, how many more clichés you got? I’ve seen all this self-love crap on Instagram.

Logic: Emotion. Listen to me. You are so much more than what you look like. Well… um, tell me, what sparks your interest?

Emotion bites his nails as Logic speaks. Emotion looks up at Logic abruptly and is taken aback by the direct appeal.

Emotion: Umm… I guess I really like cars. Oh, hey! You know what I really want? A deep blue, Acura TLX.

Logic: Don’t get carried away now. Think about this. The exterior of a car doesn’t mean a thing unless the vehicle functions properly and serves a purpose.

Emotion: So what’s your point?

Logic: Emotion, you are so much more than your exterior. You are a walking set of values, a unique individual who has so much to offer to this world.

Emotion: Logic, you’re right. I think I just need some time to distance myself from temptation.

Logic and Emotion rise from their seats and embrace each other. The two figures blend into a single being.

Alive

Heartbeat

Echoes against

The walls of my lungs.

Breathing

Deepens

As I settle into

The pace.

Dismount the elliptical,

And rush to the yoga studio.

Dim the lights,

And bask in solitude.

Hit the ‘play’ button on Daughter’s “Smother.”

Open your lungs,

Creating a beautiful arch in your back.

Feel your body

Blossom like a flower

As you confidently

Open

Your chest,

Your hands,

Your lungs.

 

Dance.

Carefully

Cartwheel,

Landing gently

Onto the floor.

Strike a

Split,

Handstand.

Round-off.

 

Run!

The pace

Has quickened.

Let emotion spill out of your body.

Let lyrics flood your mind.

Let blood continue to flow

Through hard-working veins

And beautiful skin.

 

Heartbeat echoes

Against

The walls of my lungs.

I wrap my arms around my body,

Let movement

Ignite energy,

Ignite shamelessness.

Run,

And crawl,

And tumble,

And turn,

Until you can’t take anymore.

I want every emotion to come alive

Through movement,

Through the steady heartbeat that quickens

As the rhythm of music

Quickens.

 

Sweat glistens,

Along the temples.

Blood flows

to the brain,

Breathing

Deepens.

 

This is how it feels

To be alive.

Stop Sign

Writer’s Note: The goal of this poem was to experiment with parallelism to convey that the decision to create a positive mindset is very much a choice. Tomorrow can either be a dead-end or a vast field of possibilities. The thoughts we illicit in our minds is the determining-factor of our moods and sometimes even major life-decisions.

Stop Sign

A stop sign

A dead end

A “no U-turn” signal.

An empty tank of gas.

Driving on a single-lane road in the wrong direction.

 

A starting line.

An endless cross-country course.

Sun-lit dewy grass.

Tireless legs.

Running on a vast cross-country course on the right path.

 

A full-tank of gas.

A heart bursting with energy.

A green light.

Positive thoughts that illuminate even the corners of darkness.

 

Wake up.

 

Your heart continues to beat,

And the tank is half-full.

 

All you have to do

Is choose your state-of-mind.

The outcome of your days

Will fall in place.

 

Tomorrow is no dead-end.

Rather, it is a step closer

To reaching your ambitions.

 

 

 

 

 

“Dance is a way to tell a story through movement.”

Writer’s Note: This piece is a creative short-story that captures the effect of dance on all aspects of my personal growth and success, from academics to career-related work. I emphasize the importance of free expression on mental and physical well-being. I hope to convey my appreciation of creative expression, as it is one of the many doors to self-discovery and growth. Hope you enjoy!- Naima

“Dance is a Way to Tell a Story through Movement”

         Light reflects from the golden-brown wood floor of the yoga studio, as my iPhone plays “Apologize” by One Republic. Yoga poses and dance combine to awaken creativity. “Take another chance, take it far, take a shot through,” the musician sings. My toes and ankles contract to suspend my body into a starfish position in the air, as my arms and legs are shoulder-width apart. I land into a kneeling position and drive my fist into the wood floor. As my body becomes in-tune with the meaning of the song, I remember my dance instructor. “Dance is a way to tell a story through movement,” he said. I give myself the chance to adopt a new persona each time the song changes. My body turns in 360-degree circles as my arms alternate between first and second position. Movement begins to unravel like the chapter of a must-read. Leap. Land quickly on two feet and transition into seated postures. Perform a full-turn and stand up. Single-arm cartwheel. Plie. And another leap to bring truth to power. “I’m holding on your rope, got me ten feet off the ground,” the singer concludes.

My iPhone plays Alessia Cara’s “Scars to Your Beautiful,” singing, “She just wants to be beautiful. She goes unnoticed. She knows no limits. She craves attention.” I begin with my arms in eagle pose, crouched on the wood floor, slowly transforming into a tall standing position. “All that beauty goes deeper than the surface,” Alessia continues to sing. My body opens like a flower, as I strike a standing split. Patiently waiting for the chorus, I hold these straight lines of energy and beautifully pointed-toes. “There’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark. You should know you’re beautiful just the way you are.” Pick up the pace. Quickly alternate between first and second position as you perform countless turns. Lyrics and dizziness coalesce, and I’ve lost the beat in a whirlwind of creativity. Pick it back up again. Strike a single-arm handstand. Slide into a left-leg split. Stand up, and stretch your legs as far in front of you as possible. Take up as much space as you can. Run, and dance, and tumble, until you’ve had enough.

The song changes. I settle into a yoga pose, knees bent, shoulders facing the mirror, arms relaxed. Tove Lo’s “Stay High” remix begins to play, as I take the opportunity to slow down. Breathe. Let blood flow through the temples. Soften the eye gaze. Stretch your arms above your head one at a time. The music continues to flow into my mind, but the dizziness has faded.

Today, I danced on every inch of this wood floor, took up as much space as possible, felt the liberation of pointing my toes just a little further. I observed my reflection in the mirror as I adopted various personas and told stories through movement. The door to free expression remains wide open. But maybe there’s more than just a door. There are the classrooms where I become the group leader. There are workplaces where I am on a constant journey of self-improvement. There are restaurant outings where I discuss the past week’s accomplishments with friends and family.

I open each chapter of my story through dance and am extending the manuscript. My movements and gestures are edited to satisfaction. With each page, I awaken my creative drive, tell my stories in a world of free expression.

Puzzle Pieces: A Creative Short Story

The puzzle pieces that lay scattered represent who I am—my passions and the very practices that help me stay true to myself. They somehow manage to return to this fragmented state, as I hold onto the parts of myself by a single thread. Through the blur of schoolwork and empty days, I sometimes remember to breathe. Meditation pulls me back to the ground, returning oxygen to my lungs. Have you ever tried to complete menial tasks underwater? I have a tendency to get sucked into believing that time is inadequate, that I’ll never have enough of it. So I cross out one day after the other on my calendar and wonder where I went. The edges of the puzzle pieces are frayed because of the myriad attempts to make them fit… to create one, cohesive picture. They lay in fragments, still, as I turn my head in a panic to glance at the clock. The minutes are running away and fear comes rushing back. What if I don’t finish all my work? What if I receive a poor grade? What if my professors will be disappointed?

puzzle-pieces

I beat myself up with negative reinforcements to complete my schoolwork only to realize that I’ve been here before… too many times. But if I relaxed and worked at my own pace, wouldn’t I be more productive? Logic kicks emotion in the face but won’t always stay for the whole fight.

Lately, I’ve been putting some of the pieces together, and I might see the picture of myself soon. I can see myself dancing in my yoga studio, as lyrics crawl through my lungs and into my heart. My mind’s eye watches as I walk on my school’s campus with a carefully planned outfit and an infectious smile. I can see myself running through Lorton Station and sometimes down the hills of Fairfax city.

I wish I could complete the puzzle in a single instant. But it’s difficult to stay true to yourself when you’re being pulled in a million directions. Wake up, do homework, go to work, sleep, and do it all over again. All over again. And if you do it all in a hurry, you won’t ever realize that you lost yourself. And all the puzzle pieces will by lying on the floor, and you won’t even bother to pick them up… until something hits you. It shakes you out of oblivion and asks what the hell you were doing with your life. That voice will ask, “You knew that the way you were living was destroying you,” and you will respond, “yes.” Embarrassed, you look down at the fragments of yourself and scramble to put them back together. All the while, you must resist falling into the vortex in which you live by your fears, not your innate desire to be true to yourself.

You don’t have to worry. The pieces will come back together but certainly not by force. Pray, and you will find yourself again. Run, and you will find yourself in the rhythm of your footsteps, your gentle in-breaths. Dance and tumble, and you will find yourself in free expression. Slow down and forget time. It’s not about how many minutes are left on the clock, but rather, the value of your time spent. So if you need to cry, prepare yourself for a storm. But remember that the sun will always be waiting for you. Your prayers are valuable, your mind is resourceful, and your heart is compassionate. Don’t lose yourself in the whirlwind of everyday responsibilities… because maybe in the debris of the storm, you are waiting to be found. You’ve been here all along… just remember to breathe. The pieces are slowly coming back together.

puzzle-pieces2

Overwhelming Gratitude

Exhausted from my early Communications class, I recline on my bed. I roll onto my stomach, enjoying the feeling of clean sheets against my skin. Two hours slowly pass, and I open my eyes at 6:00p.m. My mind craves stimulation. I pull on my athletic tights and Under Armour shirt and drive to the gym. As I poise myself on the elliptical, I encourage a peaceful self-awareness. Chin up, chest open, arms swinging back and forth. I breathe deeply, guiding my mind toward positive thinking. I walk my thoughts into the golden gate of past and present occurrences. Cross-country races. I can hear the voice of a female spectator cheering, “Come on, Hayfield!” Thoughts of being content at George Mason University. The encouragement of fellow Patriots echoes in my mind, as they told me, “You’re doing great for your first week!” And of course, those little moments when tears of joy collected along my eyelid. Every time I try to explain why I am so overjoyed to be at Mason, I struggle to find words. But I can summarize it into the following quote: “Verily, after every hardship, there is ease.” (Qur’an 94:5).

Every students’ high school career has its fair share of highs and lows, but I underwent some particularly difficult circumstances that sometimes hindered my ability to learn. I am thankful to have developed problem-solving skills and to apply critical thinking to everyday conflicts. Being at Mason is the sunshine that breaks through gray skies after the storm is over. The storm is over. And I knew it was when I found I could finally feel comfortable in a classroom again and to express myself freely. The storm is over. And I knew it was as I noted that I am encouraged and supported by the Patriot community. So I wake up early on Monday mornings and go on runs around campus. I let oxygen fill my lungs as I stride up and down the beautiful hills of Fairfax city. This run, this honest self-expression is not only a celebration of my time at Mason. It is a celebration of life, a statement of gratitude for becoming stronger despite adversity. Today, I hold my head higher than before, as I observe the gradual changes in heartrate as I work out. The repetitive motion of swinging my arms back and forth calms me, and I increase the resistance of the machine. I let lyrics flow into my mind, filling my head with positive thoughts. The musician sings, “You can still be what you want to. You’ve got a warm heart. You’ve got a beautiful brain.” The sun illuminated the healthy green trees, as I sat at a table in front of the Johnson Center yesterday. Poised and confident, I observed passersby who rushed to their destinations. A woman walked past me, briefly making eye contact and sharing a warm smile. After she faded into the distance, my eyes welled up with tears of joy because once again, I was reminded that I am part of a healthy community. I am free. Free to express myself, seek support if needed, and to become successful without any destructive obstacles in the way.

Increasing the incline of the elliptical, I continue to listen to my body. The voice of a soulful singer flows into my mind. “You’ve got a warm heart. You’ve got a beautiful brain.” At the end of my day, I share this blogpost and wipe away tears of joy as I write. I am so thankful to be a Patriot, for my ability to thrive on the beautiful campus, for the chance to become the best version of myself. The tears fall unapologetically. The music still echoes in my head. And the visualization of sunlight breaking through trees in front of the Johnson Center comes to mind once more. I can sit on a bench outside the Performing Arts Building, or in a lecture room in Innovation Hall, or in a classroom in East Building. No matter where I am, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Dismounting the elliptical, my beating heart eventually fades to a resting calm.

Reaching Adulthood

Independence is one of the greatest freedoms of adulthood. I will turn 18-years-old in a few days, and I cannot contain my excitement to become an adult. Throughout the summer, I experienced simple milestones that marked this transition, such as becoming employed and browsing for a car. Can you remember the days leading up to your 18th birthday? Or the joy of driving to your first day of work? Receiving your first paycheck? Perhaps the most liberating aspect of growing up is having the power to independently make decisions.

In these 17-year-old hands is the freedom to control my health, schedule, spending habits, and more. I imagine opening the door of my workplace, the cool air greeting me as I walk in. As a math tutor, I will have the opportunity to work closely with students and build meaningful relationships with my coworkers. I also imagine test driving my new car, or better yet, heading to my first class at George Mason University.

I am no longer a high school student. And soon, I will no longer be a minor. I cannot wait to turn 18, as I will experience new pleasures and challenges as a young adult.