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.

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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.

Tightrope

Walking along the tightrope, I incessantly shift my weight. Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Hundreds of people are watching; their judgement only mirrors my self-criticism. I glance down and see darkness. How far am I away from the ground? I try to force my thoughts to become quiet, but the mind chatter grows louder each time the audience gasps. Don’t hold your breath. Safety is only a few feet away. I observe the length of the tightrope, but my final destination seems so distant. My furrowed eyebrows reveal fear; feigned confidence is useless now. Stand up taller. Embrace your core muscles. I take another step, gradually growing more confident. The stable platform grows nearer. Open up your heart center. Don’t be afraid. The audience is here today not to grieve over my almost-falls or my imperfections. They hope for safety as much as I hope for it for myself. To them, I am more than human. I am a performer. Just a few more steps. You are so strong. I reach the platform safely, and the audience bursts into applause.Standing in the spotlight, I wave at countless unfamiliar faces. I dismount the apparatus and watch the next performer take his first step onto the tightrope. The audience is silent. His countenance reveals effortless confidence, his body long and lean: a true performer. The clock ticks; I’m worried that he might beat my record time for walking across the 50-meter rope. The performer’s footsteps are quick and agile, and in no time, he is only a few meters away from the platform. I watch him without blinking. The audience holds their breath. The finish-line grows nearer. As I begin to raise my hands to applaud, the performer stumbles. His body twists in the air, falling for hundreds of feet into darkness. My heart beat quickens as I rush to the mat where his body landed. But he was so confident. I thought he would make it to the other side. EMTs rush over to help him. You become everything that you condemn. “Is he alright,” audience members inquire. Fear masked behind feigned confidence.

 There is a sharp rift between the conscious and the subconscious mind. The former affirms that we are confident, safe, and comfortable in who we are. But the latter comes alive through our actions and is far more powerful. The performer wears confidence but isn’t confident. He hides fear, but he is fearful. Perhaps it is not falling that we are afraid of. Perhaps it is the power of our deepest wounds that we are afraid of.

Survival

Writer’s Note: I wrote this creative short-story as an outlet for a powerful statement regarding safety. Although there are myriad safety threats worldwide (i.e. terrorist attacks, driving under the influence, genetically-inherited health issues, etc.), safety is very much a right– not a privilege. Despite that safety should be guaranteed to all, regardless of (social, economic, cultural, or other) background, sometimes we must fight for our right to be safe. I hope you enjoy reading this story, as it is not only one of my most extensive recent works, but it also conveys a powerful theme. – Naima

Survival

Birds tweet along to the gentle patter of rain against the wooden dock, as I lay on my back, mesmerized by the sound of rain. Tropical birds travel from tree-to-tree in this beautiful forest. I observe wildlife through the length of tall, healthy trees that surround me. Blood gently pulses against my temples as I breathe deeply, resting all muscles. The warm rain lands on my skin like gentle kisses from Mother Nature. I blink several times to clear my vision. Raindrops linger in my eyelashes, on my skin, and in my hair. Not a thought of responsibility or worry traverses these woods. There is only space for calm in a quiet, controlled mind.

My heart is full. I occasionally think about all the things for which I am thankful. I am thankful to this forest for providing sustenance for me to survive in the outdoors. I am thankful for my health; I am agile and quick enough to hunt. Breathing deeply, I naturally stop thinking about time. I can stay in this forest for eternity and be safe, calm, and present.

Suddenly, thunder roars, causing flocks of birds to relocate. Lighting strikes a tree, and the skinny trunk burns to ashes. I remember my mother’s advice before I had left home several years ago. Always be aware of your surroundings. Fear trickles down my spine; I only have two choices: fight or flight. Well, Mother Nature wins this battle. I begin to run in search of a safer location. Instinct is critical to survival. My frock becomes tattered as I leap over countless twigs. Chasing safety, my heart grows tired with every passing minute. I have no choice but to consider time now.

After almost an hour of running, I reach a clearing. The rainstorm ended. I find a rock to sit on and relax. Just as my muscles release their tension, I hear heavy footsteps. Opening my knapsack, I pull out my bow-and-arrow. Poised, I observe the distant woods, listening intently to the rustle of leaves. “Hello?” A man’s voice. Where is that voice coming from? I continue to hold my bow-and-arrow. “Anybody there?” I turn around and see a tall, muscled man appear from the woods. He looks at me from head-to-toe and gradually raises his arms. “Hi, I’m Jethro. I’m not going to hurt you, so you can put your weapon down, hun.” I lower my bow-and-arrow and push my hair away from my face. He slowly approaches me.

“Magnolia. Nice to meet you.” I extend my hand. He shakes my hand firmly. “So, what business do you have here in the clearing?”

“I water the plants here daily. I’m growing crops for the spring harvest. You?”

“I—wow. I was just looking for a safe place to stay. With the rainstorm, the other night, I was just trying to avoid getting struck by lightning.” I begin to collect wood to start a fire.

He laughs heartily.

“You’ve gotta build a shelter for yourself. I built mine out of wood and rock, but it’s located about a mile from here.”

I watch bright orange, red, and blue colors dance around in the fire, thankful to finally have a source of warmth.

Jethro stands up and begins to water the plants from a red canteen that reads ‘CAUTION.’

“Magnolia, do you believe in survival of the fittest,” Jethro asks.

“Not really. As long as you have the right mind and resources, you ‘oughta be fine.”

I observe Jethro’s features: piercing black eyes, rugged hair, and a beige cotton shirt that is frayed at the edges. He turns around to finish watering the plants, walking around the clearing in a perfect circle.

“The right mind and resources, you say?”

“That’s why I’ve got—.” My eyes dart around the ground for my knapsack.

“Magnolia, you sure as hell got the right resources, but you might want to polish your mind.” Jethro wears my knapsack on his back and stands poised with my bow-and-arrow. I duck behind a rock.

The arrow is ablaze.

Jethro launches the weapon into the ring that he poured over the plants, and suddenly, I am surrounded by a ring of fire that gradually intensifies.

“Maybe you can use your pretty little mind to collect more resources,” he says, running away with the red canteen that reads ‘lighter fuel.’

The short-lived, gentle rain was an illusion of true safety. But perhaps we must create a safe environment within our minds and bodies before we begin to search for it within the natural world. Countless illusions present themselves in these woods. Danger camouflages itself as a safe environment, waiting to catch its next prey. I will fight to get out of this ring of fire, but more important, I won’t just survive. I will live. I will thrive.

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.

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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.

Stronger than Mental Illness

brain

The heart speaks louder than the shaking voices of victims who didn’t know how to handle mental illness.

But even as your heart hammers against your chest,

Don’t be afraid to speak.

Surround yourself with supportive people.

Paint the town in wise words you’ve learned from your situation.

Sing the song of your triumph after the storm has passed.

Let the liberation of self-expression run through the flesh,

The very blood stream that connects to a healthy heart.

A beat that was once an unsettled qualm,

Is now a beautiful, steady rhythm

That feeds an honest self-awareness.

I repeat

Your health is a priority.

Repeat

Your health is a priority

Even before grades and schoolwork,

Nagging tasks and unfinished papers.

You are free to prioritize yourself,

Polish the best version of your personality.

You are not your disorder,

You are a living triumph,

A beautiful song that continues to play

Even after the drumbeat of your heart has grown weary.

You will wake up to another day

When you will expand your lungs to fill them with oxygen.

Tell me,

How amazing is this freedom?

The space

Between this inhale

And the next exhale

Is the greatest liberation I know.

The mind

And the heart

Are no longer weighed down by shackles.

Rather, they have grown stronger from having carried them for so long.

So parade in this wonderful freedom.

Beautiful green and blue veins ignite euphoria,

A liveliness once unknown.

Red blood traveling through the temples,

And eventually to the mind.

Tears of joy collect along your eyelid,

Tipping over the edge slowly.

You are free.

A living triumph,

A walking warrior,

Liberation personified.

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