This article explains the symbolism of my first tattoo.
Planting a seed
Two years ago, I arrived in Myanmar for a summer internship unsettled and unprepared for the post-graduate life ahead of me let alone the sweaty summer I’d spend drenched in the humidity of rainy season. I had just graduated from my Master’s degree, which I entered directly after finishing my undergraduate degree, which I entered directly after high school. After having grown up in a family of teachers and spent my entire life in school, I understood little other than academia.
Despite being well-traveled for my age, I barely knew what life was like outside of my head; despite being comfortable controlling my body as a former athlete and a new yoga teacher, I didn’t want to leave the protection of my theoretical cocoon; despite having flirted with romance, my heart had been too badly broken at a young age to entertain the possibility sticking around for anything longer than a fling. I held on as tightly as I could to my security blanket of academia and independence before graduation, haphazardly applying for PhD programs only to be unapologetically rejected for once in my life. When I could no longer hold onto my stale dreams, I finally let them go, booking myself a one-way ticket to Myanmar for a summer of work as an intern at Yangon Yoga House.
The future after the summer was dauntingly uncertain, but for the moment, I would be occupied far away from any trace of life as I had previously known it. New people, new land, new profession, new identity – I was spreading my wings and soaring far away from my semi-sheltered world. I was trading in my layers of logical planning for a sense of newfound freedom; the world was limited by nothing other than the overwhelming sense of my freedom itself. Yet as soon as I reached Myanmar, I realized with devastation that my new, precious freedom was compromised by immobility; my ribs had been accidentally broken by a loving goodbye bear hug from the man who I dreaded to think was only a few months’ fling. I had come to explore myself through movement as a yoga teacher, but all I could do was sit and breathe. The wings that I had sprouted were broken before I was able to take flight.
I was forced into a very different form of self-exploration than I had originally anticipated. My addiction to movement had been curbed dramatically, and after years of anxiety, the restless current that lived inside me began to calm. I possessed what felt like an eternity to walk slowly and mindfully around the cracked sidewalks of Yangon in the unbearable humidity and the torrential rain. Although there were streams of scurrying lizards in my room, I could carefully curl up with a notebook and write my way into relaxation, and I could find ample stillness to rest in longer holds of yoga shapes. Sometimes my yoga practice would be only as vigorous as lying in sleepless insomnia with my hands on my ribs and feeling the breath move in and out my lungs. The warmth of my own hands felt like healing encouragement for the expansion of my ribcage and for the symbolic regeneration of my broken wings.
Eventually, with enough time and stillness, my ribs began to mend. My activity began to return to a quick hum as I floated between Burmese taxis, yoga postures, and tourists' temples. At the summer’s close, I ventured to Bagan and was able to bask in the same sense of isolation that had felt so infinite at the beginning of summer. This time, my solitude was welcomed as I had the comfort of my mobility. I spent each sunrise running around the pagodas, each day whirring about the lush land on a moped, and each evening walking back to the most secluded pagodas to meditate at sunset.
In truth, the sunsets in Bagan were my first earnest attempts to meditate, and I was certain that I’d be unable to clear the clutter that remained in my still-chaotic mind. I was unsure that meditation would alter my mind. Yet I had read that if I meditate long enough on one thing, I would learn something about it, which seemed both believable and desirable. I decided to spend the sunsets in solitude, meditating on the first word that came to mind: “love”. I would roam around the pagodas until I found a spot facing the setting sun. I would settle into a seat, close my eyes and feel the kiss of the sun on my skin as I brought the word “love” to mind, allowing all other thoughts to float away like clouds in the painted sky. I would sit in an attempt at stillness until the day’s rays were hidden.
As I sought stillness, I was never struck with an abrupt paradigm change nor any concrete vision. At first, I simply felt my body – the warmth of my hands on my heart, the continued healing of my ribs, and the dull ache in the pit of my abdomen that stubbornly persisted despite my newly regained movement. The ache, I began to realize, had nothing to do with my thwarted mobility and everything to do with my inability to trust the process of love – to provide it freely and unconditionally without the fear of being broken. I was met with no definite answers about where or what I should be but began to feel that there was a place for me for me in the world, no matter where I was. I sensed that spreading my wings doesn’t always mean running away. Sometimes it simply means opening our arms to love.
What I’ve learned about meditation is that the thoughts that arise when the static is cut may be like seeds that are planted in our conscious minds. The seed of my realization that I could allow my actions to be guided by love rather than success, ego, or image took months to take root. I had to run away again to Vienna for 6 months and ungracefully fail at academia again until I realized that I could fly back home to Boston to take a risk on love.
Epilogue: Sprouting wings
Two years after my summer in Myanmar, I found myself in a tattoo shop in El Paso, the hometown of my boyfriend, the bear-hugger. We were visiting his hometown for the weekend to pick up our new puppy, but also to cross an item that I had scribbled onto my bucket list in Myanmar. The tattoo shop had the feel of a garage band’s studio; metal music played as white noise and cops shows aired as background imagery on a big-screen TV. I gave my hand to a man named Vegas, who in return applied his needle to my forearm. With black ink, he sketched out a feather pen on the energetic extension of my heart as a permanent reminder to myself to live, to write, to move not only from my head, but with trust from my heart. The enduring design is an emblem on the space of my body homologous to wings that spreading my wings doesn't always mean running away - sometimes it means opening my arms to unconditional love.