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  • Writer's pictureErin Paulsen

Travel and Truth

The First Movement:

Kunming, China

The newly built temple in our ever-changing neighborhood sat peacefully atop one of the tallest hills in the city, overlooking the dirty chaos below. The hike to the top was slow and winding, the rocky gravel below your feet made that soothing crunchy noise as you walked over it.

One day after I made the hike to the top I decided to leisurely stroll the colorful complex just to admire the beautiful, ancient Chinese architecture you can barely find in the country anymore. As I reached the back of the main temple I rounded the corner of the bright red building almost bumping into a giant, shiny, brand-new, beige colored Lexus. “That’s an odd place to park your car…” was my first thought, trying to figure out how somebody got their giant SUV this far into the temple grounds in the first place. 

After my initial confusion over the car's presence I realized something a bit stranger was going on. All doors to the vehicle were open and the inside was completely full of fresh, pink lotus flowers. I noticed a white smoky haze floating around the car and as it wafted my direction I recognized immediately that sweet musky smell of incense. Only a moment later a procession of white-robed monks rounded the backside of the vehicle, all carrying 9 auspiciously large incense sticks in hand. Their palms were pressed together, raised to the third-eye chakra center, and they continued to circle the Lexus all quietly chanting a prayer in unison. 

The owner of the vehicle, a middle-aged Chinese woman, was standing not far away watching the holy ceremony take place around her beloved, new motor vehicle. 

As the oldest monk began to sprinkle his golden bowl of holy water on all sides of the car it finally hit me, “ Oh my God this woman is having her brand-new Lexus BLESSED by this group of Buddhist monks”. 

I couldn’t believe it. I might have laughed out loud. The absolute absurdity of the scene blew my mind. 

The whole underlying philosophy of Buddhism preaches detachment from material goods and temptations in this physical plane of existence. How could this lady have requested such a ceremony? How could the monks have agreed to preform it?

Desperately trying to wrap my head around the scene I had just stumbled upon, I just stood there. Staring. Dumbfounded. 

When the blessings were over and I was finally able to peel myself away from the situation I climbed to the top of the complex and sat myself under a giant statue of 4 golden Buddha’s, each facing one of the cardinal directions. Trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed the only thought I could formulate was “Wow, so is this the modern, Chinese take on Buddhism? An attempted balance between consumer materialism and some kind of faith in an other-worldly power?”

Is it worse to bring spirituality into our materialistic livelihoods, misusing the divine, than to not believe in it at all? Does this situation exemplify the Chinese attempt at balance between westernizing and preserving cultural practices and beliefs? The situation still confuses me to this day. My final thought on the matter, for now, is that I bet that woman made a wonderful monetary donation to that community of Buddhist monks.

My Sak Yant Experience

Bangkok, Thailand

After much online research I found the Ajarn (sacred tattooer) I wanted to do my Sak Yant tattoo. His name is Ajarn Neng and his tiny shrine/shop is about 20 kilometers from central Bangkok in a quaint little neighborhood. We arrived just before 10:30 (he gives tattoos from 10:30- 3:00pm) to find two other Thai ladies waiting outside his place.

We entered his little studio when he opened, bowed to his shrine of Buddhist divinities and kneeling before them lit 9 incense to the Gods, offering up prayers and thanks to their protective powers. We took the incense just outside to a statue of Ganesh, Remover of Obstacles, and offered him the sandalwood sticks.

I had called and made an appointment the day before so I was the first to receive my sacred tattooing. By this time there were about 10 other Thai women waiting their turns. There was an offering plate already assembled with marigolds and candles for me to hold to Ajarn Neng to bless, and I added my own incense, flowers, and an enveloped donation of 39 Baht (auspicious Buddhist number) to the offering plate. As Ajarn Neng held his hands down to receive the offering and I kept my arms outstretched at crown chakra height, we both held the offering while he said a quiet prayer to bless this ritual.

Just before we began he whispered in my ear “Repeat the mantra ‘Soh Yathra’ as I tattoo”. The tattooing itself was not very painful. Despite the very long bamboo stick being jabbed into my skin repeatedly it was a very quick, gentle process.

When the tattooing was complete I was to remain sitting in a cross legged/ lotus position on the ground in front of Ajarn Neng so he could bless the Yantra tattoo with holy water and to say a prayer to seal in the sacred energy created through the ritual.

After it was all over, I turned around to face the Ajarn, brought my hands to heart center and bowed to him in thanks for the sacred ink he had blessed me with. As I got up to leave he handed me a card with a special manta on it for me to repeat 3 times every morning when I wake to keep the sacred tattoos energy alive. 

For more information on Ajarn Neng you can find his website at 

Knowing the Truth: Koh Phangan

Yoga Teacher Training

In the midst of a truly inspiring, liberating and soul cleansing yoga retreat, I was on my way to becoming a certified yoga teacher. Early mornings, rising with the sun, clean eating and endless hours of asana and meditation were doing wonders for my mind, body and soul. I was finding my inner voice, the guiding energy that was helping me along my cosmic journey here on our wonderful planet.

I didn’t come into this month long training with any expectations. I knew it would be a transformative experience, and I left it at that, allowing whatever was meant to happen, happen.

One day during our morning meditation practice we were asked to partner up for the day’s exercise. The sweet soul sitting next to me, Rosie, partnered up with me for what was about to be the most enlightening experience of my life.

In the yoga world we are always told “we are all ONE” and “Everything in existence is inter-connected”. I have long since placed my beliefs in these ideas knowing, on a mental plane, that they were true. I must point out that “knowing” is a strange concept here that we have cognitively come to accept as understanding a fact or some piece of information. To my knowledge there is not a word in the English language that properly expresses a Truth we have come to know through the experience of our souls. Probably because these sensations occur in a place within us that is truly indescribable. 

At the beginning of our meditation we were asked to sit across from our partners, to rest our eyes and our palms, and slowly go within ourselves to that place of serene stillness. After a few deep breaths, dropping all external attachments, we were asked to meditate on the brilliant, luminous energy that rests at the core of our being. Focusing on that center within myself, allowing the energy to swirl and strengthen, becoming even more radiant, I felt SO alive, so awakened to my True Inner Self. 

After we had strengthened this light within ourselves we were asked to shift our focus to that same cosmic energy swirling within our partner. Rosie is a luminous, expressive, free spirit naturally and it was easy to find that place of brilliance within her soul as well. I have no concept at all of how much time I meditated on her inner light before the most incredible thing began to happen. Slowly, with indescribable amounts of grace, but also with the strength of the entire universe, the inner light within Rosie and the inner light from within myself began to merge together. Pouring out from my heart center and pouring out from Rosie in equal amounts was this golden thread of unity. Meeting directly between the two of us it formed the strongest bond of connectedness that I can never even begin to properly describe. 

All of a sudden Rosie’s soul was my soul. My energy was hers. We had left the physical world and all of its material existence to partake in an expansive dance of cosmic unity. I had been momentarily awakened. I knew (here’s that catch with “knowing” something) we were ONE. With my whole being and my entire existence I was aware that our souls were the same. From the same divine pool of energy we were both alive and experiencing a bodily journey on this Earth. 

Again, I have no idea how long we floated in this state of Unity but we had lost ourselves to it completely, swelling up with love and light and letting it radiate out all around us. 

When we were called out of this state of grace and back to our physical surroundings we opened our eyes and with blissful tears running down our faces we embraced one another immediately, hoping to express our eternal gratitude to the other for our newfound awakenings. 

As we looked into each other’s eyes we knew we had been changed forever. Seeing her Light look back at mine, through glossy but illuminated eyes, I finally knew, truly knew with my whole being that WE ARE ALL ONE.


Yangon, Myanmar- Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

After spending an incredible month in Myanmar my outlook on life had been changed forever. My values had changed, what I deemed important once upon a time no longer seemed necessary, and the gratitude I had for all of the comforts in my life was growing and expanding, filling up every corner in my heart.

A country relatively untouched by tourism, still struggling to stand on its own feet in our modern age of globalization, Myanmar was a beautifully and culturally rich country to wander around in, completely mesmerized by its dirty authenticity. We found everything we were looking for there: rhythmic chaos, an abundance of color, dusty countrysides and a never-ending number of smiling citizens. 

We did stick to the so-called “tourist route” visiting the “main sites” of the country so of course this shaped our experience a bit. I by no means want to generalize the situation in this country as it has had a long, tumultuous, on-going history of political and social problems. There are many places in the country travelers are not allowed to go. Despite efforts to democratize and to be accepted by the rest of the world as a country that values human rights, there are still huge numbers of neglected, rejected, mistreated and uneducated people around the country. Living standards are low, sanitation is quasi-unheard of, but the hospitality we were shown was uplifting everywhere we went. 

After a month of catching stomach bugs, taking one-too-many 12-hour night buses, and bowing before more Buddha’s than I can count, we boarded a plane bound for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 

A short flight later we walked into an airport so new and so glittering we almost mistook it for somewhere in the states. We hadn’t seen such impressive, immaculate architecture in almost 2 years. As we were walking to the customs lines I noticed a group of 4 or 5 teen-aged Burmese boys stopping the flow of the walkway to take pictures of themselves. One by one, each boy bent over a shiny silver water fountain in the hallway to take a picture with it. 

“What an odd place to take a selfie” I thought watching the scene unfold. After the first two boys had taken their pictures, seeing the joy and excitement on their faces I realized “Holy shit, this is the first water fountain they have probably ever used”. My judgment at the strange nature of their photos immediately vanished, being quickly replaced with the excitement they were radiating around the room. 

In a flash I was aware of all the things Westerners take for granted, primarily, clean water sources. We can drink the water from our sinks! Have ice and chilled H2O dispense from our refrigerators! When was the last time you were grateful for your tap water? When was the last time drinking out of a water fountain was a spectacular event?

The pure, innocent joy I witnessed through these boys touched a sweet place deep in my heart. I was so aware of how fortunate of a human I am. I wanted to share my blessings with everyone else in the world. The only thing I could think was how unendingly grateful I am for everything available to me in this Earthly life. 

Anytime you think you have stumbled into a desperate or trying situation just remember, you still have unlimited amounts of safe water to drink. So many people on this planet cannot say the same.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur was an incredible city to visit. We spent a fair amount of time there as it was our last stop in Asia before moving to Istanbul and we needed to “get our lives together”. It seemed as though Kuala Lumpur was much more Middle Eastern than Asian, and perfectly balancing Muslim conservatism and modernization at the same time. Many women were wearing the all-black burqa, walking hand in hand with their husbands and children while window-shopping through Bukit Bintang, the cities main shopping area. 

Everyone we interacted with in KL was incredibly friendly. We ate many meals at Persian and Iranian restaurants and even after telling our hosts and servers we were American they were both delighted and excited to interact with us. Being American and abroad is an interesting situation. You never know if the people you are speaking to are going to judge you and say something rude, or be really excited and want to keep the conversation flowing.

On one occasion, we had stopped to look at the menu of an Afghan restaurant and the owners came over to help persuade us to stay and eat. After asking where we were from, and responding with “America”, their eyes lit up. They immediately began fishing through their wallets and pulled out these little white ID cards and thrust them towards us. “We are refugees from Afghanistan!” they told us with a surprising amount of pride. “These are the cards the United Nations gave us when we came to Malaysia. We really want to move to America! As soon as our paper work goes through we will start a new life in your country”. We were at a loss for words. These people had such heart-felt sincerity in their voices we hoped to relay the same excitement back to them.

This same encounter would happen to us with different refugees from the Middle East over the next week or so we were in Kuala Lumpur.

We were so surprised to receive such hospitality from these people. In the states everyone is brainwashed to believe that all people from the Middle East are against us and wish us ill. From our personal experiences this seemed to be the opposite. Again, I don’t want to generalize things, as tensions obviously do exist between the Middle East and the States, but above all, the large majority of people who come from Afghanistan, Iran, Syria or whichever country you want to look at, are just that, people. Everyone has the same humanity. Everyone wants the same peace, everyone feels love and sadness, and everyone raises families, has to work and wants security and safety for themselves and their loved ones.

It seems all too easily forgotten that we are all human and in this world together. We all want happy and healthy lives and to feel safe in our homelands.

A Metro Ride

Istanbul, Turkey

Easily one of my favorite cities on the planet, Istanbul is unbelievably rich in history, culture and social dichotomies. Once the most powerful city on Earth, Istanbul is now caught in the far too common pull between westernizing and trying to preserve cultural traditions. On any day, in any neighborhood you can see Muslim women in their all black dress walking along the sidewalks as youngsters provocatively dressed fly by in their brand new Audi’s. It is impossible to categorize this city. One can never truly succeed in comprehending its complexities. This might be why I fell in love with the place. It has a never-ending mystery about it. 

After surviving the end of winter, constantly asking my Turkish friends and students “when is the weather going to get better?” (To which the answer was always “next month, next month, maybe next month”), and praying every day that the sun would come out and bless us with her warmth, the first day of “spring” finally arrived. We had a fair amount of free time in Istanbul and one morning my housemates and I decided to venture out to one of the Bosporus-side villages and relax by the water. It was two metro rides away, but a very easy commute. I loved taking the metro in Istanbul, the trains and the stations were newly built and still had that crisp, enticing smell of fresh concrete within them. Dressed in shorts, a light jacket and with sunglasses ready, we all departed. 

After we had changed trains and boarded the Marmaray line, I found an empty seat and got myself comfortable for the remainder of the short journey. Sitting across from me on the train was a group of 4 Muslim women, covered head to toe in black with only their hands and their eyes revealed. You get used to this scene very quickly. You accept that this degree of modesty is deemed sacred to certain people and it fails to grab your attention after a while. When I noticed 2 of the women looking my direction, I looked back at them and gave them a little smile of recognition (my habit of smiling at everyone never fails to give me away as an American, I have been told). When I didn’t seem to receive any sort of greeting back from the women I didn’t take it personally, city people just don’t have time to smile at everyone who looks their way. 

Unfortunately, it was personal. With out any sign of hesitation or discretion, the 2 women began pointing at me and whispering not so quietly to one another. Although my Turkish was minimal, it was easy to understand that they were gossiping about me, literally, to my face. The other two women who were standing up were forced to move and turn around by their friends so as to see for themselves this offensive young creature (me) who was sitting across from them. I was terribly confused for a short moment. What had I done? I smiled at them… maybe that was wrong? They clarified what the problem was very quickly. One of the women made a motion to the other about the apparent immodesty of my shorts. I had offended these women by my choice to show my legs on the first beautiful sunny day of the year. 

Istanbul is a ridiculously large city. The population is estimated to be between 18 and 20 million people (depending on who you ask and what the assumed number of refugees is at the time). It is impossible to say that it is either a conservative city or a liberal one, for it is both. No matter where you go in Istanbul you will come across all walks of life. All cultures, all historical backgrounds, all different nationalities, it is a melting pot of chaos and beauty. 

With this said, I did not feel that I was being immodest or that my choice of dress that day would seriously outrage and offend anyone. As the scene was unfolding and my 4 fellow passengers on the metro continued to ridicule me, a small beam of clarity began to shine across my intellect.  That little light of clarity was Love. I had no hostile feelings towards these women and I wished them no ill. I wanted to embrace them, to let them know that hatred and judgment are of no use. The point of religion is not to treat others poorly but to accept and love one another as if we were all brothers and sisters. The main message of every single organized religion on this Earth is that of Love. This message has been muddied and forgotten in many places, but it will forever underlie all religious teachings. What is the point of praying, fasting, or going to your places of worship if you cannot perform these duties through a heart full of Love?  Our creator (God, The Universe, Allah, The Divine, whatever way you choose to describe it) gave life to us all equally. We were all formed from His or Her own energy. We were all molded from the same Divine power. We all exist here with the same Love in our hearts. Everything we do should be a reflection of that Love.

A Saint

Annecy, France

I had been staying with my host family in the Italian Alps for the past few weeks when the parents decided we should venture into France for a day trip. The night before we left I was perusing the internet when I came across the most beautiful quote ever. Full of truth and relevance to my current situation I took the words to heart and decided to apply its mindful outlook to my own life. 

“Never be in a hurry: do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset”

- Saint Francis de Sales

The next morning as we prepared to leave for the day I re-read the quote so to carry its positive energy with me throughout our journey.

The little French town of Annecy was absolutely stunning. Situated on the edge of a crystal clear lake at the base of the Alps, the town housed everything anyone could ever want in a tiny European locale. We walked through the town all morning admiring the colorful, old building facades while walking back and forth across the small rivers that divided the streets. We ate crepes for lunch and topped them off with little squares of delectable dark chocolate, complete with tiny flakes of real gold on top. It was a glorious day and I had fallen completely in love with the little town. 

In the afternoon I was free to take a stroll around by myself. Remembering the beautiful words from my newly beloved quote I wandered the precious little streets slowly and mindfully, allowing my inner peace to consume my being and spread throughout my picturesque surroundings. 

When I came to the main piazza, taking in the beauty of the small, white church, I slowed my pace even more to take in as much as I could of the beautiful Sicilian-style architecture. As I approached the small front steps of the church the only color (a brilliant Mediterranean blue sign) present on the bright white façade caught my eye. As I read over the words on the sign I stopped dead in my tracks. A bright universal light of acknowledgement filled my entire existence. The little blue sign read: 

“Place Saint Francois de Sales”

The saint from my quote! This holy figure, of whom I had never heard before, was speaking directly to me. The universe had sent me a divine message. The universal language of our cosmic existence was saying to me personally “My dearest Erin, here you are, and here I am. This is where you are supposed to be. In the fields of time and the plains of space you are meant to be here, right now, in this ever awakened present Moment”. 

I stood there for a long, brilliant while allowing all of the energy of the universe to fill up within my existence and to strip away all fears and any doubts I might have previously had. I walked into the tiny church to admire her beauty and to offer up my gratitude to that higher power that is always and infinitely with us every step of our lives. 

I felt light. I felt free. I felt like all of the stars in the universe were shining within me. 

The splendor and mysterious force of our cosmic existence never leaves us alone. However, it is only when we are calm, at peace, and experiencing the world from a place within our hearts that we can truly lose ourselves and slip effortlessly into the infinite pool of cosmic majesty.

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