West Lake Culture of Romance

上有天堂,下有苏杭

There is heaven above, and Su-Hang below… and it is here in Hangzhou, China, where I returned after a three-year absence.

Truth be told, this was the heaven I needed after the past three years. Eight days of quarantine bliss, where the only voices I had to deal with were my own.  A perfect recipe to re-enter a country where I had spent much of my adult life. 

Speaking of perfect recipes, the first meal in my room: DongPo Rou 东坡肉, a famous Hangzhou dish named after the great Song dynasty poet Su Shi. And for someone who doesn’t get poetry, I sure spend a lot of time trying…

Su Shi’s poem: Drinks at West Lake through Sunshine and Rain (饮湖上初睛居雨) has significance, as it was written about Xi Shi, one of the four beauties of ancient China, and West Lake is said to be the reincarnation of her. 

“The shimmer of light on the water is the play of sunny skies,
The blur of color across the hills is richer still in rain.
If you wish to compare the lake to the Lady of the West,
Lightly powdered or thickly smeared, she is the best.”

~ by Su Shi 苏轼 (1037-1101), aka Su DongPo

Returning to Hangzhou set the stage for one of those magical moments that pop up in life, where once again, the only thing is to relax, step into something new and see where it goes.

Decades ago, as a young man, I was told when the moon was just right late at night, the swaying willow trees of West Lake would transform into a beautiful goddess. I imagined her to be the ancient beauty Xi Shi.

Poets and lost souls would become enraptured by the sight of her alongside the lake and willows, and with imagination, it was almost possible to touch heaven.

There were many drunken nights where I stumbled around the lake, only to wake up humbled by the morning sun and a mouthful of willow leaves…

With this memory, my first stop out of quarantine was easy, visit West Lake to chase the ancient Chinese beauty Xi Shi once again. This myth I’ve been pursuing for the past two decades.

For most Chinese, visiting West Lake is something one must do, just like in ancient times: to experience West Lake is to experience the epitome of Chinese culture.

Poets, artists, and lovers flock here to live through the stories from Song dynasty greats comparing Xi Shi’s beauty to the lake. One famous Daoist philosopher, Zhuangzi, wrote about her entrancing beauty, including her in a renowned idiom: 沉鱼落雁 ~ Upon seeing Xi Shi’s reflection in the water, fish would forget how to swim… Fortunately, I am a pretty strong swimmer. 

During the month I spent in Hangzhou, it was impossible to walk around the streets without imagining I was in the Song dynasty, around me a blend of achievement while not forgetting the Daoist nature of compassion and being one with nature.

Over its 2,100-year history as “the Heaven on Earth” for its culture, beauty, and romantic feel, Hangzhou and West Lake have fueled many dreams.  

In times we have now, where the world is spinning wildly with epidemics, war, politics, and challenging business, it is good to have a place to escape to, to wrap ourselves up in the culture of romance.  

West Lake holds the subtle Daoist culture of romance and oneness between man and nature. As cold and calculating as the world can be, Daoist thought reminds us of the flip side: art, culture, and nature to balance our lives.

West Lake is where Lao Zi’s philosophy of Daoism impacted my life, specifically part of verse 67:

我有三宝,持而保之。

一曰慈,

二曰俭,

三曰不敢为天下先。

慈故能勇;俭故能广;不敢为天下先,故能成器长。

Lao Zi, Dao de Jing, verse 67

I have three treasures of the Dao to hold and protect.

The first is compassion.

The second is self-discipline.

The third is humility.

From compassion comes courage. From self-discipline comes generosity.

From the humility of putting others ahead comes leadership.

The advice is rooted in simplicity, which contradicts today’s modern world.  We often wish to have a simple, enjoyable life, but in an age of hi-tech, where everything comes at increasingly fast speeds, we are forced to react just as quickly and move at such a pace. 

We work with technology all the time, and it is easy to forget that in between all technology is human interaction. Human interaction requires compassion; it is where love is derived, and we build relationships that guide us into becoming better people.

Compassion creates a deep-seated love, giving us the courage to defend all that is good in the world. It is the creed of a great society and great people, and I do not know anyone who would not do anything to defend what they love. 

At the end of the day, if there is no compassion, there is nothing. 

My West Lake journey was a perfect reminder of how compassion allows people to connect with others and their culture, and from this, happiness takes seed.

Compassion towards ourselves allows us to reconcile with all beings in the world. How can we live in peace if we aren’t at peace with ourselves? At peace with ourselves, we have the self-discipline to be generous, to avoid petty arguments, prejudices, and irrelevant gossip that can veer the spirit from growth.

With a generous spirit and self-will, we broaden our thoughts. Ridiculous biases of the past are tossed aside, and we embrace the simplicity of the world.  We develop the patience to be compassionate and seek a greater understanding, a genius.

Genius is not only for the few; it can strike anyone, anytime. All we need is the patience and awareness to let it happen.

Awareness… this is a bit of a problem even with me. Staring at our mobile phones, snapping photos at each moment we see, we speed through life without taking the time to enjoy the calm.

In this world of clicks, likes, and social media influencers, being bold and gregarious are traits we are taught to exemplify. There is not much self-discipline or generosity in this art – where success lacks compassion.

We understand this. See it in existence, and we can all agree that something is missing here. Yet here we are…

The irony of the above selfies and my participation is not lost. I understand the triviality of sharing the world’s beauty at the expense of not fully experiencing it as I should 🙃. 

The younger me would shake his head – it’s a delicate balance to manage. 

Self-discipline is needed to keep things simple. Simplicity is harder than complexity; it takes effort to think clearly. 

Hiking around West Lake, I thought of all the great Chinese and Western artists and philosophers. The one thing they had in common was spending time in nature. It was part of their thought process: hiking up mountains, through fields, or around lakes. Humbled by their surroundings, they developed the discipline to unravel an idea.

Truth cannot be forced. Humility requires self-discipline and patience. From humility comes the inevitable arrival of an answer, a form of leadership. This is a strange contradiction when aligned with the high-pressure, running-with-your-hair-on-fire attitude of the modern world.

Always in a rush, we never get the answer or the spark of genius because we never let the mind relax and “be” which allows us to enjoy hidden smiles to brighten up an evening.   

In this world where everything happens instantaneously, it is easy to forget we are on a humble journey. Our current evolution of having an attention span of a gnat creates superficial happiness at the expense of depth – the expense of developing emotional roots in our own lives.

I’ve mentioned this before in my writing, and again I am amazed at how important the words my sister, Sandi, wrote in a journal she gave me over twenty years ago: “Take it slow, keep it simple.” In essence, be humble.

I often forego this simple tenet, but I understand the importance of reflecting on these words… take a deep breath, roll back time, and start again. 

Taking a deep breath helps when I lose sight of the simple joys life can bring and how easy it is to accomplish by sitting down and enjoying the harmony of life. 

Modern life appears not to appreciate humility or simplicity. But nature does not care what kind of car you drive, what phone you use, or the diamonds and pearls you wear… Instead, sit next to a lake, stretch out on the soft grass with friends, and watch the magic of a setting sun. Nature by your side.

Without the basics of compassion, self-discipline, and humility, it is impossible to achieve the potential of who we are as humans. To over-achieve and find happiness in the simplest of things. 

West Lake still holds magic for me. Its history and beauty, and the romance of culture it creates.  It is where I fell for my favorite verse of the Dao de Jing. It is at the heart of who I want to be.  To become. 

I suppose this person is someone Xi Shi could be impressed with, and just maybe, if I can become such a man when I ascend to heaven, I can sit with her and have a cup of tea… or perhaps 一杯白酒.

When one is humble, one can be brave.

* Special thanks to my niece Miu Miu Qiu who helped with the photos, and Happy Year of the Rabbit to all on this Lantern Day Festival.

Flow of Water ~ Flow of Life

NorthFork Skokomish River

Years ago, my Dad and I were sitting in a duck blind in Eastern Oregon prior to dawn and I mentioned how much I wanted to live near the Oregon Coast.  The  gist of my reasoning was that the Oregon Coast is beautiful, and having water around was comforting.

There is nothing quite like the sight and sound of water; roar of an ocean or babble of brook.  The response from my Dad surprised me; he preferred the high desert and mountains…

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It was not the first time I have been surprised by such a response, as my ex- felt the same way, where I always envisioned a place on the water, she felt the opposite.

My dad laughed at my incredulous look, and said he loves being at the pond (one of his favorite places on earth), and it is made better because it is located in Eastern Oregon (which is why he chose Pendleton).  He also laughed at the situation with my ex-, saying that my Mom’s thought on the subject is also the opposite of his and, like me, she would rather live next to the ocean.

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Why I bring this up, is that there is a special connection to water that inspires me, calms me.  I will not think twice to pay more for a sea view room, while others cringe at the thought as they do not see the same value: some people can’t believe someone else would pay so much more for a house (or flat) with a water view, while others cannot comprehend why not.

The beauty of differences in human nature.

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Among us all, however, is a tremendous respect for water, and it is an inherent respect as we flowed like water from conception onwards.  Beyond the most obvious reason that the majority of our body is made up of the stuff,  it is the nature of water that intrigues.

Water is pure: two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen.  It has no desire other than to be itself.

  • try to pick it up, control and squeeze it, and it will elude ~ as will a strong human spirit
  • if it remains still, it becomes stagnate ~ as will our body & mind without pursuing life
  • when it flows it becomes pure ~ as when we flow & move: life, love and our spirits tend to flourish

Natural properties that we should emulate.

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Water is resilient.  Soft yet incredibly strong.  An analogy which is often repeated, is how over time water can turn stone into sand with its relentless flow, creating such marvels as the Grand Canyon.  Water never ceases in its pursuit of life…it just keeps on flowing, bending when necessary, and without question follows its nature.

My favorite verse from the Dao de Jing is number eight which parallels water with human nature.  If I had to summarize the words of this verse it is: be true to who you are, keep it simple and kind, and flow with your work and in life, without expectations, and you will not be disappointed.

Flow of Water-3

Simple thoughts.  Whenever life throws something at me, a trip to the coast (or a creek) is all I need to gain perspective.

As with all words of Lao-zi, they are words of poetry…which makes translation by any non-native speaker close to impossible.  Below is the Chinese, and an old translation I made 15 years ago with a lot of help.

  • 上善若水。
  • 水善利万物而不争,处众人之所恶,故几于道。
  • 居善地,心善渊,与善仁,言善信,政善治,事善能,动善时。
  • 夫唯不争,故无尤。

The greatest good is like water.  Nourishing all in our world without effort, flowing to depths we ignore.  Water is therefore like the Dao.

In living, be close to the land

In thinking, be simple from the heart

In dealing with others, be kind with sincere words

In politics and business, do not manipulate

In life, be effective and completely present

When you are content being yourself, your flow gains the respect of those around you.

Flow of Water-2

I do remember when I was studying Chinese and the Dao de Jing, I asked many questions about this verse and finally the person I was studying with said the meaning of the verse “is just like a brook in the mountains: travels from high to low, nourishing, sincere, humble and true to itself…and most of all it sounds beautiful if you shut-up and take time to listen.”

Take the time to listen to what the water (and the world) is saying.

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Watershed Moments in the DPRK

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What is the feeling of receiving a genuine smile from a stranger, where the eyes light up and there is no mistaking the emotions of wonderment, curiosity and delight?

A watershed moment in the DPRK.  It is strange, it was one of those off-chance smiles from a local walking along the street with nothing particular happening.  A spur of the moment release of joy and wonderment as with all smiles, but it also contained a little more – something that could bridge two very different cultures.  If there were a photograph that could do it justice, it would be the greatest photo ever taken.

Beautiful moments and smiles can certainly be photographed.  Everyday, many tremendous smiles are photographed around the world with children the greatest source; from pure minds come pure smiles.  Capturing the glory of such photos usually happens within a friendly atmosphere, and a camera is a mere afterthought.  Photos to be treasured.

In an environment where there is no such familiarity and warmth, it is difficult.

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There in lies the rub, the introduction of a camera steals a bit of the purity away from the spell.  The shots are still admirable, but the sparkle in the eyes may lose some of its mystical glow.

Why I mention this is that while I have photographed nice smiles of people and children in the DPRK, nothing could match the off-chance reactions of first ‘the glance’ followed by ‘a glimmer in the eye’ and finally a ‘world-winning smile’ of a local worker we passed by on the streets.  If I had to describe such a smile, picture the Mona Lisa breaking out in laughter after Da Vinci told her a racy joke…that type of electricity.

There is nothing I have that can come close to such expressions.

It took a few days in the DPRK for these “watershed moments” to arrive, all of which have taken me by surprise.   In my previous posts, I have mentioned several times that there is a forced stoic look on just about everyone – a veneer that upon arrival seemed impossible to penetrate.  Coming from places where smiles are common (China and the USA), this was a strange thing to witness.

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On the DPRK streets it may be that it is not easy to express ‘friendship’ or ‘happiness’ with the locals because of the barriers I have touched on in earlier posts.  Nevertheless, after a few of these sincere smiles, I wonder if this has as much to do with myself as with them.

The theory being that my unconscious biases and expectations I had when I arrived in the DPRK were getting in the way and it took a bit of time to unconsciously wipe away the ‘built-in’ negativity and realize we are all human with similar emotions, albeit with a vast abyss separating the cultures.

There was a post by a fellow blogger Jessica last year that touched on such a thought: http://jesscy.com/2012/10/23/people-are-people/, a nice read.

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Catching the eye, the gleam and then the smile…it is an easy way humans communicate.  Conceivably, it is the most basic primitive instinct that humans not only still have engrained in their genetics, but a primitive instinct that still serves the very same purpose from our beginning: to demonstrate there is no animosity, nothing to be feared and most importantly, friendship.

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While I still think ‘free expression’ is somewhat rare in the DPRK compared to other countries, it is here in some form.  Being in the DPRK has heighten my awareness, so it possible that the fact of just being here in this country makes a ‘simple form of self-expression’ seem more dramatic.  

If this is the case, then it just serves as a reminder that a smile is a mutual sharing of joy that can make any day a little bit better.  If such smiles are unexpected, then it is something I believe we can all relate with, knowing it is a bit more special.  Something so simple that can brighten the day is priceless.

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Sunset in the DPRK…Surprising and as Beautiful as a Smile

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When I first had this watershed moment, I thought that it was a singular event, even when followed by a few more the following day.  Uplifting.  In the afternoon as we visited a local brewery, and over a few mugs of the local brew, this very topic came up and the table turned electric with varying stories of connections.  Each story containing one common thread: everyone had been hit in some form by a genuine smile.  Simple and sweet.

My theory regarding this, is that it takes two to tango.  Being a little shell-shocked on arrival, it was difficult to have been on the same plane of understanding with our Korean brethren.  Be it culture shock or an unconscious bias.

Then again, perhaps not and it is the local brew doing the talking – never a bad thing at least until the morning after.

Regardless, joyous smiles from the heart are universal.

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The revelation of such a simple act and connection with people confirms that we are all home.  Regardless of where we are in our travels, good people are everywhere.

If there is a highlight of the trip regarding the sites we have visited, the children’s activity center (Pyongyang Schoolchildren’s Palace) and the performances afterwards would rank at or near the top.  Still, I think that while the children’s smiles are incredibly special, the rare genuine smiles surprisingly received on the streets are the ones that I will always remember.

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As for the children’s activity center, an amazing place filled with the magic of children and their ability to bring hope & smiles to us now and in the future.

Daoist philosophy explains the essence of children very well: a goal to ‘return to the mind of a child.’  The purpose being the mind of a child holds clarity and purity.  The child’s mind is closely connected to nature, not yet encumbered by the biases and cynicism that we collect as we move on in life.  If we can capture this essence, we can achieve a sense of self.  Unfortunately, as an adult, it is a place we can never return.  Sigh, at least we do get to enjoy the innocent wisdom of children before watching them grow up like us, into grouchy, cynical adults…(kidding of course).

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If you ever want to understand what is the epitome of happiness, watch a child at play when they are impervious to everything around them except the joy of laughter.

I hope the photos in this post prove to be a better messenger than the scrambled set of words I have already laid out.

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It occurs to me that while I describe the watershed moment as a breakout, I suppose the moment was slowly building.  Traveling to a new area and a new culture can expose the soul to incredibly different customs and it takes time to get acquainted with the place.  To understand its ambiance.

An old friend of mine once told me: “Travel, because when you teach your soul to accept new surroundings, you become more human and more compassionate towards the world.  So go out and live in it fully.”  At the time, he was simply talking about the different cultures you find in one city.  It is important to explore.

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With a few days under the belt, the DPRK has began to feel more human and, shockingly, a place I could definitely spend a fair amount of time to experience and learn more of their culture and the people.  While it still remains distant from any society I have lived or experienced, I guess it is the potential that has me feeling optimistic.  It all falls back to that watershed moment.

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As I think back to my first response to seeing people on the streets, watching them with a stoic veneer that seemed to be plastered on their face as they looked straight ahead, I thought that nothing could break through this frozen barrier.  Soldiers of a continuing Cold War.

Looking back, though, I should have seen the positives and great character right away.  My first experience to the personalities of the North Koreans was brought about by our guide (Ms. Kim), who was incredibly quick-witted.

Dan Levitsky and Ms. Kim Un Hui

Dan Levitsky and Ms. Kim Un Hui

What surprised me was how very quick she was to become wary of my wit.  Her hilarious replies and rebuttal for any smart comment I made often left me stammering for an answer, and the group in laughter.  She become a highlight of the trip herself…really a great personality.

It sounds foolish now, but I did not think such a personality could exist in the DPRK.  In all likelihood, I think I may have even thought such genuine smiles were impossible as well.  Where did these biases come from…?

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As for Ms. Kim, while we were at the Schoolchildren’s Palace (activity center), I did create a little stress for her as I got “disassociated” with the group and did a little exploring and met up with some great kids.  I think the students were as shocked as I was running into each other, and after their laughter at my horrible Korean, one of them broke into English.

It was simple small talk about where we were from, what we did and then description of classes and whether or not I was going to attend the performance that was just about to take place.  A couple of teachers came over to listen and enjoyed the conversation, although each of them looked at each other as if to say “where the hell did he come from?!?”  Again, simple and sweet.

However, when I did make it back to the group, I was warned that Ms. Kim was quite stressed, and the scolding I took confirmed this… even though both her and the group enjoyed the critique of my troublesomeness.

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As for the activity center, it was a lively and beautiful place where children studied extra-curricular activities such as ballet, musical instruments, and craft works.  It was difficult to say what was more inspiring – the art that was created, or the children who were putting their time into learning such skills.

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Travel rarely disappoints, for if you allow and seek it out, at some level there will be a connection with the locals along with a new set of experiences.  Experiences that can diversify the path you’re on and be incorporated into new dreams.  The experience may be a trip across town to a new ethnic restaurant, into another community or a different country.  A place where the mind and soul opens up to new ideas and adventure.

In regards to the DPRK, I am still disappointed with the politics that surrounds the country, but it feels strangely irrelevant compared to the past two days, as the beauty of its people overshadowed the politics.  The warmth of the smiles and the understanding that we are all a part of this adventure together has been the true highlight.

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Power of Nature and Change

Ta Prohm Godess Tree-15

I hadn’t planned on writing another blog entry on Cambodia, but then it is a good excuse to show some of the more iconic shots of the power of nature at Ta Prohm and discuss the inevitable change around us.  Of all the photos I have seen of Cambodia, these tend to be the most common: nature coming in to continue the cycle of change…to return everything back to its source.

Change is a challenge nature throws our way, and how we reconcile change within our lives makes us who we are.  Today’s world has undergone a paradigm shift in terms of how technology has removed us further from the physical world.  A change that has many people struggling to understand what lies ahead.  Where in the past we had a better understanding and thus security, today we float through ethernet cables from quarks to parallel universes.  Yet fear not.

Ta Prohm Engulfed

This is the beauty of evolution.  When we understand that change is the only constant there is in our lives, it makes it easier to recognize our own purpose and meaning.  We either adapt or struggle (e.g. blaming politics & the world until our last breath).  At times, I have been terrified of change and struggled until realizing that change brings experience to life and, in essence, brings out a hero quality we all have inside.

This is perhaps why I find Ta Prohm so fascinating.  Mother Earth has taught us: change & evolution is inevitable and in the future more great monuments may become covered in brush & vine as society decides to moves on.

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The Hall of the Dancers at Ta Prohm intrigued me the most, mainly because some locals were filling me in on its history and I walked away knowing that it is futile to fight change.  Understand change, embrace its inevitability and continue to move forward and add value to our lives and to those around us.

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The 16th verse of Laozi addresses this well:

 致虚极,守静笃。万物并作吾以观其复。夫物芸芸,各复归其根。归根曰静静曰复命。复命曰常,知常曰明。不知常,妄作凶。知常,容,容乃公,公乃王,王乃天,天乃道,道乃久,没身不殆。

Empty your mind and heart and be at peace, while around you is turmoil: endings become beginnings and beginnings will end.   Everything flourishes and everything ends, it is what it is: the cycle of life.  If you do not understand your source and nature, you will stumble and life will stagnate.  

Understand your source and you can fulfill your destiny.  Be tolerant among change and you can deal with all life brings your way until you are ready for the cycle to begin again. 

My simple take on this verse:  By allowing yourself to accept change, you to return to your source (your nature) where you are able to begin to understand how your world really works. With this understanding, you  are ready for all life can offer…thus will accept the end.

Happiness in the most unlikely places…

Traveling to many countries we would consider 3rd world, I am buoyed by the spirit and love for life that I see from people who live day-by-day.  The people of Phnom Penh and Cambodia in general were some of the most optimistic and life-loving people I have ever met.  Morning Worker-2 My Lunch

Walking around town, I was amazed at the relative ease in communicating with the locals, even though I only spoke at the very basic level of Cambodian (1-month crash course prior to my trip), and they had very limited – if any – English skills.

After graduating in the USA, I found work managing a bicycle & ski shop which allowed me to pursue two great loves: cycling and working on bicycles (skiing was a 3rd hobby, but clearly took a back seat to cycling).  While walking the streets, I met two very energetic and busy guys who had a cycle repair shop on the streets and were very happy to try to explain their work/life/happiness in doing what they did in Phnom Penh.  Generally they agreed that: “We are lucky, and we get to travel back home to see our families every year…”

Moto Mechanic 3

Life is not so much a collection of material goods, but a collection of experiences from which you decide on your happiness.  Lao Zi, the author of the Dao de Jing, once wrote (Chapter 44):

  • 名与身孰亲?
  • 身与货孰多?
  • 得与亡孰病?

甚爱必大费,多藏必厚亡。故知足不辱,知止不殆,可以长久。

  • Your name or integrity, which is more dear?
  • Your health or money, which is worth more?
  • Your strife for gain or time with those you love, when facing death which is most important?

Fulfillment does not come from the admiration of other, but with admiration of yourself.  When you know when to stop & to love, the whole world belongs to you.

Look into your heart, and decide what is real and what is true.  Know when to stop, reassess what is right and then follow your spirit.

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