I’m writing to share this deeply felt lesson, to first learn for myself and second help other people learn through my experience. I believe this story resonates with many of us, because we are always part of a larger story. If it does for you, please share it with other too. Another reason to write is so that people can have an example of how to reflect. I don’t claim I know the golden formula, but this maybe a good starting point.
I was walking around Montmartre area of Paris yesterday, and I was drawn to a big crowd on the street: a gambling gig. A man had three pieces of black round pad; under one of them was a white dot. He would switch them around, flip them frequently. People would bet for the pad with the white dot and get paid twice as much. There were many people around; one particular lady was also in, won some at first and started losing. There was an older man who had been inside the circle who occasionally peaked at the pad while the conman wasn’t paying attention, bet and won. The next times he peaked, he asked people to bet with him. Some people won that way. I felt pulled in, and for some conman’s magic, I lost once, twice, thrice, totaled to $80, the biggest sum of money for me I ever lost. Before I ran out of cash, and this man kindly pulled me out and asked me to leave; if I stayed I would have completely dried out.
The whole experience was so fast I felt like waking up from a feverish dream. I needed to slow down and digest it. Any conman knows what he is doing. I was simply conned. But if all I could learn was to never get into gambling again then it would be such a waste. Experience like this doesn’t come quite often, and the learning from it can be so potent.
I meditated on this experience, relived the sensations, let them touch me deeply when I was safe in the room. The first step of learning from experience is to start from the level of sensation. As of writing this, I still felt those very strongly. As I was pulled in, there was a sense of being vulnerably high, like being on the tip of my toes all the time. Even though I thought I slowed down already, I was still drawn in.
What does loss feel like?
They feel extremely vulnerable around my chest, as if there are some currents running beneath. For me, the chest is close to the heart, which can easily cause some tears. These sensations are deep, which must mean there was a lot underneath it.
What I was thinking?
I thought that I could win, that I could outsmart this conman, that I could mastermind this situation. I also thought that I could make some money and then leave. Pretty common thoughts for gamblers, but there were so much more to both these thoughts that I would explore further below.
After I left the crowd, I had a few seconds to reflect on the experience. Then I pulled out my phone from my pocket, and you might have guessed, the phone was gone too, with it gone my debit card and student ID. Quite an experience.
It was as if something at the bottom of my stomach just dropped, as if the ground under me was gone, as if I was going down on an elevator. It felt like having a fever, like a loss of control, which was quite unusual for me. I was sharply aware of the impact: the emotional hijack, the inability to focus, the impatience and the lack of presence. I felt like crying. I didn’t cry; my first reaction was “Ok time to take care of the consequences”. Which I did, rushed to the Internet cafe opposite the street to call up the bank and block the account. I noticed my own impatience as I was calling, and I slowly managed to slow down. (it was ironic that the bank representative was thanking me for my patience…) I also confirmed with a new friend that I would still meet her in an hour (as a side note, I had a pretty good sense of direction within two days in Paris, being able to bike back to our meet up place which was about 5km away without Google map)
On the way back, I was trying to regain my presence; it was hard given how much just happened. There was another thought “All the people around there must be conspiring with each other. Even the man who helped pull me out – I did once think of him as part of their scheme too. He did cheat the conman after all, so they might be together. Who knows?” This was an example of a victim thought; it came from a powerless, blaming position. Thanks to my practice of mindfulness I was aware of them and let them go. Thoughts are the easier to let go; sensations aren’t.
What am I learning about myself?
I was pretty quick in looking at the positive: I didn’t lose everything and still have my passport with some backup cash. I also wrote down in my little notebook the password for the rented bike and the apartment and so I had a place to go back. I did not blame the other, nor did I blame myself. I thought “Okay Khuyen, you are paying for your own stupidity, you are paying a tuition for life”. I would be more careful the next time.
This is not too new. I have somehow trained myself to look on the bright side; it was a good test of resilience. But this time was a opportunity to learn much more.
Focusing on the bright side is a common coping mechanism, a very effective one indeed. But it was a coping mechanism after all, like a bandage for a bleeding wound. The wound needs to breathe too; sometimes bandaging too fast can hamper long term recovery. To truly heal, we need to stay with the pain and understand it.
Interestingly, one of my assignments for a class this very week was to do something totally out of my comfort zone and normal patterns. Here is the exact instruction from my teacher: “Open yourself up to problems you’ve been avoiding–with family members, co-workers, friends, enemies. Disrupt every area of your life that has become routine. Dress the way you’ve always wanted to. Forget your compulsive promptness. Deliberately destroy as many behavioral patterns as you see in yourself. Use your left hand instead of your right. Dawdle where you would ordinarily run. Run where you would saunter”
I thought of this trip as the perfect opportunity for this assignment. Traveling to a new environment feels like a reset button; we can start everything anew. Note starting something fresh doesn’t mean starting something “good” – it could be quite the opposite. The point remains though: to start something fresh instead of slipping into old patterns and succumb to temptation. It is easy to say and hard to do: the challenge of being present is just that – whenever we think we’ve got it, we lose it.
The two complex relationships I have are with money and with food, and somehow I subconsciously knew that I would like to try to be more spendthrift and indulgent. On the train to Paris, a new friend and a respectable gentleman gave me 50 euros because I hadn’t exchanged USD yet and I needed some money to take the subway (crazy I know… I met wonderful people whose generosity touched me so much). It gave me even more excuse to break my own patterns. One way is to break all my dieting rules – I have been eating quite freely (which means eating the same favorite food again and again – I had 3-4 crepes on the street everyday!) I thought about how much good food I can eat. Yet habits are strong: one big part of me was still quite spendthrift: it thought that the 50 euros already felt quite luxurious for a 3-day budget (I know you may say “in Paris, really?” – but hey, it’s all relative!)
More indulgent, yes, but gambling? Hell no. It never crossed my conscious mind. Yet life always has an uncanny way to teach me lessons. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” said the Buddha. And the teacher is not necessarily a person but an experience. I think I was just depriving myself and my self-control by mentally budgeting the food, and I felt into that “trap”. It’s all part of the grander plan, and I was ready for this test.
A systemic interpretation of the incident
How am I feeling about the people who conned me? He might be feeling high and low like I did often, perhaps so often he might not have the opportunity to be in a safe corner, to quiet down with himself and reflect like I do. Or he might know all this, and he was there to create this learning for other people (perhaps charging them some money for the tuition)
From the larger, interdependent perspective, there was no one conning anyone anyway; there were simply some energy vibrating with each other. The “darker” part of me was resonating with that of other (I’m being careful with the label “darker” here; a better word would be “ignorant” or “mindless”) For example, I was clearly lying too, to myself first and to the conman (I told him I ran out of money, which I didn’t) The incident is just another manifestation of who we are. From this perspective, there is no blame, only contribution. There is neither I nor you. There are only us.
Afterwards, I went to meet up with a new friend, Alexandra. We reflected on our recent experiences, on how strange life has different ways to teach us the same lessons and on how we can learn and evolve together. It was the best conversation I had this week.
On learning about money
I want to use this opportunity to explore my relationships with the past self, especially my attitude with money.
Alexandra told me a difficult story of working with a business partner who didn’t negotiate the payment well. He didn’t ask for the money upfront and turned sour when he received an amount he deemed insufficient. Upon a genuine moment of reflection on why he behaved that way, he blurted “I grew up poor”. The story struck a chord with me. A flashback came through my mind: when I was younger, I used to save all the small notes inside one drawer out of the many drawers of my uncle or under the books. Over time, I accumulated a small fortune. Yet fortune comes and go; one day I found out that they were gone. Someone stole it. I remember crying for so long for the injustice that I faced. Was it my brother? Or was it someone else? As I grew up, these pains and patterns got buried in daily life. I knew money was emotional issue for me, and perhaps many others too. Our behaviors result from habits that were formed and reinforced by deep seated beliefs. The inertia of karma is strong, and only through genuine reflection can we be free from its grip. Alexandra told me that “You are simply paying to your past self”, which was the best line I’ve heard during this trip.
I thought of my past petty self that grew up in a mindset of scarcity, the one who believed it did not have anything to give and thus felt uncomfortable receiving. Seeing people who beg on the street made me uncomfortable, but I don’t usually give. It makes me wonder sometimes: if I have received so much from the world, from money to opportunities to beautiful relationships. How could I start giving? What are my gifts to the world? Writing is one of those – what more?
This incident allowed me to know more intimately this old friend, the less evolved, “darker” and often ignored side. For example, I liked to cheat because it made my ego feel like it know the system. The pleasure of outsmarting someone or something comes from the fear of not knowing enough. I thought I overcome this fear – hell no – some lessons are not easily learned well. I did steal too. I stole others’ raincoats when mine was stolen, because I’d like to believe that the world was fair that way. I hope I’m learning well this time.
As I sat back and meditated, I thought again of the novella Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, one of the most influential books that have shaped who I am today. I felt awed at how prophetic that book continued to be. The chapter when Siddhartha was with Kawasaki to learn the art of making money, of losing them and losing himself in the world of worldly pleasures. He stayed in that dreamy, wandering phase of life for a while before the inner voice spoke to him one day to wake him up from that endless cycles of winning and losing.
I had the theory; I now have an experience. Gambling and losing gave me a glimpse of the pain associated with money – of doubting oneself, blaming the other, of giving so much meaning to these pieces of paper. Whoever said money didn’t matter must either be ignorant or enlightened, and only through experience can we tell the difference. The most striking part was to observe the whole scene – of people winning, losing, of the intense laughters, the sinister smirks, the dejected faces. It was like seeing a brutal fight without the capacity to help. I thought of my mentor’s words: “You have to explore your own relationship with money”. This time I could laugh at myself “Ah. Life is manifesting itself through you, my friend”.
On the last note, I haven’t felt that good about canceling my plan to visit places to sit down and write instead. I felt quite a different person from this experience, and am thankful for the learning that is always just starting.
My gratitude for those who have given, to me and to the world – may you continue to give. For those who have not, may you start giving. For those who have been receiving, may you continue to receive and to give.