Gambling and losing in Paris

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.

The story
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.

Intentional self-disruption

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.

[Letter] Last summer work

It is no accident that some of my better writing are letters to people – they have more contexts and therefore meaning. When we do something with a sense of meaning, we do it better. I share because I think they are worth sharing, even though you may not understand most of it. It also gives you, my reader, a better sense of who I am.

Context: From my from my internship over the summer when I received feedback about my work and my reflection on it. You can read more of the original story here – Getting punched, kind of. This letter is another reflection 6 months after. You see, I do dwell on the past 😉

Hi [my boss],

I hope this finds you well. I am writing to say thank you for the summer and the pieces of feedback you gave me.

I’ve been thinking about it more recently. The more I think about it, the more I am so grateful that you gave me so much feedback. It wasn’t the most ideal situation, but I’m so thankful that you decided to trust me that I could take it. (I wonder if you would have given feedback to another person that way, because some may have PTSD instead of post traumatic growth. Of course it wasn’t anything too traumatic compared to near-death experiences or losing of a loved ones, but it was hard nonetheless) I think I recover well from setbacks, have a pretty healthy self-esteem and don’t dwell too much on past mistakes, but there was so much to learn from that experience I can’t waste it.

I grew up a lot as a person from the incident, and I am happily surprised at how I took it. Now reading the emails again, I thought about how defensive I still seemed then. I remember when I was writing and preparing to meet you in the morning, I tried to be as open as possible. I think I was, but I could have been a lot more.

I was lazy too; I definitely took the intellectually easy way out. I told myself that we had different ways to learn; you might enjoy reading papers while I prefer browsing through more accessible books. Now reflecting on that, I was just giving myself excuses. I was simply lazy. I did read a lot, and I chose to read what I think was useful but perhaps they were just more interesting to me, and that’s laziness.

I’m saying this as a matter of fact, not feeling bad or guilty at all. Laziness is just as real as entropy – the physical law that the universe is tending towards disorder. And yet there is evolution – when a living being or a species adapts and become more and more organized and complex. These two forces don’t seem to go together, yet we seem to be evolving rather than regressing. Does that mean evolutionary force is stronger? I don’t know. Speculation aside, I have to keep working. I can’t be lazy if I want to love, because love takes work. A lot of it.

I wonder why I was so bad. I think part of it was that I didn’t know how much effort should I put into the work – was it a 9-5 job or was it just get as much done as I can? When should I leave work? How much is expected of me? I didn’t expect much for myself, and in hindsight that wasn’t a good move. One grows from the expectation one makes on oneself, and I wasn’t really consumed by it and therefore didn’t grow as much. Good lesson learned. There are positive too though. I’m getting a lot better in being with people and communicating. That’s one of my strengths. I don’t enjoy being technical at all – I guess I will have to be somehow in the near future, but so far from my experiences I enjoy and am also more effective with people.

This summer was a weird time for me; I was in a limbo zone, not knowing what I wanted to do, not sure how I should use my time in the Bay Area effectively, fantasizing that I could have had a more formal internship in a tech firm. I did notice that last thought often, and I told myself “Khuyen, be in the moment. You have committed to one thing, you have to put everything into it.” Still, having that thought perhaps made me less willing to work, at least at the subconscious level.

Keep me updated on your adventure and learning lessons. Life is too short to learn from one’s own journey – must learn from other’s experiences too!

Thư giử mẹ 2016

Mẹ à,

Hôm nay năm mới, thầy của con bảo mình lúc ngồi thiền ngoài thực hành định tâm ra cũng nên dành thời gian để nuôi nấng cái tánh yêu của mình. Con nghĩ đến mẹ. (thầy mà không nhắc chắc con cũng quên. Thế mới phải nuôi nấng cái tánh yêu).

Cuộc sống nội tâm của mẹ chắc chắn phải rất giàu kỉ niệm, vui có, buồn có. Con lớn hơn, hiểu được hơn một ít. Con nhớ lại những khoảnh khắc làm mẹ buồn. Chỉ nghĩ không thôi đã thấy nó buồn thế nào, con không hiểu làm mẹ lúc đấy thì thấy thế nào nữa. Rồi con nghĩ đến việc làm mẹ của con, làm chỗ dựa của cả gia đình mình khó đến mức nào.

Hồi nhỏ, lúc nhà mình cãi nhau to, cả mẹ bà và anh, con tưởng như không giữ được cái nhà này nữa. Con còn nhỏ đã thấy khó rồi, nhưng con còn trốn đi chơi điện tử cho giải khuây được, me không bỏ được nhà mà đi lúc đấy mẹ chịu kiểu gì? Không có người tâm sự thì chắc tự tử mất. Mà con nó có hiểu được đâu, muốn bảo nó đi cám ơn ân nhân mà nó cứ dùng dằng mãi mới chịu đi, “vì bổn phận làm con”.

Hồi cấp 3 đi du học con về nghỉ hè được ba tuần, con tưởng mình ngoan đi chơi lúc nào cũng phải xin phép mẹ. Sáng nào cũng đi đá bóng với bạn rồi lượn lờ đến trưa, đến một hôm có anh bạn rủ đi ăn sáng, mẹ cáu: “Mày muốn thì đi luôn đi”. Con tưởng mẹ nói một lần con tởn đến già luôn, thế mà con lại đi mất rồi đây.. Nghĩ lại, đứa con mình mang nặng đẻ đau, dành bao nhiêu tâm huyết và tình cảm vào để nuôi nấng mà nó cứ nhơn nhơn. Con biết là giận dữ không giải quyết được gì lâu dài mà thực hành được mới là khó. Bao nhiêu chuyện xảy ra ở chỗ làm, nhà cửa thì bề bộn, về chỉ muốn nghỉ ngơi, thấy con mình như thế thì chả cáu? Giận thì giận thật mà phải vượt qua cái nỗi đau đấy để bắt con nên người.

Hồi đấy nhà mình cáu giận nhiều quá. Lớn rồi con hiểu được, có cơn giận nào không làm đau người đang giận? Không giày vò người ta đêm đêm? Lưỡi dao đã cắt, có bó được vết thương thì cơn đau cũng đã hằn sâu. Chẳng có gia đình nào hoàn hảo, ai lớn lên cũng phải có nhiều vết thương, phải dành thời gian chữa trị. Không phải lỗi tại con hay lỗi tại mẹ hay lỗi ai nhiều hơn. Tại mình sinh ra làm con và mãi vẫn chưa thành được người. Khó quá mẹ ạ.

Mà cũng có những lúc vui. Con nó được giải này giải nọ, được đi du học người khác chúc mừng. Bạn bè khen thằng con lớn bảnh trai lấy vợ đẹp rồi có cháu trai to khỏe. Thấy con mình lớn dần lên từng ngày. Thấy chính mình lớn lên từng ngày. Nghĩ đến lúc đưa con ra sân bay. Sao đứa con của mình nó cứ dưng dửng, mặt mũi tươi cười an ủi mẹ nó “Có gì mẹ cứ nhắn con qua Viber”. Ôi, nó có cuộc sống của riêng nó rồi, còn mấy khi nghĩ về mẹ nó nữa?

Con nhớ hồi hè về dẫn mẹ đi chơi lăng bác xem chuẩn bị diễu binh quốc khánh. Con vui lắm, lần đầu tiên dẫn mẹ đi chơi, cũng là lần đầu tiên mẹ được đi xem chuẩn bị diễu binh cả đời gần 50 năm tuổi. Mẹ phải chịu khổ nhiều quá rồi. Thế mà cũng chính đứa con đấy hôm trước khi quay lại Mỹ bắt đầu năm học mới lại làm mẹ thất vọng. Mẹ bảo con đi chùa với mẹ, con cứ ậm ừ, đến lúc đi mặt mũi tiu nghỉu thể hiện thái độ rồi đòi về sớm. Me nói “Từ lúc con về toàn mẹ phục vụ con, đến lúc mẹ bảo đi chùa với mẹ thì tiu nghỉu. Mẹ tưởng con lớn rồi biết suy nghĩ cho người khác hơn, ít ích kỉ hơn. Mẹ buồn vì con của mình chưa tốt”. Con cũng buồn, một phần vì con hư, phần hơn vì thấy mẹ bảo “trách nhiệm” là phải phục vụ con. Con không dám nhờ mẹ làm hộ việc gì nữa vì con sợ hai chữ “trách nhiệm” đấy. Nó là một phần quan trọng, nhưng không phải tất cả của tình yêu thương. Lúc đấy hai mẹ con mình đang dạy nhau và dạy chính mình biết cách yêu thương tốt hơn. Nghĩ đến giây phút đấy, giờ con thấy cả hai đã lớn lên nhiều.

Yêu được người khác khó quá, phải bỏ tâm huyết và tinh thần, và phải thực hành. Ngồi không nhớ đến người mình yêu thì dễ, nghĩ và làm gì với tình yêu đó mỗi ngày mới là khó. Con sống xa nhà, nhiều khi nghĩ không biết gia đình đối với con có quan trọng thế không? Sau này liệu có mất gốc? Càng lớn con càng thấy phải nuôi nấng cái tánh yêu của mình để nó lan ra tất cả mọi người và mọi sinh vật xung quanh và trên cả thế giới này nữa. Gia đình, đất nước là một phần của cả thế giới lớn hơn. Nghĩ được thì dễ, làm được mới phải khó. Nghĩ cao xa quá lắm khi làm chùn mình chùn chân, mà vẫn phải nghĩ. Thôi cứ bắt đầu nhỏ, từ người thân và cộng đồng xung quanh.

Thinh thoảng con nhắn tin cho mẹ vì con nghĩ đến chuyện một ngày mẹ mất đi, rồi con ở xa nhận được tin. Con sợ. Chắc con sẽ buồn lắm, và con sẽ vượt qua. Đời là vô thường mà mẹ. Rồi con nghĩ đến chuyện con có thể mất đi trước mẹ – ai biết được trong cõi đời vô thường này? Mẹ chắc còn buồn hơn, và mẹ sẽ vượt qua mẹ ạ. Mẹ tin vào nhiều kiếp mà. Khi một người qua đời họ chỉ đến một thế giới khác. Con thì chỉ nghĩ cái chết là không còn kết nối với sự sống nữa. Nếu thế thì có những người sống chẳng bằng chết, không có động lực để kết nối với người khác. Mình phải tập yêu trong từng giây phút này mẹ ạ, yêu cuộc sống và yêu sự sống. Con viết thư để nhắc nhở cả hai mẹ con mình.

Năm mới mẹ mạnh khỏe. Con mong mẹ sống tốt hơn mỗi ngày, yêu thương trọn vẹn hơn, gieo phước đức cho người thân và những sinh linh xung quanh.

Con của mẹ,

Reflection on 2015: Experiment & Synthesis

End of the year is time for connecting and reconnecting time with friends, family and also myself. Looking back, this year has been the more successful year by external measures. If I can tell people about the places that I got to visit, the people I met, the opportunities which have opened up in front of me, then the year is a good one.

I want to share the journey inside though, the one that is often not told and almost infinitely more relatable. I entered 2015 feeling burned out from school, perhaps as the result of a notorious 30 hour/week Computer Science class. I wrote about it more in my 22 note, but to sum up, I felt like wandering around college and life, not growing as fast and not having a clear purpose. In other words, I was suffering from a mini existential crisis, the infamous sophomore slump. Some may say “What the heck Khuyen, you are only 22. Many people twice and even three times your age haven’t even figured it out”. I don’t think anyone has figured out, but I’ve met some people who just seem to be full of life – isn’t it such a good goal to strive for? I believe we may not know exactly what we want, but when we quiet down enough we can always hear a hunch of what it is and know when we are close. There is such a feeling called “getting there”, whatever that means. Before I found something, I need to search for it.

This year taught me about the nature of growth: once in a while there will be a major breakthrough, a defining moment, yet often times change is barely perceptible. It is like trying to lift oneself out of thickened mud – pushing one’s legs into it so hard without seeing any visible result. Hardly does he know that all these efforts count in softening the mud, for one day he lifted his leg lightly and the whole mud collapsed. Someday feel like nothing happening while someday everything seems to align. It is also one of the lessons I learned the hard way from my boss this summer – consistently give your all into whatever you do. The immediate result may not be favorable, but we will never know what it will lead to down the road.
(Funny enough, looking back now I can recall a dozen “breakthrough” moments where I delighted myself, like “Wow, I actually said a beautiful line / wrote a good post / did something meaningful” or felt like I was becoming a different person. It is really hard to predict progress! I remember these moments well because they often yield insights into who I am, what I can do and how I can play on these strengths)

The whole existential limbo of this year was a great learning journey, punctuated by little polarizing moments of mini-crisis / self-doubt vs excitement / awe. I was bored, lack of purpose, insecure about the uncertain future, worrying of not making the most out of my time etc… The struggle was real! Yet the more setback, the more potent the learning. These so-called negativity cut so deeply that now I felt like I’ve learned a good deal from it. Here are some general lessons learned.
On progress: Going through limbo such as this may feel like killing oneself with a dull knife… I wish there could be more huge heartbreaking events that forced me to re-evaluate my life (I did have a few major screwing up this year though). In real life, incremental changes are more common and can snowball in both positive and negative directions. Take unhealthy eating for example: we eat badly one day here one day there and suddenly the doctor says we have diabetes. Or that cliched mid life crisis (quarter life in my case) where everything we have been striving for just seems quite meaningless (it has always been so; only now that we realize.) Anyway, having crisis at 22 seems much better than 44. I think of this experience as paying the small price first before the compound interest takes over. I shall always be in searching mode and trying to live with a clear sense of purpose.
– It’s hard to get feedback for bigger projects like WhatToDoWithLife, because experience comes in bigger chunks. It takes a spirit of trust – if I am earnestly searching then I will find it – to overcome the frustration of not seeing progress. (Or it takes constant distraction, which may seem useful momentarily but not in the long run. The greatest challenge to a goal consists of many paths to less worthy ones)  I don’t know a better way to practice trust but to act anyway despite uncertainty. I recalled a moment during the summer when I felt a burning sense that I got to do something because I can, and because I cannot let myself stuck in limbo forever. Introspection can only go so far. Also, waiting for an inspirational moment isn’t a reliable strategy. To paraphase my drama teacher: “It’s much easier to act into a feeling than to feel into an action”. Remember to act anyway. Life is too short to be disengaged.
On confusion: Confusion and clarity are two sides of the same coins: as I learn more about the world and who I am, confusion will inevitably arise simply because more information requires more time and processing power. I’ve learned to celebrate confusion as a sign of gaining more data about life; they just haven’t made sense yet. The good thing about getting older is that there are enough data to observe patterns – the way I operate, the mistakes I keep repeating, the phases I go through – which allow me to understand the deeper causes. On that note, I’ve come to see life as a continual process of optimization and recaliberation. Optimization is to ask “What is the best thing to do given what I know?” and recaliberation is to ask “How can I know even more, and how will that change what I am doing?” In other words,
while (alive) {
plan, do, reflect, synthesize;

  • Overcoming self-judgment. If I were to describe my internal transformation for the past two years, it will be a shift from “What is wrong with me?” to “Is this normal?” to “This happened. Probably not what I want. Time to try something else”. It sounds easy, but when it comes to personal matters it can be quite hard to be neutral, let alone compassionate with oneself. On this note, mindfulness meditation has been hugely helpful in additional to my journaling habit. It opens the door to a kind of mental freedom from the overthinking tendency. The mind is a weird place; it never shuts off. It is like getting stuck in a stuffy room with nothing but a lousy TV that jumps to random channels all the time, mostly with boring advertisements or terrible news (I guess Facebook feed is quite the same for many people). Now you can imagine what freedom tastes like. I actually enjoy being in that room more and more; the TV jumps less often, the channels are more interesting and once in a while I can get out of the room for some fresh air.
  • One role of meditation is as a training in disidentifying with thoughts. My consciousness is the TV screen, not the stuff it shows. With that understanding and practice, I become a lot more chill. Another practice I am doing is to be overly polite and curious with my thoughts, which is to say that whenever I hear an internal judgment saying something like “You should / shouldn’t do xyz”, I would automatically respond “Thank you for sharing” and then “Isn’t it interesting that I am bored? Anxious? Impatient? Having sexual fantasies? Feeling insecure about the future? Thinking? Writing these lines for no good reason but for the sake of writing?”. Not that I stop experiencing these mental and emotional phenomena, it is to recognize those as a thing and then let them go. The practice is so powerful that I almost forgot what my mind was like before…

More specific self-knowledge and advice for myself
Potential downfalls: all my major screwing ups this year have come from hoping to be clever and failing to pay attention to details: cutting short preparation thinking that I will be on time (hopelessly optimistic), playing with the system betting on the facts that not many will find out etc… Good reminder to myself again: consistency trumps cleverness.
+ Being more strategic: Lesson from public speaking class: telling the truth is only one component, saying it at due time with good delivery can make the whole difference. While people value my authenticity, I need to work on timing and delivery.
+ Experimental semester: Perhaps the biggest experiment this year is to take a very light course load this Fall semester, none of which is my Comp Science or Philosophy major. I wanted to see if I truly miss them, and if I do then which part of them do I miss? (absence makes the loving hearts grow fonder huh?) It is a risky bet, given that I only have 3 semesters left. What has this revealed? First, I miss the idea and thinking of technology and a space to muse philosophically. I wanted to learn to think and design in systems. On hindsight I wish I took an elective Comp Science class to keep sharpening the skill, but frankly I don’t miss programming as much. I had this “Fear of Not Doing Anything Technical” simply because of this belief that “technical = employable”. Another fear to overcome soon.
+ A second revelation is that I definitely don’t enjoy chilling that much, in the normal sense of the word – TV series, loitering around. I have plenty of time on my own to read and write and explore other stuff, which wasn’t bad at all, but I really thrive in doing purposeful work (including hanging out with friends and watching educational Youtube videos) It sounds terrible and hopelessly pragmatic, but it is pretty much how I operate. Good lesson relearned: I want to do stuff with people for people! Given my overthinking tendency, it’s easier to err on the side of doing too much and then scale back.
– I did one thing right: when I am not sure about what I want to do, it’s better to not commit to too many things and keep space for serendipity. Most if not all the cool projects, prizes and groups I’ve encountered comes from having time to do random thing that seems intriguing.
– However, remember that with the privilege of having diverse interests comes the responsibility to make all of those things relevant, for myself and for other people. Relevance creates values. As much as I learned to be present, planning for the future is still important: because I will not only have to feed myself but also bring my whole Self into it. Otherwise I will fall into this limbo experience again, killing myself with a dull knife.
– I have pretty good clues for what good work seems like to me now: that I am understanding and being understood, giving and receiving frequent and thoughtful feedback and being curious. People really bring the best out of me – an imagined reader for my writing, a real audience for speaking or a group who disagrees without being disagreeable.


2015 is a year of much internal growth (surprisingly also with some external achievements). I looked at my journal – at least 100000 words since last year. It reminds me of how much work each of us has to do internally all the time. It helps to check in with myself often – I am the only one who will stay with me until the end, so it is always good to make sure we are on the same page. Once in a while there will be moments of self-doubt, insecurity or boredom. Feel them slowly and fully, let them reveal what my innermost is asking my day-to-day self to pay attention to. So much of the learning this year comes from accepting paradoxes. I am enough, and I can be more. The future is uncertain, yet we can shape it. Planning is crucial in order to be spontaneous. I need to take myself both more seriously and unseriously. That the wisdom of others is helpful, but I still have to blaze my own path.

I’ve become a lot wiser, more loving, bold, knowledgeable, charming, useful and fun to be with (depending on what “fun” means). I actually like what I see in the mirror! My relationships with people are blossoming too: it is a joy to be wide open with others (having crushes too often is a great dilemma). The journey has been rough at times when I get tested in difficult situations, when my ego took over me (aka moments of fear or stupidity under the disguise of “being clever”) Fortunately I am surrounded by kind people who make it safe for me to reflect and self-correct.

I have grown quite organically (certified by friends ^_^). 2016 for me will be giving and taking even more from the world. Knowing my reflective nature, the only way forward is more engagement. I have a hunch that a Force is reawakening inside. If it is truly so, may I respond to the Call!


Getting punched, kind of

This is a story from my internship over the summer when I received feedback about my work and my reflection on it. Digging deeper on these moments yields a lot of self-insights.

11.30pm. A Gmail notification from my boss. The subject was simply “Feedback”. I clicked. The first line was “ I would like to pose a few questions”, followed a list of reflective questions and thank you. The email was long. Long feedback emails that started with thank you — usually something not so good. I skimmed through and felt a shiver running through my spine. Serious feedback. Many bullet points. I also saw the word “disappointed”.

I paused and took a deep breath. My first thought was “Thanks goodness. Finally an emotional highlight for this summer.”

Strange response? Let me explain.
This summer was the first time I worked in the US. The nature of work varied: doing research, interviewing people, designing workshops. I can boast with my friends about how cool my work or internship was, but I knew the reality of many day to day work, at least for inexperienced youngsters like me, was mostly dull. You know, going to office, meeting people, chitchatting, writing, reading, social time, lonely time. Nothing too special. I felt flat, but then assured myself “It is good to be stable. Most people don’t even have that stability”. Yet secretly I was yearning for something to happen. Anything, good or bad, so that I would have something to remember — you know, that kind of memory that makes you quietly smile to yourself? I wanted the summer to be not only useful as a student exploring career paths but also fulfilling as a young adult growing.

I once asked my mom who had been working the same menial job for 26 years “How can you stick with it? Don’t you ever get bored?” She nodded in resignation: “What else can I do? What I needed the most at that time was stability”. I understood that sentiment. Growing up in a family ethics of hard work, I have been taught that most of my work will not be fun, but I have to do it anyway. I knew that the day to day work mattered and that I couldn’t expect every moment to be memorable, but that dreary, monotonous prospect of future work still scared me: boredom is the real nemesis.

Now you can understand why I could be excited seeing the feedback. I was mostly shit scared though — you bet. Yet somehow there was a subtle appeal to the email. For guys, remember how you felt in primary school when you were peeking into the female toilet as you passed by to get to your own haven? (if you didn’t, good for you…) It felt like breaking rules, a blurred mix of anxiety and excitement.

I dived in slowly, slightly cringing. After each paragraph, I paused to take a few breaths to internalize the feedback and to make it less overwhelming. I knew some feedback would be coming, but it was still tough to take everything all at once. After a month of casual chitchatting, this was like someone just poured a bucket of ice over me: painful enough to make me cringe but also refreshing enough to bring me into the moment.

I’ve been there; I knew how it felt to receive an email like that. My ego thought it was being attacked, so it rumbled in an attempt to defend itself.“Wow, I didn’t know my performance was that bad. Almost nothing positive! So many things behind the scene my boss didn’t know. I had to explain myself.”

After rereading the email a few times, I regained my perspective. Everything my boss wrote had a lot of truth in it. I would eventually need to provide my perspective too, but before that I had to acknowledge the frustration behind those lines first. It happened partly because of my unmindful actions. As I was drafting my reply, I asked myself “How can I be compassionate to the person who gives me the feedback and to myself?” With that question in mind, writing became a cathartic process. I went to sleep feeling wonderful, not because I have justified myself but rather because I have done something to alleviate our frustration.

We had a good chat a few days after. I was satisfied: summer work ended on a beautiful note.

A few lessons I relearned much deeper from this episode:

  1. Slowing down helps seeing things more clearly. The ego often gets in the way, but remember I am more than my ego.
  2. Being kind and authentic to myself and others can do wonder. It also feels good.

It is always a pleasure to see myself growing. I was open to the experience as it came and got a lot out of it.

Last fun story: My boss was the first female boxer I ever met (!) On the first day, I asked her “How did it feel like to be punched in the face?” She said “I felt in the moment. You know, the adrenaline rush. The game is on”. I told her afterwards when we met after that it was exactly how I felt receiving her feedback email. In a way, I got such a good punch in the face.

P/s: I shared with my boss this story. She liked it and commented on her own email that she asked the questions first because she knew she had something to learn as well, that there’s always another side to the story, and that questions up front are better than feedback. Learn first, share second. It was hard for her to write that email, just like I weren’t excited to read it. I’m proud and satisfied that we both did the hard thing with a purity of intention.

On hospitality & intercultural friendship

A short trip to Bangkok left some interesting tidbits, memories and reflection.Visiting Bangkok was a last minute decision, especially with the recent bombing incident. For some reasons I still decided to go, and I’m fulfilled with the short trip.

On the second day I got to stay with a friend I haven’t met for 2 years from SEALNet Youth Leadership Summit 2013. I remember him as the super smart Physics student and avid manga fan. I love visiting friends in their families – seeing their house, sharing a meal or going out together – because I could understand my friends in their own environments (plus I seem to have a knack for connecting with parents. A message for all my friends: let me visit you in your house – it will be good for all of us!)

The house was simple. Nothing fancy. The family has a lot of stuff, similar to mine. What first caught my attention was the front wall full of pictures of significant milestones and memories of the family. Many were the children’s achievements, as the two brothers are among the most academically talented people I’ve known. I knew behind such proud moments were lots of struggles and sacrifice from both parents and the boys.

I slept on a sleeping bag, sharing the only air-conditioned room with my friend. His mother woke up early to prepare a huge breakfast, even more than a normal dinner. We talked a lot about their lives, about the history and politics of Thailand and of South East Asia at large. I was impressed by their knowledge and more importantly how much they cared about learning and understanding history and culture. Both parents visited more places in Vietnam than I did, which is a shame. They grew up in turbulent times of Thailand and of the region; the mother was even arrested once for identifying with the Communist party.

His mother shared with me that Vietnam had always been an inspiration for the other countries in ASEAN for our struggles and victories against the French and American. Even though the wars left Vietnam devastated, at least we achieved independence, freedom and stability. Of course the stories are never that simple, and all of us knew that every country has its own problems. Nevertheless, it was nice to hear these thoughts from the perspective of our neighboring Thai friend. Yes, we all have problems, but if we could be a little bit more open to share and listen to each other’s stories, to understand and accept of each other’s past mistakes then there would be fewer harsh judgments and regrettable reactions. Changes at the large level among countries have to start from the individual level between two people.

The solution sounds easy in theory; the question is how well do we do that in practice? I think that is one thing SEALNet has done well – creating an opportunity for genuine friendships from different cultures, socio-economic backgrounds and generations. From such friendships come the attitude of openness, understanding and a willingness to learn from one another.

I’ve heard the complaint from adults, especially the grandparents, that the young generations live too comfortably, never learn the value of hard work and forget about the country’s history. I agree partly, but we have to see from the youngster’s perspective. Why and how can I care for something so distant that I don’t experience? How can we expect students to care if most of these so-called “history lessons” were boring propaganda which students had to memorize in class for the sake of getting a good grade?

Since I got to know my Thai, Malaysian or Cambodian friends, I started to care more about their countries, and then when they asked me about Vietnam I felt that I needed to know more about it. We care first about what is closest to our hearts. Maybe it’s the TV drama we all watch or the app youth in each country uses to chat – Viber in Vietnam vs Whatsapp in Malaysia. It may sound silly and trivial, but any kind of personal connection is better than nothing.

Speaking of fostering understanding to overcome inaccurate judgments, let’s talk about a few recurrent  phenomena I’ve observed.

  1. Cynicism: It is easy to get cynical. Worse yet, some cynicism goes so deep that it is simply sad. Could you imagine this thought by a guest visiting someone’s house? “The host family is so nice to me because they want to appear nice in front of guests. Who knows, they may be fighting each other when I’m not there.” Cynics are frustrated idealists. From my experience, they think too much in their head without seeing reality; they cling on to their rosy picture of human nature and inevitably get disappointed or even hurt. Who doesn’t want to appear nice in front of others? Which family doesn’t fight once in a while?Some people, myself included, have been told that we are too trustful, and that we would be taken advantage of. We have to learn to protect ourselves and place our trust on the right people. Good advice with good intention; however as a young, inexperienced and idealistic guy, I’d rather be cheated a few times than lose hope in people. It doesn’t mean I will trust everybody. It’s quite the contrary; I have to be extra careful as I’m going to enter the real world. Yet, the default mindset is still to trust first and then reconsider when things happen instead of not trusting first. I also have to start building and keeping my reputation for my own good, because I’ve made some mistakes over the summer which caused a few people to lose trust in me.
  2. Superiority: it is also easy to feel superior to others, especially those with different backgrounds. “I am a top student. I had a scholarship to study in America. I studied with world-class professors. I speak and write decent English. “They” have none of this, so I can do this work much better than them.” Of course none of us admits that sense of superiority in public because we are decent human beings who don’t judge others on the basis of their backgrounds, yes? But how many of us can swear we don’t have such thought at the back of our minds sometimes? I do, and I’m always humbled whenever I have the chance to work with others not from my usual group of friends. It is the lesson I have to remind myself again and again: People are people. I have to see them for who they are. I can also choose to believe in who they can become.

Throughout the short time stay with my friend, I thought of my mentor’s words about what we try very hard to do at SEALNet: to get people who are different from each other work together so that we can “create conditions for people who are different to find what is common between them.” There are always a lot of stories to share, but for now I hope that people involved in SEALNet in one way or another have realized something important: genuine connection is so good that once we have a taste of it, we raise the bar for our other relationships 😀

Last thought: there is something refreshing and charming around dedicated and unpretentious people. No drama, no fanfare, no trying too hard to get attention or approval. Just nice, warm, caring people. The short visit also helped me put thing in perspective: while I can be worrying about my own future – what kind of work, who will I meet, where I will be – I am reminded again of my priority: no matter what I do, surround myself with people who are bold, caring and willing to learn.

A short stay with a lovely family. Thai food is darn good!

A short stay with a lovely family. Thai food is darn good!

Exploring regret

Yesterday I was going out for dinner with a group of good friends and afterwards everyone wanted to go to karaoke. I wasn’t in the mood for it, and I guessed from past karaoke experiences that I wouldn’t enjoy it anyway. Pressure was high, so I caved in to say Yes, but at last I didn’t go. Instead, I went back, had a good chat with a friend, slept early and woke up fresh.

I made the right decision; I wouldn’t want to trade my sleep for something I didn’t quite enjoy. Yet surprisingly, a part of me still thought of not going for that karaoke. Was that regret? If so, why should I regret something I didn’t want to do and feel like doing?

“Don’t sweat the small stuff”, you say. There’s no point to regret, right? What happened already happened.

There is a point to regret actually. It is a thing I can explore. You know, every person is a curious thing – including myself. In the past, I would dig into myself with these kinds of introspective questions. Now I’ve got a better tool to dig – meditating directly on my sensations – and I wanted to play with what I found. Plus, given that in the future I will make a lot more important decisions I may as well get used to that feeling of “Darn, what a dumb move”.
Regret is like my uncle who doesn’t visit me often, so I want to hang out with him more when he comes. What is regret really like?

In reality, I don’t think my friends cared that much about me not going – they are good friends after all. Bear with me though for the sake of this exploration.

As I closed my eyes, sometimes regretful thoughts would pop up. My face would cringe; my lips would tighten. I must have looked from outside like I was in pain. Interestingly, this state was very similar to the state of intense focus. I did not have too many self-loathing thoughts like “Omg you stupid freaking anti-social hermit” but rather critical questions: What would have happened if I were there? What did I miss? Who were upset by me?

I was mostly calm throughout. However, specific thoughts triggered these intense sensations. These thoughts went like this: “I wasted a chance to be with the group of people I enjoyed being with but would rarely have the chance to see them again. I also wasted a chance to see myself and other people shining (or being silly, at least for me) in singing. More importantly, it was an opportunity to practice finding something fun in what I don’t usually enjoy, for the greater sake of being with people I want to be with. Basically, I was being stupid. I might have hurt my own image in my friends’ eyes. Worse, I might have hurt my friendships.”

I had no valid excuses not to go; I had all the time in the world. Even my friends who would have exams and work the next day decided to go, what excuses did I have? None. Because it is the nature of excuse; it is something we used to mask the only reason – the real reason – we do anything. I did not go because I didn’t feel like going. I knew I should have gone, but I couldn’t help it. Would it have been fun? Most likely. Then why the hell did I not go? Because I didn’t feel like it.

I learned quite a few things from this short meditation. I realized my deeper fear is no longer the fear of regret but rather is the fear of being stupid, of not doing what the situation is best for, and lastly of upsetting other people. Another interesting observation is how hard it was to hate myself. I did tell myself “You were dumb, Khuyen” but not as a fuming boss but rather a half-joking friend. I also faced the fear of upsetting other people, something many of us shared. This experience is a good preparation for the future where I will have to make difficult decisions that affect even more people. I will have to say No to a lot of temptations and less important stuff. I will have to stick to my guns. Every decision divides, and I have to accept it.

I used to hate my over-musing tendency. I hated the inner chattering in my head – why couldn’t he shut up? Now I accepted that he would always be there anyway, so I’d rather understand and be a better friend with that guy. Some times he can do a lot of good thing.

A wiser workaholic

Yesterday I woke up, turned on the phone and read a long post about Elon Musk – the raddest man in the world. I felt so motivated – this guy is devoting his life to something really worthwhile i.e humanity! Then I saw this quote by C.S Lewis – “The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.”. I told myself: “Motivation is rising. I have to act on it fast.”

Then today when I visited a new place, ate good food and relaxed, I started to feel a bit guilty. I’m chilling and it’s weird…

Why can’t I relax like other people? Why can’t I just sit and watch Youtube for hours? “It’s holiday duuuude!” – part of me yells. In the past, I would cave in. I would binge surf the Internet, reading random articles and feeling not completely satisfied afterwards. I hope I’m wiser now. In my past dealing with all sorts of temptation from computer games to delicious food, I know that swinging from extreme abstinence to absolute coma-inducing feast is not sustainable in the long run for me. A relaxed yet disciplined approach works much better. Lifelong learning is a marathon, not a sprint.

Where on earth does this guilt of not working come from? Perhaps it is an influence from the workaholic culture here in college. People work hard here. Perhaps it is just me — I don’t think I’ve pushed myself that hard during the year and therefore don’t deserve an extended break. More importantly, “the soul’s joy lies in the doing.” I don’t want to work hard, play hard. I want to work smart, play smart. In fact, I don’t want to separate work and play. Call me idealistic, because I am.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist most well-known for his work on flow, wrote in his book Finding Flow that we have a problem with leisure. Simply put, many of us don’t know how to really enjoy ourselves either alone or even with others. I’ve surfed the internet, watching clips of video game trailers until I crashed just to wake up the next day feeling I’ve wasted the whole day before. Worse yet, I’ve been part of pseudo face-to-face conversations with each person swiping their smartphones. I think I have enough of such stupidity to become wiser now.

For those who are feeling guilty for chilling (I guess there aren’t that many…), here are some comforting thoughts, a few reasons for being hard-working instead of idleness when alone:
Focus: If you have ever kept switching TV channels without settling down to any, you know how lousy it feels. Having lots of energy without a focus simply makes us restless. Planning everyday on what, when and how long to work, with time to breathe, to play, to pursue creative endeavors and most importantly for connecting with people is much more enjoyable. Plus, planning is not a plan. A plan will always change, yet planning is still necessary because it gives us a sense of direction so that our energy can flow smoothly to where we want rather than leaking via idleness.
A sense of achievement: We humans are experts at adaptation. If you are a normal person, the 30th ice-cream scoops you have may not be as tasty as the first one. Spacing out pleasurable treats gives each pleasure more potency because of the added element of desire. we get more pleasure from eating after physical training. Similarly, we get more pleasure from chilling after doing work. We feel like we have earned it.
Minimizing regrets: Yes I’ve read researches saying that the top regrets of people by their deathbeds include “Not spending enough time with my loved ones” and “working too hard”. But I don’t think writing this strictly fits in with my definition of “work”. I see it as a constant practice, which is a key to long term satisfaction. I know I have to keep training my writing muscles or else they will atrophy. As of writing this, I’m feeling the discomfort. Laziness is kicking in, and I have to fight against it in order to grow! Moreover, I believe this writing may offer a perspective useful to people who are chilling hard, binge watching series after series. With that belief in mind, I don’t regret time spent on this post.

On a final note, a common fear I and many friends share is FOMO – the fear of missing out. I have to face it. What am I missing out? Some pleasures. Is it bad? Maybe. Or maybe I’m taking myself too seriously. I’m still scheduling time to call and keep in touch with friends and family. I count time with people as fun and I make sure I have a bit of that everyday. At the same time, I need to have time in isolation forcing myself through discomfort of learning and discipline because it makes my day worthwhile.

What does it mean for this summer? I will work hard and learn as much as I can while still spending quality time with friends and sleeping well. I plan everyday to read, write, build and learn. And keep people updated. Balance will be the real challenge this time

22 – A reflection


I’m writing this note for two reasons. One is for me: to take stock of my life, celebrate what I’ve got so far and think about the near future. But if it is only for that reason then this note may never appear in presentable proses like this.

The second reason is that it is for others.

One thing that struck me from meeting more people is how each of us can learn the same few lessons from seemingly different experiences.  I’m a very practical guy, so I want to use my birthday for good. Last year for my birthday, I and a group of friends came together to share our reflection on the first year at Tufts, and I felt very fulfilled for facilitating that conversation. (making use of the extra attention I have). I thus want to write about what I’ve learned with the hope that you can resonate with some of it. If you can reflect, learn and share about your own life then I’ve have done my job well. Thank you for your time, attention and thoughts.


I want to start this note with my reflection on one of the most important tool I learned – this very thing you are reading – words.
Given the amount of journal I write for myself, I’m always curious about people who do not journal – how do they get in touch with themselves? I have never gone for a few days without writing my thoughts and feelings down somewhere. My pen, my notebook and text editor are the dear extensions of myself. I started having my diary as a kid because I was afraid I would forget my own life. Over time, I realized writing not only helped me remember but also analyze and synthesize my thoughts. The final step – the synthesis – is definitely the coolest part because it is where I become more. I started sharing my thoughts a few years back in my blog because I personally experience how important the process of reflecting and sharing is to everyone’s learning. It is a way that I make a dent in the world, and I want to keep doing it.


Since it is my birthday, I’d like to celebrate a bit. Here are what I have made a lot of progress on:
Presence: It’s very nice to hear from people that I am developing a presence. People notice I am there. Presence inspires attention, and attention then strengthens presence. Mindful meditation helped a lot, but more importantly I think it is the practice of a rule I set for myself: when I am there, I am there. It’s really cool 😀
Self-respect: I don’t mean it in a totally egocentric way. A tree has to be well taken care of before it can bear fruits for people, right? Coming from a culture where I was not used to talk about myself, it is easy to sell myself short and then pity myself as “Oh I’m not that good”, or “someone else deserves it better than me”. If it is true, why should I try for anything in the first place? I try to be a good parent of myself: I know he has a lot of potential, but he is also very stupid some times. He needs freedom to grow but also discipline for character and direction for focus. He is scared of repeating mistakes, of hurting people, of doing the suboptimal thing. I try to steer him away from those, but boy sometime you have to let shit happen. Parenting is hard…
Community: I’m surrounded by good people, and I like them a lot. I learned that I am way more fulfilled when I don’t try to make people like me and instead try to find out how the people I am with are special in their own ways. You know, curiosity is my thing. Once I know how my friends are special, I try to make them even more special because if they keep getting cooler I can boast about them and get more ego boost :”) Joking aside, relationships get better as we become more honest and loving. And good community starts with one relationship at a time.

What have I learned about myself as I turn 22

This semester has been a strange one with the snow. I sort of hit the infamous sophomore slump for a while, losing a bit of enthusiasm with classes – they are interesting but I’m not too excited. I focus more on relationships, on community; I care much less about classes and grades. Compare to the Fall when I met my partners everyday for our computer science projects, this semester I do a lot of individual work, which means I spend more time alone. It feels positive but a different kind of positivity. I didn’t feel super excited or stressed like last Spring. Sometimes I feel a bit out of place for being not stressed out (how ironic). Sometimes I feel alone when I see people walking by. I know each has a cool story to tell but I’m afraid he maybe too busy for a random conversation. Plus, it is hard to have a good conversation with a stranger in only 5 minutes anyway, so I tell myself that I’d rather not do in the first place.

If you know me, you know I often ask Whys. When I meet with friends, I tell myself beforehand that I’m meeting because I want to catch up or know them better or discuss some ideas. With an intention I can be more focused and get more out of an experience. One real big lesson I learned this year is that sometimes I don’t need a particular reason to do anything. The real purpose of doing anything is that I just want to do it. I remember a few late nights where I devoured Alan Watts talks – a master spiritual teacher who explains the most abstract ideas with blazing clarity. I experienced a kind of spiritual enlightenment, an elevated sense of liberation that I can do and be whatever I want. It gave me a perpetual high, the kind of high-ness that people who do drugs talk about. I became much less self-judgmental, realizing that whatever I do does not really matter. That newfound sense of freedom was strange at first though; it’s like money: we don’t know how we really feel about it until we have it. A problem with being so free is that for a while I felt a bit aimless. I didn’t feel the pull of a vision, of a goal I had for myself. I experienced boredom, and I panicked! I have always been the curious and eager child in every situation, and I knew I loved Tufts so much. Why and how could I even feel bored here? It was like discovering puberty for the first time and feeling weird about it. I thought I had a problem, and being a typical me, I sought out for help.

You know what the best thing that can happen when you think you have a problem? To hear someone you trust explaining why it is not really a problem. I talked to my mentor about the experience. To my surprise, he laughed very gently “You have to suffer for it my friend. You have to experience boredom before you find a sense of a purpose”. I realize I was in a sense having a withdrawal symptom; I was missing the “good” time and wanted it to come back. That moment was when I learned again the second big lesson of the year: One simply does not skip straight to the good part of an experience I can’t expect to be a high all the time because then what does “high” even mean? Every experience is a new experience that I haven’t had before, and this time I learned deeply, not just intellectually, that “there is nothing either good or bad – only thinking makes it so”.

I thought I had a problem because internally I knew that I was not growing that much, comparing to how much I’ve grown last summer (an amazing and traumatizing project, an exciting and exhausting experience living on my own in another city) and last semester (an intense computer science class). This semester seems too relaxed for me relatively. I partly worried that I am not taking up enough challenges and becoming lazy instead.

But I am still growing. My mentor told me a nice analogy: just like a young tree has different grow spurts, I too cannot expect to grow fast all the time. I need to appreciate the stage I am at right now. The young tree is more fragile but also more resilient; its branches are not as strong but they can heal quickly. As the tree gets older, it may not be as resilient, but it is firmer and it can be a place of support for others 🙂 And you know what happens when a tree is almost done with growing? It starts bearing fruits. My tree is not just growing; it is bearing fruits for the world too. I am making a good impact on whatever or whoever I interact with. These are all good reasons to celebrate, and I do celebrate my life everyday when I wake up.

I often tell my friends that I am the happiest guy on campus because I really am. I can be the momentary ecstatic type and also the generally quiet, contented type. I can smile and tell people that I am super tired. I can be anyone if I want to. I am becoming more coherent within myself, between what I feel like doing and what I think I must do. That coherence gives me a lot of energy. You know the feeling when everything just clicks and you feel invincible? I just hit that spot. It is literally unlocking a source of superpower, and better yet I learning how to renew it (hint: sleep is the way). There is still a nagging sense that I am not growing as fast, that I am wasting some of my potential and that I am getting too comfortable — even overconfident. Perhaps I am. What I need is a clearer challenge to tackle now. And I know what it is: to figure out what the world needs and where I can channel my superpower to where it matters the most. Then I will achieve total coherence and become the Master of the Universe! I can play the Hero role in my life, the Supporter and Mentor or even Badass Villain role in someone else life – who knows? Let the stories unfold.

Other musing about life

  • One of the most profound experiences I had this semester was torturing myself with two application essays (one of them here). It was so hard to write it with honesty and compassion for myself. I almost got into a mini depression for a week, cringed and cried writing some lines, sacrificing some classwork. The application was not accepted (not me), but do I feel disappointed? Very slightly. I started writing the essay with the purpose of understanding myself, and the very struggle I had during that process brought me to the next level. I truly learned the lesson of self-acceptance, so much that I still joke with people “I wish I could hate myself”. Love blossoms with understanding. I am a very good friend of myself now, and I will make sure our friendship gets better. We go on date on paper, through food, by singing and dancing.
  • On praises and self-esteem Over time, I learn to see praises as one form of feedback. It’s nice to hear praises like I’m (insert-a-positive-adjective-here), but it’s less about the ego-stroking effect. Rather, I learn to see it as a feedback for what I am good at so I can focus on being even better. If you want to make me happy, offer me your feedback & observation (it doesn’t hurt to cushion it with some kind words too – my ego can be fragile ^^) It’s the best thing you can do for my growth.

  • The cycles of life. As I have more experiences, I started to notice larger patterns in my life. There are times where I am bored or on fire, mellow or passionate, stressed out or relaxed. One of the most beautiful thing I got from meditation is understanding the idea that what goes up must come down, and what goes down must come up. Literally, I cannot neither breathe in nor breathe out forever. I have to let nature take its course first – trying to do otherwise is a recipe for downfall. But it doesn’t mean I cannot do anything about it. As a human, I have the capability to reflect on my experiences. Analyzing the past can yield helpful insights about the future. I can find out what I like and try to do it again, and do it even better.

  • Dealing with boredom I can get bored with classes, but I never get bored with my own project of self-education. What can I learn from you and about you? How can I help? What can I contribute? What can we do together? What does life have in store for me today? I am on fire whenever I hear or ask a good question – the first ingredient to an education.

What is ahead?

I don’t know. I can tell you my plan for next 3 months (will be in the Bay Area till end of July, back in Saigon for August and then Hanoi for a week) but I don’t want to plan too much further. I have a few guidelines for myself though

  • When certain, be kind. When in doubt, be kind. But never settle for less; if I can get more without hurting others, do it. Don’t be stupid.
  • If I don’t know what I want AND I don’t ask for it, I will never get it.
  • Stay connected, engaged and curious.
  • Work, relationship and a greater purpose are what make life meaningful.


As a tradition I had since I turned twenty, whenever my birthday approaches I think about death. I pondered with that question last night in bed, and came up with the conclusion that if I were to die tomorrow, I would probably call a few people to say thanks, write a note and then relax. I don’t need a statue for myself after I die. I don’t want people to ask “Why is there a statue of this guy?” I’d rather them ask “Why isn’t there one”?

I’m contented and grateful for life and for all of you who have been part of it. I’m doing well. I have food (sometimes they are free!) and a safe place to stay; I feel belonged at Tufts; I know I am loved by at least 4 people; I have reasonable self-esteem and I continuing to have more cool transforming experiences. I am also trying to do more of what I really like to do, namely learning and helping others learn. I love seeing myself and others growing (and flowers too, as spring has finally come). It is fulfilling to see that I am making a positive and tangible impact on someone’s life.

Growing up is interesting. A lot of new experiences. Fun and meaningful and fulfilling, and I’m loving every moment of it. I hope I share a bit of that joy to you too. Thanks for reading.

Sleep is good for ya.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with sleep. We all have the experience of waking up feeling wonderful after a good sleep. If there is one change that will make us significantly happier, love myself and other people more, it is having better sleep. I hope we will all learn something from my experience.

Last night I went to bed feeling tired and frustrated because my suitemates were noisy at late time. I couldn’t sleep for an hour and had to come out several times to remind my friends to quiet down. In bed I was telling myself “Okay if I keep feeling frustrated this will do me no good anyway…how can I learn to appreciate this noise?” One answer popped up to me right away “It’s a challenge, a discomfort that will help me grow… there are so many more challenges in life and this is only one of them. Man uppp brah you can do it!”

This is one common way to reframe a difficult situation – let’s call it the “Can-do” attitude, a very prevalent mindset in the West. Optimism and achievement. Yes we can. Having that attitude helps in a lot of circumstances: when I need courage to dive into the unknown or tackling a new challenge. I can push hard for other pursuits in my life and have a lot of success. Not in this case, because one simply does not fall asleep by forcing oneself to fall asleep. I have to let myself sleep.

So I turned to my more natural way of dealing with adversity: embrace myself. I put my hands on my chest and belly and thought “Dear Khuyen, pity you, you are so tired and yet you can’t sleep… come here my dear boy come into my hands” In other words, I was being my own mom. It helped – I felt so good melting into my own love and into sleep. And boy that was a goooood sleep.

Have you ever been in a situation so stressful that made you cry? After that you felt so tired that you just felt asleep, and that was the best sleep you ever had? Yes? Exactly how I felt. And if it feels so good, why don’t we do it everyday before we sleep? That’s the real power of loving oneself. The next time you want to help someone going through a difficult time, ask this question: “How is your sleep?”. Having good sleep is The Solution for the thorniest personal problems I have ever faced, and I hope you agree.

A caveat before you apply this technique of embracing yourself before you sleep: There’s a difference between seeing it as a means to an end (“I’m going to embrace myself because it will help me fall asleep) and as an end in itself (“I’m going to embrace myself simply because it deserves to be embraced”) Only the latter is the path to overcoming of difficulty. And falling asleep.

Another lesson I learn from my experience with sleep (one can indeed learn anything from everything) is about acceptance. I can provide the optimum condition for a good sleep (dark, slightly chilly room, comfortable bed, relaxed body and mind, feeling full, silence etc..) yet I cannot guarantee a good sleep all the time. It is like growing a seed – I can provide the optimal condition of water, sunshine, temperature etc.. and yet I can only hope, not guarantee that the seed will grow. With that understanding comes an acceptance: every night is a new sleep, and I hope it’s a good one, but if I wake up feeling shitty then I just have to go with it. Such an obvious idea, right? Knowing the idea is not enough; we only truly learn it when we put it into our lives.

That’s it for today. Good sleep, my friends. Embrace thyself.

p.s: Isn’t sleep also like love? You don’t fall into love by wanting to be in love. You have to let it happen.