Love, a little bit more.

When I was younger, my mom used to cane me a lot for my addiction to gaming. She pulled my ears, slapped me in the face in front of my friends in the gaming hub. I cried too often; it freaking hurt. I hated these episodes, not so much because of the physical pain but because it made me feel bad: if I truly cared about my mom and wanted to make her happy, why did I still play so much?

As I grow up, I understand better. The one who makes us suffer the most is the one whom we care about the most. Chances are they care about us too – both have good intentions. We just don’t understand ourselves enough: we think we know what we want, from that we think we know what we should do. I thought I wanted to make my mom happy, so I tried to do well in school. In hindsight, I honestly just wanted to please her so that I could get on with my (gaming) life; I didn’t care that much about her happiness because I wasn’t happy at home.

Our lives are inherently intertwined, yet we never learned how to connect with each other lovingly. When my mom spanked me, she too was suffering in pain. She did it because she thought that was how she should love me, but no mother in the right mind wanted to cane her children. Through the burning sensation of my skin, I saw the deeper scar, the emotional pain that we have ignorantly caused to each other and ourselves. I cried because of the disconnection, because at the moment of her fury, I lost my loving mom. As Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist Zen master, has said “Violence happens when we don’t know what to do with our suffering.”

I don’t know what I want; I don’t know what others want, so I have to find out. I need to learn to communicate better, to understand more, to help effectively. And it has to start with myself, because without the capacity for self-understanding I will keep judging myself harshly, and I will end up sabotaging myself again – mere stupidity.

I used to think that I can take on the suffering silently on my part so that other can be happy. Not true. People, especially those who care about me, can easily tell if something is going wrong. Emotion has an uncanny way to come back at us at inopportune time. If we don’t express, it leaks. We end up hurting ourselves and others who care about us. Big lesson: if I don’t know what I want, I can’t express it and will never get it. As a child, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to know that I wanted love and care. Now I know.

I have been there on the other side too, tasting the rejection when I tried to help someone I deeply cared about, but the person did not seem to want to receive my help. Another big lesson: connection takes time. Cannot rush. I can choose to stop caring and free my mind, yet I often find myself being so stubborn on this goal. I am a serial quitter; I quit a lot of stuff; I change my goals ever so often. But this belief in the human connection is such an essential part of me that I cannot even imagine giving it up. I would rather choose death – after all, what is death but the lack of connection?

We all know the advice “Don’t judge and you won’t be judged.” But there is nothing bad about the act of judging; the beauty of judgments lie in the very fact that we make them. I learn this lesson by heart: the real value of withholding judgments is that it gives me an incredible power – the power to wait, to see more clearly what is going on, first inside then outside, and use that for something I want.

Many of us can identify the tendency to be harsher with ourselves than with other people. Why? Maybe we are afraid of being judged by others as “a harsh person”? Maybe because we care about ourselves more, and we believe that being harsh trains our discipline? The funny thing is the harsher we are, the more stupid mistakes we make, and the cycle goes on. The golden rule says “Treat others the way you want to be treated”. I am going to omit the “want” and adapt it to my rule of consistency: “Treat myself the way I treat others”. Otherwise I am just a big damn hypocrite playing double standards.

I have friends who are activists fighting against injustice in their communities and in the world, and I respect them a lot for their passions. We condemn those who exploit others for personal gains because it is unfair, because it is not treating everyone equally. That is great.

Wait. I remember the story of the fool shepherd who goes around panicking about a missing sheep. He meets a lady and asks her “Dear Miss, did you see a sheep running around here? It has gone missing for a while; I’m so worried the wolf may have found it.” Guess what the lady says? “Wait, what are you riding on?”. He forgets to count himself.

Are we not the same sometimes? We run around too much, too often doing stuff for other people and forget ourselves. Why am I excluded in that equality balance, in that fight for justice? If I am being unfair to myself, how can I fight for fairness elsewhere?

I think if all of us can work a bit more on self-understanding we can all do a much better job. At the end of the day, the only person who can go with me through all the joys and hardships, who celebrate my pleasure and grieve my pain, is myself. I want that person to be my best friend, not an arsehole sabotager.

Indeed the more work I do internally, the easier external world becomes. Sounds easy? Not at all. It is like coming back home for long time finding our home in such a mess; like seeing our own kitchen sink full of dirty plates so we decide to order takeaway food instead of cooking. Sure it will work for a few days, but we cannot do that for long. Our mind is our home that we cannot, and don’t want to run away from.

What does it mean for me? I have to water my garden and take care of the flowers and clean up my home so that I can invite other people into my life, so that we can all be comfortable and enjoy each other’s companion.

This post has been the result of some reading by Thich Nhat Hanh, observations, experiences in my own life. A lot of self-torturing too. I write it to heal my inner wounded child; as he is healing, my relationship with the world is blossoming. I hope it can help someone else too; if you think so, please share. More than one person will be grateful for it.

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Discomfort.

A recent discomforting experience showed my progress in the journey to be a better person.

I was returning a room key to a friend whose room I stayed in during the break. I received a very honest feedback from a friend about leaving his room in rather a messy condition. At that very moment I could feel my ears reddening; my field of vision blurring; my mental balance trembling. I think I stood numb for a few seconds. Or perhaps time slowed down as I sensed a peculiar sensation swelling up within, waiting to consume me.

But I did not lose to it completely. I managed to still have a tiny bit of conscious focus. I could notice in my friend’s eyes that it was not comfortable at all for him to tell me so.

You may want to say “Of course it is not comfortable to say it.” That was what I thought too, and that is just a thought that anyone can imagine. The value of the real experience comes from the noticing of what was going on: his tone, my body, his words, my response, his eyes. The whole scene became ingrained in my psyche.

The first thing I said was “Thank you for letting me know.” I could tell that I meant it; I was honest. Then I apologized and asked if I could do anything to help – now that was basic courtesy, the default contrived response I would usually say. As you can imagine, it was awkward.

Yet that moment was very inspiring for me. I surprised myself at how I responded to the situation, given my deep-seated fear of confrontation. Was my heart still racing fast? Of course. Emotion is darn powerful, and being with it, let alone making use of it, is hard. But I was more in control of myself, more observing, more honest. Celebrate the progress!

On the way back, I had an interesting conversation with myself. Part of me still yelled “This sucks. Go away lousy feeling!”. The more optimistic and practical me eagerly told the panicking voice “Use this not so good feeling to make sure you do better the next time.” So far so good: very typical of me, right?

But there was a new voice. It simply said: “This is discomfort. Feel it.” And I was tasting the sensation for real. Was it shame? Or guilt? I don’t know. I don’t want to and don’t have to name it that way. It was a particular sensation, and I remembered its texture. That was enough. I was experiencing “it” more deeply, touching its contour, sensing what it was doing to myself internally. It was very similar to the itchy sensation of a mosquito bite. The next time you get bitten, pause. Don’t scratch. Feel the itch. I bet you will realize that it is not that itchy after all. In fact, it feels quite interesting. Then after playing with the sensation enough you can even hi-five yourself “I did not scratch!” (I did. Silly? And fun).

What I learned was that many of us tend to perceive these discomforting experiences, whether they be physical or psychological, as something dreadful we want to avoid head-on. We want them to go away as soon as possible. We want to get distracted from the pain, hoping that it will go away when we come back. In other words, we see discomfort as enemy.

My experience taught me that discomfort was first and foremost a sensation. Remember the advice our moms gave when we had a toothache? “Just ignore it.” Not a very helpful advice: how can I ignore something painful? Paradoxically, the only way to let go of those sensations is to pay full attention to it. Not what we think “it” is.

Now that I have experienced discomfort fully and become more familiar with what it really is, I fear it less. I can choose to see it in a different light. What do I want to come out of such discomfort? A better me. This is not even about optimism; I just don’t want to be stupid with myself. So I choose to see it as an opportunity for growth.

It helps to be realistic too: I cannot expect to reap all the reward without paying the price. Our life experiences ebb and flow like waves. Without trough there can be no crest; without discomfort there can be no growth. On the other extreme, I also do not want to repeat the mistakes someone else has made. That is real stupidity. But getting advice helps but only so much. No one learns to cook just by  reading cookbooks.

It still sucks harddd when someone else tells me I am wrong, or he is displeased with me, but it’s a lot less now. How is that possible? I am not that courageous; I am still very afraid of discomfort. What helps me is that over time I become more and more committed to my own growth. Because growth feels (mostly) good! More importantly, at the end of the day, the only person who can go with me through all the joys and hardships, who celebrate my pleasure and grieve my pain, is myself. With that commitment comes the understanding that discomfort is an indispensable part of the journey. It presents a golden window of opportunity, a state of vulnerability that allows me to change, for better or for worse. If I want to dress on a new shirt, I need to take off my current one and be naked for a while right?

And how much I learn depends less on what is going on outside and more on what is happening inside my head. If you have ever tried teaching anything, you will find that it is very hard to teach if the student does not want to learn. When I put my mind into anything, I learn. Others can dismiss this trivial story of leaving-the-room-in-a-mess, but I can’t. Such opportunity is so rare, so good that I cannot waste.

I’ve been telling myself that I am becoming more aware and resilient. That is a nice positive thought, and I want it to be substantial. Now I had a glimpse of my progress, I am much more confident to throw myself in more challenging situations now. I will probably crumble, which should be fun.

2015: Experiments and Synthesis

Thoughts from winter break.
My intention for the break was to take a break, synthesize and renew my sense of direction (wow big words. They are actually quite simple.)

Why taking a break?
The easy answer was that the semester was rough. The truer answer is that I have become a prisoner of my own structure: planning, system, productivity, getting stuff done… At the beginning of the semester, looking at my own schedule and I asked “Omg where is my time for daydreaming?” (I did have some daydreaming time, but not enough). I wrote in one of my college essays that I was a productivity-junkie. A few years older and hopefully wiser, I think a better description would be that I have an addictive personality. Once I found something that I like; I tend to spend a lot of time there, often at the cost of skimping other stuff. In short, a tendency to dig deep and thus losing the breadth. Often associated with FOMO (fear of missing out).

It’s both a boon and a bane. The plus side, having the energy to pursue depth often gives good result. The downside: I need to be careful in moderating myself. Case in point: I often purposefully deprive myself of the thing I like so that binges can feel even more awesome and I don’t even have to feel too guilty. Like eating, reading, writing, meeting people. (Imagine when I start playing computer game again: how much I will savour it. Maybe this summer.) So far this strategy works pretty well for me. If there is only one thing worth going all-in for, it’s life. Living is a series of pushing to the extremes, taking sometimes to recharge and find a balance, then move on to the next extremes.

That’s probably I need many good friends (of course everyone needs good friends, but bear with me here) in order to pull me back once I go to the extreme. Definition of a good friend: someone who can also go to the extreme to explain to me that what I am doing doesn’t make sense. Use fire to counter  fire huh. Perhaps not surprisingly, I told my friends for my 21st birthday that if one day I become the next Hitler they should reveal to the world all the especially bad things about me so that I will not get what I want (I was only half joking). Any small thing can be addictive, let alone something big like power. Again, half joking only.

How was the break?

My focus has always been on appreciation: how can I appreciate everything and everyone (myself included) more? The answer is to try to live without those good things for a while.

For the break, I managed to break most of my structures. No planning, no reviewing, no time tracking. Just do whatever I feel like doing.It feels a bit weird at first, then refreshing, then frustrating. Darn, I’m not used to having zero structure at all! Another realization from this experience was the reason I have failed too often in improving on my perpetual non-punctuality. I have come to terms with is that I just value wandering and daydreaming more. I believe the real luxury of modern life is unrushedness, which I try to give myself more often. Now I can say I have found a new balance between effectiveness and creativity 😀

I experimented. Tried pushing myself to write everyday for a few hours. Much like self-inflicted torture. Most of them was started but left unfinished; I need to hone my skill of finishing. I have no clue where this will lead to. For now, I just subscribe to the hypothesis “Focus on building discipline and skill and I will enjoy a good life”. I experienced lots of boredom and frustration, but I tried to stay with these negative emotions longer before I gave in to temptations. It sucked, but I learned that I could do it with effort of the right kind. I have to do it first before I tell the world that it is possible, right?

Winter break is a good downtime where I can really taste my emotions. Boredom, fear, annoyance, disappointment, silliness, joy, peace, excitement, bliss, calmness, curiosity, nostalgia. Rejuvenating? Yes. Revealing? Yes. There are so many parts of me that I almost forgot, or haven’t explored.

Another experiment: knowing I am such a social animal, I tried a day without communicating with people by all means. I enjoyed the silence and tranquility at first, but it got rough towards the end. Pushed through. I wonder why I did not hug the first person I saw the next morning. Good experience. Love people way more than before. Intentional or not, absence does make the heart grow fonder. I did not have too many conversations, but they were good 🙂

Sometimes people and I ask myself “Why do I have to do that?” I don’t know. I remember an advice for writer, “If you cannot write well, you’d better live an interesting life.” Given my typical college student environment, I probably need to spice up my life more deliberately like that. They are low risk, high reward (in terms of self-knowledge at least). Any suggestions and ideas are welcome 😀 (Seriously, please do. If I get into some wild adventures because of your ideas I will give you most of the credit)

That is it for synthesis. Let’s see my renewed sense of direction: looking forwards to 2015 (it’s already here)

Theme: Experiment and Synthesis.
Values: Space, clarity, giving.
Words to live by:

  • Always celebrate the process, then the outcome.
  • Failure is just as good, if not better.
  • Remember to be silly.
    Some guidelines:
  • Follow someone I admire, support to my best ability. I will learn a lot from that.
  • Surround myself with more people whom I may not know but whom I trust.
  • Learning to care more wisely.
    New year – New actions
  • Minimize use of generic terms to express myself. I’m better than good, finer than fine and worse than bad. Be more specific with what I want to express.
  • Encourage people to reflect and write more. Demonstrate by example: write more often.

That’s it. 2015 is going to be awesum. Nobody knows what this guy will turn out to be. Regardless of the outcome, CELEBRATE THE PROCESS, STILL.

2014: Practice and Exploration.

A day is long, a year is short”.
It’s funny how our memory works, isn’t it? It’s time to decompress the year to look at its full complexity.

As you know, I like to reflect regularly, and I like to verbalize these reflections so that I can see my own growth over time. Reflection comes very naturally when I look back at my note for 2014.

My theme for 2014 is Practice and Exploration. I wrote in my note about some guiding stars to remind myself of what matters; looking back at them now is very satisfying: I’m meeting my expectations well.  Here is what I wrote for work.

Work: challenging and engaging. Right now my main occupation is as a student, so I’ll focus on learning as much as I can.

I’m glad that I had a decent relationship with my work as a student with a fair balance among learning facts, drilling skills and expanding learning capacity

Academically, I did push my boundaries, especially with a comp science class this semester where I spent about 25 hours per week on its assignments alone. Challenging? Ticked. Engaging? Damn ticked. I learned a tons in that class, beyond the technical. Personally, it definitely expanded my zone of fearlessness. The class taught me that in real life, real shit is hard. But I could learn anything if I put my heart and mind into it.

I set a rule for myself for my college life: take at least one non-major class per semester. Last semester was Child Development, this semester was Art History. Both went beyond satisfying my intellectual curiosity; they actually inspired me to do something on my own. Embracing my own nerdy side without worrying about other stuff is such a privilege that I’m infinitely grateful for. I love my classes. Every single of them. I wrote in my note upon coming back this fall about how much I missed schooling over the summer. But I’m starting to doubt my ability to make judgments for what is good for my growth. I have such a strong tendency to make sense of my own choices that you can probably force me to dishwash for a year and I think I will learn to love it. (Who says dishwashing doesn’t teach you a lot?) Will explore what this may mean to my direction in future posts.

Summer was rewarding. Project Malaysia 2014 was a “lifehack” as a dear friend called it. It really was, given how much real learning we packed into two weeks. I have written at length about it, but never enough. For now all I can say is the whole project was a significant milestone for me. Again, in real life, real shit is hard, and I could not rise up to the challenges without the help of others. Struggle was real, and out of real struggle genuine beauty emerges. The project has officially ended, but it was just the beginning of my own project: learn, and help others learn.

The second part of summer was Saigon. It’s funny how I was panicking in April about not having a summer plan. In hindsight, “just book a ticket and figure later” turned out to be the best decision. Lived in a different city on my own (not quite, as I received amazing hospitality from my host parents), finding a job, earning just enough income while still having a lot of personal exploration & fun? Ticked. I’m very lucky to have this experience for my freshman summer; it was a good transition to adulthood. It also made me appreciate how safe the family and college environment are. Really.

I worked as a part time English teacher in Yola to support my living. When I first started at Yola, I expected the job would be rather easy, given I had tutoring experiences before. Nope, managing a classroom of 15 hormone-raging 15-17 year old was freaking tough! (especially for an inexperienced teacher like me. Imagine the youngest teacher in Yola, only 4 year older than most students. I’m normally a chill kind of person in class, so I must fake being authoritative until I become so ._. )

Every student is different in his/her ability, intention and focus. Some are such a joy and honor to teach; others are more difficult. Some almost never said a single word; some openly resisted me. Thanks to all of them, I became a lot more patient and flexible. As one of my professors shared with me last semester, “Every class is different. Some are not as responsive as others; these take more effort but also more rewarding. In the end, I teach because it is my nature.” 

I had my first experience of managing expectations between my manager and clients (my students) when the latter did not do well for their exams. Should I choose to finish the syllabus, or go back and explain their conceptual misunderstanding? After so much mental wrestling, I chose the latter. It was not easy. I even wondered why I was so silly to agonize over such decision and asked myself: “Why should I even care that much? Why couldn’t I care a bit less and enjoy my summer?” . I thought of my mentor’s words “In order for you to grow, you want to be responsible for more people.” The dilemma I had as a tutor last year resurfaced; this time much intensified as instead of two I had 30 to care about. I think it was good for me.

Dealing with others was hard, but dealing with myself was even harder. Most importantly I learned to manage my own expectation. I wasn’t sure how disappointed my students were feeling, but I was pretty down. Not so much because of the result’s reflection on my newbie teaching but rather the feeling of disappointment and frustration that I couldn’t help those I wanted to help. Teaching definitely has toughened me up, but I don’t think I’m tough enough to teach. I need to learn to expand my capacity to care, and also to care more wisely, like I argued here. Caring too much for the unimportant details and I will risk burning out. Khuyen, beware. You have a lifetime to make an impact, don’t rush. But also start now.

The other major blessing of the summer was Cloudjet Solution. I got to meet a great CEO, from whom I learned a ton not just about the startup world but also about leadership, relationships and life. I got to observe and be part of an unfolding adventure full of risks and rewards. The experience was undoubtedly the most important motivation for me to continue with an entrepreneurship program once I came back to school. I still have a lot to learn, but I too already have something to share. I encourage you to do that too. I feel like a hypocrite all the time, but we are never going to be good enough. So we may as well start doing and sharing what we learn.

I also experienced a real burnout for the first time (Did I really never push myself so hard in the past? I’m somewhat ashamed…) I remembered looking at myself in the mirror on morning and wrote in my journal: “Wait, I don’t like what I am seeing.” In hindsight, that habit of regularly checking in with myself turned out to be very helpful. I took a break. Otherwise my body would have forced me to stop, and that’s not cool. I can do anything, but I cannot do everything, yet. Many of us who have just started college or working or doing anything new may have shared this experience of overwhelming ourselves with cool opportunities. How could I not say Yes more? “If I don’t take on those now, I will regret in the future”, right? This quote has soothed my mind a lot: “When I say No to something, I’m saying Yes to something else more important”.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the result of this lifelong project of self-discovery. I wrote last year that 2013 was the year of a lot of endings: my teenager years, my time in family, my gaming life. I expected my twenties to be pretty substantial, and 2014 did not fail me. It was my first full year in college and also some real life experiences.

Growing up is pretty scary, but seeing the progress makes it less so. How do I know I have grown up? Here is my measure of progress: how quickly do I regain my balance after hitting shits? In other words, resilience. Faster recovery means more chances of hitting the bigger jackpot. Whatever that jackpot means.

What does 2015 have in store for me? We shall see. Please witness 🙂

p/s: This post is way too long. There are tons of things I want to write about: my relationships, communities, practices, theme and directions for 2015. Let’s see if I can finish writing before school starts.