23 – a reflection

Today is a good time to take stock of where I am, to share some learning and to celebrate. Life is so good it has to be shared.

Where am I?

I’m entering the blossoming phase of my life: so much excitement, so many opportunities, abundance of energy, lovely people. College has been quite a journey, and I am loving every moment of it. Classes, involvement, people, personal time, sleep, books, adventures. I don’t see life as much as a juggle but rather a process of alignment: when everything is aligned, life moves smoothly.

This is also a good time to check in with my theme of 2016 – Integration It is fascinating how useful the act of crystallizing a theme can be. Even when I’m not conscious of it, different parts of my life are somehow coming together: mind and body, technical and social, fields of study, relationships.

Being somewhat older than my peers, hanging out with older people and reading books of dead authors gave me a bit of thought-fulness. At the same time I am also feeling a sense of personal renewal, as if I’m becoming more and more youthful as I mature. Being youthful has little to do with what young people “should” do – it’s very much a spirit of openness, wonderment and innocence. To quote David Whyte, “innocence is not a state of naivety. It is, in a way, the ability to be found by the world.” Somehow that innocence is often lost as we grow up, and I don’t want that to happen.

I am feeling more engaged with Tufts as well as the greater world. Someone recently asked me “What does it feel like to be alive?” and I came up with two words “engagement” and “ease”. I was surprised by my own answer, so much that I made into my own definition of success: to engage in what needs to be done with greater ease.

What I am learning

I like to keep track of my development through the lessons I am learning. Here they are:

  • On impact: I’m starting to have a better sense of the impact I have on other people. While actions may indeed speak louder than words, the latter can be quite powerful. Sometimes the best thing I say or write is completely spontaneous, but in general words deserve to be deliberate. The energy each of us bring into an interaction can have a strong impact too. Something I learned recently from Ben Zander is that glowing eyes matter. Nothing delights us more than the glowing eyes of someone else, and it is totally a worthy cause to make eyes glow more often! On that note, a recent feedback from a friend: my eyes glow when I feel connected – mental, emotional, physical. Really good to know!
  • On reframing life: In the past, I adopted the radical acceptance motto of “I suck, you suck, we all suck”, which has been very helpful to cope with stuff. However, I put on a quote on my door recently ”I’m a gift. You are a gift. Life is a gift.” Operating this new requires a fundamental shift of mind, and as far as I can tell, this newer motto works like charm. Life is indeed full of gifts – even when shit happens, I have a blog post Indeed, my attention, energy, vibe, questions, thoughts, resources, relationships, youthfulness, thoughtfulness, rashness, spontaneity – all these are gifts. We all have a lot to give and receive from each other and from the world; we just need to figure out how best to do it.
  • On being: As I get older, there is a gentler, more graceful sense of being. Perhaps this is the way to live: as we age, we keep getting lighter and lighter until the day we are gone and the world wouldn’t feel sad about us leaving. A friend recently gave me a beautiful imagery: we live like a helium balloon; the lighter we are, the more we can rise above, but we don’t just fly out of the atmosphere into space. Instead, we look back. We see the world in its entirety, and we become even more we become engaged in it. Such an “uplifting” image – literally and metaphorically.

    This imagery well captures two paradoxes: first, being light doesn’t mean being disengaged, leaving everything behind and going into the forest like some monks. (not all though – look at this guy) The better question is “How can we remain gentle while being deeply engaged in the world?” The second paradox is that people who have that quality of lightness to their being, those who don’t seem to care as much about the outcomes of what happens, are the ones who will make the most impact in our lives. In lightness, there is power. There is so much we can add to the world just by being.

  • On enjoying myself: Over the years, I learn the importance of developing a genuine sense of appreciation and respect for myself, not more, not less than other people. Do I treat myself every moment with attention and care and acceptance and curiosity? The quality of my relationship with myself has got so much better; sometimes I even have this thought “Oh wow, Khuyen, you are daydreaming about this person or that scenario – isn’t it interesting?” One benefit of attaining a distance from myself is that I can be genuinely surprised by what I do in the moment, which is a lot of fun. Paradoxically, not taking myself seriously also means to accept who I currently am and to know that it will change anyway. We are all work-in-progress mistaking we are finished, to paraphase Daniel Gilbert.
  • Focusing on contribution: a few years ago I used to geek out a lot on self-improvement – how to do certain things better, how to improve the way I operate. I still do, but am a lot more relaxed now. We work hard on ourselves because the work is meaningful, but not too hard to the point it becomes a burden. We are all growing all the time, and sometimes too much focus on growth itself may not be the most sustainable thing. The better question is “What am I contributing? What do I need to know, to learn and to do to make it happen?” If you want to motivate me, paint me a rich picture of how I can help!
    Peter Drucker once said “people grow according to the demands they make on themselves, according to what they consider to be achievement and attainment.” The words “dream”, “achievement” or “ambition” somehow don’t jive with me too much; “aspiration”, “contribution” and “responsibility” do. Keep that in mind when we work together next time 😉
  • On learning: from the last part of this interview of Edgar Schein in Google: “whenever you are in an experience, stop and ask yourself: what else is going on? In this place? Among us? Inside me? This is where the real learning occurs” One big influence of mindfulness practice on me is this awareness of the fertile negative space. A related and deeper point is that everything needs a container – music needs silence, painting needs canvas, texts needs screen, people need relationships. That means if we can create the right container, the right thing can happen. The farmer spends lots of time cultivating the soil for a good reason!

    Two guiding questions for myself these days are: How can I be more connected to this whole evolving world, and how can I co-create the conditions for flourishing? I don’t take myself too seriously, but I do take these questions seriously 😉

Some reminders for the future

  • Choose where I pay attention to:
    the real power lies in our ability to ask this question: Is what I am paying attention to energizing, liberating, fulfilling? On a related note, I love this quote by Mother Teresa: “There is no great thing. There’s only thing done with great love.”

    Whenever I feel stuck in my small self that is anxious, calculative, wanting to get ahead, getting caught up in being “great”, it is a good reminder that I can be larger Self that is loving and free. It sounds easy in theory, but really hard in practice. It gets easier with time though.

  • Never do it alone
    Recently the thought that I’m almost one-third into my twenty dawned upon me. If anything, that thought made me feel a greater sense of responsibility not so much as a growing up independent person but rather an interdependent being in the world. As I am writing this reflection in my room, I realized that I am not alone at all. Because we never are. I also realized that what I’m looking first and foremost in any kind of relationships is togetherness – then comes tenderness and intimacy. Quite a piece of self-knowledge.
  • Ready, Fire, Aim (notice the order)
    A motto by Pierre Omidyar for his work as well as his life: it’s important to be ever ready enough, yet never 100% ready. Fire first, then aim, then fire and aim again. Preparing is good only to a certain point, and in general it’s better to have a bias towards action – take reasonable action, learn as much as possible from feedback, recaliberate, do again.

Gratitude

If you have read this far, please take a moment to celebrate our shared joy of being alive. Not only that, we have good eye sights, a device to read this post, enough English ability to understand and a willing heart to celebrate together. If these aren’t worth being grateful for, what is?

Thank you for being with my journey,
Khuyen

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22 – A reflection

Why

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.

Intro

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.

Celebration

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.

Gratitude

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.

Dear Khuyen-20, from the Solemn Me

Random thing I do on my birthday :D The bubble maker (is that the name?) is a gift from a primary school friend. We visited our alma mater today. To be honest i never bothered buying this before. Always made my own.

Random thing I do on my birthday 😀
The bubble maker (is that the name?) is a gift from a primary school friend. We visited our alma mater today. To be honest i never bothered buying this before. Always made my own.

 

Dear Khuyen-20-year-old,

You find yourself amused by the fact that people, including yourself, celebrate birthday. Think of people who were born on 29th Feb. They technically have fewer birthdays, but you suspect they would choose some other days to celebrate to make up for that. If “a year” is such an arbitrary concept then why on earth must you celebrate it once “a year”?

You try to trivialize your own birthday for yourself by saying: “I shall have fun everyday, not just today”.  Yet, you have to admit that it’s a powerful reminder for your mind, which will unavoidably be fluctuating to the ups and downs throughout the year, to be grateful that you’ve survived for that long, and more importantly that you were born to be a human. After all, out of the tiniest chance of all these atoms and quarks combine in a particular way, you came to life. You even have a name: they don’t just call you “a human” but “Khuyen”. Don’t you realize the preciousness of what your granddad gave you beside parts of his genes? Naming, just like time, is a human invention to make this wondrously complex world a bit more comprehensible to our mind. You have already inherited that invention from your predecessors. You already owed the world something.

Birthdays invariably remind you of death. That’s a good thing, for it trains your mind in time of peace so that you would face adversity with more preparation. What if you would die at 12:00 tonight, and no the world isn’t going to end with you? Would you not panic at its inevitability? I hope and trust that you would face it with acceptance and gratitude. Maybe a bit of unfairness too: why is it your death but the world’s loss? It has to add in something good to the world! Remember telling people around your deathbed so. They must be better off.

Now try to think in their shoes. Let’s be more concrete by imagining the most morbid situation: your beloved mother  just passed away. If tear feels natural, cry; if it doesn’t then don’t. You may experience what they call “sorrow” or you may not. I know you can easily cry in front of the livings but never at the dead, and I want to assure you that’s perfectly fine. Your loved ones don’t want you to mourn for them.

Do people only think of themselves when they are dying like their accomplishments and regrets? You hope you won’t, because that will just make the matter worse. There will be a tendency for people to focus on the one who’s leaving because he’s different and deserves special attention, but you should try to resist that. Your last moment should be a casual conversation with your loved ones and then oops.

Enough of grave talk. Let me tell you about what I know better than you: your past. You have been brought up believing that you are very lucky and sheltered kid. Indeed you are, way more than many others. But you still see people, especially those close to you, suffering sometimes. That really sucks. Worse yet, you are, once in a while, the reason. All these should have convinced you that you are inextricably tied to others and so here my birthday wish: May you always bring joy to others and thus find your own happiness 🙂

Khuyen Teenager.

p/s: Okay birthday is supposed to be more fun. Oh please stop asking what does “fun” mean in this world or how you can recreate the “birthday mood” in every other day… I allow you to procrastinate thinking about that for today.