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.

Having a safe base

This is an idea that seems intuitive yet few people often think about: having a safe base is crucial. If we dig deeper into ourselves, we all yearn to have at least something stable and controllable in this eventful world. Only after having safe base that we can talk about the need for novelty and diversity of experience. This idea is beautifully demonstrated since early childhood. Do you think a baby will dare to explore the surrounding without knowing that his caretaker is around and if he falls, he will be taken care of? He doesn’t.

Of course the worry is always that we will get too comfortable with our safe base and will never venture out of the comfort zone. Think about how many people, including myself, tend to see that buzzword “stepping out of comfort zone”, feel inspired and then do nothing. Falling back to our default option, the safer and more comfortable way is just so easy. But why is overcoming such inertia so hard, and how can I go about it?

Interesting enough, I think I found the answer to this question from trying to understand my own safe base. I asked myself: what is my safe base? In one sense,  the most stable base is myself. I know my temperament or tendencies to deal with different situations will remain fairly consistent. With 20 years of reinforcement on top of the fundamental base – my genetics, personality is hard to change.

What is the worst thing that can happen? Let’s say I somehow accidentally commit a crime and get in jail for 10 years. Scholarship, reputation (if I have any) will be gone. I will of course feel terrible at first, but judging from my self-knowledge I will probably get so bored with feeling bad & doing nothing in the jail that I will do something. Who knows, I may even emerge as a better man after those years in jail. It’s quite a far fetched imagination, but it is not impossible.

If I totally screw up by most conventional standards like that, where can I fall back to? Who can back me up? At least I have a house to go back in Hanoi. I also believe my family would still accept me. It feels exciting to be an independent adult, but that excitement is only possible by knowing that a family is always behind me.

If your answer is somewhat positive like mine, then it’s worth a moment pausing to feel thankful for the safe base that we are given. Many of us had this experience before: after going out in the snow, rain or cold wind for a long day, we are able to go back to a room with heater on and take a warm shower. It felt so good! That discomfort may seem nothing in comparison to the greater adversities many others have faced in their lives, but it is relevant enough to remind myself of how important and lucky I am to have somewhere to fall back on.

This exercise is useful because we don’t usually think about the worst case.  It’s always good to prepare ourselves mentally, not only because it makes us ready when the ordeal actually comes but also because it makes the inherent uncertainty in future a lot more tolerable. My most screwed up scenario isn’t too bad after all. (As you can easily sense I’m naturally pretty optimistic; that’s why I often try to be pessimistic to balance out and become more realistic).

Another lesson I learnt is that gratitude and hope go together. We only feel grateful if we can evaluate how our current situation is better than another one, and if we can think that way, we can also realize that we can do better. It is very relevant to me, because I have spent too much time thinking about the best thing I can do. Having ambitions is good, but I have to be careful not to let it reign over so much that I forget my safe base. This skill to manage oneself is difficult, and I need more practice.

The last thing is that I have convinced myself even more that the safe base is indeed crucial. So if I want to best help others (yeah, I use the word “best” again – such obsession with optimization), I should focus on helping them develop stronger bases. Or even start with making more people realize the importance of having a safe base.

I’m so going to set myself a reminder to read this post again when I feel screwed up 😀

p/s: I’m experimenting with writing shorter post. I think I will improve my writing more by engaging with readers more frequently instead of spending more time on a huge article. Plus, one of my biggest mistakes has been the failure to take my own motivation into account. I simply get bored, distracted or demotivated to continue writing, especially as the post often gets longer and more disorganized. Writing blog suits me better because I know some of my friends will read it. You are my safe base.