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.

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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.

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.

How many years will I live on after I die?

This post is inspired by a recent talk by a friend. He wasn’t saying anything particularly new for me, but it was such a good reminder for what I want to do and what I can do (hint: “I still don’t know”).

Sharad shared with us a question that he most often asked himself and invited us to do the same.

How many years after I die do I want to be remembered for?
Some philosophers lived for a few thousand years. I remember justifying to myself that perhaps it wasn’t because they were influential. They were simply born before me; if the arrow of time was reversed, wouldn’t Socrates and Plato be remembering me now? Then I realized it was just a bad excuse. There were many people at that time who were not remembered at all.

Sharad pointed out how long we will be remembered depends on how much we add value to others. The more lives one can positively impact, the longer his name will live on. Of course notorious guys in history still live on today because they serve on as negative examples for children and object of study for history. (“How did this initially good guy become a villain?”)

Strangely enough, I was not at all motivated by this question. Do I care that much about living posthumously? I recall a fable of a king talking to an unknown man who was lazying around. The King asked the man “Why are you lazying around? Aren’t you afraid that you would die one day and no one remembers you? Go and do something!” The man simply replied “Why should I do anything anyway since we are both going to die? Instead of worrying about my death I would rather live now. Why do you have to build a statue of yourself if you would not be there to enjoy it?”

Are you the man or are you the king?
I don’t know. I feel that conflict often in myself: I don’t want to sit around, but I also know that my striving may very well be pointless. I have never been that motivated by fame, not because I think fame is not fun. It is just strange and somewhat uncomfortable for me to not know about someone who knows about me.

People often talk about living your life to the fullest so that you won’t regret on your dead bed. The king may regret for not relaxing while the man can regret for not trying harder. Maybe neither of them will. In the end, how we feel about our lives is our own choice.

If I am that ambivalent, why do I care to write this?
I am very grateful to hear my friend speak. The best thing Sharad has done to me is to be “brutally honest” (his words) and live his own life well (very similar to what my mom has done) He shows me his own example so that I know it is possible; he throws at me a challenge so that I want to do it. The fearful side of me kept giving itself excuses: “He is out my league.. How can he be so sure about his own direction? He may be missing out a lot of things in college given the commitment to his startup. I can’t be like that. My goal is different; I want to keep exploring in college, I don’t want to narrow myself down to that one path yet.”

Dear Khuyen, all lame excuses. It’s ok to not know what I want to do, but it is not ok to use that as an excuse to avoid the unknown. I can tell that Sharad has done a lot of soul-searching because no one at that stage who has not faced many difficult decisions. Sharad knows his direction because he has tried. Have I tried genuinely and forcefully enough, and if so have I made a decision? Is college is making me more mediocre by giving me four years of easy fun? If I am kicked out of college right now, what will I do?

What does this mean?
Two things for me. First, a rule for myself: Whenever presented with difficult choices, always choose the one I am more scared of. My future self will thank me. Second, a reminder: time is short and the most important resource in college is the people, so surround myself with people who genuinely care and inspire me. To my standard, I think I am still very shy, so this is the best way I can learn and grow and help others.

“The ideal family”?

Last week, I had a chat with a friend about my favorite topic, the Vietnamese family. The “traditional Vietnamese ideal family”, we both agreed, was one where the husband worked more to support the family and had a lot of say in big matters whereby the woman would take care of household issues and childrearing. Each person has a well-defined role (by the contract they made among themselves and by social expectation).

Nothing new here. This ideal version says a lot about our cultural values: unity and harmony above all else. If most husbands and wives are happy with this “ideal”, society will be cohesive. There will be some outliers, but most families would hope to become the ideal.

My friend then mentioned that such ideal might not be the ideal after all. The husband can feel too much entitled for his contribution (is that what a lot of men feel? I’m somewhat disappointed of my own race… I understand that males need to have big egos to survive and thrive and procreate from evolutionary perspective, but that’s a bit too much. Big ego is the nemesis of unity).

This isn’t too new either, for I have lived overseas for several years. In the West, invididual right is at the core of how people think about living; consequently, the division of labor in the family is less pronounced because every member of the family should be treated and contribute to the family on roughly equal terms.

I was raised by a widowed mother, so these points weren’t immediately applicable. However, I thought about the host parents I was living with in Saigon. The division of labor was clear: My aunt would do all the housework; my uncle would spend time on business. My aunt often came back home earlier, had dinner and enjoyed TV programs while my uncle came home late after hanging out with his friends and went upstairs to read online news or play computer games. Ok, so what do all these observations mean?

Living with other people and seeing their different lifestyles have two distinct benefits on me. First, I became a lot more accepting. It’s no surprise that as we meet more people, we withhold our judgments more readily because everyone is different! My aunt and uncle chose to live that life, so it must be something they both prefer. How can I know I am better to judge that it’s not as good? If a drug addict tells me he’s enjoying his life, what can I do? Live and let live, right?

Thinking this way requires two assumptions: first, people know what they like. Second, they are telling us what they really think. We can examine these assumptions, but that’s for another philosophical essay. For now, pointing out these two assumptions should help us see that there are ways to counter this argument.

The second benefit, which is more important for me, is that as I had more exposure to different lifestyles, I understood much better what made me tick. I personally would not want to live this way, having too little interaction with my future spouse. Admittedly, there must be personal time and space. But part of the social contract of marriage includes time together. Conversation is not always necessary, but at least one must feel the presence of each other in everyday life (literally). I believe that “Quality of a relationship = Time spent together x Depth of each interaction.”, as mentioned in my previous post on friendship.

I appreciate the value of such division of labor in the family. It frees up the husband to earn enough money to support their needs. It also lets the traditional wife perform what she’s good at: taking care of household issues. It’s great if the goal is to maximize efficiency in dealing with money and household matters. But that may not be the only goal, especially up to the point where the family has sufficient financial support. The goal now maybe to spend more quality time together and rejoice, not get bored, in each other’s presence. In the end, how can love and mutual understanding, the most important factors of marital satisfaction, grow without interaction?

How much is “enough interaction”? Our preferences keep changing over time, let alone the fact that we have to compromise that with our partner’s too. That takes a lot of planning and constant re-evaluation of our plans. A few of my friends told me “Khuyen are you crazy? This is not a project!” To which I replied “What does “a project” mean for you? For me, it’s a series of steps to achieve a goal”. Building a family, getting fit or finding a job are all projects in that sense, and to do a project well I need to start with a design recipe.  That’s learning in real life.

I’ve seen a number of unsuccessful marriages, divorce or worse – still staying together yet already divorced in hearts. While I’m no counselor, have no experience or even know the full circumstances to judge, these stories still pain me: Why do we make bad choices in such a big matter? (and it’s not one single choice but rather a series of choices, each leading up to the next one in a slippery slope). I need to know the Whys before I can help.

Some people worried for me that I was thinking too much, “You still had the entire young adult life in front of you to explore the world, why bother thinking about this, Mr Old-n-Wise?”
I appreciate their concerns. I don’t think I’m spending too much time on this; it’s only one blog post, a few hours of thinking here and there. Maybe a few hours less from Facebook (still surfing too many random feeds anyway). Plus, for something of this big, it doesn’t harm to think in advance. Learning from both positive and negative examples is never wasted. And isn’t seeing the lives of people part of this great exploration?

As usual, after writing a blogpost I end up with more questions than before. How can I and my host parents think so different? Is there really a better version of the “ideal family”? What if they haven’t tried living a different lifestyle and thus not having enough information to choose? If so, what is my role?

I recalled another friend’s favorite quote: “You can’t change the way people live, but you can live the way that will make people change.” Perhaps that’s the answer for me now.

p/s: Perhaps I have been thinking about this topic since my brother is getting married soon. Can you believe that my 3-year-older brother who used to play pranks with me around the neighborhood is marrying in less than a month!?

p/s2: I initially planned to write a looooong reflection from these two months living in Saigon, but with this rate of writing I probably won’t have time before school to clear up all my notes to publish. At least I recorded all of them down.

An Epiphany, part I

A recent gift I got. Nice notebook makes me wanna write.

A recent gift. Nice notebook makes me wanna write.

I HAVE YET TO BELIEVE IN FATE, BUT…

This freshman summer has been so amazing: doing Project Malaysia 14 (video here, reflection note here – it’s very long so feel free to read in parts), teaching English at Yola, interning at a tech startup (both are challenging and rewarding), meeting old & new friends (all great people).

And I was telling people yesterday that I didn’tgive myself enough personal time. Lo and behold, my body fought back: Last week I was rather unwell, and this week, this epiphany.
It first started a morning a few days back while I was listening to a podcast interview of Seth Godin, the marketing guru. (I often download random podcasts and shuffled them into a playlist to listen on the way to work.) He mentioned his resolution to posting one blogpost per day, even if the posts are shorter. He believed that such discipline would over time lead to better content. I took a mental note of that, since some people have advised me exactly the same thing.
Then in the afternoon I listened to Tim Ferriss’s interview with writer Neil Strauss of The Game. Neil said there wasn’t any specific tip to produce good content; he just had to keep writing and rewriting. I asked myself if I was too outcome-oriented with my writing; in other words, thinking too much about the readers.
Then at night I listened to TED Radio Hour: it too was on creative process! Did TED predict my mind? I got to listen again to Elizabeth Gilbert’s favorite talk on creativity: she talked about the origin of the word “genius”: it used to mean an external thing, not a person. The latter meaning was only taken on a few hundred years ago, thanks to the Enlightenment thinkers. (side node: Man, the way we think about ourselves is influenced by philosophers years ago. What’s the chance that what I am thinking today will influence others in the next 200 years?)
Right after that my host mother turned on the TV. The program was “Window to Literature”… That was the final blow, leaving me obsessed with the thought ever since.

BUT WHAT CAN I DO WITH WRITING? I’M AFRAID.

I have never thought of making writing a bigger part in my life. I have all the more reasons to ignore that option, since this summer has been a very practical, career-oriented for me. (I was so blown away with all the opportunities in Saigon – will write more on that in 3 weeks when I’m back in Hanoi).

I’m not too afraid of the uncertainty; even if it’s the uncommon path for many of my peers. I think I can find a way to earn a living somehow.
I’m afraid that I’m not good enough. I struggled with literature in high school, being the non-native English speaker analyzing poems which I only understood half of the words. In retrospect, I thought the whole trauma was caused not by the subject, but rather the discomfort of getting a low grade. (Oh the grade-oriented education… We will probably never be with each other).
Deeper down though, I think my greatest fear is that I’m not committed enough. I believe with practices I can improve on my writing. Yet, will I commit to the practices to the point that I can live on it, or will I jump to something else more attractive?
Commitment is scary because we are afraid of regret – perhaps the cow thinks the other side of the pasture is indeed greener? Or, perhaps I wasn’t even a cow at all; I didn’t want to write that much in the first place.
Finding excuses to soothe myself gets easier with age. In this case, I recalled a TED talk on regret by Kathryn Schulz. (As you can see, I love to connect with people, their stories and thoughts. I’m obviously a TED person)

“The point isn’t to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them. [……] Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly. It reminds us that we know we can do better.”

I also listened again to the lovely voice of Abigail Washburn singing in Chinese with her banjo during the TED radio hour too. She said “We’re only as great as our ability to negotiate and take advantage of our limitations.”, and I thought of my fear of not committing enough. It helped.

THE EPIPHANY.
After dinner, I opened my laptop, turned on my favorite text editor to write my daily journal. The first two lines were this.

snapshot-journal

And that was when I realized writing has become a central part of me. Have you ever been in one of these strange moments of gratitude when time froze and you realized, rather sheepishly, that your best friend in front of you had always been your best friend?
It felt exactly the same for writing and me.
Elizabeth Gilbert articulated so well the struggle as well as the beauty of the creative process: we create to fulfill our basic need; any other purpose is secondary. We keep showing up not because we have to. We do so because it is who we are.
The moment was like a calling from a voice in my head. It’s always there, but this time I’m quiet enough to listen to its words. I only know that I will keep on writing, but I never thought of testing out this option more seriously. (you can see my problem-solving, experimenting mode of thinking just turned on. How these modes co-exist so well in our brain is such a fascinating mystery).

Next post: Part II: An exploration into the Whys – including a need to read more fiction, and a gap year.

P/s: Watch Abigail Washburn’s lovely talk here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDIy58g9n2k#t=171

 

On rejections and (potential) romances.

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(Via sunnyydoodles.tumblr.com; outdated since Stanford charged $90 in 2012. Random photo online for illustration purpose, because I waived the $80 application fee)

This morning, my phone shuffled to a song that invariably reminded me of a college that I really wanted to but didn’t get in. I don’t know why I haven’t deleted it from my favorite playlist yet, but usually I will skip whenever the playlist comes to the song.

That makes sense right? I won’t be reminded of my failure. I notice that I make excuses “oh it’s really hard to get in. Oh it’s out of my control. Oh it’s pure luck” so that I won’t consider not getting in as a failure. Whether these are indeed excuses to avoid the blame on me or these are facts, I still keep these thoughts because they make me  feel better without harming anyone else. If I think like this, chances are I’m not a failure.

But how about pain? Even when I don’t consider rejections as failures, they are still painful somehow. Thus, I should still be justified in skipping the song, for it reminds me of all the wonderful things that I could have had if only… Ah, here comes pain’s close friend, regret. “I wish I spent more time on my essays instead of slacking around”. That sort of thought can actually ease my mind, for it tricks me into thinking that I know how to “get in”. Well, obviously not. No one knows. Now that’s the real comforting thought. That is a fact even. The serenity prayer suddenly comes to my mind “God, grant me serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, courage to change the things that I can, and wisdom to know the difference” (I’m not a Christian, but I’ve heard this before).

The difference this morning is that I was brushing my teeth. Perhaps I was too lazy (or busy? <- catch myself making excuse right here) to change song. The familiar melody played on, and a very strange thing happened.

I still liked it so much. I liked the melody, the voices, the script. I still sang to each word of the lyrics in my head just like I did last year in the exam hall. What on earth is wrong with the lovely song? What has transformed love into hate, if it ever happened? I realized how my mind worked: I associated something irrelevant like a song to a decision made by a bunch of people who cared about anything but that song. The latter repulsed me, and so the former was affected. Irrational as it was, it worked pretty well in soothing me.

Then, what has transformed hate into love again? Clarity of mind, which comes from time and adaptation. It needs time, for time dilutes memories and thus allows me more room to think. It needs adaptation, for the more I try to think clearly, the easier it gets. I think the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is slightly misleading. Adversity doesn’t make me grow; the process of recovery from it does.

As a creature who loves to overthink, I inevitably imagine this scenario and I’d like to invite you to do so, just for the fun of it. It maybe even more fun if you are in a romantic relationship when all the passion is driving you crazyyy (I’m not and so I’m super curious to hear your thoughts). Imagine you just break up with your partner after for some reasons. Depending on your personality and genetic disposition, you can tell yourself that it is not your fault and wonder why you fell in love with such an a**hole in the first place. Or you can take all the blame and feel absolutely  terrible.

Regardless of your reaction, you will still have to move on in the face of the unpleasant experience. Will you throw away all the photos and gifts or delete the favorite songs that the two used to listen together – anything that can remind you of the memories? Will you try to shift the blame away to soothe yourself? I’m tempted to say yes now; I know resisting my natural reaction is tough. Yet, after the weird realization this morning with the college song, I hope I will remember to remind myself then that some pains and regrets are perfectly okay. Attachments make me vulnerable, but on hindsight I’m willing to trade some vulnerabilities for humanness and the potential to bounce back stronger 🙂

Really curious to hear what you think of this thought experiment.

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.

“I’m so happy for you” and The Arts of Happiness by the Dalai Lama

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“I’m so happy for you!”
“Thanks for sharing the good news. It made my day!”
There’s a joyful quality in these words that dissuades my cynic thought “Maybe these people are just pretending so that they appear nice”. No, I can’t believe that. After all, it takes people some effort to type these extra words, so they should mean it. The question is what is so happy about making people happy?

In recent years, books about happiness have more or less inundated the bookstores. Too many self-helps, enough to make anyone cynical. My Kindle today even offers the book “Happy this year”. A part of me resists the idea: “Well, I have enough of these advice. After all, I’m not doing so bad right?”

However, a recent email from my high school teacher made me think: “I have one last assignment for you before you leave  – I would like you to give serious thought to the aspect of principles and values. What are some principles you will hold dear and will not compromise? Issues of integrity, etc. All these must be in place before you live out your dream. So what if a man wins the whole world yet loses his soul?”.
I’m really lucky to have great mentors like this 🙂 A bit more soul-searching doesn’t harm right?

Anyway, some bit of background. I grew up reading Buddhist stories (and comics. They are really good!), going to temples and seeing my mom practicing her meditation every morning, but I never think that I’m a Buddhist even until now. I somehow believe in karma in its simple sense of “Good begets good”, but I have yet to believe that it extends to previous and after lives. I almost forgot about all this until 2 years ago when I read Siddhartha, a novel with strong Buddhist influences, for my English class.
So, I have some knowledge about Buddhism while strongly believe in sciences and proofs. Having read a few science-based books on the topic of happiness before, I wanted to see what religion has to offer. Why not start with something I’m more familiar with? That’s why I’m attracted to The Dalai Lama’s book, The Art of Happiness. I spent two recluse days of reading with some reflection.

________

Some general impression first.
The book is suffused by a message of hope. The Dalai Lama (DL for short)’s belief in human’s gentleness and compassion as fundamental qualities resonates with me a lot.
Another prominent point of this book is the method of reasoning. Throughout the books, his thoughts on living the happy life are all derived systematically from these few premises

  1. I’m a human being.
  2. I want to be happy and I don’t want to suffer.
  3. Other human beings, like myself, want to be happy and don’t want to suffer.

It sounds like Kantian universality principle: act in the way that you want everyone to act. It may be true after all that Buddhism is more of a philosophical framework rather than a religion, which fascinates me even more. Buddhism is at its core not a faith-based system, and the Buddha even told his disciples not to believe in what he taught but rather tested the validity of his method through their own experiences.

Moreover, I’m struck by the DL’s humility: he admits that he doesn’t know a lot of things and his advice may not be suitable for all. I think the Dalai Lama is the best epitome of the first thing he teaches: that every human being is the same. He’s just like anyone of us, with real human emotions and follies. With training and effort I can be like him. (For more information, it’s also the basic belief of Buddhism that every person has the Buddha Nature and thus has the potential to become Buddha, or more commonly referred as achieving Enlightenment/Liberation)

Enough of the Eastern philosophy, now it comes to the Western part of the book, as told by Howard Cutler. While some may find his role of storyteller cum theory-explainer rather annoying, I found his personal anecdotes add in a lot to the message of hope in this book. Here it is, a person who has bad times just like anyone of us but is trying to make use of the ideas he learnt in exchange with the Dalai Lama. More importantly, I identify myself very much with Cutler and his pragmatic mindset of looking for the quick fix solutions. The strange thing is that throughout the course of the book I gradually find some transformation in my approach just like Cutler does. From an attitude of “let’s get the most practical advice so that the book will be most valuable” to a genuine appreciation of the complexities of all the issues and the DL’s analysis of those. For me, the East-meet-West element is what makes the book most compelling to read. I always appreciate the scientific approach, so the evidence presented in the book convinces me even more of the DL’s teachings. Brain plasticity (the ability to alter the wiring of your neurons using your thought ), for example, backs up the DL’s conviction in systematically training the mind to be able to respond more positively to the vicissitudes of life.

On the whole, the book resonates with me so well that I’m sure I will read it again some day and discuss with  my mom, the devout Buddhist who has influenced me a lot, once she’s back from India.

Some points that I remember and want to talk more in future posts.

  • What makes me less skeptical of the usefulness of this book is the DL’s simple reasoning that I should think about the nature of suffering right now when I’m not suffering too much, because in doing so I will accustom myself once the tougher obstacles come. It’s like gradually expose to warmer water instead of jumping straight in the hot water bath. Seeing from that viewpoint makes me even more appreciative of growing up in a not so wealthy family. It lowers my standard and makes me satisfy easier. It just happens that I’m listening to a philosophy course on Death (http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/phil-176/lecture-23) and writing my own obituary for a scholarship essay, so the message’s impact is greatly intensified: thinking about death now makes me reevaluate my current life and adjust accordingly. Steve Jobs mentioned this in his famous speech too (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc)
  • The DL’s acceptance of other religions: he mentioned that his refugee status was actually very good for him because he had the exposure with other religions. It’s true: I can’t imagine the world is full of 7 billions Buddhists or Christians or any other religion for that matter. The analogy is that everyone in the restaurant can order and enjoy their own different dish. It’s really sad that religion is the source of conflict in many places. The role of religion is to give people guidance through life so that they can be happy, and the only way for everyone to be happy together is of course to live in harmony. Whatever works for you, great!
  • Enemies are rare. This is soo true for me. I could only think of one person and after some reasoning I really can’t think of him as enemy. The DL argues that we should consider our enemies as our teachers because they offer us the very discomfort to grow our seeds of patience and tolerance. Think of a child who has always been pampered and given everything when he just starts crying: I don’t want to be like that! Discomfort is indispensable for growth (that’s why we do weight training). Underlying this reasoning is the unwavering desire to work towards happiness through cultivating good values in every circumstance – very practical approach.
  • The role of pain is to signify to the body that something is wrong. I’ve heard from the Founder’s Day speech in my high school last year that many lepers are disfigured due to their inability to experience pain (thus continue hurting themselves) more than the disease’s own destruction. Think of waking up one day with your fingers gnawed by rats.. Similar to pain, suffering signifies to us that something is not right, and we should be motivated to do something to eliminate it just like we pull our hands out of the fire because it’s hot.
  • Last and most importantly, the DL continually stresses the importance of education and knowledge to make one realize the suffering is natural, but there’s a way out if we continue working towards eliminating it. There seems to be a perception that uneducated people are likely to be more genuine and happy because with education comes wealth and power which tend to corrupt characters or drift relationships apart. I’ve heard many senior people complain about the fragility of today’s marriages, despite the couple being well-educated and successful.  In short, I won’t consider that kind of education as successful, because it doesn’t make one happier in both short and long terms. This is my response to a friend who questions if knowledge makes people more cynical about life. (“Learning for what?” Well, to live better.)

What has changed after reading this book? I will simply continue to spend some time to reflect and see if what I’m doing will make me happier. Ah, and of course I realized that the Dalai Lama is far from the bald, ascetic-looking monk in his weird robe. You can read and see the answer for yourself.

P/s: I changed the first line of my About page after reading this book.