The Pursuit of Awe

The other day I was doing this tortuous hip and thigh exercise routine when the instructor said ” You are going to feel a burning sensation. You’re really starting to engage here.” That word, engage, hung in my mind for awhile and I laughed out loud, thinking how she was trying to frame the pain I was experiencing in a sort of positive light. However, my thoughts bounced in another direction: what does it mean to engage anyhow? I wanted to go deeper into this perspective she was sharing and what it means for me in my life.

Anytime I really “engage” in something, I emotionally connect and focus on it. Often, I experience discomfort, sometimes outright pain. My mind started to list the moments I felt discomfort with “engaging” in life, and by and large, they were times when I was in the process of growth. alivenessEven when my thoughts were dark, it seemed like a seed had taken sprout within me and was breaking through the soil to reach for the sun, as I fended off worry and doubt. But then I realized when I experience some sort of reverie with life’s hidden wonders and was seized with joy, this too was a wonderful form of engagement. It felt like a glorious moment of magic and I become captivated with the endless miracles that orchestrate life.

I recognize that most of the time I am disengaged, absorbed with the routines and mundane habits I have created, the middle between those extremes of pain and joy. Which leads me to this ridiculous goal that I set last year–to experience and document over 100 acts of pure miracle and magic that occur in my life. The point of this goal was to develop a mental practice of detecting the good of life, to bear witness to all the ways that the universe conspires on my behalf with my experience. It’s not the same sort of thing as gratitude, but it was more to do with being captivated and in awe of life. I just called it “ridiculous” because it’s probably been the most difficult goal I ever set. I have 14 moments of “awesomeness”  that I have collected as I strive to develop a “miracle mindset”, and I’m supposed to get 100 by December 22nd (my S.MA.R.T. deadline). Clearly, I have not been engaging with this goal.

So, now that I have put my attention on this goal, I realize that I have a choice. To brood over this deficiency or to become absolutely obsessed with it. As you might imagine, sitting at this crossroads in my mind, I am experiencing discomfort–who would I be if I was to really take this seriously for the next 2 months of this year?   Would I become annoyingly optimistic and giddy? Is this why I am resisting this? Or am I using other people as my excuse to not make this shift? 

 

Well, at this juncture, I may not feel overly confident of transforming my mental landscape but maybe trying to do something so daring and failing may be a miracle in itself. To stop wading in the shallows of life and go into the deep end, becoming more mindful and devoted to experiencing what seems ordinary in a new light. To have the courage to live in a state of astonishment, cultivating a different and more fascinated perspective, might be a subtle form of insanity, but I shall try to pursue it nevertheless. And now that I have shared this confounded idea with you all, I have the responsibility to make the effort to become awakened by the profound and interesting things that make my life worth living.

Thank you for holding a light of hope for me, as I become okay with the discomfort that awareness brings through this pursuit for awe.

When the Road I Traveled Becomes an Open Path

Do you ever wish you were a better person than who you are? Me too. Like all the time.

A couple weeks ago we had a terrible thunderstorm with torrential downpour and lightning that sparked the night with a purple white glow. Since the street to my home is riveted with deep muddy potholes, I was nervous that my friend’s car might get stuck or damaged when she dropped me off, so I decided to walk. At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do, but as soon as the car sped away, I felt a real sense of stupidity and fear.  I was going to have to wade through knee-deep water to get to my home. The story of a colleague’s neighbor getting bit by a baby cobra was stuck in my head and it too added fuel to the fear that was sloshing in my mind. I realized that these flooded waters could very well be full of water snakes and other creatures that could cause harm. But if I was going to return home, I really had no other alternative but to walk through these deep “puddles” that were a block long. I chanted “Please God help me” as I entered the road and stepped into the dimly lighted water, my flip-flops searching for an ounce of high ground. 10 minutes later, I arrived at my gate, very wet but very relieved that I somehow managed to make it through to dry land.

the truthAs I stripped off my wet and muddy clothes, I recanted my daring act to my husband and realized that I may very well have this experience again. This is Laos and I have signed up for an adventure, clearly. Why did I think this was a good idea? I wanted a postcard type of experience, you know–coconut trees swaying in the breeze and an easy going pace to life, but this is what I chose. I had the luxury to choose to live in a developing country and now I faced the reality of what is it like to live in a country that is so poor that most of the streets of its nation’s capital aren’t even paved.

All of sudden it got me thinking, if this experience was a lesson, what did I learn? How am I going to meet this “road”–My attitude? Am I going to go running and screaming down it (kind of what I did) or can I manage this experience a different way–My actions? How else could I go down this “road”–My opportunity? And who do I have to become in order to travel on this “road” that I have chosen–My identity?

I am in the process of answering these questions and was reminded recently of a poem by a famous Indian poet,  Rabindranath Tagore, whose message made me awaken out of self-absorption and see the truth that I am not alone on this journey. (None of us are.) Although I am unique, I am not different, because we all wrestle with the circumstances and the choices that create change in our lives.

Closed Path

I thought that my voyage had come to its end
at the last limit of my power,—that the path before me was closed,
that provisions were exhausted
and the time come to take shelter in a silent obscurity.

But I find that thy will knows no end in me.
And when old words die out on the tongue,
new melodies break forth from the heart;
and where the old tracks are lost,
new country is revealed with its wonders.

I connect deeply to this idea of  “new country”; this experience is revealing how much of me is a work in progress, as I reflect on who I am and how I see the world. There’s quite a bit that I can improve upon, let’s just say. However, to meet this challenge with self-loathing of all the things I wish I could be would be squandering the possibility for serious transformation. I still haven’t sorted out how to approach this task but I know that this discomfort is the first sign of the real potential for change. And if I keep focused….well who knows where this road I traveled where lead me.

Taking a Beginner’s Class in Life

monk paradeCall it synchronicity or coincidence, but when some image, item or theme repeats itself, I pay attention to it.

It’s 5 am and the day is breaking on my first day in Laos. I hear dogs barking outside my hotel’s bedroom window and as I look outside, to my amazement, I see a parade of Buddhist’s monks doing their daily ritual of alms giving. To see their bright orange robes in the pale morning sunlight sparked joy and excitement in me. Then fast forward later to an introductory ice breaker at my new school when I am asked to select one picture that I resonate with and explain why. I saw an image very much like the one here in this blog post of the monks.  Obviously, the morning experience had left an impression on me, which is why I believed I was immediately drawn to it, but then as I started to explore it more deeply,  I thought it is what the monks represent to me: contemplation and discipline. But to what?–that is what has plagued me and woke me up this morning at 4:14 am.

If I believe that every detail in my life has a message of the divine in it, then what would this repeating image of parading monks mean to me? This urge to understand is what got me leaping out of bed this morning. As soon as my feet hit the ground, it occurred to me that it is the ideal that monks strive towards, a  Beginner’s Mind:  having an open mind and heart, allowing for the mundane in life to become a fresh experience and to invite the magic of living back into awareness.

Moving into a new country, it is easy in many ways to have a Beginners’ Mind because there are all these new “adventures” that you get to explore like food, culture, and scenery. thich-nhat-hanh-quote-beginners-mind.jpgBut what about other elements that are not as novel, like our attitudes towards things, in particular, relationships. These relationships could be anything like how we feel towards our loved ones or how we feel towards mosquitos. It’s hard to enliven these stagnant attitudes with a new point of view. But for me, I think seeing these monks reminded me of the importance of the commitment to keeping open to the possibility that maybe something that I believe to be true may have another version worth exploring. Ideas that popped immediately to my mind were my personal relationships, how I feel about aging and my ideas about living with nature. Can I examine these ideas with a fresh perspective, remaining deeply curious and in awe of its presence in my life?  Although I am not sure what benefit this approach may yield, I am setting an intention to examine the dogma in my beliefs and observe how it impacts my decisions and feelings. I am going to liken this introspection as a taking a  beginner’s course in life. And today my course starts.

 

 

What Are You Packing?

Most people hate moving, whether it is to a new house, a new state or new country. I think it is not the sheer exhaustion of the actual move, I reckon it is going through your stuff and determining what goes in boxes, what gets packed. I’ve gone through the process of moving about 35 times in my life, most of which happened before I was 25. I’ve got to sift through my things and consider carefully what I want to bring along with me. The other day in the shower (best thinking happens there, right?!), I was pondering all these places that I have lived, not just the physical places but the places in my mind and its habits. The different versions of me. Not only do I pack these physical items, but the mental ones. too. I get to purge the worst in me and only bring that which I want to to take forward into my next experience. I think this is the best part of moving to a far distant place because you do not have a personal history to defend. No one knows a dang thing about you and who’ve you been and you can set the reset button if you wish.

I think about the people in my life who have lived in the same place for ages. Sometimes, their stability is seen with a sense of pride, but, to me, I wonder if it is not a prison. A while ago I came to understand why I had this opinion about the “stable” people I know when I heard  this Indian mystic named Sadharguru say,

I am not against wealth. I am not against comfort. I am against stagnation, because if you stagnate, you are only half alive.

It made me realize that I harbor a belief that being deeply rooted to a place makes you deeply rooted in the comfort of your identity. Hating to disappoint others, might one be scared to do or say something that is contrary to the opinion of others? They might never get to experience the lightness and freshness of change! Of course, I do think thamovingt one can reinvent oneself in the midst of these strong attachments, but I think it must be ruthlessly difficult to challenge people’s perception of them. When people have a definition of who they think you are, it’s often difficult to get them to change their mind. But the definition that is the most challenging to change is the one we give ourselves: the one that is full of “can’ts” and “don’ts”. That’s the stuff that needs to be released, the beliefs that we cling to, and no one but oneself can do that.

So as I stare at all of my stuff, literally, and decide what is going to be shipped, I think it is important to reflect on this passage of my life–the China chapter–and consider what memories and insights I want to bring with me:  the ready smiles of my neighbors, the curiousity of locals when they see foreigners, the kindness and generosity of friends found here, the cacaphony of millions of people celebrating, the smell of the orange blossoms and the utter freedom of not giving a rat’s ass of what you look like to others (including the bold public display of excrementing) here. I want to stow that away as well.

No matter if you are intrepridly anchored to a place or a global nomad like myself, I think this exercise of unpacking and repacking our identity is an important exercise. Evaluating the “junk” and “clutter” in our beliefs and liberating them to the garbage heap is so profoundly necessary for our minds to feel the possibility of our own potential. What is truly valuable and extraordinary about oneself that is worth keeping, and subtracting from there might be a useful strategy. I’m thinking of my own list right now of redeeming qualities and wondering what I need in this next journey that awaits me.

What about you? What would you pack?

 

 

The Menacing Burning Within The Soul

If you jump and leap, don’t leap or jump for the landing. Leap for the experience through the air. -Brene Brown, on Magic Lessons Podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert

As I prepare for my transition, finishing up my last full month in China, I’ve been wondering if I made the right choice. Preparing to jump into the unknown fills you with a lot of doubt. Is this really the place in which I can develop more of what’s best about me? Will my Judy-ness get an upgrade? What about my family, Ryan and Hannah?–will this be the best for them?

Do you ever feel like you have gambled all your chips at the roulette table at Vegas and you’re hoping that life lands on the Red 6?  Well, the wheel is spinning, isn’t it?

We read Wild in our book club a few years back and she definitely left an impression on me as a writer. She doesn’t mince words; strength and power are something that Cheryl Strayed is really good at articulating in her work. Her memoir and her subsequent work encapsulate this idea of Motherfuckitude, which is a combination of 2 seemingly opposing ideas: humility and faith. And, although the term may upset your modesty, I assure you the idea transcends your opposition.

I’m going to really try and I might fail, but I’m not going to feel sorry for myself but I’m going to be strong in the midst of my humility. Forget success and instead put my faith in the work and be really fierce and very exacting. I must demand a lot of myself when it actually comes to doing the work…having a sense of surrender and acceptance that ‘I’m going to do this work and I don’t know where it may lead.

-Cheryl Strayed- (in an interview on the Tim Ferris Show)

bravery.jpgHer words put a ding in my trepidation, making me consider that there could be no way I could fail if not failing forward–towards this furious ache that is in my soul, the one that causes me to be more than I am today.  The one that tells me that I am not too old, too dense, too unyielding, too silly, too pollyannish. Instead, it tells me that ‘life is long and I am young with so much to learn–isn’t that wonderful?’ It berates me until I have no choice but to heed its advice.

Anyone who writes knows how incredibly hard it is to write something that actually is interesting and meets your level of expectation. Anyone who runs knows how incredibly hard it is to run, in the rain, when you’re tired when you’re in pain and injured. Anyone who teaches knows how incredibly difficult it is to plan, to care and to put in the effort when you’re sick when you’re annoyed when you’re disappointed in life. Anyone who parents know how incredibly hard to be attentive, tuned in and patient. I could make a list of any job, hobby or role that we love dearly and are passionate about–there’s a time in which you want to throw in the towel and quit, but you can’t quit because your devotion to it is too strong and your life would be an empty shell without this struggle in your life. With the struggle comes the beauty and the joy.

So I have to wonder–will I expect more of myself in this new environment? As a wife, as a mother, as a teacher, as a blogger?–Can I work at it like a motherf*cker there?  Am I willing to diligently press on when it will be easier allow distractions to overcome me? I wholeheartedly agree with Cheryl, that once you surrender to the hardship of whatever craft one wishes to perform, then there is a grit and dedication that arises and overtakes the urge to abandon the task at hand. And you know, in your heart of hearts, that if you were to maintain a steady focus on it, you would eventually persevere. You believe in yourself and your ability to figure things out.

Long before I put all of my chips on Red 6, I had this menacing burning in my soul to have a fresh experience, to hit a reset button. I have to trust that I have made the best decision, that this move serves the highest vision of my creativity.  I wasn’t looking for a j.o.b.–something that I have to clock into- but instead, something that helps me to improve my art–something that I get to explore, experiment with and craft. I also felt this was the best option for my husband as well. So I must have the faith that this will be a fantastic challenge and that will cultivate joy and curiosity in our lives.

What experience have you had with your struggle to transition? What are you willing to leave behind and what did you want to “pack”, in a metaphorical sense?

When Your Cultural Identity is Adrift

Who Am I? That’s a difficult question for anyone to answer, let alone expats nevermind the children of those expats.

I remember my first time living abroad. As an American, we delight in our ethnic heritage, saying something like “I’m 50% Irish, 30% Polish, 10% German and 10% Cherokee”. I had said something to that effect to an Irish guy at a pub one night. He lashed out at me, ” You are NOT Irish. You are American. Nothing about you is Irish and you know nothing about Ireland, I bet.” It stung, and he shattered my cultural paradigm. I was deeply humbled. Although I might be a 3rd generation Irish, he was right, there was nothing about me that declared I was Irish other than this family history. Culturally I walked, talked and dressed like an American. I thought like an American. I liked American music and movies. I cared about American politics and issues. It was really the country and culture that I identified with. From that point on, I embraced being American, rather than caring about my genetic lineage.

But technically I haunaltered home.jpgve lived over 12 years overseas, a significant portion of my adult life. When I come back to America, I often go through reverse culture shock. I have a hard time relating to other’s view of the world, and what they feel is culturally significant like the Bachelorette or Unicorn drinks. This past summer was so challenging for me, with all the politics, I really struggled with all the intensity and polarization. Moreover, I really couldn’t understand how we had come to such a juncture in our history that hatred and misogyny were becoming a “thing” again. It really devastated so much of the tenderness and appreciation I have for my country and the people who I love there. So now I find myself in a strange sort of void, in which I do not really resonate with the culture I live in geographically but don’t really feel American all that much either. Although my accent remains, so much of national pride has withered away with my lack of attention and focus on America. It’s a strange and terrible feeling. It now seems like my cultural identity has become untethered, and will remain adrift.

For my daughter, she too is somewhere in between 2 worlds–the worlds of her parent’s heritage and the country in which she lives. They have a name for her kind: Third Culture Kids. She has lived most of her life outside of her parent’s culture and is used to traveling and living in different places in which things are foreign. She connects with others not through language as much as feelings. However, I didn’t expect last year’s summer trip to impact my daughter so greatly. As much as she loved being with my family and friends, enjoying new foods and experiences, it really stressed her out. She stared at these “real American” children with confusion and amusement, literally, and at one time, when we were camping, some boys called her a freak and pretended to shoot her. It genuinely stunned her. Luckily since she is so well traveled and resilient, she managed it well, but as one month turned into two months, her nerves did fray. My husband told me about one day when she fled downstairs to the basement in tears, wondering if the “black men” were coming and how he could protect her. It was all the conversation and media messages that she was exposed to with the “Black Lives” vs. “Blue Lives” Matter debate that got her feeling paranoid, which was sad since ironically she is a child of color, as my husband is dark skinned.

In 2 months from now, we will touch down in Chicago, spending 3 weeks in America– a much shorter visit this time. As much as I look forward to seeing my family and friends, I absolutely dread this feeling of disconnection, especially with Trump’s presidency bringing tension and conflict to an all-time high. After this brief visit, I will step out of my homeland and my foot will land upon a new country, Laos, with its own complexities and challenges which my family will have to navigate. I remain hopeful that we will set down roots there, an antirumi field.jpgdote to this unease, making friends and building a life of joy and peace there. However, Who Am I? clearly is not a question that can be answered with nationhood or birth origins. Its answer, I imagine, that is somewhere in a vast space, the field that Rumi writes about in his poem.

Perhaps I will see you there.

Innovate Yourself

There are many great people whose stories provoke me and have made me wonder if I was indeed doing enough with the gifts and abilities that I have have been born with. Currently, I am on the verge of one of a cathartic moment, as I read the biographical book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. I know it wasn’t on A Tentative Reading Lists for 2017 but it’s a must read. I am so inspired by him that it’s actually taken me a while to even attempt to articulate why it is that I feel the way I do. His struggle to envision the future to me is heroic, on par with my other heroes of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, due to his infinite pursuit of a dream that is larger is than himself. Now I know what you’re thinking–you’re comparing him to those great men?  Yes, yes, I am. Why?-because he stares at the abysmal status quo and is willing to do whatever it takes to disrupt it in an effort to move humanity forward. He has created a movement in technology and innovation that so is understated and he continues to doggedly persist in solving problems that seem impossible.

I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing internet stuff, finance and law. That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation.

Elon Musk

I mean, how many of you worked on, let alone sat and pondered these issues?

  1. Making life interplanetary
  2. Accelerating the transition to sustainable energy
  3. Artificial Intelligence

So many great scientists and engineers have asked questions that are beyond one’s comprehension. However, Elon staunchly believes that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they choose to make a commitment to asking insane questions in the quest of serving the needs of humanity. When your curiousity collides with your passion, a life’s purpose emerges and you can do things so much bigger than you could ever imagine. He challenges the assumption that innovation is a natural outcome of civilization as if evolution is set on an inevitable course. But without drive and intelligence, nothing new emerges and people and the planet languish in complacency’s wake. The notion that something is “good enough” is the antithesis to improvement and growth.

People think just automatically that technology gets better every year, but actually, it doesn’t. It only gets better if smart people work like crazy to make it better…otherwise it actually gets worse.

Elon Musk

As I reflect on these ideas, it appears obvious to me that when people accept what is average, what is the bare minimum and don’t demand more of themselves and each other, then they are ultimately in a death spiral. Doing the same thing over and over again is actually going backward (such as thinking that drilling for oil is the answer to our energy needs now and in the future). I remember a famous quote from Albert Einstein that stated, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”, which if Elon Musk was to rephrase it, it might be: It’s absurd to think that doing the same thing over and over again will yield innovation.

Of course, you might just be thinking that’s all well and good for the development of plasma TVs, internet speed and space rockets, but so what, What does innovation have to do with me. I’m not an engineer or scientist, and I certainly not a millionaire. That may be true, but there is NO area in life that couldn’t be innovated; it only takes a willingness to acknowledge that failure is a possibility and do it anyway.  Take, for instance, Gandi. He went against the British government and won India’s independence through non-violence. Non-violence?! This idea still is revolutionary and to my knowledge, Martin Luther King is the only other man who has attempted to use it against oppressors with success. But the idea works! And yet we still wage war–outdated, archaic and what should be obsolete methodologies–when you look at the power of this innovative strategy. It’s the equivalent of riding a horse and buggy to work, and yet so many people favor guns and bombs over the more impactful approach of non-violence. This astounds me. Yet I digress….elon musk

If you were to trace the trajectory of anyone who did anything amazing, they did things in spite of their fear and knew that the person who they were now was not the person they needed to be, thus they had to innovate themselves. Not only did they seek to educate themselves, but they supplanted their beliefs so that the importance of their cause was too cemented in order to slink away from daunting challenges. These people have loads of fear but their faith in the do-gooding nature of their intended movement has more power over them. Going back to Gandhi, he was a rather wealthy lawyer from India who transformed into an incredible man whose heart was impenetrable to the evils of his self-doubt and worry cast upon him from naysayers. He legacy still remains: Be the Change You Wish To See In The World. This could be a true mantra for a life worth living if we were willing to make small, yet extraordinary changes in our thinking. These incremental changes have a snowballing effect over time. There is a level of willpower that must be developed and exercised so that we can overcome the mentality of the status quo and accept a higher version of what we could create with the intelligence we were given.

Obviously, this is something that I am ruminating on diligently–what sort of mental program do I need to download so that my small-mindedness gets an upgrade? What am I capable of that I am allowing fear to be my obstacle? In what ways can I innovate myself so that I can pay it forward to humanity?

Perhaps you too are haunted by these thoughts as you examine your life. How about we give each other permission and get set to work to do something amazing?