I wrote last week about why I went to a Buddhist monastery. This week I’m writing about the experience itself.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I arrived at Plum Village, a mindfulness practice center and Buddhist monastery near Bordeaux, France, but I went in hoping to find some peace, to learn more about mindfulness, and to learn a little more about Buddhism. Originally, I had planned to spend one week in Plum Village. I was intrigued enough by the end of that week to extend my stay for a second.

My first week was peaceful and joyous. There were moments when I was legitimately nearly moved to joyous tears. I felt happy, safe, connected to others, and very deeply at peace. Though I had started practicing mindfulness years before even hearing about Plum Village, my first week showed me heights and benefits of mindfulness I hadn’t thought possible. I was humbled to realize that I had previously only just scratched the surface and simultaneously excited to discover how much I had yet to learn.

By contrast, my second week was turbulent and emotional. I cried several times. I spent more time alone looking deeply within myself, and began to better understand the nature of sources of pain I hadn’t even entirely realized I had been running from. There’s a still long way to go, but the beginnings of that awareness combined with the wisdom of some of my mentors in Plum Village started me on the path toward healing and armed me tools I’m sure I’ll need to see the journey through.

I will, however, be the last to claim that everything about Plum Village was rosy and amazing. In fact, parts of my experience were initially rather mixed–I recoiled from a distinctly church-like vibe I got from some of the activities, and can’t honestly claim to have been inspired by or impressed with every Plum Village monk or nun I met. Many of the people I met at Plum Village had been coming back for years or decades, and were clear raving fans. I couldn’t initially see myself becoming one of them.

Writing in my journal late at night by the light of the Bell Tower in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

By the end, though, I could see the value. When I left, I felt more focused, more mindful, more at peace, and more compassionate than I had ever been in my life. I left with a heightened awareness of my own habits and patterns and, thus, the power to change those that didn’t suit me. I also left with a new mode of relating to myself, others around me, and to the world at large.

It’s been just over 3 weeks since I left Plum Village and I have, admittedly, found it very hard to maintain many of those states of mind in the outside world. I still get swept up by some of my old habits and patterns, and I’ve noticed that I’ve returned to familiar ways of escaping from deeper pains I’m reluctant to face. In particular, I think I’m still learning how to approach the occasionally inevitably lonely moments while traveling–close friends and truly intimate relationships can be hard to come by when the cast in your life seems to rotates constantly. This loneliness is sometimes underscored by the still convalescing wounds from my less-and-less recent breakup. While in Plum Village I had no choice but to approach these emotions with mindfulness. Lately, outside, it’s sometimes all I can do to notice that I’m acting out of a habitual desire to avoid dealing with this before continuing to do so anyway.

Though I struggle to apply everything I learned, I’m grateful for my time in Plum Village and hopeful that some things have taken deep root in my consciousness. I would definitely go back and, as I may have the opportunity to head back to Asia later this year, I’m considering paying visits to the affiliated monasteries in Hong Kong and Thailand.

What follows is my nightly journal from my two weeks in Plum Village. It contains impressions, emotions, insights and philosophical musings brought about by the unique environment there. The contents herein have been edited only for clarity. I wrote it for myself and parts of it are rather personal, but I share it so others may benefit from my experience at Plum Village.

As it’s rather long, here is a table of contents and an index of a few of the highlights:

Journal

Day 1 – Saturday, July 7, 2018

I arrived at Plum Village in the late afternoon yesterday. Today is my first full day here. It’s… very peaceful here. The hamlet itself is well-integrated with the beautifully forested countryside, and is often kissed by the sun and caressed by the warm summer’s breeze. The lighting here when the sun’s rays peak through the trees at dawn and dusk is other-wordly.

The altar in the meditation hall of Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

With nature’s beauty all around and with the tranquil environment created by the community here, it’s hard not to find myself experiencing mindful moments and spontaneously enjoying the present. And yet, I am often restless here as well. The pace of everything here is calm and unhurried. Without realizing it, I often find that I’m walking faster than those around me. There’s also a bell they ring every so often as a reminder to return to the present. When they ring it, everyone goes silent and follows their breath for a few moments before returning to whatever they were doing. I’m often one of the last to notice the bell.

There are several meditation sessions of different varieties each day with the first starting before dawn at 6:00am. Despite years of meditation practice and experience with sessions as long as an hour, I’m often distracted and impatient. During breaks I tend to search for ways to occupy myself so I’ve been playing a lot of chess and Go with the other retreatants. As a practitioner of mindfulness, I know that occasionally getting distracted or impatient is natural and that I shouldn’t give myself a hard time about it. I’m also told by the veterans here that by the end of the week I’ll have adapted, but I have a hard time imagining myself slowing down so much at the moment.

I guess I’ve never had this much time every day dedicated to mindfulness before. We practice being mindful in almost everything we do, even walking, eating, and working. So much time with my thoughts makes it hard to hide from any difficult emotions I might be avoiding.

I’m making friends here and meeting interesting people, though it sometimes feels like my naturally extroverted nature is at odds with the intentions of the retreat. Today at lunch I made the mistake of carrying on a conversation while waiting in line for food. The dining hall is a “Noble Silence” area, which means we are meant to practice being present, silencing both our mouths and our minds.

I clearly have a lot to learn about mindfulness and I’m excited to learn over the course of the retreat! I wonder a little if one week is enough time to internalize what I learn here and if I’ll really be able to take mindfulness with me into the distracted and hurried world outside. I suppose only time will tell.

Day 2 – Sunday, July 8, 2018

A view of the lotus pond and bell tower in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village.

I’m quite pensive today. I suppose my overactive mind doesn’t take many breaks, even on a mindfulness retreat. After morning meditation and breakfast we walked down to the Lower Hamlet, which is, I think, typically where the single women stay. In some ways the Lower Hamlet is even nicer than the Upper Hamlet, where the men stay: there’s a large lotus pond in the center, and a peaceful grove of trees for walking meditation. We visited Lower Hamlet for a “Dharma Talk”1, which is perhaps the Plum Village version of a lecture or a sermon.

I’ve been drawing a lot of parallels between my experience here and my sparse childhood experiences at Christian and later Universal Unitarian churches. The community for practice here, the “sangha”, is much like the parish of a Christian church. The monks even seem to have a few songs which they lead us in before certain activities. Today, before the talk there was a performance of sorts with many of the monks and nuns chanting. I must admit that the comparison between Plum Village and a religious retreat makes me uncomfortable. I understand the powerful principles underlying the creation of a community of spiritual practitioners, and the way things are organized here makes sense, but I’m finding that I’m a bit resistant to some of the teachings here because of the format. I know that there is wisdom here, as there is in many of the world’s religions and spiritual practices, but I think the church-like format and strong devotion of many of the other retreatants has me on high alert for dogma. As is often my practice, I find myself questioning and examining everything, and I wonder if my habit of doing thi is diminishing my experience. There’s a common aphorism in Zen that goes something like “One cannot learn new things when the cup is already full.”

I wonder if my cup is too full. People often rave about their experience in Plum Village, and many of the retreatants are veterans who have been returning for years. While I certainly see the value, I’m not sure that I’m a raving fan yet, and I’m not sure what it would take for me to become one.

The poem inscribed on the large bell in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village.

On some level I think my personal philosophy is grappling with Buddhist precepts and finding a few places where there may be conflicts. In particular, Buddhism emphasizes slowing everything down and even just being OK with doing nothing for no reason. It also emphasizes the dual ideas of managing suffering while cultivating joy. While I’d agree that in our daily lives most of us are too hurried to mindfully enjoy the present, and that most of us struggle with the idea of having nothing to do and no stimulation, I believe in a balance in all things and have been wondering if the Buddhist work ethic as I’ve experienced and understood it so far is really the middle path. I also believe that some amount of stress and suffering is actually good and necessary, and that sometimes we should even seek it out (learning to face one’s fears, for example, usually has large personal benefit but could be argued to be a form of suffering). I have yet to see this conundrum fully addressed by Buddhism, though I’ve seen hints in the way my teacher talks about sitting for meditation (there is often pain, but one accepts and overcomes it and, in so doing, the pain bothers one less as they become practiced).

Anyway, today’s talk was about following the breath, finding joy/happiness in the mindfulness of doing so, and ultimately applying mindfulness to transform neutral and unpleasant experiences into pleasant ones. The core idea seemed to be that by applying awareness (rather than thought or avoidance) to these emotional states, we can take pleasure in the experience of acknowledging that we are bored (neutral) or sad (unpleasant). I think there’s truth in this though I sometimes feel skeptical of the somewhat mystic terminology of Buddhism. I suppose I’ll just have to try for myself sometime.

Day 3 – Monday, July 9, 2018

Fields of sunflowers litter the beautiful Bordeaux countryside.

I gave up my watch today. I was talking to one of the other retreatants and realized that my watch and sense of time were pulling me out of the present. Though I’m still somewhat skeptical of some of the Buddhist teachings, I’ve decided to do my best to embrace the spirit of the retreat. To this end, I’ve also given up chess and Go for the remainder of my time here as I was finding that my attachment to the games was distracting me–even in moments when I didn’t have down time I would look forward to the next time I’d get to play. I think perhaps I will make exceptions to this rule–the goal is to be present and mindful with myself, my surroundings, and my companions here. There are mindful interactions I can have with others over chess, but for now I will prefer conversation.

In the absence of other distractions, I mostly fill my time with walks and with talking to people. Many of the people here have followed similar paths or struggled with similar things and found refuge in mindfulness and Buddhism, so the conversations have been interesting and fruitful.

Today we visited New Hamlet via bus for another Dharma Talk. I decided to listen to the talk in French, and I’ll admit I was a bit tired–we sleep around 10pm and wake-up around 5:15am–so I only got the gist of the talk. Mostly it seemed to be about how Buddhists conceptualize the mind and human psychology. The analogy they’re fond of using is that the mind is like a garden with many seeds we can water to bring things into our consciousness. Focusing on the negative seeds causes negative thoughts and behaviors to grow, while focusing on the positive seeds does the opposite. Mindfulness, then, is tending a garden, and being judicious about which seeds to water and with what nourishment.

In the afternoon we learned about the 5 Mindfulness Trainings, which are a sort of code practitioners can commit themselves to. It includes things like mindful consumption and mindful interaction, and it implies that one make a commitment to vegetarianism and giving up substances like alcohol. Hearing these trainings felt a little like receiving the 10 commandments, and I could feel that comparison making me tense and less receptive. Though the trainings sounded rigid, the monks expressed two sentiments I really appreciated: 1) this is an ideal to work towards, and it’s not meant to be dogma–interpret them how you will while maintaining the spirit of mindfulness and 2) take what’s helpful to you and leave the rest with us. These sentiments really helped me to feel less like I’m on a religious retreat and being pressured to convert. We’re given the option to accept the trainings in a formal ceremony before we leave. I haven’t decided yet if I will.

The walking meditation path through the forest in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

I got into a bit of a debate with one of the other retreatants today which I felt illustrated one of my hesitations about the community here. Basically, I’ve observed that a lot of people here put a huge emphasis on “going with the flow.” This makes sense, as a lot of these people are recovering control freaks who were previously on high-stress career paths. They seem to have found in Buddhism an invitation to embrace the opposite extreme and now attempt to control nothing. The same pattern is observable about thought and intellectualizing–many of these people have experience stress, anxiety, or depression from being too much in their heads. They seem to now profess a total rejection of intellectualization and rational thought, preferring instead to feel everything out. My concern, and the kernel of the debate, is that these reactions are too strong and may lead one to a less-than-optimal path down the other extreme. In most things in life, I have found that balance is ideal because there are advantages and disadvantages to nearly every way of thinking and every way of being. In the cases here, following the other extreme does involve much less stress, which makes it potentially falsely attractive, but I think it may also lead to a state of under control, where one does not exert influence on things in life they actually can and should control (it’s knowing which is which that’s the real challenge, in my opinion). I can’t claim to know what the right balance is, but I have an intuition that the opposite extreme is not it.

On my way to write this entry, I was invited by one of the monks to join him for some late evening tea. Though it was getting late and I was eager to write down my thoughts for the day, I felt it would be wrong to decline. We drank tea by a lake, and he graciously offered to help untangle some of my internal knots. I shared with him some of the difficult emotions I’ve experienced in separating with my Vietnamese ex-girlfriend. He is, himself, Vietnamese, so I felt a little bit of a language barrier, but was appreciative of a compassionate ear. His advice itself confused me somewhat, however. He seemed to make a lot of assumptions about my ex- since she was Vietnamese, and he seemed to make a lot of assumptions about what and how I felt about her and about the depth and nature of our relationship. It struck me at points as a bit strangely ironic to be receiving advice on such matters from a man who became a monk at 17 and who likely had little actual experience in such matters, but I enjoyed the tea and the company and did my best to keep an open mind. This monk has suggested I stay in Plum Village for another week or two, and I’ve learned from  him that it may be possible to borrow a tent. There are a few other hurdles to staying longer, but I’m considering it. He claims that I should take more time to heal, not just from my ex-, but also from suffering I have from my parents. He thinks that in the outside world I’ll distract myself and run away from my suffering rather than sit with and understand it. I’m not sure, but he may be right–I certainly think I felt better about the break-up leading up to Plum Village because I was so busy I didn’t really have bandwidth to process my emotions.

I’m not sure what I’ll find if I stay another week, but regardless of my continued skepticism, I do know that I feel more deeply calm, relaxed, and at peace here than I have for a very long time.

Day 4 – Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The smaller activity bell in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village.

I have decided to spend another week here if I can make it work logistically. All day I’ve been playing with the question of whether or not to stay. For most people, I think Plum Village represents a place of refuge where they can escape from the stress in their daily lives and connect with the mind space to recognize and really deal with their deeper internal fears and issues (or, as Buddhists would say, their suffering). I’ve been struggling a bit to understand why my experience so far hasn’t matched up with others’, but now I think I see that it may be because I have made dealing with fears and issues a major focal point of my life.

The argument for staying in Plum Village is usually that doing so will help one to better understand themselves and their suffering so they can deal with them here rather than run away from them through distractions and consumption in the outside world. For me, though, I’ve been wondering if Plum Village is actually my way of running away from my problems: I deal with my fears and my problems every day, though I’m admittedly not always as mindful as I could be about how I go about it. Here in Plum Village, I am safe and can give myself a pass to not deal with the fears involved in walking my own path or the suffering involved in my close relationships. Though I recognize that staying here has value for most people living more traditional lifestyles, I have been trying to decide if I would get more value here or out there. Also, particularly because of some of my resistance, I’ve wondered if I should go.

What changed my mind today was a moving experience at the end of a talk today about “Beginning Anew.” “Beginning Anew” is a practice they have here for renewing, repairing, and strengthening relationships. It involves recognizing that relationships are dynamic, and cannot be expected to remain the same over time. It also involves recognizing that every fulfilling relationship has good moments (flowers) and challenges (compost), and that both are equally important in maintaining a strong relationship. Their process here has four parts: 1) flower watering, in which one recognizes, affirms, and appreciates what is beautiful and special about the other person, 2) expressing regret, in which one takes ownership of the things they wish they did better so the other person might suffer less, 3) expressing suffering, in which one describes how they suffer as a result of the other person’s actions, without blaming or any vindictive or harmful intent in order to simply help the other person understand you better and 4) asking for support, in which one asks the other for specific help to reduce one’s suffering.

All of this makes great theory, but what really brought it home was the monk inviting a couple to volunteer to actually go through the steps in front of all of us. At first, nobody volunteered. After many minutes, there was a woman who seemed interested, but her husband was visibly reluctant. She eventually got him on stage with the promise that perhaps they would just go through the affirmations.

Her affirmations were so heartfelt and tender that they brought her husband to tears. For some reason, I also couldn’t help but cry watching this–perhaps because the expression of love was so beautiful, and perhaps because it reminded me of something I had recently hoped for and lost in my ex-. She didn’t stop there, though. She ended up going through the entire process and when she was finished her husband, reminded of her love for him and of his love for her, leaned over and kissed her. Unexpectedly, he then got very into it and similarly walked through the process. We could actually feel and see their love for each other, and feel and see that their relationship had tangibly been healed by the exercise. It was a very moving and very human experience, and watching it feels as if it has healed something in me as well.

In the wake of that experience, I’ve come to the insight that though I will not necessarily agree with every teaching here, this is, indeed, a very special and very healing place. I don’t entirely understand how or why yet, but perhaps I don’t need to. There is much that I can learn and practice here, if I allow myself to, and for all I know I may never get another chance to come back. Tomorrow I will ask at the registration office if I can stay another week and I will take a friend up on his offer to borrow his unused tent.

Day 5 – Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The monks and nuns put on a small concert for us near Song Ha Temple, Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

Yesterday was lazy day which meant that there were next to no official activities and I had time to sleep in. Waking up for 6am morning meditation after such a day was a bit brutal. It was a fairly uneventful day, but I want to write about a few philosophical insights I’ve had. A few of these came up during a Q&A session with the monks and nuns during which I tried to phrase a few questions I had been thinking about only to find that I already had the answers, or at least that I had made progress since the last time I thought about them.

The first question is whether or not happiness equates to meaning in life. I ask this question because it’s almost cliché to look beneath surface-level desires (e.g. money, fame, power, etc.) and state that what people who want these things really want is to be happy and that they pursue these things because they believe having these things will make them happy. Buddhism teaches that the conditions for happiness are always present, and that a form of happiness is readily accessible through mindfulness. Empirically and experientially, this is true for me: being mindful helps to generate a wondrous sense of appreciation, gratitude, and connectedness, creating a joy that could be most likened to the joy children experience as they discover the incredible nature of even simple things in the world for the first time.

Happiness–become and staying happy–receives a lot of attention in the teachings at Plum Village, but I am increasingly convinced that happiness is, itself, another red herring in understanding what truly motivates and inspires people. I’m beginning to think that what we truly seek from life is not happiness, but meaning. Though they are related, they are not the same thing. I think that the existence of meaning generates happiness, and that being happy is meaningful and makes it easier for us to find meaning in our situations and surroundings. However, meaning does not necessarily require the presence of happiness: we often find meaning when we suffer, and we sometimes find meaning in relationships that at times give us more frustration than joy (e.g. family). If what we really seek is meaning and meaning does not equate to happiness, then the idea that our goal in life is to pursue happiness is an oversimplification. What we should pursue instead is meaning, which will commonly be found on the road to happiness, but which can be found through other paths as well (e.g. converting to a religion and accepting a dogmatic definition of meaning; suffering but suffering well also often leads to meaning).

The second insight is related: it’s that our goal in life cannot and should not be to eliminate suffering. I often hear people who have had some exposure to Eastern philosophies express an aspiration to “be liberated,” as if liberation implies an end to all of their pain and suffering for all of time. I’m learning, however, that happiness cannot exist without suffering anymore than light can exist without shadow. Furthermore, the balance and interplay of suffering and happiness is an important source of meaning. I think it’s possible, therefore, that the concept of enlightenment has less to do with not suffering and more to do with learning the perspectives and practices to suffer well–finding meaning in our suffering and therefore naturally reducing the suffering.

These ideas need more exploration and refinement, but if I’m right than I think my approach to life does change slightly to optimize for meaning in whatever forms I can find or create it rather than just optimizing for happiness. I wonder also what implications these ideas have for how we should structure our societies and define our societal goals as well: if the aim isn’t to eliminate suffering, is it still to lessen it as much as we can? Is there an amount of suffering that is actually good to have present? Should we even create suffering to achieve that if necessary?

In other news, I’ve confirmed that I can stay here another week. There’s a dorm bed available in Sơn Ha for 350€/week and, though pricey, I think I’m going to take it. I may see if I can use my tech skills to volunteer and receive a free or reduced rate in exchange.

I also had a few really interesting conversations today: one about politics and societal values (including a discussion of direct democracy, its merits and its flaws), and one about “the 7 chakras” and theories for personal philosophy and the progression of consciousness. A more in-depth recounting of those conversations will have to wait until it’s not super late at night before a 6am meditation, but suffice to say I have found very interesting topics on which to connect very deeply with some of the people here. I can’t help but feel that I’m making some good friends for life here, and this also motivates me to stay longer.

As a last note: my Dharma sharing family2 facilitator, a very wise, joyous, and entertaining Thay3 Phap Dung, says that he sees something different in me since I’ve been here and that he’s glad I’m staying longer. Something in my eyes, he says. I think I feel it, too: here I am very deeply at peace and experience a very deep joy which I think reflects in my face. The challenge when I leave will be taking that with me and maintaining it in the world outside.

Day 6 – Thursday, July 12, 2018

A collection of Buddha statues in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village.

Today was the last day of the first week of the retreat. The day started with kind of a weird ritualistic ceremony. Many people here opted to receive the transmission of the 5 Mindfulness Trainings (or, at least some of the 5). Rather than sitting meditation, we had the ceremony at 6:00am, which involved some chanting, reading the mindfulness trainings, bowing to the altar in the meditation hall, and ultimately receiving a certificate including the entire text of the 5 Mindfulness Trainings (to be reviewed and contemplated on a regular basis).

I have not elected to receive the 5 Mindfulness Trainings myself, though doing so is more a commitment to one’s self than anything. I’m still deciding how much of the text I agree with. Since I’m staying another week, I figure I have more time to contemplate the decision.

I continue to struggle a bit with the more ritualistic side of the tradition here. I suppose in part, this is why I stay so intellectually on guard: the difference between a community and a cult can be as small as the absence of independent rational thought and the presence of cyanide in the Koolaid… I am, however, learning not to let this get too much in the way of my absorbing useful insights from the rest of my surroundings.

I had some harder moments today. In stark contrast to the feelings of joy and peace I’ve had throughout the week, today I often felt tense and was visited by heavier feelings of stress, anxiety, or fear. It was nothing I haven’t learned to be familiar with, but it was a bit surprising nonetheless. I’d attribute these feelings to two sources. First, I had to turn on my phone and refill my SIM card. That was, itself, rather frustrating, and reconnecting to the outside world had a stronger effect on my ability to stay present and mindful than I expected. Suddenly, with messages to send, replies to receive, and potentially work to do, my mind became very occupied and I caught myself often thinking ahead to something I might need to do later. I think this all contributed to a loose sense of stress, heightened by the fact that it feels like such a long time since I last experienced stress.

At first, the idea of having to stay in contact with the outside world or working while here bummed me out, but I’ve come to realize that it’s a wonderful opportunity to begin to slowly integrate my mindfulness practice into my normal life while still keeping a foot in the safety and energy of Plum Village. My first week here was quite relaxing and I learned a lot about the joy of slowing life down. These conditions–no phone, no watch, no deadlines–however, were not terribly similar to my actual life. To really learn to be mindful outside of Plum Village, I will need to learn to change my relationship with technology and with work. I’m quite excited now for the challenge.

The second source of tension was a brief feeling of disconnectedness from some of my friends here. I had a pretty interesting philosophical conversation with a friend, but left feeling like I had perhaps not been mindful and may have pushed too hard. I really enjoy talking about some of these questions, but I think I have strong opinions and an intensity in asking the questions that can sometimes wear people out.

The topic of the conversation also left me feeling a bit down. As I alluded to yesterday, it seems as if happiness and meaning don’t exist without suffering. Yet, the paradox is that we often derive meaning from lessening the suffering of others. In an ideal world would we not, therefore, work to eliminate all the suffering we could? Is there any meaning in a world without suffering? If not… should we involve ourselves in the lessening of suffering at all or should we leave it be? Somehow it doesn’t feel right for there not to be any meaning to anything, nor does it feel right to not aim to spread joy/happiness while lessening suffering, so the implications of this paradox deflated me a bit. I’m still playing with it, but I think the way out of the paradox involves recognizing that even if our intent is to lessen suffering as much as possible, it’s likely humanly impossible to completely eliminate suffering–that would involve removing emotions, something that feels very integral to what it even means to be human. There seem to be two forms of suffering: the original pain that kicks up emotions, and the additional pain we kick up by getting overly involved in these emotions in unskillful ways. With practice, we can learn to transform the second type of pain into something positive (e.g. when we feel stressed we can either be stressed that we’re stressed or we can develop a healthy relationship with stress and learn that some amount of stress helps us to grow and evolve).

I think it’s unlikely that we can ever eliminate the first type of suffering without removing our emotions–and that’s OK because joy and happiness can often be found in the absence of that pain, but can also be found in the practice of making that pain an ally when it is present. So perhaps our goal as a race and an important way in which we find meaning is in helping others learn to suffer well. If we did this perfectly it would not mean the end of all pain, but it would mean the transformation of all negative affectations of suffering. Such a world would, indeed, be beautiful.

An incredible countryside sunset seen from a church on a hill near Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

I had two really beautiful high points today despite the introduction of stress. The first was during dinner when I looked around at the faces of everyone in my Dharma sharing family and realized that I really, honestly, wanted to help them all experience joy and suffer less and that I knew they all wanted the same for me. This is an important part of what they refer to as “True Love” here (only one part of what I personally consider important in romantic love). The realization that I feel a sense of love for all these people and from all these people was very moving and powerful. I imagine for some it’s also incredibly healing–it may be the first time in their lives they’ve experienced such a love.

The second was after dinner during a special tea meditation we had to close out the week. My small family hiked a ways to a church on a hill outside of the monastery. There we shared a delicious oolong tea, some inspired music from the talented musicians in our family, each other’s presence, and the beautiful orange light of twilight as the sun sinks over the hills and valleys of rural France. All of it came together to create what felt like a beautifully perfect moment full of joy and full of presence. I kid you not, it was nearly enough to move me to tears. It’s hard for me to describe why, but there’s so much meaning to a joyful moment like that shared with people I care about. I believe it may even have been one of the most beautiful moments in my life so far.

Day 7 – Friday, July 13, 2018

A small bamboo forest in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village.

I’ll try to keep this one short, as I’m trading sleep for time to write these sometimes and I did not sleep long last night.

It’s arrival/departure day for the second week of the retreat so there wasn’t much scheduled programming for the morning, but I chose to rise at 5:45am and meditate on my own despite having gone to bed past 1:00am.

Today was a difficult day, perhaps for a number of reasons. Not getting enough sleep didn’t help, but I also said goodbye to a number of departing friends today. I’m not terribly good at goodbyes. It’s been interesting, though in some ways alarming, watching the energy of Plum Village as one wave of retreatants leaves and another arrives. When I got here a week ago (feels like a lifetime ago) someone mentioned the hurried/excited/anticipatory energy of new arrivals and how it seems to change over the course of the week. Now that I’m on the other side I understand better. I think I’ve found this renewed sense of rush from outside a bit stressing and my lack of good sleep didn’t afford me the fortitude to normalize. It’s incredible how big a difference a good night’s rest can make.

I have found, however, that I seem to need less sleep here in general. On average I think I sleep 7 hours or less, yet I’ve often felt more energized here than I have in a long time outside.

I’ve had to stay in touch with the outside a bit as well today, and I found I had unmindful moments where I’d pull out my phone for no terribly good reason. I’m starting to get in the habit of leaving it in Airplane mode until I really need it, and am learning to check it a few times a day without feeling anxious to check it. Nevertheless, I’m sure this also had something to do with my darker moods today.

For my second week in Plum Village, I debated switching myself to a French Dharma sharing family so that I’d be forced to speak and listen in French. At the last moment, however, I decided to return to my original English Dharma sharing family because there are many younger retreatants there, I’ve gotten to know some of them quite well, and I think I’ll get more out of the group activities in English. I’m trying to make a commitment to engage more of the many French retreatants in French–I already get to speak more French here than I did in Bordeaux–and not give up and switch to English when I have trouble. I actually had a nice conversation with a French web developer for about 45 minutes before writing this :).

I honestly don’t know exactly what to expect from myself during this second week here. Will it be more of the same, or will I experience something totally different? I’m trying not to get too attached to an idea of it. I do, however, want to set the intention of using this time to learn to apply mindfulness to technology and my work and potentially to engage more with the suffering I know I still carry from my parents. I can’t expect too much, but it would mean a lot to me to be able to meaningfully mend my familial relationships. Up until now, I’ve often found I can’t muster enough compassion to view my parents’ transgressions in a truly forgiving and loving light, but perhaps I can make a breakthrough with support from the nurturing emotional environment here.

Day 8 – Saturday, July 14, 2018

I cried twice today. Once while I sat by the large bell and again during Dharma sharing when I recounted my personal insights.

Bell tower, Upper Hamlet, Plum Village

The bell tower where I spent most of my down time at the Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

I discovered today that I have been running away from much of my suffering, and I’m really glad I’m staying an extra week. This morning I woke up after a dream about a typical disagreement with my mother, which left me feeling tense all morning. I missed morning meditation because I woke up late, but I made it to the Upper Hamlet for the rest of my morning routine. Over tea, I had a long conversation with Hamish where he shared that Thay Phap Dung had given him an assignment to write a letter of gratitude to his parents about all of the great attributes they have that he has inherited from them. Of course, we ended up talking a lot about our parents and difficulties with them. Not long after our conversation I was sitting alone by the large bell with some tea and my Kindle as I often do. I had just resumed reading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse when I realized my pain was starting to surface. I closed my eyes and mindfully followed my breath and just let it come, and before I knew it I was crying. In these tearful moments, I had a few insights: that while I’ve been facing my fears and learning to deal with other forms of suffering, I’ve been running away from the suffering I have inherited from my parents and the suffering their suffering has caused me; that they could never have taught me to deal with my suffering since they have never known how to deal with their own suffering; that I’ve tried and failed many times to mend my relationship with my parents, and for a long time have sort of given up and decided to just keep my distance instead; that I’m incredibly grateful that my ex- helped me to gravitate toward Buddhism and Thich Nhat Hanh, grateful that she taught me to recognize my parents’ suffering with compassion, grateful that her last great gift to me was the knowledge that I have the capacity to forgive even when others have made me suffer greatly, and grateful for the knowledge that I have the capacity to transform my suffering and the suffering of others; that the way our relationship ended taught me about the same love, compassion, and forgiveness I must now learn to apply to my parents; that through my compassion I still love my ex very much, though I have learned that love and attachment aren’t the same thing so I believe I can continue to feel this way for her without desiring a romantic relationship with her or avoiding one with someone else someday; and that I must learn to listen with more compassion and master the art of suffering well.

I shared all of this during Dharma sharing. It was intense and cathartic. I wonder if it was a bit much since some people were attending their very first sharing session ever, but oh well.

I’m still wearing two hair ties my ex- had put around my wrist for me to remember her by. I haven’t felt completely ready to take them off yet, though sometimes noticing them has triggered a feeling of missing her or of residual anger about how things played out. Now I think that I’ll continue to wear them and instead use them as a frequent reminder of my capacity to love compassionately and to forgive, and of my gratitude in discovering that capacity.

Tomorrow I’ll start trying to bring my parents into my meditation, and perhaps do some writing about and for them. I’m nervous about facing my suffering, but I think I have the tools I need this time.

The Happy Farm, where volunteers help to grow food to support Plum Village.

On a different note, I visited the Happy Farm, where they grow many of their own vegetables, today. I helped them harvest beans and learned that farming is a great method for overcoming my fear of critters–they hide pretty much everywhere on the farm. While there I had some interesting conversations which once again got me thinking about the relationship between happiness and meaning. I’ve had a couple new key insights to explore on this topic: 1) happiness is personal and has to do with lessening suffering and cultivating joy in one’s self while meaning is usually realized in relation to others and has to do with lessening suffering and cultivating joy in others–the more compassion we feel for someone else, the more potential for meaning in the relationship; 2) most people seek a sense of both meaning and happiness ; we tend to feel something is missing without one or the other (this was the missing link before when I wrote about authenticity and integrity); 3) happiness is, in many ways, a prerequisite for most meaning, as we can’t help people feel joy if we don’t have it ourselves, and we can’t as effectively lessen suffering in others if our own burden is too heavy; 4) meaning often generates some happiness, but happiness by this definition cannot be meaningful on its own (e.g. I’m happy, but I long for someone to share it with); 5) authenticity perhaps maximizes both happiness and meaning; 6) there is, perhaps, a separate concept from happiness and meaning which is purpose; purpose and meaning may fulfill overlapping roles, but I need to think about this more.

Anyway, that’s enough musing for now–I need to sleep.

Day 9 – Sunday, July 15, 2018

An early morning shot of the meditation hall in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

The weather is changing a bit here. Occasionally, dark clouds crowd the sky and threaten to litter the hamlet with rain, though it has not truly rained during the day yet.

We spent the day in Lower Hamlet. I got into a small argument with someone new in my Dharma sharing family. A few of us were talking and I was amused to hear the newcomers expressing the same discomfort as I did with certain aspects of Plum Village (e.g. the singing). One even compared it to a cult-like experience as I did a number of days ago.

Someone mentioned that there were a few things they completely disagreed with during today’s Dharma Talk. When pressed, he said that the meaning he got from some of the talk was “Just breath and your problems will go away.” While I could see how he might interpret things that way, I jumped in very quickly and very forcefully to correct him because I knew that his statement was a gross oversimplification of the philosophy here. They don’t teach that breathing will make our problems disappear–they believe mindfulness and the breath can be used as invaluable tools to become comfortable being with and experiencing our more uncomfortable emotions rather than running from them or finding ways to distract ourselves from them. They teach that in learning to do this well we learn to deal with our pain rather than hide from it and that this helps us solve our problems and become happier.

My heart was in a good place–I didn’t want him to reject his experience here or the wisdom offered here over a disagreement with an incorrect interpretation of the teachings. However, I could feel that I had made him feel judged, lectured to, and unwelcome. I wish I had listened compassionately instead and perhaps have picked a more tactful way of making my point. I have a lot to learn about compassionate listening4–my intellectual instinct is to correct and advise when often someone just needs to feel heard. Learning to do this well would have helped me in my relationship with my ex and will certainly help me make peace with my parents. I ultimately apologized to the person I corrected–even though I know I was factually correct, I also know that I was emotionally wrong to do what I did.

Today I’ve felt better than the last few days. I’m still very aware of my suffering near the surface, but for the most part I’m experiencing joy and suffering simultaneously and it’s a strangely beautiful feeling.

The community celebrates in the large meditation hall as France wins the World Cup.

It was also the World Cup final today, and we turned the large meditation hall into a screening area. Apparently Thay5 didn’t used to allow this but since many of the monks and nuns would watch secretly he decided to just bring everyone together to watch it. We were advised to notice how we and the people around us were feeling, and enjoy the rare outbursts of excitement the monks and nuns would show whenever a goal was scored. I don’t normally watch football, but a friend explained some more of the strategy to me and it ended up being an exciting match. I feel fortunate to have watched France play in and win the World Cup while at Plum Village in France. What are the odds??

No progress today with respect to my parents, but I’ve loosely committed myself to spending my lazy day in relative solitude just approaching the suffering and trying to work through how I feel. No reading or other distractions (even people!!) allowed unless someone invites me to share some time with them.

Day 10 – Monday, July 16, 2018

A view of the bell tower in New Hamlet, Plum Village.

This morning I woke up to distant lightning. I nearly decided to go back to sleep rather than hike 10 minutes to the meditation hall in the rain, but when I went outside it was clear the storm was still a ways off. Almost immediately after I sat down in the meditation hall, however, it started totally pouring. It was actually quite a magical experience sitting and meditating to the rhythm of the drumming rain. I always hated the rain growing up, but I’m trying to learn to appreciate it–after all, they say life is about learning to dance in the rain.

After breakfast I finished reading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. It was a pretty profound read–I read it once in high school, but I don’t think I got nearly as much out of it. Finishing the book has me contemplating a lot about the tension between acceptance and action. I think the closest thing Siddhartha comes to attempting to explain the insight of enlightenment is the realization that time is a human construct, that everything that was will always be and everything that will be always was, and that the world is perfect in every moment despite present suffering. In this timeless sense, we become one with pretty much everything–what comprises my body may have existed in many forms: earth, animals, insects, elements, etc. and so I owe gratitude and reverence to all things. Everything on Earth is connected in this way by our complex ecosystem and the cycle of life.

What I’m struggling with, though, is that if truly loving the world and fully realizing this insight means accepting the perfection of its imperfection and recognizing my own and all other suffering as a beautiful part of the broader whole, then what motivation is left to us to change or improve the world or ourselves? In this context, if imperfection and suffering are parts of the genius of life, what does it even mean to improve the world? Thus far, I’m not totally sure what Buddhism has to say to this contradiction, and I keep coming back to it in one form or another. I hope to learn more about the Buddhist perspective here before I leave.

We went to New Hamlet today for another Dharma Talk. I’m still finding that this format isn’t for me–I never have been a fan of lectures. I’m realizing I gain more wisdom and insight reading about these concepts than by having a monk try to explain them. Every teacher has their own style, of course, but thus far I’ve felt that the way they’ve explained topics is logically brittle, trying to fall back on hearsay science at some points, and failing to skillfully back up their claims with good examples. I maintain that this is a failing of the teachers, not of the teachings, however. I’m grateful that these talks are not my first introduction to Buddhism–if they had been I might have been turned off to it. I wonder if my experience would be different if Thich Nhat Hanh still gave these talks himself–he does a reasonably good job explaining in his many books.

It’s now. A clock and watches from an exhibit about Thich Nhat Hanh in New Hamlet, Plum Village.

After the Dharma Talk, Thay Phap Dung offered to share an orange with me. I had been meaning to have a conversation with him for a few days and was very grateful for the opportunity to hang out with him. We talked mostly about our fathers and he offered me some guidance in navigating my emotions toward my parents. Much of what he said was both relatable and insightful for me, but one thing that really stuck with me was the concept of the “inner” parent.

Our parents and our ancestors are a part of who we are, both through their genes, and through the behaviors and suffering they have purposefully or inadvertently passed on to their children and their children’s children. In this sense, my father is within me as well. When I feel animosity toward my father I can’t help but also feel animosity towards parts of myself. Thus, to hate my parents is to hate myself and vice-versa. To love myself is also, in a way, to love my parents, and vice-versa. I can never truly love myself until I also learn to love my parents, and it’s difficult to truly love someone else without loving myself first. I’m learning to start small with my appreciation of my parents’ traits, and that I need to accept their love in whatever forms they can give it, even those forms are imperfect or cause me suffering sometimes. I’m also realizing that my taking care of my entrepreneurial fears (very similar to my father’s) and learning to deal with my wrong perceptions and difficult emotions (very similar to my mother’s) is not, in fact, a rejection of them or a trial to prove that I am better than them, but rather in a way is a very deep form of love: learning to transform the suffering passed to me by my parents so that I can help them both to heal and to suffer less. In this way all of the great trials of my life right now become connected…

The poem inscribed on the large bell in New Hamlet, Plum Village.

After our chat, Thay Phap Dung and I joined walking meditation and he asked me if I minded holding hands. I found that I didn’t, that I enjoyed the connection and his presence, that I could feel his love and compassion through his hand. It was a joyful walk, and we were soon joined by one of his many child friends. Thay Phap Dung never ceases to amaze me. He is at once so wise and so childlike, taking off running through the fields to play with a child. He is obviously wordly (and is thus more credible) but so joyful and so free. In his work as a monk I can see that he has touched many lives, including my own. I admire and respect him greatly.

Today after dinner was lazy evening, meaning there were no activities scheduled. The atmosphere of the hamlet changed greatly with many people singing and drumming and being merry in the dining hall. Some people even commented that it felt more like a music festival than Plum Village. For my part, I was challenged to a game of chess. I was also asked by a little girl and her mother if I might teach her how to play. I found that I enjoyed teaching her very much–she was clever and grasped the concepts quickly. I don’t want to stroke my own ego, but I also realized just how consciously competent I am at teaching. I’m able to connect to students on an emotional level, keep them entertained and engaged while presenting new material, can construct good exercises to test their understanding, and have the patience to allow them to think on their own and make mistakes. I think I also have a deep empathy for students and am able to explain things in a clear and relatable way at the right pace while also having good insight into why a student misunderstood something when they get stuck. I noticed the other adults lacked many of these traits–were either impatient or unclear and unengaging. I wonder, as I have once wondered before, if teaching may be one of my gifts. A young French boy has also asked me to teach him and I intend to teach him in French tomorrow.

Day 11 – Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The activity bell in the Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

Another lazy day. I woke up too late to make it to breakfast. My plan originally was to read through No Mud, No Lotus, Anger, and Reconciliation by Thich Nhat Hanh and then do some writing about my parents, but instead I kept finding myself in conversations with people. It was good, though, one conversation was with a Vietnamese monk who approached me while I was reading near the bell tower, another was with an aspirant in my Dharma sharing family who I ran into on my way out to go running, and two others were with friends who looked like they were struggling so I wanted to lend my ear.

The chat with the Vietnamese monk was interesting. It’s often hard to understand what the Vietnamese monks are saying because their accents are strong and their English isn’t perfect. At first, I thought he was trying to give me some unsolicited advice about balance and types of pleasure, but I slowly realized that he and I were having a philosophical dialog. He brought up the point that perhaps some ego is good or even necessary for many things which has me examining whether or not my strong and total rejection of ego in recent years is an overreaction–perhaps a little bit of ego to give us drive isn’t a bad thing? This isn’t exactly a Buddhist idea, however, so I was surprised to hear it suggested by a monk. We also talked about human “illusions” like the beliefs we can hold about society and purpose. He argued that illusion is sometimes necessary to bring people together (e.g. movements like communism). I argued that truth is always preferable to illusion and that truth, or an honest quest for it, can bring people together in more constructive ways as it seems to have in Plum Village.

Beyond this, many of my other conversations today gave me good opportunities to practice compassionate listening. I had another conversation with the person I had corrected and apologized to a few days ago, and I realized how uncomfortably like me he must sound. Despite what I know to be intent to the contrary, he comes off as a bit arrogant and closed-minded. He also self-identifies as an “extremely self-aware” person and I realized that often people who profess to be self-aware (myself included), may in fact have huge blind spots despite–or perhaps because of–this belief. Regardless, I chose not to correct him or offer my own opinion to compare to his–I could see that doing so would likely not have resulted in a terribly constructive conversation. I must reflect on this encounter and learn to change my own often arrogantly combative communication style.

Before returning to my lodging I taught that young French boy to play chess. It was late and I wanted to come home to sleep, but I felt I had promised him and I noticed him waiting for me at the tea house. My French has certainly improved–I succeeded in teaching him all the rules of chess without any English. There is a long way to go still, but having had so many French conversations here in Plum Village I have reached the point where I can hold a reasonable conversation, though I sometimes need things repeated or slowed down and sometimes have to ask how to say a word in French provided its meaning (which I can often describe in French).

Day 12 – Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The poem inscribed on the large bell in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

Today was a strange day. I decided to skip morning meditation when my alarm went off at 5:30am. I woke instead at 8:30am missing breakfast and a chance to pack a lunch as well. I was surprisingly exhausted–I think a few of my shorter nights have caught up to me.

I’ve been in a weird mood. At the same time I think I’m starting to feel ready to leave but I’m also a bit nervous about returning to the stressors and distractions outside. I’ve found much here in Plum Village–peace, joy, love, compassion, self-knowledge, wisdom–and I fear losing all that I’ve gained as soon as I leave. At the same time, I’m excited to try and perhaps a bit anxious to start applying what I’ve learned to my normal life. I think perhaps a third week would have been too much for me–I’m starting to get used to the pattern here so some of it is losing its novelty and magic. Perhaps at some point I’ll try 3 weeks at a different monastery (Asia?) regardless just to be with those new impatient emotions.

There was a Q&A today and I got to ask my question about the conflict between truly loving and accepting something (or someone) and the desire to change it. In this case, I’m particularly interested in how we can truly love and accept the world while reconciling that with the desires we often have to change or improve it. It seems to me that a true love and acceptance implies no need to change something–if we need it to be different we’ve failed to accept it by definition. I’ve been wondering what the Buddha would have said about this, but the answer I got from a young nun simply challenged my definition of love/acceptance and state that when we accept something, action is a natural consequence. I’m not really convinced by her argument, but I will reflect on the answer she gave me nonetheless. She also recommended that I read True Love by Sister Chan Kong.

In other news, I’ve decided to accept the transmission of all 5 of the 5 Mindfulness Trainings. The ceremony is early tomorrow morning. I’m not yet convinced I agree with all of Buddhism or even all of the text in the mindfulness trainings, but I acknowledge that it seems to have gotten some things right and I see my taking the trainings as a commitment to continue to reflect on Plum Village ideals and to at least be mindful of what I say, do, and consume.

We also had tea meditation today which was by far my week’s highlight last week. I don’t think quite the same energy was there today–it’s hard to top that evening of music, joy, good company, and sunsets–but I’m grateful to have shared the experience with wonderful people nonetheless. This time I shared my gratitude with the family and also recited one of the beautiful poems written on the sides of the bells in the bell towers. This was a bit embarrassing, however, as they’re all in French and my pronunciation needs work :P.

Day 13 – Thursday, July 19, 2018

Today was my last real day in Plum Village–I depart tomorrow after lunch. The close of my stay here inevitably comes with mixed feelings. I’m nervous about whether or not I will succeed in my endeavor to bring my learnings here back through the shroud to the real world. I’m sad to say so many goodbyes. I’m confused by how deep yet how shallow my relationships here are–many of these people have touched my life and I feel that I have touched theirs, and yet I’m truly not convinced I’ll ever see any of them again, or that I’ll succeed in meaningfully keeping in touch. I’m grateful for everything I learned, for joyous moments with friends, for renewed courage to face my challenges with integrity. I’m ever restless despite learning here to slow down and really enjoy the moment.

Group shot of the “Right Action” Dharma sharing family after the ceremony.

In the morning I participated in the ceremony to receive the transmission of all 5 Mindfulness Trainings. At the end of the ceremony I was given a certificate and the “Dharma Name” “Graceful Action of the Heart.” I can’t help but feel funny about how much like a baptism this felt, but I find myself oddly pleased with this name. I very much hope that my actions and my character will live up to it.

Aside from the ceremony, I skipped most of the day’s events, including the Dharma Talk. Instead, I opted to do some writing. I wrote a letter to my ex to whom I owe some gratitude for finding myself in Plum Village at all. I also started to write some things about my parents. There’s much to explore there and I am far from finished, but I think I have a good mental framework to follow.

I’m starting with gratitude. First I’m acknowledging all the things about myself that I appreciate, and then drawing a line between each of these and a similar attribute in my parents or ancestors so that I can express my gratitude to them for my gifts and see that they have them, too. After, I will acknowledge other things I admire about my parents or ancestors which I don’t find in myself but nevertheless appreciate. By starting with gratitude, I ground myself in the knowledge that my parents and ancestors have many wonderful strengths.

Next I’ll approach compassion. I want to acknowledge all the ways that my parents and ancestors suffer so that I can begin to feel understanding, love, and forgiveness for how their suffering has manifested. I will do this generally first, then zero in on how I specifically have caused my parents or grandparents to suffer. I will express my regret that I have caused this suffering. Then I’ll approach my own suffering and try, without blaming, to give voice to how my parents’ or ancestors’ actions or suffering have hurt me. It is important that I do this so that they can understand and have compassion and awareness as well.

Last, I’ll ask for support via specific actions that might help me suffer less and I’ll offer similar support the other way. It’s above all important that all of this come from a place of deep love and acceptance. I must not do it because I hope it will somehow change my parents or my relationship with them–I must truly do it for no other reason than that it’s the loving thing to do to acknowledge their strengths, express my gratitude, and take responsibility for the pain I have caused. This will all take time to get right.

The squad after our successful transformation into mud monsters and trolls in the Upper Hamlet lake.

In the afternoon, I went swimming in the lake with a few friends. We enjoyed fooling around and caking mud on ourselves in the hopes that (maybe) the mud would be good for our skin. I don’t enjoy swimming in murky water, but I must admit that it was quite a bit of fun and that I was glad to be peer pressured into it.

Not long after I got back from swimming, we had our last dinner in our Dharma sharing families. It’s sad to have to say goodbye, but I’m very much glad that I stayed in this family a second week rather than attempting a switch to a French family (which would have been a complete disaster). Someone passed a contact sheet around, so maybe I’ll get to stay in touch. I forgot to take the time to personally thank our facilitator, Thay Phap Dung. He’s been a really integral part of my experience here and has been a source of strength, joy, and wisdom. If not for him, I’m not sure I would have stayed a second week. He joked with me at dinner that I should stay a third–apparently that sort of thinking is how he “accidentally” become a monk himself 20 years ago–though doing so isn’t possible at this time. I told him I’ll try to visit the Plum Village monasteries in Asia instead if I end up heading back out that way this year.

There was a beautiful ceremony after dinner called the Rose Ceremony. It’s apparently a tradition for appreciating one’s parents that Thay stole on a trip to Japan many years ago. There was a recitation of what Thay wrote when his mother died, and an opportunity for children (and adults) to read love letters to their parents.

The tradition is sort of like mother’s or father’s day except that we pin a red rose to our shirts for each living parent we have and a white rose for each deceased parent. Walking around the hall realizing how many people I had gotten to know had one or even two white roses was a powerful moment of mindfulness for me. I shed a few tears of compassion for their loss and reflected on my gratitude to still have two living parents.

The Rose Ceremony ended with hugging meditation, a wholesome experience where we all went around hugging our friends and loved ones for 3 deep, mindful breaths each, really enjoying and appreciating their presence. I had many nice hugs with friends I made here, but the one that really touched me the most was the little French boy who I had promised to teach to play chess and for whom I went out of my way to keep that promise. He had such a happy and joyful look on his face when we found each other in the crowd and he offered me a hug. I knew in that moment how much my doing that had meant to him. I’m really glad to have touched his life.

I also had a similar experience a few minutes ago when a Mexican teenager to whom I had taught some opening- and mid-game chess strategy noticed me writing this by the light of the bell tower and came up to personally thank me. I offered him a hug and asked him to keep playing and maybe even win a few games for me.

It’s time to sleep now as I need to pack and depart tomorrow. I’ll be returning to Bordeaux for a few days of sightseeing before 5 weeks in Lyon. My experience here in Plum Village was powerful and memorable. I understand now why so many people here have come back year after year. Perhaps one day I’ll be the same. Perhaps I’ll meet these friends here again.

Day 14 – Friday, July 20, 2018

(This entry is written after the fact based on some memories and conversations I had before leaving Plum Village on Friday, but which I felt were an important part of this narrative.)

I left Plum Village today and am now back in Bordeaux. The morning went mostly as I’d have expected: lots of goodbyes with friends as people left throughout the morning. Then lots more goodbyes as I prepared to leave myself.

I’m going to miss many of my friends from Plum Village, especially the ones that I know struggle more with certain things that either I’ve seen myself struggle with, or that I’ve seen people I love struggle with. Many of my friends here have expressed hardship with difficult human emotional experiences like anger (towards self, towards others, towards the world), anxiety, depression, self-confidence/self-love. I am at least grateful that I had a chance to be in their lives, however briefly, to listen compassionately and offer my love and support. Many of them are staying in Plum Village longer-term, either for the entire summer retreat, or even longer as volunteers. I can’t think of a better place for them to heal.

Before I left, I had a really fruitful conversation with one of the aspirants, who came to find me and follow-up on the question I asked during the Q&A about the tension between love/acceptance and action/change. I always enjoy chatting with this particular aspirant because he and I actually share a very similar background–we both graduated from Stanford, I think not too long ago; we both graduated with technical degrees that led us to work for the US government for some time; we both got involved in tech in Silicon Valley. I’d be surprised if he and I didn’t actually already have some mutual friends. It’s one thing to meet someone who aspires to become a monk but is completely different from me, and quite another to meet someone who I realize could very easily have been myself.

Anyway, he asked me what I thought of the answer I received during the Q&A. Apparently he recognized the somewhat crestfallen and dissatisfied look on my face at the end of the answer–a feeling I’m sure he’s shared more than once during his long stay in Plum Village. We ended up having an interesting discussion, grounded first in concepts we had both learned about self-love, self-acceptance, and self-growth and then generalized from there to see if we could understand how those concepts relate to loving and accepting the world while also potentially transforming it.

One of the large conclusions we drew was that both in self-love and in loving the world a sense of total love and acceptance does imply letting go of the need for uglier things to change or disappear. We both agreed, however, that the act of total acceptance in this way has a very meaningfully and very powerfully changes those things, so acceptance itself is an action of sorts. The difficulty here, however, is that one cannot choose to love and accept themselves with the intent that doing so will effect change because that very intent carries with it a lack of true love and true acceptance. I think the same can be said of loving the world.

The other thing I took from our conversation is that this love and acceptance for the negatives need not necessarily conflict with our positive aspirations. Often, getting to where we want to go involves accepting and transforming what’s already within us while simultaneously cultivating something new.

Me with Thay Phap Dung, an incredibly light-hearted and wise Buddhist monk living in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

I was very appreciative of our conversation. I felt like it gave me the resolution I had hoped for in the Q&A. I should admit also that this was the first conversation after which I had the serious thought that perhaps the idea of becoming a monk could be appealing for someone like me. After all, someone who thinks very similarly to me is doing it and I now see that his commitment to monkhood has given him access to helpful things like a mentor who reads his journal and helps him to see where he is struggling in his development. It’s also clear to me that he, like I, is interested in understanding what the concept of enlightenment might mean in practice rather than just in theory. Becoming an aspirant and, ultimately, a monk effectively makes pursuing this understanding his full-time job. I am, however, not yet convinced that becoming a monk is the only way to create the space and time to pursue this understanding. For now at least, I think becoming a Buddhist monk isn’t in my cards.

I said goodbye to Thay Phap Dung today. I caught him on his way out of the dining hall with his lunch. I just wanted to tell him how grateful I was for him, for his kindness, for his compassion, for his joy, and for his teachings. He invited me to eat my last lunch in Plum Village with him. I hope to meet this man again somewhere and someday, and I aspire to learn how to exude joy and compassion from a place of deep centeredness the way he has.

I’ve been able to maintain my mindful state today, even in the outside world. I found that on the train and on the tram to get to my new accommodations I was very calm, very unhurried, and actually just happy to sit and enjoy the ride rather than feel the need to automatically pull out my phone and occupy myself in some way. Hopefully I’ll continue to be mindful in the coming days, weeks, and months.

In leaving, I am not the same person I was when I arrived and in subtle ways I see the world differently now. I didn’t love everything about my experience in Plum Village, but on the whole it was incredible and I very much want to continue practicing what I learned. It’s hard to say how the future will unfold and where I’ll go, but I think it’s likely that I will be back to Plum Village, if not to the monastery in France then perhaps to the affiliated ones in Asia or America. As Thay Phap Dung joked before I left, perhaps my stay in Plum Village wasn’t a break from the outside world as much as the outside world is now a break between stays in Plum Village.

Footnotes

Bell tower, Upper Hamlet, Plum Village

As a self-professed agnostic, I’m not a terribly religious, spiritual, or superstitious person. In fact, I’ve spent much of my life incredibly skeptical of both religions and religious practitioners. My skepticism was so strong that if you had told me 5 years ago that I would one day spend not one, but two full weeks in a Buddhist monastery, I think I probably would have done a spit take. And yet, in July of this year I did just that (minus the spit take) and, though I didn’t love everything about the experience, it was pretty incredible overall.

Of course, this change in perspective didn’t exactly happen overnight.

Meditation

It all started when my father discovered meditation while I was in college. He found it helpful to him in his everyday life, and introduced my mother to it, who also took a liking to the practice. Together, they practiced a form of transcendental meditation, which often makes use of the stereotypical mantra that most people think of when they picture meditation. As parents are liable to do when they find something they think is good for them, my parents started trying to get their kids–my little sister and I–interested, telling us about the researched positive side-effects of meditation such as reduced stress response and a resistance to mental conditions like anxiety and depression. As children are liable to do when their parents tell them to do something, my sister and I both did the opposite. We went so far as to make fun of our parents for the way they would meditate, repeating their mantras back to them in mocking tones.

I became very resistant to meditation and to the idea of meditating because the form of meditation my parents practiced was closely tied to Indian spiritual and religious practices. Over time, I had developed an automatically suspicious response toward anything remotely religious or spiritual. I used to think of religious faith and dogma as nearly synonymous, and I’ve always refused to accept ideas from people who are unwilling or unable to think for themselves or who might discourage me from doing the same. To me, if a belief or an idea is really worth keeping, it must survive the scrutiny of reasoned doubt, and it must continue to survive that scrutiny as new information becomes available. I could never have respect for, let alone faith in, a leader or a deity who might punish those who seek to draw their own conclusions or find their own answers.

For many years I boycotted meditation, unable to extricate its true value from the religious leanings of my parents’ practice. I saw meditation as a spiritual practice and wanted nothing to do with it. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I discovered an entirely secular form of meditation called mindful meditation. One of my acquaintances on Facebook had a spare coupon code for a free one-month subscription to a mindful meditation app called Headspace. To give away the coupon, he challenged his friends on Facebook to do Headspace’s free 10-day foundational series, and offered to raffle off the coupon to one of the people who did so and reported back to him. This was the first time I had heard someone other than my parents advocate for meditation, so on a whim, I downloaded Headspace to try it out.

To my surprise, I was really intrigued by my first 10 days of Headspace. In fact, I don’t think I would be exaggerating in claiming that those 10 days started me down a path that would drastically change my life for the better. That introduction framed meditation as a mental exercise rather than a spiritual experience, and helped to dispel many of my false preconceptions about the practice. Since the guy who issued the Headspace coupon challenge on Facebook was a mere acquaintance, I never actually told him that I was inspired by his giveaway, but I ended up buying myself a subscription to Headspace on my own and continued to practice.

Mindfulness

Through meditating in the Headspace way, I’ve learned about mindfulness, which could perhaps best be described as the opposite of mindlessness. You know when you’re driving a car and you suddenly realize you’ve been on autopilot for the last 30 minutes while you thought about something totally unrelated and, often, really not that important? Or when you open a bag of chips for a small snack but before you realize it you’ve emptied the bag? Or the itch you get to pull out your smartphone anytime the world in front of you fails to provide the stimulating experience you’ve grown to expect? These phenomenons are good examples of what I would describe as mindlessness: a lack of awareness of and presence with wherever we are, whoever we’re with, or whatever we’re doing in the moment.

Benefits of Mindfulness

Without realizing it, many of us spend a large proportion of our lives in a relatively mindless state. While that’s not necessarily a terrible thing in all cases–multitasking, for example, can sometimes be beneficial though it necessitates a degree of mindlessness in dividing our limited consciousness–I’ve learned through practicing that there are appealing benefits to mindfulness as an alternative such as self-awareness of habits and patterns along with more initiative to change them; a resistance to getting caught up in the kinds of thoughts and emotions that otherwise lead people to anxious or depressive states; a heightened appreciation for the small things in life, leading to a higher average sense of joy and well-being; increased presence, which may correlate with charisma, focus, and flow among other things; and a greater sense of self-acceptance, and acceptance of others.

Sounds a little like snake oil, doesn’t it? Fortunately, there are a number of studies backing up the positive health and mental health benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Even without those studies, though, many of these effects make sense to me. At its core, mindfulness is about training our awareness so that we become practiced at recognizing when we’re distracted. Overtime as I’ve gotten better and better at noticing this during mindfulness exercises, I’ve begun to internalize the skill. With training, I find that I become distracted less often, and that when I do become distracted, I notice more quickly than I used to.

Cover of The Charisma Myth

Cover of The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane

As a result of this awareness, I’m more likely to notice, and have the wherewithal to stop myself, when I’m about to take a habitually self-distracting or even self-destructive action (e.g. opening Facebook or Reddit). I’m less prone to get caught up in the negative thought and emotional loops that lead to anxious or depressive cycles because I notice when the loops start and am able to make the conscious choice to refocus on the present when it’s clear the current line of thinking can’t possibly lead anywhere good. At the same time, I fear my negative emotions less because I have come to realize that, like my breath and all things, all of my emotions are transient, and will come and go in their own time so long as I don’t get overly involved in them. When I’m aware, I start to notice and appreciate more of the little things in life like how blue the sky is today or how green the trees are–sort of the mindfulness equivalent of “stopping to smell the roses”–creating a sense of profound gratefulness and joy just to be alive. I’ve also noticed that charisma, as Olivia Fox Cabane claims in The Charisma Myth, has its basis in being fully present with people–people like being around people who offer the gift of their full attention and presence, which makes them feel important, special, heard, and understood–that presence and focus are nearly synonymous, and that flow–that sense of being on a roll when we’re working–is a byproduct of creating a working environment where we’re able to be totally present with what we’re doing.

Mindfulness in Many Forms

Mindfulness comes in many shapes and forms. Yoga, rock climbing, martial arts, and other physical activities that demand the full presence of our minds in unison with our bodies are other common forms of mindfulness that many people practice without realizing it. Improv, acting, public speaking, and other mental activities that require us to be completely present in order to succeed are also hidden forms of mindfulness.

In reality, meditation is just one of the many forms of mindfulness, but it also turns out to be one of the most portable and readily accessible methods available to us. In its most basic form, meditation is mindfulness applied to our breathing. It’s the art of being as close to completely present with the act of breathing as we can–following the cool rush of air through our nostrils, the expansion of our lungs as we fill them, the natural extension of our abdomens with each breath.

Learning to be mindful while breathing may not sound terribly useful or fun in comparison to activities like yoga or improv, but the advantage is that if you are a living, conscious human being, you can always breathe. You may not always be in a place where doing yoga stretches is appropriate, or where you have people to play improv with, but you will always have your breath–if you don’t, you have bigger problems to worry about than reading this; please pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1 or your local equivalent :). Meditation doesn’t have to involve all these things people imagine like sitting in a full lotus position, or pinching your fingers into the stereotypical O-shape, or incessantly repeating “Om”, or even closing our eyes. It can be done virtually anywhere and virtually anytime by simply noticing and following our breath.

While we don’t really need to practice breathing the way we may need to practice yoga or improv–most all of us pop out of the womb as experts in breathing already–learning to recognize when we’ve become distracted or lost our focus is a very useful skill applicable to nearly everything we do. This is the primary skill that we train when we meditate, or when we actively practice mindfulness, and it turns out to be a pretty difficult skill for most people to master, especially as our attention spans grow shorter and our lives get busier in the digital information age.

Other Benefits of Meditation

Mindfulness is actually just one of many skills that we can train through meditation, and the others I’ve found are equally powerful and profound. For example, once we get more accustomed to being mindful of the breath, or even just being present with the act of meditation, we can learn to introduce things like visualization into the practice. As human beings, one of the mental super powers we have is the ability to replay past feelings and emotions through our memories as if we are experiencing them in the present. With practice, this means that we always have access to frame of mind we need for the task at hand. In my daily uncertain and sometimes anxiety-inducing life as a nomadic solo entrepreneur, I use this often to help me reconnect to a sense of hope, love, and optimism so that I can avoid making decisions out of despair, anger, or fear, which I know I’m likely to later regret.

But I digress. All of this is to say that mindful meditation was an important discovery for me, and that this discovery was a crucial first step in what led me to a Buddhist monastery. While I discovered mindfulness years ago, the other important developments are more recent.

Anger and Buddhism

I have and have almost always had a difficult relationship with my parents. They never got along with each other, and as a result I always had a hard time getting along with them. I picked up a lot of bad habits and emotional patterns from childhood as well. Most notably, my sister and I are the heirs to my mother’s temper.

After I quit my job in Silicon Valley, moved out of my house, and said goodbye to virtually everyone I knew, I moved back in with my parents for about 6 months before I finally pulled the trigger and started traveling. Though I took care of myself and did well in school, I was never a terribly obedient child, in part because I recognized my parents’ inevitably flawed nature very early in life and questioned both their authority and infallibility. Many of these old patterns resurfaced when I came home, and as one might expect, the occasional argument ensued.

In the wake of one particularly heated argument, I remember angrily shutting myself in my room. Desperate for answers and for a solution to what felt like a never-ending cycle of rage and hurt in my family, I went to Amazon’s book section and searched “anger” (I do this often when I identify sticking points in my life :P). I bought the first few results and was particularly drawn to Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Cover of Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh

The cover of Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh

Anger was one of my first true exposures to Buddhism and to Thich Nhat Hanh, who I would later learn is a famous Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master and Nobel peace prize nominee. Mindfulness turned out to be a central tenet of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, and it would not be far from truth to claim that the flavor of Buddhism he teaches is the natural philosophical extension of what it might look like if the principles behind mindfulness defined an individual’s entire way of life.

Through reading just the first few chapters of Anger, I was introduced to the beginnings of a few important insights, which I would eventually develop further during my time at the monastery: that I was angry because I was hurt; that my parents get angry and hurt me because they are, themselves, hurting; that because I am their genetic continuation, try as I might I’m not so different or so separate from them; that hurting my parents with my anger because I am hurt will only ever cause them to continue hurting me in turn; and that my parents are, themselves, victims of their parents’ and their parents’ parents’ pain, some of which has almost certainly been transmitted for generations as a kind of twisted, unresolved emotional heirloom.

In the first few chapters of Anger, Thich Nhat Hanh also mentions Plum Village, which piqued my interest. By the power of Google, I discovered that Plum Village is a mindfulness practice center not far from Bordeaux, France that Thich Nhat Hanh founded in 1982. I also learned that Plum Village opens itself to the public during certain times of the year for mindfulness and meditation retreats. Because I was impressed by Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing and his ideas, this knowledge would become the seed that sprouted into my 2018 goal to attend a 2-week mindfulness retreat. Though I didn’t entirely connect the dots at the time, Plum Village would also turn out to be a Buddhist monastery home to 100-200 monks and nuns hailing from all corners of the world–Vietnam, America, Europe, Eastern Europe, and many more. I, of course, went in with the image of “mindfulness practice center” in my head–had I thought of it primarily as a Buddhist monastery, I’m not sure I would have gone.

Love and Buddhism

The last step, which reaffirmed my commitment to make my way to Plum Village, was traveling to Vietnam and falling in love. (Yes, I am aware of just how cliché that is.) My Vietnamese girlfriend blew me away during our first date by self-professing to be both a Stoic and a Buddhist–two surprisingly similar philosophies that had recently captured my interest, and which I was also exploring. For me, the connection was instant and almost spooky–I felt there almost couldn’t have been a better match unless she had literally stalked me before we met.

Having been raised Buddhist in much the same way many Americans are raised Christian (i.e. a follower in name, but not really in spirit), she had a much longer history with Buddhism than I did. Recent events had led her to rediscover Buddhism on her own terms, so she had discovered Thich Nhat Hanh earlier than me and had already read most of his books. During our time together in Vietnam, she invited me to watch Walk With Me, a documentary about Plum Village narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch,

Movie poster for Walk With Me

The movie poster for Walk With Me, a documentary about Plum Village

and we passed many evenings talking about life and philosophy. Though Anger had given me a nice introduction and opened me up to Buddhist teachings, it quickly became true that I had learned almost everything I knew about Buddhism from her. What I learned fascinated me: Buddhism in its purest form is not a religion, but rather a philosophy that tries to unpack how the insights and practices that led the Buddha to enlightenment. In short, it’s a very practical philosophy that aims to provide framework for how to live a good life. Yes, there are more mystical components like reincarnation and karma ingrained in some Buddhist teachings, but even these can be interpreted in non-religious ways (e.g. reincarnation doesn’t necessarily occur in the literal sense that my consciousness will be reborn, but certainly occurs in the sense that all parts of what is “me” will be recycled and reused by the universe long after I am dead).

More than knowledge, though, my Vietnamese girlfriend taught me much about what Buddhism looks and feels like in practice. With her, from her, and for her I learned what it means to love someone with deep compassion and understanding, in the Buddhist way. While I had even been exploring books like Adult Children Of Emotionally Immature Parents and contemplating the idea of distancing myself from my parents as toxic influences in my life, she had acknowledged how and why her parents caused her suffering, and chose to love them anyway. When I returned to the States in May and was thrust into the middle of a vicious family conflict–this time between my sister and my mother–she was my guide in learning to view both sides of the conflict with compassion so that I might help them understand each other. Without her counsel, I know my instinct would have been to respond with anger, suspicion, and punishment rather than love, understanding, and forgiveness–I would simply have added fuel to the flames.

Though our relationship ended in a rather messy way and under complicated circumstances, I remain eternally grateful to her for what she taught me. I think it’s even fair to say I still feel that deep Buddhistic sense of love and respect for her, though I’m convinced that she and I have important growth needs that couldn’t be met by our relationship, so I try not to remain attached to it. This is, however, a longer story about love, suffering, forgiveness, and compassion which is not yet–and perhaps never will be–anywhere near ready to be told in so public a fashion.

When I finally made it to France, I made my way to Plum Village because I had promised myself I would; because it was a dream I had shared with my ex- to go; because I wanted to learn more about how to deepen my mindfulness practice; and because I knew there was much I could learn there about how to heal, both from the aftermath of my recent romantic relationship, and from the cycles of suffering extant in my familial relationships. I’ve made it part of my mission to end these cycles and learn to resolve my own suffering so that if I decide to have children someday I don’t unwittingly turn them into victims of my own, and my parents’ shortcomings. I’ve made it part of my mission to heal myself, and help the people I love heal, too.

Plum Village did not disappoint.

Stay tuned next week to read my reflections about my Plum Village experience. I plan to publish my journal from my time there in its almost-raw form, edited just for clarity and concision.

Self-Awareness: The Everyman's Superpower

This is the second post in a three-part series on Fear and Courage. While this post is designed to stand alone, you can get caught-up by reading Fear: The Invisible Prison of the Mind.

If you could be dipped into a vat of radioactive liquid and granted any comic book superpower, what would you choose? The ability to fly? Invulnerability to everything but Kryptonite? Laser vision? Personally, I’d love to be able to learn how to do anything perfectly after watching just once. Since, unfortunately, I’ve never met a vat of radioactive liquid that wouldn’t also kill you 10 times out of 10, however, I want to talk about a superpower that all humans are born with, but don’t always fully utilize: self-awareness.

Self-awareness is our ability to examine our own character, emotions, motives, and desires. It’s an important part of any good definition of what separates humans from machines and artificial intelligences (at least for now). In a lot of senses, self-awareness is also what differentiates humans from animals: rather than continuously react to our environment, we seem to have the ability to step out of situations, self-examine, and proactively choose a response. We literally have the ability to think about our thoughts–otherwise known as metacognition in psychology–which, when you think about it, is pretty damn mind-blowing. (No pun intended.)

Our self-awareness plays an important role in our lives on multiple levels: it’s what allows us to identify our emotions, it’s what gives us the choice in how we respond to events in our daily lives, and it’s what allows us to ask deeper questions about our lives and our motivations. Developing a sense of self-awareness can be helpful for understanding and promoting virtually any quality of mind: among other things, it allows us to understand when and why we feel lazy so that we can foster discipline; it allows us to understand when and why we despair so that we can learn to persevere; and it allows us to understand when and why we feel afraid so that we can cultivate courage.

Developing self-awareness requires that we question ourselves and our motives. We must first acknowledge that virtually every action we take represents a choice, conscious or subconscious. Then we must ask ourselves why we choose what we choose, and ask why again and again until we understand the deeper motivations behind our choices. This process can, however, be difficult, and, for some, it can be downright terrifying to question deeply. Sometimes in the short-term this process leads to more questions than answers, and the ensuing uncertainty can be overwhelming. Ironically, it takes a certain amount of courage to even ask ourselves questions like “what does it mean to live a good life?” because occasionally we’ll find that the answers aren’t congruent with the how we’ve chosen to live our lives. Sometimes it’s easier to banish the questions and change nothing than to acknowledge that we are not living way we hope to. In the long-term, however, giving ourselves license to ask these questions even when we don’t have the answers or don’t like the ones we find builds self-awareness and helps us to lead more authentic, and therefore happier lives.

Self-awareness of Fear

While self-awareness can help us understand and identify complex emotions, most of our emotions can be generalized as extensions of two primary emotions: hope and fear. Ultimately, therefore, our choices are made from either a place of hope or a place of fear. For example, someone who has had a bad romantic experience, and lets that experience color all of their future romantic entanglements may make choices out of the fear of being hurt again rather than the hope that they will find a love that is fulfilling and true. Similarly, someone who has tried and failed to accomplish something may choose to give up out of the fear that they will continue to fail rather than the hope that they will eventually succeed.

The essential question we seek to answer when confronting fear is: what would I do if I weren’t afraid? If self-questioning and self-awareness come easy to you, answers to this question may come naturally. If not, don’t fret–I have another trick up my sleeve for you to try.

Sometimes fear is so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we struggle to connect with our hopes, and so can’t imagine an alternative to fear. When this happens, we can either wait it out–all emotions are transient, including fear, and so will pass if we don’t give them time and don’t actively hold on to them–or we can use a mental exercise called visualization. Both options are often paired with a meditation practice, but a full overview of the power of meditation and how to start your own practice is out of the scope of this post. (Check back in the future for a separate post on that topic.) For now, this simple exercise should suffice for the purposes of combating our fears and reconnecting with our hopes:

  1. Find a comfortable place to sit down where you won’t be bothered or interrupted, and where you won’t feel subconscious about what you’re doing.
  2. Sit comfortably, but erect. Leave your hands comfortably on your legs or in your lap. Keep your eyes open for now.
    1. I’m going to ask you to close your eyes so you can visualize without sensory distractions, but if you’re too comfortable you might fall asleep (been there, done that), and if you’re not comfortable enough you’ll be distracted by your posture.
  3. Take 10 slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth, paying attention to the physical sensations of the air filling your chest and lungs.
    1. The purpose of the breathing is to relax and calm you. Paying attention to the physical sensations grounds you in the present, and helps you to focus your mind and your senses on what you’re doing rather than on random thoughts or on the world around you.
  4. Return to breathing normally in and out through your nose and close your eyes. Maintain your focus on the breathing by thinking “in” as you breath in and “out” as you breath out. Do this 10 times before you move on.
    1. We’re now lowering the focus on the breathing, but still trying to maintain it as a loose touch point to keep you present and grounded in the exercise. Closing your eyes helps to block out additional visual distractions as we ease into it.
  5. Recall a time when something really good happened that made you feel powerful or unstoppable (e.g. I often think back to hearing the news that I landed my first job out of college).
    1. We’re going to take this feeling, and use the human brain’s awesome power to replay and reexperience memories of emotions as if you were experiencing the same thing now. Essentially, if you’ve ever been in a state of mind where you felt less afraid because you felt powerful, you can always get back there by visualizing and replaying those emotions.
  6. Imagine that feeling embodied as liquid sunlight. Everything it touches, it soothes, cools, and infuses with that feeling of power. Visualize that liquid sunlight entering and then sort of filling the body from above your head, starting with each of your toes, then up your legs, then your stomach, torso, arms, and finally filling your head until it overflows out of you.
    1. As you visualize the feeling filling your body and overflowing, what it’s actually doing is permeating through your mind, amplifying that replayed emotion and fixing it squarely in your mind.
  7. Now, with your eyes still closed, stop focusing on the visualization, and just let your mind do whatever it wants for the next 20-30 seconds.
    1. This time is so that your mind can just get used to resting and being in that emotional space we’ve just created.
  8. Open your eyes to conclude the visualization. Now that you hopefully feel less afraid, ask yourself whatever question you were struggling with again and see what answers you come up with.

Even just having the self-awareness to recognize that we are influenced by fear loosens its hold on us. However, once we know that fear manipulates our actions, we have two choices: we can accept the fear and the boundaries it creates in our lives–sometimes in the face of unacceptable real risk or danger, this is preferable and rational–or we can decide that something we value is more important than avoiding fear.

In accepting fear, it’s worth pointing out that as we build more courage our perspective of what is too terrifying, too risky, or too dangerous can change. What’s impossibly scary today could be very manageable in the future, and the only way to really know is to cultivate courage so you have as much perspective as you can when faced with something that scares you. However, there is a difference between courage and recklessness: courage is facing fear and taking a potential risk when fear is irrational or when something we value or hope for is truly more important than the danger we expose ourselves to; recklessness is putting ourselves and others in real danger just for the sake of it and without principle or reason to guide us. Courage is a virtue; recklessness is a vice.

Cultivating courage, however, will be the topic of next week’s final post in this series. Stay tuned for that, and in the meantime in the comments below tell me: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Other Resources

Disclaimer: this section may contain affiliate links where, at no additional cost to you, I receive a small amount of compensation for things you purchase through links on this website. I never list things here that I don’t personally use and believe in, and the money goes toward supporting this site and allowing me to continue writing.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one of my favorite books, and contains much of what powers my personal philosophy today. The first time I read it, it blew my mind, change my perspective, and ultimately altered the course of my life. The first habit, Be Proactive, has a lot of echoes to the concepts of self-awareness. Stephen Covey claims that the space between stimulus and response is what makes us human and gives us choice. I’ve expanded on this concept to place self-awareness in this space.

 

 

 

Headspace LogoHeadspace is a mindfulness and meditation app that’s gained a lot of popularity recently. Despite my parents insisting that I try various forms of meditation for years before I found it, Headspace is what really got me into meditation. Rather than frame meditation as a spiritual practice (which it does not have to be), Headspace frames it as a set of mental exercises that help us to learn and maintain different states of mind.

 

 

Related Posts

Fear: The Invisible Prison of the Mind

Emotional Inertia: The Secret to Unlocking Potential

Fear: The Invisible Prison of the Mind

I was about about two-thirds of the way to the top of a rock climbing wall when I realized I was too tired to keep going, and too tired to climb down. A slack rope snaked up the wall beneath me and hooked into several anchor points before finishing in a knot at my waist. Looking down the 30 or so feet to the ground, I felt myself break into a cool sweat. I had two options at this point: intentionally fall anywhere between 10 and 15 feet before my partner below trapped the rope and arrested my fall–perfectly safe, in theory, in the controlled environment of an indoor climbing gym–or live the rest of my days on this wall.

As stupid and melodramatic as it sounds, I seriously considered what it would be like to spend the rest of my life right where I was. The idea wasn’t pretty–how would I get meals? how would going to the bathroom work? would I ever find true love up here?–but in that moment I wanted nothing more than to not have to take that fall. That singular fear overrode all else, leaving me completely paralyzed.

In fact, I’m writing this from that same climbing wall–no, of course not. Obviously I eventually made it down the wall. I wish I could say that in my moment of panic, I gave myself a rallying pep talk and confidently leapt off the wall. Unfortunately, instead, I spent another 5-10 minutes up there wondering why I had ever been born and why on earth I had decided that coming up this wall was a good idea in the first place. Then, with a bit of a whimper, I individually unwrapped each of my fingers until I was no longer holding on to the wall and I fell.

 

* * *

 

Fear is one of our oldest and most primitive emotions. Once upon a time, fear kept us alert, and kept us alive; it was our sixth sense, the superpower that prevented us from becoming food for sabre-toothed tigers, giant flesh-eating kangaroos, or demon ducks of doom. Over time humans evolved and moved up the food chain, and all of these predators went extinct. Our fears, however, did not.

Everyone is afraid of something. Personally, I’m afraid of a lot of things. There are physical fears–spiders and heights–and there are psychological fears–failure and rejection. While there are certainly many things to legitimately fear in the modern world, just as many of the things we commonly fear are not life-threatening. These fears are vestigial, but they are often nevertheless pervasive and pernicious. Sometimes they affect our lives in conscious and obvious ways: the fear of physical things like spiders and heights may lead us to go out of our way to avoid these things, even when our rational mind knows there’s no actual danger; the fear of failure might make you afraid to quit your job and follow a dream, or even just to take risks at work; and the fear of rejection might make you afraid to talk to someone attractive, or even just to be authentic with yourself.

Psychological fears can also control us in more subtle but no less nefarious ways. The greatest deceptions are the lies we tell ourselves to justify avoiding the things we fear the most: you might convince yourself that what you dream of doing instead of holding a stable, traditional job, is whimsical, irresponsible, or impractical, when really you’re just afraid that if you tried you might fail; or you might convince yourself that someone you find attractive is “out of your league,” when really you’re just afraid that if you made your interest known they might reject you. Because we are afraid, we let these things stop us from being authentic, from living with integrity, and doing what we really want to do–perhaps, even, doing what we were really meant to do.

Ironically, despite the Western Democratic ideals of Liberty and Freedom, many of us unwittingly live in the invisible prison of the mind constructed by our fears and insecurities. Whether we are aware of them or not, our fears define the limits of our realities, and in order to become all that we can be we must learn to see them, to challenge them, and ultimately to overcome them.

The mission to escape the confines of this mental cage and other forms of emotional inertia is what led to my being on that climbing wall despite a lifelong fear of heights and of falling. I eventually did get to the point where I could confidently leap from the wall, and not let fear stop me from getting to the top. In facing that fear, and a few others, I’ve cultivated the courage to face larger and more life-altering fears like the fear of failure.

In the process, I’ve learned that courage cannot exist without fear anymore than light without darkness. I’ve learned that courage isn’t so much about banishing fear, as it is about accepting it so completely and so thoroughly that it loses its hold on us. I’ve learned that mastering courage means learning to re-frame fear in real time so that we can act with clarity, confidence, and integrity in defiance of its influence. As I continue to push the bounds of my comfort zone, I’ve found that my perspective of what’s possible has naturally shifted, leading to a sense of greater fulfillment, a more authentic life and disposition, and a more consistent belief in hope rather than fear. Now I want to share with you how you can have that, too.

What are you afraid of? What are the lies you tell yourself to avoid those fears? What would you do and who would you be if you weren’t afraid? Tell me about it in the comments below, and stay tuned in the following weeks to learn how to recognize fear, cultivate the courage to conquer it, and live the life you’re meant to. Until then, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”

Related Posts

Emotional Inertia: The Secret to Unlocking Potential

Going Rogue: Living with Integrity

2017 New Year’s Resolutions

Emotional Inertia

The natural human reaction to discomfort is avoidance–if I don’t feel like doing something, I just won’t; if I hate being rejected, I’ll just stop meeting new people; or if I’m afraid of getting hurt, I’ll just play everything safe. Left alone, our instinct is to pursue what’s easy and what’s comfortable, often trading long-term growth and fulfillment for short-term safety and gratification. Over time, this tendency creates a psychological momentum that keeps us rooted where and who we are–a concept I call emotional inertia.

Emotional inertia is responsible for most of the behaviors we consider stereotypically average: the people who say they’re going to do something–start a business, write a book–and then never do; the people who choose the stability of a 9-5 desk job over the chance to discover and pursue their passions; the people who give up at the first sign of struggle rather than persevere. There’s nothing objectively wrong with being average, or comfortable, or safe, but I will argue that it is less satisfying; if you’ve ever wondered if there’s supposed to be more to life, odds are you’ve succumbed to emotional inertia, and that’s OK–most of us do at one point or another, and every extraordinary individual was average in some way before becoming exceptional.

The truth is being average is a choice and it’s one that we often subconsciously make each and every day. It’s the habit of reacting through our lives rather than proacting. It’s the mode of conceding control to our emotions–our fears, our doubts, our insecurities–instead of taking control with our minds. It’s the practice of waiting for things to happen to us instead of acting to make them happen. When we exist this way, life lives us, not the other way around.

The development of emotional inertia is subtle, but its effects are pervasive. Each time we make a promise to ourselves and break it, emotional inertia grows. Each time we betray the calling of our souls for what is safe and comfortable, emotional inertia swells. Each time we give up without giving it all we’ve got, emotional inertia expands. Eventually we convince ourselves of the highest forgery: that we were never capable in the first place, so we were right not to try.

Emotional inertia leads us to choose comfort over courage; to choose what is fun, fast, or easy over what is right; and to choose to simply profess our values rather than practice them. We combat it by putting virtue into practice. In the immortal words of Marcus Aurelius, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Each time we take action in defiance of sloth, we develop discipline. Each time we press forward despite our fear, we cultivate courage. Each time we endure even though we’ve taken a beating, we promote perseverance. Though some people have an affinity for one or more of these qualities, none are innate. Like muscles, each must be individually strengthened and maintained. The choice to do so is always ours.

The beautiful irony of emotional inertia, however, is that it works both ways: it creates an ennui that prevents us from starting, but also fuels an internal resolve that keeps us from quitting. Like a boulder rolling down a hill, we gain momentum as we go and it gets easier, and easier to persist. Still, the struggle is constant and perfection is forever elusive. Yet the promise of pushing that potential to its peak is staggering: mastery over our internal worlds, power to control our perceptions rather than let them control us, courage to dream, discipline to execute, and perseverance to rise again boldly when we fall.

This vision of mastery is what I strive for every day. It’s what inspired me to train for and complete an Ironman triathlon, it’s what motivated me to start pushing myself past my fears, and it’s ultimately what impelled me to take responsibility for my own future by quitting my job. None of these things has been easy. There have been times when I couldn’t get myself excited to do what I needed to do; there have been times when I turned around and went home instead of facing a fear I set out to break; and there have been times when I have wondered if it would be better to just give up, to quiet my inner voice, and go with the flow. But I haven’t. And I won’t. Because ultimately I choose to see what I’m capable of, not in terms of wealth or fame, but in terms of inner strength and character.

While I won’t begrudge those who prefer safety and comfort, I do believe you deserve to become all that you can be. So what’s holding you back? What are you avoiding? What fears do you let control you? Will you rise again? And which destiny will you choose?

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Further Reading

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey is one of my favorite books, and likely the book that has most strongly influenced my personal philosophy. The first habit, “Be Proactive” is a major theme in this post. The other six habits were, in my opinion, equally profound. Nothing in this book is non-obvious, but putting principle into practice is one of the hardest things we can do as human beings. This book is one of my guides for doing so.

The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday is an entire book written about the philosophy behind Marcus Aurelius’ immortal quote, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” This is book about grit, about courage, and about perseverance as understood through Stoic philosophy and the expressed in the lives of many of history’s greatest figures like Demosthenes Amelia Earhart, Ulysses S. Grant, John D. Rockefeller, and Steve Jobs.

Rising Strong by Brené Brown, a renowned vulnerability researcher now of Ted Talk fame, is an inspiring book about resilience. This book is the source of a quote I’m often fond of paraphrasing: “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.” Like this quote, the rest of the book is written beautifully, and contains extensive grounded theory research on the process of being brave, falling, and getting back up. This is actually Brené Brown’s third book, and her other two The Gifts of Imperfection, about vulnerability and shame, and Daring Greatly, about courage, are both also well worth a read.

Effective today, I am leaving my full-time job to pursue my own aims. I have also decided to leave Silicon Valley and currently have no plans to return, though I remain open-minded about coming back in the future. Before you jump to conclusions, I have not left to start a startup, nor have I been struck by lightning inspiration–at least not in the senses that many people who know me might otherwise assume.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the short version is that I am going to attempt to create automatable small businesses while leveraging the strength of US currency to live affordably abroad with two ultimate goals:

  1. Create a source of passive income that will afford me complete dominion over my own time and energy or, more simply, true freedom.
  2. Fail as many times as I can in a short span to internalize the lessons of failure, and never again fear being crippled by it.

Some reading this will undoubtedly think that I’ve gone crazy. Others will say that this is an incredibly risky move and will assume that I either have an extremely high risk tolerance or am just plain foolish. From a traditional frame of reference, these concerns are justified: who in their right mind leaves a comfortable Silicon Valley tech job for a life of relative uncertainty and no guaranteed financial prospects? Why not at least stay in Silicon Valley and pursue the stereotypical startup dream?

On the contrary, however, I’m not that risk tolerant, and I’m (usually) not that foolish. In fact, despite how crazy this move may sound, I believe that it’s one of the few sane and sure courses available to me right now.

While I am extremely fortunate to have reached the highest rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I find myself overall dissatisfied with my life course to date and the future it promises. Ostensibly, I have won, through some combination of luck and sweat, the freedom to choose my destiny and to self-actualize my dreams. I’ve come to realize, however, that on many levels I’m failing to do so, and that I’m not as free as I thought I was. Worse, even as I fail to self-actualize, I often think that I am succeeding.

The Paradox of Traditional Success

The paradox here comes from a received definition of success that I have come to take for granted: that to be successful one must seek achievement, prestige, and social exaltation. Looking around at my peers, this seems to implicitly be the most common definition of success, and it makes sense: after all, striving for these things is what motivated many of us to work and study so that we could attend the most prestigious academic institutions, and striving for these things is what likely motivated many of our early career decisions. We sit where few others have had the opportunity to sit, and because of that much of society holds us in awe and reverence.

Unfortunately, there are two controlling and potentially harmful pressures inherent in this definition of success: a drive towards conformity, and a fear of failure.

Conformity

Pursuing prestige and achievement for their own sakes promotes conformity. We typically define prestige by what is desired but unattainable by the majority, so we as individuals don’t control what is considered prestigious. There is also usually a relatively established pecking order of prestige, with strong brands and selective opportunities typically dominating the field. Since the opportunities are few, and the majority agree on what is considered prestigious, when success drives us to seek prestige, we tend to conform to what society thinks is desirable and scarce. This outcome is unfortunate because it pushes many of what might be considered the best and brightest to trade their own desires, their own dreams, and their own originality for achievement and esteem in the eyes of the majority, sometimes even at the expense of their values.

Up until now, this has certainly been a theme in my life–I went to the most distinguished school I could, and took a job at the most prominent company that fit my skills and interests. Even in my most self-aware moments, I don’t know if I stopped to think whether I did these things because they were right for me, or if I did them because I knew society celebrates people who walk the prestigious path. Without thinking about it, my default mode became conformity motivated by a desire for prestige. Now that I’m capable of questioning it, I’m no longer willing to trade what makes me unique–or the chance to discover that–for prestige; I’m no longer willing to compromise on my values for an empty sense of accomplishment.

Fear of Failure

While conformity controls what we strive for, fear of failure influences how we get there. When approached correctly, failure can be life’s greatest teacher and an individual’s greatest ally. On the other hand, when handled inappropriately or outright avoided, failure can tear us apart from within, and it can drive a cycle of insecurity that encourages us to feed our egos instead of our souls. I’ve personally experienced failure both ways.

Most of us are conditioned to fear failure from a young age, and many of us will spend our entire lives doing everything in our power to avoid it. This reflex is a byproduct of the score-, test-, and grade-driven society that raises us. We’re subconsciously taught that the better we do on tests and the more pristine our resumes, the more we will be valued by colleges and, therefore, by society. At its extreme, we begin to confuse our perceived value to society with our sense of intrinsic self-worth. We come to believe the prime fallacy that failure is the antithesis of success, and that the less we fail, the better the life we will lead. Failure becomes our nemesis and our most potent fear. We allow this fear to define our sense of risk, often unquestioningly favoring well-paved roads to “success” over self-discovery, self-growth, and self-expression through finding our own unique ways through the world and living with integrity.

Try as we might, we cannot evade failure forever. Failure is a fact of life–in our careers, in our relationships, in our goals. The question, then, is not if we will fail, but when we will fail. Success should be defined not by the absence of failure, but rather by what we learn, who we choose to be, and the strength of character we display when we fail.

I cannot honestly say that I no longer fear failure–decades of accepting fear as truth cannot be reversed in the blink of an eye through a trick of the mind. Rather than succumb to that fear, however, I choose to face it, to embrace it, and even to seek it out. When I am done, I hope to have truly made failure my ally.

Redefining Success

I have chosen to reject any definition of success that finds its basis in conformity, fear, and ego. I refuse to measure my success in terms of material possessions, social esteem, and external validation. Instead, I have adopted a new definition based on my principles, values, and convictions: success means reaching my highest potential through application and embodiment of my principles, through cultivation of a character that is maximally aligned with my values, and through integrity to my convictions. I choose to measure my success in terms of growth, self-esteem, and internal validation. I hope that by doing so I will reach my highest potential, and that I will use that power to help others reach theirs.

A Good Life

This new definition of success comes from intense reflection on the perennial philosophical question, “What makes for a good life?” To find my answer, I imagined myself on my deathbed and tried to determine what I would need to do in order to feel satisfied with the life I lived.

External Validation

The first set of ideas that came to mind were stereotypical metrics for success: fame and fortune–things like wealth, material possessions, and the adulation of society and my peers. These metrics likely come from popular culture; the celebrities we adore have all of these things, and because they’re so high-profile we often assume that they’re among the happiest, most fulfilled, and most successful among us.

Thinking on it further, we often desire these things when we’re seeking external validation. We want others to respect us, to love and adore us, even to be jealous of us because when they do it props up our fragile egos. When we depend so heavily on the admiration of others, we don’t have to face the gargantuan task of learning to love ourselves. We seek status symbols in the form of material possessions because we think we can buy happiness or that net worth correlates with self-worth.

Worse, though, external validation is elusive and unreliable: we cannot control how others regard us just as we cannot control the many unpredictable factors that may or may not lead us to wealth. I’m not willing to take that chance with my sense of ultimate fulfillment.

Internal Validation

They say true happiness comes from within, and I agree: we become sustainably and self-reliantly content with ourselves when we cultivate sources of internal validation rather than external validation. I’ll even take it a step further and posit that the more internally validated we become, the closer we get to reaching our highest potentials–when we follow our internal compasses, we tend to grow most quickly and most authentically.

So what does it mean to be internally validated? In stark contrast with external validation, internal validation means loving ourselves, not in an egotistical or narcissistic way, but in an accepting and self-compassionate way. It means being able to derive a sense of self-satisfaction and self-motivation entirely from within rather than from without. In truth, I believe that what I call internal validation, when fully achieved, is what other philosophies refer to as “nirvana” or “enlightenment”: a complete sense of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment through mastery of the inner world.

How, then, do we become internally validated? We are most self-satisfied when we do, for lack of a less cliche phrasing, what feels right. Most of us, myself included, have certain principles, values, and convictions which help to define our sense of “rightness,” but which we don’t always follow. It’s easy to lose sight of these things because there are so many competing pressures in our lives: the pressure to conform; the aversion to natural human fears like failure, rejection, and regret; the default drive to seek comfort, certainty, and familiarity at all costs. It’s also surprisingly difficult to remember to regularly check-in with ourselves and be honest about our true motives.

By living a life that exemplifies and cultivates my principles, values, and convictions, I become more internally validated. When I do something because I hold conviction that it is the right thing to do, the outcome, which I often can’t control, ceases to matter. Instead, I’m happy because, given a choice, I acted with integrity to my values. I may not be able to control the fickle opinions of others or the whims of fate, but I can always control my character, my actions, and my reactions. I am much happier tying my ultimate fulfillment to these things than tying it to things outside my influence.

Of course, I’m not perfect, and I never will be. I also fully expect my values to change as I grow and experience more of life. I believe the pursuit is nevertheless worth it, and the wisdom I’ve accrued by living with authenticity and integrity is far more valuable to me than affluence or social acclaim. The pursuit of happiness seems to be an internal journey, not an external one, and that journey itself holds at least as much meaning as the destination.

Social Good

Those who know me well know that a sense of purpose for social good is an important part of my identity. For that part of myself, the idea of living my life solely to become internally validated–in a sense, a proxy for my own long-term happiness–feels selfish. Reconciling this took some thought, and I eventually amended my definition of a good life to include helping others become internally validated as well. This makes sense to me because it “feels right”–helping others is implicit in the principles of kindness, fairness, and compassion which I value highly–but it also stands to reason: if becoming more internally validated is how I maximize personal utility, then helping others reach that same state is how I maximize global utility.

There’s a bit of a paradox in the idea of helping someone else become internally validated, however. Is it even possible to help others become internally validated via external means? Though we can never directly create internal validation in others–that’s a task always left to the individual–there are two ways we can promote it:

  1. Free people from having to fight for basic needs, empowering them to have more choice and ability to meet their potential.
  2. Help people around us to feel, believe, and internalize a sense of personal worth and to feel, believe, and actualize their potential.

The first category is where the traditional “save the world” missions sit: existential threats like climate change or terminal disease may prevent a large number of people from reaching their potential by ending their lives prematurely. This category is also where social justice missions sit: a society that doesn’t provide equal opportunity or fair and equitable treatment to all regardless of their race, gender, or beliefs similarly prevents a large number of people from self-actualizing. Lastly, this category is where donation and direct acts of service fit: by donating our time, energy, resources, knowledge, or skills we can sometimes help fulfill the basic needs of others, giving them a better chance to meet their potential.

The second category is where we can make an impact in our everyday interactions with others. We’ve all met people who believed in us in ways that helped us affirm our belief in ourselves. These are the people who encourage us to grow, and who see our potential even when we struggle to. We all have the capacity to be those people in the form of, for example, a caring friend, a servant leader, a source of inspiration, a loving significant other, or an encouraging parent.

All that said, however, it’s important to remember that we can’t expect to be able to help others if we can’t help ourselves. This concept is similar to what we hear in every pre-flight briefing: that we should put on our own oxygen masks before assisting others with theirs. In order to help others reach their full potential and to maximize our impact, we must prioritize actualizing our own potential. If we’re not the best we can be, how helpful will we be in saving the world or leading a crusade for social justice? If we don’t believe in and pursue our own potential, what hope do we have of helping others believe in and pursue theirs? Of course, when possible, I believe in working on ourselves and contributing at the same time, but I don’t believe it’s healthy to deny our own growth needs when that’s not possible.

It’s also important to remember that contribution is contribution. There’s no value in comparing our contribution to others’; in reality, doing so turns social contribution into yet another status symbol arms race driven by our egos rather than our values. The only place where there is value in comparison is to ourselves: are we living with integrity and maximizing our ability to contribute in the ways available to us?

Walking My Path

Everything I believe and everything I’ve learned have led me to the crossroads I stand at now. Two years ago, as a computer science major at Stanford looking to go into industry, there were three obvious, socially-accepted paths after graduation: join a large, established, prestigious company like Google, Facebook, Dropbox, or Palantir; join a VC-backed startup; or start a VC-backed startup. These are the paths worse for wear, and though joining or starting a startup is certainly more financially risky, at this point it isn’t socially risky–doing these things still affords one “street cred,” and relative esteem in the eyes of one’s peers.

As a prestige-oriented individual, I never stopped to consider other options and, indeed, the doors laid open to me coming out of school reflected this. Now that I’m aware of my previous strong bias toward prestige, I can consciously counteract it, and in doing so I’ve had my eyes opened to a multitude of less conventional paths, some of which align more closely with my values and how I want to grow than the conventional ones. This doesn’t mean that I won’t ever return to a more well-trodden path, but it does mean that I don’t intend to do so unless I’m convinced there’s no better way to live my values and no quicker way to grow.

The path I have chosen this time signals a strong departure from what motivated me before, and a yearning to explore the road less traveled by. In the next chapter of my life, I hope to find financial independence while living and working with integrity. I plan to leverage my current skills, knowledge, and interests to create value for others, ideally in ways that help them self-actualize. Concretely, this means that I’ll be creating small products–most likely software-based–that can sustainably cover the cost of my lifestyle with minimal long-term time input. At the same time, I’ll be living abroad both to bring the cost of my lifestyle down and to satisfy my wanderlust.

I won’t lie and say that this doesn’t scare the crap out of me. By going it alone and changing my social setting I expect to experience extreme discomfort. I expect to fail, I expect to feel lonely, and I expect to feel afraid. I’m not arrogant enough to presume that the financial side of this is going to work–in the worst case I may blow my entire savings and fail to make a single cent. If it does work, however, I will win the ability to spend the vast majority of my time and energy in pursuit of my values without compromise. I will also have demonstrated to myself that I can create value on my own, and that if I ever need money to pursue my aims I’m capable of making it myself.

Regardless of the outcome, though, I expect to grow immensely–both in predictable ways and, if I’m lucky, in ways that will completely surprise me. Because my definition of success doesn’t correlate with financial gain, traditional definitions of risk don’t apply well here. Because I value maximizing growth more than I value maximizing comfort, this is the surest path I could choose. Because facing my fears requires cultivating a courage that upholds my highest values, I know that I’m living with integrity. I can only hope that that makes all the difference.

Walk Your Path

I’m not here to say that everyone who has ever taken a path that’s considered conformist or prestigious should immediately reverse course. I’m also not here to judge people for the paths that they have chosen–only they can really know why they made the choices they did. There are plenty of good reasons why people choose a more traditional path: sometimes that path truly does align with their strengths, interests, and values; sometimes that path offers growth and learning that can’t easily be found elsewhere; sometimes people are insecure and they just need something external to validate them so that they don’t give up; sometimes other responsibilities–to family, for example–require people to compromise and seek stability.

Whatever the reasons, the reasons themselves don’t matter to me; honest awareness of those reasons does. I ask that we have the courage to question our own motives. I ask that we compare our motives to our values, principles, and convictions. I ask that we be truthful and forgiving with ourselves when we find that we are not living with integrity. It’s never too late to start.

Your values and mine will likely not be the same–yours make you unique as mine make me unique. If we dare to follow our hearts where they lead us, we will walk unprecedented paths; paths full of adventure and challenge, growth and wisdom, success and failure that we will earn the right to call completely our own. It is my sincere parting hope that you find that path whatever and wherever it may be and that you walk it without regret, without shame, and without fear.

Thank You

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Much of this is very personal and, while I primarily write to inspire myself, I love hearing about how my ideas and my writing make other people think. If this resonated with you or, even better, if it didn’t at all, I would welcome a message, a phone call, or even just an anonymous comment below.

Further Reading

The thoughts, values, perspectives, and philosophies communicated here have been profoundly influenced by the following works, all of which have challenged my assumptions:

I believe the synthesis of these ideas is completely my own. No plagiarism or appropriation of ideas was intended.