I thought I was brewing a cup-of-tea kind of post, but it turned out to be a beast. which explained why I've been so late.
This post is a result of deep wandering into the question "Who do I choose to be?" I hope it sheds some light into some dynamics of the inner world and the necessary but still terrible struggles many of us will continue to go through. Regardless of who and where you are in life, we have more in common than we believe.
Falling in love with brokenness.
An inquiry into generosity, attention and care.
“I’ve already fallen in love with you. I know you by name, by face, by your words, by your striving and failing. But more importantly, I know you by the relationship that has formed between us and is now much greater than each of us.
You have won my heart by being you, this vulnerable being, by knowing your flaws and choosing to care anyway. You tried, you failed, you let me see your wrongness, your woundedness, and in seeing you I also see a part of me. Where else does my desire to serve come from but a tragic yet glad recognition of our common brokenness?”
I wrote this short dedication after many conversations with friends where I realized that one part of my Work in this world is to accompany people in the finding, choosing and doing the important Work of their lives.
The realization came from a short period of doubt, wondering what I’ve been doing all this while, asking myself questions, struggling to hold the possible answers and not being able to write.
The writer’s block, if it exists, is the place where most emotional energy is kept. If we can gently put our hand right on that tensed spot of our emotional body and massage it, the whole blockage will melt, oozing out vitality in the form of words. The block is the most interesting place to dance around and eventually dig into.
The same principle applies for life: whenever we feel stuck, if we can sense the precise nature of that stuckness and take one tiny step to get close in to it, we are ok. Like my teacher Bayo said, if what is on the way — the “blockage” — is also part of the way, then the obstacle is indeed an invitation for us to shapeshift, to melt our sense of self around it in order to get in rather than get through. I’d call this process “transilience”, the bouncing across from one state of being to another unexpected one, a byproduct of an exploratory exercise in self-reconfiguration.
Going through this cycle of being stuck and gaining clarity again and again, each time at a deeper level, has given me such an affection towards the messy human experiences.
These unglamourous mixes of doubt, anger, fear, jealousy, hope that people have shared with me over the years probably don’t look very pretty. Yet, like wholesome unprocessed food, they have been so good for my life’s digestive tract. They make my mind drool enzymatic thoughts, my bacterial body sing, and my heart dance to the patterns only it could sense, to the “greater relationships between us” that only it could make sense of. Once I have fallen in love with the world, once intimacy has taken root, unkempt messiness can be quite sexy, heh.
In retrospect, I’ve gravitated towards this kind of human relational work via a semi-conscious, too-lazy-to-run-away temperament: maybe we are all messed up, and instead of rushing to get out of this quagmire (I did contemplate renouncing normal life to become a monk at some points), maybe I could hang in there a little bit longer, wait to compost those messes into insights and release the resulting energy as an abundant source of meaning? In a slightly perverse way, I’m profoundly attracted to the meaninglessness many people have shared because they gives me real opportunity to put to use my near-obsession for meaning-making. When life no longer makes normal sense, I get turned on.
The question is how can and dare we stay with the trouble, resist the temptation to come up with solutions and thus allow us the space for make a different kind of sense? How can I keep dancing with my own mess and the messes of other people? What would it take so that I can welcome everything — the good, the bad, the scary — as part of that dance?
The risk of generosity
Generosity seems to be nice quality that many people aspire to become. I’ve seen that word many times before, but only recently did it hit me how frightening it is to become generous. The moment I wrote in my journal that I wanted to embody more generosity, my chest tightened up. That’s the way my body often tells me “Holy cow, do you know what you just signed up for?” When it comes to who do we choose to be, if our choice doesn’t scare us a little bit, it’s probably not right. Which means that I might be onto something worth wondering about.
Why is generosity so scary?
Because it implies a willingness to share, and sharing requires us to renegotiate what it means to be a person, an identity shift from “I” vs “you” to “one of us”, from the Story of Separation to a story of Interbeing.
I used to dislike people who seemed selfish, but these days I’ve become more understanding: it indeed takes a lot to go beyond our individual, skin-encapsulated selves. Who would like to constantly deal with the huge cognitive and emotional dissonance of becoming less sure of who we are? Perhaps some crazy people, those who have accidentally touched a part of ourselves which some might call “soul” that once awakened will keep prodding us to reach to something greater, like a relationship with another living being, a vision or a cause.
That work of reaching out brings each of us to the edges of our identity. It is scary, exciting, and like wave surfing, it is the only way to be alive. Worse, there is neither recipe nor playbook for it. While it sounds nice that we all should become more giving, no one can tell us what our gift is to give, for whom and how to deliver. That’s the real hard work, for without a concrete form, the unconditional universal abundance of love in new agey talks is at best an impractical ideal and at worst an excuse to cop out from shadows in life.
Earlier in this journey, because we aren’t used to this, we fall off, we get hurt, we even break down. Generosity always implies heartbreaks, which, by David Whyte’s definition, is “a deeper introduction to what we love and have loved”. For me, it’s the messiness of the human affairs, the paradoxical relationships where care and hate mingle within the same chest and the beauty that can emerge when I’m immersed long enough in this whole entanglement.
In my experience, people betraying my trust doesn’t hurt nearly as bad as trying earnestly to help someone whom I already have fallen in love with and yet who can’t receive it for one reason or another. The romantic in me got it intuitively: unrequited love is worse that misplaced trust. At least for misplaced trust I can think of a plan B; once I have fallen in love, there is no defense, no way out.
Care and attention
This “no way out” situation made me think about the word “care”, something that underlines almost all critical human relationships. To care is to volunteer to put ourselves into a bind that guarantees to break us apart and open.
Caring is a frightening yet inevitable process starting once we realize that we are not alone here and that we cannot help but be touched by life. A caring heart is one that embraces its many cracks and in allowing so becomes porous. It dares to absorb pain, which through its alchemical chamber will be transformed into care and pumped out to the world. Every pain, tenderly noticed and patiently worked through, will produce an equal but opposite amount of care. That’s the Third Law of (e)Motions. (sorry, I can’t resist bringing nerd brain into heart talk…)
“Every pain, tenderly noticed and patiently worked through, will produce an equal but opposite amount of care.”
The more mature form of caring requires a dual capacity to accept the humble state of not knowing how to help while still daring just enough to act on what is necessary. In that interplay of alert contemplation and courageous action, the ability to see simultaneously what it is and what it could be is essential.
That ability depends on a different kind of attention, one that can hardly be measured by sterilized terms like “span”, “engagement” and “click”. In the world dominated by social media, it’s too easy to forget that not all kind of attention is made equal. It’s not only how much, but also how rich, spacious, nourishing and even reverent our attention is. That kind of life-giving attention, I realized, is the gift that I’m learning to make and give away, so that we can all notice and see ourselves and each other more fully.
“Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills”.
When that kind of loving attention flowers on the self, the result is freer, more dynamic exchange between the inner and the outer life, like the pleasurable in-breath intertwining the out-breath that allows for a paradoxical realization of “I’m enough, and I can be more”. When this attention shines on the relationship with someone else, the result is a generative partnership, a relationship full of possibilities.
Lest you think I’m painting an overly rosy picture about the wishy washy of care and love, here is the truth: it’s rare, because it’s hard. It takes a lot of work to develop such a spacious attention, as our mind isn’t trained to uphold multiple perspectives, just like we can’t mentally calculate 1958 x 636 while having a heated emotional conversation.
The work is in consistently seeing someone for who he is — flawed, vulnerable yet genuinely striving — while also fiercely insisting on what he will be — understanding, brilliant, courageous. It’s fierce because it takes gut to dig deep so that we can really see the other person, listen to the story he is telling himself and then say “No, I don’t believe that’s all you can be.”
How come we can recognize that story? Because it’s also in each of us. I know, because I’m still using those stories/excuses every day. It turns out that the quasi-masochistic hobby of peeling off my inner onions has helped me become more sensitive to those stories. It turns out that my private indulgence of getting to know myself could become a public inquiry. It turns out that I have accidentally done the right thing, as David Whyte wrote in his poem “Start Close In”:
your own voice,
Despite the poetry, this work is no sexy at all. In fact, it can be the most boring job ever. “Dig, dig, dig some more” is all it is.
There is a plus side though. By paying attention and staying close to what is alive, you are paving the way for the beautiful potential of the world to reveal itself. At a human-to-human level, by noticing and insisting on a different, more beautiful image of others can be, you are “investing” in a collective vision. As you care for some people — not all like “let’s love everyone” hippie universalists dream towards — they in turn expect you to care. They too hold a ideal version of you so that when you go astray along this treacherous journey they will tell you “You used to be this fierce, caring and generous friend — what happened to you?” In times of despair, sometimes you need people to remind why you are there in the first place.
That’s the sly intention I’ve been planting all along in writing this. A trick to set myself up for being called out.
Sometimes I wonder why this whole life thing is so hard. Sometimes the journey to pursue what we care about, be it a person, a vision or self-knowledge can feel so treacherous, as if we are a tight rope walker who has to take every step firmly, not too slow, not too fast, not too left, not too right.
I’m not even trying to save the world; I’m only trying to save the only life I could save. I’m not trying to protect wild life; I’m only trying to be in touch with my wild, shy animal. My whisper to my younger self and his ambition to change the world is that “only” rarely seems that simple.
Now that I am seeing a bit more of this scary path, I become so much more accepting of people who refuse to walk on it. Please, by all means possible, shy away from it for as long as you can, for it may shatter your world, break everything you know and leave you with nothing but only the unexpected.
But if somehow you accidentally step on this path, either through an external crisis or an inner discovery, welcome. Here is a blessing for all of us.
May we be generous with our attention to notice the beauty that is already here and nourish the one that will be.
May we be generous with our intention to bear the suffering we will inevitably create for ourselves — the doubt, confusion, fear — for choosing to walk on a path that is decidedly uncertain but maybe truly ours.
May we be generous with our mistakes so that we can embrace the genuine possibility of doing something that may not work, for only in daring so can we ever touch something real.
To all those who have and will choose to join me as friend, collaborator, ally, supporter, teacher, partner, I don’t usually express my gratitude, but through this work I want to tell you that I know you, I see you, and this is how I give thank to you.
June 7th, 2018.
p/s: If you are feeling bloated by life, I’d like to help. Let's chat!
Sharing is sprouting.
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The variety of Hurts
I post this on my FB the other day and I thought of sharing it again here :D Out of those experiences I have with the word "hurt", which one resonates? Makes you cringe? Laugh? What else does the word "hurt" bring to you?
"Tell me, friend: where does it hurt?": A beautiful question to invite the heart.
"I'm sorry what I did hurt you": A verbal medicine, something I wish I could say more often.
"I'm hurt": what Courageously Vulnerable People say in fierce self-compassion.
"We are hurt": what Generous Souls who care enough say to help us name the seemingly obvious.
"Hurt yourself => hurt nature": New Agey Personal Development mantra
"Hurt Nothing => hurt everything": what Creatives who learned the hard way after failing to nourish their creative spirit (Nothingness refers to the elusive inner genius)
"Hurt everything => hurt nothing": excuses by Benevolent Dictators like Thanos
"Let's not hurt each other": what "Safe Space" Advocates say.
"Let's TRY not to hurt each other": first thing every Social Entrepreneur says to preamble their urge to do anything in the name "making the world a better place".
[BONUS] "It hurts, and it feels so good!": a kinky heart/mind/body, which can be quite charming, scary or both.
Jumped on TEDxHanoi stage :-)
Someone bought me a slot on the TEDxHanoi stage and I jumped on it right away. My CEO friend Duc sponsored the event a seed-giving game with literal seeds, and I got to improvise a "sales pitch", which also resonates with what I believe anyway. Here is the video if you are interested :D