Hello everyone! Summer is already here, and Hanoi shocked me by how hotter she turned after a weekend of wandering in Hoi An (and get terribly sunburnt...) With the heat, I'm also reminded of the graduating season for all the college seniors, and I'll probably write something for them soon.
And happy belated Mother's day to all the mothers who are reading this (Marcia!) Because of you, we exist in this world. 😊
Writing has become more and more challenging and worthwhile - I'm feeling like I'm digging into very strange topic, personal yet universal, with a voice that I can't even tell if it's mine. Maybe I'm going through a time of transformation too. Which is the subject for this week's enzyme.
After you lose yourself
“Why am I not as curious as before?” a friend recently exclaimed to me nearing her graduation. It was another bout of existential crisis, something I often joke about since it’s such a common phenomenon for young people, especially those talented achievers with high expectation for themselves. My friend had always been a voracious learner, but she seemed to be losing that appetite. Imagine how devastating such realization is for someone who sees herself as smart, curious and driven. Imagine the shame and confusion that arise once such core identity is shaken.
It was a tender moment. Her raw desperation struck something in me. I have been there.
Remembering the fuzzy time
In a previous post, I wrote about an existential crisis that occurred during a week of intense introspection three years ago. A similar thought occurred to me “Why am I no longer interested that in life and what I was doing?”
It’s common to remember only breakthrough moments like that week because they are emotionally salient and thus make for good story. Indeed, that week of being alone and questioning the very foundation of myself stays vivid in memory because of how frightening it was. I sensed the pull of grave darkness, an urge to dig deeper within that I couldn’t resist. Going through that week felt as if everything I knew about myself was falling apart.
I have heard of similar ego-death experiences, often from a romantic breakup, a catastrophe or the loss of a loved one. As such, when I experienced it by sitting with myself in my own room, not at a meditation retreat or a psychedelic trip, I was rather shocked.
What I’m more interested though is the fuzzier post-crisis integration, a phase that I think my friend and many people are and will be going through. It’s one thing to hit a crisis, it’s another thing to live through it. Soundbite advice like “focus on the present moment” or “see it as an opportunity to grow” doesn’t get into the heart of what happens. Accounts of those stories often go like this “Something big happened. (Details, details, details). It took me a long time… I learned xyz and then I’m over it.” Sounds nice, but not very helpful in illuminating what happened.
A common mistake for people eager to develop themselves is to chase after “peak experiences” without budgeting enough time to digest them. As the body builders say, muscles aren’t built only in the gym but also in the kitchen. Similarly, personal growth isn’t solidified only at the transformative event but also when we got back to our normal life. After the peak stimulus, one must rest, recuperate and digest. Sometimes the process can be a steep learning followed by a very long integration as Chris Corrigan writes about in this nice short post about mastery. Let me try to use my experience to see what can we learn about such fuzzy period.
Wandering and self-rebuilding
It took me about 8 months from that week of introspection to establish a new normal. While not as intense as the alone week itself, it was difficult in a different way.
You may think that being plagued by self-doubt questions like “What is wrong with me? How could this ever curious and energetic guy lose interests with life?” was bad. No, much worse was to not even have the energy to ask oneself that often. That was me back then, like an exhausted traveler sinking into a swamp and struggling to breath. He could not afford to panic, for the faster he fumbles, the faster he would drown.
I didn’t get much official help, because I was afraid it might easily get worse with label like mild depression. (One thing I didn’t lose throughout this whole self-pruning process was skepticism of sterile clinical psychology 😛)
Outside, I still went to classes, did projects, tried an internship, made friends, ate, slept, smiled. Yet everything felt somewhat detached, like a blurry glass between me and the world.
Inside, there was a thin current of sadness with occasional grief for the loss of an old self, sometimes a burst of desolation in looking at the fragmented pieces of who I once was. Those pieces would have to be put together, no matter how slowly and painfully. I had no glue to stick them, and I had no idea about the overall shape would be since the old mold was wiped away from the crisis. All I could do was to try putting one by one with exquisite care and see if they could fit. Even activities that had been central to me like writing, reading and exercising were reconsidered.
As someone who is generally healthy and energetic now, it is hard to imagine how lackluster that whole process was. Yet, looking back at that phase, I feel a mixture of admiration and tenderness as if seeing at a patient slowly recovering from a delirious fever.
Although the crisis threw everything off balance, it also helped cleansing me out of the inessentials. I noticed something subtle yet encouraging: within the tenderness of my recovering self, there was also a fierce desire to become even more alive. It wasn’t because of survival of the physical body — I was still eating and sleeping just fine — but rather a newfound respect for the longing of the heart. It had always been there, but it needed re-spect, or to look again, this time with more appreciation and care.
Only later did I found out that David Whyte had named exactly what was happening through that intense week and the 8 months that followed.
“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”
In hindsight, the stake during such a heavy self-rebuilding phase seems necessarily high. Like the newborn ducklings who first see a human and mistake her as their mom, every step that we take in that vulnerable state, no matter how tentative, will profoundly shape who we become.
What emerged from this difficult time was the paradoxical and potent combination of both sensitivity and fierceness towards myself. To see with clarity what the whole of me needs, and then to commit to doing something about it. That’s a real achievement, a treasured asset that I will continue to hone in.
Here is a phrase to sum up that phase. Darkness heightens sensitivity, fierceness tunes out triviality, courage brings vitality.
Distant from the self
Amidst that strange 8-month there was this budding of a new self that Parker Palmer would call “the soul, like a wild animal”, who gently gazed at this panicky college student self who was earnestly trying to find his way through life, let alone make an impact in the world.
Perhaps Cselaw Miloz will call it Love in the poem of the same name.
“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.”
To put in a nerdier way, I was developing a new psychological capacity for the dual awareness that nothing really matters and everything matters, a gradual shift from “either/or” to “both-and” thinking. To the Robert Kegan’s nerd, it is a sign of transition from stage 4 to 5, or the recognition of “deep okayness” to life by Richard Rohr. It’s a strange, intimate feeling, a “deep okayness” to life.
Other tangible impacts from this uncomfortable period include a larger, more spacious and passionate relationship with myself. Ironically, once I’ve faced the frightening darkness of my own shadow, I don’t want to live too far away from it. The light needs the dark too.
Coming out, I wrote in my journal “I became much less self-judgmental, realizing that whatever I do does not really matter. That newfound sense of freedom was strange at first though. I didn’t feel the pull of a vision, of a goal I had for myself. I experienced boredom, and I panicked!”
A related impact is a more friendly relationship with the unknown, a kind of experiential curiosity combined with the tendency for introspection. It is as if the more you can eat the unknown, the more energy you have to birth something new.
Moreover, as you become more aware of how unknown and miraculous you are, others will start to see you differently. Your “vibe” thickens. You become attractive not only because you are beautiful or smart or talented, but because you embody more fully the mystery of life. In a way, people become attracted not to you but through you. The most attractive thing in the universe is the unknown, isn’t it?
The clarity at the bottom.
After such personal exploration, now I’m ready to take a stab at this question for myself: what do we do when everything we know about ourselves, who we are, what we want etc.. is no longer true? I wish I could simply say “Calm down. Everything is going to be alright”. That’s not what I have and will tell myself, because it’s not true.
No, anything may break. And you may not be able to calm down at all. The question is “Is this journey important enough for you? Will you choose to continue?” Quitting is always an option.
Which is what I ended up telling my dear friend. I said that the wandering malaise would get worse. The pervasive boredom would prolong, with greater and greater intensity. She was still struggling because she hadn’t hit rock bottom yet.
It’s a terrible thing to say, and it’s true.
The crisis my friend was going through was so important and potentially powerful that I could not help but jump in to intervene. It breaks my heart when I see a wandering soul succumbing to external pressure to find something prematurely. I have heard this sentiment a bit too often, “I don’t know what I want to do, but everyone expects me to find something, so I have to choose this job/person/group of friends instead”.
Nooooo. That’s bad education. Really bad. For any kind of learning, especially learning how to be a fuller human being like this, each person takes a different time. Forcing our sense of time through a rigid expectation is a violent stunting of the other person. It’s a crime that sadly many of us, including myself, have committed in the name of “caring for someone”.
A much better way to help is to listen and ask her to name exactly the nature of the struggle: despair, boredom, grief, whatever it is. Offer your own spaciousness so that she can comfortably fall further into that deep blackhole. Trust that there is always clarity at the bottom. Then let the release come.
That’s how my teachers have helped me so that I could do it for myself and others. I hope it helps you too. If you find yourself burned out, exhausted, alone, remember there are always beautiful words by the late John O’Donohue.
“[…]Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.
Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.
Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.
— A blessing for one who is exhausted
Thanks for reading. I wish you well through this fuzzy time.
p/s: It can be quite very difficult to become your own best friend, especially during crisis time. It’s also very worthwhile. If you are starting that process, I’d like to help. Speaking like a quasi-capitalist, once you have built up such psycho-spiritual capital, you wait for the right opportunity to trade in for something greater, like a larger sense of being you. :-)
Sharing is sprouting.
If you have been forwarded this newsletter, feel free to subscribe to it here
First time in Paris
On a less grim note, I delivered a story this week on the stage of Hanoi StorySlam and came in third! The prize was a six-pack and a bunch of sausages, all of which I happily fed my friends! I realized I could be quite entertaining when I had to (which is most of the time, since I get bored real quick), but what I love to do is to dig deep, mine insights and share those wizdoms with people. Making people laugh for the sake of fun alone isn't that fulfilling. I really want to teach.