Things I’ve been confused about recently

  • How busy should I be? When I first moved to Pittsburgh and started working, I didn’t really know what to do with my weekday nights, but I knew that I wanted to make the most of my free time. Now, I have recurring events 3 out of 5 nights during the week (improv class, therapy, and Chinese tutoring), and I usually have some other type of appointment or performance a day out of most weeks. As I’ve started trying to establish a workout routine and meet up with more people outside of work, I wonder what the right balance between scheduling things, leaving room for spontaneity, alone time, and personal work time (doing chores, personal errands, etc.) is.
  • Senses of self that are Not Helpful:
    • A fungible being/a worker
    • A person completing a list of tasks every day
    • Input/output machine where the output is how something makes me feel
    • Positivity generator
  • Looking to the past as a reminder of what kinds of ways of being are possible, while not being constrained by/stuck in it
  • What do you do/what can you do when you realize that you’re not living mindfully?
  • Consumerist/materialist/convenience-oriented desires vs. minimalism/sustainability. How can I use money to counteract the negative effects that working has had on me? Is it even right to ask that question?
  • Performativity

Thinking about the ways in which I’m constantly dying

It’s really strange to acknowledge this, but I’ve just finished my first month working at Duolingo. Before I started this job, it was hard for me to visualize what working would be like. The fact that it was going to be such a new environment, and even the idea of working full-time (with no definite stop date, for the first time in my life) actually made visualizing the transition impossible for me. When I tried to imagine what working would be like, my mind would literally just come up blank.

This has happened to me at other times too, basically whenever I’m anticipating something very new or foreign, for which I’ve had little context for. For instance, I could not imagine what the Dipabhāvan retreat would be like—I’d never had an experience that I felt like I could base my expectations of the retreat off of.

The strange thing (which I don’t actually think is too uncommon) is that whenever I’m in this kind of position, where I can’t visualize some aspect of my near future, I feel like I’m about to die. And I think it makes sense, because in those periods, the future me just doesn’t exist in my imagination.

I’ve been thinking about this feeling-like-I’m-about-to-die recently, not because I can’t imagine my future right now, but because I recently finished reading Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s In Love With the World: What a Buddhist Monk Can Teach You About Living from Nearly Dying. The book constantly reiterates the idea that the transition between life and death is not just something that happens at the end of your life. We’re constantly dying in small ways, as we shed various parts of our identities. In this way, I was right to perceive myself as about to die before I started working, or before the meditation retreat. The part of me that couldn’t fathom what those experiences would be like died, and transitioned into one that could.

For the past couple years, I’ve been focusing a lot on explicitly cultivating gratitude. Although some of the practices I used to do feel a bit forced to me now, I’ve inadvertently realized that thinking about the ways in which I’m constantly dying really allows me to see the blessings in difficult or uncomfortable situations. For instance, I’ve been feeling frustrated at how slowly I’m picking up the knowledge/skills I need for my job, but when I remind myself that nothing is permanent, and that my identity as a new employee is temporary, I actually feel appreciation for my current confused state. I just imagine that one day I might look back on this time with a lot of nostalgia. When I’ve “figured everything out,” I might miss the uncertainty and all the possibilities that accompanied it. A smaller and more everyday type of example is when I feel impatient while waiting for the bus or an appointment, I remind myself that my identity as someone who is waiting is going to die soon, which helps me to loosen my attachment to the future and future identities/states and brings me back to the present moment.

The only time you can live is the present!

Not wanting the best

Four years ago, around the time I started thinking about design, one of my friends visiting Princeton remarked to me how much he liked the campus, because he could feel all the care that was put into its design. At the time, I (in my head) immediately disagreed with him, one of my dominant objections being: if the people who designed campus really cared about student life, they would make more direct routes (diagonals) between buildings.

I look back on that response now and find it really amusing. Not only have I cultivated a lot more appreciation for Princeton’s campus since then (funny how our experiences shape our perceptions of a place 😊), but my design sensibilities have also evolved. I used to think that good design was all about efficiency—how can I best enable the user to accomplish their goals?—but that’s engineering, not design!

It may be kind of weird to read that, because the logical consequence is not wanting or designing for “the best.” But I think that in design and in life, it’s more important to focus on enabling a range of experiences, rather than on optimality. For instance, it would certainly be more efficient if all of the grass at Princeton were replaced with cement, but what kind of experience would that be? Campus would certainly be less beautiful.

I’ve been reminding myself of this mindset recently while traveling. It’s really easy for me to get stuck into thought patterns like, “I want to eat at the best restaurants” or “I want to make sure I get the most out of this trip.” That’s one of the main reasons why traveling can be so stressful for me (usually in the days right after I arrive, before I remember that “the point of travel is to be flexible”1), because I feel this pressure to have the best experience. I don’t identify as a perfectionist, but this is definitely a perfectionist tendency. Aggressively checking TripAdvisor/Google reviews/Yelp, feeling like I have to check certain places/foods/experiences off a list, documenting everything to prove something to people afterwards… In so many crucial ways, overplanning shelters you from experience. And I’ve realized that having a life full of experiences, a range of experiences, feels so much more rich and desirable to me than a life filled with attempts at getting the best. It’s also really liberating.

I want to close with this quote from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist that has been on my mind recently. Spoiler alert! The context: after Santiago goes to the Egyptian Pyramids to search for his treasure, he gets beat up and robbed, and doesn’t actually find anything. But in the process, he learns from one of the thieves where his treasure actually is. This quote is from when he goes to that location and starts digging.

“You old sorcerer,” the boy shouted up to the sky. “You knew the whole story. You even left a bit of gold at the monastery so that I could get back to this church. The monk laughed when he saw me come back in tatters. Couldn’t you have saved me from that?”

“No,” he heard a voice on the wind say. “If I had told you, you would’t have seen the Pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”


1Ten Years a Nomad: A Traveler’s Journey Home by Matthew Kepnes

Living with contradictions

I love consistency. I’m pretty sure the reason why is because my father was super inconsistent when I was growing up, and I really disliked it, so I went way in the other direction. But as with everything, it’s a blessing and a curse! One of the reasons loving consistency is great is because it’s easier for me spot inconsistencies in logic and thus learn faster. And one of the ways it has made life difficult for me is that, for a long time, I’ve struggled to resolve a bunch of internal inconsistencies, so that I can feel alright with myself.

One of the first things that made me realize that it’s not “wrong” to have internal contradictions is when I was starting character work for one of the people I interviewed over the summer (for my solo show!). She is an older woman, and I was confused about how to play both the silliness in her speech and her laughter, as well as the serious, high-achieving part of her. I told my advisor how frustrated I felt, because it was difficult! And she responded with something along the lines of, all these parts of this interviewee have been developed over her entire life, and although it may feel to me like they’re contradicting each other, there are reasons why they all exist.

More recently, my experience traveling to Mexico City (last week) has really allowed me to actually internalize the previous lesson. Around a year ago, I posted this status to Facebook:

I used to believe that it was important for people to learn about metaphors and analogies so that they could use them to understand abstract concepts and the world. Now I realize they’re important because you can use them to understand yourself.

I thought about that a lot this trip while I was walking around all the different neighborhoods. The architecture in Mexico City is beautiful—the colors were so inspiring to me!—and there are so many different styles, all on display next to each other. I don’t know what prompted this, but I asked myself, why is it that I love seeing two completely different buildings right next to each other, but strongly dislike seeing any kind of inconsistencies in myself? And that made me realize that people are just as complex as cities! And it reminded me that it’s fine to house internal contradictions (and it’s so natural to have them!!), because our lives are complicated processes, just like the inner workings of a city are.

One area I’ve been trying to apply this lesson to is my thinking around my body and appearance. The “contradiction” at hand is that your body is, on the one hand, just this physical vessel that contains “you,” but on the other hand, also the thing that lets you interface with the world and vice versa. So when your external state doesn’t match your internal state (dysmorphia), it can feel really bad because the part of you that the world sees doesn’t reflect the you that you feel like you actually are. For instance, this is why I want to have a sense of fashion that reflects my personality. But what I realized from applying the Mexico City metaphor is, while I can have that, it’s also totally fine for the clothes I wear to just be the clothes I wear. And also, I’m so complicated, and there’s no way that my clothing can always be expressing that! I’ve also been able to develop a lot more acceptance towards my acne, which has been something that has been really frustrating me for the past few months.

By not having to reconcile these contradictions—in a way, prescribing less meaning to things and just accepting them as a consequence of the complexity of myself and my life—I feel so much more at peace. (And of course, the journey is never over!)

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Everything is connected

(More stream of consciousness than my usual blog posts, inspired by some poetry I’ve been reading and life!!!)

Things that you do are not isolated. This is why small things can have big effects. Like parenting. And also proving things to yourself.

That’s why I like taking walks so much. Everything is a metaphor. The cliché of the journey is more important than the destination. That’s why I do weird things on my walks too, like turn around abruptly, walk backwards, skip, sing, etc.

I know this is true because I’ve seen the effects of standing up for myself in one area of my life manifest in others.

How do we know who we are?

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is the question of how much of what we think/”know” about ourselves is a consequence of what others have said about us, and how much of it is from first principles. I was surprised when two of my classes this week touched on this question.

In my Attitudes and Persuasion seminar, we were discussing the difference between explicit and implicit attitudes, and which one is one’s “real” attitude. There is actually no consensus in the field about whether or not explicit and implicit attitudes are even internally represented separately. Explicit attitudes are ones that can be measured using surveys, like Likert scales, and are known to us. Implicit attitudes are commonly measured using the implicit association test, and use responses that are automatic/out of our control in some way (like muscle activity in the face, heart rate, etc.). There was one study on racial attitudes that examined body language as well as implicit and explicit attitudes to see if there was a correlation. A question that was brought up in class was how reliable body language was—should we trust what a person’s body says or what they say more?

In my World Drama class, a similar question came up (but of course in a different context!) while we were discussing The Camp, which is an Argentinian play that deals with fascism and the questions of who is a victim? and how does one become a victim?, among many other things. We were talking about a particular character and to what extent we should view him as a victim, since his actions and his words present different sides of him. In this class, we’ve talked about the question of credibility a lot—you can’t take everything that is said in a play at face value, so is there a character whose perspective we’re supposed to trust? And if there is, what aspects should we trust?

No conclusions were made in either case, but since I had both of these in-class experiences, it made me reflect more on this question of how we can know who we are, since there might not even be one thing that is who we are, even in a small way (like your attitude towards a particular object). All in all, I feel pretty stuck on this question for the moment, and I also wonder, after visiting the VIS open studios yesterday, if the best way to work through this question is by making art.