In the East, the concept of karma originated as a way to explain the balance of give and take in the universe. In the West, though, I grew up hearing a much more simplified definition of karma as “good” or “bad.” Karma was a thing to be accumulated over the course of your life, and if you consistently performed “benevolent” actions, you would be accumulating “good karma”, which would supposedly manifest as some kind of reward in the future. Similarly, if you committed acts that most people would consider “morally wrong”, you were accumulating “bad karma”, which would set you up for some sort of future loss or punishment.
Given the U.S.’s history with Puritan values, it’s not surprising that the true definition of karma has been twisted into a question of wrong or right, black or white. In truth, karma just boils down to this simple definition: every action has a consequence. That’s it! There’s no judgment of “good” or “bad” attached to it. It’s as simple and as relevant as Newton’s Third Law of Motion (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction) or as the famous quote from the Bible, “as you sow, so shall you reap.” The choices we make will inevitably have consequences that ultimately come back to us, whether these consequences are immediate or not, so we may as well make conscious, positive choices.
This sounds a lot easier than it is. Why? Because humans have an all-too-common and rather unacknowledged tendency to be ruled by our reactions. We become conditioned by our repeated reactions to certain situations, and as a result, we believe these behaviors are natural and immutable. For example, we’ve come to use the theory of evolution as an excuse for our tribal or animalistic instincts, which are reflected in the way our neighborhoods are divided so blatantly by race and socioeconomic status, even today. These divisions have real implications for our public education system, because school districts are directly supported through the taxes taken from their residents’ salaries. It naturally follows, then, that poorer neighborhoods (with mostly families of color, often African American) can’t provide the financial resources needed to contribute to improving their public schools, whereas affluent neighborhoods (comprised mainly of affluent, white families) can allocate all of their resources to remain within their community, for their public or private schools, for other people who “look like them.”
Note that I’m not trying to demonize specific racial groups, but rather make the connection between primitive instincts to support only those who we identify as “like us” and the accompanying belief that it’s inherent to human nature to do this. I’ll argue here (and again and again on this blog) that what completely distinguishes us from our animal ancestors is our ability to make rational decisions–or “free will.” Humans, unlike animals, have the gift of self-awareness, which makes us aware of our own and others’ existence and the existence of the world in which we reside. It is out of this awareness that arise our creativity, imagination, and ability to evaluate the consequences of our actions. That awareness is our true nature, but we often prefer not to acknowledge our self-control and self-power, probably because it can be painful to hold ourselves responsible for our actions all the time.
An action can be physical, like choosing to hit someone who insulted you, or it can be subtle, like allowing an angry thought to arise and take over your mind. We often don’t think of thoughts as actions, but they are! We can choose to believe in our negative thoughts about specific people or life situations, or we can actively choose to alter our perception of people and circumstances, with introspection, into something more productive (read this post if you haven’t already). Out of our thoughts arise our corresponding emotions, and if we can manage our thoughts, we can manage our emotions.
In The 7 Spiritual Laws of Success, Deepak Chopra describes choosing our emotions in the following way:
If I were to insult you, you would most likely make the choice of being offended. If I were to pay you a compliment, you would most likely make the choice of being pleased, or flattered. But think about it–it’s still a choice. I could offend you, and I could insult you, and you could make the choice of not being offended. I could pay you a compliment, and you could make the choice of not letting that flatter you either. In other words, most of us, even though we are infinite choice-makers, have become bundles of conditioned reflexes that are constantly being triggered by people and circumstances into predictable outcomes of behavior…and we forget that these are still choices that we are making in every moment of our existence.
In my own experience, I’ve found that through education we learn to examine ourselves and our choices. I’ve learned to rework even the subtlest of my judgments of individuals and groups differentiated by race, gender, or religious beliefs. All the incriminating “facts” we pick up and internalize throughout our lives, like studies that “prove” that employers are more likely to respect and hire tall men and attractive, skinny women, suddenly lose their weight when we realize that those prejudices can be changed by becoming aware that a tendency like that even exists. If I were a conscientious employer and I read that stat, I would at least begin to question whether I fell into that category, and if I did, perhaps make an effort to be more conscious of my hiring decisions. The moment you become aware of your decision-making patterns is the moment you become free of Reactivity’s control over you.
I only began to understand how much I thought of my education as a catalyst for critical thinking and self-evaluation, and how deeply I valued those skills, as a teacher. In fact, I quickly realized that my role as a “PE teacher” in the Tenderloin of San Francisco was not to teach physical education so much as it was to teach these kids how to make conscious choices. Countless times I heard my co-teacher, who I always admired for his persistence and self-confidence while teaching, telling kids to “do the right thing” and “make a GOOD choice” in their moments of unconsciousness. Whether that meant they needed to stop being disruptive while we were giving instructions, or whether that meant they needed to accept the consequences of breaking the rules of a game by walking the “blue line” in time out, he always sought to reach the goodness and wisdom inside each of them.
In my own teaching experiences, I could sometimes observe the exact moment in which some of my more emotional students were making the choice to be upset or angry, which was purely amazing. Will, for example, would push someone during a basketball game, get sent to the blue line for being unsafe, and walk willingly towards it, only to turn around and angrily scream that it wasn’t his fault, and that the other kid pushed him first. I doubt he was consciously aware of the thoughts in the split second that led to his anger, but I have no doubt that the thoughts were there. I also have no doubt that with maturity and good teaching, he would be able to elongate that moment enough to examine his thoughts and feelings with clarity before reacting emotionally.
My role as a teacher was to love my students through their moments of unconsciousness, but to encourage them to be aware of and reign in their negative reactions. Wisdom and experience have taught me that every action does indeed have a consequence, whether or not that consequence is immediate. I came to love all of my students this year, so I of course wanted to see them safe and happy, which meant that I had to show them (sometimes gently, sometimes harshly) when their actions were unacceptable. Seeing as these were children who saw unconsciousness in the neighborhood every day (the Tenderloin is rife with drug addicts and violence), and probably had fairly unconscious role models to emulate, this required enormous patience and repetition. I’m still not sure if I’ve had the impact I intended. Nevertheless, it’s been eye-opening to view teaching this year as an opportunity to both teach and practice conscious choice-making.
However, making conscious decisions isn’t always straightforward. If I choose to ride my bike on the sidewalk (which is illegal) because I’m on a busy road and I’ll hold up traffic if I ride on the road, I have to understand that I might piss off some pedestrians or get a ticket (or I might safely make it to my destination without any complaints). I make this decision consciously by understanding all of the possible outcomes beforehand, willingly accepting responsibility for all of them, and making sure that I don’t hurt anyone in the process (i.e. hit a pedestrian). As you can see, making a conscious choice does not necessarily mean that all the possible outcomes are desirable, but rather, that I am aware and accepting of them.
So, in summary (TL;DR), how do you make conscious choices? By becoming aware of your reactions, assumptions, thoughts and emotions, and observing them without judgment. This is key because judgment will surely elicit some kind of strong emotional response within you, which is what makes people averse to looking within in the first place. This awareness creates a separation between you and your thoughts and reactions, which are not you. This distance results in the ability to choose the lens with which you interpret the world and situations within it, and it is empowering beyond measure.
What will you choose to do with this knowledge?
Introducing the series, Teaching is a Spiritual Quest! The title speaks for itself, but I’ll add here that this past year of teaching Phys. Ed. in one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods and relentlessly exploring the spiritual concepts of ego, presence, identity, and purpose in my free time has unsurprisingly led me to draw strong parallels between the two. So far, my ideas have just been exploding on the pages of my Moleskine writer’s notebook, so I’m eager to finally release some of that intellectual energy here.
As always, I invite you to engage, question, and comment on these ideas–don’t be shy!
This past summer, I embarked on one of the most difficult (and therefore, most crucial to my development) experiences of my life: my first full-time teaching job at Breakthrough San Francisco. I was teaching high-achieving, low-income 7th graders about the body systems, and I had completely forgotten how delusional and hyperactive pre-pubescent middle school students could be. It quickly became clear to me that all the intellectual readings and discussions I’d had in my college education classes on being a good teacher were useless in the face of limited practical experience. And my practical experience that summer was that I suffered a great deal in those two months because I was resisting one of the first lessons my coaches at Breakthrough taught me about teaching: it’s just like acting.
I’d never heard that before and I didn’t want to hear it then. Put on an act? Take on a persona? Be anyone but myself because that’s what would lead me to success? These were the messages I was hearing, and I rationalized my feelings of resistance because I have always considered myself an honest person, and “acting” like anyone but myself to win over my students felt dishonest and superficial. I wanted to be authentically excited about the content I was teaching and win over my students by being myself, whether that be serious, organized, and caring, or funny, spontaneous, and creative. At the time, I identified as the former, but felt that I was being told to “act” like the latter, which I didn’t agree with.
It’s obvious that I was overthinking this wayyy too much, but bear with me, because there are some great and applicable insights that came out of it! I now understand that part of what my coaches meant by “acting” is developing your teacher voice and teacher presence, both of which are crucial components of your teaching persona (which is, in fact, different from your day-to-day self, but not in the way I had initially thought). On a deeper level than that, though, they were also hinting at one of the greatest spiritual teachings of all time: disidentification from your role as your identity.
If you think about people who act for a living, this concept of disidentification from roles is pretty clear. Jennifer Aniston, for example, has played various roles throughout her career; as the flirtatious and fashionable Rachel on Friends, the down-to-earth Joanna in Office Space, and the powerful and comically manipulative Dr. Julia Harris in Horrible Bosses. Of course, neither of these characters is Jennifer Aniston herself, which frees her from any judgments the audience may make about her TV personality. Any actor must be able to create this distance between his various roles and his personal identity to perform well, or he would be paralyzed by the fear of judgment and criticism of his (sometimes antagonistic) character.
This distancing is exactly what my coaches at Breakthrough were trying to teach me, and my inability to understand that was exactly why I struggled so much. As I mentioned earlier, teaching middle school students from difficult backgrounds at a summer program was going to, by nature, be incredibly challenging, and I was not prepared for the behavioral issues I saw. That summer was an exercise in learning how not to take their attitudes and snide comments personally, though I didn’t even begin to master that skill until my current teaching job. I had completely identified with my role as a teacher, and I was taking their behavior as feedback about my performance–a fatal combination which just further hindered my ability to think clearly and positively during the whole experience.
Had I been able to distance myself from my teaching self and my actual self by embracing the acting metaphor, I would have opened up a space between my self and my students’ reactions. That space is absolutely necessary for taking action to address the current situation on a level deeper than thought and emotion–both of which are reactive most of the time in most humans. Eckhart Tolle, a world famous spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now, calls this space “presence.” It is our shared identity as humans, beyond thought and emotion, and therefore more powerful than what we like to think of as “rational” human thought. Essentially, it is the mechanism that makes us conscious and living. In A New Earth, he describes this identity as the following:
When that shift happens, which is the shift from thinking to awareness, an intelligence far greater than the ego’s cleverness begins to operate in your life. Emotions and even thoughts become depersonalized through awareness. Their impersonal nature is recognized. There is no longer a self in them. They are just human emotions, human thoughts. Your entire personal history, which is ultimately no more than a story, a bundle of thoughts and emotions, becomes of secondary importance and no longer occupies the forefront of your consciousness. It no longer forms the basis for your sense of identity.
I understand that this is an extremely stripped-down and abstract definition of identity, especially when we’ve been conditioned to think of our identities as defined by race, religion, sexual orientation, life experiences, interests, traits, and dispositions. Of course, all of these things are important and exciting aspects of being human, but they ultimately only define us on a superficial level. I add this new definition of identity here because if I’d identified as the conscious awareness (presence) during Breakthrough, I would’ve been invulnerable to my students’ comments of what they thought I was or my own self-criticism of what I thought I was as a result of their feedback. For example, I’ve always identified as a high-achiever and successful person, and the fact that I was struggling to control my classroom during my first summer teaching was threatening that identity, which further threw me into a tailspin. That identity–as with any other we create–is susceptible to change, whether because we grow, or because we’ve been criticized or praised. Either way, how can it be you if it changes? The concept of conscious presence does not waver–it is undeniable and universal to all human life. I can never not be it. So I am free to try out the roles of serious, stern teacher and fun, goofy teacher, all while staying true to myself.
So there’s the link to spirituality: I act as a teacher, understanding that teaching, as well as any other role I might play during my life (as a daughter, sister, friend, girlfriend, student, captain, teammate, musician, writer) are not me. I can distance myself from criticism and consider feedback with clarity and calmness as a way to improve my role if appropriate. If I approach everything I do in my life through this lens, then my worthiness is never at stake, and I become less reactive. I am free to be curious and learn and incorporate all the playfulness and creativity that makes acting (and living) fun.
I have, through the course of this year, developed a teaching voice and a persona that is more stern and confident than the person I was over the summer. I’ve been much more effective after embracing the acting metaphor; not because I changed myself, but because I found a self deeper and truer than the one I thought I knew at Breakthrough. And that discovery is what the greatest challenges in life are meant to inspire within us.
People always ask me such interesting questions when I tell them I fence.
“Do you use a real sword?”
“Are you allowed to run at your opponent?”
“Could you accidentally kill someone?”
“Could I do a front flip over my opponent, land on the strip behind them, and then stab them in the back? Is that legal?”
I can understand why they have these bizarre impressions of the sport–to the average person, fencing is a token of the medieval ages, when knights would challenge each other to a gentlemanly duel to the death, involving swords, unnecessarily pretentious flourishing of such swords, and a series of slow strikes that ends in someone’s tragic but honorable death. An actual spectator of the sport knows that modern-day fencing looks nothing like that, and may even pick up some rules and strategy, but will most often take notice of the bloodcurdling screams that fill tournament spaces when fencers get a touch (and for good reason).
Why? Because fencing is an incredibly psychological sport. It’s just you and your opponent on the strip (piste), facing each other in en garde position, covered in protective armor from head to toe and wired to machines that register the hits you score on each other. The first person to five hits (touches) wins the bout, unless the clock runs down after three minutes, in which case the fencer with the higher score wins. There are three different weapons (foil, sabre, and epee), but I’ll just talk about epee (pronounced EH-pay) because that’s the weapon I fenced. It’s also the weapon that requires the most mental fortitude since the entire body is valid target area, so any mistake you make by getting too close to your opponent or attacking when they’re expecting you to attack is lethal–you’re basically asking to get hit in the face. Oh, and don’t worry–the tips of the weapons are blunt metal buttons that depress when they make contact with something, so rarely does anyone get seriously hurt by a hit.
Because of the individual nature and fighting spirit of the sport, I’ve been through coaches that have advised me to look at bouts as a matter of life and death, where if I didn’t eviscerate my opponent, they would eviscerate me. I’ve been told to be ruthless and unflinching about my attacks and that I needed to be self-assured to the point of arrogance if I wanted to rise to the top. I’ve been through make-or-break bouts where I could win the meet for the team and be celebrated as a hero, or lose and walk shamefully away from the strip through silent and disappointed teammates. I’ve been through nationals and junior olympics and state championships where coaches are loud and parents are louder, all of them screaming commands and curses from the sidelines. As a result, I spent most of my fencing career believing that only the fiercest and toughest competitors could beat their way to the top, and those of us who bit the dust were too weak-willed or modest to join them.
Now, a year out of college and a ton of spiritual reflection later, I’ve realized that fencing has taught me three invaluable life lessons that go completely against the cutthroat (and often toxic) competitive culture that permeates it. These teachings apply to other competitive sports as well, although I think you’ll find that it resonates with individual sports more because of the inner journey we make through each competition.
Teaching #1) Relinquish the Ego
I mentioned before that fencing tournament venues are usually echoing with screams of triumph and frustration alike, and that I’ve been told I need to feel entitled and superior if I wanted to be a champion. All of these thoughts of entitlement, superiority, and condescension through psychological tricks like screaming at your opponent are all manifestations of the ego. Our egos, in a nutshell, are the self-image we have learned to identify with–it’s what makes us self-conscious about how we appear in uncomfortable situations, what shames us when we make mistakes, and what swells and grows with false pride when we attain the carrots dangling in front of us, like social status, wealth, and material goods (Disclaimer: please understand that there is nothing inherently wrong with material wealth or social esteem, but that when we chase after these things to prove our worth to the world, we’re only strengthening our egos and our existing culture of competition).
Unfortunately, it’s true that my most egotistical opponents have been some of my most difficult ones, because their mind games actually get to my ego. Screaming in my ear when the director’s back is turned, calling time outs to pretend to tie their shoes, and hitting more forcefully than they need to when they’re within distance are just a few tricks I’ve seen. It’s true that there are arrogant and terribly unsportsmanlike fencers who are some of the best in the country, and sometimes it makes me wonder why those egotistical thoughts don’t work for me. Why, when I try to think of my opponent as lesser than me, or when I yell in triumph after winning a touch, or when I slap my leg in frustration because I want to show my teammates that I really do care about winning (as they expect me to), do I fall apart mentally? Why have I never been able to sell myself on my egoic thoughts as the answer to becoming a better fencer?
I think somewhere deep down, I’ve always known that true power does not come from the ego. My best fencing moments have arisen in a state of flow, where I’m not thinking about anything at all–not how I appear to spectators when I get hit, not how my opponent is trying to get under my skin, not how angry I am at myself when I make a mistake. There are absolutely no thoughts at all, in fact, and just an intense focus on the present moment. I feel no need to scream, fist pump, or belittle my opponent when I win a touch, no matter how beautiful it was. I am totally removed from the expectation of proving anything to anyone, including myself, and completely grounded in my self.
That is true power. Relinquishing of the ego. It’s a state of clarity, where time slows down and my peripheries are blurred, and I can perceive openings and anticipate timing on a higher level, without the interference of my emotions or paralyzing thoughts. I can find that kind of power within myself, whenever I want, as long as I detach myself from any approval my teammates or coach will give me or any self-inflicted shame I would give myself. I’ve been lucky enough to experience the flow state, or the power of my self without ego, because I can now attest to the possibility and advantage of dis-identifying with the ego in everyday life.
Teaching #2) Fence to win, not not to lose
One of the first articles about fencing tips and tricks I ever read was titled, “Fence to win, not not to lose”, and I have to admit, I didn’t understand it for a long time. The nuance between “fencing to win” and “fencing not to lose” is so minuscule that I often confused the former with ego-based thinking (I’m going to win, I’m better than you, you only hit me because you got lucky etc.) Again, it wasn’t until I experienced the flow state that I understood the subtle difference between the two, and before I realized I could apply this lesson to anything in life.
Fencing not to lose is unsettling. Your mind is not at peace because you’re being influenced by fear, because you’re externally focused. You’re worrying about how losing will look to your teammates, to your opponent, to the director, or even to yourself (how will I treat myself after losing a touch, a bout, or the meet?) The fear of failure is suffocating, and it prevents you from making risky moves or even recognizing and capitalizing on openings. Thinking about the times when I’ve fenced not to lose, I can’t help but remember my first fencing coach, a stern, infamous Italian master who would observe me from the sidelines and holler in his thick Italian accent, “DON’T BE AFRAID!!!”
I guess my hesitancy was that obvious.
In life, too, we tend to focus on the things we can lose. We know that there are people who have less, but we choose to ignore them; they’re not our problem after all, right? But they (the homeless, the poor, the refugees) absolutely are our problem, because we’re afraid of becoming them. We’re afraid that pursuing a meaningful career that earns less money means we’ll end up living in the slums, we’re afraid that not having the luxuries of a car or a smartphone will significantly inconvenience us, we’re afraid that taking time off of work to travel will leave us unemployed forever. This is not an attempt to guilt you into solving all the problems of underserved people, just an illustration of how we let our fears simultaneously drive us and prevent us from taking risks, because we’re afraid of what we’ll lose. And we usually lose anyway.
Fencing to win, on the other hand, is simply focusing on your goal. It’s not so much that you’re attached to the outcome of winning, because that’s just fencing not to lose in another form. Instead, fencing to win means focusing on the actions you need to take at every moment of the bout. When I fence to win, I’m completely internally focused–what am I noticing about my opponent’s patterns? How close within distance am I? What kind of footwork can I use to replicate the touch I just earned? There’s a deep feeling of present-moment awareness when you fence to win, and the game becomes about play. My favorite fencing moments are not necessarily those bouts that I won; many of them are moments when I just looked at my opponent as a puzzle that I wanted to solve (of which winning was sometimes a byproduct).
Teaching #3) It’s ALL about play
My college fencing coach was wiser than he let on. Once, while fencing at a tournament at Brandeis University, he called a time out to tell me the following joke:
There’s this patient who’s complaining to his doctor about a recurring dream. He says, “Doc, I keep dreaming that I’m a teepee, and then a wigwam, and then a teepee, and then a wigwam. It’s driving me crazy! What’s wrong with me?” The Doc said, “You need to relax. You’re two tents!”
That was it. He used the one time out you get per bout to tell me a joke! I remember listening to this with intense anticipation, breathing heavily through my mask as I desperately tried to keep my composure through the humiliation I felt while losing to my opponent. Not only did this make me laugh and forget about all of that, but it made me realize that, just as he was playing with me, I needed to play with my opponent. “Play with it” is something I’d always heard from my coaches on the sidelines, but it always felt too risky, too carefree–I needed to be focused on winning because my worthiness as a fencer depended on it.
Too often in life we get caught up in our achievements and contributions as markers of our worthiness and value. I know so many people (myself included) who struggle with self-worth when they feel like they’re not contributing something meaningful to a group conversation or when they stumble at work or when they fail to meet a personal goal. Unless we’re kicking ass everywhere, all the time, we’re no good, which fuels the culture of stress and workaholism that’s so prevalent in American society today.
But what if we approached life with a more playful mentality? What if we’re just here to enjoy our human experiences and the range of possibilities to make use of our human bodies through, for example, competitive sports? Lately, I’ve been meditating on the idea that the purpose of life is life itself. It’s a crazy thought when you think about how much we’ve been conditioned to achieve and compare and come out on top, but I believe that idea is the foundation of our inner peace, power, and creativity.
If we didn’t attach our worthiness to our wins or losses, achievements or failures, I think we’d find that the things we most desire manifest in our lives anyway. Who knew that my fencing adventures would someday teach me that?
For the first time in my life, I’m really putting the concept of “objectivity” into practice and deepening my understanding of it every single day.
As a PE teacher for elementary school children in a difficult neighborhood of San Francisco, I’m learning what it means to be an objective (and detached) observer of events, instead of getting emotionally involved in the goings on of games during playtime. Take, for example, the following true story:
It’s a Wednesday morning, and the 5th graders have a 45-minute gym period (which is a long time for almost-middle schoolers to be playing high-adrenaline, high-emotion games on the roof). We’re playing a variation of dodgeball called “Medic Ball”, in which the group splits up into two teams and chooses one “medic” per team. The medic can raise anyone on their team who’s been hit out with a dodgeball by tapping them on the shoulder. There’s no other way for teammates who’ve been eliminated to get back into the game, so it logically follows that if the medic on one team gets eliminated, the rest of his or her team members will be slowly eliminated until everyone is sitting out and his/her team loses the round.
Last week when I was playing this game, I was watching carefully, as the detached, objective observer of all the random chaotic events that were simultaneously occurring. Suddenly, the medic on one team (let’s call them team A) was hit by a dodgeball thrown by a member of the opposing team (team B), although the ball simultaneously hit the ground when it made contact with the medic’s foot. In dodgeball games, it’s universally understood that a ball that hits the ground before making contact with someone is a dead ball, and can no longer eliminate someone. In this situation, both had occurred–the ball hit the ground at the same time it hit the medic, so what action should have been taken?
I anticipated the unfolding of events one step before they occurred: Team B rejoiced loudly, the medic from team A denied being hit in frustration, to which the team B member who threw the ball responded angrily, commanding the medic to sit down. Both players were unable to clearly perceive the truth of the situation because both were attached to the outcome of winning, and both were reacting emotionally as a result. As the detached observer (I favored neither outcome of Team A nor Team B winning), I had to step in to de-escalate both kids and remind them of the golden rule of game time arguments: settle disputes through Ro Sham Bo (Rock Paper Scissors). In the end, the thrower from Team B chose paper and the medic chose scissors, they both momentarily let go of their attachments to the outcome, and the game continued on.
Last week, you joined me on my exploration of the meaning of “truth” and how we can choose truths that help us live in a positive way. This week, I’m contemplating the place of objectivity as a path to the truth, just like I was able to use my position as an objective observer to clearly perceive the truth of what went down that day on the roof during Medic Ball.
I’ll admit that it may have taken me this long to understand the meaning of “objective” because of the negative connotations associated with subjectivity–that objectivity is rational and not influenced by emotions, whereas subjectivity is emotionally influenced and therefore has a limited or biased idea of the truth in any given situation. Society has unfortunately come to associate rational, objective thinking with men, and emotional, irrational (subjective) thinking with women, and as a female, I’ve naturally resisted the value judgment placed on objectivity (and rational thinking) over subjectivity (biased, emotional thinking) in the decision-making process. Now, having understood that society tells us a lot of stupid things that aren’t true, believing that both men and women have equal capabilities of being objective and rational, and understanding that there is a place for emotion and subjectivity in our lives, I’m finally understanding why objectivity, versus subjectivity, is crucial to the quest for truth, and so I’m attempting to detail why that is here.
When I first started therapy, my therapist was smart enough to explain what the process was going to be like. This is crucial for a first-timer because therapy is one of the most difficult things you will ever do, if you choose to. Essentially, you’re going through the construction of your entire worldview with someone, influenced by your life experiences and parenting namely, and breaking it down piece by piece until you conclude what is true about your perspective, and what is not. My therapist used the word “objective” to describe her role, and at the time, I had no idea what she meant. I knew the word, but what did it mean in this context? What could she possibly tell me about myself or the world that I didn’t already know? I was convinced that the way I saw things was true reality, but, as the objective observer, uninvolved in my life, she was able to point out when my perceptions of reality or cynical patterns of thought were just not real. And accepting that maybe her perception of reality was more accurate (because she was looking at my life through an objective lens), and that I’d have to change mine as a result, was one of the most difficult (but most important) things I have ever done.
Similarly, I’ve learned that the work of academics is an exploration of the truth, but in a much less personal way. If there’s anything I learned from my time at Haverford, it’s that there’s always another angle from which you can look at a problem, and to uncover the answers to your questions, you need to think critically about each of those angles and then make a conclusion for yourself. My thesis, for example, answered the question: Did the insular, nationalist policies of Francoist Spain that closed the country to the rest of the world for 40 years and allowed only castellano (Spain’s reigning Spanish dialect–what we know to be “Spanish”) cause the scarcity of English speakers in Spain today? To answer this question, I had to think: Is there even a scarcity of English speakers in Spain, or was that just my perception while studying abroad there? If the scarcity is “true”, who presents another explanation for it? Where are those people coming from (Franco supporters/non-supporters, right-wing/left-wing), and how would it influence their arguments? Even if Francoist Spain did have some kind of an impact, what other factors could have contributed to the phenomenon? My advisor helped me realize that I needed to remove my own experiences in Spain from the equation if I wanted to remove any bias (subjectivity) from my argument (and I was biased towards answering that question with a yes).
If we connect all of this to the age-old concept of detachment found in all ancient wisdom traditions, we understand that detachment is not an uncaring, cold attitude towards the material things and people of the world. Instead, it just means removing oneself from a situation to view the larger picture and become an objective observer. Since we are unattached to a specific outcome, as I was in Medic Ball, we are unbiased and can therefore see what truly is.
There is certainly a place for opinion-related pieces in this world, as well as opinion-driven personal advice. I am certainly biased towards my friends who come to me for advice on choosing careers that are meaningful to them, for example, and doing something for the benefit of the greater good. Since I myself believe that it’s important to contribute something creative and meaningful to the world in our short lifetimes, I will be biased towards those who choose to do the same.
However, I recognize when I am being subjective, and when I am being objective. This is an extremely important skill for us to execute semi-regularly, because it helps you recognize when you don’t know the answer to something, and that’s humbling. Like when my therapist showed me how much I thought I knew about life, but didn’t, I was humbled and therefore freed of my negative thoughts.
Of course, it’s still difficult to differentiate between objectivity and subjectivity sometimes. I liken it to shopping for groceries when you are hungry versus when you’re not hungry. When you’re not hungry, you’re more likely to buy the true amount of groceries you’ll need for the week. Sometimes, you just can’t ignore the fact that you’re hungry! In that case, my advice is to “get a second opinion”, or an outside perspective, on your situation. Don’t work in a vacuum, or a bubble, is another way to put it. For the truths that matter, I like to ask the people I can trust for their rational and objective advice.
And ultimately, maintain a balance of both subjective and objective thinking in your life. Because sometimes, it’s enough to just choose your beliefs, even if you don’t know if they are truths.
Life is just the stories we tell ourselves.
In last week’s post on uncertainty, I wrote about how my parents each had their own stories about the disappeared coffee table, and I quoted Lesley Hazleton on how Islam, among other religions, has historically spun stories of the unknown in ways that have led to horrific violence and hatred.
This week, I’m contemplating the concept of “truth”, because if you’re anything like me, at some point in your life, you’ve found yourself wondering something along the lines of: “WHAT the hell is this TRUTH nonsense that all these religions and philosophers and laymen alike are always talking about???”
I’m also choosing to gift you with one of my favorite episodes from my all-time favorite TV show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, which, in all its light-hearted, youthful glory, manages to make an intelligent commentary on storytelling, perception, and truth (aside: honestly, if you haven’t watched the entire Avatar series front to back yet, drop EVERYTHING you are doing right now, including this blog, and GO. WATCH. IT. Or a crucial part of your childhood will forever be lost. Also, spoiler coming up for the episode I linked.)
After hundreds of years of wars between the Gan Jin and Zhang tribes, sparked by their unshakeable belief in a convoluted story of injustice between two of their clansmen centuries before, Aang (the all-powerful Avatar and peacekeeper) manages to bring the tribes together and settle the peace. How? He invents an entirely new story that immediately causes both tribe leaders to suspend their centuries-old anger and judgment! Aang is believable because, despite the fact that Aang is a 12-year-old kid in the show, he’s supposed to have been alive 100 years before the start of the show, but was frozen in time (for reasons you’ll find out when you watch it). Instead of placing Jin Wei (of the Zhang) and Wei Jin (of the Gan Jin) on separate tribes, Aang “recalls” that they were actually brothers, and that they were playing a game that involved a ball (instead of the “sacred orb” that the Zhangs accuse the Gan Jins of stealing), and that no one was imprisoned for life, but rather, Wei Jin was put in the penalty box for 20 seconds during the game. At the end, after the leaders of the tribes have made up, Aang sheepishly confesses to his friends that he has no idea what actually happened, because he invented the entire story to resolve the conflict!
This tiny, 4-minute fragment entirely illustrates how the stories we choose to tell ourselves about our lives, people, and the things that happen to us, govern our actions. The story Aang chose to tell was great because it resulted in positive action for both tribes moving forward. However, it still makes me wonder, what was the truth? What’s the real story between the Zhangs and the Gan Jins?
I started to question this whole idea of “truth” during my senior year at Haverford because of a friend who had some very interesting explanations for her negative actions and behaviors at the end of the year. I knew she had been diagnosed with OCD in high school, but she’d told me it hadn’t followed her through college. At the end of the year, she started to slam drawers and doors in our suite and switch hallway lights on and off when the rest of us were talking in our rooms, in the hallway, or in the common room, and then denied it when we asked her what was up or if she was ok. Perhaps this is just my overactive mind always concerned with finding THE answer to whatever questions its ruminating, but I was bent on figuring out: What was reality? How could our versions of the truth be so polarized? How was it possibly ok in her mind to treat other people so poorly?
And the worst question of all: if I didn’t find the answer (or the truth) to these questions, could I possibly be living in my own delusions?
I think the difficulty with the concept of “truth” is that it can be used broadly or narrowly; practically or philosophically. To help you understand the concept of “truth”, here are the three main categories of truth that I use to conceptualize it:
1) The truth about any given, concrete situation
This, to me, is a more narrow, more practical definition of the truth. It’s narrow because I believe that there is a concrete answer to questions like “What actually happened to Hae Min Lee the night that she was killed?” (for all you Serial fans out there), or, was my ex-friend really suffering from a recurring onset of her OCD, which led to her denial about her incredibly odd behaviors? This type of truth exists out there somewhere, and it’s just a matter of someone with enough expertise and insight coming along to enlighten the rest of us to the answer.
2) Truth as moral values
This is broader and less concrete than the above definition of truth, but understandable nonetheless. Why, for example, should I pay my muni (SF bus system) fares if the drivers never actually check for a transfer? Why should I treat others with kindness and respect? Why does my co-teacher insist to our students, every day, that they make the right choices to follow the rules during games and demonstrate good sportsmanship?
I honestly believe that these universal morals exist for a reason, and reasons beyond just “if you punch someone in the face, they will punch you in the face back, and then you will be sad” (although that’s true too). Every action has a consequence, whether those consequences manifest immediately or not. I, for example, could be fined by the SF MTA if I’m caught without proof of payment. Or maybe my tendencies to try and cheat the system will carry over into some other part of my life where I’ll be screwed twice over to make up for my unpaid muni fares years before. Either way, I take it to be true that paying my muni fares is the right thing to do, so I keep doing it.
3) Truth as an “ultimate” reality
Now this is where things get SUPER broad, metaphysical, intangible, and especially debatable. This version of truth, for me, brings up questions like “Is what we perceive even what really is?” “Are there things that escape our limited human consciousness?” This kind of truth is what I always assumed the major religions to be referring to when all of their enlightened folk described “truth” and “enlightenment”, as if there is some ultimate consciousness that sees everything in our world (and beyond) as it really is, without the skewed, subjective perspective of a human mind. If you’re interested in the topic of truth as a question of reality and perception, check out Attack on Titan and this awesome WaitButWhy post on truth.
When I question the stories we tell ourselves about the world, I’m questioning all three categories of truth. When my suite mate was randomly slamming the doors and drawers in our suite at all hours of the day and then insisted that it was the wind from the open windows, I knew she had convinced herself that that was the truth. Was her OCD returning to cause her to have obsessive thoughts and rituals that involved door slamming (level 1)? Had she convinced herself that it was ok to blame us for her frustrations, and therefore treat us coldly (level 2)? Was any of this stuff all of us in the suite had perceived even real (level 3)?
I may never know, but I’ve written my own story about that situation in my head. So then the question becomes, if we create explanations about situations in our lives when we don’t know the truth, (and may never), how can we make sure we’re writing narratives that lead to positive actions?
This is my conclusion: always search for the “truth” in any given situation. Question things, recognize when and what you don’t know, and always revisit your beliefs and values to make sure they are as universally applicable as they can possibly be. And while you’re on your quest for the truth (which, by its very nature, is universally applicable, eternal, and unchanging), be like Aang. Choose a story that makes you the best version of yourself, and live by a narrative that brings positive energy and action to yourself and to those around you.
I figure, however much it bothers me that I don’t and may never know the “truth”, it can’t hurt to write my stories about life in a way that helps me keep moving forward through struggle and benefits the people around me. My hope is for this blog to help you write your story, too.
Over Christmas break, my parents and brother came to visit me out here in San Francisco. I planned the entire trip, which basically meant that we were hurrying from one activity to another, every minute of every day. This was a perfectly exciting plan to me (my parents and brother might beg to differ…), except on the day after Christmas, when I got an e-mail from IKEA informing me that a coffee table I had ordered for my room had just been delivered (and abandoned) on my apartment doorstep.
Immediately, the worst-possible scenario that it had been stolen by some cold-hearted passerby sprang into my head. I mentally prepared myself for that possibility, though I hoped it wouldn’t be the case. We only got to my apartment at 8 pm, and of course the coffee table was no where in sight. It wasn’t inside anywhere either. I decided to suspend any judgment of the situation–who knew what had happened? Was it possible that someone stole it while it was outside, like I had feared? Yes. But it was also possible that someone had picked it up for me and put it in an unknown location, or that the e-mail was inaccurate, and it actually hadn’t arrived that day. I wanted to take the next steps with the understanding that I didn’t know, but my parents (who are so loving and wonderfully supportive, but also human, with their own faults) had jumped to the same conclusion: they both believed someone had stolen it off the steps.
It’s clear that I had a different view on the situation than my parents did, and that I was less certain than they were about what actually happened. In the end, my uncertainty saved me, because I was able to calmly navigate the GRUELING process of getting on the phone with IKEA without letting the whole incident take me away from being present and enjoying time with my family. The coffee table turned up shortly after, having been picked up by an upstairs neighbor who was safeguarding it for me. In the end, recognizing that I did not know what happened helped me take the necessary steps to getting the coffee table back while also maintaining a positive internal state throughout.
People are always chasing security and certainty in life; whether it be certainty in regards to why positive or negative things happen in life, to certainty about how justice works (or does not work) in this world, to knowing where you’re going to be next year, to financial security. I know what that’s like–I’ve been influenced by the stereotypical Asian American values growing up. But as I’ve gotten older, and as my goals and priorities have changed over time, I’ve learned the value and the immense creative potential of uncertainty–of not knowing why something happened, or what will happen, next.
I’ll divide my concept of certainty into two separate categories: 1) our beliefs about the world and 2) future plans. In both scenarios, uncertainty can be liberating; in the first, it’s because we never actually know why someone made a rude comment about us, or why we didn’t get that job or that apartment. Reminding yourself that you can only speculate about these things, and recognizing that the repeated narratives we use to explain disappointments to ourselves are just narratives, liberates us from the dark places that we sometimes enter into. Uncertainty can be liberating with regards to future plans, too, because with an open mind comes an alertness to new and exciting opportunities that can present themselves to us at any moment.
Dr. Deepak Chopra once again articulates this perfectly in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success in the chapter on the Law of Detachment (Youtube, 54:15-1:04:35):
True wealth consciousness is the ability to have anything you want, any time you want, and with least effort. To be grounded in this experience, you have to be grounded in the wisdom of uncertainty. In this uncertainty, you will find freedom to create anything you want. Security and certainty are a result of rigid attachment to the known…And what’s the known? The known is our past. It’s just the prison of past conditioning. There’s no evolution in that. Absolutely no evolution at all.
For example, if I had clung to the security of knowing where I was going to be come September last year, I would have ended up in a gray cubicle in a grayer office at the State Department of Health in NYC. It would have been easy to cling to the known and the security of having a job post-graduation, instead of accepting that my summer in San Francisco was making me rethink my priorities and career goals. Having had no real commitment binding me to the job in NYC, and having been told, after accepting the job, that my position was basically that of a glorified secretary instead of real public health-related work, I quit in July and decided to look for a job in the Bay after a month at home. I moved in with a college friend from Oakland, and we reveled in the excitement (and anxiety) of our unemployment together. With an open, alert, and calm mind, I found my current job within five days of moving back to the Bay, and now I’m teaching and living in San Francisco, making new friends, volunteering, dating, swing dancing, speaking Spanish, pretentiously drinking high-class beer and coffee, writing, meditating, and eating food from every corner of the world. I had absolutely no way of predicting that this would be my life a year ago, and therein lies the beauty of uncertainty. I am proud to say that I have lived Deepak’s words, that “You don’t need to have any idea of what you’ll be doing next week or next year, because if you have a very clear idea of what’s going to happen, and you get rigidly attached to it, then you shut out a whole range of possibilities.”
Don’t confuse this with letting go of intention. You should still set short and long-term goals and work towards them, but keep an open mind throughout, and allow yourself to recognize and act upon any desires to change direction during that process.
The second kind of certainty that humans are prone to is much more subtle, because it has to do with our internal narratives and explanations of events, and most of the time we don’t even stop to think about how rigid our stories become. My parents, for example, didn’t even realize that aspects of their outlook on life (that it’s unfair, that people are more often cruel than they are benevolent) were far too certain, and that these ideas were entirely informing their perspective on the coffee table situation (which was inevitably inciting some negative emotions for both of them).
Lesley Hazleton has an incredible TED talk on this type of certainty and how it’s particularly deadly in a religious context, leading to bigotry, prejudice, intolerance, hate crimes, and fundamentalism. Religion, in my opinion, evolved as a way for humans to explain the unknown, which is fine, except that there’s far too much certainty in these explanations. Hazleton goes into a really important argument about how Islamic fundamentalism, in particular, is founded on the absolute certainty fundamentalists have about the night Mohammad received a message from “God”, but you should just watch the talk to get all of that. For the purpose of this post, I’ll just leave you with this specific part of her speech:
Doubt is the heart of the matter. Abolish all doubt, and what’s left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction. You’re certain that you possess “the truth”, inevitably offered with an applied uppercase “T”, and this certainty quickly devolves into dogmatism and righteousness, by which I mean a demonstrative, overweening pride in being so, very right. In short, the arrogance of fundamentalism.
Then she says,
Real faith has no easy answers. It’s difficult and stubborn. It involves an ongoing struggle, a continual questioning of what we think we know, a wrestling with issues and ideas. It goes hand in hand with doubt, in never-ending conversation with it, and sometimes, in conscious defiance of it.
Faith, in its purest form, is just the belief in a story that we base our values and our actions on. I could have faith in a divine power beyond my human perception, or I could have faith that people are innately benevolent and will generally take care of me and others. Either way, it’s important to choose a story that helps us be our best selves and benefits those around us. I may never know, for certain, the answers to many of my questions, or where I’m going to be next year. But I want to approach everything in my life with the knowledge that I don’t know. I can always have an idea of why something happened, or a plan for the future, or a belief in a divine power, but in the end, I don’t actually know, and that’s liberating.
I’d rather be aware of what I don’t know is true, than be doggedly certain of what may be false.
For more reading on this, check out Dr. Kelly Flanagan’s awesome post here.
In high school, my best friend and I used to have conversations about her dream to become a singer all the time. She was shy about singing, but she had a fabulous voice, and in all my 16-year-old idealism I wanted to believe that she could make it in the entertainment industry if she worked really hard. But part of me was also skeptical and agreed with her that all aspiring artists end up as starving artists at one point or another because they just aren’t good enough to make it. Now I know I was both partially right and partially wrong, and here’s why:
My friend could have made it big in the music industry, but not because of hard work or talent. She could have made it big simply because it’s what she intended. And in fact, anyone who focuses their attention on a specific outcome will achieve that outcome.
Yeah, I know, how could I possibly make such a bold claim???
The secret lies in Deepak Chopra’s book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, in the chapter titled “The Law of Intention and Desire.” You can check out the audiobook on YouTube here, and start from 42:00, the beginning of the chapter. It ends at about 54:00. However, I’ll also outline the concepts for you here, so this is one of the few posts where you don’t have to click on the links before you read on!
In essence, the Law of Intention and Desire is as follows: if you have a single-pointed focus on a specific outcome that you desire, and you focus your unwavering attention on that outcome through any setbacks or obstacles, then your desire will eventually manifest. That’s it! It’s that simple. But then there’s the “Why?” component that any good reader would ask. Here’s how it works:
The first step is to understand a few fundamental principles of eastern spirituality (aside: when I say eastern, I’m referring mostly to spiritual knowledge that originated in India long, long ago–not to be confused with “Hinduism”). One of the most basic spiritual ideas is that the soul of every human being originated from “the source”, or the “supreme being”, which is some abstract, formless, timeless, luminescence that exists somewhere beyond the confines of the universe. Most organized religions refer to this as “God” (but call it whatever you will), and many, many people have accessed its “presence” through meditation. I’ll talk more about this being in another post, but for now, this is all you need to know.
That being said (haha), you can think of the energy within all of us–the energy that animates our bodies and allows us to be conscious of the world and aware of ourselves—as an extension of that same original source. As Deepak says, “the universe is your extended body”, and that we are aware of our reality is a privilege unique to the human species. As humans, we can therefore use this energy within our own bodies to manipulate the energy and informational content of our extended body—the environment, the world—to cause things to manifest in it, as long as we consciously focus on the intended outcome.
Now is where things start to get a little more philosophically dense, so I’ll hand it over to Deepak to explain:
This conscious change is brought about by the two qualities inherent in consciousness: attention and intention. Attention energizes, and intention transforms. Whatever you put your attention on will grow stronger in your life. Whatever you take your attention away from will wither, disintegrate, and disappear. Intention, on the other hand, triggers transformation of energy and information. Intention is the real power behind desire. It is actually desire without attachment to the outcome.
I can’t honestly say that I really understand the difference between attention and intention, only that I agree that 1) whatever you put your attention on in life will grow stronger, and 2) desire without attachment to the outcome is key to realizing your goals. That is one of the most important caveats about the law of intention: you must intend a particular outcome without attachment to the result in the process, because attachment is what allows you to become discouraged in the face of obstacles and challenges. Discouragement can take the form of changing your single-pointed focus (i.e. Instead of becoming a professional concert pianist, I’ll just teach music because I can’t get a gig anywhere) or giving up on your original goal altogether.
Another basic tenet of spirituality that’s heavily related to detachment is what Deepak calls “present-moment awareness.” Essentially, he means detachment from the past and future, and grounding in the present:
Both past and future are born in imagination. Only the present, which is awareness, is real and eternal. It IS. It is the potentiality of space-time, matter, and energy. It is an eternal field of possibilities, experiencing itself as abstract forces…These forces are neither in the past, nor in the future. They just are.
What I take away from this [very philosophically dense] quote is that the present holds infinite possibilities and infinite potential, because it hasn’t yet become known, like the past, but it’s within our control now, unlike the future. Present-moment awareness is incredibly powerful for this reason. Deepak describes its power better than I ever could here:
One-pointed intention is that quality of attention that is unbending in its fixity of purpose. One-pointed intention means to hold your attention to the outcome that’s intended with such unbending purpose that you absolutely refuse to put your attention on obstacles. There is a total and complete exclusion of all obstacles, and if you have life-centered present moment awareness, then the imaginary obstacles, which are more than 90% of perceived obstacles, disintegrate and disappear. The remaining 5-10% of perceived obstacles can be transmuted into opportunities through intention.
The only other caveat of the law of intention is where the “why” explanation gets a little messier, because it’s that you must use your intentions for the benefit of mankind, which will spontaneously happen if you’re aligned with the other 6 spiritual laws of success (so this post may serve you better if you just read the rest of the book). What alignment with the other 6 spiritual laws of success looks like, I have no idea, but it’s sort of a beautiful thought—that your desires will manifest as long as you are benefiting both yourself and those around you.
I’ve seen examples of the power of intention in my own life, which are far more easy to understand than all this spiritual jargon, so I’ll help you out. My current boss is an incredibly accomplished woman: she started a charity-based non-profit for women and children of the Tenderloin, one of the poorest and most underserved districts in San Francisco, in the early 1980s. She soon realized that, despite the more than 4,000 children living within the 8 block radius that is the Tenderloin, it was the only neighborhood in San Francisco without a public school. Her intention was to found a public elementary school for the children of the Tenderloin so they wouldn’t have to be bussed to schools all over the city, way back in the early 90s. Eight years later, despite the cynicism of powerful members of the SF Unified School District who scoffed at her dream, she successfully opened the Tenderloin Community School in 1998. She never shifted her focus, lowered her standards, or let obstacles deter her, and I think we would all agree that her actions were intended to benefit mankind. I’ll also add here that, before she came to San Francisco, Midge attended and graduated from divinity school in Chicago, so I’m inclined to believe that her spiritual knowledge is more than a mere coincidence in her success.
I’ll leave you with one last, personal experience that strengthens my belief in the power of intention. Last year, as a senior in college, I had a lot of conversations with my therapist about how to navigate dreams and a career and the real world after leaving the comfortable, college bubble. I described to her my fears of failure if I strayed away from the beaten path of stereotypical Asian American careers, and I remember feeling like the road to realizing my dreams was complicated and fraught with difficulties. She responded with one single sentence that has stuck with me since: the only thing you need to do to achieve your goals, is go after them. Pure and simple. Just go after it, and don’t leave room for fear.
One year later, I’ve realized my dreams of living and teaching in San Francisco and traveling back to Sevilla. I can no longer make limiting excuses for myself, having experienced the power of intention.