Resolve… to inner journeys that light up your true path…

Discover… the fire within your heart that contains all power…

Travel… to explore the depths of your own soul…

Commit… to the care your neighbor and community needs…

Land… in the comfort and embrace of family and friends…

Devote… to listening for the hints whispered by your wounds that desire healing…

Practice… those small acts that bring you joy and kindness to the world…

Reflect… to forgive, let live, and love…

Create… from within you, storied guides for those that seek your teachings…

Never wait… to brave seas and trails that call thy name…

and so choose… your weapon wisely.

– angelLing –

Before I sat down to write my thoughts on the remaining 25% – I introduced this concept in my last post, Overcoming Not Knowing: Part I, which is essentially giving oneself time and permission for finding one’s true path in life – I reflected on a question someone recently asked me. Why, he asked, if I kind of knew the general direction of where I want to be in 2 – 5 years, didn’t I just leave everything behind to pursue my dreams, full time? To his credit, this was not a far-fetched question. Most of our conversations centered around plotting our next big move in life. For most people reading this – the idea of leaving one’s current path to pursue a new one seems quite daunting, whether because they have family that rely on them, and/or bills to pay like a mortgage, student debt, etc. Personally though, I have some but little of these obligations. But what I do have is a fully baked inner-script: from the age of 8, I had already begun working to help support my recently immigrated family. My family and I had a shared sense of purpose to fully live out the American Dream. Thirty-one years later, now at the age of 39, I still live with a sense of purpose and a strong work ethic, even if my purpose in life has changed.

In this post, I want to share my own framework for embarking on inner questings that does not require leaving everything behind to start anew: basically for anyone that’s interested in leading a life closer to or is their true calling. I’ll discuss three elements that make up this 25%: extending timescale, practicing mindfulness, and getting comfortable with failure.

I’ve seen lots of people give up on creative pursuits, because they just don’t know where to start, or if they’ve started, they later find they just aren’t any good. To this I say, you probably made the mistake of trying to evaluate yourself against the same yardstick as things you currently do well in. My advice is give yourself lots of time, and try your damn best to not judge yourself so harshly. For one – it’s really very possible that you’re not very good at this new pursuit! Not only are you likely using the same yardstick to judge yourself… you’re also using the same set of skills and tools – likely the only ones you have – and trying to power through. Go acquire some new skills and tools!

But more importantly, you are definitely going to find your inner kingdom at war. For most of us, we’ve been given a script to live by from a young age. In order to live by this script, you’ve pretty much stuffed your inner self down some hole; so you’ve now got some inner questing to do in order to dig your true self out. While on your inner quest, you’ll like find some old wound that you didn’t know was there, and now needs your attention and healing (of course I’ve devoted not one but two posts on healing!) Getting through and winning this internal conflict is the most crucial stage to making this creative pursuit a success. And by winning, i mean gaining a different perspective on your own life. To listen to what your heart tells you is your true life’s path. In order to hear the whisper of your heart’s one message to you, you have to challenge the many (much louder) voices in your head.

Which leads me to a very important issue of staying sane through the creative process. Because while engaging with this inner conflict is crucial, you’ll likely meet your inner demon (in a future post, I’ll write about shapeshifting, where your inner demon can take infinite forms.) Sorry, I haven’t found a silver bullet to staying sane through one’s creative process, other than dousing your inner demon with patience, and where time is of the essence.

Now that you’ve decided to expand your timescale, how really, will you engage your new, creative pursuit – your true heart’s calling? For this post, I want to borrow concepts from the “investigation” stage of the artist/designer/writer’s creative process, which is to say, trying to better understand the thing you’re creating through questioning and exploring. Some approach this stage by methodically collecting data. They are taking in all the information, sorting, analyzing, making decisions, learning… Others approach the investigation stage by manifesting the feelings behind what might be the result. There’s no right or wrong approach to the investigation stage; but I want to share what I think is key to leading yourself into a more creative life, which is to practice mindfulness as you investigate. There’s lots written out there on mindfulness, but I want to boil it down to this: listen and notice what makes you happy, and conversely, what does not appeal to you any more than going to your 9 to 5 job does. By simply practicing more mindfulness, you can create some space for your heart and mind to work together.

Finally, I want to discuss how, risking failure, while seemingly scary to some and perhaps an act of martyrdom to others, is actually neither within this 25% framework. Let’s quickly summarize what I mean by failure: by letting go of perfection, and embracing some unknown, you have the potential of gaining insight into your true self and what brings you true joy and happiness. But you might find that you’re not the best at the thing that brings you true joy and happiness. If you find that your true calling is playing the piano, and instead of selling millions of records, you only get to play out of pure joy and happiness. For the perfectionist in us, being mediocre is quite a tough pill to swallow. But you must get comfortable in what you now perceive as failure – it’s your mind that cares about prestige while your heart does not.

True joy and happiness comes from allowing yourself to change and to embrace the new you every day or as often as your heart wants to be (re)discovered. To live your life guided by your true self, your heart must find and trust in its home – you – as a refuge. By operating really well at both 75% and 25% scales, we can give our hearts more space: the heart space of the unknown often holds both fear and joy, and are often one and the same.

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Dedicated to: Cristina, Divinity, Michael, Melissa, Robin, Yelena and Vinay, and our wonderful teacher Gail. Thank you for that time when we all decided to be a bit braver, together.

 

As I’m developing my first podcast the last few months, I’ve consistently found myself in this dark space of the unknown. For many who sets foot in this dark space, the simple solution would be to remain where they are and not explore the unknown. In this post, I want to first share with you my own take on a little known 75% Rule, and then some insights I’ve come to gain on the remaining and nagging 25%.

I can’t remember the first time I heard about the 75% Rule, or from where, but I’ve used this Rule over the past few years to get shit done. The basic principle is: perfectionism will keep you from starting the things you want to do, so if you’ve got an idea, and time / resources to devote to it, you should just do it. Psychotherapist and blogger Megan Bruneau published her own take on The 75% Rule in 2012 on her blog One Shrink’s Perspective, which is worth a read for those interested in its principle and application.

On a day-to-day basis, this means I get out the door most mornings looking 75% ready for the day, and I aim to be 75% involved with pretty much everything. By the way, when I’ve mentioned this to friends and family, no one thinks I’m only operating at 75%. So yes, this is sort of all in your head. Why, then, is this still useful? I argue here that once you’ve got the 75% Rule down, you’re in the territory of the remaining 25%. And that remaining 25% is that dark space of unknown where creativity, imagination, and innovation is buried.

I often use my experience as a business management consultant to illustrate this: one of the things I like to work on with businesses and organizations is to set indicators and targets to measure success. But I often explain to my clients that we’re not actually just measuring success; the key is also to measure what failure might look like. In other words, if you’ve met all your targets that you’ve set for the year, then you might’ve been less creative, or taken less risks, than what your company can withstand. So, why not aim meeting just 75% of your targets, and make sure you have 25% rate of possible failure? In other words, why not build in some cushion for innovation? To drive the point further, this is ultimately where growth happens. Because even if you only met 75% of your targets, then you’ve now gained insight into how and where you need to focus year two’s resources in better developing – that remaining 25%, which has the potential to take you to uncharted territory.  

For myself then, this 25% means engaging regularly in creative work: developing my podcast, writing for my blog, exploring ideas on where my next big move might be. In other words, when I need to be a bit brave and explore something that I’ve yet to try. So here’s the insight I’ve gained in the last few months: that remaining and nagging 25% actually operates on a different timescale from the 75% you’ve just mastered.

Metaphorically speaking, this is where your worlds split apart, and you find yourself in a gaping hole: this dark space of the unknown. Your first goal is to get relatively good at operating and navigating at both timescales. This is crucial because you can’t rush innovation or creativity – I’ve seen people rush this creative process and the outcome is often creating what they’ve already created before. Now, there’s nothing wrong with creating the same thing again; but if that’s not what you were visioning, then you’ve now got another problem on your hands, which is to decide whether to start over, or botch the whole project, or go with what you have.

And if you can function well at both timescales, then you have a better handle on what people call disappointments from unrealistic expectations. To illustrate: when you’re operating at 75%, your expectation is to just get out the door, so your execution is immediate. When you’re working with that 25%, you’re engaging with dreams and imagination. And dreams require questing. And questing requires time.  

Sorry for the cliffhanger: but I’m going to end here today with a promise to further unpack this 25% in my next post, including how to stay sane through your creative process. For now though, give yourself permission to start the day, everyday, on the 75% Rule, and then listen, really listen, for clues to that remaining 25%.

 

 

When I first began blogging on change and transformation, I didn’t know I’d eventually be writing and processing the issue of Faith. Growing up, my connection to God was disjointed and confusing: I was brought up in a home where both Roman Catholicism and Taoism was practiced. By the time I approached adulthood, I thought myself an agnostic, my actions based on complete self-determination.

And so, I am often surprised during my own process of change and transformation that Faith keeps coming up. Perhaps for many who are faithful, in whatever religious classification, that Faith would be a crucial element is obvious. For how else do you walk into the unknown, without an ounce of Faith?

But I’m not quite ready to give in to blind Faith either. Where is that in-between? To approach this question, let me tell you how I met my Faith about five years ago…

Since my early thirties, I’ve struggled with big existential questions like, “what’s the meaning of life?” “What’s my calling and purpose?” and “what does the afterlife look like?” Looking back, I now realize that working in challenging contexts in Africa and Asia since my early twenties meant that I encountered almost too much suffering for someone who had not regularly leaned in on Faith. I was without the means to process the existential questions that came to mind.

In came a dear friend (a holistic medical doctor by profession) who saw my need for emotional healing and recommended me an unconventional treatment: psilocybin mushrooms.* A note for the uninformed: magic mushrooms is a psychedelic drug or hallucinogen which often creates a spiritual experience for the user. Through my trips, I gained insight into answering those existential questions. The one insight I share with you here resonates with me most in terms of Faith in the unknown. And yes, this insight came in the words of God him/herself.

God’s message for me was that this is the only life where we get to be completely autonomous and have independent thought. In other words: we can be who we want to be, but we only get this lifetime to do so.

Simple right? But the flip side, is that we don’t get to know everything. Read together: having independent thought means we cannot truly know the things that do not depend on our autonomous selves, outside our autonomous minds.

After that message was revealed to me, I became disillusioned with the idea that I was not actually going to gain answers to the questions that led me down this spiritual questing. Over time, however, I came to realize that while I did not gain knowledge, I did gain insight.

I emphasize this idea of insight, because having gone down many paths of change and transformation, I now understand that insight is all I ever get. It is the key to my process of becoming my true self. Faith, by definition, is having trust in the unknown, and holds the other piece of the puzzle. Understood together, if the thing we’re transforming into is a mystery, then hold onto that bit of insight, and lean hard into Faith. The rest, is your genius and hard work.

Before I wrap up, let’s visit this idea of self-determination.

::::::::

“The Na’vi say that every person is born twice. The second time is when you earn your place among the people… forever.” – Jake Sully, Avatar, the movie.

::::::::

In the movie Avatar, Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) uttered those words above as he was coming out from his initiation rite into the Na’vi tribe. There’s 8 minutes of deleted scene of his initiation rite, “The Dreamhunt”, viewable in Avatar’s Extended Collector’s Edition. In this deleted scene Jake eats a worm with psychoactive alkaloid and is subjected to a scorpion venomous sting, in order to gain a vision (as explained by Sigourney Weaver’s character, Dr. Grace Augustine.) During Jake’s psychedelic trip, he sees and connects with Toruk, his spirit animal. Without going into too much detail, the Toruk is important in the story to Jake leading the Na’vi tribe into victory against the “sky people.”

By deleting this vision quest scene from the final finished film, Jake’s employing Toruk is presented instead as an act of self-determination. “Sometimes your whole life boils down to one insane move,” says Jake, as he seeks out Toruk.

Similar to the way Jake Sully’s heroic story was finalized, how often do we consciously or subconsciously edit out Faith, and only leave in “self-determination” as we process our own story of becoming? Our Hero’s Journey to our truth?

While we’re not here to know the unknowable, we ought not edit out the other forces at play either. There is mystery in this world, as well as meaning of life and purpose. There are also ideas buried in our dreams and imagination waiting to be discovered. Those things that rely on an ounce of Faith to take on.

 

*Disclaimer: all opinions expressed here are my own and are a result of the way in which my somewhat dysfunctional mind interprets a particular situation and or concept. Should you decide to act upon or reuse any information provided by me, you are doing so at your own responsibility.

 

 

We live much of our lives not realizing that our inner self has healing work that needs our attention. In my last post, I listed ways to accessing healing. In this post, I want to get a bit deeper into what I think a process of healing looks like, illustrated in more or less chronological order:

1. Inciting incident. True story: I got really angry at an ex-boyfriend once (okay, maybe more than once), because he called me “lazy.” Why? Growing up, my mother used name calling to shame me and my siblings into submission. One of the names she called me was lazy. Or that time when I broke down because my doctor called me with a report on some negative result. And sure enough, there was an emotional wound attached to this physical ailment.

Or maybe your inciting incident comes as a dream, an unfortunate event such as divorce or getting fired at work, etc. Whatever its form, inciting incidents are invaluable because it is one way that the universe sends you a reminder that you’ve strayed off course from living and being your true authentic self. So next time you stumble upon an inciting incident, rather than getting angry or running from it, try embracing it (or parts of it.) Because it will lead to…

2. Insight. Following the inciting incident comes insight. To be clear though, insight comes with staying open and listening to your true authentic self. Otherwise, it’s just gut reaction. And gut reactions are useful when you need to react quickly to a swerving car in front of your’s on the highway, but no good, when it comes to healing an emotional wound. Put another way, gut reactions to an inciting incident often manifest itself in the form of anger or fear.

Instead, if your mind can stay quiet and really listen, insight will come. For me, I had a recent insight where I realized the totality of the universe and where my place was within it. I also realized that I was on the course of my true calling in life. Now, not everyone will have the same insight: but your insight will be equally profound. One where you come into awareness of whatever the universe wants you to know in that moment.

3. Inward journey. It should be clear that everyone’s inward journey is going to be a bit different, depending on the insight they just gained. My favorite way to relating to this part of the healing process is to borrow Joseph Campbell’s template of the Hero’s Journey, as described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Readers, don’t skim on this part of the healing process! If you must, throw all your eggs into this basket. Because this is the part where you will learn new skills, gain new experiences. By devoting your time and energy to your inward journey, you might have a shot at becoming the person that you were suppose to be, or wish to become.

And as such – embarking on your inward journey will feel right and true. Yes there will be moments where you will fall or fail. But for the most part, if you’re doing it right, it will feel like the best ride of your life. In fact, it can feel like you are creating your own life from scratch. Sounds amazing, right?

Now if you’re completely lost as to where to begin, read my last post, Accessing Healing Part 1, where you can get some ideas on how to kick start your inward journey. Some advice: be kind to yourself, never judge yourself or your pace, and stay open to whatever possibilities that might shore up.

4. Teachers and guides 2.0. It dawned on me in recent weeks that most of us traverse the bulk of our adult lives with no teachers, guides, or mentors at our side. Where did they go after we completed high school or college? As part of your inward journey, you will hopefully meet teachers, guides, and mentors that will help you along your way. But they will be masked by some other profession or identity – because our society tells us that we’re done with learning after formal schooling.

Personally, I work with a coach, a reiki teacher, and an acupuncturist and consider them my teachers and guides. I have a professor from college that I keep in touch with that I consider my lifelong teacher. And I connect with the Dalai Lama’s work at a spiritual and soulful level.

I also have a friend who, when asked about her teachers, responded that her best teacher has been herself. Whatever works for you. Just remember that only a fraction of what there is to know is within our immediate reach, and someone (or your intuition) has another layer of information we still want to have access to.

5. Learning. After you’ve completed your inward journey, you’ve now learned a bit more about your true self, what you are capable of, and who you are capable of becoming. The new skills we’ve gained now requires practice. Constant practice. I find this to be the most frustrating part. In the end, my mother was right: I am lazy. Well, sort of – the wound ran deep because therein lies a truth! But it is not the only truth.

No matter who you are (or how hardworking you are,) this part is difficult because it is unnatural to our decades-old self. But for those of us who has a tremendous amount of patience, persistence, and/or perseverance, this stage will feel easier and more natural. Either way, the next and what I consider as the final stage of the healing process will forever impress upon you as the person you were meant to become…

6. Re-scripting. We’ve got muscle memory, and/or an inner script that’s outdated, and therefore false, to replace. In fact, you were probably never really the person that you thought you were – it was just a script, a narrative, that you or others told of you. But guess what? That old you, whether s/he was real, is still in the background, waiting for the perfect opportunity to make a comeback.

Re-scripting is therefore crucial to cementing your new identity. Re-scripting is the culmination of insight, learning and practice of becoming the new you. Re-scripting means replacing your old identity, roles and behavior with new ones, and telling yourself who you’ve now become and who you’re now made of. Whether because you’ve now become a great daughter, singer, writer: you now get to say it, own it, and be it. Re-script creatively – you might even stumble upon another insight for another inward journey.

There’s a reason why they call it the art of healing… There’s an art to it, and art takes process. Art is also creative, and creation takes time. Be gentle and kind to yourself as you embark on your healing process. Give yourself time to master your own healing process! What’s more: once you’ve mastered this art, you’ve now become its next great teacher.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about healing. This, following reading news of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington’s suicide on Chris Cornell’s birthday.

Specifically, I’ve been contemplative about the difference between those of us who overcome depression and those who do not, and if the key is our ability to access healing.

So, my first post on this topic is a simple but thoughtful and honest list of the ways I’ve been able to overcome adversity, depression, anxiety and worry… and access the power of healing. As I put this list together though, I also realized that using any one of these in excess has also led me to further addiction, pain and suffering, depending on where in life I was at… As such, not only should one use in moderation, it’s important to recognize that there’s a fine line between healthy practice and addiction: know the difference, choose to be kind to yourself, and stop when you’ve crossed that line. So without further ado*:

  1. exercise (this is obvious, but do so in moderation)
  2. eating healthy (as my friend Derek warned: this is not the same as dieting)*
  3. sharing sadness with friends and family
  4. vacation (beach ones are my favorite)
  5. making new friends (usually comes easiest when you’re pursuing a new social hobby)
  6. dessert
  7. reading (one of my favorites: Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance)
  8. listening to music (Frank Sinatra tops the list)
  9. yoga, meditation, and reiki
  10. restyle, your hair and/or wardrobe
  11. tattoo (go for a small one)
  12. hobbies, new and old
  13. write, from the heart (I’m not one for journaling, but prefer poetry writing)
  14. talk therapy (in my personal experience, this is an entry point to healing, but in and of itself talk therapy hasn’t healed me)
  15. working with a life coach (where talk therapy has gotten me to the entry point, a life coach has guided me the rest of the way)
  16. alternative medicine (acupuncture has helped me, though there are others)

Do you have a favorite you want to share that’s not on my list? Please feel free to leave a comment!

*Disclaimer: all opinions expressed here are my own and are a result of the way in which my somewhat dysfunctional mind interprets a particular situation and or concept. Should you decide to act upon or reuse any information provided by me, you are doing so at your own responsibility.

 

It’s been 8 weeks since Chris Cornell’s passing. He left us just 2 weeks before my 39th birthday. As someone who passed their teen years listening to grunge and alternative rock with their sister and high school friends: this loss felt especially big. Still does.

A number of important articles have been written before and following Cornell’s death, on mental health and substance and prescription drug abuse in America which are worth a read. As someone who has worked in public health, including mental health, for 10+ years, I do hope that the country is steering itself in the right direction on supporting some of our most vulnerable populations.

In this post, I want to express here one *truth* that Cornell faced which resonates with me deeply: Cornell’s mental well-being aside, the root of his suffering was real. Sure, Cornell battled with depression and anxiety, and ultimately lost to the demons inside his head. But I believe he didn’t only battle internal demons, or that we can simply reduce his death to his losing to them. There was always a bigger lesson for us to learn from Cornell’s music. For one, sometimes life just hurts; and for some of us, we cannot and ought not shake this pain. And Cornell undoubtedly experienced and empathized with others’ pain and suffering, as it exists in this world we all live in. A world which he reminds us we all share: a connectedness that defines our responsibility towards each other. This, expressed most profoundly in his last solo album, Higher Truth.

I’m talking about the 10 year-old in Wrong Side, whose father worked and died in the mines after being trapped for 20 days. The kid never recovers from this loss and navigates the world alone, lost, troubled, and encounters trouble throughout his adult years.

These lyrics are the product of Cornell’s beautiful mind. For Cornell, it is society’s demons that we’ve come to accept and perpetuate. That a kid navigates the world “alone but free” at age 10: does the world really not know he might need help and support? I think we know. Our society has simply failed on kids like this one.

Cornell then shows us how we, individually, can break our cycle of failing to meet each other: in Through the Window, Cornell describes the common, but deep, suffering of people we encounter on a day-to-day basis. His eyes follow a fellow train passenger, as he imagines the deep emotional pain s/he lives with and is experiencing. In so doing, Cornell shows us the practice of empathy.

In Our Time In the Universe, Cornell expresses how we ought to be celebrating and experiencing our life: expansively. And this might be the hardest thing Cornell asks us to practice – to go beyond our immediate reach, our immediate consciousness. To go and trust our inner voice, our intuition, as he sings, “maybe you and I one day will finally choose the higher truth.” For Cornell, our time in this life is not simply what we can see, feel, touch, hear, or know. Though we may not know what it is, we absolutely have a responsibility to hold this Higher Truth.

And we must begin the hard work of listening more deeply to each other, our inner voice, or however and from wherever the call comes, to keep Cornell’s Promise. By living compassionately and expansively, we might begin to care for the kid who has found himself on the Wrong Side, and others who we pass by every day, whether on a train, on the street, at the store. We all live through pain, and all have responsibility to each other to help alleviate each’s suffering.

And this ability to sit with empathy, hold compassion and live with an expanded consciousness, I hope, is the lesson we all learn and remember our beloved Chris Cornell by. May we all celebrate Our Time in the Universe by bringing more joy and happiness to each other. As Cornell shows us through the years, we must do so even if practicing empathy and compassion pains us. The Higher Truth – that which is outside ourselves – is that we are all connected, under this ever expansive universe. This universe that we call home, for now.

And while Chris Cornell is no longer with us on Earth, he lives on, among the stars with us in the universe. Thank you for watching over us, from above. You’ll be missed, but you won’t be forgotten.

Antigua –
It is the place where the poet, the lover,
returns.

Love lost forever
and not
but not.

Seekers come and go
to find… the poet?
her lover?

Release (!) – the grief – the
holding on…
or me.

Antigua is – my dreams.
My gratitude. My loss.
my healing.

The days & the rain washes away
the pain, the sorrow.

New beginnings just over
the Border.

– A.Ling, 2016

And if your past
visits you,
clenches you and
won’t let go.

Just remember those
of us,
your family, your friends
who meets you in the present

And want to walk with
you,
special you,

Into the future.

– A.Ling

Most people who know me, know I spend a bit of time on the road. I’ve worked and traveled around the world, often to places that most people never heard of or never thought to visit.

I can identify precisely when I caught the travel bug: I was 20 and, while getting my bachelors degree at Drexel University in international area studies, worked abroad for a semester teaching English at a private elementary school in China. I instantly connected with people with whom I had little in common, but whose stories I thought were interesting and amazing. Deeply influenced by one of my professors, a sociologist with leftist leanings, I connected with people and their stories of hardships through work and their lived experiences under a communist regime.

From there, I didn’t stop traveling. I worked in the non-profit sector, and worked in East, West, and Southern Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Central America. I traveled to other parts of Latin America and Tibet in my late 20’s and early 30’s for non-work excursions. I wanted to know all there was to know about the world and what stories and meaning held “out there.”

Through all this, my parents often frowned upon my wandering. Though they know my work and living abroad has deeply impacted me and made me a better person, I make them worry, as they like to point out.

And then… I had a revelation the other day. 

My family and I immigrated to the United States in 1985 when I was 8 years old. This past November, my mother became eligible for Medicare – which makes her 65 years old. In 1985 then, at the age of 34, my mother, along with my father who was 32, immigrated to the US with their 3 young children of 9, 8, and 7 years.

It dawned on me then, that in their early 30’s my parents encountered their “what if” moment – their Jesus Year, if you will (see post, “Jesus Year, deconstructed.”) It was the “what if” that propelled my parents to leave their jobs and home, and head to the West for opportunities.

And yes, I can share with you our immigrant story… But today, I just wanted to remind myself, and hope you will too, to always allow our sense of wonder to fill us. As my dear friend Ken once told me, “sometimes, dreams do come true.”

So perhaps, my travel bug was caught not when I was 20, but when I was just a child, daydreaming about the “what if” in life and the things to see “out there,” just as my mother and father did. If we are truly more like our parents then we ever care to admit: then for this one thing they’ve given me – this sense of wonder – I thank them.

– Angel, writing from Niamey, Niger, March 2017

Co-author, Cheryl Hung

The last few posts, I’ve written a bit about this theme of Not Waiting from a place of… well, regret. Immense regret and how regrets of our past can propel us forward to choose how we live our life differently.

In this next series of posts, I’m switching gears and instead explore this same theme but from a different angle: what if. This “what if” intention is so crucial because it is from the place of “what if”, where we imagine a more joyous and beautiful life that’s worth our living.

In writing this post, I decided to enlist help from my cousin Cheryl. So a quick intro seems to be in order – Cheryl has been a market research professional since graduating from college in 2005. She’s also a certified yoga instructor, and teaches yoga in corporate settings. In the Spring of 2015, at the age of 33, Cheryl unexpectedly walked into her Jesus Year.* So here’s an excerpt of our conversation as she describes surviving her Jesus Year, and how through sitting and listening to her inner voice, she managed to transform her life into a more beautiful one, while touching others through the art of yoga teaching:

Angel: So I’m really interested in the “inciting incident” of your story. Can you share with me a bit about it? I always like to think that, it is often through crisis that we make the best, most inspiring, transformations.

Cheryl: The “inciting incident” – was the morning that I woke up, and I couldn’t go to work anymore. The night before, I had stayed up until midnight, pulling a last minute request for a client and it was a very difficult project, for a very difficult client. And this client was not happy…My overall attitude at that point was – this is kinda boring and I felt like my career had plateaued, and why was I working so hard and this client is still yelling at me?? There has to be something more to life! I WANTED to do something more, but I was so complacent.

So the morning of that inciting incident, I woke up and was running late. I needed to get up but I couldn’t. Everything just felt heavy. I was like “Do I have the flu? Am I sick?” But my body didn’t feel like it was sick. When I tried to get up, I started having the hardcore, hyperventilating panic attack. I couldn’t breathe. I just started crying hysterically in bed. And I told my partner Hani, “I’m not going to work, I can’t go to work, I don’t want to go to work. And I just don’t want to.” I couldn’t articulate that I wasn’t sick physically.

By mid-morning I get up, and it hit me that there was no way in hell that I was going to pretend that everything was ok. Because things were not ok. It took me, 4 hours – until after lunch! – for me to make myself decent and put on some clothing. When I got to work, instead of going to my office, I went straight to HR. I described to HR what had happened in the last 24 hours and requested for some time off. I needed to regroup. I needed to clear my head, I had no idea what was going on, only that there was something loud and resounding screaming inside of me to just STOP.

As Cheryl and I chatted more about how her inciting incidence unfolded, it became clear that this was the beginning of a journey, not merely the aftermath of an incident. What was it about hitting rock bottom that forces us to re-evaluate how we are choosing to live our lives? It is often through crisis or major life events that many of us stop and start to wonder ‘what if’: what if it didn’t have to be this way? What would happen if Cheryl kept going at status-quo? What if Cheryl chose happiness instead?

Cheryl confessed that she didn’t know the answers to her ‘what ifs’. At that moment, now that she decided to take time off, she recalled wondering what she would do with her spare time. Cheryl recounted her big plans to hit the gym every day, catch up on housework and friends & family during her time off, etc. But none of this materialized.

Instead, Cheryl “did nothing”. On a “good day”, she described walking down the street to go to Starbucks, or going to yoga. With suddenly no work demands or rigid schedule to follow (and no motivation to go to the gym!), Cheryl began to listen to herself. At the thought of throwing in the towel for this career, she questioned why after working so hard. She questioned if it was her time to exit, or did she needed to simply shift her focus?

A: Cheryl, were you always good with listening to yourself?

C: No, I didn’t always have an intuition, or listened to myself. I listened to my mother, I listened to society, I listened to what I was supposed to be doing… I was supposed to go to university, get a degree, get a good paying job, work my ass off, and then keep going keep going. And then when the time is ticking… meet someone, have babies… get married… and I did that… well not really. But from a career perspective, I did what I was supposed to do. I was FUCKING BLOODY MISERABLE. I was good at my job, I had a good salary, by our parent’s definition –by anyone looking in- I was good! No, I wasn’t. My inner voice was saying GET REAL.

Get real.

There it was. The demand from our inner selves to start living our authentic lives as it was meant to be. For some of us, it means hitting roadblock after roadblock before getting to the truth of what, where, and why we are meant to be. In this place of ‘what if’, through this inevitable life journey of discovery, “real” starts to manifest in ways that only makes sense to us.

At this point, I asked Cheryl if it was through her Jesus Year that she discovered yoga was her life calling. Did yoga ‘resurrect’ her to live from a place of authenticity and help others through health & wellness? Being a yoga practitioner myself, I noticed many yoga teachers always seemed to have their stuff together. They looked glowingly healthy and stress-free from their diet of green smoothies. They traveled the world and did cool poses on mountaintops. They preached gratitude, love, stylish stretchy-pants and everything-zen. To me, they were yoga fairies sprinkled all over the city to remind the rest of us to live authentically. Cheryl told me to get real.

She described the reality of moonlighting as a yoga teacher and holding down a full-time job in order to make living in the city, feasible. She told stories of fellow yoga teachers who would not be able to if they didn’t have a supportive partner, and of others who are barely getting by with family to take care of. There was messiness involved. Life as a yoga fairy was not all green smoothies and pixie dust.

C: Yoga practice for me is all about staying open. It’s anything and everything on and off the mat. On days when I really need it, it will be 75 mins of vigorous non-stop movement, advanced poses… and I’ll come out of it, “oh yea, exactly what I needed.” Then on other days, you’ll find me sitting on my mat 20 minutes not moving. And I’ll just sit there… and I’ll come out of it, “oh yea, exactly what I needed.” That is the type of openness I need, that I draw from, from my yoga practice. Yoga is not just about stretching my legs in different directions. “Practice” is in here (Cheryl points to her head) too.

Cheryl goes on to describe some of her teaching philosophies, in encouraging her students to maintain a practice that was right for them. She tells her students “I’m not always going to be here: you’re going to move away, I’m going to move away. There’s going to be times when you won’t be able to come to yoga practice because life happens. But I hope you’ll hold your own practice. And I’m here to teach you how to safely build your own practice that’s truly for you: your body, your mind. That’s my job as your yoga teacher.”

And just like in life, the notion of a practice – an authentic practice leading to an authentic life – differed from person to person. It was about ‘getting real’. Let’s face it, life is messy. Some of us navigate it better than others, but we all hit roadblocks at one point. There will be a point where all of us encounter the ‘what ifs’. Some may be lucky enough to encounter a yoga fairy that sprinkles pixie dust on us and everything will be OK…likely not. It is my hope that, like Cheryl, it is the beginning of a journey that allows us to find our voice and start living and navigating life from a place of joy and authenticity.

* Jesus Year is the (approximate) 33rd year of one’s life where one is reborn and/or undergoes transformation. So called, as tribute to the year of Jesus’s crucifixion, where one could imagine the transformation he underwent the year(s) leading up to his sacrificing himself for mankind. 

They were outside on a hot August day, the sky above a cloudless blue. The 30 year old international aid worker and her two colleagues from the US had been invited by a local NGO to attend a soccer match between two junior league teams in Katatura township of Windhoek, Namibia. The three Americans were in the country for a 2-week work trip, sent by their headquarter office in Washington to provide operating support to the project which services those afflicted with HIV/AIDS.

Standing nearby, also watching the soccer match, was a Namibian girl of about twelve years. The aid worker noticed the child had Down Syndrome, wearing not only a dirty set of clothes and no shoes, but a tired, unhappy face.

The middle-aged soccer coach, an American woman, tells the aid worker, “she has HIV.” She explains, “she’s been taken advantage of by men in her village. Her parents are gone, and her grandmother cannot protect her.” The aid worker stood there, dumb-founded. She was never trained for this. She was never trained to be courageous in the face of this much injustice. She was never trained to live with her heart this open to let in that much pain and suffering. So she blinked away her tears as the soccer coach walked away to continue her day’s work. Moments later, she was approached by other curious children, asking about her camera and its functions. She was saved, for now…

That was me, eight and a half years ago. I share this story now because a few months ago I realized, too late, that the child must have passed a few years back. Given the high prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS in the impoverished country of Namibia (13.3% among adults 15  to 49 years; source: UNAIDS, 2015), coupled with the child’s chromosomal condition, she would not have received the treatment she needed from the government to survive the disease’s progression. This realization saddens me deeply. Both because I did nothing for her, and because there was nothing to be done.

Life, especially when one lives in the global North, is surrounded by so much peace, safety, and economic prosperity we become removed and disconnected from the suffering of those much less fortunate then ourselves. Rarely do we encounter strangers who need our help: who need us to respond with compassion, empathy, love, and courage.

We live in a very troubled time right now in US history. And yet – we can all be thankful for it has never been more amazing to be alive. It is precisely now that we get to train our hearts to become the most compassionate, empathetic, loving, and courageous selves towards the world. To test ourselves to become the warriors we were destined to be.

It is no wonder then, that after seeing images of children’s lifeless bodies washed up on the beaches in Europe that many of us want to protect those who are able to escape the war in Syria. Indeed, very few actually make it; we in turn should respond by showing up at airports, show up against oppression. We should want to act. Because it is so rare, and for so few, that we get to, in our lifetime.

We must show up for them and for ourselves if we want to live the life we were called to live. To this day, I live with images and memory of my chance encounter eight and a half years ago: serving as a shameful memory of my inaction – what I did not show up to do. While I have come far from that 30 year old self, I have much farther to go.

And so I’ll leave you with this: in the few protests in Washington DC, New York, and Philadelphia that I have attended in the last 3 weeks, I’ve heard cries from the crowd calling out the current president’s orders as acts of “shame.” I do hope that we all can act courageously with our hearts wide open in the face of injustice and oppression. To do otherwise will not only turn our silence into personal shame, but a shame at a national scale.

*Photo credits: Marshall Maher, 2008

This past New Years holiday, I spent the better part of the three-day weekend reconnecting with a dear friend from El Salvador, a place where I once called home. I had offered to help with his personal essay for an application and wound up quite involved in the whole writing and editing process. Sometimes to “reconnect” isn’t just chatting on the phone or seeing a friend face to face. Instead – I had, on my lap, my friend’s hopes, dreams, and what he wished as his next step in life more than anything else.

And I decided to show up for my part. I plugged myself back into his life, his world. You see – this is no regular friend. This is the BEST of friends, who played a huge role during the BEST time of my life…

I met Jose Roberto during my first of three years in El Salvador. A the age of 32, I moved to El Salvador not only for work but also to find my calling in life. I also had found no luck – well, bad luck yes – with meeting love in Washington DC, so I decided it was as good a time as any to living and redefining a more purposeful life.

At first our friendship was polite – I met him through my roommate, Debra, with whom he had just began dating. I had also met someone. When my relationship ended abruptly, Jose Roberto and Debra loved and cared for me. By the second half of year two and all of year three, I started my own consulting work, and worked for both of their companies. I grew to love them both and their work, deeply. In those years, I lived with a full heart where I defined who I was and wanted to be, and where friendship was all the love I needed.

Before you know it, it was time for me to go home. The week prior to my departure, Jose Roberto and I had a big miscommunication which led to a bigger fight. Some words were exchanged, and we were both left with hurt and feelings of abandonment.

We didn’t mend our friendship for two years after I returned to the US. And this is where each and every one of us have struggled in our lives, so I want you to “hear me now, and believe me later,” so to speak. Do not wait to reach out to someone to apologize or make amends: waiting has only ever caused yourself (and the other person) immense suffering. You know damn well what I’m talking about!

But more than that – I inadvertently delayed processing and reflecting on what was the best time of my life. You see, any time that you hold onto resentment, anger, pain, and fear, you hold yourself back from appreciating the person, the events, for what it truly is. The fierceness in life, in friendship, in work, and in play that I had during those three years- I have since struggled with finding or recreating because I have yet to trust myself for fear of getting hurt.

I cannot promise that the person you wish to mend your friendship or relationship with will be as generous as Jose Roberto and I have been with ours. I can promise that you will find some meaning and closure – if you decide to be brave about it. So perhaps pick your bravest day, consult your horoscope, whatever – by all means do make amends and do forgive.

In closing 2016, I wish to leave you with this poem, Christmas at Midlife, by Mary Anne Perrone. I first read this after one of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle Melton, shared it on her social media feed; and yes –  I was immediately inspired to start this blog after reading this. Please enjoy and share widely with others!

I am no longer waiting for a special occasion; I burn the best candles on ordinary days.
I am no longer waiting for the house to be clean; I fill it with people who understand that even dust is Sacred.

I am no longer waiting for everyone to understand me; It’s just not their task
I am no longer waiting for the perfect children; my children have their own names that burn as brightly as any star.
I am no longer waiting for the other shoe to drop; It already did, and I survived.

I am no longer waiting for the time to be right; the time is always now.
I am no longer waiting for the mate who will complete me; I am grateful to be so warmly, tenderly held.
I am no longer waiting for a quiet moment; my heart can be stilled whenever it is called.
I am no longer waiting for the world to be at peace; I unclench my grasp and breathe peace in and out.

I am no longer waiting to do something great; being awake to carry my grain of sand is enough.
I am no longer waiting to be recognized; I know that I dance in a holy circle.
I am no longer waiting for Forgiveness. I believe, I Believe.