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.

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“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.

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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.

 

 

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.