Reorientation

In one of last month’s entries, I expressed a feeling of the burden of having to “clean up” after myself. Finding a starting point for that effort has been a troublesome process. In the time so far, I’ve used what little time I’ve been able to allot to my writings trying to think of what to write next to move the process along, each day passing filled with unsatisfactory ideas. Invariably, I lose patience, and shift my focus to jumping haplessly across all the various other things I’m currently working on. Of all my projects, the two that I feel carry the most importance are my weight-loss progress and the development of my writing abilities. Since they’ve become so deeply intertwined, a lack of progress with one can drastically affect the other.
As I’ve been mulling the problem over in my head, one detracting factor I identified for myself is my detachment from the larger narrative that I’m currently working with. There’s been so much that’s happened even the last year alone that I’ve forgotten a lot of what it was that I wrote. Over the past couple hours, I’ve spent my evening re-reading all of my previous entries, both published and privately archived, to fully reacquaint myself with the story of me that my younger past selves have established so far. They’ve proven to be a very helpful read. After spending so much time honing my skill at the art of detachment over the recent years, I’ve been living in a state of suppression wherein my past has been treated as a set of foreign memories that I have collected in my brain as opposed to my own actual life story. It’s been very helpful in affording me the distance & emotional divestment to process and resolve all of my past unresolved issues, but it’s also made it hard to lay claim to my “self” if my self perception is so myopically focused on the constant transitional nature of life.
Having all the outstanding matters I’ve written about in the recent past fresh in mind, it requires very little effort on my part to figure out my next steps. The more I lower my guard against myself and begin to embrace my past and my life as my own, the more I find myself reconnecting with that “flow” whose constant presence I’ve missed. Those times where I manage to find it via a “runner’s high” is probably a good reason why I’ve come to enjoy running so much. Similarly, I recently read about a study linking emotions to decision-making, and am open to the idea that all the effort I exerted in such strenuous emotional repression may have been a strong cause behind all of the analysis paralysis I’ve struggled with.
If I were faced with the dreaded “tell me about yourself” interview question just mere weeks ago, I would have been unable to provide a satisfactory response. I wouldn’t have known where to begin; for so long, my story has been focused on recovering from a mental-emotional crisis, trying to rediscover the better parts of myself while wrestling with a transient-near-nihilistic outlook on life. I became the weakness and lamentations so thoroughly that I forgot all about my past strengths and accomplishments. Now, I’d be able to effectively communicate my story, as it stands so far. It’s not yet reached the point where it gets really good yet, but I can at least now see myself moving steadily in the proper direction.

Stoicism: My Way

At my present day-job, the majority of my workday is spent performing mundane and routine office work, primarily shuffling papers and performing data entry. Since listening to music can only carry me through so many hours of the day, I was driven to find some other ways to preoccupy all of the mental energy that goes unused by my job duties. A few months back when I still had an Evernote Premium subscription, I was utilizing their text-to-speech engine in their browser extension to have my workstation read back articles from my RSS feed subscriptions. Even though I found another text-to-speech extension (which appears to be the platform that powers Evernote’s) that can be used for free, even the couple steps it takes to get a web page read back to me are too much of an inconvenience to do multiple times throughout the day for 2–7 minutes of audio content. Recently, I started thinking about how I could get around these annoyances. Then, I remembered about podcasts.
As I was keyboard-shortcutting my way through my Feedly feeds, a post from Art of Manliness stood out at me, since it included a SoundCloud player. I read the article body, an overview of their latest podcast episode and had my interest piqued. Lately, I’ve been passively working on collecting an idea bank to have at the ready for this year’s NaNoWriMo, and as a result, I’ve been reading articles and interviews with authors to get some motivational perspective. Being featured on Art of Manliness, the subject matter of book itself was also highly relevant to my interests, and hearing more about it felt like a good passive use of an hour of the work day.
That turned out to be an extremely good decision on my part. As I listened, I realized that stoic is something I’ve become not only in demeanor, but also philosophically. For the past few years, I’ve been deeply engaged in sorting out personal matters and reconnecting with my “true self”. Inspired by the Japanese literary legend of “Musashi”, I modeled my own personal journey after his own, removing myself from the world as much as possible and redefining my identity in near-complete solitude, uninfluenced by the external world. It’s a state I’d been very close with before in my life, a time I recall being very much in tune with myself and the world around me. As I did started doing some investigative reading on the subject, I saw many of the principles I’ve directed myself towards in a formal philosophical ideology. Needless to say, I’m very much interested in learning more about the real-world history of this school of thought. The book by Ryan Holiday discussed in the podcast has been added to my reading list, as has Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Cornered

In this recent lack of updates, I’ve come to the realization just how much weight it carries in my mind. As a tech enthusiast whose primary field of study has been Communications with an emphasis in Marketing, I’m aware of the importance of having a well established online presence. However, after taking so much time to work on myself and living outside of my old life, with strictly information internet usage and minimal social media engagement, the story I had to tell changed. I became less the tech savvy internet marketer who was part of the senior leadership of startup organization that helped bring Japanese rock to American shores, and more the survivor of a prolonged identity crisis. In my earlier years, I used to use writing as a means of processing life’s happenings, a way to collect and reflect intelligently on things. I made the effort to reconnect with that process, and the decision to publish what I wrote openly on the web as well. As a long time internet user, I’ve seen the unintentional and unexpected positive ways in which sharing a story can help other people. As a self-aware internet user, I have no objection to contributing my weaknesses and shortcomings to the version of me that exists in the collective internet cloud. I feel it would be wasteful to not be honest about these things, and throw away the First Amendment privilege we have in being able to openly express ourselves for the sake of appearance, presentation, and personal branding. That may sound a bit naive in ways, but sometimes I’m just a stubborn idealist — I accept that about myself.
All that being said, I feel that in focusing on capturing the present narrative throughout so many past incohesive posts, I’ve delayed pushing it forward. There’s a lot of areas of improvement that I’ve identified for myself, but my efforts have been greatly scattered and unfocused, resulting in very little improvement. Life calls for the actualization of the idealized self I’ve been striving to embody, and I’m ready for the challenge. But I feel encumbered by the story my younger self decided to share. After having painted so thoroughly a picture of myself as a broken individual in the process of reconnecting with his true “self”, I now feel like I’ve got some imaginary mountain of writing output that I have to generate to clean up after that decision. I’ve talked about the challenges and the struggles, but not on the resolutions and the takeways. I’ve been open about my weaknesses and my fears, but I’ve neglected my strengths and my accomplishments. It was a means to help myself sort it all out, and I’ll admit it worked, but everything has it’s cost. Fighting this feeling of obligation towards my writing is the one I’m currently facing, and the ramifications it has on my professional prospects because of its representation of myself as an individual. Overcoming everything that I’ve been struggling with internally the past few years is what’s been holding back my confidence and proudly demonstrate everything that I’m truly capable of.
This past weekend, I spent all of my day Saturday doing some initial business consultation with a friend who’s aspiring to start a catering business. I set her up with a collaborative online workflow for us to work together on, initiated conversations on branding and identity, establishing and communicating a story, and procured templates by which to compile a thorough business plan, and more specifically, a marketing plan. Having engaged in work of that nature and produced positive and measurable results as well as engaging in a new and ongoing project has sparked that old fire. The fact that I spend every workday conducting a routine set of basic administrative and data entry tasks in an enclosed room instead of doing something measurable that utilizes all of my capabilities is suffocating. And at my age, beginning to border inexcusable.
Now that the heavy lifting has been completed, it’s time to bring those chapters to a close and move on. Every day now brings an feeling of great promise that goes unseized and unexplored because I’m not exercising enough focus and determination. I recognize there’s a certain irony to my current situation, feeling inhibited by my past efforts to put my issues with my personal past to rest. Yet, having spent that recent Saturday doing something impactful that I enjoy, and writing about all of this now and getting the actual narrative up to speed, I feel an immense sense of progress and an equal sense of relief. I’ve regained trust in the idea that there’s a wealth of great ideas and talent inside my head. Successive failures in life knocked that belief out of me, but not being able to perform to my true potential is starting to eat away me. Reorienting and reclaiming myself has been my struggle, overcome but not completely told. As a result, what I have to show so far is the introspective lamentations of a troubled personal past and a weight loss project that routinely stalls out.
All I’ve written, to date, traps me in a corner, the image of a self-doubting incapable wreck. Though a lot of it has to do with the personal image I’ve been addressing, a lot of it stems from a personal fear: the fear that I’m not good enough. It’s a message I received repeatedly growing up, and though I’ve made my peace with it on that front, the realist in me knows that the world is not a very friendly place. The last time I actively looked for employment, it took months to finally end up where I am now, and reading so many of the unemployment stories on Gawker, where university graduates have gone months unemployed or having to settle for minimum wage, to desire to want something better begins to feel audacious, considering that despite all of my past professional accomplishments, I have no formal certification that gives entry to higher paying jobs.
But I remember that despite all the failures, things have paid out when I’ve taken bold moves in the past. I have that sense of unyielding confidence and unshakable resilience that I felt I lost so long ago. This corner is a trapping of my own, and I’ve conquered challenges far greater in life.

Growing Up Nowhere

In addition to supporting the story/idea sharing goal inherent to a blog, I’ve been pressuring myself more and more to write about my past in order to give more context to my output as a writer. Admittedly, I’ve been resistant to the idea because it entails revisiting old memories that I’ve only recently finished putting to bed for good. As a result, going around and digging them back up hasn’t been the most attractive prospect, and admittedly, also feels like I’d be taking steps backwards. This leaves me with the option to either use that rationale as an excuse not to do it, or get it done and out of the way without dwelling on the matter. In the spirit of productivity, I’m opting for the latter. This is the story of how I grew up nowhere.
Growing up with my mother being full-time custody holder, there are five instances of “home” throughout my formative years:

  1. Toddler Years: The house my family lived in right down the way from my dad’s place.
  2. Early Childhood: A duplex unit home in a nearby neighborhood.
  3. Childhood: A rental house in the city
  4. My Dad’s Place: The family home located above the family business, a liquor store in a low-income neighborhood.

The fifth and final one was the one that became my mother’s fixed residence, a house she bought in residential development compound located off the road between Tijuana and Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico in the mid ’90s. It was a small community of repeated base model homes made of brick, wood, and cement: 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom, and a living room/kitchen area that owners would then add-on to and customize as they built. As they were in Mexico, they were probably in violation of countless standards and regulations that America has in place for housing. The basic units weren’t properly finished, and air would blow in through the tiny holes in the cement. These homes were on hills only a few miles away from the ocean, those winds would come fast and frigid, making showers a painful test of fortitude in the winters. For the first few years, there was no access to utilities. Nightfall signaled it was time to light an array of candles, and water had to be bought from the truck tanks of water vendors and stored in giant plastic barrels. Cooking required purchasing propane cylinder refills in a similar fashion. Bathing required turning on the propane line, fetching water from the barrel and boiling it in a pot, emptying the boiled water into a giant bucket, getting another pot’s worth of cold water from the barrel, cutting the boiled water with the cold water to ideal temperature, then grabbing a cup/bowl and taking a bath out of the bucket as quick as possible.
Since my dad paid the rent on the house we lived in stateside, time was split between both homes for the first couple years before the rental was given up sometime around 1997, which I believe coincided with when the electric utility commission finally got around to installing power lines. That ended up relocating me with my full-time custody holder to the other side of the US-Mexico border. In turn, I grew up in a very princess-in-the-tower-like manner. My mom strictly forbade me spending the night at other people’s homes, and the only place I could stay at in the states was either at my dad’s place when she felt up to leaving me there, or at one of my sisters’ homes provided I had explicit permission from her to go.
For the most part, I was peerless. My daily company was my little brother and a few of my nephews and nieces (one of my sisters bought a house in Mexico of her own a few blocks down the street), on which I had a good 5–6 year lead. Everyone else around me was significantly older. The neighborhood kids that were my age I didn’t connect with – small language barrier aside, they all cared about American movies and soccer whereas I was interested in role playing video games with engaging narratives, hard rock, and books. So my days were largely spent left alone to do my own thing, in my bedroom in a house off in the hills of Mexico with no phone, cable TV, or internet. I occupied my time with reading whatever books were available (once I exhausted my stock and went without new books for so long I started reading the Bible in Spanish and an English dictionary), replaying video games I’d beaten many times over, and playing around on my old Compaq Presario running Windows ME and sifting over all the stuff I’d managed to download onto when I still had my dial-up internet access at the old rental house in the states. I was frequently left to my own devices, unsupervised and unmonitored, and I found myself growing very comfortable with that. All I needed to occupy myself I had in the form of literature, entertainment, and my own imagination. When being indoors ceased to be appealing, I would head off on bike or foot and explore the trails in the chaparral that surrounded us.

Mom's House - Google Maps Satellite View
Satellite shot from Google Maps of the area my mom’s house is located in.

 
While I can frame that experience in the positive as affirming my autonomous and introspective nature, it also had some pretty severe drawbacks. Though I couldn’t control where we lived, I did vehemently refuse to give up on my school. I’d transferred from the elementary school in the “ghetto” to a middle school (and subsequently, the neighboring high school) as part of a program to diversify student bodies in schools, and I’d been a shoo-in for my ethnic background and my academic achievement — I’d been enrolled in the county’s Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program since the 2nd grade (the same year they tried to convince me to allow myself to be skipped to the 4th grade and I staunchly refused). However, after the move, my academic performance started suffering to disastrous results.
Home to School Commute Map
The commute from home at my mom’s to my middle school & high school (yellow pins). The green place marker is my dad’s place of residence.

Having a 1 hour morning commute without accounting for the variable time-padding needed to account for crossing the US-Mexico border inspection station and a designated school starting time of 7:30–7-:45 AM meant I was frequently late. I recall my 7th grade self realizing and feeling so disappointed with how numb and unconcerned I’d become to the embarrassment of regularly walking in late halfway through the second period of the school day. My afternoons at the end of a school day were not spent hanging out with friends or studying, they were spent waiting for my mom or my one of my sisters to get around to picking me up. Laptops were still a high-end luxury at the time, so the commute home was spent sitting patiently in the car. After being dragged around to run personal errands by the driver, getting home allowed for a 2–3 hour period in which to get homework done and get in leisure time before going to bed early to rise at 4:30–5AM to start the day over again.
As a result of this one detail in my past, I’ve struggled with two recurring concepts. The first being the shame of bearing the mantle of an unrealized child prodigy, someone who had a vast well of potential and failed to make anything come of it. The resentment of having the promise that parents hope to see in their children, and having it neglected in favor of ownership of a brick hut in a developing neighborhood in a developing nation. The other being how I’ve been so unintentionally trained to be so self-sufficient. On an intellectual level, I know that I do a good job of navigating life socially despite the social retardation circumstances like those would normally result in because I believe in and adhere to being the “best” version of myself and a “good” person. And because I’m not an idiot and have a solid grasp on tact and social graces that I’ve developed through keen observation and personal experience. However, I am also equally aware acknowledge that the ease with which I can become unapologetically aloof with anyone is alarming. Being able to completely detach from things/people, I’ve learned, becomes a huge liability if it starts to become reflexive and second-nature.

Finding the "Self"

[ted id=1193]
Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself
Thandie Newton

In her TED talk, speaker Thandie Newton speaks of a sense of oneness that newborns feel, and how she believes it becomes lost in the formation of the individual’s sense of identity. We go from an innate state of belief in oneness with everything to evaluating reality through distinctions and separations. In our early years, we are provided countless “facts” about ourselves, both from personal experiences and external input, and weave them together to form a projection of our individuality, a “vehicle for navigate our social world”. However, she also points out that it’s a projection based on other people’s own projections (and so on and so on), and questions whether the sense of self we have is the person we really are, want to, or even should be. Having recently concluded a years-long battle with my own identity crisis, I was immediately engaged by how effectively she was able to verbalize thoughts and feelings I’d long since grappled with but never seemed able to sufficiently capture in my own words.

So this whole interaction with self and identity was a very difficult one for me growing up. The self that I attempted to take out into the world was rejected over and over again. And my panic at not having a self that fit, and the confusion that came from my self being rejected, created anxiety, shame and hopelessness, which kind of defined me for a long time.

This was the root cause for a lot of the mental & emotional turmoil I’ve carried over the years. I formed my sense of self in the warmth of a loving family environment. I grew up believing that good things happen to good people and aware of the fact that the things that generally comprised a “good person” were also things that made me feel good about myself. So when the years passed and I found myself at end of a continuous series of betrayals and abandonments, I started to see myself as an embodiment of rejection, never to fit in and never to be good enough for anyone in any capacity.

I grew up on the coast of England in the ’70s. My dad is white from Cornwall, and my mom is black from Zimbabwe. Even the idea of us as a family was challenging to most people. But nature had its wicked way, and brown babies were born. But from about the age of five, I was aware that I didn’t fit. I was the black atheist kid in the all-white Catholic school run by nuns. I was an anomaly, and my self was rooting around for definition and trying to plug in. Because the self likes to fit, to see itself replicated, to belong. That confirms its existence and its importance.

I grew up in San Diego, CA in the late ’80s and the ’90s. My dad is first-generation Chinese American from Oakland, and my mom an illegal alien from Zacatacas, Mexico. To go into the circumstances of my upbringing in sufficient detail would be a lengthy endeavor that goes beyond the scope of this entry. Suffice to say, the result my history with childhood & development served to reinforce the archetype of “the perpetual outsider”. On top of juggling the duality of being my “Mexican” self when at home with my mom and my “Chinese” self when left with my dad and his family, there were also the constant changes in my primary home environment to deal with. When my mom relocated us to a house on the other side of the US-Mexico border, that virtually eliminated my ability to “belong” anywhere.

But in retrospect, the destruction of my self was so repetitive that I started to see a pattern. The self changed, got affected, broken, destroyed, but another one would evolve – sometimes stronger, sometimes hateful, sometimes not wanting to be there at all. The self was not constant. And how many times would my self have to die before I realized that it was never alive in the first place?

Throughout my 20’s, I tried time and time again to get past these issues. And I did, many times over. Yet, each success was soon followed by a relapse into that personal darkness. With every return, climbing out became subsequently harder, wrestling not only once again with matters previously thought put to rest but also new ones that had cropped up — one’s early 20’s are when life is supposed to be filled with constant growth and change. But each repurposed version of myself I took out into the world to try to find a place to fit in ultimately ended up a lonely failure. In 2011, the weight of all that came crashing down on me. My “self” lost its cohesion, and all those different personalities I’d adopted over the years seemingly became their own individual identities, fighting to assert claim to my true identity. Or in a less dramatic manner of phrasing, my mind started working overtime and became crippled by fear. Everything that got processed in my mind got worked over multiple times, through the outlooks and attitudes I’ve held throughout various stages in my life, many of which directly contradict with others. As a result, even the most basic decision making became extremely onerous. Asking myself “what would I do” would yield multiple options, and I couldn’t identify the choices that aligned with my “real” self. So I went into seclusion to sort things out, to work through everything without any external influence. I expected that time would finally finish the job and complete the healing process…but time doesn’t just heal; it also changes.

And when I realized and really understood that my self is a projection and that it has a function, a funny thing happened. I stopped giving it so much authority. I give it its due. I take it to therapy. I’ve become very familiar with its dysfunctional behavior. But I’m not ashamed of my self. In fact, I respect my self and its function. And over time and with practice, I’ve tried to live more and more from my essence. And if you can do that, incredible things happen.

For me, that realization came in the form of some very abstract rumination in my period of asceticism and self-exile. When I stopped asking myself the question who I was and instead asked what I was, all the mental noise was instantly cleaved by utter clarity. What I was was a walking sack of meat housing a very powerful biological self-aware computer. All the memories, experiences, beliefs, and ideas that comprise my sense of identity are ultimately reduced to a series of projections placed on me from external sources, stored as electrical and chemical impulses in a wrinkly grey cellular mass. One ill-placed blow to the head and my “self” could be wiped from existence, even if I were to live and recover. Reducing all the trauma and the sorrows from the past to such logical and scientific terms removed they power they held, and made them very easy to process and reconcile. Stepping outside my “self” to that degree also let freed me from the crushing abstractions we live with in modern society — familial obligations, wealth expectations, adherence to social mores — and has enabled me to manage conflict and discordance far better. Life becomes a lot easier to navigate when you can trust yourself not to succumb to your own personal biases, and when you begin to gain mental mastery over your emotions the universe loses its ability to make you its bitch.

Let’s live with each other and take it a breath at a time. If we can get under that heavy self, light a torch of awareness, and find our essence, our connection to the infinite and every other living thing. We knew it from the day we were born. Let’s not be freaked out by our bountiful nothingness. It’s more a reality than the ones our selves have created. Imagine what kind of existence we can have if we honor inevitable death of self, appreciate the privilege of life and marvel at what comes next. Simple awareness is where it begins.
Thank you for listening.

Zen Habits

Zen Habits is a great blog filled with the kind of content I wish I could generate on matters related to mindfulness & mental health, but I think I still have a way to go before I see myself actually being on that level. Still, I definitely recommend everyone check out Leo Babauta’s blog, or better yet, subscribe to it.

Course Correction

Weight Loss Graph
Animated graph over 4 days of smart eating and running 5.2 miles.

With the perpetually delayed upswing that I’ve been constantly seeking for over 8 months now underway, I’ve been really pushing myself to get back on track with all of my projects. As demonstrated above, I’ve been unable to undo almost all of the 10 lbs (I weighed 195 in December ’13) I gained over 2 sedentary and gluttonous winter months. I managed to complete a 20 mile week in four days, in spite of being sick since Tuesday the 18th. I broke the chain yesterday because the chest and sinus congestion coupled with the muscle soreness demanded I rest. I’m putting off actively engaging in strength building and weight lifting/body weight exercises, since I’m more focused on burning fat and recovery days for muscle growth are days without cardio. As a compromise, I’ve been doing it lightly to encourage some muscle growth and toning while consciously trying to stay in a running-capable state.
I find this progress very motivational. In spite of my physiological circumstances, I invented a figurative “warrior” mentality for myself to adopt, and I’ve been sticking to it. What I thought was going to take four weeks to accomplish I did in only one, which excites me to see the difference in where I actually find myself in a month from now keeping at this pace. Physically, I haven’t noticed a visual difference in my form below the waist, but I can definitely say it feels different down there. Where before my legs felt like giant flesh stumps I had to fight to get to work together and serve their purpose, now I feel like they’re always ready and willing to get moving.
As much as I look forward to the end goal, the form that I end up carving out of my current self through hard work and physical training, I admit I’m enjoying the journey itself. It’s the part that people generally hate, the part where the actual work has to be done. However, right the right mental outlook, it can be so liberating and empowering it becomes a need that demands to be satisfied with the intensity of an addiction.