reflections on 2022: death and rebirth

- 21 mins

The term samsara, the wheel or round of existence, …mean[s] going round and round from one place to another in a circle, like a potter’s wheel, or the wheel of a water mill. When a fly is trapped in a closed jar, no matter where it flies, it can not get out. Likewise, whether we are born in the higher or lower realms, we are never outside samsara. The upper part of the jar is like the higher realms of gods and men, and the lower part like the three unfortunate realms. It is said that samsara is a circle because we turn round and round, taking rebirth in one after another of the six realms as a result of our own actions, which, whether positive or negative, are tainted by clinging. — Patrul Rinpoche

This year can only be described as a continual cycle of death and rebirth. Pain and joy, freedom and restriction, reclusively and sociability. Grief and steadfastness. I shed layers upon layers. I am old and new, all in one.

It is so strange, growing up. Seeing how life is just as simple as what you once believed, yet also seeing the nuance in everything. To hold confounding beliefs all at once—to be an eternal optimist yet a cynical nihilist. To see people in their various shades and temperaments. To be everything you once were and will be.

I felt especially strange this year. Many world events were strange—the reopening of everything “after” the pandemic, the wars and tension between nations, the economic downturns, and the infringement of women’s rights around the world. Modern life felt strange, existentially. It felt like I had to put in a massive amount of willpower to be healthy and happy, instead of it being the default mode of existence. The advertisements everywhere, processed foods, beauty and wellness industry, unsustainable economic growth, lack of connection with nature and our roots, and constant stimulation—it all felt out of alignment to living a happy and healthy life. The philosopher J. Krishnamurti once said that “It is no measure of good health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society”–and I felt that intensely. And a lot of personal events were strange—processing the death of loved ones, losing friendships and relationships, coming to terms with the loss of my past selves, the loss of being able to move my body in the ways I used to, being the most sick I’ve been in recent memory, and fearing getting sick and hurt—emotionally and physically—again. I was full of grief, despite the joy and the knowing that I was exactly where I needed to be. For a while, I thought I was depressed. “So, I’m slipping back,” I’d think to myself. But as I sat with myself, I realized I wasn’t depressed. I was just grieving. Grieving what, exactly, it’s hard to say. So many things—too many things.

Maybe it just takes me a long time to process things. Grief hits me in waves. Not just personal pain from my own life, but collective pain. There is just so much pain in life. Maybe that’s why I have always loved sad music, even when I am happy. From a young age, I have always felt the need to process my sadness.

Sometimes I want to live like a monk, to wander and think for days, to abstain from all worldly ambitions. I think we are much too driven to distraction in this world, with too many things to see and people to meet. I want only to live simply, to be unknown in this world, to die a humble death. I have great sadness for the state of the world—how we have enough for everyone but just are unable to distribute good for everyone, how our problems will never outrun our human nature, how suffering is the default state of humanity. I want to see the stars every night and eat food from the ground. I want to be around only the people I love, and shut off the rest of the world. I want to create my own art—to have art and the inner chaos it brings come from within, instead of chasing chaos in life itself. I want inner peace.

Yet, some days I want to be completely hedonistic, to buy fancy clothes and eat good food, to go to amazing places, to dance and flirt. I want to chase art and beauty, and relish in the thrill of the chase. I take pleasure in capitalism and the things it can bring me. I enjoy climbing for the sake of climbing, and for the ego boost it can give me.

I feel these two extremes deeply, and I want to live both. I am a moth flickering between two candles, never too close to either, but drawn to both. In the space between, I fly, until I am tired and lay myself down to rest. This is life, the flickering of the in-between.

“Marianne wanted her life to mean something then, she wanted to stop all violence committed by the strong against the weak, and she remembered a time several years ago when she had felt so intelligent and young and powerful that she almost could have achieved such a thing, and now she knew she wasn’t at all powerful, and she would live and die in a world of extreme violence against the innocent, and at most she could help only a few people. It was so much harder to reconcile herself to the idea of helping a few, like she would rather help no one than do something so small and feeble.” — Normal People by Sally Rooney

Every year, I have one to three words that I want to fuel my intention for the year. Last year, my three words were alignment, consistency, and community. I’ve definitely grown in those three areas. I prioritized community less as I focused more on myself, although I spent a ton of time cultivating existing relationships and just reflecting on the nature of relationships.

My three words for 2023 are authenticity, fundamentals, and balance.

As I move into 2023, my main goal is to be authentic. This means fully trusting myself and listening to my intuition. I want to pay close attention to what (and who) is energy-giving or depleting.

I have always felt a deep knowing when things were right (or wrong) for me—relationships, opportunities, places, things—but I don’t always act on it. I second-guess myself, or I convince myself of something different. Most people have this knowing, but it’s hard to decipher and listen to, and even harder to act upon. I want to trust myself more this year, and more importantly, to act upon that trust. I watched this video from Cal Newport on “radical alignment to one’s values” a few months ago, and it really resonated with me. It is not enough to just be aligned with my values—I also have to take great and significant changes towards what I actually believe in.

But trusting my intuition also means healing my unconscious through shadow work. Intuition is deeply affected by your subconscious thoughts and feelings. And those must be healed and consciously programmed in order to guide you in the right direction.

This year, I also want to be more open and authentic to people who aren’t my close friends. For me, friendships are a “soul” connection, and sometimes it doesn’t matter how long you’ve spent with them—you can meet someone and instantly feel so connected and seen, or you can spend years with the company of someone and still feel like strangers. My true friends are ones I love for a lifetime, and I would do anything for, and they for me. I never felt like I needed more friends than my few closest friends who know me at an intimate and deep level–maybe because I grew up with a sister who was (and is) my best friend, and I’ve always had a “best friend” in school growing up. I think this was especially apparent in high school, when I had a few close friends and cared little about getting to know other people. I now see the value of being more isolated in my early days–namely just diving deeply into whatever the heck I wanted and caring less about social norms, and that was truly formative. It was also probably a coping mechanism for being in my “competitive” high school environment–if I was close to only a few people who only wanted the best for each other, I could remove myself from any social stress. But I still remember a moment when I started talking with a girl I was only acquantances with on the bus back from the senior year end-of-year trip, and we had the most lovely conversation. I realized then that maybe I’ve isolated myself to such an extent that I’ve never opened up to the possiblity that people outside my closest circle and I had much in common and that we could have a deep and meaningful connection. I’ve grown a lot since then and learned to open up more in college, but I still tend to close myself off to potential connections.

While I am naturally private and have always valued close, meaningful relationships over having many acquaintances, I’ve realized that I can feel cold and rigid around people I don’t know well. I overcompensate by having a warm and smiley exterior while still maintaining an emotional distance. However, I want to let go of this tendency and be more genuine with everyone, even those I don’t know well—not just as an external performance, but actually feeling closeness in my heart. This year, I want to release my attachment to the identity of being shy and timid around people I don’t know well, and actually make an effort showing up completely as myself in all situations.

This year, I will also focus on returning to the fundamentals. Focusing on the fundamentals means respecting the process, however slow, tedious, and unglamorous it can be. It’s digging deep into my values, questioning my beliefs, changing my mind if I have to, and staying flexible.

From dealing with my various injuries and illnesses this year, my greatest lesson was that I can bounce back weaker, the same, or stronger. This is similarly true with any hardship. Not to trivialize or romanticize hardship, but I do think it can often be a great opportunity for growth. I remember going through a hard patch many years ago, and I told my dad that I wasn’t feeling like I was doing enough. He told me that we’re like rubber bands—you can’t pull too hard all the time, or else you won’t go anywhere or you’ll break. You have to release some tension to spring even further than you were before.

Returning to the fundamentals also means

I’ve also realized that balance is a core value of mine. I’ve realized I need to be happy to do good work, and not just do good work to be happy.

Sometimes I just want to spend days doing nothing except thinking, philosophizing, reading, and writing. I just want to feel deeply and put those feelings into art and writing. This feels fundamentally at odds with working in technology. When I work in tech, I have to put my feelings aside and focus deeply. And I do love it—getting in the flow, working with people I admire, and seeing the importance of my work. I love the technical side. I love math and physics and coding and debugging. I get frustrated sometimes, but I love that frustration. I love especially in coding that things can be distilled, that the answer is always there if you look hard enough, if you spend enough time with it, if you put enough effort into cracking the egg. But I do feel like it’s at odds with the other parts of me, the parts of me that only gets to be released before or after work. I don’t know if those parts can ever combine and let me feel like a complete person, or if I will always live my life in this fragmented and compartmentalized way. Perhaps that is why I feel lonely most days, why my greatest fear is never being fully understood, yet also being afraid of being completely seen.

I’ve always known that I am just as inclined to the humanities and arts as the sciences and engineering. I feel very balanced—I swing in different directions, but at the end of the day, I love returning to equilibrium. I am a “true neutral”, and I think that applies to how I like to use my right and left brain. I need to do creative, artsy stuff just as much I need to do hard, technical stuff (not that art isn’t hard and technical work isn’t creative, but that’s just what I associate those fields more with, for better or for worse). I need to be in my head as much as I need to be in my heart. I need to balance the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual parts of me and fuel them with equal time, energy, and space. Sometimes they can be out of wack, but they ultimately have to balance in the long-term—or else my body, mind, and soul will feel it.

To me, I’ve never cared about work-life balance. I see work as part of life, and life as part of work. My mission in life is to do work that is as close to my life as possible.

I’ve recently read this great self-help book called The Pathless Path by Paul Millerd, and something in it really resonated with me:

“Finding work you want to keep doing, says author Stephen Cope, is ‘the great work of your life.’ Cope’s biggest fear is that he might ‘die without having lived fully.’ This impulse drove his curiosity as he sought out wisdom in books, reading upwards of three hours a day. Eventually, he wrote The Great Work of Your Life to explore the unique qualities of people who search for the things that bring them alive. His exploration was inspired by a passage he read in the Gospel of Thomas:

‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’

He researched the lives of Susan B. Anthony, Robert Frost, John Keats, Harriet Tubman, and Henry David Thoreau and found that the common trait they shared was seriously attempting to bring forth what was inside of them. This didn’t come easy to any of them and they all faced challenges, rejection, and criticism. Yet at every key point in their lives, they either kept looking for what brought them alive or protected their time so that they could work on what mattered. In the words of Thoreau, the game they played and that we should play is to ‘be resolutely and faithfully what you are.’”

I’ve been thinking a lot about what motivates me. In the past, it would’ve been something like: doing hard things, helping others, pursuing mastery, making something new, or learning as much as possible. But I don’t think I’m optimizing for those things anymore—not that I don’t want to do those things, but I don’t feel like those are what really drives me deep down. I think what really motivates me is just doing what I love and embodying joy and love. At this point in my life, I just want to do things I love and be around people I love. Which sounds extremely nebulous—what do I love? Who do I love? How do I love? For now, I want my outer world to reflect what is inside me, and I want what is inside me to be filled with love and joy. I want my life’s work to actualize from my inner world, and to have deep alignment in all areas of my life.

The good thing is, I’m more confident than ever that robotics is the field for me. There is no other field where I feel like I can work on technical problems and see the tangible (hopefully positive) impact on society, where I can collaborate with others who are kind and passionate, work on and build things that didn’t exist before, and see the adjacent connections in physics, engineering, ethics, neuroscience, and philosophy.

My other concrete goals for 2023

Favorites of 2023

This year was honestly a bit rough. But it was incredibly joyous and life-affirming at the same time. My therapist tells me that I’ve evolved, and I don’t know if I really have or what that even means, but I’m certainly not the same person I used to be. I do know that I’m still not jaded, and I’m still as open to love and joy as I ever have been. I don’t know what 2023 will bring, and I don’t have any expectations. I expect nothing from myself and the world. Maybe that sounds pessimistic, but I genuinely just accept whatever happens. I accept myself, I accept change, and I accept the world as it is—brutal, cruel, chaotic, beautiful, and full of love. With that acceptance comes a peace I’ve never felt as strongly as before.

“Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.” — Normal People by Sally Rooney

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