reflections on 2023: a life of many lives

- 20 mins

A lot happened this year! It feels like I lived so many completely different lives this year, and all of the little corners of me came out in different, unexpected ways. There were times when I lived completely in the moment, with no thought of achieving or doing anything productive, when I explored things that I love with no external pressure. And there were times I hustled and worked extremely hard to the point of exhaustion, when I felt more stressed than I have in a long time.

Most of all, this year, I learned so much about myself. Who I am, my likes and dislikes, my peculiarities and quirks, my generosity and pettiness, the ways in which I am open and closed-minded, my strengths and shortcomings, my values and the things I want to prioritize in life, and what I need to feel good in my body, soul, and mind. Immersing myself in various environments, both alone and in the company of diverse individuals, can bring out so many facets of my being, each revealing a different aspect of who I am.

Some highlights of the year:

Life really is a mirror, in many ways.

It’s interesting—I feel like I had such a strong sense of who I was and what I liked from a young age. It wasn’t like I had a strong sense of identity—I simply was, as I think most kids are. I had a deep instinctual understanding of what resonated with me. As I’ve gotten older and took to exploring and defining myself and the world, I sort of lost that vision—I developed different interests, my goals and aspirations took on new shapes and colors. But at the same time, the seeds of everything I’ve ever done and loved are still rooted within me. These seeds, sown throughout my life, continue to grow, often sprouting in unexpected ways.

This year especially, there were many moments that seemed like full-circle moments—going to grad school in a program I had been interested in since high school, reconnecting with people from my past who shaped this year in such significant ways, and even my explorations into Buddhism that started from when I was a kid. But now, I see that they’re just part of a vine that spiral and collide, over and over again. Each time they intertwine, I’m older and wiser, always changing yet still the same.

More than anything, I have faith that the different parts of me will somehow bloom. I have always felt like I have a lot of interests that seem disconnected, yet they all intertwine to make me who I am. When I was younger, I felt so much anxiety about choosing the right career path to satisfy all my interests and parts of my identity. Now, I just want to plant the seeds, dive into the things I love at every moment, and watch them grow in unexpected ways.

Here are a few more lessons from this year:

Stress management and emotional regulation

I feel like one of my main goals during my PhD is stress management and emotional regulation. Sure, it’s easy to feel happy and peaceful if you’re a monk off in the mountains, but living in stressful conditions where people around you are also grinding hard, who may or may not share similar values and worldviews—to not isolate yourself and instead embrace and accept the situation with openness and grace, and learning how to thrive in tough environments, is even more of a test of faith and Buddhist values than being a monk living in relative isolation in a faraway monastery.

I noticed right when I started school again and became busier, many of my healthy habits fell out the window and I was just in survival mode again. It took a lot of intentional effort to return to my equilibrium.

When I was younger, I used to imagine I was a rock being formed into diamond under pressure. I felt like I needed deadlines and external pressure in order to produce anything good. These days, I feel like a delicate wildflower needing the right nutrients to grow. I don’t need pressure, I need space. Emotional, physical, mental, spiritual space. As I’ve grown older, I’ve embraced my sensitivity more and more. I’ve learned what I need most to thrive—a safe place, a comfortable environment, and feeling happy and calm.

Success is making decisions out of love

Success in life to me is making decisions out of love instead of fear. I feel like that’s my only metric of success these days, and a guiding principle of my life. My only real goal in life these days is to love what I do, do what I love, and be around people I love. Even though this may be unrealistic, naive, and incomplete, my only goal in my career is to do things I love and enjoy (for the most part).

Deconstruction to gain a stronger faith

A few years ago, I went with one of my closest friends to her church. They talked about deconstruction in order to have a stronger faith—sometimes, you have to step away and denounce God to come back with a stronger faith. I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

I feel like most of my twenties so far can be characterized as deconstruction: cutting the cord in order to have stronger values. I remember emotionally cutting ties with my family and friends—truly cutting them out of my life in my heart, in an effort to stop caring so much about what they thought and being overly influenced by their desires. Only after I did that could I come back with the deep understanding that relationships and family are the most important things in this world, but without letting their opinions and values overly influence me. This process gave me this freedom and lightness to realize how different and separate we were, yet also how the same we were. Most importantly, I could allow myself to be changed. And that I didn’t really have any other choice but to be changed—that it’s part of life to allow yourself to let others change you.

There was also a period of time I emotionally cut out all of my ambition and desire for external success in order to source my passion and drive internally, instead of through outer acceptance and ego. And there was a time I stopped exercising (which was more forced upon me due to my injuries) as a way to control and push my body, and instead seeing it as a celebration my body’s ability to move.

These cycles of deconstruction have made me more resilient — so now, when I go through phases that feel confusing and unhinged, I view them as natural cycles, rather than something that feels permanent and real. I don’t think everyone needs this kind of deconstruction, and I don’t know if it’s healthy or not because of how unstable I feel during the process—but it has personally helped me better understand my values and faith.

Spiritual compatibility in relationships

Spiritual compatibility is the most important thing I look for in a partnership these days. I used to think that this was something I could compromise over, or that this was a nice-to-have, since one’s spirituality is so often a product of environmental circumstances rather than something sought after and rigorously examined.

But I had a revelation that my spirituality (which is different and separate from my religious beliefs) is the most important and core aspect of who I am. I now view spirituality as the pillar of a relationship, a common framework and way of being in the world. Even though it’s not something that might be apparent on the surface, it’s how I view and move through the world. The kind of lifelong, soulful partnership I desire can only rest on this common ground. It’s interesting, because many happy couples (like my parents) don’t necessarily share spiritual beliefs—rather, they share similar-enough values. But personally, since most of my values stem from my spiritual beliefs, it’s what I realized is most important to me.

I recently watched a C-drama that healed a part of me—it was refreshing to see a relationship that folded so naturally in such a pure and giving way. I feel like so much of modern dating is seen as an exchange, a transaction, or even a game. (Although I suppose dating/marriage in every culture and generation has its transactional nature to it, and modern dating is not really much different.) I feel like there are so many expectations, so many external factors—gender norms, career aspirations, familial expectations, financial stability, and social status. But more and more, I feel like the most important thing that matters is the love/care/acceptance/appreciation/vulnerability/effort you give selflessly to your partner, and the care your partner gives to you. I definitely learned that early on in my twenties, but it’s sometimes hard to hold onto: the pure and spiritual aspect of love. It’s obviously not always that simple, and external factors really do matter, but I feel like the foundation of a good relationship has to be in understanding this deeply.

Understanding sensitivity as a character trait

My sensitivity explains so much about who I am and why I am the way I am. The insights I got from reading Elaine Aron’s books, The Highly Sensitive Person and The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, have been transformative. Healing my sensitive nervous system helped me be more in touch with myself and understand my needs.

These books made me realize so many things. I realized that alone time aren’t just nice-to-haves, they are must-haves. I learned that I want to be rigid and strict to protect my innocence and feed my bright-eyed soul, and that perhaps part of my life’s work is to protect my childlike wonder and love for this world—not in a way that is naive and willfully ignorant, but in knowing that what you choose to focus on becomes your reality. I’ve always known I was extremely sensitive, but it was hard to know what to do with that information—I’ve now learned how to use that to understand myself as core to who I am and what I need in every aspect of life, from career to relationships to where to live and how to spend my time.

I think sensitivity is a universal human trait, manifesting uniquely in each person. We may be sensitive to our environment, to the energies and emotions of others, to art and beauty, and to many other things, each in varying degrees. One of the most fulfilling parts of life is learning to tap into this sensitivity, using it as a source of strength and wisdom.

Three words for 2024

Every year, I have three words to guide my intentions for the year. My three words for 2024 are discipline, clarity, and openness:

Discipline through love

Even though I have swung back and forth in being extremely disciplined to being completely relaxed and doing whatever I wanted with no schedule throughout my life, I really want to work on being disciplined again. When I started grad school, I noticed I’ve been lacking the discipline I used to have, especially in the beginning of college. Or perhaps, I never really did have discipline, I just had the fear of not being/doing enough fueling me.

As I’ve gotten better at listening to my body and and my needs, I’ve been able to quiet my ego and notice when I’m using fear as fuel. Sometimes, I let that happen, because it’s what I need to get things done. But at the same time, I miss the feeling of being on top of things and knocking things out. Instead of discipline sourcing from harsh inner criticism and fear of failure, I want to source it from gentle strength, quiet confidence, and deep love of the process.

I’ve learned that I’m a deeply ambitious person at my core—that will never go away, and I want to lean into that. I love to work—not necessarily for corporations or for profit, but I just love to work with all of my heart, with whatever I do. Even if it’s just making some food, cleaning weeds, journaling, coding, etc.—I just enjoy doing things that take effort and seeing things improve. But instead of just relying on my whims, I want to develop greater discipline to reach new heights in the things I want to focus on.

Being disciplined means learning how to do good research, work on meaningful projects, and be an absolute baller. This will require a lot of hard work and effort, showing up and getting high-quality reps in, working with different people and asking for help when needed. I’m excited to work harder than I’ve ever worked my entire life on projects that I find personally fulfilling, interesting, and meaningful.

I also want to get back into long-distance running — this year, I got more serious about physical therapy and finally got over my knee injury that happened in 2021. I signed up for a few races for 2024, and this time, I’m really going to try my best to listen to my body at every step of the way, and build slowly with strength.

I also hope to be more disciplined about more art (specifically watercolor and oil painting), and take myself out on more artist dates to inspiring places. I want to paint more around campus, and just set up shop at random places to just draw and watercolor. The times when I’ve done this in the past, I felt incredibly alive, happy, and present.

Clarity into freedom and understanding

I had a lot of confusion about things this past year, and I’m working on gaining clarity from those situations and gaining freedom and understanding in the process.

Sometimes, clarity doesn’t involve having any more information, especially if the situation is inherently uncertain—rather, it’s shifting your mindset and letting go. Clarity comes in the stillness between taking aligned action—whether it’s a mindset shift, a decision, an honest conversation, or a reaction to an unfolding event.

One instance of this was when I was worrying about my grade for a quals class that I needed to get a solid grade on, otherwise I would have to take an oral examination. While waiting for the results of a midterm that determined most of my grade, I was getting into a negative spiral and was beating myself up on everything I could have done better. But that came and passed. As soon as I shifted my mindset to surrendering and being okay with any outcome—even shifting my mindset to seeing the worst-case scenario in a positive light as a way to be able to take the time to truly master the material for the oral examinations, I felt so much more free. It was an instant moment of clarity while shifting my mindset that allowed me to focus on what I could control in the present moment.

I also want to be increasingly clear in my research—to learn to define questions and hypotheses with a more curious, knowledgable, and creative scientific mindset. I also want to gain more clarity on my personal strengths and the types of problems I like to work on—I have a pretty good sense on this, but I think there is definitely more to explore and learn. I want to have more clarity of thought and communication in the entirety of the research process, from initial conception, to methods and implementation, to analysis and writing.

When you are aligned with your purpose and do what you love—when you have clarity on yourself, your strengths, and what you can give and receive in this world, you shift into a mode of deep freedom in everything you do. These days, I believe true freedom is having clarity in your life and aligning yourself to that vision. Seeing the world more clearly opens you up to the infinite possibilities of life, giving you freedom in the choices you make and a holistic understanding of life and yourself in the process. Clarity helps us see that as we grow older, we can grow more open, rather than closed. Life is not narrowing, rather, it is blooming. Or rather, it is both narrowing and blooming, all at once.

Openness with the Big Mind

In Zen Buddhism, there is a concept called the “Small Mind” and the “Big Mind”. The Small Mind is preoccupied with desires and anxieties, where our egos reside. They are like waves in an ocean, uncertain and changing. The Big Mind is the higher self, or the “Buddha nature”. It’s awareness, a state of mental clarity and calmness where thoughts are observed and pass away without attachment. The Big Mind is like the wide and open ocean. Even though they are distinct, they are both aspects of the same mind.

This year, I had a conversation with someone about a situation that was causing me a lot of inner turmoil. He practices Zen Buddhism, and he told me that I could approach the situation with the Big Mind. This was a revelatory moment for me. It led me to apply the lessons I’ve been starting to learn in Zen Buddhism to this particular situation.

I realized that my perspective had been too narrow, focusing on certain things while neglecting the holistic view of the situation. Instead of overthinking with a narrow mind, I want to have a holistic view on people and situations. I aspire to continually remind myself of and give space for the Big Mind. It’s one thing to know how to live with skillful action from an intellectual standpoint, but another thing to truly embody the practices and feel into the way of being. This is what I hope to work on in the new year.

These days, I feel like I hold a lot of kindness and forgiveness towards myself and others. But I think there’s always room to be more accepting and open, and the journey never ends. I hope that this year, I can tap into the Big Mind to improve on managing stress and regulating my nervous system.

I’m also going to prioritize making soul friendships in grad school. I truly feel that life is not about the journey or the destination—it’s about the company. To me, this is about seeing people through a holistic lens for who they are, with as little projection of the self onto them as possible. It’s also about letting yourself be seen through the good, bad, and ugly.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.
– “Ten Thousand Flowers in Spring” by Wu-Men

Last year around this time, I had no expectations for the year to come. There has been so much change this year that I couldn’t have anticipated—my family moved out of my childhood home, people came into my life and stayed while others left, and I started grad school. Life will always unfold in unexpected and spectacular ways.

So, once more, I have no expectations for 2024—just gratitude, love, and acceptance for whatever is in store. My mantra for 2024 is to have faith that what is meant for me will not pass me by, and what is not meant for me will let me go—as long as I stay patient, take aligned action, and follow my intuition, heart, and mind.

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