The Pondering Grapefruit
a blog of mostly mindfulness
Recently I started sprouting. Mary, my housemate joined me for dinner one day, and we soon fell into our usual lovely conversations that I look forward to so much. She then mentioned that she has a giant bag of seeds to sprout.
Just a few days prior I had gone over to my friend’s house to bake some pies, and there I met her husband who introduced me to sprouting. He showed me the glass jar filled to the brim with excited little green plants.
After the pies were done baking, and right before leaving, I had a light dinner consisting of an English muffin cheese melt served with a side of these sprouts dressed with olive oil and sea salt. I had never tasted anything so fresh and delightful. It was as if these baby plants had twice as much joy as their adult plants--not so different from humans to be honest.
So when my roommate mentioned sprouts, I immediately caught interest and couldn't believe the timing of events.
We started sprouting that night. I decided to begin with a batch of alfalfa and red clover seeds, something easy. The back of the bag had a label of instructions: Soak the seeds; cover the top with a cheesecloth and rubber band and let the jar sit inverted overnight; in the morning rinse and rain the seeds; and then continue to rinse and rain the seeds twice a day for the next few days. The simplicity of the instructions left me a bit dumbfounded, but I figured there was only one way to learn if it really works: by taking the first step.
We began on a Sunday night, and throughout the week I found myself looking forward each morning to rinsing them before I left for work and excited to come home and see their progress. It was like having children, lots of them, children who you can keep in a glass jar in the corner of a room… and this is where the analogy falls apart.
And then, towards the end of the second day, I saw little roots! The seeds had germinated! From then on their growth seemed exponential. The roots grew twice as long the day after. Somehow a single tablespoon of seeds had grown into two cups of sprouts in just a matter of days.
"How do you know when they're ready?" I asked Mary.
"When they have tiny little leaves, I guess," she said.
After the fifth day, they had tiny little green leaves. I took them out of the jar, rinsed away all the seed casings, and put the sprouts inside a dry container in the fridge.
The sprouts have found their way into many meals since then. I garnish noodle soups with them, slip them into sandwiches, sprinkle them on top of buttered egg muffins. They taste just like the ones I had at my friend’s house: like sunlight, so fresh and sweet.
You can't get more local than your own kitchen," I remember her husband saying.
Some more seeds are growing as I speak. This time I experimented with growing two tablespoons of seeds in each jar and with growing some large and medium sized seeds. Aside from culinary pleasure, sprouting brings much psychological joy. It provides something for me to look forward to twice a day. Furthermore, it is mesmerizing to witness these seeds growing in spite of their circumstances. It doesn’t matter if it’s warm or cool, dark or bright—they just grow because that’s what they were meant to do. All it takes a just a bit of tending every day.
Taking care of these sprouts has made me realize that I am not so different from them. I too have the potential to grow every single day. You could say that growing is what I was meant to do too. My growth also requires care, though the instructions are a bit more complex (at least I consider myself to be a bit more complex than that of alfalfa sprouts, but who knows… I may be wrong!)
Now that the seasons are changing, and my mood is more vulnerable, I'm reminded that happiness is incredibly physiological. It is not found, but fought for, and once it grows it must be maintained.
For the past few weeks I’ve put a lot of attention to my lifestyle and come up with a daily checklist to upkeep my happiness. If I don't do these things, my happiness will begin to rot, just as the seeds will rot if I don't clean and drain their water. It's also a checklist because I've found checklists to be an invaluable tool for getting things done.
So here is my happiness checklist, to be repeated every morning:
It really is a simple list. Just good sleep habits, good eating habits, physical activity, and basic upkeep for the mind. I’ve found that even if one of these four pillars is defunct, I have a really hard time being my optimal self.
I’ve never asked anything of my readers before. This seems like a good place to start. If you feel inspired to create your own daily happiness checklist, I really encourage you to do so! And if you feel even more inspired to share with me, either in the comments or through email, I would love to hear about it.
May all beings sprout and be happy.
I found home the other day when I got my hair cut at a small unisex hair salon in Cambridge. My hair had become jagged and uneven, the layers jumbled and awkward because I cut it myself a month ago, too impatient to go to a salon to chop off the frayed ends.
As it is with most physical imperfections, I was the only one who thought twice about my hair, and since it was passable in public, I kept pushing it back. Part of the reason was because I didn't have time. Most of the reason was because I didn't feel comfortable in any of the hair salons around here.
The thing is, for most of my life, the people who cut my hair have been Asian women. Mostly Vietnamese, sometimes Chinese, perhaps once or twice Korean, and a few times men, but still predominantly Vietnamese ladies who also converse with me in Vietnamese.
As a kid my mom took me to these salons, hole in the wall places with a few Vietnamese workers lounging around, a Vietnamese dubbed Chinese soap opera playing in the background. We'd pay in cash, and the haircut was always the same: layers beginning around the jaw line that curve softly beyond the shoulders.
I rebelled against this paradigm during the first week or so of college and got my hair cut into bangs at Leonard Stephen salon, a fancy salon in Harvard Square. It was the best haircut I ever got, and also the most expensive. I was so eager to be in this fancy new school, and wanted a haircut that proved that I was hip and rich enough to belong in the Ivory Tower.
I rebelled again by cutting all of that illusion off, and getting a pixie cut halfway through college, when everything was falling apart. It's been about five years since then, and my hair is finally long again.
Other times and places where my hair has been cut: in the kitchen of our old house. Back then my mom had more time and would cut it herself. She laid out a stool, put newspapers on the floor, and took out her pair of cutting scissors to give me straight cut bangs, precisely the ones so typically made fun of in Asian stereotypes.
At other times, I've cut my hair myself, often in moments of boredom, destruction, or desperation.
No matter who cuts it, I am always dissatisfied in someway. If it's a good haircut, it's too expensive. If it's cheap, it's subpar. At best, I can have a decently cut and decently priced haircut at the Hair Cuttery, but even then, I feels not quite right. I know what I want my hair to look like, but don't have the skill to make it happen. Most of the time, people just don't get it.
My hair is thick. It doesn't bend, doesn't curl very well unless you put copious amounts of hair spray. It's stubborn, like me. It needs to be cut with a very sharp blade.
For a short while, I found a nice enough hair salon back home, run by Vietnamese women. The haircuts were good and cheap, but I felt like I had to watch what I said, and how I said things, because word travels faster than wildfire in a small and gossiping community. That went away when I moved back up here, and for months I felt lost.
So, this time, I spent time researching any places nearby that specialized in cutting Asian hair. I found a place right next to where I live, but it was $45 for a haircut. I kept on searching, and two miles out a bit beyond Porter Square, there was a little place called Hair International. I called asked how much it cost for a haircut, and a woman with the most beautiful, warm, and soothing voice answered with a simple "Hello." She said the haircut was just $20. I was sold and made an appointment.
A couple of days later, I stepped in the doors and found the place filled with plants. Pothos and money trees, green leaves running wild over the brick walls. The place was clean and simple. No bullshit. I liked it immediately.
The woman came out and greeted me with the same way she had on the phone: a warm hello. I said I just wanted a haircut. She didn't ask me if I wanted it washed, didn't ask about styling or blow drying. No questions at all. She guided me to my hair and gently folded the drape over my neck, and when she touched my hair, it reminded me immediately of how my mother touches my hair.
She held it so tenderly, and moved slowly with it, almost as if stroking my hair. "You remind me of my niece," she said. She cut with a single pair of scissors, holding my hair up strand by strand, taking care with each cut. The whole time, I savored the memory of the last time I saw my mom, how she came into my bedroom at night and held my head in her hands, patting my head as if I were a kid again. (Then she fell asleep and started snoring so I had to kick her out).
"You have such beautiful, long hair," the woman said.
Surprisingly, I didn't feel the need to say anything, or make small talk. I was already comfortable; there was no need to speak smoothly and gain someone's favor so that they would treat me fairly.
It didn't even occur to me that this woman was Vietnamese (I kind of had assumed she was Chinese), but then I heard the sound of a Vietnamese TV show roaring from a side room, and my eyes bulged: "Wow, I understand that! That's Vietnamese!"
To my surprise, she didn't ask me the usual lieu of questions about when my family immigrated to the US, about our family back in Vietnam, etc. She just cut my hair and smiled, asked me more about my life here and now. She understood and was proud of me for graduating and finding a job that I wanted.
Eventually, we did come to talk about how we got here. I told her that my family moved first to Atlanta. She explained that her brother went to the US first. He had graduated from Harvard, and then sponsored her family over.
I then understood why I immediately didn't recognize her as Vietnamese. She didn't have the same accent that I was familiar with, the Southern Vietnamese tones. Her family in Vietnam was probably quite rich to send a brother to Harvard, and probably from the North.
I asked if she went back to Vietnam to visit, and she said no, hasn't gone back since she came here. She asked me the same question, and I explained that my dad will rarely go back now that both of his parents have passed. "There's no more reason really, and it is also really... complicated back there."
We changed the subject. I didn't feel the need to ask anymore questions. All was already understood , and besides, it didn't really matter anymore, more than twenty years later.
We learned eventually that we have some things in common. That both of our families lived far away: her brothers and parents now in California, and mine in Georgia. We both liked it up here more. We both love peaches (she had given her nephew a box of peaches for his birthday). And to my continued surprise, we spoke in English the whole time.
Soon the haircut was done. I loved my hair, I loved the way it looked on my face. I didn't get the usual embarrassment and almost dissociative feeling of looking at the mirror at a stranger.
I think it's because she knew who I was better than anyone who cut my hair did before. Better than my mother, who can't help but coddle me as her child; than the Vietnamese women back home, who see only the Vietnamese in me; better than the women at the Hair Cuttery, and I don't know what they see in me; and better than Leonard, who saw only fancy and none of the refugee.
Probably, she has led a life more similar to mine than any of those previous people: she knew of being Vietnamese in a cold place, and liking it. The dissatisfaction with the pho restaurants here, and loving to cook at home more. Of being Vietnamese and somehow connected to Harvard. Of choosing to live far away from her family. Of wanting and at the same time not wanting a home that does not exist anymore, and perhaps never existed at all.
(Or maybe she is just really good at cutting hair).
When I asked her what her name was at the end, she said Suzy.
She asked me what mine was. For a second, I pondering whether I should say My Ngoc or Mina. I chose the latter, and for the first time in my life, the name did not feel false or catastrophic, but truer than ever.
I thought of silk worms the other day. I'm not sure how the conversation came up, but we started to talk about silk worms, how silk is made, what happens to the cocoons. To be honest, I didn't know, even though my mom and I had visited a silk factory in Vietnam and observed the silk worms from when they were eggs to end.
The question was: what happens to the bodies of the silk worms? Are they boiled inside their cocoons? Are they taken out of their cocoons? Or do the harvesters let them escape first, and then boil the empty shell?
I tried to rack my brain with all the sights and images from that tour with the silkworms. All I could remember was yellow, green and white. And a sense of fascination. So, like in most cases where I am confounded by life, I ask Google for help.
My suspicions were true: they are boiled inside. It is possible to wait for the to hatch into moths first, but the act of hatching would ruin the delicate shell, compromising the integrity of the silk. Still, I couldn't find what actually happens to the bodies when they start to unravel the silk. When I watched a documentary about the process, I then saw an image of bowls filled with very large worms. I guess that's what is left over when all the silk is gone, a very fat and dead worm, perfect for a meal.
Death, and carcasses, is often left out in explaining the process of making silk. There are companies that offer death-free silk, but the silk isn't as good.
In doing my research, I also found out a couple of other things that I did not know before. That it takes 5,500 silk worms to make 1 kg of silk. That even if the moth hatches, it is blind and helpless and will die soon.
The most interesting for me was that the environment has to be perfect for the silkworm to make silk. The slightest change in humidity, temperature, light, the quality of the mulberry leaves can shock the worm and cause it to stop spinning.
It struck me then, the delicacy of it all. That silk cannot be taken for granted given, not just how much death goes into it, but how much life and labor. It really is a miracle that hundreds of years of sericulture have allowed us to cultivate silk worms so consistently under perfect conditions.
But the point of this is not to marvel at sericulture, at the silkworm herself, but to really deduct some applicable lesson to human life.
To think of yourself as a silk worm: what conditions would be optimal for you, and in those perfect conditions, what would be your silk?
I do have a few barometers for how well and healthy I am, and those would be evidence of a cocoon, I suppose. Such as if my fingernails and toenails are in good condition, manicured and clean. I don't paint my fingernails anymore now that I rock climb, but I aim to repaint my toenails every three weeks. If I can cook homemade meals. If I am talking to my friends, both near and far, often. The finest silk that I think I can make, however, is probably my writing. It takes a healthy body and a healthy mind to write, and to write well I need to be in the most wholesome state.
Lately, as an attempt to reach more perfect conditions, I've been feeding myself a lot more. Part of that had to do with going on vacation, but a part of it is also showing kindness to myself, taking it easy as direct behavior change from my tendencies to be very harsh and self critical, a revolt from overworking. It feels good to be full, though instead of mulberry leaves I have been eating ice cream and steak (but after watching Okja I am more committed to eating plants).
Food is just one example of how I am learning to cultivate myself. I won't bore you with the other methods, but I think it is having some positive effect. Perhaps the most important part of this process is just learning to accept that I am a highly sensitive creature, clairsentient, an empath, whatever you want to call it. But part of that is also recognizing that the most sensitive creatures can make silk.
The other day I went to Star Market, a grocery store just a block from my apartment, to get cleaning supplies. I also bought 5 mangoes because there was a deal to get give for $5. There was a senior woman in front of me who was buying one pack of 12 Bounty paper towels. As I stood and waited in line, I watched the cashier ring up the towels--the price popped up as $21,09.
The woman in front of me looked bug eyed at the screen. "That's not right," she said. "They're supposed to be $10.99"
It went back and forth a couple of times between the woman and the cashier, both insisting that they were right. The woman kept shaking her head, muttering, "There's no way that's right, no way that's right." Finally, the girl behind the cashier said she would go check the aisle.
After she left, I remarked to the woman, "Yeah, that seems pretty expensive for paper towels." She seemed so upset over the price discrepancy in her head, and seemed to appreciate the solidarity.
When the girl came back, she explained that the paper towels would be $10.99 if she buys two of them. The explanation seemed clear to me--but it seemed to confuse the woman even more. She then thought that if she gets two, then she would get two for just $10,99, and not each one for $10.99.
He eyes, her mouth, her entire face seemed to about to burst with confusion, frustration, and embarrassment for holding up the line. I really wanted to tell her that I did not mind at all, and that it was in fact quite the opposite: I really felt for her and wish that she wasn't so upset.
This moment brought me back to what I learned in my meditation retreat: that suffering comes from holding onto things too tightly. This lady could not let go of her idea that the paper towels would only cost $10.99. Even when she was explained otherwise, that number was still imprinted in her, and she could not let go.
Eventually, the cashier, bless her, she was also eating a bar of white chocolate and did not give any fucks at all that her customers might find it a bit icky that their receipts would be covered in chocolate and spit (and I admired her boldness), decided to give the paper towels to the woman for just $10.99.
My mind was blown at that second. I had no idea that she could do that. I then wondered why she didn't do that right away, it would have made things so much easier, and then I realized that it would create problems if all customers think that they can get deals so easily, with just a little fuss. And then I admired the cashier for having a sense of justice and compassion for the woman. That is a true, noble example of a cashier, holding the fort at the transition line for customers to exit with their new belongings, a sometimes delicate act of judgment. A victory for the woman with the Bounty paper towels!
The woman was more than elated. I was happy for her too, and happy also when the cashier began ringing up my items. I bought a huge bottle of Lysol spray, hand soap, and Clorox wipes because my apartment got quite dirty over the weekend when I was away. Part of the package when you live with four other men I guess. I never thought my life would end up this way, but I wouldn't trade it for any other thing. They are sweet and respectable, and come from the most diverse backgrounds I could ever imagine. But that's a story for another time.
When I walked out of the market and through the parking lot, I saw the woman loading the paper towels into her car. She drove all the way here with the sole intention of getting paper towels. Questions ran through my head: did she live alone? Did her partner pass already? Is she short on money? What does her kitchen look like? How far was the drive?
I felt a lot of love for this woman, and a lot of joy that she got her towels. But mixed in there was some sense of poignancy, knowing that she was not able to experience the peace of mind that comes with letting go, and if it was with something as small as paper towels, I wonder what else she holds onto.
In general, I have been thinking more about the things that I hold onto, and noticing what things other people hold onto. Often, it is notions of happiness: I will be happy if I do this, have that, have this person. And once we have those things we hold onto them in ranges of tightness. I can't speak for others, but I know that I've held onto, both long term and short term.
For me, I've held onto many toxic notions throughout my life: this sense of mindless achieving, feeling that accomplishment leads to self worth; holding onto positive ratings from others, that I need people to like me; that my face needs to be clear and beautiful to be pretty. And so often it's many small things: at work I tend to fixate on one random small detail or task that needs to get done, and on which everything seems to hinge upon when in reality it's not urgent at all. And then I laugh at myself for being so silly.
The best thing about letting go is perhaps having more compassion for others when you recognize the mindsets that are holding them back. From the moment we are babies, we like to grasp. It is a universal human thing. And adulthood, it seems, is learning to loosen that grip.
What are the things you're holding onto that are preventing you from seeing clearly? What are the Bounty's in your lives?
Well, after so many gory and bloody stories, which I’m sure have made my readers feel uneasy, and a fair number of my friends worried about me, here comes time for the happy parts! My stories have happy endings, even though they seem impossibly bleak at first :)
7. The White Fish
Remember that white koi fish? It lived in that meditation pond, and it taught me one of the most important lessons. During the first few days of the retreat, we kept learning about the important of awareness and equanimity. Awareness, I understood, and was naturally good at. It was easy for me to do anapana, to find the rate of my natural breath, to smile at my mistakes and draw myself back to the present moment. It was easy for me to begin Vipassana and feel the sensations on my body come and go, the painful ones as well as the subtle, pleasant ones.
But equanimity was mysterious. Sure, I heard Goenka talk about it each night during the dharma talks: to be equanimous is to not favor the pleasant or to shy away from the unpleasant. To be equanimous is to no longer be craving or aversive. I understood half of equanimity in the sense that I was used to not being aversive. I have experienced a lot of pain in a myriad of forms—situational, emotional, physical—so I am accustomed to finding silver linings, recycling suffering into beautiful things, etc. I soon realized that my problem rested with handling my cravings for pleasure.
It all happened when we started working with “the flow.” We were taught, that when we feel uniform subtle vibrations in a certain part of our bodies, to sweep through them rather than scanning part by part. At some point, there could be a moment where the entire body is in uniform subtle vibration, and sweeping the entire body would allow for a flow of energy across our whole being.
I incidentally experienced the flow before we ever learned about it. That day I was just sitting in bed meditating, with my back against the wall and legs straight out before me. After going through my body once, I became aware of this lightness throughout my body, and decided to just let go of the scanning and just breathe. I was swept into a flow, and I felt like I was floating in a gentle buzz.
A couple days later, when we learned about the flow, I tried to recreate that moment each time I sat down. But the flow never came, and I became increasingly frustrated. It was near the end of the retreat too, and I began to feel an increasing sense of despair: despair that I had come so far, done so well, only to fail at the very end.
I talked to the teacher about this, and immediately after she told me, “Ah yes, you need to work on equanimity.”
Though I had heard the word many times before, this was the first time I understood it directly through experience.
She told me not to crave the flow, that it comes when it comes. She told me that she had the best flow of her life almost twenty decades ago, and she has to be mindful to not crave that every time she sits. We ended our meeting. Later that day, I went to the pond.
The white koi fish was there, gleaming brilliantly, and then vanished in a matter of seconds. I thought that I may not ever see it again because it is so rare. I then saw how silly it would be to expect the white fish to be there for me every time.
I then realized that the white koi fish was like the flow. If I craved to see the it every time I came to the pond, then I would never be able to enjoy looking at all the other wonderful elements of the pond: catfish, minnows, reeds, water lilies, dragonflies, ripples. The pond looks different every time I see it, and it doesn’t need to have the white fish to be appreciated. Similarly, my body never contains the same sensations twice. The flow may come, or it may not—either way, it doesn’t matter. I can’t be mad at a fish for not surfacing, so how could I be mad at the flow for not arising? If it does come though, I will cherish it.
I gained a lot of insight into my suffering—that a lot of my pain came, not from aversion, but from craving. I brought with me a sense of craving to many aspects of my life. In school and work, I craved the pleasure of constant praise and acknowledgement. In relationships I craved attention and pleasure from my partners, and when any of those waned, I threw a fuss. That explains why so many of my relationships, up until now, had been such a disaster.
One side effect of learning not to crave is that it actually helps me appreciate things more when they do happen. I don’t expect the koi fish to be there, aware that it will go away, so when it does come, it looks so much more magical. Applying equanimity to my current life, I feel like things are that much more precious, and I’ve learned to cherish what I have in the present moment. It’s led to many wonderful results… a new job, deeper friendships, and a great relationship with my partner.
And so… I witnessed the white koi fish, and that has made all the difference.
Excuse me for the long gap in writing—I guess by “soon” I meant several weeks! I’ve been busy giving goodbyes and saying hellos, moving away to start a new job. Things have finally settled down, and just as scattered particles of an exploding star eventually gravitate and condense into a stable, radiating sphere, my life too has gained enough ground for me to write again. I would like to finish all of Vipassana Part II, but it’s getting late, and I have to work early tomorrow, so I will do just #6 tonight, and finish the rest, 7-10, at some other opportune time.
6. Memories and Dreams
On the second day, I got tired of sitting in the humid, stuffy meditation hall, so when it was time for the fifth sitting, I went outside instead to sit on a chair, enjoying the sunshine and cool breeze of the late morning. When I settled into the anapana meditation, memories from my childhood that I had not thought of in years suddenly came flooding up. I remembered how in the third grade, I would make all these origami paper cranes and thread them together to make curtains for my bedroom. I remembered in excrutiating detail the garden in our backyard, how there was a square patch of dirt in the small pine forest where we would grow various herbs and vegetables. Sorting through these memories, I saw my childhood in a more accurate light. I saw how much time I spent alone as a child, in the quiet whimsy of my own world. But I also recognized that it wasn’t as depressing as I thought, because even amidst all that time spent alone there was a lot of curious happiness, creativity, and wonder. I realized that my love of plants goes way back to when I was a small child observing the spores on the back of ferns. It struck me how many good memories came up, including many pleasant ones where I spent time with my sisters too. I realized how, over the years, I had tinged my recollection of my childhood with a patina of sadness that was unfair to all those pleasant moments.
Then, on the third or fourth day, after we finished an afternoon meditating, we were all walking towards lunch when we heard the sound of gunshots. It might help to explain that hunting is a major pasttime in Jesup, Georgia, where the only attractions are the animals, the Wal-mart, and the church. At the end of every sitting, the course manager walks around and rings the gong to signal students who didn’t meditate in the hall that it’s time to move on to the next event. The sound of gunshots was interspersed with the rings of the gong, a schizophrenic dance between a vibrationof peace, and then a series of violent explosions that might have resulted in the death of something. The shooting went on for almost three minutes, and the gun must have fired at least fifty times. I laughed from the sheer absurdity of it all, the juxtaposition of this meditation center inside a hunting community.
That night, I had a nightmare that was similar to the ones I had when I was going through the worst of my depression. It was gory, bloody, almost demonic. I was walking through a city at night, going to a dinner party of some friend. We were leaving the house when I saw a man on the balcony, hunched over and vomiting over the ledge. It was one of my uncles. The lens zoomed in closer, and I saw that the man’s body hung limp over the edge of the balcony. A bit closer, and I saw that he had thrown up something red. Still closer, and the red gunk was actually meat, a huge chunk of meat that was as wide as my wing span. He had thrown up his own gut, a blood dripping sirloin with the bone still in the middle, the bone, of course, was his own vertebrae.
Though this nightmare was really similar to the ones in the past, I did not react with terror in my dreams. I was aware that I was dreaming, and aware that this must also be old stuff coming up. I also thought that, perhaps because I experienced so much pain during meditating, the vomiting of flesh might also symbolize me getting rid of internalized pain. Still, it was rather disturbing. I woke up from the nightmare to the sound of my roommate snoring. Her sinuses had gotten very bad, so her snores sounded like some carnivorous animal roaring. I then heard the sound of loud footsteps, and it wasn’t until a minute later that I realized it was the sound of my own heart beating. That’s what terror felt like, but unlike in the past, I was aware of my terror, and was able to look at it objectively. Eventually, my heart calmed down, the snores became neutral, and the image of my uncle’s flesh vomit ceased to be so vivid. I wonder how much this had to do with the shootings…
I had one other nightmare that began the night following the meat dream. I was somewhere in Japan, walking in the streets at dusk. Someone was chasing after me, so I took a right turn down a small alleyway. Eventually the path became wider, and I was running along a railroad track. I then starting running inside the railroad tracks, and the tracks kept becoming deeper and deeper. Soon I was knee-deep, and then chest deep in the tracks. As it got deeper, it also filled up with cherry blossoms, beautiful pink ones, and the sun also began to rise. Soon the sky was blue, and I was neck deep in flowers, feeling both incredibly joy and incredible fear. I then heard a train coming from behind me. I still kept on running, and it was no longer possible to get out of the tracks. I knew I was going to get run over by the train, a most beautiful death to be covered in flower petals. But just as it was right behind me, erything became quiet. The train stopped. I was spared death. I never looked back to see it, but I knew that it was gone—I was going to live.
That same dream happened again the following night. I felt the same terror, and the same unbelievable relief when the train suddenly disappeared from behind me. I signed up to meet the teacher after the second night of the train dream. She told me that sankaras can also come up in the form of memories and dreams, and told me not to hold on or worry too much about the significance or meaning of these events. I took her advice, for the most part—I wonder if writing about them right now means I am holding on…
Since the retreat ended, I still experience memories that I hadn’t thought of in years flashing into my mind at the most random times. Once, while eating breakfast, I remember how my sister, dad and I would do house projects together in our old house, adding sections of concrete to the back porch, or how my sister and I would play hours of street puzzle fighter, how the couch felt, and how safe I felt watching her play other videogames. My active memory also has improved greatly. I have an easier time remembering things, and when I work, I am more focused and productive. I haven’t had any more nightmares.. I think that the ones I had during the retreat were some rather deep-rooted seeds that reach back to my most depressed days. But because the dreams happened, and I did not react to them, I was able to dissolve that evil remnant. I feel cleansed, and still lighter and lighter.
So yeah this is some serious shit! We were told from the beginning that this would be a deep surgical operation of the mind, and these dreams ad memories are evidence of the changes. A lot impurities removed, as indicated by the nightmares, and a fair amount of restructuring as well, which gives room for memories to flow up. Many mysterious things happening, I find myself amazed, humbled, and grateful. Until next time!
I recently finished a 10 day Vipassana course taught by S.N. Goenka. Since it is a 10 day course, I thought it would be cute to structure my reflections into 10 parts, each one slightly subtler than the one before. When all you do is meditate for 10 days, chronology falls apart, so I thought it would be better to organize this thematically. Hope you enjoy :)
1. Initial Encounters
Vipassana means to see things as they are, not as we want them to be. It is an ancient form of meditation that originates back to the time of Buddha. Vipassana just came back into the world. For thousands of years, the tradition was kept alive by a small community of monks in Burma. But in 1969, a wonderful man named SN Goenka, who was Indian-Burmese, began teaching and spreading it. There are now over 170 Vipassana centers across the world that teach the technique according to the curriculum that Goenka designed. New students must first take the 10 day course, and all courses are entirely free and sustained by donations of old students who want others to experience the same benefits.
I first learned about Vipassana meditation six years ago, when, almost on a whim, I went to South America for a summer. I spent several weeks WWOOFing outside of Buenos Aires, and that was where I met Ian, a travelling monk who also found his way to the same farm. Originally from the UK, Ian was an incredibly successful businessman until his mid twenties, until his girlfriend (a Japanese motorbike racer) introduced him to meditation. He then spent several months meditating in the mountains, and when he returned, he renounced that life and decided to spend his time on Earth as a monk doing service around the world. When we first met, he told me that he could sense me coming from miles away. At night, after long days of working outside, we would sit and meditate together after drinking tea. He introduced me to the technique of Vipassana, and we became best friends.
Ever since that summer, I had been trying to sign up for a 10 day course. I was accepted into the course twice, but each time, something happened, and I couldn’t go. Now, after turning 25 and having gone through some shit, the timing was finally right. On the 10th day of the course, a woman who had been practicing Vipassana for years, asked me how I found out about it. I recounted my story, how I learned about it six years ago, to which she replied, “Well, I guess you have to build an ego first before you break it.”
I certainly had developed an ego by the age of 25, a very sick one. I also knew that I was miserable a lot of the time. I had also finally reached a point where I was stable and mature enough to look at myself deeply. So on April 19, I found myself arriving at Dhamma Patapa, the Southeast Vipassana Center of the US, located in Jesup, Georgia.
There are many forms of meditation, each one with a different effect. Some forms work to build compassion, others to calm the mind. Vipassana works to purify the mind, and the way to do this is to scan the body from head to toe and back, observing the sensations that come and go, and not reacting to them. No visualizations, no chanting, no rites or rituals. It is non-sectarian, so anyone from any religious background can learn it. It's elegant and simple, and it works.
I will try to explain the theory behind all this in as few words as possible. To start out with, life is full of suffering, and we suffer because of how our mind reacts to life's events. We think in two modalities: craving or aversion. Craving, when something good happens and we want it to last forever, but it doesn't. Aversion, when something shitty happens, we feel as if it will last forever and want it to stop, but it doesn't. When we project permanence into impermanent things, we create illusions that birth to suffering. If we understand that everything will eventually change and we accept whatever reality we face for what it is, we will suffer less.
There's more. Every time we think or feel anything, that event in the mind is paired with a physical sensation. And we are all aware of this: butterflies in the stomach when falling in love, feeling hot in the chest when we're angry, our stomachs sinking when terrible news hits. Our conscious mind, full of thoughts and feelings, is not always aware of these sensations, but the unconscious mind watches everything. When we react with craving or aversion, it creates something called a Sankara, a mental reaction that, without our awareness, sinks into the unconscious mind, taking root. Over time, the Sankaras, like stones of impurity, build up in the unconscious, and the roots grow into trees that clog up the conscious mind. That's why someone with a lot of misery exhibits unexplained self destructive behaviors. Or someone with built up anger will have a hot temper.
We cannot access our unconscious readily, but by by practicing Vipassana, one finds a path, through bodily sensations, into the unconsciousness. It's a deep surgical incision, and doing so allows for old Sankaras to rise to the surface. When they do, they come up as sensations. When we observe and let them go away on their own, we cleanse the mind of impurities. In addition to that, Vipassana changes the habit patterns of the mind. It's kind of like working in reverse. If thinking a certain way causes sensations in the body, then changing the way we react to the sensations on the body can change how we think.
The thing is, I knew all of this before: desire is the root of all suffering, emotion is paired with physiological reactions. But learning all of this during the dharma talks of the course explained everything in so much more detail. It was like growing up knowing that metabolism involves converting glucose into ATP, and then learning how to draw out all reaction mechanisms for each part of the pathway.
3. The Nature of the Mind
Completing a 10 day Vipassana course is not easy. Of the 10 days of the course, the first 9 must be practiced in complete, noble silence. No talking, no eye contact, no holding doors, no communicating in whatever form with other students. Men and women are segregated into their own quarters, and we only eat twice a day for breakfast at 6:30 am and lunch at 11 am. Tea is served at 5, when we can eat fruit and drink tea. Every day, we must wake up at 4 in the morning and meditate for 11 hours a day until 9 pm, taking rest only during break times, for meals, and to shower. Before coming, I felt like this would be torture, and I wondered if I would be able to handle it. But when the course started, everything made sense, and I found that this structure actually made it far easier for me to learn meditation. The hardest part was dealing with my own mind.
We didn't jump into Vipassana right away. Before performing surgery, we must first sharpen the blade by sharpening our own minds. To do that, we first learned Anapana meditation, which focuses on breath. On the first day, we were taught to be aware of our natural breath, not breath the way we want it to be.The second day we began to focus on the sensation of breath coming in and out, and on the third day, to observe all the sensations that arise on the triangular area above our lips and below our nose. The theory was that the smaller the area of focus, the sharper the mind.
My mind protested at being confined to such a limited realm. The first few times I sat to meditate, it was as if my mind was playing at full blast the worst radio station in the world. First the talk host, my consciousness, would start the show with a shitty memory, then skip forward to an anxiety, and then play several disjointed songs. Then it'd be back to a memory, and then I'd think about something someone said 8 years ago that still makes me livid. Then a Disney song would play, and every now and then Elizabeth Gilbert would pop in for commentary.
I was so shocked at how loud my mind was, I met the assistant teacher after lunch for help. She said that as long as I can bring my attention back to my breath, it will be fine. She emphasized the importance of smiling at my mind when it wanders, and if I smile and am gentle, then it will naturally come back on its own, each time wandering away less and less. Somehow, it worked. My afternoon meditations on the first day became quite pleasant. The music became softer, Elizabeth Gilbert went away for the most part, and the memories and anxieties hit me with less frequency. Finally, by the beginning of the first evening meditation, my mind was still enough for me to feel the first blasts of pain.
4. Silence and Seeing
Everything ironically becomes much louder when one is immersed in silence. I suddenly became of all the noises surrounding me, which I would otherwise be oblivious to. There are lots of birds in Jesup, and lots of insects. When I had breakfast, lunch, or tea, I'd sit outside somewhere near the pond, focus on eating my food (and the food was always so delicious, made with compassion by people who serve for a course), and pick up on all the sights and sounds nearby. The sounds of people walking in different shoes. One insect sounded like a machine gun, and one bird sounded like it had throat cancer. The leaves would sound like wind chimes when rustled by the wind. At times, I became almost overwhelmed at all the noises surrounding me. For the first few days it was impossible to meditate outside due to the subtle raucous of nature.
I began to see more deeply too. It's amazing how much your other senses pick up when you just shut the fuck up. There was a walking path that I'd go on every day after lunch to walk off the food. Sometimes the machine gun insect would surprise me by flying out under my feet. After meditation for a while, I felt like everything gained a certain vividness that lacked before. It was because I was truly seeing and in the present moment, not half seeing and half worrying about something else. There are so many different leaf patterns. I was mesmerized at how some budding leaves first grow out red before turning green. I loved the resilience of tendrils yearning to find a solid branch to grow on. Often, when looking at a tree, I would get dizzy thinking of how many millions of leaves grow on that body.
There, too, was a pond that was covered in water lilies and filled with catfish. There was one white Koi fish that I saw a total of three times during the course. These were, of course, the biggest fish in the pond. I noticed them first, After a while, though, I saw some fish about the size of my palm that had a single black spot along their body. I saw two close to my feet and named them Freddy and Carl. Next to be observed, when I looked close enough, were the tiniest of little minnows. There was always something smaller and more subtle to take in. Aside from the fish, there were insects that buzzed around the surface: dragonflies (one landed on my hand while drinking tea and I nearly screamed), walking spiders, and dozens of other insects.
After noticing what is there, the next step is to observe the way things move. After I had gotten familiar with the inhabitants of the pond, I began to notice how the catfish moved differently than the spotted fish. They moved slowly and close to the bottom, curving their bodies into S's. Sometimes, when a catfish went into the territory of another, the latter would angrily chase the intruder away. The little fish did that too. I saw minnows chasing each other to the point that one would jump out of the water. It made me think that all people, no matter how rich or poor, educated or not, old or young, are full of the same shit.
One day, which was slightly overcast, had a lot of wind. As I sat and looked at the pond, I suddenly saw how the water lilies moved gently along the surface along with the wind. it was so beautiful to watch all of them nodding in unison, like a carefully choreographed Chinese dance with hundreds of dancers bending at the same angle. Looking at the pond, all its elements, and how the elements interacted with each other enhanced my facility for observation and ultimately helped me dissect the tremendous amount of pain I felt during meditation.
The first time the pain came, I felt like someone had stabbed a knife into my back and then kept on tazing me in the same area. It came without warning and then shot up my spine, paired with the sensation that someone was rolling a flattening rod up my back (it did make me sit up straighter, at least). The next time I sat down, that back pain came back at that same spot, and then halfway through my thighs started burning, as if my muscles all cramped up the knees. My knees themselves felt like they were going to explode, and my bones felt like they were being squeezed. What made it worse was that I had to be in such pain for an entire hour. And then another. And another, for 10 days. Thinking of how much pain I could potentially be in, I felt like quitting right then and there.
The pain wasn't always constant. Each time I cycled back, it would sometimes be in a different area or have a different quality. Sometimes it subsided into a pleasant buzz across my body, but most of the time, there was pain in one form or another. I didn't realize I had so much pain inside of me, and I didn't realize how many different types of pain existed. I've come up with ways to describe pain below:
Location: Most of the pain was centered along my back or chest. A few times, I felt pain in my knees, elbows, the back of my neck, and my ears. Along the back, it was mostly along my spinal cord, in my lower back, below the shoulder blade, or along the edge of the ribs. On the front side, a significant amount was centered on the lower ribs and diaphragm.
Depth: Sometimes the pain was skin-deep, other times it was deep inside the muscle. Sometimes it even penetrated through to the other side. At those times, it was like someone had drilled spikes through my body, multiple spikes that drilled a net of holes into me.
Size: Most of the pain covered very large areas at least 2-3 inches in diameter. Others felt like little needles pricking into the skin. At times, entire chunks of my body would be buzzing in pain. Some pains would be very long, like long knots that stretched across my back.
Density: Sometimes the pain felt like very solid stones embedded under the skin. Other times it felt very searing and electrical. Sometimes the larger areas of pain would be most dense in the center and then spread out getting closer to the edges.
Movement: When I got more used to the pain, just as how I observed the pond, I began to notice how the pain moved. Sometimes it just sat in the same spot forever, like lead. Sometimes it throbbed in one place, like a pulsing dwarf star. At other times, it spread out, or it dissolved into littler pains that then trickled to other locations. No pain was the same.
Intensity: Throbbing, aching, searing, dull, sharp, pressure. I thought of the pain scale that we used in the hospital to ask patients to described their pain. Most of mine were around 5, but some got all the way up to 8, and sometimes it would just be a unanimous 2.
Temperature: The meditation room was cold and air conditioned, but for most of the time, I was hot and sweating. It was like I was already going through menopause and having hot flashes. We were taught that heat comes from Sankaras of anger, and I had no idea that I was so angry.
By observing the pain, and observing the way that I observed my pain, I learned that I have a tendency to dwell on painful moments. I was fascinated by pain, perhaps have always been, and as such I tended to stay in the same spot for longer than I should have. And seeing how much pain was stored in me, I began to understand why so much of my past poetry had such destructive imagery, and why I incorporated so much anatomy into it. Talking of the spleen, the ribs, all the places that were now hurting.
Another interesting thing that happened was when the pain was couple with strong emotions. And in three distinct instances, I thought of something that made me very sad, and then I felt this little firework of sensation shoot up from somewhere deep inside. It flew to my eyes and then burst into hot tears that drizzled down my face. It wasn't the usual crying--I wasn't sniffling or sobbing, just simply releasing something that had been lodged very deep inside. But when I finished crying, I felt lighter, and the thoughts that had initiated the fireworks did not come anymore. Since we were taught to not react, I didn't try to blot away the tears when they came. At the end of the sitting, I finally wiped my face and saw that the tears had dried up into salt crystals at my chin.
(Note: this is a long and plot-driven post!)
I almost died last Wednesday. My friend was visiting for a few days. She wanted to do something in nature, as she had been in the city for a while. On the third day of her visit, I decided to take her hiking in north Georgia, where the Appalachian Trail begins. Though I love hiking, I had only gone a few times before. As inexperienced as I was, I was determined to show her the beauty of Georgia and conquer another summit (yes to self empowerment!).
We looked up a list of popular trails and found one called the Blood Mountain Loop. It was a 6 mile hike that offered gorgeous views from the highest point of Georgia's AT. I think we were both attracted to the blood as well--we are both risk taking, adventurous girls with a dark side. And it was only an hour and a half away. The next day, we headed out in the morning after having some pho at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant. The morning was off to a good start, but my heart began to have pangs of doubt when I saw the peaks of the mountains covered in snow. "That couldn't possibly be where we're going," I thought to myself. But since that snow was on top of the highest peak, which could only be Blood Mountain, I knew that my sense of doom was well-placed.
At noon we arrived at the trail head (the Byron Reece Memorial Trail) and knew right away that we were both severely under-dressed. Georgia had been having colder than usual weather during my friend's visit, but since it was supposed to be in the 40s during the day (AKA not that cold), I only wore a wool shirt, a fleece, and a light down jacket on top. For my feet, I wore two layers of socks, yoga pants, and hiking pants on top. My friend was even more under-dressed--wearing only a fleece on top of her shirt and some jeans. She did not even have hiking shoes, instead just permeable running shoes. I forgot that it gets colder on a mountain. All the other hikers had full-blown parkas, hats, gloves, packs, and trekking poles. "We'll warm up when we start walking," I said.
So we did. We kept a brisk pace and reached the summit in one hour and fifteen minutes, which was pretty impressive considering we had no appropriate gear to handle the icy steps. The view was as gorgeous, if not more gorgeous than what the internet had promised. Because of the snow, which was still untouched and pure, the entire forest held us in enchantment. The snow covered trees formed a silver line that touched the blue sky.
At the top, we met a young boy and girl who were hiking together. The girl was from Florida, and the guy from Minnesota. They were childhood best friends and had decided to spend the Spring Break of their sophomore year of college together in Georgia. When I took a picture for them, the boy stopped and said, "Hold on, let me put on these gloves so my mom won't freak out when she sees this picture." Later on I asked the girl if they would be doing the loop. She said that they were initially planning to but would not because it was too long. They looked so young, but from the way they talked, they seemed careful, mature, and kind--perfect foils for my friend and me, and what was to come.
My friend and I decided to do the loop. I remembered from what I read about the trail that it was a more gentle decline, which would be safer. The way we came from was very icy, and I didn't want to risk slipping. I also just don't like going back the way I came from.
So began our descent down the other side of the mountain. At that point it was 1:30. The other side of the mountain did not get much sun, so the trail was still covered in snow, and it was cold. The hill was indeed less steep, and we carried on in high spirits. I knew that we would be on the AT for a while, then eventually switch to the Freeman trail.
We reached more level ground, where the dense growth of the mountain opened up into a clearer forest, surrounded by thick, tall, black trees. We then reached a crossroads. To the right was a blue-marked path called the Slaughter Creek Trail. To the left was a white-marked trail. At the time, I didn't realize that it was the AT. I initially wanted to turn right, but my friend was already walking down the white trail. I told her to wait a second. She came back, and we pondered which way to go.
Slaughter Creek sounded familiar. But I also remembered from the map we looked at last night that the trail goes very far West. We finally decided to go down the white path, and set on with some doubts but still good spirits.
It was still cold and bleak. We only saw black and white--the trees were so tall that there was no green foliage. As we trudged along, I suddenly had images of concentration camp survivors walking through the snow. We walked for what seemed an infinite amount of time, during which we saw no other hikers. Each time the snow on the path melted, I felt hope rise in me, but then it became covered in snow again around the bend, and my heart sank again. My friend's hands had begun to grow numb. Our phones had no service. I kept thinking of the prisoners.
Finally, we saw another hiker walking towards us. He was an older man wearing a bright green parka. I asked him what direction this trail led. He said that he was hiking the Appalachian, and that back where he came from was nothing but ice and snow and another mountain. He had not passed any Freeman Trail either.
We had taken the wrong path. We had to go back. I did not realize that we were on the Appalachian Trail either. These three thoughts hit me all at one like ice daggers. I was so grateful to run into this man, because had we not asked him for directions, we might have kept on going for God knows how long. "What are you going to do?" Asked the man. I told him we would probably head back the way we came from, back up the summit again and down Blood Mountain.
So we turned back. In just about fifteen minutes we were back at intersection with the Slaughter Creek Trail. I asked my friend what she wanted to do--go up Blood Mountain again or do the Slaughter Creek Trail. At this particular spot, we had service again, so we looked up the trail again and saw that the SCT was a part of the loop. We both decided that we were too lazy to go back up the mountain, and since we were also halfway done with the trail, we decided to go ahead and do the loop, looking for the Freeman Trail which would lead us back to the Byron Reece.
I forgot what time that was. It must have been around 2:30. When we walked along the SCT, it felt completely different. While the AT was cold and barren, this trail, which runs along the river, had leaves and green everywhere. And even though it ran along the AT, it felt so much warmer. Our morale increased again as we walked confidently forth. As long as we kept following the blue marked trees, we would be fine.
At some point, I saw the trail fork again, with another path that followed the river more closely. I remembered that the river flows very far West, and so decided to go the other direction. At every turn, I expected to see the Freeman Trail. I stopped at every wooden sign and marker for any signs of it, but there were none.
Despite the growing worry and impending doom, I could not remove myself from the beauty of the trail, the beauty of walking. I felt that being with nature was filling me up in places I didn't realize were empty, and it felt good to be so far, in time, space, and promise of return, to society. It was a form of suspension that was both unnerving and freeing at the same time.
After 2 hours of walking the SCT, I knew we were beyond hope of returning. Though I had begun to feel palpable fear, we had only one option, which was to move forward. My friend's extremities were still numb, and we had run out of food as well. We had to stay positive though, and passed the time by flapping our arms in the air to move the cirulation in our limbs (my friend's roommate is a 50 year old Russian poet, and he advised her to do this in the cold to stay warm).
And then, just as it seemed we would be on the trail forever, it ended. From afar I saw a street lamp, then a fence, and then a road. We exited the trail and stepped onto glorious asphalt.
The trail continued ahead. We faced yet another decision: to continue following it, or to turn left or right on the road. "No more trails," my friend said. We need civilization. We followed the road left because it seemed to be going down, but after it turned, it seemed to be going up a hill. Let's try the other way, I said. We turned around, and then suddenly noticed a mailbox.
"Maybe there are people we can ask for help," said my friend. We followed the mailbox, down a gravel road, and then stumbled on a shack that looked like it had come straight out of a cult movie. A huge, tattered confederate flag decorated the side of the house. All surrounding it were empty spray cans, metal junk, and an aroma of recent smoke. I couldn't find the front door. I don't know if there was even a front door. As we walked close, I was worried that someone would come out and shoot us. We were probably the only Asian girls in a hundred mile radius. We walked around the house, and I saw a set of battered, dirt covered washer and dryers. Nobody was answering. My friend was so confused about why I was so worried. She was international, and was not too familiar with the South and the hicks in the mountains. I explained to her that the confederate flag is a hate symbol, like the Nazi flag. She got the point.
We walked quickly away from the house and continued going down the road. We saw more mailboxes, and with each house, knocked to see if anyone was home. Nobody was, and we figured that these must be vacation houses. About half of them had confederate flags flying. I felt now a different kind of fear. Not of a slow, cold death in the forest, but a quick one, by hate and gunfire. The mailboxes were increasing in number too, and I felt that we must be going up the mountain in this case. But we were not going back.
After about twenty minutes, I prayed to the God above me to send us some people, and then a minute later, I heard the sound of a car. I turned around, and it was true! An old green car was slowly making its way up the road. My friend and I danced and waved, and the car eventually stopped next to us.
It was a middle aged man and woman (the woman was driving). We told them we were lost, and if they knew how to get back to the Byron Reece Memorial Trail. They were her on vacation and would be staying at one of the houses on this street. Neither of them knew where that was, but they had a guidebook for the trails in North Georgia. Apparently, my friend and I had hiked all the way to the opposite side of the mountain. The only way back was to go back on the Slaughter Creek, get to the summit of Blood Mountain again, and go back down the way we came. "Should take about an hour and a half to get to the top from here," said the man. It was 5:00. The sun was going to set at 6:30. If we got to the top, we could be going down in darkness.
Even though they had stopped, I did not feel much hospitality from them. They did not smile, and did not seem concerned that we were lost. "We can drive you up to the place where the trail starts," said the woman. I said that was fine, and thanked them. We drove up about a quarter mile to where the trail started again, and went off on our way.
"Those people were assholes," said my friend. I couldn't understand what she was talking about. Moreso, I was in denial. When I thought about it though, they had essentially sent us back to our deaths. I then wondered if they would have offered to drive us to our car if we had paid them. My friend had 80 dollars in her bag. I beat myself up for not thinking of that sooner.
My friend and I had walked just three minutes back on the trail when I began to have a very bad feeling. It would be dark when we got to the summit, if we got to the summit at all. We were both such inexperienced hikers that we would probably get lost again. Furthermore, the photo that I took of the map was terrible quality, since the book was in the shadows. "I think we should stay on the road," my friend said. "More people might come."
It was 5:45. I did not want to be back in the woods again, and thought, too, that it would be best to return to the road. I prayed again to God, the Universe, that we would get off this mountain alive. The plan now was to walk the other way down the road. What we thought was downhill was uphill. During the walk, I asked my friend what her scariest experience was. She told me it was when she got lost in the mountains of Tibet. "We were lost for maybe 4 hours. And it was so hilly, we couldn't tell one hill apart from the next, or where we were." They were rescued when a mountain boy found them. As we walked, I wondered where that couple had gone, which house was theirs, and if it was one with a confederate flag.
At this point I was tempted to buckle down to my knees and cry. My heart rate was up, I was breathing fast, and I felt like I was about to lose my mind. Either we would freeze outdoors or we would be killed or raped by the people up here. I told her that my scariest experience was getting stranded in Chile when the buses were not able to cross the Andes, but I had figured out that I could get a plane ticket to where I needed to be. That wasn't being lost though, it was just being set back.
Finally, we reached the part of the road where we initially started. We turned around that same corner, and then I saw, like a desert mirage, a group of people walking. People!
We walked steadily towards them. It was an elder man and woman and four teenagers. I was glad it was a family. Maybe they believed in love and forgiveness too.
As we approached them, I became very conscious of my body language. I made sure to smile, but not too much, to keep my hands out of my pockets, and to not look at them too much. I said hello first. The two groups finally met.
I explained that we had been hiking the Blood Mountain Loop but lost the trail, and were now wondering how to get back. They had just finished hiking to the summit as well. Just like the other couple, they had no idea how to get back to the Byron Reece. I asked them where this road led, and the man said that it turned into a trail which goes back up the mountain.
When he said that, I felt like someone had hammered my heart in two. The road, which was our last hope, was not a road to civilization. The man said that they were parked not too far away, and that close to where they parked was a big bulletin with phone numbers that we would call. "You can walk with us there," he said.
I was so happy to meet friendly strangers. We found the bulletin, found the park ranger's number, but our cell phones were still dead. Another door closed. One of the girls said that there was a park range that lived somewhere on this road, and that he could help us if we found them. If.
At this point, I felt that looking for the park ranger would be too risky, especially when the sun was going to set in half an hour. We had only one more option. I took a few deep breaths, calmed myself down, and then found the nerve to ask him, "Is there any way you could drive us to our car? It's getting really late, and I don't think we'll be able to make it back to our car safely if we go back on the trail. We're both small, we can fit in the trunk."
I watched the conflict sort itself out in the man's face. He was in front of his children too, and did not want to act in a shameful way. Finally, he turned to the woman and said, "It's your car, you decide." She said it would not be a problem.
It was 6:00. We were saved.
The story has a happy ending. The family drove us back to our car, which was about a 15 minute winding ride across the side of the mountain. We were lucky that the husband knew how to read maps. He took us back to our parking area without getting lost once. He told me that he uses an app called Map Me which has a usable map even when we don't have service.
I was never happier to see my 1997 Honda Accord with the stuffed animals in the back. We offered to pay them out of graciousness, but he declined. "Just bring a map next time," he said. And with that, we parted ways.
Sometimes I think about what would have happened if we did not run into that family, and I get chills. They probably would have been the last people on that mountain. I honestly believe that God answered my prayers.
And I gained a much bigger lesson from that hiking trip: when you are in the most impossible, hopeless, and scary situation, you just have to keep on walking. You cannot give up. During our hike we hit so many ruts, moments of decision, and all we could do was make our best guess and face the consequences. We went from one lost to another, one endless trail to the next, one disappointed hope to another. But because we did not give up, we finally met people who saved us.
Knowing that I survived Blood Mountain, I feel like I can survive the current struggles in my life too. I know that if I just keep moving and don't give in the urge to buckle and cry, I will make it down the mountain, I will make it out of the woods, and I will make it home. Plus, I'll have a good story to tell in the end.
Recently I've begun teaching as a private tutor. I teach middle school and high school students math, science, writing, and ACT/SAT prep. I never thought of myself as a teacher before, but tutoring has helped me connect with a part of me I didn't know existed before, the educator. A surprising part of tutoring is that I get a glimpse of each family's life. Each family is so different yet so similar. The connecting thread is love--parents want their kids to succeed. Yet each home is different. Some front doors have doorbells on the right, others in the left, some none at all. Some families are insanely rich, with gated neighborhoods, and others not so much. The family dynamics are different too. Some kids are over-managed, while others are more independent. The communication style of each house varies too. Some families have great communication, others not so much. I feel almost like an intruder in the home setting sometimes, seeing so much, but I try to just focus on the teaching.
About two weeks ago I began teaching this very bright young girl ACT math. I noticed that she understood math very well and could make calculations very fast. However she struggled with word problems. Every time, she would immediately pick up her pencil and begin solving the problem as she read through it, jotting numbers down, writing out expressions, graphing the points. However, she would end up misunderstanding the problem or writing down the wrong information. She also didn't come up with the right method. To help her, I told her to not pick the pencil up until she had fully understood the problem.
"The method to get the answer is always really simple," I said, "especially on the ACT." Usually, even the most seemingly complicated questions had just one or two steps to solve it. The difficult part was just sifting through the information and arranging it into a storyline. This is a slope problem. This is a graphing problem. Because she rushed into answering the question, she either overcomplicated it or misunderstood what she needed to do. When she did slow down, the solutions became much clearer.
I've been thinking a lot lately of how this simple lesson--of not answering the question until the question has been fully understood--applies to my life, and probably everyone's life. I am going through a phase now where I, too, have to answer a lot of questions. I have to make decisions, lots of them. For the past couple of weeks I have just been scrambling, similar to what my student did. I would spend hours on end researching on the internet, making plans, deciding what I needed to do. But these sessions were never productive. They just wore me out, made me more stressed, and left me more confused at the end of the question. I found a million solutions, but none of them actually fixed the problem.
I realize that I need to learn the very lesson that I teach--to slow down and meditate first before acting. I have just been rejected from all the medical schools I applied to this year. And when I first received that news, I panicked and tried to find an immediate remedy. But I'm sensing more and more that I have not understood the problem. The problem is much more than getting rejected medical school. The real question is a big more nuanced: Why do I want to study medicine? What are my motivations? Are they valid? Am I in a good place right now? Why did I not make it in this time? What does my heart want? What are my priorities in life? Do I need a break?
Until I fully understand what the problem is, I may find a million possible solutions, but they will be incorrect. I've decided that I'm going to stop acting for now, stop planning, stop rushing, and spend some time meditating. When the sediment has finally settled, I trust that a simple, elegant solution will appear, and I will reach the correct answer.
She was 43, a bit old to be pregnant. Her chief complaint, according to the Triage notes, was "I think my water broke." I could tell that the PA didn't quite believe that, and I couldn't blame her. Most patients assume the worst. They have a headache and think that it's a brain tumor, or they have stomach ache and think they're going to die. We thought that this woman was just having strange vaginal discharge, and with these presumptions we entered room 24.
I think, sometimes healthcare providers become incredulous and slightly condescending of patients' accounts as a defense mechanism. Seeing so many cases every day and handling so many severe events becomes taxing on the psyche. This is precisely what the PA and I did: we made the presumption that it wasn't going to be that bad, and how wrong we were.
The woman sat on the bed, her husband on the chair beside her. The room tinged with disappointment and worry. She explained that she was 17 weeks pregnant. She was lying in bed watching TV this evening when she felt something wet between her legs. She thought that she may have urinated on herself, but after she went to the bathroom and peed, the liquid kept coming out. They called for an ambulance.
"I'm worried," said the woman. "I miscarried last time too. It was 15 weeks." She seemed to be convincing herself of hope, which was rapidly fading the longer she stayed in the hospital. I could feel her hopes disappearing into the furrows of her brow, her downcast eyes.
The PA asked what the discharge looked like. The patient explained that it was clear, like water. It was certainly not discharge. It was decided to order an ultrasound to see how the baby was doing. We pulled back the curtains, shielding the patient from anyone who might accidentally walk into her room, and left. Several other patients came in, and we saw them as we waited for the ultrasound to come back.
I hawked over my computer screen to watch for when the "X" turned green, signaling that the ultrasound had been taken and read. Roughly an hour after we saw the patient, it finally turned green. I opened it and began to read the results: a blur of long words I did not understand, but one caught my eye. Oligohydramnios, meaning not enough amniotic fluid. The fetus was drowning, only, it was more like the opposite of drowning. I imagined myself suffocating under water, and stranded fish flopping on the beach. Her sac had ruptured, and her child was slowly and innocently dying. The worst part was that it could not even scream.
I rarely see the providers I work with fazed, but this news dampened everyone in our care team. Even the attending seemed upset. I think it was because they all had children, and they understood the joy of having kids, and therefore could fathom how painful it would be to lose one. She was so close, and at age 43, this might be her last pregnancy. I felt guilty for not believing her story, especially when it ended up having such grave consequence.
When we came into the room again, the PA delivered the news. The patient did not cry. I think she was beyond the point where she could cry. The pain had gone much deeper, far behind her eyes, and into the womb. I could only imagine the thoughts running through her head as she sat strongly upright in bed, her jaw set straight, realizing that her son may never have a sibling to play with. She was as silent as the life drowning inside her.
I was the one to put in the orders for her to be sent to Labor and Delivery. I had only done this a couple times before. I wasn't sure if it was through a discharge or an admission request, but I vaguely remembered that it was through a discharge. Suddenly, my job seemed more pressing, and I began to feel the heaviness of responsibility.
I think I did it correctly, because about fifteen minutes later, I saw a nurse wheeling the patient down the hallway towards the Labor and Delivery floors. She looked like she had already drowned. We all watched her go, and we all said goodbye, goodbye to both of them.
About this Blog
I used to think I knew what I wrote about, and now I realized I have no idea. I just write. I post when I can, which can be weekly or monthly depending on where the universe is taking me. As for the Grapefruit, my Vietnamese nickname, Buoi, means grapefruit.