Lessons from One Year of Long Distance Engagement

Marriage is an insane proposal. ” – Aziz Ansari

Last weekend marks one year of being engaged for me. (Woo!) Not only was I engaged, I was in a long distance relationship, me in San Francisco, him in Seattle. This weekend, I’m going to cry in public in front of 100+ people as I make my vows to marry my best friend.

I’ve learned a few things about what it means to build a healthy, functioning relationship. I’ve discovered concepts I didn’t know existed or had poor and misunderstanding of, and I’ve gained insights through experiences I never had before.

I thought I would write a bit about what I’ve learned in the past year, one, to share in hope of greater usefulness for the world, and two, for my own record.

My friend Lera (hi Lera!) said that this would be a book on its own, and I technically could write a whole lot on the topic. I’m going to confine myself to just one blog post for now, though, because if I don’t, it’ll be our 10th or 50th anniversary before I come around to writing it.

Well, here we go.

Love is a skill

I came to learn more about relationships, ironically enough, when a long-term relationship came to an end. At 30, I realized that I knew very little about what makes the world go round.

I knew about relationships the way I know about cars. I was only capable enough to operate a car in good condition and drive from point A to point B on decent roads and in reasonable weather.

But, optimizing a car’s performance? Don’t look at me. Having the mental and motor skills to expertly take tight corners and navigate narrow mountain passes? I wouldn’t survive. Actually, at 30, I had spent more time reading my car’s specs and manual than I ever did on the nature of romantic love, relationship, and intimacy.

I found it funny that in all other areas of my life, if I wanted to improve, I’d do something about it, get a book, watch a video, go to a workshop. Why didn’t I do the same thing with relationships? Why did I fervently read up on typography and information architecture and Hindu mythology, and not on the neural wiring of a brain in love?

This is where I realized my first mistake: thinking that I already knew how to love, and what to do to build and maintain, and end a relationship.

As is my coping mechanism for learning a new skill, I threw myself at stuff like the neurobiology, attachment theory, dirty minds, chemistry, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, couple quibbles, more neurobiology, and learned a new language.

Let’s begin with the end.

Relationships are bucket lists for growth

During my last breakup, I discovered a helpful book called Coming Apart: Why Relationships End and How to Live Through the Ending of Yours. This book dispelled a number of myths about romantic love and introduced a key concept that I’ve carried.

The author asked a seemingly straight-forward question, why are we in relationships? Why do we fall in love? Why do we get together with anybody? According to her:

“In our lifetimes, we are each trying to do a single thing: to create our selves. We are all trying to solve our basic psychological problem—which is to answer in depth and to our own satisfaction the question, “Who am I?”

“This process of self-definition or self-discovery occurs through what I call “developmental tasks,” and it is our relationships, more than anything else in our lives, that help us accomplish the developmental tasks through which we define ourselves.”

I know, I know, this super bookish and academic definition may not sound Hollywood romantic at all. Yet, discovering who I really am, unpacking emotional baggages, taking possession of my sexuality, cultivating my creativity, untangling my anger, coming more fully into myself, that all sounds pretty enticing, even romantic.

But what does that have to do with luuuuuurve? Since we can’t do it the growing all by ourselves, relationships are the most natural way for us to get help from each other.

“Love is the medium whereby we offer one another this assistance, and, by this definition, a good love is one in which a fairly equal amount of assistance is being given and received by both partners.”

“…consciously or unconsciously we are always in a state of emotional evolution, and nothing spurs our emotional development more than our intimate relationships.”

Ok, so love = checking off developmental tasks off my bucket list?

What was I going to do next to test this theorem? Put up an ad for a “developmental task partner”?

Wanted: A boy who will help me solve and resolve my psychological developmental tasks. Must love cats.

Don’t scale for a problem you don’t yet have

When I met David, I was planning to leave town. Here I was, one foot out the door, ready to say “hasta la vista, baby” to Seattle, and in came this boy.

“We can’t do this!” I exclaimed. “We can’t start a relationship, we’ll end up getting hurt!”

“Whoa,” said Dave, “We don’t even know what this is. We’re just getting to know each other. You know what PG said. If you don’t have 2 million users, don’t scale for 2 million users.”

(I’m sorry, PG, I know you were talking about startups, not relationships.)

Somewhere in my psyche, I was already anticipating, and solving for something that didn’t even yet exist. My mind probably imagined something super far-fetched, like raising children long distance.

You can’t solve for a problem you don’t have. You can only solve for a problem you have right now.  (This is so obvious when I type it out like this, but the mind has a funny ways of creating illusions.)

Had I not taken a chance on dating this boy for fear of things not working out, I would have missed out on one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Independence is Secure Attachment, not emotional distance

As a self-proclaimed modern girl, I had a certain idea of what “being independent” meant. It meant not needing anybody for anything, right? It meant belching on top of my lungs “Here I go againnnn on my ownnnn….”

In an infantile way, I even thought of independence as stuff like this:

“Your left hand believes in shining armor. Your right hand thinks knights are for fairy tales. Your left hand says ‘I love you’. Your right hand says ‘I love me too’. Women of the world, raise your right hand.”

Several years ago, I would have totally raised a toast to all that with my right hand. And now, I’m embarrassed to even tell you that. This mentality conveniently trivializes one hand for the other (I mean, try to only use one hand), and it plays into the false notion that you can learn to love on your own, by yourself.

I’ve also come to learn about Attachment Theory, and realized that a lot of what I imagined “independence” to convey, was actually Avoidant Attachment, the behavior of passive aggressively creating emotional distance and isolation. It’s an illusion of independence, it’s really  disconnection.

You can’t learn to love by yourself

In this relationship, I’ve learned to love myself in ways I could not have learned on my own.

There is a popular belief out there that you can’t learn to love someone until you learn to love yourself. I used to subscribe to that belief. And now, I think of it as a reminder to not neglect my own feelings and needs and running around accommodating others at the expense of my own growth.

I’m not talking about learning about love as a feeling or a dopamine release. I’m talking about love as actions that demonstrate our capacity for compassion and empathy.

And this, this is something you only learn by doing. I could read every single book ever published on the topic, and it would merely be an intellectual exercise until I put what I’ve read to the test.

Have regular FaceTime, even in person

Because we saw each other once a month, we FaceTimed pretty much every night for two hours or more. (See above: do things that don’t scale.)

This regularly scheduled time taught us a couple things, that if we lived in the same city, we would probably have not dedicated an uninterrupted chunk of time to just talking to each other about our day, looking into each other’s face, working out conflicts, pair-bonding, and keep getting to know each other

In my past relationships, there was a point when I would “get lazy” about discovering or exploring who this other person was, while in fact, we can never know enough about each other, or as soon as we think we know somebody, they will change.

Thinking you *know* your partner, I’ve learned, can lead to detrimental effects. I’m not saying we should all get amnesic on each other a la 50 First Dates. I’m saying, Beginner’s Mind.

I discovered that there were times when we were in the same room yet totally disconnected; there were times when we were on FaceTime—or living in each other’s computer, as we call it—and we couldn’t be closer to each other emotionally.

A scheduled time, regardless of  geographical distances, to check in with each other, to have a dopamine release party, is the glue that binds. This also helps our friends understand and respect our couple boundaries, making it easier on everyone to know what to expect.

Make smooth transitions with separating and connecting rituals

I used to think rituals were silly and superstitious. Then, during my engagement, and in preparation for a wedding ceremony that I personally could relate to, not because “tradition says so”, I discovered that “rituals may be more rational than they appear.” It turns out, rituals help us in important ways to relate, connect, heal, create meaning, and make transitions.

For couples who live in the same city or under the same roof, it may not be a big deal to simply say hi and bye when they leave in the morning and come back at night. For us, since we saw each other once a month, we discovered that a reconnecting and separating rituals are so important, they can make a difference in how we feel and act in the hours or even days that follow.

This whole topic has been a new thing for me to learn about, since I carried some baggage of pre-conceived notions about rituals. Because of the status changes, from girlfriend to fiancee, and soon, wife, I’ve learned that there’s a difference between a change and a transition, and how rituals help us make sense of the transition.

I’ve learned to appreciate my partner *every* time I see him again, and when we separated, it was crucial for us to continue to stay emotionally connected. That’s what rituals help us do, to create a clear demarkation of a system status change, and minimize confusion and disruption to our emotional health.

A healthy relationship is full of vulnerability, full stop

This year I learned about the work of Brene Brown on Vulnerability, and chowed down everything she’s ever produced. I had so many misconceptions and mislead notions of things like guilt, shame, empathy, and compassion, that it would be an entire post by itself.

For so long, I have tried to live up to this fuzzy image of a strong, independent, go-getter girl. I could do it all, I could accomplish it all. I’m in it to win it.

This year, I’ve been so humbled to realize there’s a ton of power in softening up, in disclosing to my partner my “weak emotions”, of fully recognizing and acknowledging when I’m “needy”.

To prepare for marriage, David and I went through what seems like a gazillion topics from those “Questions to ask before you marry” books. At first, I thought it was about *me* getting to know *him*, and *him* getting to know *me*.

In that process, I learned more about myself than I realized, which sometimes took a lot of courage to share without fear of judgement, and fear that if I “said the wrong thing”, he would think less of me and love me less.

Learning to be vulnerable is one of the bravest things I’ve learned how to do, and I couldn’t have done that without being in a healthy relationship, and in turn, a healthy relationship enables me to be vulnerable, making me stronger.

Love is the widening of life’s possibilities

One night, after my yoga training, I got a ride home from Victoria Austin, who’s also a Zen priest at the San Francisco Zen Center. I asked her for what she suggests I think about as I write my wedding vows.

“Many people think of love as desire,” she said. “Love includes desire, but I think of love as something that, when you’re with each other, there’s a sense that the possibilities in life widen.”

That is my favorite definition of Love to date, and it’s such a succinct question, “Is there a sense of widening possibilities when I’m with this person?”

I have found that this question applies to many other kinds of relationships, not just with the romantic kind. Does my capacity to explore the outer and inner world increase? Am I kinder, more friendly to myself?

At my bachelorette party at Esalen, I saw a sign in the kitchen, it summed up my current understanding of love and relationship perfectly.

2014-01-26 08.52.41-1

P.S. You can follow our adventures on nikkianddavid.com

A Lesson on Love, and Antilamentation

Show me love, show me life
Baby show me what it’s all about
Robyn

On the first day of the year in 2014, I learn, once and again, what Love means.

It started with an innocuous hike.

David and I decided we’d spend New Year’s Day exploring Point Reyes, about 30 miles north of San Francisco. In the spirit of easy-like-New-Year’s-Day, we took our time and got to the trail head bright and not-so-early at 3pm (more like 3:15). After getting lost, five steps from the parking lot (“We are such sad city people, Nikki”), we were finally on the right trail at 3:30, stoked to catch the sunset on the beach (we totally meant to get a late start for that!)

We took a 4-mile walk through the woods and onto the wet sand, marveling at the coastline and history of the land (Point Reyes is beautiful, I recommend checking it out if you have the chance).

Then came a mini crisis.

After getting back to the car at dusk, I discovered the 4 ounces of modern magic that is my phone was missing. The shiny new one I just got. Gone missing.

“Where was the last time I had it?” “When did I use it last?” “How could I have lost it?” A flurry of questions came to mind. A mixture of panic, grief, guilt, anxiety, and fear, along with the evening fog and chill, draped over me like a cape.

And guilt, especially guilt, took a strong grip of me. I felt like I had ruined a good day, and it was only the first day of the year. I felt rotten.

“What do we do now?” “What do I do now?” It was dark. The sun had set and temperature had dropped. We were ready to head home for dinner. The optimism that maybe, *just maybe* my phone was somewhere on the trail, and that if I just walked back, I would find it, was mixed with the fear of making my partner upset with me, amplified by my conflict-avoidant tendencies.

We took a deep breath, discussed our states of mind, mental and physical status, and decided to walk back “for ten minutes”, which turned out to be a full walk back to the beach.

“Come on iPhone, please be on the trail,” I silently prayed as I held his hand really tight to warm up our cold digits.

My iPhone, however, couldn’t hear my prayers. It was out of battery, maybe buried somewhere under the sand, or washed out to the Pacific Ocean, or maybe fell into someone’s hands.

“May they find it useful!” we tried to cheer ourselves with whatever altruism we could conjure up when the glimmer of hope faded away at the end of the trail.

On the walk back, we looked up at the wide open space above, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the star-filled sky, and me silently looking for some divine intervention, (because, you know, the missing iPhone *might* fall out of the sky and hit my head at any moment, right?)

“I’m so silly. I’m silly Nikki,” I lamented. “No, you’re human Nikki,” David corrected me, and I could have married him right there and then. I mean, I *am* going to marry him. But I swear I could have grabbed some random stranger on the trail and asked them to witness our vows, except that we were the only ones crazy enough to be out stumbling in the dark (with the deers and foxes).

“We can hold a funeral for your iPhone,” David squeezed my hand tight, then he proceeded to sing to the tunes of the Heart Sutra, which he’d only heard once a couple days before. I busted out laughing, and he winked at me.

We drove back through the long windy roads of Highway 1, surrounded by seashores and rocky cliffs and giant trees. They all seemed to mirror my inner mental landscape.

I realized then, that all these things I do, all the yoga classes, the meditation, the writing, the reflection, the OCD swallowing of books on human neuropsychology and behaviors and communication, everything all boils down to one fragile and fleeting moment of what I do when things don’t go my way, when I feel the pain of loss, fear, hate, sadness, guilt, anger, and disappointment.

More importantly, I realized, that another human’s love and compassion can also teach me what all those books attempt to do, in the flesh, in real time. When all I want to do is go on a self-criticism pity party, another human’s open heart and sense of humor can help me learn to have compassion for myself. And that, to me, is Love in action, full stop.

Love is when another human does a hike twice with you, in the dark, and helps you realize that you need a better device-management pocket system, but won’t let you go into a self-blaming “I’m such an incompetent idiot that I can’t even keep track of a phone” monolog.

Love is when another human helps you see that there’s plenty of room to improve, and yet still holds the space for you to feel ok, to not beat yourself up for all your flawed human ways.

Love is when someone feels your pain with you, but won’t let you dump a basket full of fear, insecurity, guilt, shame, anger, sadness, frustration, etc., in a Vitamix, blend it on high, and down it until you’re nauseous. In doing so, they show you what love looks like, and teach you how to love, starting with yourself.

Last Sunday, in a Dharma talk at Green Gulch, Jeremy Levie spoke about the Four Immeasurables. He read a poem by Dorianne Laux called Antilamentation. It seems so apt right now, so, here’s to 2014, to more compassion—for ourselves and others—, more love, and more poetry. Happy New Year to you.

Antilamentation

Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook.
Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don’t regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the livingroom couch,
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation. Relax. Don’t bother remembering
any of it. Let’s stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.

And here’s an image of one of the beaches at Point Reyes, courtesy of The Seattle Times, since all the photos I took are somewhere out there in the ether. May you find a good home, iPhone.

Point Reyes

Point Reyes

 

One Year in San Francisco

One year.

I’ve been in San Francisco one full year.

I’m sitting in the corner of the Cal Academy cafe in Golden Gate Park. My red wallet is taking a break, sitting quietly on the stainless steel table, covered by a receipt for two things: coffee with more cream than caffeine, and plain butter croissant. Outside, a fog named Karl is in full form, eating up the Cypress and Redwoods and the Eucalyptus trees by the giant penguin rock statue.

I put on Chris and Thomas’s Broken Chair, which my friend Adam told me about while we were walking by Mojo Bicycle on Divisadero a few weeks ago. (Hi Adam.)

I feel awfully lucky. I’m pretty much filled to the brim with gratitude to be sitting right here, writing these exact words.

Though I’ve wanted to move here long ago, circa 2007 or so, it took me a few years to make it happen. Sometimes, from the moment an idea is formed to the moment that idea comes to life takes a while.

When I told friends I was moving to San Francisco, they’d inevitably ask why.

Well, it’s been a year, so I thought I’d write down a couple reasons that prompted my move, and a few things I’ve learned along the way.

 

The Romance Begins

In high school, I read ferociously and wasn’t particularly discriminate about genres. I just wanted to get lost in another world. One day, browsing through a used books sales bin, I picked up Weird Like Us – My Bohemian America, a memoir about counterculture and San Francisco. It was the beginning of a long romanticization of all things San Francisco, the Beat Generation, Beat Poetry, Big Sur, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, On the Road.

In October 2007, I drove from Seattle to Long Beach, California on a temporary work relocation. I got to San Francisco late at night, rented a shoddy room in a sketchy hotel in North Beach/Chinatown for eighty bucks, and passed out in exhaustion from the road trip. In the morning, when I walked outside, the sky was as blue as blue can be, and it startled me. I felt like I had taken some other kind of trip.

Walking along the Embarcadero under a bright sun, a thought popped in my head, “I’m going to live here some day.”

 

Paul Graham

In the exuberance of Web 2.0 in 2007 and 2008, I went to a lot of startup meet-ups, dropped a lot of vowels, came up with silly startup names that could pass as Star Wars characters, and read a lot of Paul Graham.

Say what you will about Paul G., you probably won’t argue that he’s a prolific writer, and his writing sparks a lot of discussions and influences a lot of people’s thinking.

Coming out of Interaction Design school, I ate up everything Paul wrote about design. The one essay that’s stayed with me through the years, though, is Cities and Ambition.

“Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.”

I’m not going to quote everything from the essay, because I’d end up copying and pasting pretty much the whole thing (I really recommend you read the whole thing though). But the main thing I took away is a comparison with two other great cities from two other eras.

Paul talks about Florence in the fifteenth century and Paris during the Belle Epoque. Florence had Donatello, Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, among others. Paris had Gauguin, Matisse, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Picasso. (He goes into much more details about that in another essay, Taste for Makers.)

The idea is where you live matters through the messages it sends, the things you overhear in a coffee shop, the things you see when you walk past a window, the things *you* don’t seek out, rather, they seek you out instead.

“How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference.

But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.”

After having lived in a beach bungalow shack in Southern California, already idealizing wearing sandals in November, Kerouac’s Dharma, and that California branch of Spirituality, it wasn’t a big leap for me to embrace the effervescent entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley.

In some way, I had a big case of Fear of Missing Out. I was born a few hundred years too late to live in Florence and Paris, but there was still time for me to make it to San Francisco.

I was 24 or 25. I didn’t even have as much as a plastic houseplant. I could pack up and went wherever I wanted. The time to make the move was right. And I thought about it and talked about it, but I did nothing. I was young, I could always do it next year.

 

Design & Yoga

The years went by, and I increasingly became deeply steeped in UX Design and Yoga. During the changing years of my late 20s, they were the only two things I knew for sure I wanted to have in my life, for the rest of my life.

One day, I woke up and realized, I was 29. If I wasn’t going to do something I’ve always wanted to do, and do it soon, it wasn’t going to happen, or, I’ll just be a year older when I do it.

I was already making frequent trips to San Francisco for Design conferences and Yoga workshops. I grew more and more frustrated with the lack of the kind of yoga that I wanted and needed in Seattle. For example, in San Francisco, within a 3 mile-radius, there are regular, multiple weekly classes on Vedic chanting, Yoga Sutras, Pranayama, and Ayurveda. In Seattle, my options were limited to variations of Bikram or vinyasa flow yoga, which is all fine and good, but not the only thing there is to learn about Yoga.

I’m not saying there isn’t Good Yoga in Seattle. There is. It’s just not as accessible and frequent, to my knowledge. And I’m guessing it has to do with a critical mass of public interest. I also became determined to study Iyengar Yoga, and I wanted to go to the source: The Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco. At the same time, my teacher, Judith Lasater, was offering a one-year study program with her in 2013. (Basically Life said: “Go!”)

I wanted to not only push, but propel myself as a designer, in my yoga studies, and in my own personal growth. I also knew myself well. I knew that, though I had enough intrinsic motivation, I couldn’t grow nearly as much on my own as if I was surrounded by people who were just as fervently into the things I’m into.

“Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems. Genes count for little by comparison: being a genetic Leonardo was not enough to compensate for having been born near Milan instead of Florence.

Today we move around more, but great work still comes disproportionately from a few hotspots: the Bauhaus, the Manhattan Project, the New Yorker, Lockheed’s Skunk Works, Xerox Parc.”

It’s not that San Francisco was the only town where great work was happening. I’m not saying that in absolute terms, and that’s not even close to the truth anyway. I did, however, had the fear and perception that I was stagnating where I was.

“No matter how determined you are, it’s hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It’s not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do.”

The time was Now to stop talking and start packing.

 

Souls and Cities and Intuition

I know there’s often an urge to compare cities, and it’s very seductive. This City is better than That City. Rent is so high there. And it’s so dirty. But you have to pay so much taxes. It rains so much, how do you stand it? Well we have legalized weed and gay marriage, what have you done lately but act like privileged douchey tech children?

Every single argument for or against a city is valid from a personal perspective. In a yoga class, every single person comes with a different story, a different psychological history, injury history, genetic history. I would no more encourage someone to look at their neighbor to practice yoga than to say that a city is absolutely better or worse for all people, at all time.

I could tell you a hundred reasons why I moved, and no doubt you could refute me in a hundred and one ways why my reasons are terrible. Though I’ve listed a few things that prompted my move, I know someone, somewhere out there, would call b.s. on them. “There’s great yoga and great design and fantastic food and wonderful people in Seattle.” I would agree with all of that.

I suspect all my reasons are there to largely pacify that part of the human brain that demands an explanation. We’re uncomfortable with things that don’t have an explanation or seem illogical and irrational to us. I used to joke that I’m moving to San Francisco for the boys, and it didn’t matter if that was true or not, it was enough to satisfy people’s need to know why.

The biggest reason why I moved to San Francisco is because I followed the tiny voices in my heart, my intuition. There was no guarantee of anything going one way or another. Though I had some hopes and fears and best case and worst case scenarios played out in my head, I really had no idea how my life in San Francisco would turn out.

I asked myself, when I’m 80, sitting on my rocking chair, would I regret moving or not moving to San Francisco when I was 30? The answer was clear, I would regret that I didn’t do it more than regretting that I did.

“Engineers are taught to make decisions analytically and largely without emotion. When it comes to a decision between alternatives we enumerate the cost and benefits and decide which one is better. But there are times in our lives when the careful consideration of cost and benefits just doesn’t seem like the right way to make a decision. 

There are times in all of our lives when a reliance on gut or intuition just seems more appropriate–when a particular course of action just feels right.” – Tim Cook

For now, San Francisco is where I am. I’ve grown leaps and bounds here, and the growth spurt is quite uncomfortable at times. As life’s twists and turns would have it, I met a boy before I left Seattle, and not just any boy, the boy that I would be head over heels for and infinitely smitten with for the rest of my life (more on that later), and falling in love long distance is more than hard on the knees.

For now, when I walk home across Alamo Square park covered by the tall, wacky shaped trees, or when I look up at the giant colorful art murals in the Mission, or when I pass by the pink bunny with a skull in its mouth on my way to the San Francisco Zen Center, knowing that nothing lasts forever, I smile and thank all the people and whatever forces in the Universe that have made it possible for me to be here right now.

“I have no plans
No dates
No appointments with anybody

So I leisurely explore
Souls and Cities

Geographically I’m from
and belong to that group
called Pennsylvania Dutch

But I’m really a citizen
of the world
who hates Communism
and tolerates Democracy

Of which Plato said 2000 years
ago,
Was the best form of bad government

I’m merely exploring souls and cities
From the vantage point
Of my ivory tower built,
Built with the assistance
of Opium

That’s enough isn’t it?” – Kerouac, 34th Chorus, Mexico City Blues

Alamo Square Park

Walking home through the park.

Vulnerability and Creativity

“Imagine creativity and innovation without vulnerability. I’m asking you for a work product that has never been made before, that’s completely innovative, and I need you to be creative. And I need you to send it to a group of people, half of them are going to think it’s stupid and not going to understand it. No vulnerability there.”

Brené Brown – making the case for why vulnerability and creativity go together.

 

The luckiest

Floor lamp

Well I’ve been on the road, as you can see with the suitcase on the floor.

Tonight, as I sit here at the bottom of my bed, looking at my nearly-burnt-out floor lamp, laundry unfolded, by my side a half eaten banh mi because I pompously asked for it to “be drowned in Sriracha”, and paid dearly for it, I’m reminded of this poem by Charles Bukowski:

My doom smiles at me

there’s no other way:
8 or ten poems a
night.
in the sink
behind me are dishes
that haven’t been
washed in 2
weeks.
the sheets need
changing
and the bed is
unmade.
half the lights are
burned-out here.
it gets darker
and darker
(I have replacement
bulbs but can’t get them
out of their cardboard
wrapper.) Despite my
dirty shorts in the
bathtub
and the rest of my dirty
laundry on the
bedroom floor,
they haven’t
come for me yet
with their badges and their rules and their
numb ears. oh, them
and their caprice!
like the fox
I run with the hunted and
if I’m not the happiest
man on earth I’m surely the
luckiest man
alive.

AIDS, Writing, Loss, and Geography of The Heart

I know nothing about AIDS.

I grew up in a time when AIDS, or SIDA as it’s known outside of North America, was just discovered, and since not much was known about it, a lot was speculated, and feared. A quick Wikipedia scan and I learned that “AIDS was first recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1981.” The recognition of this disease is exactly as old as I am.

I don’t remember think I learned anything about AIDS in school, other than that you can’t get it if you don’t have sex with someone who’s HIV-positive. So I went on living in ignorance of how this virus affects my fellow human beings.

A few days ago, this segment on NPR caught my attention: Love Isn’t All You Need: 3 Relationship Building Reads (they might as well have called it, Nikki Chau Sucker Alert).

Of the three books recommended, Fenton Johnson’s book, Geography Of The Heart, a Memoir, seemed most like a weekend read. Plus, the author practices at the San Francisco Zen Center, and his lover (Larry) is a Francophile? Count me in.

As luck (or some version thereof) would have it, I’ve been sick all day today, shriveling with a bone-chilling cold and a burning sore throat, so it was good timing to be lying around with this book and finishing it.

Here are a few quotes from the book that spoke to me, emphasis is mine.

When Fenton told Larry that his greatest fear is that he will die and leave him infected and alone:

“One measure of love is the ability to speak aloud the unspeakable, secure in the knowledge of the bedrock on which you rest.

To speak with such frankness of the terrors of the heart–to talk so openly of the demons within, with no fear on either side of rejection–honesty of this completeness is the privilege of true lovers.” – Page 92

A student talking about learning to write at Larry’s funeral:

“He took us out to Telegraph Avenue and made us write about what we saw until we thought it was good enough to convince somebody who’d never been there what it looked like and what we thought of it.

It was the first time in my life I really understood what writing was about–trying to get something real across to another faraway person through this incredibly abstract medium.” – Page 209

When Fenton finally confronted the silence in his family about AIDS at 3AM in their Kentucky home before his morning flight back to San Francisco:

“I’m filled with bitterness and rage that no one will acknowledge that Larry was my lover and that he died of AIDS, and I’m here to give the first annual AIDS prevention speech.” – Page 216

Fenton contemplating on our own insulated myth that we might live forever (if we are HIV-negative):

“It’s just that HIV, with its extended incubation period, its prolonged illnesses, its often horrifying complications, its impact on close-knit neighborhoods and communities, is forcing gay men of my generation to acknowledge what our life– and youth-obssessed society prefers to deny.” Page 232

Fenton’s mom, telling him she understands that love is not gender-dependent:

“And then you told me you were gay, and I guess I’d suspected it all along, and I just prayed that you’d stay healthy and find yourself a place where you could be happy.

I prayed for all that and I was glad to see you get yourself to San Francisco, to a place where you could live in peace and be yourself.

I was happy about that, but it wasn’t until I met you and Larry and spent time with the two of you together that I understood that two men could love each other in the same way as a man and a woman.” – Page 234.

Fenton, on love and death

“I love better now, more wholly and completely, not because I have learned some exotic technique but because I know death.” Page 235.

Today, I gained a new perspective. A friend told me I should join her in the AIDS walk in San Francisco this summer. I’m in Seattle now, but one day I’ll make it to San Francisco.

Also, if you live in Seattle, here is a list of restaurants who will be donating to Dine out for Life on April 26.

Rilke and the Greatness of Death

I have been on a kick, collecting poems about Death, not morbidly, but with a feverish yearning to learn how I can live each moment of every day with more fire in my gut and under my butt.

I fear that if I don’t do this, I will sloth around, wasting time, lamenting and whining like Arjuna before Krishna.

I’ve been through a few losses, small losses. Small as they are (in the sense that no one died a biological death), I feel the intensity of the emotion in my physical body.

It’s as if I’ve been thrown in playpen full of baby tigers and elephants, and even though we’re having fun (and they’re so cute), these animals don’t know how big and powerful they are, so things ache a little when we play around.

One night while going over old podcasts I’ve been procrastinating on, I found a couple nice Rilke poems/quotes.

“The great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: that, in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated,

death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.”

– From A Wild Love For The World, a conversation with Joanna Macy on On Being.

A few happy clicks and reads later (woohoo, the Internets!), I found Sonnets to Orpheus, and how I love the image of singing while climbing, a ringing glass that “shatters as it rings”. It reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

And whoa, I’ve never thought that I live “among the disappearing”, but hell, that’s what we are, transients.

Sonnets to Orpheus, Part Two, XIII

Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened,
like winter, which even now is passing.

For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart.

Be forever dead in Eurydice,
and climb back singing.
Climb praising as you return to connection.

Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,
be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.

Be. And, at the same time, know what it is not to be.
That emptiness inside you allows you to vibrate in resonance with your world. Use it for once.

To all that has run its course,
and to the vast unsayable numbers of beings abounding in Nature,
add yourself gladly, and
cancel the cost.

Here’s to the Crazy One

Apple.com screen shot. Wednesday October 5, 2011. 5pm. Steve Jobs, 1955 – 2011

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

 

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

It’s raining in Seattle. I am sitting in my car crying.

Happy Hungry Hungry Hippos, I mean, Ghost Day

This morning, my mom told me that it’s Vu Lan day, the day where Vietnamese pay respect to their parents and ancestors. It’s also the day where “we feed the souls of the dead condemned in hell”.

“It’s the festival your friend Hieu told you about that’s happening at his temple, she said.” “Do you want to go? I asked.” She took a short second to think, and said, “No, the temple is inside you, pointing to herself and placing her palm on her sternum.”

This is the kind of thing that, when I was younger, I would have immediately dismissed as “old people wives’ tales”. People who are dead are dead. There’s no heaven, no hell. Just good ol’ natural process of decomposition with some friendly bacteria. “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

What’s up with all this “tortured soul” returning to earth business, then? How silly is it to put food out to offer for these supposed wandering souls? Even if I suspend my rational mind and entertained the thought that they exist, they still can’t technically eat it. What is the point?

I want to know the point. I want to know where all this came from, and more importantly, what it’s for. How does this help me, an undead wandering soul? And so, relieved that I got out of going to temple, I jumped on Wikipedia to read more.

It turns out that the festival is called The Ghost Festival, or the Hungry Ghost Festival. You guys can read the Wikipedia entry for the full gory details, but this festival essentially boils down to this:

On the fourteenth day the realms of Heaven and Hell and the realm of the living are open and both Taoists and Buddhists would perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is ancestor worship, where traditionally the filial piety of descendants extends to their ancestors even after their deaths.

Are we Buddhists? I asked my parents. “70%”, said my dad. I smiled, because of this semi-random number my dad came up with, and because “being Buddhist” is not a binary thing in his mind. It’s a liberating thing for me, because what it means is I don’t have to be Buddhist to celebrate, or not to celebrate this festival.

“Is it to celebrate mothers or fathers?” I continued my inquiry. “Well, mothers and fathers are both Mothers.”, said my mom. Whaa? This is the kind of koan that I get from talking to my parents sometimes. I don’t know what that really means, but I wonder if the reference to “mother” goes beyond gender, instead referring to the archetype of mother, like Mother Earth.

I still don’t know what to make of the intertwined rituals and myths and traditions behind all this. But I’m willing to accept the gesture of Remembrance for those that have gone before me, and all those suffering, living or dead. If you feel the same, wherever you are and whomever you may be, have a good Vu Lan day, or Ghost Festival day, and if you don’t care for any of this, may you enjoy the full moon.


IMG_4896

Moonrise over Richmond Beach, Washington.

“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really.

How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” — Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky)

Reflection from Buddhist Geeks Conference 11

I just got back from the first ever Buddhist Geeks Conference held at University of the West in Rosemead, a suburb of L.A.

It’s four minutes past midnight, and in 6 hours I will be on the road, in everybody’s least favorite jam: traffic. I really shouldn’t be up blogging, but, 1) I just had a big bowl of pho, 2) Hokai told us to (you don’t say no to Hokai), and 3) I want to capture a few things while they’re fresh on my mind before I procrastinate and *think* about writing but actually never do.

What are those things? In no particular order, they are:

  1. Nerd/Geek culture and Buddhism
  2. The concept of being a Buddhist
  3. Getting in on the ground floor

Nerd/Geek culture and Buddhism

The two groups, or sub-cultures, I frequent the most are Design/Technology and Yoga/Buddhist. To break it down further, in the Design/Tech world, I feel most comfortable in the Internet culture of memes, web 2.0, and startups. In the Yoga/Buddhist world, I’m a mutt with a Vipassana bent. Without telling you my practice history, suffice it to say that I have been following Shinzen Young’s teaching closely for about 5 years.

I don’t, or at least didn’t, think there’d be a group of people who are so interested, informed, and invested in both of these worlds, that I could meet up and banter with. I know they are out there, but they are far and few in between. There are two others in the Seattle area that I’ve found who fit the bill: David Tolmie (@dtolmie) and Rommel de Leon (@c4chaos), and the three of us made the trek to Buddhist Geeks together. But really, that’s 3 of us, in a metropolitan area of 600,000+ people. That’s roughly 0.000005% of the population.

I even have two separate Twitter accounts, @yogageekgirl for all yoga and spiritual related stuff, and @dragonc for all occasions, including my life, technology, entrepreneurialship, design, rock climbing, soccer, etc. I have two blogs, one at nikkichau.com and one at nikkiyoga.com, and I actually had a hard time deciding where to publish this post (#firstworldproblems).

When asked why, I often say that it’s to not inundate one group of people with something that they at least don’t care about and at worst offended by.  (Insert your duality, non-duality jokes here.)

At Buddhist Geeks 11, however, my system fell apart, because the conference was a collision of the circles that I’ve drawn apart. It was now a Venn Diagram. David asked me what Twitter account I would be tweeting from, and I said I didn’t know. My confusion reached its height when Rohan Gunatillake mentioned the Satipatthana Sutta *and* Y Combinator in his talk. Mind. blown.

To demonstrate this to you, I sent a tweet earlier tonight asking if it would be obnoxious to have a shirt that says “Meditation, it works, bitches” in the same spirit as xkcd’s “Science, it works, bitches“. I tweeted as @yogageekgirl, and in hindsight, I should have tweeted from @dragonc. I should have known that some of my followers on @yogageekgirl would object to my use of “bitches”, but I was afraid that some of my followers on @dragonc would roll their eyes at the idea that meditation works (it does, bitches).

The results were what you might expect, from Works For Me (abbreviated, of course), to, “Omg so offensive and not yogic!”

In any case, being at the Buddhist Geeks conference, I felt… relief. I still had to figure out whom I was talking to, to some degree, but I felt more free talking about Ceiling Cat and Double Rainbows in the same sentence as dharma, and that, is a really great feeling. It’s like when Diane Musho Hamilton said, “It’s good I can say karmic in this room without explaining or apologizing.”

I’m thinking of that scene in X-Men, First Class, when the mutants found each other and realized that they didn’t have to hide who they are, or a part of who they are, and that they did belong to something.

The concept of being a Buddhist

I have never considered myself to be a Buddhist, and it’s possible I’m simply in denial. I’ve listened to Joseph Goldstein’s “Abiding in Mindfulness” in the past year in my car commuting to and from work until the CDs scratched up. Rommel and I once played a game where he asked me to identify when Shinzen Young said what in his 20-hour lecture: The Science of Enlightenment.

I’m not saying that listening to some MP3s is analogous to doing or putting anything to practice, and I have, as Robert Frost would say, miles to go before I sleep (or wake). I’m saying that I’m highly influenced by the teaching of the Buddha, and I’m committed to not merely treat it as intellectual entertainment, but train and put it to good use. Does this make me a Buddhist? Well, if walks like a duck…

I think I’m afraid of calling myself a Buddhist because I don’t want to be thought of as being religious, or rather, a religious fundamentalist. I’m deathly afraid of being clumped with the dogma of the church, of the temple, or the mosque.

One of the most impressionable things I’ve ever read is Voltaire’s Priere a Dieu, Prayer to God, where he asks God that “those who cover themselves in a white robe to say we must love God do not hate those who say the same thing under a black coat.” “que ceux qui couvrent leur robe d’une toile blanche pour dire qu’il faut t’aimer ne détestent pas ceux qui disent la même chose sous un manteau de laine noire”.

I’m quite aware that religions, at their roots, teach the same thing, for us to love one another. But I’d rather not be associated with their antics, with their ways about doing it. I’d rather be Godless and try to live as a sane, decent human. Besides, I worshipped Alanis Morisette plenty in my teenage angst in the 90s already.

But back to Buddhism, is it a religion? Am I a Buddhist? If I went to a Buddhist Conference, does that turn me into one? Does it out me from the Buddhist closet? Needless to say, I had my reservations about going. But, I saw that Shinzen Young was going to be there, and it was going to be my chance of finally meeting him in person (or, meatspace), so I thought, what the heck. And I’m really glad I did.

Have I resolved my Atheist-Buddist Complex? I don’t know. But I do know that tomorrow, I’ll be more comfortable telling people how I spent my weekend, maybe while blasting Nina Simone, “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, don’t let me be misunderstood.”

It’s good to get in on the ground floor

This is what Shinzen Young said in his opening keynote when he was referring to the beginning of the convergence of Buddhist thoughts and scientific discovery. For me, this also means that it’s good to get in on the ground floor of the Buddhist Geeks Conference.

The conference was impeccably planned and executed. The organizers, the volunteers, everything worked like clockwork. The whole thing was seamless. Even the “Time Machine could not complete backup” message that popped up in the middle of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s closing keynote seemed serendipitously, or suspiciously, planned.

Jonathan Ive once said, “We try to solve very complicated problems without letting people know how complicated the problem was.” The Buddhist Geeks team seemed to have embodied that spirit in hosting us. Major kudos to them.

I appreciated the small and intimate size of the conference. There were only about 160 or so of us. It was possible, if you were really motivated, to talk to everybody, or nearly everybody. There was a distinct lack of commercialism, which was a breath of fresh air. There was a small room where you could buy Buddhist type books, sure, but it wasn’t blatantly in your face. You didn’t have to walk through lines of “new, specialized, temperature-sensitive zafu”, or “jade mala beads blessed by the priests in the lost mountains of the Himalayas” to get to the auditorium.

This conference is fantastic, and I do hope Vince and Co do it again, and again and again and again. And yet, I already mourn the seemingly-inevitable exhibition hall that one might see at a Yoga Journal conference, where “superstar spiritual teachers” came with an entourage and didn’t stand in the same coffee line as you talking about where they grew up.

Hey, I’m no fool. I’m just a girl standing (sitting?) next to another girl chasing after a dollar like most of us. (Well, maybe I am a fool after all). I’m all for capitalism and investment and sponsors and whatever it takes to get something like this going long and strong (TWSS).

I’m saying that it is nice to witness the first incarnation of the conference, because one of these days, it just might well be held at the Grand Hyatt in San Francisco, where thousands and thousands of people will come, and we will look back and say, remember when this rock band used to play in a coffee shop in the burb to an audience of five? Yeah, those were the days.

In the meantime, did I say I’m glad I went? Yes, only 50 times, Nikki. Hey, it’s almost 3 a.m., and I’ve been listening to people argue about Vajrayana and Mahamudra and Tantra and whether we should or should not mention the E word the past two days, give me a break.

What I would say is the most important thing I got out of the weekend is renewed vigor to practice. Once in a while, I need a kick in the pants, something to rouse my practice, and I’m really starting to understand why the third jewel is the Sangha. If nothing else, they keep you accountable, they keep you going.

When asked if the audience could hear no other teachings, what three things should they hear, Shinzen Young said, “Practice practice practice.” To that I say, Amen. How’s that for cross fertilization of Buddhism? (And now I want to go play FarmVille.)

P.S. next time, let’s do some hacking, like this! Hey, maybe like a Buddhist Geeks “B Combinator” Hackathon? (Hugh would approve.)

As I get older I’m less squeamish about talking about creativity in spiritual terms, rather than just “because it’s cool and sexy” terms. – Hugh MacLeod