Friday, October 25, 2013

Lessons I learned so far about anger

I learned a new lesson about anger today... when you are really angry at someone, or when you feel you really strongly dislike a person at the moment, be it a good friend, a loved one, an acquaintance, or even a mentor, you cannot take in his or her advice, no matter how correct or how helpful the information they offer may be. It happened that a person I normally really like and respect made a statement that sounded offensive for me (coz I have huge unresolved issues with filial piety) and then kept trying to shove advice down my throat.

I've become more and more inquisitive about feelings and emotions, perhaps exactly because those who were closest around me love to invalidate my feelings or tell me to suppress my negative emotions and show more positive ones even if I don't feel so upbeat.

My whole life has been really tough for me, not because I had abusive/dysfunctional parents or was born into poverty, but because I was born with an excessively inquisitive mind and I like to analyze ideas/concepts to death. This probably irritates the hell out of my family and friends, who much prefer simple rules of thumbs than to question conventions/social norms.

I want to talk about the emotion known as "anger". I've briefly discussed the problems with negative emotion suppression in a previous post. Basically it's unhealthy for you in the long term and what often happens is that at a later time you may explode at someone due to a trigger that is only remotely related to the real issues that you've been avoiding to deal with for months/years.

According to Wikipedia, anger is "an emotion related to one's psychological interpretation of having been offended, wronged, or denied and a tendency to react through retaliation."  It ranges from being mildly, frustrated, to somewhat irritated, to outright wanting to say obscenities and hurt someone else.

My mother's side of the family, from grandparents, to my mom and all her siblings, to all my cousins, my sister and I -- are known to have bad tempers. I used to think this hot-temperament is a genetic trait that we are born with and would have extreme difficulty to shed. But I learned that it's more of a learned trait rather than purely an inborn characteristic. Whenever I got mad, my mother would quickly out-anger me by posturing up, speaking more loudly, and making sure she gains the upperhand of the situation. It's not until recently I learned that my own anger was often exactly "feeling offended, wronged, or denied", and also feeling completely powerless and hopeless, with no option to do anything about the situation. Even when I got older and realistically should be more resourceful to actively do something about my situation, getting angry became a habit, a knee-jerk response from too many years of being used to the helplessness. My mother also still habitually posture up and act all defensive no matter what the situation was.

It's not until I had a chance to live abroad, away from my family for an extended period of time, spending time with other people's families,  that I learned that other families do not get mad over every conflict or every frustrating/irritating situation. They simply asked the right questions, discussed, and made compromises. It was very eye-opening for me to observe this. Also, because other people never forced me to obey unreasonable requests, I rarely, if ever felt unbearably infuriated.  This was a complete surprise for me, since I had been used to feeling utter furor almost daily back at home.

So now that I am away for home for good, and hell-raising furor occurs relatively rarely for me, I set out to analyze post-furor what kind of things actually makes me furious. There's no way to analyze them while I was feeling like an erupting volcano. I started this post during a recent episode actually, but all that came out were blames and defensive thoughts. Rational thinking is impossible while feeling wrathful.

So the rage was actually a reaction to one of my favorite family members, who is normally quite caring. I guess she was having some trouble with her kids, and so she set out to invalidate my feelings towards my parents, and proceed to tell me that the mere fact that I was born into this world is sufficient reason that I am forever completely indebted to my parents and that I should fulfill my duty as a good daughter. A few of her later points are actually reasonable life tips.. things that she learned in her buddhist community about self-reflection and changing perspectives, but I was so incredulous and outraged that I couldn't stand to take in any inkling of information she tried to offer, no matter how relevant and helpful they may be.

I guess on top of my list of anger trigger are Chinese traditions, filial piety, emotional invalidation, and twisting my words to use against me. You may win the fight but you forever lose my trust and respect. But I've learned that nobody in my family gives a damn about my trust and respect. They care the most about tradition and saving face.

Luckily I have my own spiritual teaching to turn to that are less preachy and more thoughtful/respectful. I much prefer to internalize teachings that honors its audience rather than teachings that say, "You are all stupid/blind/unworthy, and now here are the rules to follow".

A simple teaching that I can appreciate (I heard this from Seane Corn): "First, forgive yourself for not knowing any better. Then forgive others for not knowing any better" ---  As opposed to forgive others unconditionally while continuing to be endlessly vigilant about yourself.

Another self-reminder: I am more powerful than my upbringing would have me believe. I have a lot more control of my life than I think I do. I also am allowed to make mistakes, since I have to live with the consequences of my mistakes. As much as I'm shocked about how family members only a few years older than me adhere to traditional beliefs that should have gone out of fashion with the 19th century, I am free believe something else and to live a different life. The emotional baggages are not so easily to shed but I will dedicate the rest of my life shedding them.

I also think it's okay to get angry as long as I learn something from it rather than just automatically react without thinking. I gain understanding about myself and it helps me to process my baggage / habitual patterns. If I merely suppress my anger or superficially distract myself, the baggage will never lessen.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Revisiting spirituality

Based on my blog posts, I've been progressively becoming less and less spiritual the past year, to the point that I declared life is meaningless in my most recent post.

I came to this conclusion because I realized that whether it's social science, hard core biological or physical science, spirituality studies, religious studies, health-freaks obsessed about either raw vegan diet or paleolithic diets, political fanatics, whatever you are passionate about, if you keep looking for evidence to support your beliefs, you will find them everywhere. The moderates will be able to find evidence that support either sides of a controversial; the extremists will completely ignore the evidences that contradicts their beliefs and blow up the ones that do support their claims, "See? Just as I told you, this research entirely supports my point of view, and therefore I'm right; you're wrong!"

More rigorous scientists will try harder to avoid these biases, but researchers are humans too. It is still human nature to be a bit blind to counter-evidence and over-emphasize the evidence that supports one's theories. In addition, we are pattern hunting machines. We will see patterns even when there are only random stuff going on.

It was a blessing to go back to Michael Stone's teachings to learn more about psychology and how it related with spirituality. Stone talks about four different kinds of personalities: schizoid, borderline, narcissistic, and depressed, in a way that made me understand these four types of personalities much better. We all possess some fraction of these four qualities. It's just that someone who is more heavy-leaning on one of these traits would display certain obvious behaviors during meditation and silent retreats.

When I started yoga I was depressed. I ruminated on and on about how I was wasting my life away doing my graduate degree which wasn't going anywhere, but I also couldn't quit because I had no idea what else to do with my life. Yoga provided me with a distraction. It made me more aware of how I felt in the body when I was anxious and how a yoga practice would calm that frazzled nervous system. My teachers were charismatic, charming, compassionate, beautiful people. My classmates were like me, open-minded, curious, and slightly lost in life, all thirstily drinking up all the teachings. Tension in my body were released and I was hanging out with like-minded people who are mentally in the similar space. My yoga studio was my paradise, my safe haven. I embraced yoga and its community like my own family.

Here in Europe, my job contains more "stuff" for me to work on. It's more challenging, fulfilling, meaningful, and my bosses act like supportive cheerleaders, rather than my enemy who acted like she regretted hiring me, but couldn't fire me because it would look bad for her among her peers, and it's impossible to find anyone who would do the same job for less salary than PhD students. So career satisfaction went up, but community support went way, way down. I live in an apathetic society now. Also, I've been acting like a vessel, absorbing whatever negative emotions people around me expressed. They complain not about me, but about aspects of their lives in which they deeply dislike. For whatever reason, I empathize too much and feel just as stressed and neurotic as they are, and I don't know how to block off their negative energies.  I tried to offer suggestions to alleviate their stress or hint at them to take up yoga, but yoga is not a big enough fad here so they have not taken up my suggestions. I wasn't very aware until now that allowing friends to vent their negative feelings to me for prolonged periods of time can be as energetically draining as having them complaining about me.

I guess subconsciously I have been trying to fend off all the negativity by setting up a psychological wall, ie. becoming more apathetic (socially withdrawn, wanting to disconnect from people). I don't really like it, and wish I could be more attuned to the positivity in people. I will keep looking for them I guess. Maybe I'll have to eventually move back to Canada.

According to Michael Stone, meditation will help with grounding, so I feel more connected with my inner self and the stronger buddha so I can deal with life's challenges. I will try because I don't know what alternative options I have.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Life is meaningless... but go ahead and fill it with wonderful stuff

Yesterday I wrote a piece about how chaotic I have been feeling lately. Today I came across a graduation speech video which gives exact advice for addressing my current feeling of meaninglessness and confusion. The speech was given by Tim Minchin, an Australian musician/comedian at the University of Western Australia. The 9 pieces of advice include:

1. You don't have to have a dream.
2. Don't seek happiness.
3. Luck has a lot to do with where you are today.
4. Exercise.
5. Be hard on your opinions.
6. Be a teacher.
7. Define yourself by what you love.
8. Respect people with less power than you.
9. Don't rush.

It happens that I had a dream when I grew up, and that was to become a scientist, which is what I am today. Minchin says it's fine to have a dream.. by the time you get to it and "are staring into the abyss of the meaninglessness of your achievement, you will almost be dead so it won't matter". I haven't achieved a permanent position yet, but I already see the pointlessness of it all. Also, like he said, I had too much of a tunnel vision on long term goals that I missed all the other worthy pursuits, like romantic relationships, established social circles with those with similar values, extracurricular hobbies, community service etc. My focus was on my academic degree and that was it. I was also trying to rush my whole life and still I end up feeling behind everyone else. But life is not a race and I cannot succeed in every area of life.

Because so much of my self-worth has been tied to my family's values and opinions of me, it's been extreme difficult for me to separate what I want from how I should be in order to make my family respect me. The way to make them respect me is to either 1: become an established professor, or 2: go make lots of money at a large corporation, or 3: marry some rich person (that's considered as an accomplishment for females in Asia) and have some cute babies so they can buy pretty clothes and toys and obsess over cuteness of infants.  None of these options would make me happy in the long run. I haven't taken pride in what I do because my family don't think highly of my profession. But just because my family members do not care to try to understand what I do, their opinions should not negate my decades of hard work and what I think are important in life.

Part of the reason I don't want to be a teacher is that I don't want to be a crappy teacher who ruins lives. But maybe that's because I was too dependent on my teachers. I didn't know how to think for myself and hung on to their every word and followed all their suggestions without better judgements. When I learn to make decisions for myself, can take responsibility and not be apologetic for my decisions about my own life, maybe I can start serve as a good teacher for others.

No. 5 is definitely something I need to work on for the rest of my life. It's what I said in my previous blog too: more observations, less judgements, or at least more critical examination of my judgements. Still a work in progress.

The most important take home message of the speech is that life has no meaning, so we should just do what we want with it in a way that make us feel fulfilled. We can proceed by being micro-ambitious in pursuing short term goals (like learning the second series in Ashtanga), to pursue our passions, and to feel grounded in whatever we choose to do with our lives. For those of us who have the freedom to choose what to do with our lives (only a small population in the world), we are extremely lucky indeed.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Chaos in today's world and in my mind

Recently I have been fascinated by the whole Miley Cyrus phenomenon.  I kept flipping back and forth, between thinking that she's in control of what she's doing (following Madonna, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera et al.'s footsteps in using sexuality to catch attention so she can sell albums and transition into an adult market), or if she is a train wreck about to break down (like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan etc).

This piece written by Mara Wilson, the child star in "Matilda" and "Mrs. Doubtfire", helped me understand better the need for Miley and seemingly all child stars to go through this rebellion phase, because Disney forces their child stars to remain cute and innocent for the fan base when in reality they have been fully exposed to the ugliest aspects of the adult world (sex, drugs, porn, politics, power struggle, lies etc) by working long hours in the entertainment industry.

So why am I so obsessed about pop culture stars' acting out phase? Because at 33, I am really confused about life myself.

We've got a financial system that is completely unsustainable; we've got disproportionally large number of psychopaths holding power in high position political offices, financial institutions, and mega-corporations around the world; we exploit third world countries to keep the every day things we own cheap and abundant; there is an overabundance of porn on the Internet; our food sources are pretty messed up; terrorist activities and shootings seem to be a frequent occurrence now despite the billions (trillions?) of dollars put into flight security and global data surveillance system;  global warming and environmental pollution are only getting worse; the world seems to be moving towards the extreme (extreme right wing in Europe and North America; fundamentalists rising in the Muslim world); the education system cannot keep up with rapid changes in the world and the needs of the modern businesses/industries; and we're supposed to tell our children to behave, act appropriately and courteously, study hard in school, and they will have a good life?

To be fair, this simplistic message is just what my mother taught me all my life and made me resentful today. Maybe other parents have more intelligent values to teach to their children (fend for yourself, as this world is chaotic and unfair?)

I do believe wholehearted that Steven Pinker's conclusion that the world is less violent and probably today than it used to be hundreds and thousands of years ago.  I am probably more likely to encounter violence in my every day life 300 years ago than today. However back then there were no televisions, no 24-hour news channels, no internet, no Twitter, and therefore people would only know about bad things happening around their neighborhoods, and not received up-to-the-minute updates about wars happening half way across the world, or radioactive leakage in another continent that could harm the locals and eventually make it to our neighborhood.

As someone who grew up extremely sheltered and who wanted to dedicate her whole life researching cure for cancer and/or work for charities, I feel pretty disillusioned about the flaws within the field of science and NGOs.

I guess this is why so many people turn to escapism - excessive partying: sex, drugs, music, obsession with appearances and pets. Others turn to spiritual pursuits, which is what I did for awhile, but it also felt more like escaping than waking up for me.

I think my biggest issue is that I don't feel my parents or my family are proud of me, since they have no idea what scientists do and don't think highly of the profession in general. My mother associates level of success with the amount of money one makes. Rationally I know her values are wrong, but I'm still saddened to have parents who ignore current economic climate and expect me to make lots of money some day because they encouraged me to get an advanced degree.  Also, over the years, I focused too much on my studies and not enough on establishing solid friendship with a social group with similar, more healthy values. I just didn't know the importance of socializing. Now I am among people who either keep to themselves and their own social circles, or among overachiever girls who are just as confused as me. Some of them are still in their pursuit towards becoming a professor/group leader, which is not a problem in itself, but what scares me is that they also seem to be willing to do whatever it takes to get there, just like how other leaders got to where they are today.

It seems that I am surprised by a lot of the happenings in the world because people are a lot more selfish than I thought they would be. I don't know why I assumed people are less selfish in the first place.. maybe because I've been taught I should be more generous? To cope with this I should really be less concerned about matters that don't affect me immediately and focus on my own life, but I find it difficult since my work requires me to think out of the box and ponder in terms of big pictures.

One way to cope could be that I aim to be less emotionally tugged by all the external stimulants. Right now I'm like a rag doll, where every provocative image, every piece of sensational news, every slight insult by someone I come in contact with invokes a strong feeling or reaction from me. A wise friend encourages me to remain an observer, to not judge if these provocative events are good or bad, and to not react to everything that's happening. I think it's very good advice for me but I find it difficult to achieve.

Back to Miley Cyrus -- she's pushing boundaries of social norms, experimenting with herself and the system. Parents and the more conservative populations  are outraged, but I think it's interesting that her performance at the VMA wasn't censored (she mentioned herself that she thought there was a chance it could). I'm not saying it should or shouldn't be censored, just that it wasn't. However, the word "molly" was bleeped out. Why wouldn't she experiment with how far she could get if she can get away with it? There does seem to be a huge disconnect with the governing censorship system and the public opinion -- breasts can be exposed but nipples are somehow a dirty thing to show and can damage innocent children's souls (remember Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction caused a huge uproar). Movies with extreme violence can get a PG-13 rating, but nudity is automatically rated R and swear words need to be bleeped from radios and TVs. I do think that the broken censorship system sends the wrong message to children, especially when kids are inclined to try all the things that authorities forbid them to do.

I'm only concerned that public opinions can get to her eventually. People are just not nice these days, especially when they can express their judgements anonymously on the Internet. I'm certainly guilty of judging people too quickly, especially when I come across something unfamiliar and radical to me.

My homework for next little while is to judge less, react less, and rein in my over-scattered thinking. I direly need to center and ground myself.