Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Time of Quiet

I'm heading for a time of quiet,
When my restlessness is passed.
And I can lie down on my blanket
And release my fists at last.

When I can't sleep, I listen to Quiet by Paul Simon.  It always calms me down, reminds me to let go of my stress and restlessness.  Recently, as I lay awake in the dark listening to this soothing song, I was struck by a few of the lyrics I had never paid much attention to before:

And when they say
That you're not good enough
Well, the answer is
You're not.

But who are they
And what is this
That eats at what you've got?

Paul, you've got something there.  I suppose a big part of becoming an adult is realizing, when they say you're not good enough, the answer is: you're not.  We go through our lives being told "You can be anything you want."  We are always told of our boundless potential.  But, in the real world, there are boundaries that we may not cross.  It doesn't have to be based in reality.  You might be the best actor who has ever lived, but if you don't fit Hollywood's mold, you're just not good enough.  We march into the world, and it promptly tells us just how wrong we have been for assuming boundless potential.  "There are boundaries," it sneers, "that you just can't cross."

And we listen.  This is what Paul opened my eyes to.  We listen.  My professor tells me I'm not suited for scholarship, or my band mates tell me I'm not cut out to be a musician,  the publisher turns down my book, the newspaper refuses my photos, I just can't seem to pass this one exam, I can't dance.  But who are they to say?  And what is this, what is this that eats at what we've got?  Why does it matter that I am not good enough for some people?  It matters because I believe it matters.  If my standards are set by the world, and then I fall short, then I will never release my fists.  I will always be fighting against the simple truth:  I'm not good enough.

But it isn't true, doesn't have to bring me down!  Who cares if Hollywood doesn't want me?  Who cares if I can't make it in politics?  Who cares if the world never sees me as I truly am?  We are social creatures, and we must function in society, but if we let our own self-worth be determined by the standards of others, we will always fail.

Who are they?  And what is this, that eats at what you've got?

I'm heading for a time of  solitude
Of peace without illusions.
Where the perfect circle marries all
Beginnings and conclusions.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Hidden Tiger: Knowing Which Name to Call

Can you find the hidden tiger in the picture above?  Once you see him, it seems so clear, so obvious, but it takes a little while.  You don't see him right away.  You have to search.  Maybe not long, but you have to search.  Then you see it clearly.

The ancient Egyptians, like a lot of peoples, believed that if you knew someone's name, you had power over them.  The Egyptians believed that every person had (has) a secret name, their essential name, that is too powerful to be known.  The great mother goddess, Isis, became the most powerful magician in existence by tricking her father, Re, into telling her his secret name, and thus, giving her his power.

You can't solve your problems until you see the hidden tiger and know god's secret name.  Until you can figure out exactly what problems you're having, you're helpless against them.  It sounds simple, I know.  Of course you can't solve problems you don't know you have.  The point is this: you have no power if you are calling the wrong name.

I've noticed that when one thing goes wrong, lots of things seem to go wrong.  Sometimes we see that lots of things are going wrong, and we don't understand that they might be the result of something else.  This isn't meant to be complicated.  I don't think we all have deeply hidden issues.  I just know that there are days when everything goes wrong, (it's raining, you burn your finger on the coffee pot, you lose your keys, you fail your test) and you focus on all the bad things not realizing that they aren't really the problem.  

This is a simplification, of course.  But the question is simple:  What's your problem?  Is it really your girlfriend?  Is it really about your failed test, your lost job, your broken cup?  If it is, you have the power to overcome, you have the power to move on.  If you can't let go, can't help but focus on these things, big or small, maybe you've been looking in the wrong place for the hidden tiger.  Maybe you've been calling the wrong name.

Can you find the hidden tiger in the picture above?  What about in your self?

Friday, October 17, 2008

On Passing Through Doors

I was listening to a podcast of a talk given by a Buddhist monk a few weeks ago. The monk, Gil Fronsdale, lives in California and gives these talks, called Dharma Talks, every Sunday. (You can find his weekly talks over at Zencast, if you’re interested.) I’m not sure anymore which talk it was I was listening to, but there was a story Gil told that caught my attention. The story was about a man who decided to become a monk. Before leaving for the monastery he spoke to his spiritual teacher for advice. The teacher was pleased to see that his pupil was taking this step to deepen his practice and he gave him the best advice he could give:

“Pass through all doors completely.”

When I heard this, I immediately stopped walking, turned my iPod off, and I really thought about what it means to go through all doors completely. The rest of the story isn’t important. I’d like to focus just on these words because I think they offer truly wise advice.

Namwen and I have been talking about decisions lately. Mostly about making them and the difficulties that entails. My difficulty has never been in making decisions. I’ve always felt that they sort of get made for me, I go where I need to go. I’ve been truly blessed to have this clarity. My difficulty came in accepting the outcome of the decision. I'm specifically talking about my decision to come to the Netherlands. I hadn’t realized this until I heard the Zen master’s advice to his pupil.

I didn’t exactly choose to come to the Netherlands, though of course it was my decision to come here. Either way, until very recently I had not come through that door completely. I had one foot outside, waiting. I knew this was where I had to be, where I was supposed to be, where I needed to be. But still I hesitated to fully make the transition; I hesitated to step away from the door. I had thought these days of hesitancy were behind me and I was surprised to see this in myself again. I hadn’t been this uncertain of change since high school!

“Pass through all doors completely.”

Clarity. I now saw clearly that I was hesitating, and I have now truly passed through the doorway of the decision I made that brought me here. I’m no longer waiting for…whatever it was I was waiting for. I never had a name for it. I thought at first that it was a fear of change, and I was disappointed in myself. What happened to the brave girl who longed for everything new? Now, I realize it wasn’t a fear of change at all, it was an addiction to change. I got a change, and I didn’t like it immediately (this was not like going to Berlin, which from the start felt like going home) so I wanted another change. So I stood in the doorway, waiting to see where I could go next, searching the long hall of doorways for another opening. Now I’ve let go of the door knob and fully entered the room.

Look! A banquet! A feast I couldn’t see because I was staring too hard at the closed doors behind me.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cades Cove

My Zen

Click to enlarge.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Pop Culture - Zen

I thought this was so zen that I had to post it here instead of my other blog. Think about it, it IS deep! :D

And here are two books I recommend to you, both are deep first hand observations of human struggles seen from the points of view of two very different women.

Paulo Coelho - Eleven Minutes (Story of a young brazilian girl that comes to Geneva, where she becomes a prostitute. It has some for me impressive insights into the nature of sex and love, suffering and pain)

Oriana Fallaci - Letter to a child never born (I have not read it entirely yet, but feel it is a very relevant book for anyone of us, containing the sad and deep thoughts of a pregnant woman that she tells her unborn child)

Have a good day, everybody!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Gold dawn disk edges purple cliffs.
Old woman bends to sweep temple steps.
She bathes each stone with loving care.
How many worshippers think of her work?

I went at dawn to a magnificent temple. Its architecture was such a supreme expression of the human spirit that it was a treasure. Generations of worshipers had left offerings at the shrines, hundreds of monks had reached their enlightenment on the consecrated grounds, and thousands had been blessed in life and death in the venerable halls.

Yet my most moving observation was an old woman silently sweeping the steps. Her concentration was perfect. Her devotion was palpable. Her thoroughness was complete. Her uncelebrated act showed a true holy spirit.

Later in the day, wealthy people came to worship. Children with brightly coloured toys ran over the gray stones. The abbot walked to his ceremonies. Monks passed in silent prayer. Of all who passed, how many were aware of the saintly service that had made their own devotion possible?

When the way is all we have to walk, those who prepare the way should be truly honoured.

-Deng Ming-Dao
from "365 Tao"

Monday, September 29, 2008

Zora Neal Hurston

"There are years that ask questions and years that answer."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

No Boundaries On The Outside

Are we really going through a new kind of fight that our parents or grandparents never had to face? I remain skeptical although I am totally with TheGreatNamwen, when he writes about our boundless interconnection and immense freedom.

The generation before us had to struggle for the way they wanted to live their lives. The generation of flower power basically felt restrained by society and some found that it was time to resist and do what they could to lift the chains that held them.
Today, all those political and societal struggles have found their place in the past and many of the old flower children have become politicians, policemen and lawyers. The society that they brought their children up in is different in a whole lot of ways, though not in every way, from the one they knew.
If our parents felt more connected to the "establishment" or to the newfound "freedom", they never experienced today's world of endless possibilities as absolutely naturally given like we do. We grew up thinking that it was absolutely right to get a car for your 16th, respectively 18th birthday. We knew how to handle a computer before we had to first apply for a job that required those skills. We know we can get any (and we really do mean ANY) kind of information within a few clicks.
Now we are in a situation where there are no clear rules anymore. We can choose to have sex in Thailand or marry gay in Germany. We can go whale hunting in Japan or protest against it on a Green Peace ship.

Where do you want to go today?

There are very few things restraining us, and by US I mean the kind of people that are reading blogs which in itself already has some preconditions. We should feel privileged by our unique position and yet we are overwhelmed and helpless, restless and stressed, procrastinating and wondering about the right decisions because every decision is ruling out endless possibilities we could have had.

I feel that the only way to face this obvious overflow of possibilities is to give yourself into the flow of life. There seems to be much wisdom in the words of this mom that where we are today is the result of the way we have taken. There were some decisions involved and who would say they were bad?! For my part I can say that if my decisions have lead me here, then I have always made pretty sound decisions. Why is it that I doubt everytime I feel one approaching? Why is it that I doubt decisions already made? Why not leave all this doubting and fear behind?

There is a great book by Eckhart Tolle that I received as a gift and which has since rewarded me with some moments of insight how to leave this suffering behind. Buddhism has a point when it talks about this as the ultimate aim, to get rid of the human suffering and distance ourselves from the rollercoaster of emotions and thoughts. That is never to say that you don't feel or think anymore, but that you have the control and distance to know that all that cannot hurt your true core. I have experienced this and practice every day.
Maybe we can help each other, because we are all on this inner road together...

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 13

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don't see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.

--Translation by S. Mitchell

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I think I can trace the root of all my recent problems to the desire to see clearly.  My life has always been like a staircase leading me higher and higher, toward some lofty goal.  I had no name for this goal, but I have always been able to focus on the stair under my feet.  Now, I glance upwards and I see an endless rising, stair after stair, and I just can't see where it goes.  I've always felt I was on a path, one thing leading naturally into another, but recently I've felt like I'm just wasting my time.  I have to recognize, however, that these crises do arise at times.  For me, it's a crisis not only of motivation, but of faith.

Right now I see little point in doing the work I do.  I've simply become too specialized in an interesting field, and the details are beginning to take over.  The truth of the matter is, I don't see the importance of the details.  I am asked to translate texts, and to define a language with precision, plotting out and naming every form of every word.  I want to succeed at this task, but not for the sake of the task itself.  I want to succeed so I can move on to more meaningful work.  I just want to get my masters and run, save the world, do what I can.  I know I have the ability to live in the details, I just lack the motivation.

I talked to my mother:  She reminded me that the path is never as clear as we think it is.  Even when we think we know the answer, we can't see the future.  She told me I just have to have faith that the path that I am on is the one I'm meant to be on.  She said "You've been on this path since you were 2 years old, everything has brought you here.  That can't be wrong.  You just can't see which way the path ahead is turning."  Mom suggested I focus my energy on learning as much of this as I can because I just never know when I'll need it.  What seems so arbitrary, so pointless now, will be useful to me, in some unforeseen way.  It's like a bit of string you pick up in a video game, and ends up you have to give it to some string-collecting giant so he'll lift the rock gates that impede the flow of water to a village.  Or something.

The point is, I've been searching for a way to focus myself, and to do what I need to do, even though I don't want to do it, and don't even feel it's worthwhile.  But to reach my goal of getting a masters, I have to do it, so even if I can't see the worth, I have to believe it's there.  I just have to keep on believing that everything I do is a lesson, and the only way to become who I need to become.

"Your contribution to the world is going to be great.  You may not be working under the President, and you may not be making lots of money, but you're going to change the world in your way.  You just have to have faith."  --Mom

Thanks mom.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


Our generation truly is a unique one, as Leila pointed out. We truly face a life of limitless possibilities. We can do anything we want with our lives, we can shape ourselves into whatever/whomever it is we dream to be. Our parents certainly had more choices available to them than did their parents, but it seems to me that we have exponentially more than ours.

I feel that it's not just a matter of having more options available to us though. The world has become vastly interconnected. Our generation has grown up with instant access to a constant stream of information. We are constantly bombarded with sights, sounds, and experiences, and if something bores us, there are a million other experiences waiting for us! So maybe we've developed a sort of Social A.D.D. (ooooh shiny!) I can personally attest to this; it's taking me far longer than it really should to write this post. My attention keeps getting diverted elsewhere. With respect to our choices in life, I think we are finding things that superficially capture our interest, while losing sight of what it is that really drives us.

Making choices has been hard for me, for as long as I can remember. In situations where I could only choose one thing, jobs, relationships, you name it, I never knew what to do. Because, by choosing one thing, I was eliminating other options available to me. I couldn't have both, but I was afraid to not have both. Having options and contingencies is comforting to me. Throwing that all to the wind and choosing one thing, and focusing solely on it is not an easy thing to ask of me. So I've gone through life being wishy-washy, never fully committing to anyone or anything. But I finally realized what it is that really drives me, what I really can see myself doing for the rest of my life.

Photography! Everything else has just been idle interests, things I found fascinating and enjoyed doing. But photography, I can't imagine a life without it now. I've decided to follow my heart and do what I love, money will come somehow.

"Pain shared, my brother, is pain not doubled, but halved. No man is an island."

--Spider from Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Een meisje --A Girl

Ze wacht.
Nee, denkt ze, ik wacht niet,
ik dans.

Ze danst.
Ze danst met lange, ranke passen
langzaam en aandachtig.
Ze houdt haar ogen dicht,

ze danst door deuren en door ramen
en door lange, rankmoedige dagen-
hout, glas en uren vallen in splinters rond haar neer-

en telkens als ze niet meer kan
en bijna, bijna valt
denkt ze: ik?
ik val niet; ik dans.
--Toon Tellegen
She waits.
No, she thinks, I don't wait,
I dance.

She dances.
She dances with long, slender limbs
Slowly and attentively
She keeps her eyes closed,

She dances through doors and through windows
And through long, spiraling days--
Wood, glass and hours fall in splinters around her--

and everytime she just can't do it anymore
and nearly, nearly falls
she thinks: me?
I don't fall, I dance.
--Toon Tellegen

Friday, September 19, 2008

Quarter Life Crisis

Finally, we're here.  What we've been preparing for since childhood: real life.  School and college are behind us.  Life stretches out before us, infinite in its possibilities.  Our generation is unique.  We are no longer expected to find a lifelong career; between 18 and 30 most of us will have already had 7-8 jobs. (1)  We are standing at a cross roads, and it is up to us to decide where we want to take our lives!

Instead of liberating us, however, this freedom sometimes feels heavy.  We are free to choose our own paths, but the signs pointing the way are blank.  We have to navigate the world on our own, and we are afraid.  Our attitudes towards money, work, love, friends, politics, beliefs, they're all changing, and we sometimes feel out of control.  We don't know who we are.  We feel sometimes like maybe we're not good enough.  We feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of life ahead of us.  We quit our job.  We move to a new city.  We get our hearts broken.  We look for answers in a new place.  We constantly think: What does it all mean?  We ask ourselves:  "Am I doing this right?"

This phenomenon is known as the Quarter Life Crisis (QLC) and it has only recently come to the attention of the world. (2)  I became interested in this phenomenon in May of this year.  I have become more and more interested in this because I realize now that I'm going through it, just like many of you.  I am and have always been an optimistic person.  Life has never been able to get me down for long.  So at first I was ashamed of my feelings.  I felt I had somehow let myself down, somehow become someone I didn't want to be.  But I'm no longer concerned about this, and now I want to share.  I quickly found that hiding from the people I love (and who love me) only caused pain, and didn't spare anyone from negativity.  Now I am opening up, now I want you to do the same.  

I want this blog to be a place for people to share their experiences, to vent their frustrations, to express their pain and their fears.  Silence won't help us out of this, it'll only make it bigger.  Post your stories.  Post your regrets.  Post your fears. But I don't want this to be a place of complaining.  Our QLC can be a troubled time of sorrow and drama, or it can be the perfect opportunity for us to grow and find ourselves.  I want this blog to be about hope.  Above all.  So post the beautiful things the Universe sends you to help you through. 

I have named this blog 20-Something Zen because I believe that deep down we all already know the answers to our questions.  I believe that there is a Universal source of wisdom that guides us and if we can realize this, our suffering will vanish.  I also believe that everything that happens to us happens for a reason, and so we can always find meaning, even in the negative things.  However, though I believe the answers are inside of us, I recognize that sometimes we need help in seeing them.  I am not separate from you.  Your pain and your joy are my pain and my joy.  That is why I want to share the signs the Universe has given me, and why I want you to share the signs given to you.  Perhaps I can see myself reflected in the beauty you see in the world.  And in the pain.

Just let go of fear and know we'll all be all right.  And exactly where we need to be.

  1. Gray, Keturah, "Quarterlife Crisis Hits Many in Late 20s" ABC News (April 21, 2005),
  2. The first book on the subject, "Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in your Twenties" by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, was published in 2001.