Sunday, August 20, 2017

Oops, I forgot to have kids

(This is cross-posted from Medium, where it's formatted better)
When I was in middle school, I realized one day how old my parents were compared to other people’s parents, and I decided then that I would have kids before 25 — I would break the cycle! Lots of other kids grew up with alive grandparents, I wanted to give my future kids a shot at getting to have grandparents.
When I was getting near the end of college, I gave up on the goal of kids by 25, but I made a promise with my best friend that if we weren’t both married by 28, we’d move in and adopt a kid to raise together. A strange plan for 2 straight women, but we figured we’d never have to execute on it. She got married soon after, so the plan never came to fruition.
Now I’m 33, and I don’t have kids yet. There’s maybe a 20% chance that my current partner will be ready for it any day now, but the days keep passing and my ovaries keep getting more wrinkly.
So what happened? Why am I now facing the prospect of being an old parent (like my own parents) or never being a parent at all?
I always prioritized work over relationships. I remember a specific point where I could have chosen to take a worse job in order to be in the same city as my long-time partner, and thinking to myself, “no! work over boys!” I believe I learned that from my workaholic dad, and misunderstanding his grievances from having made work-related decisions to please my mum. I’m only now at the point where I would be willing to prioritize starting a family vs starting the perfect job, after seeing where my priorities have landed me.
I rarely saw babies. For most of my years in the tech industry, my colleagues were either young or they were men, so it was rare to encounter babies or pregnancy at work. I didn’t have any friends at that stage in life yet, and I also have little contact with relatives (as they’re all overseas), so I’ve never met a baby I was related to. Actually, my dad did have a second daughter with a new wife, who would have been in her baby years while I was in my late 20s, but I was busy working at Google and I did not meet her until she was the ripe old age of 9 years old. In the olden times, I imagine it would have been hard for a woman to go through as many years of their 20’s without seeing lots of babies — so it’s kind of fascinating how I managed to!
So I forgot about babies and didn’t realize the years were ticking by.Adults were always a foreign species to me, and it took me a long time to identify as one. I always thought there’d be a day that I’d wake up and think “Aha! I’m an adult now!” and that’d be the day that I’d start tackling all the adult goals. How can a kid have a kid, after all? But then I saw the baby announcement of one of my old high school friends— someone who I didn’t think was “adult” yet — and realized that I’d probably confused cause and effect. I started to realize that there wasn’t actually a “kid/adult” toggle in my brain, and that I was indeed at the age where humans make other humans.
Around the age of 30, things changed. I started dating someone who liked the idea of one day having kids, and brought it up early in the relationship. That got my brain ticking on it again. I also started being around a lot more kids, thanks to Khan Academy employees being very babyful and bringing their babies to company events. I also had a surgery that was potentially risky for my future fertility, and that really brought the point home that my fertility wasn’t forever.
But I didn’t feel emotionally prepared. The mums in my family have a history of becoming excessively anxious once kids are in the picture (and that is an understatement), and I didn’t want the same thing to happen to me. I never wanted to take the time to work on my mental health though, because work always seemed more fun/pressing. In the last few years, I’ve become more mentally stable/confident, thanks to finally investing the time in various forms of therapy and a 4-month long Buddhist retreat. Only now do I feel okay with the idea of bringing kids into the world, as I’m no longer worried that my mental health will deteriorate to the point of inflicting suffering on them. Or at least, I know a lot more about ways I can get help if that does happen.
These days, I’m ready and willing to have kids. Sure, it still seems like the scariest thing in the world to me (especially the labor part and the worry-about-kid-dying-forever part) but scary in a worth it kind of way.
But I don’t know if it will happen for me in time. It’s easy for me to accomplish goals that involve only me, but it takes 2 to tango for 20 years, and that’s a goal that I don’t particularly know how to achieve.
I write this because I wonder if others find themselves in the same place, and I worry about accidentally encouraging others along my exact path, especially given how often I speak to girls and women about coding. Ideally, I’d like to inspire females to try out coding for themselves, but not set themselves up for a life where they work at the expense of everything else. Given that I haven’t succeeded in that yet, I don’t think I’m a particularly useful role model.
But maybe there are ways that the tech industry itself can be more encouraging of reproduction:
  • More family-friendly work events. My early years in tech were peppered with alcohol-fueled bonding events, rightly devoid of babies. These days, tech isn’t as into alcohol as a bonding tool (for obvious reasons), so we’re seeing more daytime family-friendly events. Yay, reproduction reminders!
  • Family planning education for 20-somethings. I remember going through Sex Ed in high school, and they did a great job of scaring me away from having kids then (thanks to a graphic film called “The Miracle of Life”). But then, I never got another class later on to un-scare me from having kids. I’m not sure whether such a thing would be offered by work or by health care providers, but it’d have to be an obvious enough option that I’d attend it, even if I wasn’t actively thinking about it. It would be a class for all genders, of course.
  • More career options that aren’t in expensive cities. I hear that SF has a low birth rate, and that could be related to couples not wanting to start a family in a place where they can’t have a proper house or even live without roommates. It could also related to city-dwellers being more into nighttime events than daytime family-friendly events. Either way, it seems possible that if more people worked for tech and didn’t live in costly cities, they’d be more likely to start a family.
  • Corporate policies like maternity/paternity leave. These become helpful once you’ve actually remembered to have kids and are going forward with the decision, to make sure that work doesn’t become a reason not to have kids. I don’t know much about them since I haven’t made it this far.
Having said all that: a caveat. Not every woman wants to have kids. I don’t believe in any approaches that’d impose such a desire upon others, or that would shame people for either wanting or not wanting kids.
I’m just sad that I forgot.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Coding: A Hobby for the Waste-Adverse

I love creating things and I’m a high energy individual. I can spend all day creating things, enjoying both the process and the output.
For most of my adult life, I’ve channeled my creative energy into coding. I studied Computer Science in college, and went on to jobs at Google, Coursera, and Khan Academy. Even in my year of “recovering from corporate life” between Google and Coursera, I spent my time coding web apps and browser extensions for fun and no-profit. ☺
This past year, I got back into other forms of creativity. I learned woodworking and laser cutting, making signs and jewelry out of wood. I worked on a Burning Man art project with a team, turning a giant gumball machine into an LED ring dispenser. I ran art events with my partner, showing other people the joy of painting for fun. I adore the sensory aspect of those forms of creativity —the smell of wood when I sand it, the gooeyness of paint — the feeling of using my body in the creative process.
This summer, I finally returned to coding as my full-time form of creativity. And actually, there’s a big part of me that breathes a sigh of relief: the part of me that doesn’t like to accumulate excess and create waste.
To create things that live outside the digital world, I need to acquire the supplies, shape them into the thing, and then discard or donate the unused part of the supplies. Sometimes, I can “reclaim” the supplies, like when I pick up driftwood on the beach, but then I still need to acquire the tools, like the woodburning iron, power drill, etc. I also need to find a place to store the newly created item or someone to give it away to. I sometimes sell things on Etsy, but then, I need to acquire the shipping supplies.
To create things that live in the digital world, I only need my laptop, electricity, and a bit of disk space. I can share things easily with others (without needing new disk space!), and if I’m done with them, I can delete things to reclaim that disk space. I can acquire “supplies” by a quick download, and easily delete supplies I no longer need.
Isn’t that great? It’s great! A way to use up my creative energy without excessive accumulation and waste! Phew!

This post is not a declaration that everybody should stop creating physical things, or even that I will stop creating physical things. This is also not a thorough analysis of the overall sustainability of a world of digital technology.
This post is simply an observation of a benefit of coding that I hadn’t truly appreciated before. Thank you, coding.☺

Sunday, May 7, 2017

My Morning Practice

(Spoiler alert: it’s not just meditation.)

Each morning, I sit in front of my altar and go through a sequence of practices, each of them important to helping my mind and body prepare for the day. I got into the habit of morning practice while on retreat at the Nyingma Institute for Tibetan Buddhism, and I’ve been doing my own morning practice in the four months since graduating. I’m able to keep up the practice only because I can so clearly see the difference on days that I don’t manage to do it.

I am sharing my morning practice because I want to encourage others to experiment with their own morning practice, to consider what practices can help you feel the most balanced and open as you enter the day.

The Setup: My Altar

I’m happy that I went through the effort to create an altar area in my bedroom, as the visual reminder helps me establish and continue my practice. My altar is filled with imagery that inspires me: a Buddha statue in the center of a sand-filled star, lit up by a glowing candle, surrounded by sea shells from local beaches. My altar also has photos and statues gifted from friends, and handmade engravings of the Buddhist compassion prayer.

If you have the time and space to create an altar, let it be one that inspires you — whether that’s shiny stones, spiritual figures, photos of friends, or doodads collected over your lifetime. That important part is that it gives you a sense of beauty and balance.

At the foot of my altar, I always have a meditation cushion, a blanket, a lighter, and a tissue box.

The Prerequisite: Waking Up Early

I find it far easier to do my morning practice in the early morning before my roommates have awakened. I tried many times to do it during the hustle-bustle of the morning rush, and I just can’t relax enough when I have the niggling worry that they might need me for something.
Setting my Intention

I start off with reciting my personal intention statement, three times. I recite the same intention each day, and it reminds me of what I strive for in my interactions with others:
“I intend to be warm, friendly, open and loving, while honoring my interests and respecting my boundaries.”

Sitting Meditation

I sit in the Tibetan style, my eyes partially open with a soft gaze towards my altar. I count my breath each time I exhale, counting 10 exhales before I start back at 1. For each cycle of 10 breaths, I shift my gaze to a different sea shell on my altar. On my 7th cycle, my gaze will rest on the center seashell with the candle light gleaming through it, and that is how I know I am done.

Often, the goal of meditation is to focus on a single object, just the breath or just a particular object. In my meditation, I focus on multiple objects at once, because it is the way that I can pay the most attention to what is happening in my mind without it wandering completely away. It works well for my purposes.

“Cleansing Breath”

This is a highly beneficial practice from Kum Nye Tibetan Yoga that helps me acknowledge my aversions, attractions, and ignorance.

With tissue in hand, I first think of something I’m averse to or afraid of (like an awkward conversation or a tricky task), place one finger on my right nostril, inhale, and then blow out through my left nostril. Then I do that for 2 more things I’m averse to, 3 times on the other nostril for things I’m desiring, and 3 times from both nostrils for things I’m uncertain about.

It may sound weird, but hey, this one weird trick — it works! When I fully acknowledge the things that are gripping me — whether it’s a grip of desire or disgust — I am less under their control. I can detach myself from them. When I acknowledge the things I’m unsure of, I find I don’t put so much energy into defending myself, both internally and to others. I can just say “Actually, I don’t know!” and be okay with it.

If you’re interested in practicing Cleansing Breath, I recommend reading the full description in Tarthang Thulku’s Kum Nye book. You could also try journaling the 9 attractions, aversions, and ignorances.

Neck Stretches

This is where my practice gets physical, and is inspired by both Kum Nye and Mask Theater class warm-up. I basically stretch my throat and neck in a mindful manner. In Kum Nye, it’s considered important in opening the channel from the head to the heart chakras. In Mask, it’s important to enable our characters to express themselves fully.

First I rotate the neck in 4 axis: top to bottom, left-ear-to-shoulder to right-ear-to-shoulder, and left to right. Each time I rotate, I notice a new thing that my eyes have rested on, to increase my mindfulness.

Then I do a slow neck roll, 3 times in one direction, then 3 times in the other direction. If any part feels particularly “juicy” or “crunchy”, I spend a little more time there. This is similar to the Kum Nye practice “Lightning thoughts”, where your neck roll is as slow as possible and you observe the thoughts popping up.

“Bending in the Four Directions”

Now I’m well prepared to get up on my feet and bend my entire body! This next practice is also from Kum Nye Tibetan Yoga and a great example of its power. When you do Kum Nye poses, you go through them very slowly and often hold them for many minutes. That way you can take the time to truly experience the sensations happening, and even try to develop a friendly relationship with sensations you may label as uncomfortable or painful. Kum Nye gives you the time to develop mindfulness around your bodily sensations, and can prepare you for more mindfulness in the “real world”.

In this practice, I slowly raise my arms up to the ceiling and bend to the left. I count for 21 breaths, and return to the center.

Then I bend to the right for 21 breaths. If I feel myself getting distracted, I challenge myself to bend further. I return to the center and stretch upwards.

Now my favorite/most dreaded part. I bend forward from the waist until my arms are parallel with the floor. I reach my arms forward while jutting my hips back, and count for 21 breaths. The concentration needed to hold the pose is often strong enough to clear my mind of distraction.

From the bent forward position, I bend my knees and swing my arms up to center. I stretch backwards slightly, staring at the corner where the ceiling meets the wall, counting for 21 breaths.

I return my hands to center and slowly lower them, noticing the sensations going through my hands, arms, and body.

The Compassion Prayer

This prayer comes from the Four Immeasurables in Buddhism, and there are many variants of it. I recite this version three times:
May all beings be free from suffering
May all beings be free from fear and anger
May all beings find peace and joy
May all beings have a mind at ease

Closing Gesture

We always close sessions at the Nyingma Institute with either a closing gesture or closing chant, where we dedicate the merit of our practice to all the beings that may benefit from it. While I go through the gesture, I think of my roommates, colleagues, neighbors, locals, and then imagine extending it to everyone in the state, country, and world.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What is the difference between ambition and discontent?

I am honestly trying to figure this out right now.

“Ambition” is defined as “desire and determination to achieve success.”.

“Discontent” is defined as “dissatisfaction with one’s circumstances”.

Is it possible for one to desire to achieve success, if they are not dissatisfied with their circumstances?

Or, to bring this out of abstract realm and put my skin in the game: is it possible for me to desire to achieve success, without a dissatisfaction with my circumstances?

It seems theoretically possible. I could think “Well, things are alright right now and I’ll be content if they stay this way, but it’d probably be better if I was able to improve this thing, so I’ll try that out.”

Sometimes I do have that mindset. But after I put thingX on my TODO list and the fantasy of finishing thingX taunts me, my mindset soon turns to “Gosh, I just won’t be satisfied until I improve this thing! And look at all these other people and things taking up my time, preventing me from getting thingX done! I really really want to get it done!”

My preference for achievement turns into a desire, and that desire turns into an obsession, and that obsession turns into anxiety.

Why does preference turn into desire? Why can’t I avoid discontenment?

Let’s take a tangent into etymology land, to see what it yields.

The word “content” comes from Latin contentus, meaning “contained, satisfied”, as in “their desires are bound by what he or she already has.” Thus, the state of discontent is when your desires reach outside what you already have. You must achieve that thing outside of you in order to become content again, and hope that you can keep that thing inside your bounds.

The word “ambition” comes from Latin ambitionem, meaning “a going around”, as in the act of going around to solicit votes — “a striving for favor, courting, flattery; a desire for honor, thirst for popularity”. Apparently in its early uses, ambition was always used pejoratively, and the positive sense is only from modern times.

I must say, that was a very interesting detour. So much is contained within the etymology of those two words.

The original meaning of ambition is certainly one that’s bound to end in discontentment. If my desire to achieve things is literally to become popular, then the bounds of my desires are reaching far outside myself — to a possibly infinite extent. Once I’ve gained the favor of 100, why wouldn’t I want to gain the favor of 1,000? I cannot be content — I cannot be self-contained — if my desires depend on the votes of others.

But we could argue that the new meaning of ambition is a different one, and that you can have a desire to achieve success not because you personally need the good favor, but because you recognize a problem in the world and you see that you have the capabilities to fix it. That seems reasonable.

Now let’s go into a Buddhist critique (from an amateur).

Desire is suffering. Desire is a form of attachment. Attachments are dangerous because of how strongly they stick to the mind. They make it hard to see truth, they make it hard for the mind to be free and open to all the possibilities of the world, they constrain the limits of the self.

Desire can be contrasted with preference. You are attached to your desires, you are not attached to your preferences. If the world changes such that you can’t follow your preferences, you can just go with the flow.

What if ambition could be a “preference to achieve success”? What if I could prefer to achieve thingX, but not be bothered if it can’t happen for some reason? That does seem nice, as it’d mean never spiraling from desire to obsession to anxiety.

The risk to it is that, in actuality, I might be able to achieve thingX, but I let some other false belief get in the way of that achievement (like a subconscious belief that I’m not capable). If I am not driven by mad desire, then I may miss out on potential personal growth.

That means that I must be very honest with myself. I have to admit everything that affects my ability to achieve thingX, and question how real those obstacles are. I also have to admit when I no longer think it’s useful to achieve thingX. Finally, I have to admit when a preference has turned into a desire, and when that attachment has clouded my other admissions.

It sounds hard, especially when desire is the standard modus operandi. But I do think it may be possible, to cultivate a form of ambition that is compatible with a sense of contentment.

Thinking through this has been most helpful. Thank you for reading.

Monday, April 17, 2017

I stopped listening to music

…And I didn’t miss it.

I spent the fall on a 4-month retreat at a Buddhist institute in Berkeley. We did a lot during that retreat — meditating, Tibetan yoga, group discussions, work practice — but music wasn’t an integral part. The closest we came was our daily chanting and one workshop on mindful listening.

I wouldn’t actually notice the lack of music until I came back into the real world for visits each Sunday. Then, when a song came on, I would really hear it. I’d often find myself dancing or singing along to it. My body and mind found it such an entertaining novelty.

There were after-effects, though. Song lyrics would stick in my head and stay for days, pulsing through my head as soon as I woke up. My mind would try to understand the lyrics, to figure out what they meant for my life and how their values should be applied. I didn’t mind that for a few songs where the lyrics cohered with the rest of my life, but for many pop songs, that was very much not the case. Pop song lyrics are based on romantic fantasies, oversimplified idealized worlds that rarely exist. It doesn’t serve my mind well to hold my own life up to the expectations of pop song worlds.

I became more careful about what songs I exposed my mind to. When my partner made playlists for our housework, I asked him to prefer songs without lyrics. If I got cravings to dance, I put on beautiful instrumental music or simply danced without music.

Now that the retreat is over, songs are actually a big part of my life — but they are songs that I am singing to myself. They’re either made up songs, like lyrics about hungry cats set to the Muppets Blue Danube, or they’re songs from my childhood, like the entire Lion King soundtrack.

As it turns out, my mind already has enough songs to keep it entertained for this lifetime. I am certainly open to hearing new songs, but I will no longer go through effort to go out and find them.

If you’re curious about how music affects your mind, try spending two weeks without any or just two weeks with non-lyrical musical. Notice how your mind feels, and notice how it feels when you bring it back into your life.

Regardless of how your mind responds, it is an interesting experiment to try and you will learn something about your mind and music.

Enjoy the silence! :)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Avoiding concept overload on the BART

Lately I’m very interested in how I can reduce the number of “concepts” my mind encounters each day, particularly nonessential, value-laden concepts. My interest started when we were challenged to spend two weeks of a Buddhist retreat in “non-conceptual silence.” I enjoyed the effect of that on my mind so much that I continued the challenge in my post-retreat life.

I find that the BART commute is particularly challenging, as it involves walking past many billboards and advertisements, plus it’s a tempting time to use my phone to wander mindlessly around the internets, bumping into concepts at every turn.

You see, when my mind latches onto concepts, it can swirl around them for hours, even (and especially) those it can’t do anything about. For example, there’s a series of ads at Powell Station that make fun of “dreamers” in order to elevate “doers,” in the name of promoting a freelancing startup. When I see those ads, my mind goes into a critical mode of deciding if I agree with the value judgments of the ads, weighing arguments on both sides. My mind then remains judgmental for a time after that, leaking that state of mind into unrelated social interactions and work discussions.

I have seen how much my critical state of mind is correlated with negative judgments of myself and others, so I aim to avoid entering that state of mind unless I am in an actionable situation. One way I can do that is by steering my life to detour around all the nonessential, value-laden concepts.

Thus, I present my strategy for enjoying the BART with minimal concepts.

Walk with wide angle vision

We were taught wide angle vision multiple times during the retreat, and it is still one of my favorite tools. Basically, we have two kinds of vision: acute vision and wide angle vision. In acute vision, our eyes focus on a point, then focus on the next point, etc. In wide angle vision, our eyes aren’t focused on a particular point and see more on the periphery.

You can get your eyes into wide angle vision by raising your hands up in front of you, then moving them to each side while watching both of them with both your eyes. Your vision will have to become wide angle to be able to see both at once.

Then practice walking around like that and notice how it feels. When I use wide angle vision outside, I actually notice that the trees bounce in my vision in a different way than before — that’s how I know that I’ve properly employed wide angle vision.

What does this matter? Interestingly, when my eyes are in wide angle, it seems to bring my mind into wide angle as well. Before, my eyes would jump to things in the scenery- an aggravating sign, a decrepit building, and my mind would circle around those things, trying to figure out how to fix them. In the Mission neighborhood, there’s a lot that could use cleaning and fixing, and it’s hard to convince my mind that it can’t do it all itself. In wide angle, my mind sees the big picture. It doesn’t mean that I’m oblivious to what’s in my scenery, but it does mean that I don’t fixate.

Journey to the land of no billboards

When I’m waiting for the BART, there are usually ads opposite the platform, big billboards with screaming fonts. I discovered that BART doesn’t install advertisements at the ends of the tunnel, where the final cars open their doors. Now I always walk to the ends (as long as I’m catching a long enough train) so that I can enjoy staring at the texture of the wall instead. ☺

Catch the breeze of incoming trains

I adore the feeling of wind against my face, like when biking down a hill. Did you know that you can get that for free at BART stations? When a train is about to come in, just position yourself near the tunnel entrance they’ll emerge from, and then face that entrance. Enjoy the whoosh!

Play the consonant game with posters

A voice coach once taught me this technique for improving articulation: go through a piece of text and clearly pronounce only the consonants in each word, then go through the text and speak it normally. I practiced it during BART rides to my voice lessons and discovered that I really enjoy doing it.

Now I do it on the BART when I find myself standing in front of the emergency instructions posters. They have such a delightful array of consonants, and so far, nobody’s called me out for my strange mouthing in front of them! ☺

Meditate the minutes away

When I’m on the verge of busting out my phone or getting lost in thoughts, I meditate instead (on my good days). I do Tibetan-style meditation with half-open eyes, which is convenient for keeping track of BART stops and admiring the texture of BART seat cushions. ☺ I typically count breaths, up to 21. I may also count cycles of counting breaths, so that I can challenge myself to do 7 cycles of 21. If I have my prayer beads with me, then I also have the option to do a cycle of chanting.

What do you do?

Let me know if you try any of these out or if you have any techniques you’d like to share for enjoying your train ride.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Drying out my thought loops

They say that 90% of our thoughts are repetitive. Actually, I don’t know who “they” is, but I say that 90% of my thoughts are repetitive.

The first time I have a thought, it may be quite nice. It might be a new idea or a pleasant feeling of gratitude. It can also be not so nice, like regret over the way I’ve worded something or dread of some upcoming event.

Both of those kind of thoughts repeat, the pleasant and the unpleasant. For me, the idea thoughts are the most persistent. My brain simply adores figuring things out, and when there’s a new idea that’s not completely fleshed out, it desperately wants to fill in all the details. It will even write the code for a program in my head. And when there’s some aspect it can’t figure out, like for something beyond my current skills, it will go at it even harder. For days, weeks, months.

At first, the idea thoughts are pleasant. But as my brain hammers on them, they become tiring. Why won’t my mind let go of them?? I often imagine taking a (metaphorical) drill to my head and just emptying them out. I even painted that one day:

painting of drill to head

It’s hard for my brain to convince my brain not to figure things out. It’s been doing it for 30+ years now, it’s gotten quite good at it, and the skill has gotten it many places. In the competition to be the best neurons in my brain, the figure-it-out neurons have been winning for a long time.

But now I’m on to them. Now I’ve seen that they’ve taken control of my brain, and that they simply have too much control. I’ve got a plan. I’m drying them out. I can’t prevent the thoughts from starting up in my head, but I can prevent them from going on for many minutes. I can interrupt their flow.

My technique of choice: continuous chanting. It’s been a few months since I graduated from a 4 month Human Development Training retreat, and I’ve been chanting ever since, every day, all day, for as long as my roommates can take it. Sometimes that chanting turns into singing silly songs to myself; sometimes it turns into nonsense poetry. But the technique works just the same. You see, during that retreat, I discovered that my mind has multiple tracks. Even during continuous chanting, my mind can keep thoughts going on another track. But at least with chanting, those thoughts can’t go as far, since they don’t have as much time/space as before. There’s also increased awareness of how far they’ve gone, likely due to the cognitive overhead involved in keeping them going. Here, a technical diagram:

Some thought loops are very strong, trying to scream louder than the chant track. When that happens, it’s sometimes because a thought actually needs to be processed. I start with the most lightweight processing I can do, scribbling it on a piece of paper. If the thought still screams because it doesn’t think the paper’s good enough, I can write it down digitally. If it’s still persisting after that, then I talk over the thought with a friend. That’s often the first recourse in our society, but for me, it’s the last recourse, because talking things over can solidify thoughts more than necessary and it involves putting thoughts into other people’s heads, too.

There are other thought loops that don’t need processing; they just need a BIG interruption. These are my top 3 favorite ways of clearing my mind:

  • The Ursonate: A rhythmic nonsense poem. You can watch my favorite verse progression, or read my post about learning it.
  • Manjushri chant: A Tibetan mantra which can be chanted with an increasing tempo until it gets so fast that no thoughts can squeeze in. Usually a teacher leads it, but I also made a little web version for myself.
  • Kum Nye: A form of Tibetan Yoga with slow poses. Some of the poses bring up such intense bodily feelings that they clear my mind as well. You can learn Kum Nye from Nyingma Institute or a book.

To properly use my chant-the-thoughts-away techniques, I’ve found that I also need to avoid incompatible activities. Mostly, that means avoiding listening to music or watching concerts. I’ve found that I can’t chant while listening to someone else’s audio track, but I can still think (A LOT). Therefore, no music listening for me. That’s okay, I make my own!

Now you might be wondering: is it working? Are my thoughts drying out? Yes and no. I’m noticing much less unnecessary negative thoughts, like judgments about other people or about myself. I do still have many brainstorming thoughts, but they’re not as all-consuming as before.

I’ve noticed it’s particularly important that I employ these techniques after a happening, event or conversation. In the past, I’d often get in loops of rehashing and regret, which would turn an experience negative. Now, the experience is what it is, without one aspect of it being multiplied by my mind. It’s also important to dry thoughts out while I’m working on something I find difficult, as negative self-judgments can also easily multiply and get in the way of progress. It’s all about not letting the mind make a thought bigger than it needs to be, if it needs to be there at all.

My techniques are obviously very much inspired by having spent months on a Tibetan Buddhist retreat and experimenting with everything we learned there. But your mileage may vary. Also, your mind may work completely different from mine. Or you may not have any need for these techniques. Who knows? I do not know your mind. But I know mine much better now, and I’m going to try my best to retrain it.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Learning the Ursonate: the mind-clearing benefits of non-conceptual sound poetry

In the last two weeks of a 4-month Tibetan Buddhist retreat, we were instructed to engage in “non-conceptual silence.”

I already knew how to engage in silence, as I had worn my “In Silence” badge many times earlier in the retreat. Non-conceptual silence was new to me. It meant no reading of the many Buddhist books I’d amassed or even my Kurt Vonnegut short stories collection. It meant no dance parties to pop songs. Literature and lyrics are chock full of concepts, and the challenge was to avoid engaging the mind in concepts unless absolutely necessary.

I still wanted a way to spend my breaks, some way to engage my mind. That’s when I remembered a 3-minute long animation called Primiti Too Taa, which illustrates a “sound poem” of made-up syllables. That animation had stuck with me since first watching it in college; I’d find myself looking it up once a year to watch again or share with a friend. There was something about the rhythmic nonsense sounds that resonated with me.

This time after re-watching the animation, I researched its source. The original poem is The Ursonate by German Dadist artist Kurt Schwitters, and it is an entire hour of made-up syllables spoken with rhythmic intonation.

And thus, I spent my breaks reciting that poem in my room. I listened to mp3 recordings while I followed along with a PDF of the text.

I loved how it engaged my mind fully while not miring it in concepts and judgments of how things are or should be in the world. I found myself reciting my favorite verses while doing other activities, and that allowed my body to enjoy those activities more. My mind is one that likes to fill itself with thoughts, and as those thoughts tend toward the critical/anxious side, they can take away from my bodily enjoyment of activities. By engaging it with the Ursonate, I make it harder for the negative thoughts to pop up.

Because I benefited so much from the Ursonate, I want to make it easier for other people to recite it. Using a text-audio sync-up tool, I’ve made video recordings of the entire Ursonate with each line bolded as Kurt recites it, and uploaded them to Youtube. You can watch the entire Ursonate, the 4 parts separately, or if you're short on time, my favorite progression of verses.

If you try it out, do let me know how it works for you. Everyone’s mind is different, and I’m curious if there are other minds out there that benefit from sound poetry.
(And hey, maybe one day, we’ll all get together and recite the Ursonate together in a room. Mind-clearing, engage!)

Monday, March 6, 2017

My Nightly Gratitude Journal

It can be hard to keep up any practice, especially at night when willpower is at an all-time low and the body wants to rest. I have found that when a practice is powerful enough, however, my mind and body can find a way.

I have now been keeping up a nightly gratitude journaling practice for more than 3 months — and I intend to continue it.

I first started the practice during Thanksgiving last year, after a seasonally themed gratitude class by Erika Rosenberg at the Nyingma Institute. Erika mentioned various studies where people’s positivity and general health increased while gratitude journaling, and recommended we try it ourselves. I’m a sucker for science-backed positivity boosts and for doing the extra credit in class, so I immediately started my own journal. I was also in the midst of a 4 month Buddhist retreat, so I had ample mental space to start practices and study their effects.

For my gratitude journal, I decided to focus on feeling grateful towards people rather than things, because I was also working on my tendency to negatively judge others. I figured that I could counter the negative judgments conjured up by my mind by purposefully conjuring up positive judgments as well. Anecdotally, it works!

Now, every night, I write “Today I’m grateful for”, number my lines 1–10, and in each spot I write “person X for doing action Y”. Admittedly, 10 is a high number for a gratitude journal, but I like forcing myself to dig deep to think of 10 interactions each day. And if it’s been a solitary day, I can always thank my cats for being playful. :)

To encourage friends and family to start a gratitude practice, I made them journals for Christmas by pasting the instructions below (PNG, PSD) on the inside cover of little notebooks.

As with any practice, I encourage you to experiment with the format and see what is most effective for you. I wish you well on your journey.

Instructions for gratitude journal

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Operation Calm the Mind Down

A year ago I found myself wide awake at 5AM after a New Years party with my friends. I was still awake because my mind would not let my body go to sleep — it was convinced that things-were-not-OK and needed fixing, despite my friends all sleeping peacefully around me and the birds chirping outside.

Desperate to get to sleep, I researched insomnia and paranoia on the internet. I discovered a webpage about Generalized Anxiety Disorder and I read it with fascination — it described my mind to the tee, including the kind of physical activities I enjoyed (rock climbing, martial arts). I followed a 10-minute calming technique from that site called Progressive Relaxation, and I was soon asleep.

That’s when I truly realized that I was an anxious individual. Sure, I’d identified as “stressed out” or “worrywart” in the past, but I figured everyone would be in those situations. But when I could see my anxiety so large next to the calmness of those around me, I realized that my anxiety was something my mind was intent on having, despite it being unneeded.

For the past year, I’ve been studying my mind in detail — trying to understand all of its mental states, to see what techniques can change its mental state, and ultimately, to be able to avoid ever sinking into such a deep pit of anxiety again. 

This post is an overview of what I’ve tried, and how it’s worked for me. I am not a psychologist or a scientist. I encourage everyone to investigate their mind for themselves, and I hope my quest can give you ideas.

Getting Away From It All

Just after that New Years party, my partner and I spent a winter in the woods. We had already planned the trip, with the goal of seeing how different the world and our selves could be. We learned a lot, but as I detailed in my post on the trip, I found out that my mind could even become anxious during walks along the beach. It was at that point that I actually started an “Operation Calm the Mind Down” spreadsheet — I was determined to figure out my anxiety once and for all, gosh darn it. 

Compassion Meditation

When we got back to SF, I immediately signed up for the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training course, an 8-week class inspired by Buddhist teachings on compassion for yourself and others. Our only homework was to meditate each day, using a different meditation mp3 each week. At first, I was only meditating every few days, as it felt like a chore that wasn’t producing anything for me. 
But then our third week was a self-compassion meditation, and whoah, I could see the effect of those sessions! From then on, I meditated nearly every day. Somehow, the self-compassion script could kick me out of my fast-paced analytical mind into a slower nurturing mind, and affected my approach to the world that day. I didn’t suddenly walk around as a Zen monk, but I could feel my edges soften.

I’ve recorded a version of that self-compassion meditation here, if you’d like to try it for yourself. I also recommend reading Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance and Thupten Jinpa’s Fearless Heart for more on compassion.

Of course, that meditation may not do the same for you. That’s why I encourage would-be meditators to explore the hundreds of meditation scripts and styles out there. Find out if there’s one that’s Just Right™.

Flotation Tank

A flotation tank, or sensory deprivation tank, is a coffin-like structure with gallons of heavy salt water inside it. Once you go inside, you turn the lights off and float for an hour or two. They are now popular enough that you can find them in cities, like Reboot in SF.

As it turns out, I adore being inside a flotation tank (and my fear of the dark doesn’t follow me in!). I often feel significantly calmer after — and I can see the proof of that in how okay I am with simply wandering around the nearby parks and not rushing off to get back home. 

If I had infinite time and money, I might start every day off with a flotation tank session. However, I don’t, so I only go every few weeks or when I feel a particular need for it.

If you’ve never tried it and you have the resources to make it happen, try it out and see what effect it has on you. And then perhaps in the great big beautiful tomorrow, startup offices will all have built-in flotation tanks. :) 


I’ve always been a very Western medicine kind of girl. But, in the quest to calm the mind, I didn’t want to leave any stones unturned. Especially stones that are down the street and oft-recommended.

So I went to SF Community Acupuncture and asked for treatment focused on anxiety. While I sat there with the needles in, I did various breathing meditations like counting to 10 and feeling the heart. (If I didn’t, then my thoughts would wander, and they’d likely wander into anxious territory… can’t have that!) I enjoyed the session and felt more relaxed after.

For me, acupuncture didn’t have as much of an effect as the flotation tank and has a similar price point, so I opted not to go back for a second session.

Kirtan (Chanting)

Kirtan is a style of call-and-response chanting from the Hindu tradition. As it’s done here, it’s often a circle of people with a few drums and shakers, and they’ll all follow a chant leader. The chanting is melodic and changes tempo, getting faster and slower.

A friend suggested it to me, and I checked it out one morning at Laughing Lotus SF. When we first started chanting, I found myself distracted by worries about getting the words right. But then, the chanting got so fast that my mind didn’t have a space to worry, and poof, the worries were gone! I felt amazing afterward, almost high — and I found myself being sociable with strangers, a sure sign of an improved mental state.

From then on, I became a regular at each Tuesday/Thursday kirtan session, and I eagerly looked forward to the moments that the chanting would go so fast that it’d kick my anxious thoughts out. (So, yes, I do tend to get a bit anxious waiting for that moment… funny mind!)

Biofeedback Therapy

At this point, I had discovered various techniques to semi-reliably transform my mental state for a few hours up to a day. But I didn’t want to be dependent on flotation tanks and kirtan groups. I wanted a more permanent mental change.

It was time to bring in the big guns: therapy… biofeedback therapy! I had heard of it once, found one doctor locally who did it, and decided to try one session. First we talked like regular old therapist-client, so he could find out my concerns and goals. 

Then, the fun part: he stuck electrodes on my head. The electrodes monitored my brain waves, which got displayed on a screen in front of me, divided into moving graphs of Alpha, Beta, and Theta waves. The waves were then turned into sound — something like an ocean/organ remix — which I listened to with headphones. Then I would hear beeps whenever my Beta and Theta waves went above a certain level. The Alpha waves are more associated with calmness, and Beta more with thoughts, so our goal was for me to be able to raise my Alpha and lower my Beta. For around 30 minutes, I sat there with my eyes closed, listening to the sound of my brain, and noticing the beeps when my brain went higher into thought-y territory. (I’m not a neuroscientist, apologies for inaccuracies/oversimplifications here.)

After that first session, I felt calm, more able to take my time with things. I decided to go for another 12 sessions to see what my mind would learn from the Alpha wave training. It was a mind-opening experience which I could write much more about, but here were my main take-aways:
  1. I often experienced a nice after-glow from the sessions — similar to the effect of the flotation tank. That after-calmness could last the whole day, or just a few minutes, depending on the happenings of the day.
  2. I started experiencing moments of “no thought”, where my mind would blank while walking around. I had only a few of those moments, but they were lovely enough that they stuck with me.
  3. Most importantly: I identified less with my emotions than before. Since I now had the experience of actually watching my mind, I could more easily step back in real life situations and observe my mind as a non-judgmental casual observer. That allowed me to let go of my mind’s reactions more easily.
Anxiety Tracking

Once I started the biofeedback therapy, I started tracking my mental state even more rigorously. I wanted to be able to report to the therapist how the week actually went, and not just base it on the last hour of data. I experimented with various trackers focused on mental health, but then I simply downloaded Grid Diary and I set up a square each day for “When was I anxious today?” and “When was I calm today?”.

That tracking helped me become much more aware of my own triggers and motivated me to address nagging issues that were burdening my mind. 

Tibetan Buddhist Retreat

During the last few weeks of my biofeedback therapy, I started reading a Buddhist-inspired e-book, Meaningness. Buddhism has many teachings on non-reactivity and on realizing the nebulosity of the self, and those teachings complemented my biofeedback realizations beautifully. Those teachings gave me even more permission to let go of my attachment to my self and to my anxiety.

I saw how my mind was helped by the Buddhist-inspired self-compassion meditation and I wanted to know if going further into Buddhism would help me even more. 

So, like a good investigator girl, I went into Buddhism for 4 months. 

Specifically, I spent my fall at the Nyingma Institute of Tibetan Buddhism in a program called the Human Development Training retreat. We’d spend each day in sessions of Tibetan-style meditations, Kum Nye (Tibetan Yoga), and inquiries into the nature of self. We also had “work practice” each day, where we’d do house chores while observing our mind. 

It was an incredible experience, and I hope to write so much about it in the future. But for now, what I will say is that:
  1. I came to realize how my anxiety often manifests as excited planning, and to truly recognize the negative consequences of such a seemingly positive mental state.
  2. I now have a giant toolbox of techniques that I can use to calm my mind, and they are all techniques that require only my mind and body to execute — such as different mantras that can balance my mind and meditations to transform negative emotions.
  3. I believe my mind is more permanently changed now. I wake up feeling much calmer now, before I even employ any of those techniques. I can take on difficult situations that used to scare me. But I know that the mind is prone to falling back into its habits of self, so I am currently going through life at a very slow pace.
My mind has spent 3 decades learning how to be anxious — it’s very good at it. So I will continue this journey with a vigilant yet delicate watch.

May you all fare well on your own journeys into the mind.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Project IceBreak: Let’s make networking easier

I’ve attended over 100 tech conferences —  and spoken at most of them.

And yet, despite my many hours of practice surrounding myself with seas of strangers, I've often found myself hiding during the “social” times of many of those conferences. I hide in the bathroom during the networking hour, I hide in the bushes to eat my lunch, I hide in the hotel to avoid the after-parties. I even illustrated that in my "No, Really, I'm Shy" Ignite talk:

I love speaking to crowds, but as soon as I find myself actually in the crowd, faced with the threat of casual conversation, I get nervous. I worry about who to approach, what to say to them, and how to stop talking to them eventually.

I think its due to my social anxiety that I put extra effort into the social aspects of the events that I organize--because I don’t want to put others in the same situations that I dread. I am now actively working to be less socially anxious, but in the meantime, I want socializing to be easier for everyone.

That’s why I’ve put together a website called Project IceBreak. It’s a collection of tips for attendees and ideas for organizers that I’ve been blogging over the years, plus an Etsy store with a few supplies.

The website has sections both for attendees and organizers, but the meat of it is about what you can do as an organizing- because there are a lot of ways you can give your attendees more ways to connect. That might sound intimidating, but here’s the thing: sometimes it takes just one tweak to an event to make it easier to meet people. For example, every speaker can start off their talk with “Now introduce yourself to the person next to you and tell them one thing you learned today.” That’s already one new guaranteed connection per talk for all your attendees!

So please, share this site with any event organizers that you know. Networking can — and should — be easier. Thank you!