Beneath the masks

I remember once reading a quote that went along the lines of “It is impossible for a man to constantly wear a mask in the presence of others without forgetting who he is beneath it.”

This is not a particularly revolutionary post, but I wanted to write it anyway. I think that so many people wear masks in each other’s companies, most of them without realising it. So many people move through the world with these masks on, keeping everyone at arm’s lengths and interacting only as much as necessary to function smoothly. When we are by ourselves or with our closest companions we dare to show a little (but not often all) of who we are beneath the masks.

And that’s really sad. Being fully present and having a meaningful connection, eye-to-eye, soul-to-soul, with another living creature is valuable beyond measure. Yet we’re scared to. We’re scared of being judged for who we really are. And that makes us insecure, defensive, withdrawn.

Yet if we were to all take off our masks together, we might find something magical happen. When all of us are being ourselves, none of us are willing to judge one another because we see the likeness reflected in others. We see how similar people are, in spite of our minute differences, and we cannot hate them, cannot be scared of them, because they are us and we are them.

When I was on Kairos, we were given a card with a prayer on it. It’s on the wall of my bedroom (though my eyes pass over it without reading it anymore), and it discusses what a friend really is. It describes a friend as “A person with whom you can be yourself”, and never have I found a more perfect definition.

If only more of us were willing to take off our masks and see each other honestly, with vulnerability and genuineness, we might find there was nothing to fear after all.

I still hope that somewhere out there is a job that will accept me for who I am.

All the best my friends.

-Xin

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At my worst

When I’m at my best, I am truly amazing. I am loving and generous and joyful and resilient and beautiful and strong and hopeful and kind and patient and so forth. I have many excellent qualities which I love about myself, and I hope it is not arrogant of me to declare them publicly. I am an amazing human being, a wonderful person who inspires others and changes things around me in a way that create more joy, love, kindness, acceptance and hope. At least, this seems to be the case a lot of the time.

But when I’m at my worst… The slightest challenge can overwhelm me. I struggle to care about anyone other than myself. I can scarecely muster the strength to look someone in the eyes, and if I attempt a smile (as I did on a walk a few minutes ago) it is a piteous twitching of the lips without any real kindness behind it. I worry intensely about how other people see me for fear that they will hurt me, turn on me or cut off support for me. And all of this leads into the vicious cycle of being stuck up my own arse (a phrase which I find peculiarly beautiful). That is to say, I focus on my problems and thus amplify their importance in my life, and they become bigger and harder to overcome/let go of, and I am crushed beneath their weight. I cannot relax. I cannot see the point in living (though I can certainly see the harm my death would cause others). I feel like nothing ultimately matters and that maybe it would be easier to not be alive.

I am, as Rog and Naomi might say, “right in the thick of it” at the moment. This is a temporary state of mind which I find difficult to escape sometimes. My old fears and thoughts and habits wash over me like tidal waves and I cannot imagine a future that is positive and bright. But I can sustain the hope that “If I just continue to live… If I just continue to let time pass… If I just continue to make an effort to be happy, and if possible to be kind and care about others, these feelings will pass.”

To this end, I write my lines. I used to think “If I write these affirmations, I will feel better. That is our deal. I will write, you (whoever you are) will make me feel better.” But I have since realised this kind of thinking is disempowering, unhelpful and essentially unrealistic. I now think “Okay. It seems that I am feeling a bit shit at the moment. I make the choice now to write my lines. Not because I will necessarily feel better, though I hope that is the case, but because I choose to make a stand in time. To say in the face of my old stuff ‘Hey, you suck. I don’t want you to be important to me anymore. I choose a different way of living, of responding, of being.'” And that thought, that action, makes all the difference, regardless of the outcome.

I wanted to write this blog to give others an idea of what I’m like on my bad days. I guess I wanted to share my feelings in a moment of struggle, though I’m finding it hard to see the point in why I bother sharing at all. But I also, I guess, wanted to spread the message of hope. That even though life can kick you in the teeth and suck really, really hard, it doesn’t mean things won’t change. And if people know that I believe it, maybe they’ll believe it too.

Peace everyone. Hopefully this is just a very short phase and I’ll be feeling amazing again in a few minutes/hours/days.

Love,

Xin

Fitting in, being normal, and finding my people

My last day of my social work student placement was exactly one week ago, and just before I left, one of the social workers took me aside to give me some advice for my future work. It may help to know that I love this person, and I find her sweet, disorganised and perhaps a little cooky. But she works hard, and she does her work well, and my respect for her has grown over the past few months.

The essence of what she said to me was this: “I’m quite quirky person, and I think I would be right in also saying that you’re quirky as well. You do things spontaneously which I find wonderful, but not everyone sees it that way. Like for example when you asked that geriatrician if he used his stethoscope, everyone laughed but not everyone was laughing with you. While I found it funny, some people would have thought it was weird and treated you with distrust. And sometimes you really need people to trust you; to believe that you’re responsible, and to be willing to work with you. I advise you to think about things before you say them, to censor them in your head like radio stations do (they have a five-to-ten second delay so they can delete anything that goes wrong), and to really think about how far within the range of normality something is before you say it. And when you get a new job, I advise you to really try and act normal, and to work really hard, so that other people realise that they can trust you. And then when they trust you, you can start to open up and they’ll accept some of your quirky behaviours.”

I was so, so grateful that she took me aside to tell me that. But it rocked me to my very core. It challenged a long-standing belief that I had held as a way of protecting myself from experiences with bullying and being hurt by others. It was the belief that “What other people think of me does not matter. As long as I am happy, that’s all that really counts.”

In that one conversation I came to realise that what other people think of me really does make a difference to my life. Work is almost always a social activity – there are very few jobs that don’t require you to work as part of a team. And being held at arm’s length by your co-workers, treated with puzzlement, distrust and suspicion makes it very hard to do good work. Conversely winning them over with charm secures you a place in the organisation, allows you to make mistakes and be forgiven, or to do good work and be rewarded. But in order to do that on this placement I’ve had to put on a facade, and that’s been really hard for me. Instead of sitting outside and drinking tea, doing taiji, reading books and going for walks to clear my head during breaks, I’ve had to sit in the dining room and be social, or to use my phone or read a magazine. I had to fit into the work culture, and it frustrated and confused me. Why did I feel so much rejection when I started doing things differently within the system? Without going into an analysis of why, it certainly made me feel uncomfortable enough to put on a mask, to act a certain way in order to conform. And the thought that I have to do that for the rest of my working life is exhausting enough to make me want to collapse.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve come to love talking and being with people. I usually find them to be wonderful and miraculous and interesting company worthy of caring about more than my own problems. But I am still an introvert, and I need time by myself to recover my energy and heal. As someone recently said to me, “If [politicians] weren’t up for being scrutinised by the media 24/7, they shouldn’t have applied for the job. If it’s too hot, get out of the kitchen.” This line of thought has left my view of the future quite bleak, with very few kitchens that I would be willing to work in.

But I spoke to Roger and Naomi, and Bethwyn and Ivan. They all helped me to realise that not every organisation will require me to give up who I am, to put my metaphorical personality in a jar. That there are “my people” out there in the world, people I love and respect and accept for who they are, and those that do the same to me. And some of them might value who I am and what I have to offer enough to pay me to do something. After quite a confronting couple of days where I really had a good hard look at how important the views of others are, I’ve come to realise this:

If you don’t love me for who I am, well that’s just too damn bad. Yes I’ll do my bit to conform, I’ll keep the peace (because as social creatures, we all have to make little compromises in order to live in societies). But I will not fundamentally change a part of who I am, just to please you, just to serve your organisation’s ethics, or just because you’ve convinced me that I need the money more than I need my values. Who I am, what I am, everything that makes me unique is fantastic and worthwhile and utterly incredible. And when I find my niche, I’ll be the best damn me I can be, and that will make all the difference.

Love,

Xin

Gratitude

Please pardon the sloppiness of this post, but I am not functioning well. I might have mentioned some time previously (I’m not even linking to a previously written blog post. That’s how crazy tired I am) that I have low B12 and that I need 8+ hours of sleep etc. etc. so I’m not really able to function well. But this blog post is important enough to write, even in my incoherent state of mind. Oh, I think I remembered the blog I wrote…

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about “the most important feeling in life”. Happiness and contentment are both admirable goals (or rather, sustained states of being), but they’re not always easy to access. When life punches you in the face, sometimes it’s hard to smile about it. I’ve recently recognised another worthy contender, which I believe is gratitude. You see, by my logic if you’re grateful for something (really, heartfeltly grateful), it’s much harder to focus on the negatives. Note that “negatives” aren’t inherently bad things, it’s just the focusing and obsessing on them that becomes problematic. This manifests as complaining, usually about things that really don’t matter in the slightest.

I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say that I complain a lot. Most of my “problems” are so insignificant they’re not even worth treating as problems. Maybe inconveniences at best (A ha! A link to zenpencils.com. It seems I am returning to form). Honestly, I think the problem is that life is too easy, that we are too comfortable, and so I obsess over the pain of stubbing my toe because I have forgotten to compare it to the pain of seeing my own bones. It’s kind of like how people discriminate against minor things like skin and hair and eyes and lifestyle because they’re so comfortable with their own routine that anything that challenges them is treated as threatening.

Gratitude, then, is the antithesis to this tomfoolery. It is the deliberate choice (for all moments are full of such choices, whether we are aware of making them or not) to appreciate what we have rather than whinge about what we don’t have. And, my friends, we have a craptonne. That’s one of my more technical phrases to describe “a whole lot”. This lesson was surprisingly profound on gashuku when I had injured my knee halfway up a mountain, and limped the rest of the way up and all of the way down it. Despite the jarring pain every other step, the swearing and the crying out and the guilt of slowing everyone down, I did not complain (or at least, I did not focus too much on the pain, even though it was right with me in that present moment). Instead I felt a peculiar calmness, and an immense humbleness (if such a paradox makes sense). Despite the inconvenience and the immediacy of the pain, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude. “I’m so grateful that I have friends to keep me company on this mountain.” “I’m so grateful I have water in my bag to drink on a hot day.” “The view is so beautiful up here. I am privileged to witness it.”

I don’t know how or why I accessed that kind of gratitude in a challenging and painful part of my life, but it’s something I aspire to again. Today, right now, I make the choice not to focus on the petty things. I will not focus on how tired I am, but instead be truly grateful for a cup of mango green tea and a soft bed to lie in. I will choose to use this amazing gift of technology to talk to a friend in need, and to help improve the Young and Well’s research projects. I will be kind to my mother, and spend time in the sunshine, and I will try harder not to waste this precious gift of life which could be extinguished literally at any moment. It is a precious and fragile thing. I will try to remember what it is like to know you will die the next time you sleep.

I know it’s been done before, but please indulge me. Leave a comment below, or write it down in a notepad, or talk to someone about it. What sort of things are you grateful for today? Can you name five things right now, that are heartfelt and genuine? I’d love to hear about it if you can.

All the best.

Love,

Xin

 

EDIT: Turns out that the science behind gratitude confirms all of the above: it improves our wellbeing physically, emotionally, spiritually, in our relationships and in pretty much every aspect of life. Check out SuperBetter if you want to start practicing your own gratitude exercises (it’s in the Power Pack section where you can access the “Gratitude Quests”).

Playing around with capoeira

For those of you who have known me since high school, you might recall that I developed a massive obsession with Lateef Crowder. My best friend had just started learning capoeira and he was teaching me little bits and pieces without actually giving me lessons. I was a passionate but hopelessly un-technical amateur.

Tonight I went for my first ever class of capoeira. It was even more amazing than I hoped it would be. Monitor’s Lobo and Quebra took the class. Monitor is an equivalent of a low level black belt, and the rankings go all the way up to mestre. I’m finding it a little hard to wrap my tongue around the Portuguese, but I love the language. We went through some of the fundamental basics, and I really enjoyed learning the ginga, crescent and spinning reverse crescent kick, and the evasions (crouch, sweeping-step and cartwheel). I’m afraid the Portuguese names for the techniques are beyond me at the moment, but I’m excited to learn them some day. By the end of it, I was kind of getting into a rhythm which I was really pleased with, though I’m still a bit awkward and stilted at times. My one-handed cartwheels need a bit more work, and I can already feel soreness from the conditioning exercises we did. I’m quite fit in general, but capoeira requires a different kind of fitness, a kind of core strength and exuberance of energy to keep on moving when you might otherwise be tempted to slow down.

In the end though, the techniques and conditioning weren’t actually capoeira: they were just training for capoeira. The final part of the lesson had us all standing in the roda (circle) with the monitor playing a berimbau (a stringed bow instrument that you play by tapping it with a stick). We learned the words of a simple capoeira song, and then with some difficulty coordinating my claps in time with the music, we began the call and answer. I fear I blundered the lyrics horribly, but I gave it a decent shot. I’m not always a confident singer and I felt a little out of place at first – I was much more comfortable doing the kicks! – but by the end I was having so much fun I didn’t care.

ginga

The playing (for capoeiristas do not spar) itself was really great. I was a bit worried that I would lack fluidity, creativity and the instinctive knowledge of how to transition from one technique or evasion to the next. But for a beginner, I did pretty all right (I hope!). I definitely wasn’t in time to the music, but I had so much fun cartwheeling and spinning and kicking and moving that I was tremendously disappointed when it was time to stop. Previously I’ve questioned whether capoeira is a practical art for combat, but the Brazilians chose to use it to free themselves from the oppression of the Portuguese because they believed in its potency. Whether or not capoeira can be used for self-defence (or war, for that matter) is a discussion I am not yet qualified to have. But none of that is really important: at its simplest level, capoeira is really, really fun. I had a hell of a time, and I’m really looking forward to getting my body moving and my heart dancing again in the near future.

I think I’ll probably need to take a little more time off to rest my knee more thoroughly (it crunched a few times during class after injuring it on gashuku), but I’m stoked to go back again soon. If you’re free next Tuesnight, I strongly suggest you give it a try. I’m sure you won’t regret it.

-Xin

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Rambling update

Hello internet! It’s been a little while! I’ve been pretty busy lately I guess, working six days a week and spending my seventh training or with Bethwyn or running errands etc. But I guess that’s life, and most people do something very similar! I’m trying to be grateful that I don’t often need to cook or do laundry.

 

Life has been going quite well. I still feel anxiety most days, but I came to the recent realisation that I don’t need to keep focussing on the fact that my anxiety is still with me. If I focus instead on how much I’m looking forward to, and how much I enjoy work/whatever I’m doing, then I generally feel a lot better than on the days when I keep thinking about how my anxiety is still there. It’s simple, but makes a huge difference. Where a little while ago when people would ask me how I was, I’d usually answer that I was feeling a bit anxious but managing well. Now, I leave the anxiety part out, and I generally feel a lot better.

 

Placement has been going pretty well, too! One of my supervisors took two weeks off to enjoy a cruise. On the days when I’m normally with her, I’ve been assigned another social worker to keep an eye on me, but I’ve been somewhat left to my own devices. It’s made a pretty big difference not feeling like I have to act a certain way in order to please my supervisor in order to avoid failing placement. It’s given me the chance to grow a little, to do things my own way and to learn what works and what doesn’t. This is very different from “trying to do it the way my supervisor does it, because she likes me to do it that way”. I suppose it’s my own fault for being so timid and not wanting to go against the wishes of my supervisors, but the fear of failing placement is still strong within me. I trust that when I work as my own social worker, independently and freely learning what my own style of practice is, I will grow much faster and learn more about myself and others.

 

Speaking of which, I don’t really have a strong idea of what direction I want to take after placement ends (in just over one week’s time). Ideally I’d like to slip straight into hospital work so I can be paid for what I’ve already been doing. But because of the bureaucracy, I might not be able to get back in quite so quickly and possibly wait a few months until they need new workers. The sense of freedom that comes from having a degree is somewhat daunting – I have so many options now, and I don’t really know what I want to do with myself. For the moment I’d rather not return to academia – I’d like to learn more about the field I’m in before I start doing research. I’m vaguely considering doing something in mental health/recovery, but I’m honestly not too sure what’s out there. I guess that’s part of my adventure. Anyway, it will be awesome to earn a semi-decent wage in the near future. The money will hopefully enable me to go on and do many other awesome things, such as renting or buying a house and moving out with Bethwyn.

 

I recently started Mass Effect 3. It’s freaking awesome being Shepard again, though sadly my old character design was lost. In case you didn’t know, I get really, really into role playing games, and I’m loving making ethical choices as a super respected/strong Commander. I get to play one or two nights a week, which isn’t nearly enough by my standards but which is probably more than what most people who work full-time get.

 

Whenever I haven’t been playing Mass Effect I’ve been doing stuff with the Young and Well CRC or Tune In Not Out. I’ve written a few blog posts, written some articles for parents around the use of technology, done a few surveys on suicide and the likes. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunities I’ve had to shape research and help inform/educate young people, and I’m grateful to be a contributor to these two great organisations.

 

I haven’t been training as much as I’d like, but I’ve still been a bit addicted to bagua lately. I’ve finally got all eight palm changes with reasonable accuracy, and it’s such a pleasure to practice it. I’ve also kind of got the shisochin embu under my belt, but I’ve got a lot to work on.

 

I think I’ll stop this vague rambling update now. Drop me a message if we haven’t caught up in a little while! Take care everyone.

 

Love,

Xin