“The way to value life, the way to feel compassion for others, the way to love anything with greatest depth is to be aware that these experiences are destined to be lost” — Yalom, 2008
It has been three months since I returned from the Bay Area. In some ways, it still feels surreal, to be back to a place that used to be so familiar to me; a place I call home, where nothing has really changed (more or less), yet feel that nothing is the same. The past year in the Bay Area has been an awakening journey for me, by far, the best experience I’ve had in my life. I won’t say that I feel like a new person, because that would not be entirely true. My background, my past, my context, and all those things that made me the person I was a year ago, are still deeply ingrained within me. Yet, I know that I am different. And life is no longer the same.
The experience was bittersweet—the joy of returning home to my life, my loved ones, and close friends, comingled with the sadness of having to leave behind the new life I have built over the past one year in the Bay Area. It took me a while to realize it, not until a fellow traveller (Mark Yang) pointed it out to me—that I was grieving, in my own way.
A part of me wished that I could have stayed, not so much for the life in the Bay Area (although I do love it), but for the new self I had created (and was still creating). As absurd as it may sound, I somehow felt that leaving the Bay Area also meant I was leaving behind my newfound way of being and all the meaningful encounters I have experienced. It was losing that part of my being that I was grieving for.
So, again I found myself experiencing the struggle of being pulled between two ends, of being here vs. being there. I was reminded of that same feeling I had a year ago, of making a trade-off (somewhat), and paying the price for the choice I made. For in choosing one, I am relinquishing the other. What would happen to “me” once I return to my old life? Will everything return to how it once was?
The Urge to Return
It is indeed tempting, and easy to revert to my old ways of being now that I am back in the same environment that I have been so accustomed to. The noises from the world surrounding me stirred up the noises within me, and challenged my ability to be present with myself and with others. So I could fully appreciate the urge for one to want to fall back into old, comfortable ways of being, even if it means regressing.
Since returning home, I’ve been blessed with opportunities to advance my career in ways that I have envisioned for myself. I could sense my excitement over what life as E-H-therapist-to-be has in store for me. Even though part of me wants to jump with joy and count my lucky stars that life is turning out exactly how I wish, I couldn’t help but feel the tension of wanting to crawl back into my comfort zone, and be contented with the simple life I had. As much as I want to take on those challenges to pursue what I want professionally, something within me was also pulling me back—that all-too-familiar sense of fear of not knowing how things would turn out. What if I fail miserably? What if I am not good at it? If I just continue life as it was before, I know how things would turn out. And it is easy; it is predictable; it is comfortable. If I can quiet down the voice inside that is asking for more, maybe I could be happy and contented. At the same time, the anxiety of figuring out “what’s next?” now that one phase has ended (having completed my Certification course), of not wasting what I’ve learned, and the experience by not doing anything useful or significant, was pulling me towards the other end of the spectrum.
I could also feel the tussle between wanting to relate to those around me in my newfound way vs. the way I was used to. I crave for connections with those who have been awakened, yet struggle to not judge those who’ve not (or perhaps chosen not to). I could easily put the blame on people here being less open, less patient, or less warm (as compared to those I encountered in the Bay Area), as an excuse to go back to conforming to the majority.
At the same time, despite being happy in the close relationships (new and renewed) that I now have in my life, I am also consciously aware of the fear of losing myself—the struggle between “being a-part-of yet also apart-from.” And if I allowed myself to, I could easily succumb to my default ways of isolating myself and not letting others into my life, for the sake of protection. Similarly, I could just as easily return to my previous mode of “doing” in therapy, and not risk being triggered by my clients through offering authentic relationships and presence.
Yes, I must admit that I did experience the urge to choose the presumably easier and familiar ways of being. But over the past few months, I have come to accept something I knew, but did not fully embrace—that “once one is awakened, it is hard to willingly and knowingly choose to return to sleep.” No doubt, every day involves a conscious effort, a conscious choice I must make in how I choose to be. But the difference is, now I am consciously aware of what it is like to move along the continuum of being and to experience the conflicting feelings associated on both ends.
While anxiety is still very much a part of my everyday life, I am no longer a slave to it. Likewise, I no longer discard those anxious feelings and thoughts immediately as irrational or dysfunctional part of my being. What makes all the difference now for me is my ability to be present with myself moment to moment and to pause. It is also the understanding that those inner voices struggling within me have their place and purpose, and allowing them the space to be heard without judgement. Through that, I can find my way to make peace with them and choose how to be.
Nonetheless, the struggle is continuous. In fact, the experience of putting my story out there itself was a testament to that struggle. While a part of me wished to share my journey with others, the other part of me was worried about the judgment of others. Even the process of receiving feedback about my piece stirred up many different reactions within me. But I was reminded again that it is my ability to now take time to pause in that process that makes all the difference. Yes, indeed, the “work” (on our being) never ends, as long as you leave your doors open to experience the awe of life and its givens.
It may sound cliché for me to say that I’ve learned to live in the moment. But it carries a very different meaning for me. Living in the moment does not mean I do not consider the future, or disregard the consequences of choices I make now. It does not mean that I just take life as it comes, and not worry about what tomorrow may bring. Instead, for me, it is about being present with my sense of being in life, from moment to moment. I am also learning to appreciate the conflict between striving for individuation and expansion, and the feeling of anxiety and isolation that comes along with it. And every day, I am learning to find new ways to relate to my newfound self in an old environment, and to others and the world around me. And while I am continuously working on this on my own, I no longer feel alone for I know I have the company and support of those who are guiding me and loving me along the journey.
From feeling small and inadequate on the first day of the E-H experiential session to being the first to be awarded the Certificate, and now writing about my experience on this blog—it feels like a dream, which came true, ironically, by being awakened. Looking back, a little more than two years ago, when I stumbled upon the New Existentialists, I was inspired by the writings and told myself that one day I hope to meet and learn from some of these existentialists. Over the last one year, I’ve not only met them, studied under them, did my “work” with them, and became friends with them, but today, I have my name placed alongside them here. I have been truly blessed indeed—blessed to have the chance to be awakened, and to experience life to its fullest.
Indeed, as Yalom puts it, death anxiety frees us rather than paralyzes us. It has helped me truly appreciate that everything in life is destined to be lost, and awakened me to take full responsibility of how I want each moment of my life to be. And that ultimately gives me the courage and freedom to be. I wish that you can experience the same, in your own ways…
Sleep my little baby-oh
Sleep until you waken
When you wake you’ll see the world
If I’m not mistaken…
Kiss a lover
Dance a measure
Find your name
And buried treasure…
Face your life
Leave no path untaken.
— Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
~~ The End ~~
Yalom, I. (2008). Staring at the sun: overcoming the terror of death. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
— JoAnn Loo
Today’s guest contributor, JoAnn Loo, is a therapist-in-training from Malaysia. Inspired by the great existentialist psychologists including Yalom, Bugental, and May, she came to the U.S. a year ago to learn the workings of existential therapy through the Existential-Humanistic Institute in San Francisco, CA, and has been consciously practicing her new-found way of being ever since.