Eat your vegetables

I’ve never met a vegetable that I didn’t like, and I credit this to the magic of Vietnamese cuisine and my mother’s cooking.

She grew up in the cooking traditions of Huế, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. To accommodate royalty, its people had a fierce devotion to perfectionism, and you can see this conscious attention to quality in every part of its culture. When I think of food from Central Vietnam, I think of dishes that are focused on nuance and the details, with a particular gift for illuminating the flavor profile of vegetables. Take my mom’s bún bò Huế (Huế-style beef noodle soup) for example: you blanche a mixture of raw bean sprouts, mint, basil, banana flower in a steaming bowl of 12-hour lemongrass and beef broth. Vegetables were/are dank.

I remember reading books and watching Disney channel shows about American families, and was struck by how much other kids seemed to hate vegetables. Vegetables were a dramatic point of contention between kids and their parents, and I remember lying to my friends about hating broccoli to fit in.

All this to say, my relationship with what is good and healthy for my mind, body, and soul started off easy. And this became my experience with self-care: mostly easy. There was nothing a good run, a face mask, or treating myself couldn’t fix.

But sometimes, the things that are good for you can be difficult and unpleasant

I joined venture capital a few years ago, and I wish I could say it’s been smooth sailing. I feel like I’m continually battling the decision fatigue and emotional roller coaster of (1) making (many) sound decisions and (2) being thoughtful about how to best support and empower entrepreneurs. And day after day of this stress and anxiety, I found it harder to recover. Things that used to get me back to baseline–like say, the sheer physical exhaustion from a run that gives you that incredible runner’s high–no longer worked. Nursing running injuries, I feared what would happen if I could no longer run.

The thing is, I didn’t even realize I was burning out until I discovered Steve Shlafman’s blog on his experience of a 10-day Goenka Vipassana meditation retreat. He writes (emphasis mine): “I was healing myself by focusing on and accepting these physical pains that I’ve been afraid of for more than a decade. Instead of running, I had no choice but to surrender and in many ways kill my ego. […] In some ways, I felt like performed surgery on my mind and body. It was a surreal and deeply moving experience. Thankfully, I was able to face some deeply rooted and underlying issues that had been bothering me for nearly two decades.”

Something clicked. I craved that mental clarity and peace, to re-orient the neurons in my brain that fired in all directions. I recognized that I had to learn new models of self-care or else I’d truly burn out. And so I texted my friend Ryan Seys a link to Steve’s blog and asked him to embark on a 30-Day Meditation Challenge with me, and hold me accountable to learning how to be healthy and well.

It wasn’t easy. It still isn’t.  But here I am, four months later, with a daily practice, to say: thank goodness for meditation. If you’re craving that clarity and peace and haven’t started, I hope you do. Here’s my hot take for you, in case something clicks to help you get started: three tips to start your practice today, three tips to sustain your practice, and three takeaways. Good luck!

Tips on starting

  • Don’t start your meditation practice on a Monday. Do you ever find yourself daydreaming about the new person you’ll become on Monday? Or after your birthday, next month, or after the New Year? We use these arbitrary benchmarks based on our time biases, but data shows that those are the worst days to start new habits. I always tried to start on Monday, and so I never picked it up. My tip for you: just start. Don’t wait for the perfect day, because it likely won’t happen. And don’t wait to try when you’re already feeling uneasy or anxious.
  • Start small, but it may take longer sessions to find your groove. Don’t let the folks on /r/meditation that finish hour long meditations and have out-of-body experiences scare you from trying. Try it right now: set a timer for 2 minutes. Inhale for one second, exhale for two, rinse and repeat. Congratulations, you just started! You may not feel anything, but that’s OK. I tried a few times to start before my 30-Day Challenge, and I’d quit because I didn’t feel anything after a 5-minute meditation. After forcing myself to sit through 10-30 minute meditations for 30 days, I found my breakthrough moment at 25 minutes. But it can be intimidating to start your practice by sitting with yourself for that long, so start small and build up.
  • Find an accountability partner. Find someone that will actually call you up and call you out. It helps if that person is committed to learning as much as you. Ryan and I kept a meditation log, which you can make a copy of and use with your partner. We also journaled about our experience, which allowed us to talk through some of the questions we had. See below for tips on sustaining. I also kept a version of this log with my friends Radha and Charlotte.

Tips on sustaining

  • Commit to trying. In the beginning, it didn’t feel like anything was happening, and I felt so uncomfortable without a framework for how it should work. Am I doing this right? How am I supposed to be breathing? Why do I breathe so weird? What is my mind supposed to do? Is it supposed to do that? Don’t worry, that’s normal. It helped that Ryan and I had our daily journal to compare notes. According to our logs, Ryan had his breakthrough on Day 18. For me, it took until Day 22. And when you first start, getting into the habit is more important than getting it right.
  • Acknowledge potential distractions, and set intentions. In my early meditations, I would suddenly remember that I had to add something to my task list and would fixate on it. I would also fixate on the deeper, less fun stuff that I’d rather not share on the Internet. I found that setting a 5 minute timer to write it all down, to verbalize to myself that I had acknowledged it and that I was committed to meditating for the sake of my health and wellbeing, helped make the meditation smoother.
  • If it’s not working, try other ways. During my experience, I switched between Headspace, Meditation Studio, setting a timer, and several YouTube videos. Before my challenge, I’d quit because I thought Andy (from Headspace) had the most annoying voice in the entire universe. Funny enough, I now use Headspace (in combination with other things, as needed) and adore Andy, but trying different things allowed me to find something that worked.

Learnings

  • Yielding to the present: In reflection, I learned that I have two modes of operating: (1) rehashing the past, and giving it a narrative, or (2) rehearsing the future. It’s great to reflect and be thoughtful, but not to the point where you no longer live in the present. Slowly following each rise and fall of my breath taught me how to be singularly focused on the present. Most powerfully, I learned that it can be unproductive to rehash and rehearse. Often the past and future are out of your control, and the only thing you can impact is what’s happening right now.
  • Shifting gears from multi-tasking to deliberate action. Do you have moments in your life where you do just one thing? Probably few. If you’re like me, you probably didn’t make it this far because you’re reading the other tab open in your browser. I’ve recognized that multi-tasking doesn’t work, but couldn’t shake off years of this learned behavior. In meditation, the act of doing nothing but sitting with myself, as well as  mentally shifting my attention back to my breath every time I was distracted, was the ultimate forcing function to break from this habit. But multi-tasking is an addiction, and so meditation is a daily reminder to slow down and be more deliberate.
  • What you feel isn’t (always) real. I like to break down everything I feel, and to look at it from many different angles. Before meditation, I found peace in being able to assign narrative to my feelings, and this gave my life order and structure. In the course of watching the myriad thoughts that rushed through my brain for 10-30 minutes, I learned that much of what I feel is fleeting, and I have the ability to let emotions pass. This has been the greatest gift to manage (the volume of) stress: instead of mulling over each new feeling that pops up in my brain, I kind of let it hang for awhile, and see how it flows. And I developed a bias towards action, rather than dwelling. 

And lastly, my experience with meditation is, and continues to be, so much more about the journey than arriving at some final state where I’m more resilient, happier, and healthier. The journey hasn’t been easy, at times unpleasant, but it’s the ultimate act of self-care that I’ve learned. Eat your vegetables, kids.

Next step: tackling sleep + sleep hygiene. 

Special thanks to Ryan, Radha, Charlotte, and Steve.

You can also read about Ryan’s experience here.

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