Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don’t realize the source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kindhearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.
Dao De Jing Chapter 16

I’ve interviewed dozens of people applying for the Monastic Academy. In each call, I go over our informal system of constant, honest feedback. Below, is a long form example of a phone call I might have. It’s much more through and detailed than I normally do. It’s on my mind since we have so many new residents joining us, and I have the discipline role to give the most strict feedback. I’ve probably been involved in or discussed feedback discussions at least ten times in the past week.

Hypothetical Call:

Me: “So, there’s a few items I want to check with you. First, we give each other constant feedback. Sometimes, in the monastic setting, the feedback can be very direct. It’s not a discussion, it’s just a correction.

For many new residents, including when me when I started off, this can be really disorienting. Why is this person being so mean? We shift from roommates to practice friends to coworkers in the same day. Usually, these are different people in our lives.

Often, in “polite” society, when you receive this kind of sharp feedback, there’s anger and violence behind the words. But, here, we are just holding you to your highest potential, not one ounce more and not one ounce less. We’re learning how to be assertive without being violent.

We’re having those honest conversations and feedback that roommates, coworkers, and family tip toe around. I know I lived in a lot of houses with wonderful roommates. But, we wouldn’t address underlying tensions like cleaning up your own dishes, and that would cause huge problems down the road. Or, if someone is learning a new skill and doesn’t receive corrections, they’ll acquire bad habits.

Feedback is healthy and good if it’s done without violence. And, we aren’t perfect. We’re still learning. We’re training and learning how to do it with each other. So, we forgive each other and let us the room to learn. Our egos so much want protection, safety, and comfort. We want to believe there’s some perfect system we just need to implement and then everything will be okay. But, that’s not how it really works.

If you don’t give feedback to someone then they’re just left with their perception of things and will continue their bad behavior and habits. Often, we’re scared to give them feedback but it’s actually selfish to hold back a lot of times. Especially spiritual people who tend to care too much that they tolerate being taken advantage of. For example, I don’t want to give feedback because then they’ll be angry at me. Or I might find out I’m actually wrong. Or I don’t want to deal with their reactive emotions. All of that is reasonable. But it’s selfish too if you’re committing to a monastery to transcend and transform ourselves.

And another pattern is witnessing someone else getting hard feedback and then tightening up. The feedback isn’t even directed at you, but you react. The actually receiving person isn’t even bothered, might even be grateful. Know that a lot of times, the feedback is calibrated to the person. I don’t know if everyone does this but I do. Some people I’ve known for over a year, and I know they can handle and want the direct feedback. I don’t do that immediately with new people. Just notice if, like me in the beginning, most of your fears and doubts are around watching others get feedback yet all the feedback you receive is mild.

Finally, ultimately, this is a spiritual path. We aren’t here to master Non-violent Communication or never feel uncomfortable. We run towards discomfort to get past our limitations.

We’re here to train so that we realize that existing nature of unconditional confidence and trust within us that no one or no thing can touch. Not death, not the cold, and definitely not someone’s feedback.

And we come here to become amazing leaders capable of tackling the deepest economic, social, political, and environment injustices in whatever form that shows up for us. The world doesn’t play nice, it doesn’t care about our emotions. We leave our homes and commit to training here so we can be real, so we can show the world a different way of living by our example.

Of course, we care about doing better. Of course, we want better communication. But, we’ve been doing this for years, you aren’t the first one to come up with this.

So, just know you’ll likely be activated by the feedback you see and receive when you first start here. If you witness or receive violence in any shape or form then definitely alert someone. I’m here for you. But, so far in my experience, it’s always just been me overreacting from some deep pattern getting triggered.

Does that make sense?”

At that point, most people say that sounds beautiful and inspiring. I imagine most people think of all the relationships where feedback and communication wasn’t direct, wasn’t open. Always filtered and limited and how many lost opportunities and connections that caused. And, here, we do it for real to whatever extent we are capable and willing to do it.

Path of Mastery Goes Beyond Anxiety & Laziness

Some people get anxious. Some people are lazy.

Both type of people are self-centered.

Falling into anxiety, panic, and worry is an overreaction that things are and/or will be terrible for me. For example, I might be talking to an impressive figure that I want to befriend and get overly cautious and self-conscious about saying the right thing.

Falling into laziness and complacency is not wanting to face reality and choosing to instead live in ignornace as long as possible. It’s putting my head in the sand because I doubt my ability to meet reality and what’s needed. Or, another example, I’m concerned about making a mistake so I would rather not really try so that when and if I fail, I can blame the laziness rather than myself.

As Operations person, my job is often giving feedback to others regarding deviating from the rules or generally performing poorly. Some people can jump into self-shame and panic. Others can jump into laziness and pretend indifference. Most people do both. I definitely do.

But, in both cases, they are both selfish. Both about me.

In most disciplines like chess, meditation, martial arts, painting, science, copywriting, and more, you begin by learning the fundamentals. You begin by learning the forms. You begin by mastering everything that the best masters of the past have done. You master it by copying them, by absorbing their way of seeing things first. It’s only after you have properly mastered what’s already known that you’re trustworthy to do something new, do something different. It’s only through limitation and discipline can you arrive at genunely effective and creative new ways of doing things.

This isn’t how US American society functions. We think that young 20 something year-olds can disrupt entire industries and therefore we shouldn’t have to go through the hard work of actually learning the old ways of doing things. We want to just jump to the end where we’re a child prodigy master. But, what you fail to notice, is that most of those whiz kids like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and so on actually spent the majority of their lives starting as a kid developing and mastering the necessary skills and experience to flourish later on.

And you learn the path of mastery by not being anxious nor lazy. By focusing on the discipline rather than “how I’m doing at this discipline”. By starting each day, each task with the question, “what’s the most important thing needed right now to advance on this path?” That’s very different from our default programming of, “what’s the most comfortable thing to do right now?” or “what do I most want to do right now?”

And it gets super easy when it’s no longer about you. When what you most want to do right now is the same thing as what’s most needed right now.

Unconditional Trust and Confidence

In the past few months, I’ve a significant shift in my being. It shows up in my leadership, my actions, and my meditation practice. A general sense of calm and relaxation.

Particularly, my September retreat was very powerful where I was got sick in the beginning and powered through each day until it no longer bothered me by day 5.

Reflecting on my leadership roles lately, I joked with a friend that I feel at ease with leading because I just don’t care. I do care. But, I’m much better at not taking things personally. Other people’s behavior doesn’t have to be an immediate reflection of me, my value, or my ego. I care a lot. But, I’m not identifying with things as me.

When talking to potenital residents, I use a term that my teacher Soryu once mentioned. Here, we train to truly tap into that unconditional trust and confidence that’s always available right here, right now. No matter the outcome of anything that happens, no matter what feedback comes my way, I know it’s possible to not take it personally, to not lose my trust, to not become insecure.

Each moment, just flowing into the next one. New situation, new direction, new action. How do I serve, how do I fit into this new situation?

Don’t let myself get in the way. Don’t insert myself into things that have nothing to do with me.

It’s clear seeing my ego insert itself into situations and the rampant, endless thinking and suffering that comes from that. All of it underpined and fueled by some base level insecurity.

The deeper I go into this practice of focus, love, and surrender, the more I see the burdens each of us carry around. All of us were wounded at some points in our lives. Maybe as a child when we were defenseless to do anything about it. Unable to know how to cope or comprehend those pains. But, as adults, we keep sustaining and feeding those burdens, those pains. Some base level of insecurity, distrust, and fear. We do that. Not the world. We simply see the world through the lens of that insecurity, that wound. But, it’s a choice.

To choose to let it go. To die. To no longer be the person defined by that pain, that wound, that suffering, that distrust, that disconnection. To die and be born anew like a brand new baby. To see the world and myself anew.

This is unconditional love. This is unconditional surrender. This is unconditional trust and confidence that cannot ever be taken from you by anyone or anything. This is the supreme spiritual attainment and achievement that is no-achievement, no-attainment. This is why spiritual heroes can move entire peoples and the tide of history to a higher truth and love.

This is being with life without inserting myself into it every single moment. Just like a dance where the less self-conscious I am, the more I can dance freely and naturally.

Take the leap.

“You’re just like a white person”

When I was in college, a friend told me, “Peter, you’re just like us, you know a white person”. She meant it as a compliment. Our group of friends were all white apart from two of us Asian folks who according to her, were just like the other white people.

Although she intended well, it left a indelible mark on me. What did that statement mean? On the surface, it meant I have similar interests and background as them. I was sort of middle class, educated, and spoke the way they spoke. My race as Asian American did not stick out to them. But, of course, if I truly was like a white person then there would be no need to tell me that I was just like them.

The underlying insinuation in that “you’re just like us” means that if I start asserting my race in unacceptable ways then I’m a problem. My race is a problem. Don’t mention your race and then it’s okay. Be just like us and then you’re accepted but always different.

The burden that people of color suffer from is that we never get to choose to reveal our race. It’s always the first thing people notice. And with that noticing of race, there’s a cascade of assumptions and expectations. We never get to be individuals first. We are first and foremost our race.

Even those people who go abroad and face racism abroad as an “US American” or a white person don’t truly know what it is like. Because they can always go back home. They always have a normal home where they are truly like everyone else. Truly as in no one has to tell them “you’re just like us”. They weren’t raised always being different for reasons outside their control.

The one question Asians always get from people:
“Where do you come from?”
Well, I just moved from Philadelphia.
“No, I mean what country did you come from?”

Saying I was born in the US is never enough in a way that other white people never have to face.

I’ve had other women tell me, “You’re not like most Asian men I meet.” They also mean it as a compliment. The sense that I’m social, have odd interests, and can lead a group. Or, to put it another way, I can be confident in a group of non-Asian people.

To be fair, all of these people are well meaning and good people. The lack of diversity and real conversations about race are the problem.

So, what do you do instead?

One white friend told me once with a lot of guilt that he can’t help but notice I’m Asian first and foremost when he looks at me. It hurt me to hear that. But, it was also a relief, a starting point for further connection and conversation. He was honest, and he knew it wasn’t fair to me. And he had the courage to tell me. And, so, I trust him even more.

True Love Leaves No One Behind

Sometimes, I get angry at people. Sometimes, I watch other people getting angry at others. Sometimes, people get angry at me and share this with me.

Each time, there is this sense that this person I’m angry about is bad. I shouldn’t have to be in this relationship. They should change or go away.

How convenient. This is conditional love based on feeling comfortable and pleasant with others.

If we truly loved someone then we wouldn’t end the connection just because they did something we dislike or we consider wrong. In true love, we stay in the connection. Even if that means cutting off ties with the person, it’s done from a place of awareness and seeing the person rather than reactivity and turning away. It’s possible to care for someone and end contact with them because it’s what’s best for both of you.

A good parent doesn’t stop taking care of their child when it becomes uncomfortable. Even when there’s exhaustion and frustration. Likewise, a good pet owner doesn’t stop taking care of their pet just because it’s the middle of the night. A good friend doesn’t stop being there just because it’s uncomfortable.

So, if I lose that sense of care and love for someone, I know that I’m in deluded and in reactivity to some degree. I’m attached to myself. I’m attached to not feeling uncomfortable, to not seeing my values and beliefs challenged.

Of course, there are extremes. No one deserves to have violence upon them. No one should stay in a relationship with an abusive partner or where it’s bad for both people in the long run. But, we already know that. The question is those tiny little things we do to each other and how we relate to each other.

If we truly loved someone then we would tell them the impact they are having on us when they do something we dislike or disagree with. But, all too often, we simply don’t say anything because we don’t want to have a confrontation. And, so, that person loses out on valuable feedback, and we inhibit our own wisdom and love.