Be Careful, and Fall Down the Stairs

I’m a Roman warrior standing on top of a huge stairway during an epic battle in ancient China. Facing my enemy below, I’m wearing a full suit of armor and cooking in the blistering summer sun and movie lighting. “You!” Alan, one of the stunt directors from Hong Kong, says to me. “We say action, wait signal, we shoot the arrow, you fall down.  OK?”

“Fall down the steps?” I ask. It’s about two flights down.

“Yeah. Be careful-ah” Alan tells me, adding some flavor from his native Cantonese. As usual, I had next to no time to think about what I was doing, which was probably for the best.

“3… 2… 1… Rolling… Action!” I’m looking mean but weary. Alan makes a motion of firing arrows from behind the camera, which will get added in later with CG. I’m hit! I scream in terrible pain as the imaginary arrow pierces my lung.  I fall back,and roll down the steps. The armor is soft, and the stairs are covered in foam – it’s not the most dangerous or painful stunt. But there’s a lot that can go wrong rolling down two flights of steps.

If I was trying to be careful in my habitual way of thinking, I would probably avoid rolling down staircases altogether. Working as a stunt man, Alan taught me a new way to be careful. A braver way.

Celebrating Alan’s birthday (center) with the stunt team during the filming of Dragon Blade. I’m on the right, next to the dude in the red shirt.

Being careful is important, but sometimes I conflate being careful with being comfortable. If did that in the above scenario, I would never have shown up on that movie set, and missed out on one of the most amazing experiences of my life. But I don’t always have the courage to separate safety from comfort.

In fact, many missed opportunities in my life come from an addiction to comfort and absence of courage. For example, I had a huge crush on a woman when we were both single. I ‘played it safe’ for too long, and by the time I admitted I had feelings for her, she already had a boyfriend, but confessed she’d had a crush on me at the time as well. Similar things have happened more times than I care to count or admit.  And I will certainly continue letting my fear get the best of me.  I’m writing this post to remind myself to cut that shit out.

Safety is important. If I wasn’t careful falling down that staircase, I could have broken some ribs, or ran into someone else and broken theirs. But for me, wanting comfort is usually just an excuse for a shortage of guts.

Being a stunt man taught me it’s possible to be safe AND brave. If I know I’m going to fall, there are techniques to minimize the chance of injury. In most scenarios, if I think about it, I can usually think of a way to mitigate potential danger, or I can find out ways. And if I’m being honest, in most scenarios, the potential for danger is over-inflated by my mind.

So instead of thinking of a million reasons for why I shouldn’t do the thing I’m afraid to do, or say the thing I’m afraid to say, I want to think of Alan. I want to remember to “be careful-ah,” and then do the thing before I have time to make excuses.

TLDR

  • Being careful does not mean being comfortable
    It is possible to be brave and safe
    When I’m afraid to do a thing, my goal is to be as safe as possible, without using that as an excuse to not do the thing

Note – I was introduced to the idea of safety vs bravery by this article, which is in the context of social justice and diversity: “From Safe Spaces to Brave Space”

Getting Out of My Head

When it comes to personal and spiritual growth, it’s much more effective for me to process things I learn about myself non-cognitively. That is to say, process through feelings rather than thoughts. I find that when I slow down and digest new ideas in this way, they’re much more likely to stick and influence my actions.

As much as I’d like to believe my rational brain is running the show, it probably isn’t.  As Elliot Aronson said. “Human beings aren’t rational animals; we’re rationalizing animals who want to appear reasonable to ourselves.”

I think it’s possible to learn in a non-rational way. This is what my meditation teachers* call non-cognitive processing. Here’s my understanding of how that works. The thoughts of which I’m conscious are the tip of the iceberg of subconscious thoughts, emotions, physical sensation, and other deep mysterious shit. Behind every thought, there is some kind of a corresponding physical sensation, which can be felt directly. Ignoring the thought to feel the physical sensation is the key to non-cognitive processing.
If I only pay attention to the thought and ignore the physical sensations, I will never have that deeper experiential understanding. I call this ‘being stuck in my head.’  I’m stuck in my head much more than I care to admit – so this is something I’ve been working on for a long time.

If I’m stuck in my head when I eat a taco, I am only focused on the thought ‘Tacos are delicious,’ and miss out on the celebration of flavor happening inside my mouth, as well as the rest of my body’s reaction to all that gustatory glory. I believe this is what Bruce Lee was talking about when he said, “Don’t think! Feeeeeel.”

This applies to more than just tacos and high kicks. I like to apply this most often to learning about myself, or helping others to learn about themselves. Here’s how I’ve been trying to do that: when I have some kind of insight, I pause. Typically, a cacophony of thoughts begin to arise – in other words, I start going into my head. I ignore those thoughts. I take a deep breath. And I sit with whatever sensations are arising. I bask in those sensations – even the painful ones (especially the painful ones).

Clients often ask me, “But how do I feel those sensations?”  I respond by asking them, “Do you have a left hand?”  They say “Yes.”  I ask, “How did you know that?”  Before the cognitive mind kicks in and says, Yes, I know I have a left hand, something else happens.  My mind somehow puts its awareness onto the hand and feels its existence.  The annoying truth is that we all know how to feel – and as soon as we start thinking about it, we’re not doing it.

The bigger the realization, the more time I spend basking in its associated feels. Sometimes I can pull this off, most of the time I can’t.  When I do this, I’m much more likely to remember what I’ve learned, and act in accordance with that knowledge.  When I don’t do this, I stay the same and don’t grow.

TLDR –

  • I’m not rational
  • I learn more effectively when I do so non-cognitively
  • To learn non-cognitively, don’t think – feel

*Carol Blotter and Matt Flickstein

Practicing Presence while Networking

I previously wrote a post about practicing presence in relationships, and in this post I want to focus on a particular piece of that pie – practicing presence in networking.

I’ve been doing a lot of networking for my business lately, and noticing two different ways I can be a dick about it:

  • Talking about what I want without listening for what the other person might want. For example, recently I was connecting with someone over the phone for the first time about possibly teaching some workshops for his organization. I dove straight into what I had to offer without connecting to what he was wanting. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t invited to offer a workshop for this organization.
  • Not talking about what I want. For example, I used to call up old friends “Just to re-connect,” when in reality I was hoping they might be able to introduce me to some possible clients. I can’t recall this ever working.  It also makes me want to puke.

Though these seem like opposite types of behaviors, both of them are motivated by attachment to a specific outcome which benefits me, with no consideration for the person with whom I’m connecting.

Realizing this, I am setting a new goal for networking, which I stole from Nonviolent Communication. That new goal “is to create a quality of empathic connection that allows everyone’s needs to be met.” Business needs, emotional needs, or whatever – all the needs.

From a moral perspective, this makes clear sense – my needs are not more important than other people’s needs. It also makes sense from a business perspective – if I repeatedly place my needs above others’, eventually nobody will be willing to work with me.

How will I do this? First, when connecting with someone for the first time, I need to be upfront about my motives. If they’re not willing to connect for that reason, then I won’t waste their time – or mine.  If it seems like they don’t want to talk, I’ll thank them for their time and leave them alone.

If they do want to talk, I’ll usually try to schedule a time to have a more in depth conversation. If I want to create a meaningful business relationship with someone, I find that it’s usually not so convenient to do it on that spot.

Whenever that deeper conversation happens, instead of steamrolling the other person with questions, first I’ll take some time to connect “Is now still a good time to talk? How was your day? How do you know so-and-so?” The key here is that these questions come from a place of genuinely caring about the other person, not from a manipulative desire to make them feel comfortable so they’ll be more likely to help me.

Another key is to allow space between my questions – space for them to think, to respond, and to ask questions of their own. I want to be sensitive to what the other person might be wanting, and if I don’t give them space to voice that, I’ll never know.

Even if they only want to help me, I still want to think of and offer other ways I might be able to help them – in the same way I might offer my friend a cup of water when she comes to my apartment. If she says no, I won’t be offended – it’s simply an offering of care. Whether or not she accepts is irrelevant.

It’s my hope that by practicing networking in these ways, two things will happen: 1 – I will be slightly less of a dick. 2 – Authentic connections will get created, and both the person I’m connecting to and myself will benefit from that.

TLDR:

How I don’t want to network:

  • Goal – get what I want
  • Be sneaky about my motives
  • Ignore the other person’s wants
  • Steam roll the people I’m networking with questions or pitches
  • Offer my help (and get butt-hurt if they decline)

How I want to (and am learning to) network:

  • Goal – create quality of connection that facilitates mutual benefit
  • Be clear about motives
  • Genuinely care about the other person
  • Allow space for them to talk
  • Listen for what they’re wanting
  • Offer my help (without any attachment to them accepting the offer)

Having Fun Being Serious

In a recent post I mentioned how simultaneously not taking my goal seriously while taking it really seriously was one of the keys to living out my dream as a stunt man. I want to expound on that a bit because I’m hoping to apply it to more things in my life, so hopefully writing about it will make it more of a tangible practice.

First, I want to share what seems to be true for me about when it’s useful to be serious and when it isn’t:

When it’s useful to be more serious:

  • Whenever I want to begin and complete an action which is already clearly defined, but I am averse to doing it. Example – I’m doing my taxes

When it’s useful to be less serious:

  • When I’m connecting with others. Example – I’m meeting someone for the first time
  • When I want to be creative. Example – I’m trying to think of an idea for a new blog post
  • When I want to have fun. Example – It’s Friday night

I need seriousness and its opposite – I’ll call it fun. For example, in my pursuit of becoming a stunt man, I had to be serious about practicing kung fu consistently. I had to be serious about cold calling assistant directors to ask them if their production was looking for white dudes. If I wasn’t serious, I wouldn’t have done these things.

But in the back of my mind, there was always a little snickering boy, giddy about the prospect of being on a movie set. It was that deeper sense of fun that drove me forward and kept me going through the excruciating uncertainty of my time as an actor.

This is what I mean by being simultaneously serious and not serious – having the sense that the big picture of what I’m doing is fun, even if the specific task I’m currently working on might not be.

This came naturally to me in my pursuit of being a stuntman. But when I stopped my career in the film industry to become a coach, I killed my sense of fun. My life became very serious. Now I’m a business man, and need to make money, I’ve got bills to pay – this is the narrative that is on repeat in my brain. It is not fun, and also sets me up for failure.

Just recognizing that I’m telling myself this story is liberating. I also want to replace it with another narrative, one that has the little boy in the back of my mind snickering about how liberating it is to not have to work a 9 to 5, and to get paid help others grow while also growing myself.  Giddy about the tapping into the freedom that I already have, and that my clients have as well.

How I Quit My Job and Became a Stuntman (Part II)

Click here to read Part I of this post

I mentioned all the preparation in Part I because it was useful, but the most important thing I did was much simpler.  In the wise words of Dan Peña, I just fucking did it.

It was not easy.  It was terrifying.  It didn’t even really hit me until I sold my desktop computer, since it would be too cumbersome to bring to China.  I cried myself to sleep that night.

I bought the plane ticket and let my boss know well in advance when I was leaving.  I condensed my belongings into two suit cases and a backpack.  I got on the plane, got to Beijing, and found an apartment.  There was no secret to how I did any of those things.

When I got there, I had no idea what I was doing.  I ended up training at an MMA gym where many Chinese actors trained together.  But the market for foreign actors is separate than the one for Chinese actors, and they had no idea how to help me.  I spent most of my time in my all-cement Soviet-style apartment twiddling my thumbs, asking myself why in god’s name did I leave behind my benefit package, salary, and free five-star dining five days a week.

I was depressed.  Lonely.  Broke.  Bored.  But I kept going.  I found side gigs which could help keep my head above water financially.  I continued asking everyone I could meet for ideas on how to get into the industry.  I kept training.  It took months before it began to pay off.  I started finding out about auditions.  My first acting job was dubbing TV shows into English – my favorite experience there was making puking noises in English – which are apparently different than Chinese puking noises.

I met my kung fu master, who gave me a leading role in his documentary TV show working as a foreign devil / punching bag – for no pay.  But having that on my resume proved useful enough, and I started landing bit roles, half of which got edited out of the films.  My career peaked when I got to work as a stuntman in Jackie Chan’s Dragon Blade.  It was a dream come true, and he was way cooler than I expected.

Jackie Chan (right) and me (left) building a rock sled in the middle of a huge battle

But I want to make one thing clear – in my two years living in China, I probably got paid for less than 60 days worth of acting work.  Most of my time was spent going to auditions, cold calling assistant directors, or on networking that led nowhere.  It wasn’t glamorous.  It wasn’t lucrative.  It was way harder and more painful than what I would have experienced staying at Google.

But it was the most rewarding experience of my life.

***

In summary, here’s what I believe to have been the keys to my success:*

  • Decided what I wanted to do
  • Took it seriously but didn’t take it seriously
  • Made a commitment I was not willing to back out of
  • Saved up money and gave myself a deadline
  • Just fucking did it
  • Didn’t stop until it was done

*The keys that were mostly within my control, anyway.  Realistically, being a white American male was probably my biggest asset while in China.

How I Quit My Job and Became a Stuntman (Part I)

I used to have an incredibly comfortable job at Google.  And then I quit to move to China to pursue a career in the action film industry.  A lot of people ask me how I did it, so I’m writing this post to answer that question in a (hopefully) coherent way.

In college, I was a self-help junkie (I’d like to think I’m currently in recovery).  The Wayne Dyers and Tony Robbinses always told me I could ‘manifest’ whatever I wanted.  So as it was getting close to the time where I needed to find a job, I figured I would manifest a job at the best company to work for in the US.  I started plotting how I would pull that off at the beginning of my junior year, had an interview my senior year, and got an offer sometime around November of that year.  I was ecstatic – never in my life had I worked so hard and long towards a singular goal and achieved it.  It was a huge confidence (and ego) boost.

Sometime during the high of landing my dream job, I thought to myself, “Shit, if I can get a job at Google, what else can I pull off?”  I had spent a lot of time in China, and a lot of time watching kung fu movies.  I’d seen many random white dudes in those movies, and I asked myself, “Who are all these random white dudes?  I bet I could be one of those dudes.”  A new dream was born.

Preparation

I never really took it seriously, and paradoxically I always took it seriously.  I was going for it, but it felt more like planning an elaborate prank than a career shift.  I spent a lot of time and energy moving towards this goal, but it was mostly fun because I was holding it so lightly.

Before I even started working at Google, I started preparing myself.  I started acting in absurd videos with my friends (see above).  I signed up for kung fu classes.  I saved up money; I never really made a lifestyle change from broke college student to rich yuppie.  I lived in a tiny basement apartment and kept the same monthly budget for myself I had maintained all throughout college.

I made a commitment to myself and everyone who asked my post-graduation plans: “I’m going to work at Google after the summer’s over, but just long enough to pay off my loans.  Then I’m going to move to China to act in kung fu movies.”  I even told my boss and coworkers my plans shortly after starting work at the big G.  There was no turning back at that point.

Telling everyone my intentions had two helpful outcomes.  First, I felt more obligated to pursue the dream, because if I didn’t I would then be a liar and a phony to all the people I promised.  Second, since I had no idea what I was doing, some people were able to point me in the right direction.  It came out of the woodwork that one of my friend’s-friend’s-best-friends was an action actress in China.  My brother’s-coworker’s-friend was also an actor in China.  Through them, I made some new connections that proved very useful when I got to China, which ended up leading to getting my career in film started.

I gave myself a two year deadline to leave Google for China, but ended up shortening that to a year and a half.  Since I’d already paid off my loans and saved up enough dough to live off of for about two years with my frugal lifestyle, I figured I better get out of there before the golden handcuffs got too tight.

To be continued next week in Part II.

Practicing Presence in Relationships

Presence is an important value of mine. I try to practice it in every aspect of my life – not just in meditation or similar activities. One major opportunity I discovered a few years ago is in relationships. Presence in relationships cultivates connection – which research indicates is a key factor for well-being.

In my relationships, I continue to realize how often I am NOT present – and what it’s costing me. It looks something like this: I see someone I know walking down the street, and I look down and away so I can avoid talking to them and get on with whatever I’m doing. Or I get to my office and say “Hi, how ya doin’?” to my coworker, without actually pausing and giving them my attention. Or, heaven forbid I actually get involved in a conversation, I just go through the motions and all my attention is focused on getting out of there ASAP.

The core issue in all these scenarios is that I’m focused on something outside of the present moment. I’m grasping so desperately for the destination that I view the journey as a nuisance. Every time I repeat this pattern, it is strengthened. I’d prefer to strengthen the intertwined muscles of presence and connection.

So what I’ve been trying to do is simple (trying is the key word – mostly failing).  If I find myself in conversation with someone, I give them 100% of my attention. I stop whatever else I may be doing. I make eye contact. I listen, and respond authentically and appropriately.  When I attempt to do this, my first response is to feel uncomfortable and awkward. I’m doing something I’m not used to, so this is to be expected. If I get over the discomfort, I feel warmth and connection.  I create and deepen meaningful relationships. I learn things about myself and the person I’m talking to.

Some people do this naturally – my roommate is one example. Just the other night as I was making dinner, he was on his way out the door to meet a friend. We had yet to have a conversation of any substance that day, and even though he had already opened the door to leave and was carrying two bags of stuff, he came to a complete stop and asked me how my day was. His intention to leave the apartment got put on hold completely in order to talk with me, and I felt no sense that this was a perfunctory conversation.

I was in the middle of something and not even facing him when he started talking to me. But I was moved by the attention he was giving me. I put down my box of mac & cheese and turned to look at him, and we had a nice conversation for a few minutes before we both got back to what we were doing. It quenched my needs for connection, being cared about, and friendship. It felt warm, touching, inspiring.

I aim to have more moments like that one. What’s your experience with connection?  Are you a natural, or is this something you want to work on?

This post has focused mainly on my experience of connection, but this world is about more than me – and connection can be too. I’d like to write more about that in another post.  I began to understand the importance of connection and how to practice it by studying Nonviolent Communication. Ask me about it, or read more here.

In Praise of Shadows*

“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven, unless its roots reach down to hell.”

Carl Jung

I’ve been enchanted by pain for as long as I can remember; it just seems cool.  My favorite fictional characters are usually the dark ones – Batman**, The Hound from Game of Thrones.  I love blues songs about how awful the singer’s life is.  And I’ve always enjoyed religious imagery about devils and hell much more than the kind with angels and heaven.

Despite being drawn to these things in stories, I have a tendency to resist all these feelings in myself.  I hope that tendency will be weakened by creating this post.  So I’m writing to sing praises to emotional pain – sadness, depression, anxiety, and the like.

Sometimes I go through emotionally dark periods.  Coming from a privileged background, I’ve never really had anything awful happen in my life – which only makes me more upset for not being happy.  I get sad about being sad about being ashamed about not being fulfilled about feeling guilty… on and on.  And it seems the more I resist, the worse I feel.

It isn’t until I stop judging myself for not being happy that I can finally get through it and move on.  I have to stop trying to be positive and focus on being real.

Rather than resist and beat myself up about experiencing pain, here’s some reasons why I want to accept my pain:

  • Resistance to unpleasant emotions tends to make them last longer.
  • My pain defines me just as much as my pleasure. Thinking I shouldn’t feel pain is like saying I shouldn’t be me.
  • Unpleasant feelings are inevitable
  • Pain can often be the impetus for greatness. Batman’s parents getting killed is what drove him to be a superhero.

How do I stop resisting my pain?  I don’t have to do anything.  I just have to NOT do whatever I normally do: reach for my cell phone, food, or other distractions; beat myself up about not feeling good; or whatever other clever technique my brain comes up with for not facing my pain.  So next time I catch myself doing these things, I will try to pause, remember this post, and embrace the pain full on.

What’s your relationship like with pain and negativity?

Shout out to Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
** Here’s my favorite page in
The Dark Knight Returns where Batman is totally owning his shit

Being Positive vs. Being Real

I’ve internalized the idea that I need to always be positive. I am adept at forcing myself to find and focus on the silver lining – the key word being ‘force.’ For example, I might say, “I’ve been feeling sad lately. But I think it’s an important part of my growth process.”

On the surface this might sound wise. However, I usually say it because I think I ‘should’ say it, not because I actually believe it. “Fake it ‘till you make it,” as the saying goes. However, sometimes when I know I’m faking it, I judge myself harshly. Other people can sense this, and then they might also judge me. Even if they don’t, I project that idea onto them, and the result for me is the same – a vortex of shame, self-loathing, and negativity.

Ideally, I would stop judging myself as fake. Or better yet, stop getting stuck in long-term bouts of negativity. But if I’m already judging myself, it’s too late – beating myself up about it won’t help. So I figure the next line of defense is acceptance: to take responsibility for the pain which has arisen without blaming myself for it.  That might sound vague, so let me explain how I practice.

The Practice

To me, it’s about cutting out phony positivity. When someone who I want to connect with* asks me how I’m doing, I try to give them the truth, even when it’s not pretty. I might say, “I’m feeling shitty.” So far this has been excruciatingly uncomfortable. I desperately want to flip it into something positive, but I bite my tongue. I’m working towards being able to say it confidently, with no sense of shame behind it – though I doubt I’ll ever get there 100%.

I’ve only just begun this practice, but aside from my own discomfort, the results have been encouraging. From an intrapersonal perspective, I feel more authentic and less guilty. From an interpersonal perspective, I feel more connected to the people I’m talking to. Someone at my office offered to talk more deeply about what I was going through – which was very touching, and I felt it brought us closer without even having that deeper conversation. When I shared my pain with a friend, it opened us up to having a conversation about authenticity, where we both learned from and about one another.

I imagine this practice will evolve the longer I do it, and I hope I can continue to grow from it.

Have you struggled with finding the balance between being positive and being real?  When is it appropriate to “fake it ‘till you make it,” and when isn’t it?  I’m curious about your experience, and your thoughts on what I’ve written here.

*Note – I don’t force myself to do this with everyone. I don’t need to keep it real all the time – Dave Chapelle taught me how that can go wrong. 

Why I’m Writing

I’m writing these posts to help me organize my thoughts and process my spiritual journey. What I mean by spiritual journey is the practice of aligning my actions with the values I hold.

I’m not sure what themes I’ll end up exploring.  I’m interested in mindfulness, social justice, and psychology, though I am no authority in any of these fields. I write about these topics to digest, and as I post them publicly, I feel more accountable to continue practicing them.

I want these posts to spark dialog so I can learn from and connect with you, the reader. Even if we don’t have a conversation, I hope that sharing my journey helps you on yours.