As I sat down with my suitcase on the train to the JFK airport a man in a bright windbreaker asked me if I was from the Philippines, a question I get more often than not. I told him that my mother’s side was Japanese and my father’s Chinese, though many generations of our family lived in Hawaii. I inquired why he asked. Just curious, he said. I smiled and began to jot down notes in my gratitude journal, getting a few lines down — the way the staff at the gym greeted me just a few hours before, the fortunate weather, the freedom and flexibility I’m able to enjoy as a freelancer — before he asked another question. Do you believe in god? I believe in believing in god, I said. Your spiritual? A pause — Yeah. Me too, he said. I told him that I’d been studying Buddhist philosophy recently. Whether certain beliefs and rituals were real, that I had no idea, I told him - I mainly believed that we don’t know much. There’s no reason not to believe. Our conversation continued for another five minutes before my new friend, named Ishim (though this spelling may be completely inaccurate), bid farewell and got off the train, myself with 10 or so more stops to go till the AirTrain transfer to JFK. Love you brother, were his parting words.
Within those five minutes much of what I anticipated writing about in this newsletter, much of what I’ve been thinking about this past year, were voiced by Ishim and rejoiced in by the both of us. The idea that the power of love and compassion is boundless, the idea that joy and happiness can only be established from within, and the goal to do so in order to spread it around wherever we are and for whoever we’re with. We’re all the same, he said, a statement I’ve pronounced with many of my friends since I was 17 years old.
I told Ishim that I believed in believing in things bigger than ourselves. Of course, that can take many different forms. There is God. There is Buddha. There is music. There is your mother. There is the person you call the love of your life, perhaps love itself. Isn’t that what it’s all revolved around? Love. Religion is about love. I believe in everything, Ishim told me. I concurred.
I often have trouble with the identification of a single belief, a single school of thought or religious view, because I truly believe that all of these things boil down to one simple philosophy: Love ourselves and one other, be kind, be generous, be boundless in our ability to give and rejoice. Do no harm.
Do you believe in heaven? Ishim asked. Sure, I said. I have no reason not to believe in heaven. Nor do I have any reason not to believe in the Buddhist belief that we are each born into a different life upon death, or the notion that we’ve each lived millions of previous lives in the past. When I was 12 years old I was convinced that my grandfather presented himself in the body of a squirrel. I can’t say 12 year old me was wrong or right!
I’ve been reading The Book of Joy by Douglas Carlton, in which several research studies are intertwined with dialogue between the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. One point that stuck out to me referenced a study that found people who used the pronouns “I”, “Me”, and “Mine” were more likely to die earlier than people who used the pronouns “We”, “Us”, and “Ours”. It is always striking to find research that supports the compelling human arguments philosophers have supported since the first day mankind jotted notes down onto a piece of paper (or perhaps the wall of a cave). We’re all interconnected.
Considering how much we’re focused on our individual selves at the young stages of our lives, in western areas like the United States or populated metropolises like New York City, it was a bit of a shocking point. I thought about how the concept of “we” might be applicable to any situation we find ourselves in. That “we” constitutes all of us, you and them and us, everyone. All of the people who have influenced our lives in a number of intangible and unfathomable ways, amounting to the fortunes we live today. I think about my friends, the ones I no longer see as often and the ones I see every week in New York. I think about my grandmothers and grandfathers, their grandmothers and grandfathers, my mom and dad and their brothers and sisters, their friends and colleagues who made them the people they are, the parents they are, the mentors they are.
I think about my brother and every person connected to him, and every person connected to them. I think about people who are no longer here — my Aunt Noyo, Aunt Tomie, Grandma Miyo and Grandpa Walter. I think about people I never got to meet, my Grandpa Stomo and his father, his mother, their fathers and their mothers. I think about Ishim and all of the people who have graced me with their joy, love, and energetic wisdom, even if only for a few minutes. It is an objective statement to say that everything we have is because of others. Just some food for thought!
The gratitude journals I’ve been writing have been becoming longer and longer. I’ve been spending a lot of time working on my mind, meditating, reading, and exercising. I’ve been prioritizing long mornings with the flexibility of being an independent contractor for a variety of different companies. I’ve been spending weekends off, with friends, cherishing the time instead of diving into new projects. It may be cliche to say, but I feel like a new person, focusing on the ways in which we perceive the world and everything that constitutes a moment. Of course, no one is perfect. I still slouch, I eat too much sugar, there are a million things I’d like to achieve. Like my friend Ishim said, Everyone has dark and light in them, it takes time and work to shine throughout your whole self and onto others. Seriously one of the most delightful encounters I’ve had this year.