I had a life coach once ask me about my peak experiences. Pondering the question, what came up for me was landing my first job out of college with a management consulting company and studying abroad while in business school. By asking me deeper questions on why I valued those experiences, my coach helped me to unpack my values. And my values represented my essence and what fulfilled me. I realized some of my top values were about freedom and creating possibilities. This felt aligned with who I was.
In fact, my parents escaped communist Vietnam with me in utero at 7 months. The journey at sea for 5 nights in a tiny fishing boat with 7 freedom seekers had a lasting impression. I’m the only one in my family now that gets seasick.
My dad made it his mission to stand for human rights, to be a voice for those without the freedom to have a voice in communist Vietnam. He hosted a radio talk show in our Northern California Vietnamese community, put sweat and tears in the campaign to name the San Jose community Little Saigon, and even ran for city council at one point.
I recall a Têt parade celebration where my sister and I drove a float as part of the parade. Most floats had beautiful flowers with beautiful ladies dressed in traditional áo dài (Vietnamese dresses). Instead, my sister and I drove a truck hauling a float my dad commissioned: bright red and yellow anti-communist missiles!
Freedom was a theme in my dad’s life. We had risked our lives for it. Yet not everyone found it. My uncle, Duong, perished in the South China Sea when their boat was attacked by Thai pirates who took advantage of the Vietnamese refugee boat people.
However, having grown up as a first-generation Vietnamese-American in California, I didn’t pay much attention to what it meant to have freedom.
I only knew freedom when I viscerally experienced its opposite, imprisoned by my own thoughts and anxiety.
I came to mindfulness practice after my dad had passed away in 2010. I was suffering from anxiety from his passing. I somehow intuitively knew that these practices would help me. So I enrolled in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program through my healthcare provider and the practices changed my life. I learned inner tools that helped me to feel freedom from anxiety and access emotions of sorrow and sadness that I had blocked.
I found freedom through an inner lens that I didn’t have access to previously. My anxious thoughts were a grand canyon groove in my brain. I wanted options to choose another path, to build a new river, a new neural pathway that could lead to freedom from stuck behavior and thought patterns.
Through practices of observing and bringing attention to my breath and body sensations, I found a stillness and space from my barrage of thoughts. I learned to place my attention on my five senses, by listening to sounds, filling my awareness with scents and odors through my nose, feeling my feet on the ground, simply observing what I could visually see, or even filling my awareness with the taste in my mouth. Through these simple practices to focus my awareness, I found refuge in my senses that were part of my human experience. I had no idea bringing my attention to them would help lessen my stress.
I learned that I wasn’t just a head walking around, but I had a body! I wasn’t cut off from my neck down after all. I tuned into my body sensations and connected them to my feelings and emotions. I became more intimate with myself. I became more self-aware through viscerally feeling my body and experiences, and it gave me confidence. Confidence in knowing that I could handle anything that comes my way. I learned with self-compassion, to not block ‘negative’ emotions, and to allow, welcome, and acknowledge them. Embracing all parts of me has given me more freedom to be who I really am.
I’m in gratitude to my dad for planning our escape from those who wished to strip away our freedom for an ideology. And although his body and physical life was cut short at the young age of 60, his spirit of freedom lives on today. I feel my dad’s presence, helping me find inner freedom from my own conditioning and beliefs that although wanted to keep me safe, limited me from fully feeling how it feels to be alive and free. Through this precious practice, I found freedom within myself to be with things as they are and to trust in my path.