Instructions to Self



Have you ever gotten frustrated when a yoga teacher, a spiritual book or a song tells you to “find your way home”? I have been there many many times!  The message seems to be a crucial learning point, a big revelation, a destination toward which one grows after a long, soul-searching, self-improving process, and there might be some kind of nirvana waiting at home.  Yet, I didn’t have a clue what that meant or what to do to figure out the meaning, not until a reminder fell on my lap, literally.

Two weekends ago, as I was cleaning and rearranging a bookshelf at home, a book fell upon my lap. It was Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’ Instructions, which had been misfiled and buried under other books. I forgot that a friend had given me that book a few years ago. I flipped it open and happened to land on the last page. The text said.

And then go home.
Or make a home.
And rest.

The text triggered my old frustration. I didn’t know what going home meant, but I sat down and gave the book another shot. I went back to the beginning. As I flipped from one page to the next, my memory of reading the book came back to me. Without an introduction or a setup, the book starts with an instruction, “Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw before.” It is quite abrupt, I thought. Then, it goes on and on with a series of instructions all the way to the last page. Each instruction is short and specific, and yet it feels more metaphorical and surreal than real. The words make sense at the first glance, and no meaning remains a second later.

The brevity of the instructions also offers little explanation. “Inside it [the castle] are three princesses. Do not trust the youngest. Walk on.” What’s wrong with the youngest princess? The book does not explain.

The book is filled with gaps, and there is also no logical flow from many of the instructions to the ones that follow them. For example, the instruction jumps from “Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where you are going,” to “The river can be crossed by the ferry.” How did we just go from the wolves to the river? Some instructions pop out randomly, like “If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe,” which appears to have little to do with the instructions that precede or follow it.

Finally, the main character of this book is an anthropomorphized creature with a face of a cat and a tail of a fox, who is followed by a non-anthropomorphized cat in most of the book. Why an anthropomorphized half-cat/half-fox with a regular-looking cat? I don’t know. A lot of things don’t make sense.

Despite the unanswered questions and what appears to be incomplete information, something resonated with me, even when I read it the first time.

I arrived back at the final page. Something felt familiar with the text this time, particularly the penultimate instruction, “Or make a home.” Or make a home… I paused. Then suddenly, the message became clear. It dawned on me that I had recently given myself my own instructions: I made a home, and I rested. Now I know what going home feels like and it can do for me, the entire book now makes sense to me. I can relate to Gaiman’s instructions without having to answer my own questions or fill in the information gaps. I thought I might share my journey. Even if it doesn’t make complete sense to others, I hope that it will inspire others to give themselves their own instructions.

Earlier this summer, I was burned out at work. While I had felt burned out many times in my career, this time must have been so bad that I verbalized it even to my boss. I was not being resentful. I just felt the raw exhaustion, and I was trying to find a way to rest, restore and regroup with myself. Sometimes a moment of wisdom comes when you hit rock bottom, and I was fortunate enough to have that moment. It was the first time that I had embraced myself as an introvert. I always knew that I am an introvert, but I was not comfortable with it. Through business school and through all of my professional experiences, I gathered that many of my professional stakeholders do not appreciate introverts, particularly those in the management positions. They prefer extroverted, high-energy leaders, who can speak with a loud voice, work the room, and move the crowd. I can do that, too, when needed, but it requires energy and recovery time for me. So, I kept my introversion in the closet at work. I am sure that there are introverted leaders and professionals in management positions out there, but being introverts, we just don’t go around and talk about it. For me, being an introvert in a management position can feel alone and lonely. It can also be exhausting if I don’t get enough space and time to recuperate, which was what happened to me earlier this summer.

Despite the exhaustion, I had the strength to know that I had to find a way to heal. As I was looking for a remedy, I remembered an infographic about introverts that a friend shared with me. It described introverts through the lens of space and validated my instinct that introverts need personal space and time to build energy. So, I decided to do just that. I would give myself space and time to rest and restore, and maybe I could build enough energy to prioritize things in my life and even create. I decided to give myself a silent retreat. I gave myself a long weekend in a nearby small city that I hadn’t visited, close enough to minimize travel time and costs and far enough to feel removed from my familiar surroundings.

I made one simple rule: I would only speak when it came to transportation, accommodation and nutrition. Otherwise, I would be silent. I would turn off my work email on my smart phone, and I informed my spouse that I would not respond to text or email and that he could only call me in case of emergency. My request was supported and honored; the only email I had to respond was to the question, “Can you stay home for the plumber the first day you get back?” Well, plumbing was a critical issue, so I had to respond yes!

Off I went. I hopped on a commuter rail at a station a block from my office, and a bit more than an hour later, I got off at a place that I had not been to before, literally and figuratively.

I normally try not to over plan things, but for most people, I am still a planner. This time, I just let myself be. Because the trip was in late June, the sun stayed up quite late, so I would go to bed soon after the sun went down and woke up as the sun came up, without setting my alarm clock. Interestingly, I didn’t oversleep, and I felt rested. I ate when I felt hungry and stopped when I felt full. Interestingly, again, I didn’t go far off from having my breakfast, lunch and dinner at regular time, with a light snack in the mid-afternoon. I ordered what I felt like eating, and yet it turned out my choices were relatively healthy, without my brain analyzing the nutrients before I ordered. I let myself eat full fat yogurt, and it was the most delicious yogurt I had had in a long time. I didn’t over eat, and I felt satisfied. Life without analysis felt nice.

I read when I wanted to read, and I stopped when I was done. I resisted my initial urge to write because my head was thinking that now that I had time to write, I should take advantage of it. I did write, however, when I felt like it, and words just flow from my fingertips onto my laptop screen. I wrote a blog entry, a poem and two children stories within a day.

I normally don’t nap, but I did. I even skipped a yoga class that I had wanted to go to because my body wanted to nap. I didn’t feel guilty about it. I felt refreshed, more so than having gone to a yoga class.

Did I break my rule? Yes, but mindfully so. I was in a friendly town. The locals would say, “Good morning,” to me on the street. Or they might make small talks while they were sipping their coffee next to me. Or when I sat and ate my meal solo at the bar, the bartender, the server or other diners nearby would strike up a conversation, and through food we connected. Would I ignore these people just because of my own rule? No, I would not say no to civility or to a way to connect. Because I made rules about not talking, I was very mindful when I talked. With that mindfulness, I felt that I was more present when I talked to and connected with these people. These conversations revived me.

Silence, which embodies personal space and time, healed me. I made my own rule, rested, and even restored enough energy to be creative and to be open to human connections. Creating my own rule was like making a home: my own domain, space and sanctuary. I rested in a way that I hadn’t done before. Instead of watching a movie or going out, I rested by letting go of habits that lie deeper in me like planning and analyzing and by learning to listen to what my body wanted and responding to my needs. At the end of the long weekend, I felt really good. I had clarity, and not anxiety, about my path forward. Is that how one feels when one goes home?

If I broke any rule, it would be others’ rules: how they might think of me for not pushing my limits, for accepting my exhaustion, for resting in a way that suits me, and for trying to find work-life balance. In the media, we still hear praises to those who work hard at all costs or stories that work-life balance is not important for major corporations.

In the style of Instructions, the instructions that I gave myself might read like what I wrote below. If I had read them before my retreat, I might have said that they were incomplete, illogical or disjointed. Now that I took that journey, they actually make sense to me. Still, they may not make complete sense to others. See if you can feel their meanings through your own experiences. Maybe that’s how we all can relate to Instructions once we have given ourselves our own.

Wake up with the sun and go for a run.
Bring nothing, but a smart phone, some cash and the key.
Shut the door behind you.

Run. Hear the birds. Watch the river flow.

You will run into strangers.
If they say, “Good morning,” say, “Good morning,” and smile.
If they ask for the time, tell them the time.
If they nod, nod back.

Don’t forget to admire the wildflowers.

Run until you can’t run any more.
Walk if you want to walk.

If you feel like sitting down, there is a boulder by the river waiting for you.
Watch the geese ride the waves.
Watch the dragonflies dance.

Turn back when you don’t want to go any more.

If you are hungry, look up a place for breakfast.
Be polite to the kind server. She might share with you stories.
If she tells you to choose shrimp and grits over chicken and waffle,
Listen to her.
It will be the best shrimp and grits you have had.
If she tells you to get grilled corn bread,
Take her advice. You don’t have to finish, but you will.
Feed your body. Feed your soul. Trust your heart.
Thank the kind server, and tip her well.

Stroll back to where you came from even though you did not plan the return journey.
Take a different road.

You will see the door that you shut behind this morning.
It is the same door, but it may feel different.

Open the door with the key that you have.
There is no need to rest. You are already rested.