A $400,000 message from the Mystic Self — An excerpt of a book-in-progress

“Whatever is rejected from the Self appears in the world as an event.” - Carl Jung

The Mystic Mountain Range between Southwest China and Tibet.

This is a story of my personal journey weaving through the mystic realm and the concrete reality. On the mundane plane, money is the primary medium that grounds a person to the most fundamental plane of reality. Money warrants physical safety and comfort, and gives us a sense of control over our future. It is also a symbol of a person’s value to the collective group she belongs to. As modern industrialization systematically and thoroughly stripped away the mystical dimension of humanity, turning what were once scared relations into financial transactions devoid of spirit, money as a symbol has also been stripped of its life-giving potency. Instead, it throbs as an inflamed sore of scarcity.

It is not just the modernity rejecting the mystics, the mystics left the carnal and earthly life much earlier on, as many of the male mystics walked away from their wives and children, from the government or the kitchen, into the woods and caves, to seek their exalted state of enlightment in solitude. They have not found their way back to the center of the city yet. With the split between the mystical and the concrete dimensions, our physical existence becomes isolated and fearful, cut off from our past and future, dangerous to ourselves and our environment. Likewise, our spiritual self is castrated with and becomes a lifeless statue bounded on the altar. How do we re-connect our physical existence with the mystical dimension? How do we infuse a regenerative power back into money that honors the whole of our humanity?

This is why my story begins with money.

Streets of Old Shanghai

My experience with money at the early part of my life was drastically different from the standard of modern American life. I was born in 1973, when the communist regime of China was at its prime. My parents were astronomers working for the Academy of Science, a better-off position than average factory workers, teachers and clerks, and far better than peasants in the rural area which was about 70% of the population.

In the communist economy, every person in every walks of life earned a stipend stipulated by a government-sanctioned standard. It varied from province to province, but fluctuated very little according to one’s performance. It was not tightly associated with one’s sense of self-worth. A person’s self-worth, at that time, was deeply embedded in the web of family and social relationship. So it was extremely common for newly acquainted friends to check with each other, “Hey, how much wage do you earn in your profession?” (This was after they inquired each other about their ages, as in the traditional culture, people of greater age enjoyed a tremendous sense of pride.)

My parents’ wage, for a long time, hovered around about $10 a month per person. The stipend was just enough to cover food and basic necessities. I overheard a lot of distressed discussions between my parents at the end of the month about whether we should spend the remaining money on fruits or meat. Many types of food, commodities were rationed, such as rice, oil, sugar and fabric. In the early 80s, the most luxurious possessions in an average household in Shanghai, the most affluent city, would be a bicycle, a sewing machine and a radio. Housing was rationed too. For years, my parents, sister and I lived in a 150 square foot room where we ate, slept and entertained guests, sharing a common washroom with five other families. Everyone cooked in the hallway. No individual could own any property. Individual business was restricted to the sale of street food and manual labor. Private entrepreneurship was absolutely not allowed.

My family portrait taken in 1982. Upper row: my mother and father. Bottom: me and my little sister.

I was very fortunate to be born in a time of China when the 5000-year-old agriculture-based value system was still intact. Many of the most fulfilling and happiest moments of my earlier life took place in a material context that would be considered extreme poverty by the modern standard. However, having that experience instilled in me a solid sense of freedom, as it taught me that while material abundance can certainly enhance happiness, my happiness is not bounded by material possessions. It cultivated in me a viscerally felt sense of what is truly valuable in life, before value became extracted and externalized into linear numbers and external objects.

More importantly, this period of my life allowed me to experience a collective sense of worth before its degradation under the overpowering force of the monetary system later heavily laid upon the society after the rise of industrialization. Almost every Chinese person was endowed with this sense of collective self-worth as a flesh-and-blood carrier of the timeless wisdom and beauty we inherited from the beloved sages, artists, poets and heroes remembered and revered over 5000 years of history. When China finally flung her door open and joined the developed countries in competitions for economic and political power, this collective sense of self-worth, like a piece of heirloom abandoned in the attics, gradually lost its lusters, covered under the heavy dusts.

In 1995, I finished college in China and landed in the United States as a graduate student. I had about $100 in my pocket, a substantial amount considering my parents wage. My parents also had to clear out their savings, paying something equivalent to their whole year’s worth of earning in order to pay for the fees and air tickets for me to leave China.

The shock wave of moving to the US was monumental and took years to absorb. Among many dimensions of the cultural shock, the relationship with money was one of the greatest and most profound. I had to re-examine, question and deconstruct many deeply ingrained patterns in my relationship with money, and forge a new path of between the old and the new ways of being with money.

Fast-forwarding 13 years. In 2008, I was at the peak of my ride through the American middle class life. After obtaining a PhD in molecular biology and an equivalence of a Master degree in biostatistics, I joined one of the elite teams of genome research data analysts in a pharmaceutical company. My then husband Tao was a software engineer working for Microsoft. Both of us were earning a six-figure salary. We owned two investment houses in addition to the one we lived in, with a substantial investment portfolio and retirement fund. Financially, I ascended to a peak with a formidable height that no one in my familial lineage had ever dreamed about.

However, I had been planning to escape this life ever since I joined the company six years ago. All the way to that point, anything I had chosen to do in my life was for one purpose: immigrating to the US permanently. Before I had a permanent legal status, that job was the best option I had. I actually enjoyed data analysis skills immensely, writing computer codes to maneuver tens and millions of data points, creating visually compelling images, looking for patterns that would tell a plausible “story” out of the experiments we ran. My brain was thrilled with the gymnastic moves it was performing and the sense of power it was mastering. However, my heart was completely shut to my job. Something deep inside my heart was looking at the western paradigm of medicine with a cold contempt and unbearable disdain. For that reason, for the six years I was on this job, I felt as if I was a “brain prostitute”, having magnificent brain orgasms with a rich, old man that I did not love.

Pilgrimage trek at Mt Kawa Karpo, Yunnan Province, on the border of China and Tibet

Meanwhile, I was busy searching for what would fulfill my heart. I became obsessed with mountain climbing. My fingers grabbing the granite knobs on a vertical wall in the vast wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, with air, wind and clouds underneath my feet, felt eerily soothing and nurturing to my soul. But the more I fed into this hunger inside, the emptier it became. I had to search for higher and higher peaks, in increasingly remote settings. Eventually climbing took me to a sacred mountain range in Tibet. There, a window suddenly cracked open on a dead-end wall at the basement of my psyche, a gentle light of bliss suddenly poured in and bathed me in a way that I never felt before …

Once this light poured into my soul, I was forever changed. The internal structure that held me down at this job was quickly eroding away. But its complete collapse required something much more forceful.

In the spring of 2008, the Dalai Lama was invited to Seattle for the Seeds of Compassion conference. I volunteered myself in the inter-spirituality, inter-faith committee as the only Chinese woman among a group of rabbis, Ripoches, senior monks, and priests from various faith traditions. I was the only one without a title, affiliation or rank. I simply felt called to be there as myself. At the peak of the preparation of this event, blood-shed erupted in Tibet where hundreds of Tibetans were wounded and killed by Chinese soldiers. This happened right in the middle of the Chinese campaign for the upcoming Beijing Olympics. The western media, with its judgmental perspective bound by cultural ignorance, poured fuel on top of an already blazing fire of animosity and hatred between the Chinese and Tibetans. A tidal wave of currents violently clashed among Tibetans who were struck by grief, Chinese who felt attacked and besieged by the west and a western media whose ignorance intensified the polarization.

I felt I was caught in the middle of an inferno. I could not sleep, hardly eat for a month. I am biologically a Chinese, spiritually connected with Tibet and planted my life in the western world. I could put myself in all three contexts and related to all of these perspectives. And yet I could see how each one of them was limited by their blind spots and brought fear and destruction to each other and to themselves. I felt as if I was swallowing in all the grief, hatred, and fear of all these people, and they swirled into a giant black hole inside of my belly, out of which a thundering voice wanted to explode through my small body. It wanted to shout with a volume that would shake the whole earth, “NO! It is not supposed to be this way!” I felt if I had a thousand of bodies, each one of them would be shattered into tiniest pieces by this voice and I would feel into the pain of every bit of it for the eternity of time. In that inferno of pain, something inside of me collapsed …

The summer of 2008, I stepped into my boss’s office and told him I was planning to quit, not just my job but my career as a data analyst all together. To do what, I was not entirely sure. All I knew was something really wild and powerful was stirred up inside and I needed space to figure out what to do next.

Later that year, the stock market crashed and the “nest egg” my husband Tao and I were collecting in our investment portfolio was slashed into half. This has intensified the crisis in my marriage brought on by my abrupt decision to quit my career. Prior to this, my marriage had been the center pillar of my life. Tao and I were so content and fulfilled with each other that our life was overflowing with a sense happiness as pure and sweet as honey. We were a great team together. We first met each other as badminton partners competing in tournaments. Tao proposed to me on top of Mount Rainier, when the 14400 ft, glacier-clad mountain we just scaled was gleaming rosy red under the bliss of a glorious sunrise. We traveled to Tibet together on wild adventures and trekked in places that were still sleeping in a distant past. At the end of the last trekking trip, the van that took us down a steep pass suddenly lost control on the narrow dirt road with a thousand-foot drop on one side. We held hands and looked into each other’s eyes thinking the same thing, “Our life has been such a well-lived one. I would not regret if I die now with you by my side.”

The kind of terrain where Tao and I last trekked

The van eventually regained control and took us down the mountain safely. But the van of our marriage did crash. In the dark shadows of our unconscious, deep chasms that separated us became revealed after I made this impetuous decision to leave my career.

Tao at that time had a better sense of my drive to dive into the unknown than I did. I wanted to reassure him (and myself), “I don’t know what I would do next yet. But I will explore some and settle down in something again.”

Gazing into a distant future that I was too afraid to see myself, he said to me with a misty melancholy, “You would never stop exploring. It is your nature.”

His sadness came from a knowing that it was not his path to follow me in my adventure. We parted toward different directions on friendly terms. For the next three years, he would still take the best care of me like a brother and make sure that I was well adjusted for my journey ahead.

At the time when we went on our separate life paths, I realized that I had to count how much money I had so I could do some financial planning. Ironically, even though I always earned as much as and sometime more than the two husbands I had, psychologically, I completely depended on them to manage my relationship with money.

I always had an extreme aversion towards any practical dealing with money such as accounting, budgeting and investment, even though given my natural gift to work with numbers, I could easily excel at these tasks. This aversion was a reflection of the unbearable conflict between the pragmatic part of me that was deeply invested in the society and the mystic aspect of me that was tethered to the unseen reality evicted by modern culture.

Ever since I was young, I felt I had retained a memory of what existence felt like before birth and I longed to return there. However, I was born into a strictly atheist ideology tightly controlled by the communist regime, which threatened to cut out this mystical dimension of myself with brute force. I refused to give in as long as I could. To survive in that environment while keeping my connection with the unseen world intact felt like having an open wound being exposed to a knife blade every day. My childhood teetered on the border between life and death as the early years were strewn with serious diseases and close encounters with death.

As I grew older, eventually I learned to shield myself from the danger of the world through one thing: my relationship with men. I would attach myself to a strong, pragmatic, worldly man who would shield me from this harsh, grating world. I was married to two Chinese husbands, both attracted to me as I helped them connect to a dimension of their souls that they did not have direct access to. And I received the emotional nurturance I needed in order to thrive. In that nurturing, I blossomed and learned the skills required to survive and be valued by the society. I was very good at them. I also learned to enfold the mystical part of me, hiding it well from the outside world in order to play my role. But this irreconcilable conflict stopped me from fully engaging myself with the society. Money, as a dominant symbol of a society in denial of the mystical dimension, was completely blocked out by my mind. Before this divorce, I had no idea how much money I owned.

I discovered that if I liquidated everything, I would have about $400,000 in total assets under my name, among them $130,000 in my retirement account. That was an incredible amount of wealth considering where I started my life and my total lack of interest in earning and managing money. So there I was, for the first time in my 35 years of life, I was left alone with this pile of money, pondering, “How did I come here? What kind of future should I make for myself? What is the vision I will choose to guide my journey forward?”

As I sat down to retrace the steps that led to the accumulation of this wealth under my name, I could not help noticing that a string of decisions I made as early as 11, had played critical roles in catapulting me out of China and preparing me to launch into a financially rewarding career. But these decisions always came from a channel of myself that was outside the bounds of my normal mode of awareness, usually at a time of intensified crisis. When they first entered my awareness, these decisions often felt like a crazy intuition or reckless impulse. But later they proved to be very wise and profitable. Not only that, these decisions seem to entrain with a hidden but palpable pulse in the collective life of Chinese in the last 20 years.

At that time, my primary mode of operation was predominantly a scientist who worked from 9 to 5 in a conventional American corporation. Even though I did not like this mode of operation, I had no choice but let it steep through my veins and infiltrate my neural systems. I managed my life in a very pragmatic, efficiency-driven style. I dealt with numbers, data, and logic on a daily basis. My western-science trained, fact and evidence-based mentality was the primary framework I used to engage with the world. And it was precisely because of my well-honed skill of evaluating probability out of large amount of data and patterns, my scientist mind could not simply view how this money came to me as a random luck or a sheer accident. Instead, it felt as if there was a powerful purpose behind the scene driving the unfolding of a plot in which my normal consciousness was an actor being directed by an unseen director. I couldn’t help but ask, “What is this plot? Who is this director?”

Upon these questions, an answer arose from some dark crevices of my body, “This money did not belong to the me I know. It belonged to a part of me that I did not know.” At the bottom of my heart, from the surging ocean of pains that I tried to forget, I knew this money belonged to the Mystic Self I had to leave behind. The version of me I knew at the time was only its steward.

[To be continued]