On Being, 84

The old man danced in the cafe and appeared to have no worries in life. Alice doesn’t know that her story stuck with me. I don’t remember her exact words. I don’t remember what she said that he said. I do remember making the decision: Yes, I want to be eighty four years young, dancing in a cafe. That’s my dream age, and sometimes, that’s how I choose to act.

When I stated my goals of my sabbatical, one intention included:

Work (doing) is a distraction from life (being), and I am pursuing a different awareness of my preferred balance.

The balance is a hot pursuit. Taking a sabbatical has largely been an experiment in retirement. Well-known graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister speaks about his own sabbatical philosophy: taking the first five years of retirement and distributing one year of retirement every seven years of his career. His idea stuck with me after the second time I watched his talk. I’ve observed my grandparents in their different forms of retirement, and I recognize that if I want to be at peace with that lifestyle someday, I need to start now. The me who loves to get things done will suffer immensely if I feel my being is insignificant at an age when it is perhaps my most – or my only – significance.

The balance of doing and being ebbs and flows. I’m naturally a do-er. My Enneagram personality type 3 description aptly explains that:

“Threes know how good it feels to develop themselves and contribute their abilities to the world, and also enjoy motivating others to greater personal achievements than others thought they were capable of.”

THE ACHIEVER, Enneagram Type Three, Enneagram Institute

My personality hyper-focuses on getting things “done”, on gauging my worth by my productivity, and on human doing instead of human being. To make matters harder, my drive is largely about the “done” and less about the act of “doing.” It’s about the destination, not the journey. In the past three-and-a-half months, my effort, my exertion has tended toward shifting the mentality and slowing down. I am focused on operating at a lower speed and enjoying the thrill of deceleration, acceleration, and everything in between. Maybe you know the feeling of braking? The body leans forward to counterbalance the shifting momentum. I’m slowing from a run to a walk, tapping the brake pedal while driving a car, pulling the brakes to bring a bike to a surprise stop sign. It costs energy to slow down, to lean against the forces of the world, and I want to enjoy the experience when I spend energy. I want to be in balance instead of in opposition with the world. I am practicing what New York Times columnist Bonnie Tsui calls “fallow time” in her summer op-ed: You Are Doing Something Important When You Aren’t Doing Anything. I am practicing the act of slowing down, of speeding up, of moving with awareness of my speed.

Awareness of being is also a critical aspect of yoga philosophy. While some modern yoga forms focus heavily on achieving a specific shape, the ancient philosophy also emphasizes the process of finding the shape. Furthermore, the shapes of yoga (the asana) are vessels for the mind to calm and for me to start observing myself. Being in a human body necessitates being aware, of the physical body, the mind body, the breath, and many more aspects. Part of yoga entails the process of becoming aware: the process – not the achievement – of awareness.

Despite the fact that I don’t go to work, I wake up every morning around 6 or 7, write two or three pages in my journal, sometimes meditate, and often practice yoga for anywhere between 5 and 90 minutes. The whole routine takes between one and three hours. Are you impressed? I made myself a poster of goals, separated by today, this week, and upcoming. I needed this structure. I started logging my to-do list in the beloved Asana software system that I learned to love in my work at Formlabs. Are you impressed? I try to make plans to socialize or meet with at least one friend or acquaintance every day. Some days, I swim, bike, or run. One day a few weeks ago, I wrote a short yoga sequence, then biked 45 miles through the forests north of Berlin, came home, relaxed (shocking, I know!), and talked to two close friends on the phone, for an hour each. Are you impressed?

I eat at least two scoops of ice cream every day. Now are you impressed? 😉

“Look at me. I’m impressive. I’m developing myself.” The gut-wrenching truth of being a “three” is that I want to be affirmed, to distinguish myself from others, to have attention, to be admired, and to impress others. The motivation to achieve is innate to my being. Being a three isn’t enough; I need to constantly prove myself by doing. If my truth sounds harsh, I recognize that other personalities are motivated by: incessantly righting injustice, (over)extending altruism to be helpful, ensuring their own originality, knowing and understanding, creating only secure relationships, creating constant happiness, maintaining strength and power, or stabilizing peace.

I recognize that I shouldn’t change who I inherently am, and in this recognition, I want to fully embody myself. If I’m driven to get things done, at least I want to enjoy the doing by having awareness of my being. My to-do list has become a curation of the experiences I want to have, rather than the tasks I want to say I’ve done.

When I talk about my sabbatical, many people admire my courage and even express jealousy. This isn’t what I ask for, but it’s what I see. Everyone wants a sabbatical and “fun”employment. Tongue-in-cheek “fun,” if the verbal sarcasm is not obvious.

My truth is that moments of self-doubt pepper between every one of my daily achievements. The Enneagram also describes:

“Threes want success because they are afraid of disappearing into a chasm of emptiness and worthlessness: without the increased attention and feeling of accomplishment which success usually brings, Threes fear that they are nobody and have no value.”

Even though I told her, I’m not sure whether Adriana – an Italian – knows what her words meant when we snacked on pastries on Sunday: “I don’t like when people describe themselves by what they do. ‘I am a graphic designer.’ No. I am working as a graphic designer, but graphic design is not who I am. I am a person with a personality. Who I am is not what I do. I’m fine to talk about what I do, but it’s not the first thing I will say when someone asks me to describe myself.”

I wish this post had a visual. I want to unfold the thoughts that pass through my brain. A picture might speak a thousand words, but I’m afraid that even a thousand words can’t explain the challenge that an achievement-oriented person experiences in separating their value from their achievement. I think this mentality is ubiquitous in the United States, and I’m taking a different perspective.

I am more than my accomplishments. I am enough for my being. I remind myself this almost every day, sometimes multiple times. And I think that it’s slowly starting to work. I’m peeling away my attachment to my achievements. This band-aid requires a slow peel. There’s no high-speed route to calming the mind that feeds on business.

I challenge you – next time you think to ask “what are you doing?,” “what do you do?,” “what did you do today?,” or any semblance of creating value by evaluating someone’s productivity – instead ask “how are you feeling?,” “what is your way of being,” “how did you feel today?,” “how do you want to feel on your vacation?,” “what does it feel like to be you?”… and be ready to answer in return. Yes, these questions sound like nonsense to a mind that struggles to be. And if you catch yourself neigh saying, chances are high that you’re like me, ripe for the challenge. It’s not easy being human, is it?

Hence why I’m practicing to be 84.

My Privileged Diet

“Is this normal for you?” I asked my Italian-Danish friend at the counter of Social Foodies, a Danish shop that partners with African farmers to create quality food and sustain value in both communities. Why ask? Regardless of normality, ice cream before lunch is one decision I unapologetically support.

We tasted flavors like havtorn (sea-buckthorn/berry) and meandered through the coastal neighborhood to reach the beach, where small children enjoyed the seaweed strewn shoreline and their parents observed casually. As we dodged kids ferrying wet sand and toys and tiptoed over ripples of seaweed, I wondered for how many people was this just another day and how many families came to the beach because of the pseudo-holiday. The Danish government is required to call an election no later than four years after the previous, and this year, they chose to coincide with the national Constitution Day.

“So what’s the political state in Denmark these days?” I asked Nicola, back at home, between bites of fresh pasta and vegetables, facing each other with sunlight fully illuminating our skin and the peaceful ambiance of his rose garden below.

He explained that the immigration debate receded and climate is the critical topic of debate. A total of eleven parties nominated candidates and campaigned in this election, and the winners would be responsible for forming a coalition with their peers after the election. The liberal parties claimed that we are not doing enough to protect the environment and live sustainably. The parties that side with the conservative coalition took the position that the world is in tact and governmental policies have done enough to support and protect the planet. I wondered what affect this warm, sunshiny day would have on last-minute voters: yes, the planet is fine; no, this is abnormal. The next day, I learned that less than 5% of Denmark’s land is “wild,” the way it would be untouched by humankind. I wonder whether the myths of nostalgia or future distort voters’ perception.

I journeyed into the city by train, and spent the afternoon exploring the progressive cuisine and wares of Torvehallerne: ice cream made from bananas, oats, and dates; natural organic skincare products; potato-rosemary Skyr; vegan sandwiches; a real butcher, next to a knife sharpener and vendor; juices and health shots of many varieties; and a surprising amount of plastic packaging.

I stopped to write at Paludan Bogen, my favorite cafe. In the midst of reflective writing exercises, I recognized a burning desire to swim. I set that mini-goal for myself and stopped at Svanemølle Strand on the train journey homeward. I found the beachfront full of cheerful, attractive Danish families enjoying their half-day holiday. I wondered if the weather would decrease voter turn out. (The numbers showed 84.6% of registered voters participated, whereas in 2015, 85.9% cast their ballots.) The frigid water temperature quickly deterred any desire to do serious swimming, but I enjoyed a quick dip and an hour of reading in the sunlight.

Back at home, Nicola and Jonas arrived with a small batch of fresh produce to host friends for an election dinner and watch party. We cooked together and set the table in the garden. Promptly at 8:00, we needed to be in the living room to watch the first results from the exit polls. The news anchor announced the preliminary results with sophisticated graphics and live video broadcasts interspersed from each party’s election. In spite of not knowing enough Danish to understand the full broadcast, I was impressed about how well all three Danes and the two non-Danish residents explained the positions of each party and their opinions on whether their results were favorable. We watched the broadcast, with progressive updates as actual votes returned from the polls, for about two hours before people filtered out and decided to go home. The conservative, anti-immigration parties lost about half their support compared to the previous election, and the so-called “red bloc” saw gains. Fortunately for everyone, the openly racist, homophobic candidate didn’t earn the 2% of votes that are required to gain seats in parliament.

In the subsequent two days, I spent my afternoon at Respond, a conference hosted by the Danish engineering association, featuring talks and exhibitions about engineering a more sustainable future, including perspectives on food security, environmental stewardship, and management of plastic and toxic waste. The first speaker I heard asked how many audience members work for companies that have clear commitments to meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. I didn’t raise my hand; I don’t even know what the SDGs include, and I felt a pang of guilt that these important global needs aren’t a part of my conscience or dialogue. Two days later, I saw the SDGs advertised in the Vejle city center and again in a poster in my other friends’ home office. Get it together, Stephen. What can you do to contribute? I’m making a point to learn about the SDGs and figure out where I can incorporate them in my lifestyle and being. I side with the leftist Danes who believe that we – the humans who live and work on this earth today – need to live and work far differently, so that the planet will be a healthier ecosystem for all species to live and work in the future.

My privilege is having the choice to spend time on a beach with clean water and warm sunshine. My privilege is eating and cooking with fruits and vegetables that are imported from throughout the world and paying prices as if they came from the local farm; bananas don’t grow in North America or Europe, and apples don’t grow in June. My privilege is eating homemade venison meatballs on Saturday evening, from a deer that my friend shot on Tuesday. My privilege is paying less – financially – to fly from Berlin to Copenhagen than to take a train. My privilege is affording what I want to eat, and not limiting myself to a budget of starch and beans. My privilege is having the freedom to not eat everything on my plate if I feel full, while knowing that 1/3 of all food production goes to the trash. My privilege is having the financial security to spend multiple months traveling and living, without earning a paycheck, knowing there are people that can’t afford to miss a single hour of work, even when they’re sick.

Inconvenience costs now; convenience costs later.

“Is this normal for me?” Yes, my normalcy is full of privilege, and I believe it won’t last forever. I refuse to be unapologetically privileged. I’m committed to understanding my privilege and making decisions that allow more of the world to eat ice cream at 10:30 am, or at all.

Life on Pause

I’m on the brink. Literally on the border. My train from Copenhagen to Stockholm stopped at a non-central station just across the border. 10:55. The train host alternates announcements in Swedish and English. The police shot a man in Malmö central train station, and now the bomb squad is searching the station and surrounding area. We don’t have any further information. So our train is waiting to pass through. Symbolism? I’m in this period where I’m pausing, watching the construction cranes nearby and the wind blow, while I get my bearings. Other people are working, building, moving; I’m contemplating, holding steady. I’ll grant myself “permission” to continue my working life when the time comes.

For now, I am where I am, on a non-moving train passing between foreign countries. It’s the tail end of five days in Denmark. The universe pauses my movement, reminding me to embrace the privilege of returning to a country I learned to love eight years ago. I’m grateful. Tusindtak, Danmark. A thousand thank yous.

You’re welcome to leave the train for fresh air on the platform. 11:07 am. After a brief hesitation, I leave my stuff in my seat and go outside. I film myself doing a few minutes of yoga on the train platform. What a special place to breathe, to move, and to wake my mind from the previous trains’ slumber.

I arrived on one-way flight early last Wednesday morning. It’s a quick 50-minute flight from Berlin. I’m becoming more conscious of the carbon impact of flying, and I’ve chosen to take as many other legs as possible by… train. I also wanted to slow down. I’m not in a hurry. I guess today that includes a full pause.

I didn’t have plans for Copenhagen. A generous Italian friend from my study abroad days agreed to host me in the beautiful suburban apartment that he now owns with his Danish boyfriend. I caught the train from the airport to their place, and then sat at the kitchen table with Nicola while he took a work call and ran wastewater runoff simulations. The thrilling life of a wastewater engineer, eh. Meanwhile, I discovered that the Danish national engineering association would be hosting an event focused on “how science and technology can be used to develop new solutions to global challenges,” so I put the Respond Festival on my to-do list for Thursday and Friday.

Nicola and I stepped out to walk to the nearby coast and — pause.

Sometimes, we have to take a few steps backward. I’m in the middle of writing about Denmark while leaving Denmark. 12:18. The train has been canceled. Please disembark and make other arrangements or contact the customer service. It’s an odd feeling: to be just out of reach of something familiar and into the unknown. A million options circulated in my head: go back to Copenhagen and fly, wait here until the trains resume, cancel the Stockholm portion altogether, find a bus to Stockholm…

I milled around the deserted city square with a hundred or so other passengers, all with canceled journeys and little information. Some spoke Swedish and wanted to get home. Some spoke English and wanted to go anywhere. Some I didn’t have any idea what they spoke, thought, or where they wanted to be. Our shared oblivion brought me peace of mind. We all wanted to be on our way to somewhere else, but what could we do? This wasn’t anyone’s fault, and none of us have control. I watched the departure schedule flash a train to Copenhagen every 20 minutes, each marked delayed or canceled for the next few hours. I went down the escalator, affirmed that the trains were still not boarding. I rode back up, affirmed that the departures were flashing more delays and cancellations. I went down again. The train host said we could go to Malmö Central and wait until they allow passengers in to talk to the customer service desk. It’s easy to feel confused when there’s no answer. Everyone was equally in limbo. I thanked her.

I wanted to stay in Denmark longer, and I booked the trip to Stockholm in order to volunteer at a conference on the future of food. I couldn’t control the timing of such an interesting opportunity, and saying yes to this open door felt right. The conference guide advised us to wear black pants, which I didn’t pack. Time to go shopping!? I wandered into the posh mall across the street from Malmö’s Hyllie train station and spotted everyone’s favorite Swedish brand, H&M. Nothing like trying on new clothes with a backpack full of clothes in tow. After scouring the racks, I purchased a pair that fit and felt properly European. 13:55. I needed to charge my phone. I wanted to eat my Danish kanelsnegl cinnamon bun — and I wanted more deeply to eat it when I wasn’t aimlessly confused. I also needed to figure out where I was going and how to get there. I stopped at the mall information kiosk, and the middle-age blonde Swedish woman was very helpful to advise me where I could charge my phone and that if I crossed the city square, there were buses to the Copenhagen airport, just 30 minutes away. Aha!

After a few minutes of charging while looking at flight and train options, I crossed the square to find the parking lot mixed with Denmark’s public DSB buses and charter buses displaying the DSB ticker. Ah…. relief. The charter bus driver gleefully welcomed me. I plopped my bags in a seat, noted the electrical outlet under the window, and exhaled every vertebrae into the seat. Wow, I spotted a sign. They even have free Wi-Fi on this bus. The woman in the row behind me confirmed that the journey was free and would take about 30 minutes. This all felt like a good sign. I gleefully ate my kanelsnegl.

As the bus departed, I continued to search flight and train options on a half-dozen browser tabs in my phone. 14:37. Balancing time – when could I surely reach the airport? – cost – would the train company refund me? reimburse other bookings? including flights? – and security – when could anyone safely travel through Malmö again by train? – I opted for a 7pm flight from Copenhagen. Ugh, I don’t want to fly, but I need to get there. The bus arrived at the Swedish border, and two police officers boarded to quickly inspect every passenger’s passport. The bus continued and crossed the bridge that I’d filmed in reverse just three hours before. After three failed attempts — I’m sure my bank is thoroughly confused by my travel activity and last minute expenses in unfamiliar locations — I booked the flight from my phone, and noted that I had four hours to cancel without penalty.

I smiled, perhaps inside and outside, as I walked back into the airport terminal where I’d arrived last Wednesday morning. I didn’t expect to be back here so soon. I spotted the Swedish train kiosk and browsed the touchscreen for additional trains. The 16:36 departure glitched. Canceled? Unknown? The 18:36 departure was bookable but would mean a midnight arrival. Meh. I wandered further into the terminal to find the Norwegian Air flights, meanwhile looking at train options on my phone. Oooh, an overnight train with a sleeper car option. And it’s cheaper than flying.

Standing in front of the Norwegian Air check-in counter, I fumbled through their two-factor authentication log-in system, and yes, I canceled my flight. I didn’t want to fly anyway! 15:32. I immediately booked the sleeper train and bought myself six hours of free time in Copenhagen… what a dream. I could go anywhere. With two clicks, I bought a ticket into the city center on my phone, grabbed a seat at the front of the driverless metro, and ventured toward my favorite cafe, Paludan Bogen.

And here I am. Delayed. Paused. Relaxed. At home. 17:29.

Nicola and I stepped out to walk to the nearby coast and — pause. We went for ice cream last Wednesday morning, and that’s what I’ll probably do again soon.

A Letter From My Future Self

In the opening days of yoga teacher training, our lead teachers instructed me to write a letter to myself. I would read it at the end of the training in three weeks. What did I hope to accomplish? Did I show up every day – why? What would I congratulate my future self for? An achievement? A feeling? A way of being? I thought, wrote quickly, folded the paper several times, and – hurried by their encouragement of me being last – tossed my wishes for myself in a bowl with the others.


We closed the last practice – as always – with savasana, corpse pose, the final resting posture of yoga. I lie on my back, arms at my sides, palms upward, legs resting wherever they fell. My neighbor sniffled, and I jealously imagined tears trickling from her eyes. My breath rose, held, fell, and slowed. I lay in complete relaxation, and my thoughts wandered until my mind settled in the dreamlike abyss.

Anton’s voice brought me to. I wiggled my fingers, toes, and lips. I rolled into a cross-legged seat and opened my eyes, surprised to see this letter resting at the top of my mat:

Dear Stephen,

You never could have imagined this three or four months ago, but wow, you are free and opened yourself to honesty and exploration of yourself, the human body, the emotions and intellect, and these strangers that became close friends.

Remember when Anton asked who thought they would soar without faltering? You found those places where weakness felt like the only form of strength, and you let it be, exist, and happen. On the night of the altar, you spoke about the potential for everything that is simultaneous with nothing, the balance of calm and chaos in your life. You’ve seen those counterparts compete and come together, balancing yourself in new ways. Physical, emotional, spiritual.

You played big. You impressed yourself, without wondering about what others think. You dreamt this day would come, and you, yes you, made it happen. Congratulations on making this happen.

And maybe you learned to say a few more things in five words,

❤ Stephen

I sat awestruck. My past mindset brought my potential to fruition. I conceived the reality that I desired for myself. I put it the work. I trusted the process. I’m grateful.

Landing, Balanced, On My Feet and Hands

I jumped. I leaped. I broke from (paused) my job, and I went in search – not of answers, but of questions. My head riddled with unanswered anxiety:

  • What do I want?
  • Where do I want to go?
  • What’s my vision for my life?
  • What am I searching for?
  • What am I afraid of?
  • What do I love to do? What brings me strength? Joy?
  • Who am I doing it for?
  • What’s my commitment?

All these, yet I wanted more. I wanted less, all the same. I wanted clear, concise questions. I wanted not to know what mattered to me, but to know that “what matters to me?” is worth asking. I wanted to ask whether how I spend my energy every day can align with who I am.

Reflecting in Lisbon before reaching Cocoon in Alentejo.

I got it all, and then some.


I spent twenty-five days with Anton Brandt and The Sacred Fig yoga school in coastal Alentejo, Portugal at his newly established farm-retreat center, Cocoon. The two-hundred-plus hour training curriculum afforded space for self-exploration, physical challenge, and emotional development. Anton assembles world-class faculty to teach yoga asana, philosophy, anatomy, and other related topics. Anton knows a lot, creates each moment with compassion and focus, and doesn’t claim to know what he doesn’t. His second-to-none authenticity transpired in my deeply meaningful experience, embraced by a cocoon of indelible support.

A large portion of the class convened on the sidewalk of a bustling commercial in central Lisbon to board a bus southward to Cocoon.

“Hi, I’m Kirandeep. I work in procurement, but I’m in between jobs right now.”
“I’m Timna. I work as a trauma surgeon, but I’m tired of working 12-14 hour shifts and needed a break.”
“I’m Miles. I freelance in web development, and I’m getting ready to spend a year working remotely.”

I hesitate to put names and labels on these people, because they’re so much more than their job title and the handful of words I use to describe them. What I mean to communicate is our simultaneous diversity and common ground; we traveled from far and wide with a shared desire for a deeper understanding of our place in the world.

Teachers and students who became teachers. All of us continue as students of our practice before we can serve others as their teacher.

The Sanskrit word “yoga” has many definitions. Most yoga students and teachers agree that yoga means unity and oneness. Etymologically related to “yoke,” yoga describes the binding of oneself within (ie connecting the conscious and non-conscious self) and the self with the social/external universe. Yoga’s existential contemplation carries philosophical implications. Rebecca Ketchum flowed seamlessly into the curriculum to introduce the ancient yogic texts (the Yoga Sutra and the Bhagivad Gita), Ayurvedic principles, and her own grafting of yoga’s spiritual elements in her Judeo-Christian roots. The dominant yoga of today’s western world isolates asana – the bodily practice of postures and shapes – and largely glazes over the other seven limbs of yoga. To understand more about yoga philosophy, consider some basic research on the eight limbs of yoga or the Yoga Sutra.

My own yoga practice partly roots in creating solace from trying times. The other moments cultivate a calm mind and physical relief before and after running, cycling, and swimming. When I felt the slightest overwhelmed, I grounded myself in breath and movement. I felt comforted by the fact that so many other students had similar states of their curricular selves: recently quit a job, in a transition back to school, untangling questions about challenging personal relationships, etc. I wanted more than a hundred warriors – I, II, or III – and needed more than an up dog to raise my spirits. In entering my yoga teacher training, I sought – and found – evolution through introspection.

I learned to hold space for myself, through noble silence, and for others, through being present for whatever emotions arose. Words matter, deeply. Alongside Matt Corker, we practiced speaking impeccably – without speaking against ourselves or others – and teaching with minimum relevant words. We also studied how to support one another without words. By physically existing in someone else’s presence, I can honor their needs, and if they consent, my being can support theirs with physical touch. To the courageous (meaning: of the heart) question “can I have a hug?,” an authentic affirmation speaks more than a thousand words. Likewise, when I, as a yoga teacher, support students with a physical adjustment, I give them a new, different, and perhaps better experience in their own body.

The privilege of yoga teacher training is to have five (or more) friends supporting me physically and emotionally.

Anton and his team asked two things of us each day:

  1. Show up on time.
  2. Have a positive attitude.

These “rules” closely follow my own leadership philosophy:

  1. Be there.
  2. Play and have fun.
  3. Byproduct / default result: Win.

I found it easy to show up and say “yes” in most moments; I showed up on time for everything. My full self revealed itself and evolved in the moments where I resisted, when my mind spiraled and I saw the world around me as a foreign obstruction. There were several moments where I fought anger and feigned willingness. I chose to perceive something about other peoples’ way of being as personally offensive, and I suffered for it. As I observed myself in these moments, I stepped back to process the thoughts and let go of my attachment to my way of thinking. With this mindset, I returned to flourishing with a positive attitude.

Preparing for our graduation photo – all smiles!

I jumped. I leaped. I landed. On my own two feet. On my hands. My head balanced on my shoulders – or sometimes supporting them. I live in the supportive embrace of loving humans, and I am embracing our shared inevitable being. We breathe alone, together. I move with you, on my own.


Thanks for reading! Want to know more about my experience in yoga teacher training? I plan to write and share more. Leave a comment below to ask a question or suggest a topic.