I'm a pretty confident person. I'm confident in what I know, what I think I know, and what I think I want to know. Years of working experience? Check? Startup and corporate experience? Check? Good education? Check. I've gotten to where I am today precisely because of all of this, but mostly because all of those things reinforced what I believed—mainly about myself and of other people.
Then, the day came when I convened with my colleague and friend at a spa. You know, one of those Korean spas that have different sauna rooms, baths, floors for men and women, a restaurant, and a relaxation area. I knew of these places. I've been before. I knew what I was going to do when I checked in: go straight for the cafeteria, order a nice beverage, and chill.
Before going in though, I share a bottle of water with my friend—call him “Rob—”, diluted with half a tab of LSD. I've taken it before, so this was definitely going to be something I was going to go into knowing exactly what I wanted out of it. No surprises.
I didn't know a damn thing. I knew nothing.
Getting ourselves into the men's change room area, I realize I wasn't actually quite comfortable taking off my clothes. Perhaps it was that years have gone by since being in a boy's change room at the school gym in grade school, but, it was a bit embarrassing. But, the rules of the spa are clear: you must shower before entering the spa and pool areas. Rob asks me to get undressed and I reluctantly do so. This was the first indicator that I was no longer in my zone of control.
We proceed to the shower area. Along the way, I observe naked men walking around everywhere. Anyone walking around is either fully naked or has a towel hovering over their crotch. "Okay, I can deal with this," I think to myself. But truth be told, I’m still a bit uncomfortable—not because there’s a bunch of naked men walking around, but because I’m naked. It’s not because I’m surrounded by naked people, it’s because my dick is hanging out for everyone to see.
After showering, we decide it’s time to jump into the medium-hot pool. There are two other people in there already, but this doesn’t bother me. At this point, I’m already committed to getting in and letting the warm water swallow me up to my neck.
“Not bad,” I think to myself. We continue to wade in the pool and I begin to feel a bit more relaxed. Everyone’s minding their own business and I’m just there with Rob. The honest truth, however, is that although I’ve been to Korean spas before, I’ve never taken off my clothes.
This was the start of my mind being stripped down naked.
After the pool, I walk back to the locker area, where Rob finds me there in the process of putting on some of the clothes the spa had given to us. We got a t-shirt and a pair of shorts each. Rob tells me that I should probably stay naked because we’ll be going into the hot saunas. I tell Rob, it’s alright, I can wear my shorts and shirt, I don’t want to sweat.
“You don’t want to sweat!?” he says, laughing. “Tuan, I feel like that statement kind of sums your personality up, right? You just don’t want to sweat!”
Our other friend, who’s now there with us, joins in and laughs at me too.
In my mind, I’m thinking: that was taking way out of context. I’ve never backed down from “doing a thing.” I didn’t ever back down from a challenge or “getting the job done.”
Before we go into the hot sauna though, I go up for a vape break. Walking up the stairs to the roof-top lounge, my mind replays everything just said. I can’t sweat. That’s bullshit I think to myself. I get to the roof and start vaping. Now I’m in control again, I think. I got my vape, it’s outdoors, I’m dressed, no one’s looking at my dick now.
But the thoughts begin eating away at me. It’s been a year trying to get close to Rob. It’s been full of invisible walls, and misunderstandings. No matter what I had tried, I was always not fully comfortable talking to him directly.
Rob’s both a long-time friend and a work colleague. We’ve done work together in a limited capacity before, but never like this. Now we’re both cofounders of a company, and that requires an entirely different approach—an approach that I thought I knew. But it was never quite working out, and I hadn’t figured out why it was, and how to make it work.
I continue vaping, and my mind starts to work fast. My thoughts are streaming smoothly through, but they’re streaming fast. I feel like I needed a breakthrough somehow. I think to myself that perhaps after our spa day, I could sit with him somewhere comfortable and talk it through.
This wasn’t going to happen.
After vaping, I go back down to meet up with my friends. Rob immediately tells me we’re going to go into the steam sauna. Shit. I’m going to be dirty again and it’s going to take another shower.
We get into the steam sauna and it’s nearly unbearable. My face and body immediately get hit with 100% hot moisture. We both sit down on the bench and I’m literally dying. Rob’s fine. He looks over at me and nods. I’m not nodding. I’m wiping the wetness from my eyes—it’s stinging. Sweat and steam is dripping furiously down every part of my body, and I just can’t get the sting out of my eyes.
Rob says to me, “it’s pain, I know. A lot of pain. When you eat less sodium and work out regularly, your sweat doesn’t sting. Adjust yourself. Mind over matter. Later, you don’t even feel the sting.”
I think “yeah, right.” But, I try to breathe in slowly as Rob instructs. I take deep breaths and try to calm my head. I’m in it deep now.
Ten minutes pass and we decide to leave and go into the cold pool. I think to myself it’s another thing I don’t want to subject myself to. But, we leave the steam sauna and walk over to the very hot pool and everyone jumps in. I get told to jump in too.
“Oh, this isn’t as bad as I thought,” I say. I receive nods of matter of fact. Early, I was sure I was going to be scorched, but now? The heat of the hot tub is actually starting to soothe my mind. My thoughts now start to race. I think back to the moment I was vaping earlier and those uncomfortable thoughts. But my thoughts jump back and forth between how comfortable the hot bath is actually now, compared to how I imagined it to be. Maybe then, if I just get real with Rob, it wouldn’t be as bad as I imagined.
Another 10 minutes pass and we agree to jump into the cold tub. This time, I feel I’m ready for whatever comes my way. We walk over to the cold bath, still naked this entire time. In we go.
Ice cold. At this point, I am half screaming because of the temperature shock to my skin. I shiver for a bit but I relax faster than I did in the steam sauna. At this point, my body doesn’t know what to feel and neither does my mind. Rob describes to me the feeling of being thrown from one unexpected thing into another and the chaos of it all I’m actually starting to numb.
Then the thoughts suddenly pour out. I start to tell Rob what I really think.
My mouth doesn’t stop moving. I say things to him I didn’t think I would say to anyone. I tell him I’ve been dishonest—not so much a liar, but in the fact that I hadn’t let him see the real me, or anyone else for that matter. I told him what makes me nervous, what makes me scared, what makes me feel uncomfortable.
I tell Rob I was manipulating and lensing. I’m always telling people that communication is important, but I wasn’t actually doing what I told people they should do. I was manipulating myself because my methods worked before. I’ve been successful in my life until the last year. I was confident, and now I’m not. But I keep speaking. I tell him what scares me.
Then everything in front of me starts moving. The floor, the walls, the ceiling, everything starts moving up like I was falling over even though I wasn’t. I look at Rob and tell him I’m feeling really dizzy. He takes me out of the cold pool and we sit on the ground to get me stable. And then he does something unexpected: Rob reaches out with his hand so I could hold on to it. My soul cracks.
My vision begins to turn like a Ferris wheel, but I don't stop speaking. My words continue to come out unhinged. He looks at me and I talk to him with my eyes glued to him to non-verbally tell him to listen to what I’m saying. I cringe internally at all the things I’m saying to him because they’re all the things that I’m weak at, all the things that I don’t normally let people see. They’re the dirty underwear beneath my clothes. But I can't hide beneath them anymore. I’m butt-naked in front of him.
There’s a Steve Jobs commencement speech, that by now, is world-famous. In it, Jobs speaks about life, death, and being naked. I’ve watched this speech hundreds of times. It meant something intellectual to me before, but this time when I recall it, it’s something else—something a lot more personal and visceral: ego-death and being naked, really naked.
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked,” — Steve Jobs.
Everything that I thought the day at the spa would be like, turned out entirely different than I had imagined. I played it in my head before, but none of what I went through was what I thought would happen. I thought certain things would be uncomfortable. I thought I didn’t want to sweat because it’d make me feel dirty. In fact, I would have even preferred to have stayed in my own clothes than change into the spa’s offerings. Clean and comfortable.
After a shower, we walked back into the change room. The day was coming to a close and we needed to go grab dinner. I wasn’t feeling dizzy anymore and was back to being sober and alert. But I remember clearly what I just went through.
I approach my locker, open it, and get myself dressed. I then stare into the empty locker for a while.
A lot of what we imagine in our heads is often either more beautiful than we think or a lot more ugly than it really is. I pushed and deflected things away from me that I thought would be uncomfortable, and so when forced to deal with things, I had trouble and overwhelmed myself with stress. I had lied to myself that I would deal with things in the best way I knew but was resisted trying anything new. I didn’t want to disrupt the comfort of my own mind. Not only was I unwilling to sweat physically, but I was a wimp mentally. I made simulations in my head before taking any kind of action. I knew my roads well, and I refused any other paths. But nothing prepared me for just being pushed into action—pushed into being blown off course.
All this time, I had denied myself to experience the new, to learn, to grow. I had made my own identity, was proud of it and was fixated on having others be like me. Anything else was uncomfortable. My own ego had granted me my own self-worth but also stunted my path to growth. In short, my inability to deal with uncomfortable situations from my own life's past dramas, lead me down a destructive way of thinking and prevented me from exploring a wider range of possibilities.
I walked into a spa dressed, but when the day was over, I left naked. The clothes I came with were precious to me, and while it was hard to let them go, I did. I left the clothes I had been wearing for years in my locker—not the denim jeans or shirt I came in with, but the identity that I had once so confidently dressed myself in.