Since 2013, Diego Perez has posted his poetry on his Instagram account—no fancy fonts, filters, or images of the Buddha, just simple black type on a white background. Perez, 34, better known by his pen name, Yung Pueblo (“young people”), was born in Ecuador and grew up in Boston. He began practicing Vipassana meditation as taught by S. N. Goenka shortly after graduating from college and getting clean from drugs and alcohol. His writing career—and viral poems—soon followed.
Tricycle recently spoke with Perez about his new book, Clarity and Connection, his pandemic practice, the challenge of connecting in a divisive era, the limitations of social media, and what comes next for him.
Tell me about your writing process for Clarity and Connection. How did you settle on the themes of relationships and self-awareness? The process for this book was very slow, very intentional. I’ve been slowly writing since I released my last book [Inward] in 2018. And then in 2020 when the pandemic started, I was like “Oh, I should have one of the main focuses of this book be relationships.” It felt like a natural jumping-off point from Inward, which was about individual personal transformation. This book is about what happens when you spend time getting to know and love yourself and about finding a practice: what a lot of people end up experiencing is a little more clarity. I found that to be the case in my own experience, as well as in that of my peers who meditate, go to therapy, or practice other forms of introspection. And through that clarity, our connections become deeper with friends and family and in intimate relationships. I try to express that bridge between inner work and outward harmony.
Can you talk a little bit about your writer’s voice and what sources you draw on in addition to Buddhism and your own experience? That’s it—it’s really just from direct experience, observations I’m making, and my Vipassana meditation practice. I have a lot of respect for Western psychology, but that’s just not my strong point. Oftentimes, what I end up writing other people can relate to because they are also struggling with anxiety or sadness or going through a serious transformation.
“The book is about what happens when you spend time getting to know and love yourself.”
There’s a lot of emphasis right now—and often for good reason—on what makes us different, what divides us. It’s really powerful and refreshing to read about the universal themes and emotions that unite us. Totally. I was raised in activist circles in Boston, and I started pretty young. So from around age 15 to 26, with a four-year break for college, I spent all my time immersed in different organizations that are doing amazing work. I got to witness people coming together around a common cause and saw how that can lead to actual, material change. But my own issues were not being resolved by being a part of groups. I did feel how good it was to serve other people, but ultimately the roots of my own mental tension were not being dealt with. I still had a lot of sadness and anxiety inside me. It wasn’t until I started meditating and dealing with these things that I saw the importance of individual transformation for building global peace.
Humanity is very young: that’s why I chose the name Yung Pueblo as a pen name, because there are these simple, fundamental things we were taught as children—like cleaning up after ourselves, not harming, telling the truth, and being kind—that we haven’t mastered as a collective. If we’re able to build up our self-love and know ourselves more, the likelihood of our causing harm to other people decreases. I took the approach that if I’m growing and gaining a lot from getting to know myself, I can write about it, and maybe it will help inspire others on their journey as well.
You have 1.3 million Instagram followers, and a lot of people come to hear you speak. It doesn’t seem to be a stretch that some might consider you a teacher. How does that sit with you? I definitely don’t see myself as a teacher. I think of myself as an explorer; I’m on this journey just like everybody else. What I hope to create is reflective material that can help people build their own self-awareness. And I benefit so much from being a student. The people I look up to as teachers, they’ve meditated for, like, fifty years and are so incredibly advanced and humble—their lights shine so brightly.
Instagram is kind of your bread and butter. I noticed there were some mentions of social media throughout your book, and there’s a poem I love that starts with “Let’s stop treating each other like machines.” Are you thinking about the limitations of social media and what comes next? I think about that often. We’ll see what the life spans of these platforms are and how they evolve. I try to be really careful with social media, and I notice the way it tries to turn you into a machine. And it’s not just social media: it’s our whole system of email, texting, and all these new forms of communication [that encourage us to] be as productive as possible. But every moment of interaction consumes energy, and it’s actually pretty exhausting. If all your friends and workmates have access to you, they all expect you to respond immediately. Are you going to have time for yourself?
I do, however, have to spend time on social media, and when I do, I set my timer for an hour and a half. My favorite thing is handing over my phone when I go on retreat so I can get unplugged and focus on meditating.
You’ve said you spend a lot of time on retreat. How has that changed with COVID? I spend more time in retreats! We [a few of the Goenka centers in the US including the one nearest Perez in Massachusetts] ended up building bubbles like the NBA and holding really small retreats, about 40 people or less. Everyone would get tested before they went in, and then we’d be on lockdown. We still wore masks and followed social distancing. And it worked great. So I was able to do a few courses during the pandemic.
And your personal practice? Vipassana for an hour and then about five minutes of metta in the morning and the evening. And I’ve been doing that for about six years now. When I first started meditating, I would get a lot of benefit from going on retreat; my mind felt a lot less dense. I had more emotional flexibility, and I could just feel what was happening inside me without trying to run away from it. But the big change came when I started meditating daily.
So what’s next? I love the idea of structural compassion—that we should be scaling up the compassion we express as individuals or in small groups. It’s something I address at the end of [Clarity and Connection] and want to build into more of my writing.
What I’m seeing is a really quiet but powerful movement of people figuring out how to heal themselves. And as people move through this process of healing, more of their real human nature is going to come forward, and there will be not only more love but also deeper creativity to look at old problems, make more compassionate solutions, and support communities.
Below, Perez reads two poems from Clarity and Connection.
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