on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

2022: 自乐 (self-amusement)

I write one of these every year to pair with my year-end review. Part of me ponders again what is the point of setting intentions for the year when the marking of a year is arbitrary, and it is actually really difficult to set intentions for the entire 365 days when conditions change so quickly in days, much less months. 2020 was very different in our imaginations when it first started I am sure, or even 2021. But it would be a fun exercise nonetheless, a snapshot of my psyche.

I wrote that for 2021 I wanted more emotional freedom. I feel that I worked deliberately hard on it, and I seem to have some results from it — though one can never tell if it is true freedom or some kind of subconscious blockage of feelings. Time will tell I guess, through the unfolding of events and the benefit of hindsight. For 2020 I want more of the same, and I’ll actively work towards a higher baseline of well-being.

In Chinese there is a phrase, “自乐”, which is loosely translated to self-amusement. It could also be translated as “self-joy”. I guess self-amusement and self-joy are not very different. If I can amuse myself, it would probably bring me joy. I aspire towards being capable of self-amusing, to derive a sense of joy emanating from my self.

I had a difficult time like anyone else since March 2020 started. Probably a lot less difficult than many other people, but still difficult nonetheless. I was used to having a huge array of available distractions and stimuli: travel, eating, delivering food and parcels, etc. Things got better when Singapore managed to lower her case count to mere single digits per day – we even ate out indoors a few times – then Delta hit. Vaccinations gave some hope, but it turned out one could still get pretty sick with Delta (and in truth, my real fear is long covid).

I just kept waiting for the whole thing to pass, so I can go back to my “regular” life. At this point in time, it isn’t clear when it is ever going to pass. I am sure it will somehow pass one day, or we will conjure up new ways of living with this virus, but right now it feels like this is going to be our new reality for a pretty long time.

Viruses mutate, they come and go. But the inability of human beings to prioritise the long-term over short-term, plus the obsession with defending their own tribal beliefs, are characteristics that have existed since the beginning of our history. Even if the virus situation eases, we still have to deal with climate change. We will somehow cope with it, like we always did, but coping is not the same as returning to whatever it was before.

On an abstract level looking at it through a Buddhist lens, things have always been the same: that they are never the same. There will always be chaos and suffering from the inability to accept change and decay.

As I walk into my 40s I am increasingly aware of the incoming losses I will have to endure as people around me age. The reality of what is going to happen will not change, but what I can hope for is for more capacity to regulate my internal states.

I have been through several stark changes in my life. The year I left SF I wasn’t expecting it at all. When the time came to leave I really had to leave, even if on some level I didn’t want to. This experience has left a deep imprint in me: I’ll never know when shit hits the fan. My now recurring migraines started around the same year and they never went away again. Who knows what is next? I don’t know what is going to happen in the next moment that will severely affect the quality and expectations of my life. I only know that it has happened before and it will happen again.

I also know I don’t want to spend so much time and energy mourning over what I cannot have, if I can even help it. In the time I have left, I don’t want my own miserable mind to be the source of my suffering. The suffering will come nonetheless from other sources, but imagine spending whatever short time I have left hating and berating myself?

I just want to be capable of living a little more, not trapped in the narrow confines of my mind. I want to my baseline state to be harmonious and well, not deprived and empty when I can’t access the things and activities I used to have. After all even in a state of voluntary semi-permanent lockdown, I can still create, read, listen to any music I want, watch fascinating videos on youtube, cook nourishing meals for myself, enjoy connecting to my partner, care for my family. I am still safe, for now. I have recurring migraines every month or so, but I can still breathe, I still enjoy days when I feel relatively normal, my heart doesn’t race wildly every time I stand up to walk, I can still think clearly even if in shorter spans compared to my younger days. Why do I need so much more to feel a baseline level of wellness?

I feel that after almost two years of this whole thing I have gotten better – through deliberate effort and active conditioning – at appreciating everything in my present moment instead of the continuous state of dissatisfaction I was in. I now appreciate that I can wash dishes with clean water, that I still have access to nutritious food, that my partner is alive in the same generation with me, that I have a safe roof over my head. These are things easy to take for granted, but I have also learnt to take less things for granted after all the unexpected losses in my life. On hindsight, those losses were valuable to me because I think they gave me the time I had needed to steady myself for even more losses. I don’t think I can ever be ready to endure loss, but being less surprised when it comes somewhat helps. Pre-emptive grief makes me cherish the present even more, though a little self-torturing. I try to strike a balance.

I am not always this lucid. I regress. But in writing this I hope I have a cornerstone to refer to when things get bad. I told my partner I see myself as a stew, with ingredients slowly simmering over time adding more flavour to the soup, very slowly but surely. I would like to further enrich my inner world through the course of my life, reminding myself that enrichment can arrive from unexpected sources. I would like my inner state of being to be a source of richness I can access at any point in time.

Life will inevitably make me sad, but it can’t take away the richness I have experienced and have accumulated in my self (unless I get some degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s but at least I hope to be as alive as possible till that point).