Because of multiple factors my mind seem to be perpetually stuck in an unwanted state of sadness, fatigue and paralysis. I have learnt that it is possible to break out of this state though it is not always successful. It is like trying to light a fire on a pile of wet logs. Generating that first spark can be the hardest.
I noticed this pattern where I’ll wake up in a state of depression, spend most of the day stuck in that funk, somehow by evening I feel better but the day is mostly gone. So that creates a vicious cycle because it makes me feel that I have wasted yet another day, even if intellectually I know I can only cope the way I know how to cope.
breaking loops with turning points
My partner tries to get me out of this by actively suggesting things I historically like to do. She encourages my ever-changing obsessions because she realised it was better for me to be obsessed about something. When I was obsessed with bicycles she suggested we visit bicycle shops. Along the way we’ll eat out, people watch, converse, perhaps drop into a few more interesting places. Though the initial idea felt tiring, most of the time it did make me feel better – if only I could even summon the will to get out of the house. It is like a turning point: the quality of the day changed because at a point of time we chose to take a different course. Turning points work because if someone is perpetually walking in circles (me), sometimes all we need to do is to lead that person out of that loop into an unexpected direction.
We will start to experience other emotions and thoughts out of our typical range, and that will create a sense of expanse in our narrow compressed mind. Often this sense of expanse breaks the stranglehold the mind has on us. Most of us believe that our mind is ours to think, but it often exerts disproportionate control over us without us even being aware of it (it is because evolutionarily going into auto-pilot mode is beneficial for our survival since it allows us to acquire skills and save time etc but this auto-pilot mode is not conscious whether whatever it is piloting is actually beneficial for you).
Apart from walking metaphorically or literally in an unexpected direction to create this sense of expanse, we can also learn new things. New skills give an expanded sense of self – I am different, I can do something different, I can be different, I can live differently. Depressed minds like mine often believes everything is the same and will be the same, so why bother trying? I am the same, I will end up being the same. No matter how nihilistic I am I know objectively that is not true, but it feels true.
Since the issue is that my mind is badly conditioned, the hope is in trying to recondition it. But it is not easy to overcome decades of conditioning. But I know I have had profound changes over the years that started out unnoticeable or trivial. Sometimes it may seem like we have changed overnight but every little nudge propels us into possible exponential pathways.
Caveat: I am not saying that we can do or think ourselves out of depression. Many of us may need professional help like medication or therapy – which both creates new pathways of thinking and brain wiring too. Not everyone has access to both, or perhaps it is not possible to find a good practitioner who is actually invested in us as a person versus them trying to act out their own narrow narratives in their heads. But anyhow this post is not about overcoming depression even though it may give this misperception. It is about me finding little ways to change the quality of my day.
a list of things I like to do to generate mini turning points
I thought it would be fun to share a list of things that generate mini turning points for me. I call them mini turning points because it is not like these will be major life-changing junctures, but they may be day-changing. Sometimes we just need an accumulative momentum of a few okay days.
In the spirit of sharing I tried to consider complexity and access in my suggestions. Even though this list works for me personally, I do hope some of you out there may find something feasible that may generate a mini turning point for you too.
go for a walk or a cycle
This requires a little physical energy and some will, since getting out of the house can be difficult for some people. But walks work not because of the exercise component – though it does help. Walks work because our brains need stimuli and novelty to generate certain hormones that play a major part in how we think and feel. On a walk I may see people walking their dogs with different sizes and temperaments. I love dogs, so seeing them automatically lifts my mood. I also like to observe how different people across all ages go about their day.
Cycling sometimes work better, if you could work up the energy to get the bicycle out of the door. It can be less tiring, and it is therapeutic to feel like we are gliding, feeling the wind on our faces.
A walk is a walk, no matter where. In Singapore we have plenty of malls, so sometimes we walk in a giant mall to get our steps in and escape the oppressive heat. Walking aside, we visit some of our favourite stores. For me, Kinokuniya at Ngee Ann City is a consistent favourite. Sometimes it is not about feeling happier, but it is also about feeling engaged with something. Walking through a bookstore is always engaging for me. The thought of being surrounded by people who also love books is already generating positive vibes for me. Speciality stores are fun too, because I may see something I’ve never seen before. Artisanal shops give me warm fuzzy feelings when I see somebody working so hard on their crafts. I like seeing how different business owners apply their creativity and vision. I also like old shops selling all sorts of weird things.
visit the library
Okay I admit I just like being surrounded by books. Just looking at the multitude of colourful book spines makes me feel better. But sometimes we may serendipitously discover a book that may be a turning point in itself.
visit the e-library
For energy-depleted days, we could browse overdrive/libby to browse thousands of books/magazines/comics/audibooks/etc. In Singapore we could even take Udemy courses for free. For people without access to libraries, try Standard Ebooks or or the Internet Archive. We don’t have to browse books to read them, we could just casually browse to see what is out there, or if you’re like me you could appreciate the book covers.
read a book
Several books have generated major turning points in my life. But I like reading for pleasure too, and sometimes it is just an exquisite experience to meet an author that can string words together like music. Or I appreciate being enriched by fiction that lets me experience the vast imagination of someone’s mind. But it can be difficult to read sometimes, so graphic novels work too. Or flipping visual books or magazines looking at pictures. Some people prefer graphic novels.
cook something simple
People like me are not good at taking care of ourselves. In fact, we are bad at it, often we heap more damage upon ourselves on top of what we’ve already suffered. So, it can be a radical act for us to do something that nourishes us instead, however small the act can be. Cook something simple: something that will take less than ten minutes and yet leave you with a sense of being nourished and accomplished. Scrambled eggs is my go to. Everyone can scramble eggs. It may become dry but still tasty, especially if you eat them with your favourite condiment.
explore a new food or beverage place
I love to eat and I love to explore, so this kills two birds with one stone. Apart from the eating experience itself, I also enjoy observing the entire experience as a whole: the interior decor, how the menus are designed, the culture of the service staff. It can also be little random things like observing what the service staff are eating for lunch when they eat in-house. I also like to try food items I have never eaten before. I had an iskender kebab a few months back and it was unforgettable.
draw something simple
This is something new to me. Drawing is one thing that takes me away from the noise of my mind. Many people think it requires talent to draw, but just like cooking, there is no rulebook that says we have to be chefs to cook or artists to draw. Food can taste satisfying and nourishing without being delicious or well-cooked, art is art without having to be aesthetic. Anyone can draw if they can draw simple shapes.
take a picture
The world can be an ugly place in many ways, but there are also pockets of beauty if our eyes are open to it. Practicing a mindset that we are always looking out for a potential photo to take can train our mind and eyes to look out for moments of beauty.
Sometimes I find a tiny bit of joy by observing people’s moments of joy, other times I am deeply envious.
listen to music
We don’t seem to purely listen to music anymore. It is always the background to something else. I find that when I remember to actually listen to music, I am transported into another world where my mind is in harmony. These days I like listening to old cantopop. Nostalgia is its own drug.
Sometimes it helps to translate that complex bundle of thoughts mixed with emotions into words. You would think I am pretty self-aware by now, but I find myself getting previously unknown insights about my psyche through writing my journal or even these blog posts. It can be private, it doesn’t even have to be coherent. It can take the form of a haiku:
why does this unease
incessantly plague my heart
See, I just wrote that in the last minute. It may sound like nonsense, but it is my expression. Haikus are fun because they are limiting, so we don’t have to feel like we have to write a wall of text.
We could have an anonymous tumblr account where we write our terrible haikus. Or an anonymous instagram account where we publish photos of curtains. Someone made a website on shoelaces. You could find inspiration from this reddit thread of strange projects people worked on alone. The point is not trying to find an audience, but to work on something that feels fun or meaningful or is a space where we can be truly ourselves. I recently made a tumblr for my drawing journey, and I didn’t tell a single soul about it. I just like looking at my drawings in one place.
Because I like to think of myself as a game character sometimes, I give myself imaginary points if I did something I felt was meaningful to me. So usually doing one thing will lead to something else on the above list. I could write a haiku that accompanies a photo, for example. Or bring a camera out on a walk. I read something while on the train to window shop, in the same trip we may try out a new eating place.
productivity vs creativity
This is not to encourage “productivity” in the way it is defined now in society, but to encourage opportunities for creativity, expansion, and aliveness. Being creative is not about aspirations or ideals, but rather a form of self-care by allowing our selves to have modes of expression, because society is so intent on compressing us into uniform squares. Creativity is a form of taking up space, having a voice, unfolding our selves. That is why it is meaningful to create, not because we want to be perceived as a creative person.
do something different
This is my list, so it may sound boring to you. Do something small. It doesn’t have to be something you enjoy, but something that gives you a sense of expanse. Not sure what does? Take the opportunity to try different things. Exploration and experimentation in itself is an expansive activity. Not everything will be fun, but with each thing we’ll learn something about our selves, which is also expansive.
a form of care for our selves
If you have a child, what would you do for them? Bring them out to have fun, experience new things, teach them new skills. We can attempt to do the same for ourselves. Be tender, kind, and fun-loving.
the accumulative effect
Some days I do nothing. Other days I can only manage one thing. But it all accumulates towards something. One mini turning point changes the quality of one day – perhaps I have one such day in a week, which I can think of fondly. Slowly, unconsciously, I am rewiring my brain to be more receptive and stop associating these activities with a sense of fatigue. The next time my partner asks me to have a drawing session with her, I am less inclined to hesitate (she’s been asking me for the past 7 years without success), because I was slowly accumulatively exposed to the meditative effects of drawing. If I had started with something complex I would have tired myself out and the next time I would have an unconscious gag reflex when I think about drawing (true story, it happened years ago and I stopped touching art materials until this year). Instead I amused myself with simple, ugly drawings that didn’t take up too much time or energy.
This rewires my brain towards the activity, and also rewires it towards the perception I have of my self. I am made aware that I can change. My mind has been a prison, seemingly narrow and rigid. Being able to change or learn something new is like having a tiny window pop up suddenly in my prison, letting some light shine through. Some day the prison may feel larger and I am able to move more freely. Maybe one day the walls may disappear. Or I learn to coexist with my prison without feeling imprisoned: when the passing of time feels different, we become different. When we become different, the ways we respond to our environment transforms.