I don’t think I have ever felt better. Better, not because of any sense of exhilaration or progress, but better in terms of how I feel and where I am.
This is just the mid-year mark, though one of the biggest lessons I have learned is to not be obsessed about timelines and milestones, but to cherish and be truly present with how I feel at this very moment. To care about just the very end feels very narrow, because it is the awareness of what had transpired that truly matters.
My original hypothesis was that if I focused on my self, it would be the foundational block to everything else in my life. At the beginning it was difficult to truly buy into my own hypothesis, I had to work against a lifetime of conditioning — how many of us are taught that the sanctity of our very selves is one of the most important elements in our lives?
Six months on, I think this is one of the best things I could ever have done. Early on I had to learn to ignore as much noise as possible — internally and externally — and simply trust the process. I had nothing much to lose, if nothing comes out of this I would just be back to where I was, but I had everything to gain otherwise.
Just making this choice—to put my self above everything else — is a huge signal to my psyche. After years of self-neglect and abuse, trying to put everything and everyone above myself but spectacularly failing, it had felt like my body had all but given up on me. I was having difficulty breathing, I would often be unable to fall asleep because my heart was constantly racing, my tear ducts and oil glands in my eyes were thoroughly borked, I was tired and sad all the time.
In a short 6 months or less, I feel better than ever. What changed? I’ll attempt to document it below:
Compounding keystone habits
One of the first things I did was to develop keystone habits which I believe would be foundational to my well-being and would develop my resilience.
I wrote 750words, swam and read everyday. There were dark, cold rainy nights and I would still jump into the pool swearing, no matter how tired or unwilling I was, just not to break my streak.
As you can see from above, it took me a while to get the momentum going, but once I started, it became so ingrained in me that I had found it difficult to stop.
They were impactful habits to have on their own, but the compound effect of doing them together was immeasurably powerful. My newfound physical resilience clearly impacted my emotional and mental resilience.
I didn’t know this earlier, that having a community of people who fundamentally understood me and shared a history with me was integral to my well-being. Having a diverse array of people around me gave me the capacity to understand the wholeness of who I am. Previously I had felt one-dimensional due to my obsession with work, but making space for people in my life has added a sort of dimensionality I never really had the maturity to observe until now. This is one of my favourite quotes:
”Whenever someone who knows you disappears, you lose one version of yourself. Yourself as you were seen, as you were judged to be. Lover or enemy, mother or friend, those who know us construct us, and their several knowings slant the different facets of our characters like diamond-cutter’s tools. Each such loss is a step leading to the grave, where all versions blend and end.” — Salman Rushdie
I used to be terrible with people and I was always too busy drowning in my own broken psyche to care about anyone else. The past 6 months, having had so much more time and space freed up, I was able to show up and be present for the people I love. It has made all the difference to my sense of connection to the world. A simple act like having dinner with my parents regularly, feels unexpectedly grounding.
After a lifetime of trying to run away, I have finally learned how to be still in order to be rooted, be rooted in order to grow, and there is nothing more rooting than having an intricate web of love surrounding us.
Sometime around March I went into another existential crisis. I have them all the time, but this time since I practically was free to do anything I wanted, it didn’t seem to make sense. The unconscious psyche doesn’t ever make sense, I have come to realise.
I got to a point where I felt like I was free to do anything I wanted and be however I wanted, and I still didn’t feel life had much incentive for me to live. That is a terrible sentiment to have, to imagine having all the liberty one can possibly have and still feel trapped in this life.
I sat with it, and I think was crucial that I had my keystone habits, because no matter how existential I had felt, I still swam, read and wrote everyday.
Working on my experiments took more of a toll on me than I realised, it is precisely because I had the space to do anything I wanted, I felt compelled to match that with the intensity of my output. I didn’t want to waste the time and space I was given, I had to churn out the bulk of the ideas stuck in my head before the year ends. I wanted to take them as far as I could before going back into “reality”.
But I forgot the original point of this year was to focus on my self, not my work — no matter how much I love my work, how important I think it is, how much an extension it is of me. I think it was integral that I worked freely on it, but I started to tie my identity to it once again, that if I didn’t work hard enough I would be less of a person deserving my time and space.
It was only upon hindsight that I realised my experiments needed space to sit too, that the relentless focus on them would not benefit them in the long run, because I couldn’t retain the wider perspective necessary generate the needed range of diverse, serendipitous outcomes for a more dynamic convergence they would have had if I was simply less attached to their outcomes.
In parallel I started to contemplate nunhood seriously for a while, before wondering if I could practice the embodying philosophy in secular society.
Three parallel events brought me back into this world:
- Reading Neil Gaiman’s “The ocean at the end of the lane.” Reading once again, had lifted me out of my darkness.
- Realising it came from a point of arrogance to assume I know everything of life, that what I know of life now is enough to determine whether I wanted to be alive or not. I recognised I needed to have the humility to realise that I will never know if it was worth it until the very end.
- Trying to embody the Buddhist way of life, to let go of all that I was, all that I wanted, all that I was attached to, in order to just be.
Is life worth living solely because of life? The detached observer in me tells me I don’t have the whole picture yet. As long as I am still alive, I am ignorant of the whole picture, and I cannot let what I feel now rob me of the finality I will one day face, that at the very least, I owe it to myself and those who love me, to at least sit it out for myself to truly answer my own question. — the whole picture
The chart on the left is my weight chart. I put on roughly 15 pounds since moving to the US, with the last 8 pounds accumulated in merely 3 months at the tail-end of my time in SF. I have an unhealthy relationship with food, and I binge-eat under stress.
Since moving back I had a sharp drop because I started swimming and being stricter on my diet, mostly to avoid sugar. Then it fluctuated around the same level from mid-November to mid-April, before having another sharp drop after, which coincided with an epiphany I had around April:
“Anything of deliberate excess is always compensating a lack somewhere.” — dayone entry
I realised I kept craving for food or other things in my life because I wasn’t whole enough. With that awareness I started to put a lot more focus on my internal self, to build it up so much that I would stop needing to compensate myself for my perceived lack.
I decided I needed to build up an inner-world so rich that I would stop feeling the need to reach out for other ways of satisfying that lack. It occurred to me I should start immersing myself in fiction again, back into the worlds of magic, witches and dragons.
I don’t know how to explain it rationally, but it worked. Immersing myself in the imaginations of other people allowed me to feel connected to the world again, to discover my sense of self, knowing that I am expanding my own imagination at the same time. I felt like I was truly feeding myself. It was during this period that I read “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” which snapped me out of my dark spiral, as mentioned above.
It was intriguing that I stopped controlling my diet, yet I was consistently losing weight still. It then occurred to me that my weight co-related with my anxiety levels. Returning to Singapore reduced my anxiety significantly, then it hovered for a few months while I was still in transition, before easing almost completely to normal levels once I let go of myself fully, and started to feed myself with books instead of food.
Apart from the impact on my hormones and neuro-chemistry, I think my body had finally recognised that I was safe, that I didn’t need to additional storage to tide me through perceived danger.
This is where I am at right now. I don’t know if this state could be sustained, but I have been feeling and living in a state of just being for roughly a month now:
By having no pre-conceived notion of who I want to become or what I want to accomplish, by letting go of these expectations whether it comes internally or externally, I am beginning to experience what life can be if I simply allow myself to unfold, to embrace every moment, cherish it and yet have the courage to let them all go. — on being
It feels like this is a consequence of the past 6 months, and the past 6 months were only possible because of the last decade of my life. This is what it feels like to finally be at peace with my existence, and perhaps it doesn’t matter if this would last, but I want to cherish how light I feel now, after feeling like I’ve been dragging a ton of weight my entire life.
The above process of letting go seemed to be the final act in that chapter of my life, moving back from San Francisco. I felt like I needed to go through that existential crisis, because I was simply letting go of whatever remnants of that identity, the person who wanted so much out of her life.
I feel like I have nothing to ask for now, but everything to look forward to. I am not looking forward to any outcome or accomplishment, not to any dream, ambition or imagined future. I am looking forward to what life has in store for me. I want to be here so I can have enough data points to finally know, if life itself is worth living on the virtue of life itself.
I don’t want to be known as the person who did all those experiments, or anything that I have done or did not do. I want to be known as the person capable of living life itself.
It goes back to the sanctity of the self, and my belief that we can’t gift without first learning who we are and what we can bring to the table. We often learn in youth to emulate other role models, but there must come a point where we have to discover — what is the unique expression of ourselves we can bring that isn’t easily replaceable?
Once I have that awareness, I started to understand why it is important to protect the sanctity and sovereignty of myself in order to fully be present with the world, to be truly alive as the individual self whom I am, not a poor emulation of somebody else I don’t even want to be, or let anyone reduce me because they think they have a better idea of who I should become.
I left this at the end because it is bordering on metaphysics, and yet it is perhaps the most important. I don’t think I could have done this at all if at some level I didn’t learn how to trust myself or the Universe. Once I let my old self go and learned to somewhat just be, a series of events started to happen spontaneously and serendipitously, contributing to an increasing level of well-being, a deepening awareness of who I am in relation to the world.
I am not sure what the next 6 months would look like, or even the next 6 days. I now have a hyper-awareness of time and space, that it takes a split second to have a life-changing moment of clarity. I was released from the monotony and routine of having a regular job, a repetition that makes me feel like I have all the time in the world because the passing of time is felt less when there is no change.
The biggest takeaway for me, is learning how to have the underlying awareness that I don’t know enough, to be able to endure and yet thrive on that unknown — that in order for me to truly feel the pulse of life, to experience that fullness of life, I just have to keep treading into the unknown, to keep letting go of what I know, in order to come close to knowing life for what it is.
I came into this year thinking that it was a sabbatical from reality, only to realise it is just the beginning of a new reality, a new way of life, a new way of being. With knowledge comes power, with power comes responsibility, and I don’t think I can go back to what life used to be, knowing I can possibly live so much more, only if I have the continued courage to keep self-destructing, in exchange for opportunities of regeneration.
In merely 6 months I have radically shifted my position in terms of who I can be and what I can do in relation to the greater whole, I know I have become so much better as a person to the people around me, so much more efficient to the work I seek to do. So I cannot help but wonder in parallel, what are we losing out as a species by keeping each other in narrow spaces and definitions?
I leave us to contemplate this quote someone presented to me yestersay:
“A person is a person because of other persons.” — South Sotho Proverb.