on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

a tiny blip is perhaps still a blip

Rome was such a surreal experience. Surrounded by ruins that are 2,000 years old, I am filled with awe, wonder, curiousity, and yet in lying in the background was an unshakable sense of impermanence. 2000 years later, we can only form hypotheses of what had actually happened, and what was once so painstakingly built and glorious is now very beautiful rubble.

Today I woke up with a depressive claustrophobia, a pervasive feeling I often have – that I am trapped in my life, my body, and my mind. I used to spiral hopelessly into the depths of these feelings and they would render me handicapped. I would be unable to surface out of these feelings, and I would feel like I am drowning in an unending ocean of sadness and bleakness. These days, I still spiral, but on the side I am observing myself with almost cruel humour, wondering why do I give so much power to my feelings, why are mere bodily sensations capable of such control over my life?

I think about how we are a species and a civilisation run on feelings: pride, self-importance, saviour complexes, grudges, vengeances, the desire for validation, control, comfort and pleasure, etc. How much of our history is played out a certain way because of someone’s feelings?

I find it interesting to juxtapose the vividness, the seeming importance of my feelings right at this very moment against a place that has contained the passing of 2,000 years. There were probably once dreams, ambitions, broken hearts, courage, bitterness held by the people who lived here 2,000 years ago, and now there are virtually no traces. Nobody remembers who they are, unless their name happens to be Julius Caesar, nobody cares how much or how little they have felt. I bet nobody really cares about Caesar too.

Everything is just a blip in the ruthless passage of time – that is if we actually believe in time although quantum physicists would argue otherwise – we could see that nothing really matters or we could argue that a tiny blip is still a blip. My current view – subject to evolution – is that to live a sustainable, healthy, meaningful life, one has to know when to zoom out and when to embrace the tiny moments. That life is full of paradoxes, such as even if nothing really matters in the grand scheme of things, the fact that we are choosing to believe we matter, the fact that we somehow still care, that is something worthwhile to think about. Nothing in this world points to the fact that we matter (unless you are religious but I am not) or that we have to care for the other. I complain a lot that as a species human beings are both suicidal and homicidal, but to endeavour to care for the greater good, that there are some of us who wish to care for all sentient beings, that is something that is uniquely human (for now).

Another paradox: in what we know about human psychology, we need to learn how to care about our feelings before we can truly let them go. A sign of an imbalanced psyche is obsession, like my obsessive ruminating sadness. It is not something that I can control, but the more I ignore my feelings, the more they haunt me. In relation to my earlier point, because we are ruled so much by our emotions, I think true freedom in life is emotional freedom: the ability to choose what are the feelings we want to have, which are the ones we have to let go of, or to just co-exist with them without letting them consume us. Imagine what life can be without our invisible chains…to not blindly pursue something simply because we were conditioned to, but to really learn how we truly wish to exist for that tiny blip in an infinite, possibly inherently meaningless universe. Some people choose to believe the meaning of life is what we choose to give it meaning, but in reality, how many of us have the capacity to do so (that is not profoundly influenced by conditioning or limited by circumstances)?

Can I give them a piece of me?

[tw: depression] I was telling my partner a few days ago that if I could, I would divide myself into ten pieces and give them to anybody who wants it: my privilege, my life span, whatever assets I do have, my functioning organs, etc. If I could do this without making anybody feel pain, I would.

I just don’t enjoy life very much. That’s why I get triggered when someone says innocuously that I seem to be enjoying my life because they saw the photos I post. I post pictures publicly because I want to share whatever beauty I do experience, but that doesn’t mean beyond those photos I am enjoying life.

Life feels like a long drag to me. Sometimes I am really tired of trying to do so much just to be functioning. I am constantly exhausted and sad. But I try to be otherwise for the people around me, because I don’t want to cause any suffering to them. The better my life gets (better in terms of how the world measure better), the more guilt and weight I experience, because it makes me feel tremendously bad that some stranger out there will never get the same opportunities I have had, and yet it feels I’m squandering everything. Telling me I have it better than many other people makes me feel worse.

I have the most wonderful thing I can have in this world. The love of my partner. But it doesn’t make me feel less exhausted or sad. She cannot take away whatever that is so deeply etched into my body and soul. But she softens the edges, and I appreciate her witnessing. Because she is the only person who sees everything I have been through – beyond the smiles other people see on my face.

My life is a lifelong explanation. I am constantly explaining: yes I know I have a lot compared to other people, no I cannot think away my depression, do you know depression is a neurological disease, no I did not imagine my migraines, yes I quit my very promising career because it was slowly killing me, no I am not lazy my brain has problems with dopamine, no I am not travelling because I enjoy life, I am travelling to distract myself from my pain, to convince myself there is beauty, yes I know I am loved, sorry knowing I am loved is not enough to make me want to live, sorry I am just so incapable of living, yes I know people are suffering so much elsewhere it makes me so sad and here I am wallowing – can I give them a piece of me?

I try to keep my head above the water. I do not wish to contribute to more suffering in this world, so I try to keep myself alive. I don’t want to make people feel sad by letting them see my sadness, so I laugh, and I smile. I keep my answers superficial, to keep my own weight from weighing down others. I just get so tired sometimes.

I can only fully exist with her, and here. I guess that is more than I can ask for, in a world like this.

the weight of my footprints

It was very intentional when I named this space a public journal. I was hoping that the word journal would inherently mean that the writing here is transitionary and unedited – I mean who edits their journal? The word journal means “daily” in Old French, which even though I didn’t know this till now, I wanted to be able to post more frequently than the current once per week frequency.

It is not that I don’t have enough to write. Maybe because of the nature of my self, my writing has centered around topics like the meaning of existence, personal suffering and the expression of my heavy thoughts. Everytime I start a new piece I feel like I have to make Some Great Point. But plenty of times I just want to write, just for the sheer pleasure of it or simply for the desire the express what goes on in my inner world, no matter how incoherent, no matter how insignificant the details are to the audience.

I used to be a lot more afraid of what people think of me – in this context, if I write something Not Interesting Enough – but since I’ve been cannibalising my own identity I care a lot less about that. I still care, just that it no longer bothers me enough. I think it is like an invisible prison to be subscribed to Some Great Idea of our selves.

There was this vivid moment one day this year, probably spurred by a conversation with my partner that I asked: so what if people think I am a loser? That was followed by, so what if I am really a loser? I don’t know how and when, but suddenly it didn’t matter so much anymore, the idea that I could possibly be a loser. Also suddenly, I started to wonder why the hell did it make me hurt so much? The only possible explanation I could conjure is: we’re programmed instinctively to react badly to being perceived as useless, because that could threaten our survival in more primitive times. It is still threatening now, but at the very least we don’t get kicked out of our tribe and be left out to die in the open because they would rather conserve their resources than to feed a seemingly “useless” person. As I am writing this, I question too, is that a myth? There were probably tribes who were better at taking care of their weak, depending on their collective strength.

The process of personal transformation fascinates me. Time and time again, I had suddenly realised how certain things that used to bother me so, so much, no longer has power over me. It doesn’t feel very linear or gradual. It sort of snowballs in the background.

Last weekend, I was a panel to talk about passion and suffering. To cope with my social anxiety, I made a deck of slides to cue myself on what I wanted to say. I am relatively cynical, so I am not sure a ten-minute lightning talk would be meaningful or have an actual impact. But see, this is a pervasive old narrative I have, that things we choose to do have to be impactful or it is not worth doing. I want to be able to do things simply because I think I want to do them, and there could be a multitude of reasons why. In this case, I am not sure how people felt after listening, but the day after while walking to get breakfast alone I felt this inner-clarity: that the deck of slides was only made possible because of the past few years of self-analysis and investigation into my own suffering. It may not change anyone else’s life, but the process that cumulated into those slides changed mine.

I was only able to spend this much time because I quit my job and industry. I am in a privileged position for sure. I know not everyone can do this, and I have immense existential and survivor’s guilt. But to have that privilege and still continue to be a blind asshole is something I don’t want for myself. I have come to a point where I deeply recognised that my own suffering has caused me to relate to other people and myself in various unhealthy ways. It has handicapped me psychologically, emotionally and physically.

I get triggered all the time. I still do. These triggers cause me to react unhealthily to them, and I lose the capacity to respond meaningfully. It could be something as innocuous as a colleague making a remark about me, and I feel like they are attacking my entire integrity. Or I spend days ruminating over something someone said, and it may not even be directed at me. I had constantly passed on my suffering to other people unconsciously. It could be a passive aggressive joke. Or giving people advice through my narrow worldview. Or something a lot more gray and subtle like over-empathising with someone’s suffering and enabling their behaviour. Or to not be capable of seeing the whole and reacting poorly because I felt threatened.

It is of no wonder I felt so exhausted all the time. I was also exhausting people all the time. To be able to look back and clearly see that is saddening, threatening and yet illuminating. To go from I think I was a Very Nice Person to OMG I was an Unconscious Unaware Unintentional Asshole has been quite a process.

It has been a long journey, to develop the self-compassion for myself because I just couldn’t see an alternative timeline for myself, and yet to accept my role in my circumstances. The acceptance of my personal role is a shock to my identity, and I could say the majority of it was unconscious, but the power comes from making the decision to try to re-inhabit that role, this time with as much consciousness and agency as possible.

I change not because I want to be a better person, not because I want to change the world, but simply because I wish to reduce my own suffering. The hope in reducing one’s suffering comes from the hope that despite overwhelming odds, we can attempt to transform our inner-worlds, so that our inner-worlds can co-exist peacefully and meaningfully with the outer-world. I may not change the world, but I have changed my personal world: the dynamics of the relationships I have with other people and my self.

While I am still alive and I cannot prevent myself from interacting with the outer world, I wish to have a lighter footprint on other lives. Not because I wish to be a saint, but because the weight of my own footprints make me suffer.

This is not the content of the slides I presented even though I used some of its images, but rather some personal thoughts and feelings in relation to it. Hopefully I’ll get to post the actual content soon.

To acquaint myself with nothing

I have just finished two books on the concept of nothing: a book on John Cage, titled “Where the heart beats“, and Jenny Odell’s “How to do nothing“. I picked up the former first, so I had no idea that serendipitously Odell would attribute a life-changing moment to a performance of John Cage’s music:

This particular night, I had come to see the symphony perform pieces from John Cage’s Song Books. Cage is most famous for 4′33″, a three-movement piece in which a pianist plays nothing. While that piece often gets written off as a conceptual art stunt, it’s actually quite profound: each time it’s performed, the ambient sound, including coughs, uncomfortable laughter, and chair scrapes, is what makes up the piece…I walked out of the symphony hall down Grove Street to catch the MUNI, and heard every sound with a new clarity—the cars, the footsteps, the wind, the electric buses. Actually, it wasn’t so much that I heard these clearly as that I heard them at all. How was it, I wondered, that I could have lived in a city for four years already—even having walked down this street after a symphony performance so many times—and never have actually heard anything?

Contrast this with the reaction when Cage’s 4′33″ was performed the first time in 1952:

The furor that arose around 4′33″ inflamed the town for weeks afterward. The anger was so great, Cage observed, that he lost friends. “They missed the point,” he said. “There is no such thing as silence.”

Imagine doing something you consider your life’s work and it was so provocative that it made you lose friends. But decades later Cage’s music would be performed by the San Francisco Symphony and it would change Jenny Odell’s life, and she in turn, would create a talk and a book that would inspire countless others. I love these connections that span across generations of history. Cage himself was inspired by Zen, a philosophy thousands of years in the making, fused with both Taoist and Buddhist principles. I wonder who would be a world-changing beneficiary of Odell’s book, and who will they pass the baton to?

I return to the concept of nothing. As Cage stated, there is no such thing as silence – perhaps nothing is a space where we reduce so much of noise, that it allows us to notice what is really there. This is one of the main takeaways from both of those books.

To be able to do nothing is a privilege, as Odell acknowledges in her book. But it is also a privilege many people these days can afford but do not use, as they opt to get busier and busier, using busyness as a virtue signal. I had found myself returning back to my workaholic patterns whether I was doing volunteer work, taking a sabbatical, or more recently, delivering food. I learned that changing my external circumstances can only affect so much, and it is my internal programming that haunts me whatever I do, even when I attempt to do nothing.

Odell tells a story about a man who quit his job in his early 20s because he became ill due to stress, and after two years of travelling he founded a retreat that allowed people to digitally detox. Unfortunately he passed away at 32 due to brain cancer, and in an eulogy for him:

In his eulogy, Poswolsky says that Felix “dreamed of escaping the stress of running Camp and moving to a beautiful farm somewhere in the redwoods where he could just listen to records all day with Brooke.” He also recalls that Felix sometimes talked of buying land in northern California. Even farther from the city than the old Camp Grounded, this new retreat would let them do whatever they wanted, including nothing: “we could just relax and look up at the trees.”

We often escape from one stressor to another. Doing nothing sounds really idyllic and simple until we actually try to live it. I just got back from ten days of travelling when right after I fell sick because I tried to do too much. Four years since quitting my last full-time job, I still suck at doing less, much less nothing.

After years of experimenting with various diets, habits and regimes it finally occurred to me that my problem could be me. I just don’t have the capacity to notice when my body has had enough. I am constantly trying to actively shape my life and body into submission, into states I imagine and predefine as optimal. But what does my body really want, and what do I really need?

I feel like I’m nearing the age of 40 and I still don’t know how to take care of myself, much less others. Society has conditioned us to believe in certain wants and needs, and humanity too, has been actively shaping the world into submission, into states we imagine and predefine as optimal. We need more imagination and introspection in designing our society and lives, but we are still caught in vicious loops of busyness, never stopping to question like Odell does in her book:

Productivity that produces what? Successful in what way, and for whom?

People often mistake the call to do nothing as simply for rest and restoration. We stop there. We think only losers need rest. Apart from the research that shows creativity takes place in a space free of distractions and interruptions, and that we need rest to be alive – it is only when we enter states of quietness that we notice things that have always been there, but too busy to notice. Just like how Odell only starting to notice all the sounds after listening to Cage’s 4’33”.

By allowing our internal programming and external conditioning to drive us to our busyness, we deprive ourselves of the wholeness and fullness of life, the world and our selves could have been. We don’t notice what we are losing, or destroying.

In a personal context, I have been chronically suicidal since I was a kid, and only in recent years have I begun to question my perception. What I see is what society has taught me to see, and I would like to enter a life where I learn to see out of the narrow boundaries that modern society has bestowed upon me. For Jenny Odell it was birdwatching, for John Cage it was the sound of silence, I am not sure what would it be for me. But it was only after I removed as many external stressors I could remove, that I noticed how powerful my internal programming was. What would it be like to live a life being as aware as possible of my unconscious drives, and being capable of overriding it with conscious intentions? I don’t know, I haven’t lived that life before, and I am only just beginning to learn how to.

I look forward to be acquainted more with nothing.

I plan to write full reviews of these two books, but just wanted to document some transitionary thoughts post-reading them.

learning to co-exist with uncomfortable feelings

Most days I wake up with a sense of fatigue, dread and a profound sadness. If you were to ask me why, I don’t really know. I feel like I was born burnt out. Sometimes when I am in a better state, I think I am simply in a vicious loop where my chronic fatigue and depression causes me to make unhealthy decisions for myself, spiralling me deeper. I also think that existing in a perpetual state of existential despair traps me in a state where I am unable to elevate myself above my own thinking. I cannot see beyond the narrow corners of my mind.

I don’t cope very well with my existential anxiety and dread, so I numb myself with food and seeking new experiences. They come back when the novelty of my experiences wear off, or I am in a situation where novelty is difficult to come by. But I’m growing to be increasingly aware that I am avoiding my existential feelings, instead of just being blindly driven by an unconscious urge.

Plenty of times, the intellectual knowledge that I have doesn’t match up with the way I act and live. But it helps. Reading zen books has given me this foundation of knowing that I need to learn to sit with my anxiety. To be friends with it. To be okay with not seeking an out. I wish to be capable of inquiring into it. Why am I feeling this way? Maybe it is like a zen koan, if I keep sitting with the question over and over again, perhaps the answer will come to me in a flash of insight.

But even as I know this I continue to avoid myself. I go on social media or try to discover new things to do. Delivering food was such a good distraction. Sometimes I give up, so I just mope. I curl up in bed immersed in my profound sadness. Yet the sadness too, is a distraction. The sadness is too overwhelming for me to sit quietly with my ball of feelings to try to be with them instead of despairing over them.

I do think I am getting slightly closer to these feelings, and to myself. I feel increasingly comfortable with being lonely in my path in my search for some existential equilibrium. It feels hard and I crave to be soothed, and yet I know so much of life is all about being capable of co-existing with chaos and discomfort.

Somehow, humanity is this giant narrative of doing things together. It is always about society, community, togetherness. But that is not my life. Throughout history, solitary people meditating on life has always been in the minority. That sudden realisation gave me some comfort: that maybe I am alone in my social circles, but I am definitely not alone in the course of history.

For a long time I’ve contemplated being a nun. But I don’t believe in religions, and I did feel like my previous motivation was one of escapism. Now I feel like I am finally able to be in a position where I am questioning the need for categories and labels, as well as the idea of forging my own way forward. I would like to go deeper into life, and I think one of the blessings of the modern world is that we no longer have to choose something to believe in or to belong to. I can be guided by a diverse blend of everything beautiful in the wide spectrum of human practice and thought.

hope in the inevitability of climate change

I’ve been living my life as though the world is going to end. Everyone has a personal choice in how they choose to cope with the impending effects of climate change – grief, action, paralysis, denial, optimism – for me, it is a combination of trying to experience the world’s beauty as much as possible before it is too late, and trying to prepare my consciousness to withstand whatever that is going to come, for better or for worse.

I feel a little resentful, just a little. I think earlier generations had to cope with a ton of hardship, war, sickness and very often, premature deaths. But now, as we’re on the cusp of figuring out how to avoid all of that, we are going to have to learn how to cope with living in a world that is going to be inhospitable. It will not be like a war that we can choose to stop, or a medical breakthrough we need to have, or safety standards we need to uphold; we will have to figure out how to live when we can no longer breathe freely, grow fresh food, drink fresh water.

From my very shallow depth of understanding – I think I have yet to learn enough – I think this was inevitable. Looking at our history and psychology, I don’t see how we could have avoided this. Our brains have not evolved to a point where we can make conscious enlightened decisions yet. How many of us eat food we know that is unhealthy for us, spend the money that we should have kept for our future, text the ex we should not even have fallen in love with in the first place, lose our cool with people we shouldn’t have, consciously or unconsciously oppress other minorities, perpetuate systemic injustices without even being aware of it? After generations of celebrating power, having been taught that you’ll rise to the top and earn the fear and respect of your fellow human beings if you oppress the hell out of them, earn more money from them than they can afford to spend by convincing them to buy things that they don’t need, try to kill your competitors whether metaphorically or literally – now we expect the people in power to develop a social conscience after all they have done to deaden themselves in order to become powerful?

We are a society that celebrate the rich and powerful. We admire them, make them our heroes, find excuses for them when they turn out to be assholes, we want to become them. Most of us covet power in different forms – most of us don’t have the wholeness nor the education to know what to do with power when we’re handed with it. We are complicit in this system and we enable this behaviour by continuing to perpetuate and celebrate it.

So we end up with a world with a poor power distribution where the powerful minority is capable of determining the trajectory of how we want to shepherd this world, and also with a powerless majority that is trying to cope with our own powerless existence by exerting our power in where we can: consumption. But we’re both bound by the same existential and primal fear.

I don’t think we could really blame ourselves when this fear has kept us alive for so long. Accumulating more power than the other was a primitive mechanism that has traditionally protected us, but I think we are slowly discovering it is no longer working.

I consider myself a misanthrope. I blame the human race for all the short-term thinking and atrocities while being a hypocrite because I fall victim to short-term thinking all the time. I just had a french toast for breakfast. But increasingly, the more I understand, the more I feel compassionate for us. I go through long periods of blame, alternated with short windows of compassion. The compassion comes from this vague knowing that it is such an uphill battle to overcome millions of years of conditioning.

Yet in just a hundred years, we have progressed so much in terms of human rights and social justice – yes it is uneven, inconsistent, and an awful lot more to do, but before this hundred years more than half of the population did not even get the right to vote, many of us did not even have rights to decide what to do with our own lives.

I am not a Steven Pinker fan. I don’t believe the world is getting better because of a few metrics here and there. But what I believe is that we have a ton of room to grow, and perhaps in a few hundred years we would get much better at taking care of the world and ourselves. I think this was inevitable because of our evolving psychology, but it is also our evolving psychology that gives me hope, because our possibilities widen once we become capable of making conscious choices instead of being driven by our internal programming. Contrast this to a worldview that believes human beings are unchangeably greedy and selfish.

My questions are: are we still capable of making progress despite the inhospitable conditions, how much of the damage is irreversible, and controversially, is this an opportunity to break down the existing power structures and unhealthy narratives that have tied us down for so long?

I also don’t believe in the narrative that we need darkness to have light. I think a lot of this darkness is simply unnecessary and it is self-perpetuated because we don’t know better. But I do think failure is an inevitable part of the process to knowledge. I just hope that it is not too catastrophic.

The non-human part of me thinks that this is a great (great in terms of history, it is not assigned a positive value) time to bear witness to: how would we respond? What is going to end, and what is going to begin? Just how much, is our youth going to inspire us? The younger generations have always been breaking the chains of the older ones, and I cannot wait to see how they will become a new generation of human beings (and I acknowledge it is unfair for them to bear the burden but if we have to assign blame we have to go back to the conditions where life began) I can only wish I have had the courage to become.

On working on the self and being a wider container, in spite of the crumbling world

I was telling my partner that I am suffering from an existential writer’s block: I cannot help but feel everything I write or tweet would seem frivolous at this point in time when people are violently oppressed for fighting for something they believe in or simply because of who they are. Imagine someone out there losing an eye or the only world they ever knew, and here I am, writing about how I want to live and how I’m processing my own struggles.

My personal struggles seem so small compared to people getting the shit beat out of them if not cruelly murdered. I watched an episode of Netflix’s “Comedians of the World” where an African comedian made jokes about privileged people making protests about saving pandas in contrast to the suffering people from his continent go through. It made me deeply uncomfortable. I understood his point, but do we stop working towards higher aspirations as long as there are horrors in this world?

The first time I went to my therapist, I told her that my suffering seemed so trivial compared to people who have been through much worse. She looked at me compassionately, telling me softly: “suffering, is still suffering”. In that moment, my world changed.

This is the kind of violence we do to ourselves. The comparison of who had it worse and who deserves what. Each time we invalidate someone’s suffering, we shut down a tiny piece of them. We lose the capacity to see another human and to be a human. We unconsciously devalue other people because we have been so devalued ourselves. We see everything as a hierarchy, even when it comes to suffering.

If having basic needs met equated to a reduction of suffering, you would think that first-world countries would be at the bottom of this ranking of countries by suicide rate per 100,000. But the picture is a lot more complex.

Yesterday I delivered food to people working in a F&B establishment. The distance was probably less than 100m, but they felt sorry that I had to carry their food, and gave me a tip. Their small act of generosity changed the quality of how I felt about the world in the next hour or so – the world and her people felt so expansive and warm.

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.”

— Henry David Thoreau

A couple of hours later, I had another customer living in a swanky downtown condo felt like she waited very long for her food (according to the app, I was on time), so she vented her frustration on me. I knew I shouldn’t take it personally, but her energy rubbed off me. I felt so small.

It occurred to me through these experiences that it is important to learn how to be a wider container. The latter customer seemed she wasn’t intentionally unkind to me, but she couldn’t help but let her frustration spill. It reminded me a lot of my old self. I was constantly spilling.

broken container overflowing
by @launshae

If I wasn’t mindful, I would probably carry on that chain of reaction, venting my frustration of her frustration on the people I interact with next. It could be as simple as being grouchy to my partner even though she didn’t do anything to deserve it. Maybe she would retaliate and it’ll snowball from there.

But if either one of us was a wider container, we could contain that frustration there and then, stopping the ball from rolling further. If we were more intentional and skillfull about it, we could appease that frustration and turn it into something benevolent. It is not about passive acceptance when someone is being mean, but truly understanding another person’s inability to contain their frustrations is different from being a personal attack on us.

Unfortunately many of us are constantly spilling, so we participate in a giant network of agents passing along hurt to other beings.

We have learned to feed ourselves materially, but we are still deficient spiritually. Yes it is a fact of our existence that there is immense suffering everywhere. But it feels like our evolution has stunted somewhere, because we are still violent to one another even when all our requirements of physical safety are met.

Throughout my life I have multiple people telling me that they prefer to be nasty to others lower in the ladder because things get done faster and “it just works”. In places of supposed safety and peace, though we are not hitting people with our hands, we are still killing ourselves slowly, and softly.

Perhaps in a time like this, at first glance it may seem self-centred and frivolous to work on ourselves, or to work on art and literature. Yet in Buddhist and Zen philosophy, it is all about working on the self. Putting abstract philosophy aside, I can now argue that in times of loss, pain and violence, it is even more necessary to ensure at the very least, we are not trying to harm the people interacting with us. That we can learn to be wider containers to people who are in need of being held. For those who have sacrificed their lives to move humanity forward, the rest of us can at least be stable agents and facilitators to ensure that their sacrifices do not go to waste. On the giant shoulders of various philosophers, I argue further that it is our moral imperative to deeply understand what makes us suffer in order to have any hope of ending systemic suffering.

What about art and literature? Here, I’ll have to borrow the words of the recently passed Toni Morrison:

“Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.”

– Toni Morrison, source

…and when words are not enough, only art can express the human experience, even in the worst of times.

I have chronic health issues, and I have an unstable psyche. Even when I am alone, I torture myself in my own head. I often wish I could be out there with others on the frontline trying to make the world better, but I think acknowledging one’s limitations and hence true potentialities is one of the most profound ripples of transformation we can make to the interdependent system we belong to. If we keep making fish climb trees we’re just making the fish miserable when they are beautiful fish in their own right. If everyone only wants to plant beautiful flowers, the ecosystem will fail. I think seeing a bright, alive, child grow up to be a zombie-like resigned adult is one of the saddest phenomena to witness.

The world is crumbling, but it is simply a symptom of us crumbling. My small hope is that my words here would bring some comfort to people like me out there, but if not, I wish my self would crumble a little less, just to reduce my debris in this complex brutal pain-ridden but yet still aspiring to be humane in the most unexpected ways – world.

negotiating peace within me

I reworded the introduction on my homepage yesterday to better reflect who I currently am as a person now. I wanted to acknowledge my ongoing struggles with my chronic health issues. It has been almost five years since I’ve started getting painful dry eyes and migraines regularly, and I am done hoping that I would make a full recovery. These few years I’ve experienced bouts of good health, but the pain always returned. It just takes a few missteps, and I am out of action for days, if not weeks.

This is my new reality, and I accept it.

I want to accept it because it gives me a new platform on how I live. Instead of being in grief when I fall ill again, I can now calmly accept it as though it is an inevitable process. I had this epiphany a while ago that I should take responsibility for the frequency I have been falling ill. The problem is with each recovery I start to abuse my body again. I keep thinking that I can keep pushing my limits like the days of my youth.

But I am no longer young, and my body has had her fill of being pushed to her limits.

If I can learn to treat myself with the sort of gentleness I would hold to treat a chronically ill person, perhaps, just perhaps I would enjoy longer periods of manageable health. I would learn to tread carefully, instead of running around like a headless chicken. I would stop ingesting food that does nothing but tax my body. I would finally learn to treat my body like a temple. I hope.

Today I started running again. I haven’t been running since I started delivering food, but I gradually realised the fitness that comes with walking a lot is different from the fitness that comes with intense exercise (duh). Stamina versus strength.

I go into these cycles. I experiment with a new regime, I tire of policing myself, then I slip into extended periods of existential depression when I feel fatigued and numb. I lose all my good habits, and I rebel against myself. I become a renegade, doing whatever I please. Doing whatever I please is not a good thing for me, because I prolong the ill-effects of not taking good care of myself.

This is where it gets interesting. Sooner or later I tire of: being ill, being not at my optimum, feeling tired all the time – I start to desire to live like a monastic again. I wish to try again. To attempt to find a balance in my regime so this time I don’t have to rebel. There is a subtle flickering of life in me, a renewed interest in things I used to be interested in. I start reading voraciously again.

I don’t lose my chronically suicidal tendencies unsurprisingly to me but perhaps so to others, but I regain an interest to experiment with life, almost for nothing else but the spirit of experimentation.

I don’t wish for my suicidal tendencies to disappear, that is perhaps not the outcome I want. Like two warring states, I wish for my internal conflicted selves to be capable of co-existing in a negotiated peace. I don’t aspire to fall in love with life, but I hope to be able to endure it.

I often feel existentially lonely. It is not a loneliness that can be compensated with social company, but the persistent feeling that I am all alone in pursuing my journey. Yet ironically I think that is precisely the beauty of life: that because we are all very different people made up from our genes, ancestral history, culture, environment, family, community; for better or for worse we all have individually unique journeys to pursue.

I think to be able to rest in this existential loneliness, to be with it accompanied by full ownership, responsibility and with the pride of an aliveness-bearing person – perhaps that is the key to negotiating peace within me.

on becoming a person

If I can only recommend one book in my entire life till now, it would be Carl Rogers’ “On Becoming a person“. Every book has its flaws and will never be complete in its purpose, but for me this is one of the best resources I’ve ever come across on how to be whole as a human being.

I discovered this book by accident. A friend on facebook had posted this:

Involved in this process of becoming himself is a profound experience of personal choice. He realizes that he can choose to continue to hide behind a façade, or that he can take the risks involved in being himself; that he is a free agent who has it within his power to destroy another, or himself, and also the power to enhance himself and others. Faced with this naked reality of decision, he chooses to move in the direction of being himself.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

At that moment in time I was a few months along into my sabbatical, and everyday it was a struggle with the profound loneliness that comes with disowning what society has conditioned upon us and trying to walk on a path out of my own authentic choices. In this society, attempting to live authentically often means resigning to a lifelong experience of never belonging. The quote continued:

But being himself doesn’t “solve problems.” It simply opens up a new way of living in which there is more depth and more height in the experience of his feelings; more breadth and more range. He feels more unique and hence more alone, but he is so much more real that his relationships with others lose their artificial quality, become deeper, more satisfying, and draw more of the realness of the other person into the relationship.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

My memory may be flawed, but at that point of time I wanted to try to live authentically simply because I was tired of living otherwise. It came out of fatigue and illness, not because of an aspiration. Yet according to Carl Rogers, being true to oneself is necessary if one aspires to experience life in a wider, richer way.

The core ideas

Person-centered therapy

I was relatively new to the whole realm of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy when I started reading Carl Rogers. I was already reading Jung, whose brand of psychoanalysis was a lot more human-centered than Freud, whom unfortunately I never took seriously because he unfamously attributed all human problems to sexual angst.

People often mix up psychoanalysis and psychotherapy (which are both different from counselling), and they may be used interchangeably, but their intentions were very different. Psychoanalysts are meant to be uncaring and neutral, they believe this is necessary for the true content of your subconscious to surface.

It may seem ludicrous now, but before Carl Rogers therapists didn’t really care about people’s feelings. People were like scientific objects in therapy, they were viewed suspiciously and borderline negatively by their therapists, because they are seen as always conspiring to delude their therapists and themselves, or they are seen as overgrown-children whose lives are often unconsciously directed by their childhood wounds.

These views in my opinon, are not wrong, but Carl Rogers was the first (at least the first known) therapist to center his therapy based on the idea that the clients know themselves the best,

it is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

and hence all it required was an “unconditional positive regard” from the therapist – an unconditional listening and acceptance – to establish an environment safe enough for the client to discover themselves and self-direct their own growth:

If I can create a relationship characterized on my part: by a genuineness and transparency, in which I am my real feelings; by a warm acceptance of and prizing of the other person as a separate individual; by a sensitive ability to see his world and himself as he sees them; Then the other individual in the relationship: will experience and understand aspects of himself which previously he has repressed; will find himself becoming better integrated, more able to function effectively; will become more similar to the person he would like to be; will be more self-directing and self-confident; will become more of a person, more unique and more self-expressive; will be more understanding, more acceptant of others; will be able to cope with the problems of life more adequately and more comfortably.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

Therapy as a means to self-actualisation

This idea was revolutionary for me. I had viewed therapy as fixing: people go to therapy because they are broken and they need therapists to heal them, but for Rogers, everyone should go for therapy to become a person – to know who we truly are so we can become the best of who we are:

The effect on the individual as he apprehends this attitude, is to sense a climate of safety. He gradually learns that he can be whatever he is, without sham or façade, since he seems to be regarded as of worth no matter what he does. Hence he has less need of rigidity, can discover what it means to be himself, can try to actualize himself in new and spontaneous ways. He is, in other words, moving toward creativity.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

What it means to be whole

I was obsessed with being good. My idea of being good meant a lot of repression of my true feelings, and there were probably plenty of emotions I avoided having because they were perceived to be bad, such as anger. But it was through reading Rogers and other psychology books with a sprinkle of Zen and Taoism that taught me the importance of balance and integration:

He finds that gradually he can be his anger, when anger is his real reaction, but that such accepted or transparent anger is not destructive. He finds that he can be his fear, but that knowingly to be his fear does not dissolve him. He finds that he can be self-pitying, and it is not “bad.” He can feel and be his sexual feelings, or his “lazy” feelings, or his hostile feelings, and the roof of the world does not fall in. The reason seems to be that the more he is able to permit these feelings to flow and to be in him, the more they take their appropriate place in a total harmony of his feelings. He discovers that he has other feelings with which these mingle and find a balance. He feels loving and tender and considerate and cooperative, as well as hostile or lustful or angry. He feels interest and zest and curiosity, as well as laziness or apathy. He feels courageous and venturesome, as well as fearful. His feelings, when he lives closely and acceptingly with their complexity, operate in a constructive harmony rather than sweeping him into some uncontrollably evil path.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

Anger not being destructive? What an idea! That every spectrum of feelings can have a place in me? Wow. I gradually learned that if I stopped rejecting and repressing these feelings in me I could possibly find healthy ways to express them, that I would stop letting them accumulate unconsciously. I often had unwanted, destructive explosions of my anger which resulted in irreparable situations. Who knew being “nice” had a price to pay?

On the paradox of acceptance and change

People are ambitious and hence seek improvement, so we often try to change people and ourselves, often by force and manipulation. Yet for Rogers, the paradox is change only arrives upon acceptance:

Yet the paradoxical aspect of my experience is that the more I am simply willing to be myself, in all this complexity of life and the more I am willing to understand and accept the realities in myself and in the other person, the more change seems to be stirred up. It is a very paradoxical thing—that to the degree that each one of us is willing to be himself, then he finds not only himself changing; but he finds that other people to whom he relates are also changing.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

I have experienced this phenomenon myself. There seems to be this defensive defiance of the psyche: the more we exert change by will, the more resistant it becomes (and I never fail to be amazed by the wonders and tricks of the psyche). What it seems to need is the space to be acknowledged that it exists. This seems to be related to the inner-child theory. That the moment I grow the capacity to really see, hold and accept the wounded child in me, to tell her that it is okay to be sad and angry, it is okay to resent, it is okay to not be nice – there is a sense of release, like a ghost who was waiting forever to be seen, and the ghost can now leave peacefully. Otherwise, our psyches are like springs, the more we push, the harder it springs back.

This happens in our relationships to others as well:

The more I am open to the realities in me and in the other person, the less do I find myself wishing to rush in to “fix things.” As I try to listen to myself and the experiencing going on in me, and the more I try to extend that same listening attitude to another person, the more respect I feel for the complex processes of life. So I become less and less inclined to hurry in to fix things, to set goals, to mold people, to manipulate and push them in the way that I would like them to go. I am much more content simply to be myself and to let another person be himself.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

Later in his book he relates this to the way we raise children:

This concept of trusting the individual to be himself has come to have a great deal of meaning to me. I sometimes fantasy about what it would mean if a child were treated in this fashion from the first. Suppose a child were permitted to have his own unique feelings—suppose he never had to disown his feelings in order to be loved…He would, I believe, be a responsible and self-directing individual, who would never need to conceal his feelings from himself, who would never need to live behind a façade. He would be relatively free of the maladjustments which cripple so many of us.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

The above sentiment breaks my heart. Considering this book was published in 1961, I wonder how much have we evolved since. I believe the reverse is true too: the more we seek to control ourselves, the more we seek to control others, the more others will seek to control themselves and others. It is just a sad, tragic loop.

On self-direction, freedom and responsibility

To be responsibly self-directing means that one chooses—and then learns from the consequences. So clients find this a sobering but exciting kind of experience. As one client says—“I feel frightened, and vulnerable, and cut loose from support, but I also feel a sort of surging up or force or strength in me.” This is a common kind of reaction as the client takes over the self-direction of his own life and behavior.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

Here he explains that with freedom, comes responsibility. We often think if we’re able to do whatever we want, we will be happy and fulfilled. But what we neglect is that the freedom to choose means our choices are freely taken by ourselves and hence there is no one else to blame if there are negative consequences from our actions. We have to bear the responsibility that comes with the freedom of our choices, and for many people, this is a responsibility that can be frightening, at least on a subconscious level.

I used to seek out advice a lot. While seeking the wisdom of others can be a good thing if sought for in balance with our own inner-wisdom, it is often a disguised attempt to seek validation for our own choices and distribute the responsibility of that choice. It also betrays a lack of trust in ourselves. If something goes wrong, we can easily tell ourselves: well, we listened to those people, and look what happened! I should have never listened to them. Less often we think: I made that choice to seek these people’s opinions so I bear that responsibility.

a sort of surging up or force or strength in me…his client describes. Each time we make a choice and learn to bear the consequences, the reward is that we develop the capacity to endure and recover from mistakes. Half the time we may realise it is not as bad as we imagine, the other half we may develop the fortitude to deal with more. What doesn’t kill us will make us stronger, as they say. Part of the learning experience is to learn what we can actually manage on our own and what we need others for support. I do think there are experiences that may break us with irrecoverable damage, and this is when hopefully the support of other people will tide us through. Nevertheless, there will always be risks in embarking on a quest:

it is only as I see them as you see them, and accept them and you, that you feel really free to explore all the hidden nooks and frightening crannies of your inner and often buried experience. This freedom is an important condition of the relationship. There is implied here a freedom to explore oneself at both conscious and unconscious levels, as rapidly as one can dare to embark on this dangerous quest.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

What it means to become a person

Stringing it all together, Rogers describes a person who has gone through therapy successfully:

The client has now incorporated the quality of motion, of flow, of changingness, into every aspect of his psychological life, and this becomes its outstanding characteristic. He lives in his feelings, knowingly and with basic trust in them and acceptance of them. The ways in which he construes experience are continually changing as his personal constructs are modified by each new living event. His experiencing is process in nature, feeling the new in each situation and interpreting it anew, interpreting in terms of the past only to the extent that the now is identical with the past. He experiences with a quality of immediacy, knowing at the same time that he experiences. He values exactness in differentiation of his feelings and of the personal meanings of his experience. His internal communication between various aspects of himself is free and unblocked. He communicates himself freely in relationships with others, and these relationships are not stereotyped, but person to person. He is aware of himself, but not as an object. Rather it is a reflexive awareness, a subjective living in himself in motion. He perceives himself as responsibly related to his problems. Indeed, he feels a fully responsible relationship to his life in all its fluid aspects. He lives fully in himself as a constantly changing flow of process.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

In another part of the book, he describes this process in the form of an internal dialogue:

Thus they often follow the schematic pattern, “I am thus and so, but I experience this feeling which is very inconsistent with what I am”; “I love my parents, but I experience some surprising bitterness toward them at times”; “I am really no good, but sometimes I seem to feel that I’m better than everyone else.” Thus at first the expression is that “I am a self which is different from a part of my experience.” Later this changes to the tentative pattern, “Perhaps I am several quite different selves, or perhaps my self contains more contradictions than I had dreamed.” Still later the pattern changes to some such pattern as this: “I was sure that I could not be my experience—it was too contradictory—but now I am beginning to believe that I can be all of my experience.”

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

His view on humanity

Unlike some schools of psychoanalysis which regarded people as ignorant unconscious creatures directed by their primitive desires, Rogers had a very idealistic and positive view of human beings:

when one is truly and deeply a unique member of the human species, this is not something which should excite horror. It means instead that one lives fully and openly the complex process of being one of the most widely sensitive, responsive, and creative creatures on this planet.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

I consider myself a misanthrope most of the time, but upon re-reading this quote, there seems to be an undeniable truth in his statement. Yes, we are often self-destructive, violent and awfully stupidly short-sighted, yet we are equipped with a consciousness that has the potential to be widely sensitive, responsive and creative as per his description. We wouldn’t have made so much humanistic progress otherwise.

Based on my regular outlook on humanity, most of us should still be warring and killing each other openly, living like savages. It would not be surprising to me. But there is something in some of us that aspires to be just, to be kind, or we wouldn’t even be having the struggles we have today. Because if violence and oppression is the accepted norm, there wouldn’t even be a struggle, there will be a resignation. But we don’t resign, we continue to aspire.

How this book has changed me

I speed read books, and most of the time I don’t really remember what I’ve read. But the subconscious works in miraculous ways, so the ideas I’ve come across in books often influence profoundly me on a subconscious level. However, this is a book which core ideas continue to impact me on a conscious level. I have to emphasise again how revolutionary it is for me to think of becoming a person the way Carl Rogers has written about. There are countless books on self-improvement, so much ideology on becoming a better human, but how often do we come across an idea that all we need to do, is to facilitate the process of letting people become themselves? Carl Rogers may not know it, but he is very Taoist in his beliefs – the idea that the use of excessive force often backfires towards its original intention.

Reading this book has gradually made me into a more expansive person, in the sense that I am a lot more accepting of my previously unwanted emotions and those of other people. It has also made me think a lot more of the power of space and presence – how transformative it can be to genuinely listen, empathise and accept, whether towards other people or ourselves:

I am now an advocate for therapy (with a good therapist) for everybody and anybody. Even the most well-adjusted person would benefit from a therapist’s capacity to contain a safe and unbiased environment for them to understand and connect with themselves. Everyone inevitably has blind spots.

For me this book is not just a book explaining the ideas and process of psychotherapy, but it is a cornerstone of my own personal philosophy (when I am not being a misanthrope) and belief system. That if everyone has the space to confront the false selves that society has conditioned onto them, discover their own nature and learn to understand and accept their shadow selves, they will function at a higher, more creative level and contribute more to their society, more human potential will realised, and there will be less destruction in this world.

Since this is one of my favourite books I wish to share how I feel about it in a manner that it deserves, but like all my other writing the more I wish to write something well, the less I am able to write it, so my desire to share something so that other people may experience the similar benefits to what I’ve gotten out of it often never comes to fruition. So here I publish something that is probably not very coherent as a whole, but still I hope someone out there would get something out of it even in its most iterative form, rather than absolutely nothing if it didn’t at all exist.