on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

the story

I have this habit of bullet journalling on dayone every night, and it has this feature where it would show all the entries I have made “on this day”. It has been quite enlightening and many times disturbing to read entries from my past selves.

If I didn’t actively read those entries, I would seem like the same person to myself. But having a record of my thoughts have taught me otherwise. The reactions to reading certain entries have evolved over the years. Some entries used to make me feel really sad, then they became nostalgic, and slowly they have become somewhat amusing. I get to know how far I have come by observing my internal reactions to my past writing.

I mostly feel sorry for my past selves now. I see how she was always miserable, how she always seem to be seeking something, how she seemed to always be trapping herself in her thoughts and the story she wanted herself to live in.

Yes, the story. All of us have a story, which probably consists of many micro-stories. We have this story about ourselves, how we want our lives to be, who we want to become, and our perceptions of success. Our government, our family, our peers, our media, take turns to tell us stories of who they want us to become.

In Singapore at least, the predominant story is to get good grades, get into the local university, get a good high-paying job, get married, have kids, ensure your kids get good grades, retire when you are 65, and live happily ever after. Any deviation from this story may get a person negatively judged as a deviant.

My story was to break out of this predominant story and achieve success on my own terms. I so wanted to prove all my detractors wrong, not because I wanted to be right, but because I was very badly hurting from being seen as a failure and a disappointment.

This story of mine became my prison. I ended up like the people who hurt me, by judging myself harshly when I could not live up to the story I told myself about who I wanted to be. I was not capable of understanding myself, what I could do and I couldn’t do. I was doing the same thing people did to me, by making myself do the things I didn’t want to do so that the story in my head can continue its trajectory.

I had stories of how I wanted people to be, just like they have stories of how they wanted me to be. Heartbreak occurred – whether romantically or professionally – when the stories could not sync.

I was too naive to see reality for what it is. Most people are too occupied with fulfilling their own stories to care about our stories. Many of us seek out mentors or heroes, only to be vastly disappointed when they don’t live up to the stories in our heads. We expect them to be a certain way, full of honor and integrity perhaps, when they are as flawed as the rest of us, with terrible insecurities and their own hero journeys they want to live out. If we fit into the roles their stories happen to have available for us, everything will seem fine and dandy. Once we deviate from their stories, hell breaks loose.

It is the same with romantic relationships. We have been deeply conditioned by the media to believe in soulmates, prince and princess charmings. We believe true love will work like magic, isn’t that what the movies tell us, that everything will fall into place once you find the right person? Nobody told us relationships are horribly hard work and can be life-exhausting. We want our partners to be the person we need to fill up the gaps in our lives but in reality they are also overgrown children with their own neuroses and triggers. I don’t believe unconditional love exists, because human beings with an inexhaustible emotional capacity do not exist. The narrative that we can expect people who love us to do anything for us is unhealthy.

The story shapes us and shapes the worlds we live in. It gives us ideas on how other people should be treated, if people belonging to certain other groups should be subordinate or superior, or if we even see them as fellow human beings. It affects how we treat everything around us: animals, the environment, ourselves.

One of the most liberating and yet existential crisis inducing ideas is that: the story is just a story. We don’t have to live in the stories we created for ourselves, neither do we have to adhere to the stories people make up about us. We do not have to be the scholar, doctor, pianist, ballet dancer they imagined us to be, neither do we have to live in a house as big as our paycheck can afford. There are plenty of people who live excellent lives alone without a partner, they are also plenty of married couples who choose not to have children and they still lead fulfilling lives.

Yet it is also reality that stories profoundly impact our reality, as some people’s stories tell them that they have to exterminate entire groups of people, other people’s morals of their stories tell them to deprive rights from other people, some stories tell people that they can freely take things from other people as long as they have power.

Stories have power, and they can be prisons. I think our world has a chance if we get to a point where people start questioning their stories, and the stories being told to them. Where do these stories come from and why do we have to believe them? What are the consequences if we stop believing these stories?

Some time ago – I have no idea when – I stopped believing in my story. I think this is what zen practitioners mean what they say we are all deluded and we should be empty. It is only when we are truly empty that we can let life in. We start to see possibilities, not just the one we had in mind. Instead of that one path we stubbornly want to take at all costs, we may see many other paths ahead of us. Or perhaps we don’t want to take any path and prefer to navigate each step as they come.

It is scary to drop our stories. Who am I without my story? Friends may be lost as we no longer fit into their stories. Or maybe I no longer want to fit into any story.

I have become nothing, a nobody. It was frightening at first, a nightmare, to become who they said I would be – useless. But perhaps, just perhaps, to be able to stand in nothing, to endure that phase, it makes one wonder if it is really all that terrifying to be seen as nothing. Because the process to even evaluate something as nothing, is also powered by a story.

What do we mean by useful? Is a human being’s life only precious if they are useful? Was I more useful as a designer working in a startup, or am I more useful now writing posts like these? Are we born simply to be measured and tooled?

There is no happy ending to this story. I would like to write that after I emptied myself of my pre-existing stories I started to thrive, but no. The reality is that I continue to be empty and feel empty. It is difficult to live without a story, because there are no next steps, no milestones, no measures of whether I’m on the right path. There is no right path.

But in exchange I am a lot less miserable? I don’t have stories swirling round my head non-stop anymore. I stopped wondering why did things turn out badly, why did he do that to me, why did she not understand, why why why. I stopped trying to reframe events or find some karmic balance in it all.

Sometimes the truth is ugly, or it doesn’t make sense, or we want to seek meaning when there is none. Maybe there is no grand purpose, no test, no silver lining. Maybe life can be grand as much as it can be cruel, it can give you things and yet take more.

We all have different ways to cope. Some people cope by having a story they can believe in. I prefer to believe there is no actual story. We humans make up the stories: sometimes they are great and inspiring, other times they are terrifying and oppressive. To be able to tell a story and make someone believe it is a great responsibility, a responsibility I’m not sure if we were ready to bear.

Maybe believing I can live without a story in my head is also a story. People including scholars believe we need myths and/or meaning to live our lives. But who knows what will form in that empty space?

Be empty, or trapped?

the emptiness of information overload

Sometimes I think about times in my younger days, when I could spend hours reading a book or listening to music on my walkman (remember these things?). Now I can barely get through thirty minutes on my kindle before feeling the urge to check my phone. Once in a very long while I do get immersed in a great book, but they seem rare to me these days.

I feel quite disturbed, as I am finding it harder to carve out the psychological space to write or work on my website. I cannot tell if it is because my attention span is getting shorter, or that I am less interested, or I am lacking the stimuli that is required to create because I haven’t gone out in weeks. Or is it low grade despair because the pandemic has caused my already small life to become even smaller? Our brains like novelty so much that they grow (neurogenesis) when stimulated with novel stimuli and environments – now my only source of novelty comes from reddit.

I am consciously trying to reverse my shortening attention span. I borrowed a couple of fiction books from the library through suggestions on r/suggestmeabook. I have read so much non-fiction in an attempt to heal myself in the past few years that I have simultaneously become deeper, wider and yet duller. Fiction stimulates our ability to imagine, and non-fiction gives us doses of reality that sometimes can be frankly quite depressing.

I haven’t been able to listen to music purely like my younger days, when I could pop in a CD and play it on repeat like twenty times without doing anything else. But listening to music while washing dishes have made a chore seem a lot more bearable and it has even gotten somewhat enjoyable. I sing along, and my soul feel cleansed afterwards, as though I’ve been through a session of therapy.

Running and cycling helps too. Exercise is the only extended time in my day when I am without a screen. I am gradually getting aware of my brain being in a very different space when I run. It can finally stop reacting to information overload.

Isn’t it weird that I am aware that I am in more optimal mental states when I am not with a screen, and yet without conscious effort to force myself to do things like exercise, I can’t stop being with a screen? Nothing is stopping me from sitting still at home for an hour or so without a screen. Yet I succumb hopelessly to it, so sometimes I will myself to exchange a very interactive phone screen to a not very interactive e-reader eink screen. A book is basically still loading information except at a much slower rate than say social media. But my brain is already addicted to the high velocity of information that the internet provides.

I think I use information to soothe myself. I used books when younger, and the internet felt like books on steroids. Consuming information is an easy way to feel busy, or to escape the current world. But it creates a gaping hole that becomes harder to fill as time goes by, and in the aftermath it leaves an unpleasant sort of emptiness. Like any addiction.

There were periods when I was doing well with meditation, but the paradox of meditation is that it is something that is extremely valuable in times of stress, but also the most difficult to do. With stress hormones coursing through my body, it is so much faster and easier to reach for food instead of trying to sit still and not go berserk with unnamed anxiety. Something always inevitably break the momentum of my newly formed meditation habit, and it is always hard to get back into it. I can’t even get myself to read a book, much less meditate.

I feel like part of it is because we are leading compressed, uneven, imbalanced lives now. We don’t feel safe, there are tons of things we cannot do, and there are people we haven’t met in ages. Some of us are robbed of potential and opportunities as everything is in a standstill and borders are closed. It is also chronic mental fatigue because the situation is not abating.

Our psyche, our person wants to be whole, and yet we can only be fed piecemeals here and there. When there is a lot of tending needed, it is difficult to thrive. Just like a hungry person will eat anything even if it is unhealthy, we can’t expect hungry people to consciously choose a healthy diet.

I tell myself the journey is not linear, and I can’t expect to go from zero to one. So I keep picking up my book, hoping I’ll turn a few more pages each time before checking my phone, and one day perhaps I’ll be willing to let music feed my soul once again without any other distractions.

dark ages

We have been voluntarily locking ourselves down for about a week now, as local cases have been increasing in the last couple of weeks. The numbers are probably a lot better than the official lockdown last year, but it feels riskier to me with the newer more contagious variants. If doctors and nurses can get infected while wearing masks in an open-air ward while vaccinated, I personally don’t want to take any chances.

It seems ultra paranoid, and as far as I know people are still going on with their normal life and gatherings as long as it is within the latest government restrictions. But I think my addiction to the internet means I read a lot more scientific studies and news – I really don’t want to live with the virus hidden in my body for the rest of my life, as they are discovering with long-haul Covid (they are suspecting it may be like the herpes virus).

Vaccination was our hope, but it seemed to not safeguard against infections, though for now those who are vaccinated are spared from intensive care or oxygen therapy. I am sure I am not the only one feeling this subconscious psychological exhaustion as the light at the end of the tunnel keeps getting snuffed out.

Is this the end of the world as we know it? I am sure we will survive and even thrive possibly, but I am not sure if the world would ever return to where it was where a cheap plane ticket was just a few clicks away and having a hundred people squeezed into a room was not seen as a health hazard. The inability of humans to organise ourselves is quite disturbing as we go into repeated waves of infection.

I find this self-imposed lockdown more difficult than the official one last year. Back in 2019 we travelled and did a lot, so spending a few months at home in 2020 was an opportunity to introspect and spend some time developing an inner life. But introspecting and inner-living was all that I did the last year or so. My theory is that there’s always a coping reservoir, and mine seems to be drying up.

I feel like most people are trying to go on their lives as normal even if many parts of the external world are imploding. I wonder if we’re on the cusp of a new long dark age and yet we’re trying to believe it’ll all end soon. Covid is just the cherry on top of all the other ongoing issues we are facing.

I will probably try to take this opportunity to go deeper into myself again, though I am not sure if that is something I truly wish to do or rather I don’t seem to have a choice. It is not like being in despair is going to make anything better. Maybe there is a reason why denial exists as a coping mechanism.

60 months of love and pictures

How do I begin writing words about a relationship that has spanned across 60 months? Every month on this date I’d write my reflections on the relationship and publish them somewhere on social media. Once in a while I’ll publish a long-form post here. I am glad to have this practice, because I am not delusional enough to believe I can remember everything, and once in a while when I look back at them it brings me back to moment I’d written them.

Since personally I think five years is a major milestone – I had this silly idea of making a powerpoint presentation of some photos we’ve taken over the past five years like those you would see at a wedding, but since it is actually a hassle to publish a slideshow I’ll try to do something here.

The first photo of us we’ve ever taken was already one month into our relationship:

We don’t have photos prior to that, because it just felt like something that wouldn’t last. If you had known us separately it would come as a huge surprise if you knew we were dating, our worlds didn’t seem like they would intersect.

Shortly after she had to go overseas for a work trip. The time apart so early in our relationship was significant in many ways. It cemented something profound me in that lasted even till today. Her trip triggered my anxiety about abandonment, yet instead of dismissing them like many people would, she showed up. We barely knew each other, but she showed up.

late night skype calls

Getting used to a new person is really challenging, and sometimes the romance makes it harder because it obscures so much. In fleeting moments we got to see each other for who we really are instead of who we imagined each other to be. We fought a lot and hard, but somehow still managed to like each other very much. From this relationship I learned it isn’t romantic love that makes a relationship last, it is genuine liking that will tide us through.

always taking pictures of each other

Six months into our relationship we got really tired of staying out late and all the late night skyping, so we decided to rent a place so we could move in together. Even then it wasn’t like ‘let’s move in together so we can stay together for the rest of our lives’, but ‘hey let’s move in together before we break up’. LOL. We’re both commitment phobic, which turned out to work out in terms of compatibility.

barebones furniture because of commitment phobia

Play is an important theme in our relationship. I grew up too fast so I don’t know how to play, yet I knew it would be important for me as I tried to recover from burnout. She’s game to play whatever I want to play. She never once discouraged me, or faulted me for my short attention span. She’s really good at playing, and it makes me aware how awkward and clumsy I feel whenever it comes to something that requires a playful spirit.

she wins me even at lego

She started making art, and often makes hilarious comics about our relationship:

A year later we made another leap. We would “buy” (double quotation marks because it is legally a remaining 94-year lease) a public flat together. Our relationship was roughly 1.5 years old back then, so it was still a risk, but we had contingency plans in case we couldn’t last.

putting together furniture

I’d moved out since I was 19, and have been moving residences and across oceans. I’d always wanted to be a nomad, until age and burn out caught up with me. Living out of a suitcase is very liberating, but having physical books on a bookshelf without having to pack them in boxes every year is a different kind of liberation.

Co-owning a home felt like a quantum leap for both of us.

art by @launshae

One of the best parts of being with her is to continually and consistently witness the evolution in her art.

her first art sale!
she’s constantly recording

The intimacy of our relationship is sometimes reflected more accurately in her art. After all there is only so much words can say.

Living with an artist means getting to see art pop up in unexpected places too…

Seeing stuff like those around our home just enriches and deepens my life. It is not just the bright and colourful, but the dark and unseen truth too.

I can write a million words to describe how I feel, but that pales in comparison to a picture accurately capturing the sentiment.

That is how I know she sees me like no other.

It is kind of surreal going through five years of photos. We’ve both changed so much and yet so much still feels like the same. I think being able to age together is a blessing.

I’m always writing…
…and she’s always making art
her interpretation of our coworking after watching too many kdramas
celebrating 3 years in 2019
delivering food together
4 years in 2020
love in times of covid
surprise for this year’s birthday
another surprise for today!

In Singapore it is still illegal to be gay, much less be married. We often wonder if we would register our marriage if it was ever legal. Sometimes we talk about doing it in New Zealand. For me it is not so much that marriage is a romantic dream, but rather I just want legal recognition. How can someone go through so much of life with me, give me unending support throughout difficult times, and simply be a “friend”? It feels grossly unfair and offensive to me. I want her name to appear first on my obituary, no questions asked.

But for now perhaps it would be enough to be more married in spirit than some would ever be, that because we are not legally bound there is only love to bind us, the sort of love that is the outcome of being profoundly intertwined for such a significant part of our lives.

After five years, we still like each other very much.

changing the way I write and publish

Lately I’ve been noticing an internal reluctance to write and publish. I don’t think if it is a sign of ageing – that my cognitive performance is getting slower, or that the topics I wish to write are getting more complex. Maybe a bit of both.

I used to designate a specific day to sit down, write and publish in a short intense burst. It has been getting more difficult to do that as my writing ambitions become greater. I spent the last two days writing a review for one of my favourite books “A general theory of love“, and I became so mentally exhausted within an hour that I stopped writing for the rest of the day.

I realised this is partly because I am used to working in short intense bursts (which worked when I was young and sprightly). Sometimes these short intense bursts become long-drawn, and before I know it I’ve been sitting at the computer for like eight hours. It is of no wonder I burn out frequently. That is why the updates to the site and to the site’s library is so sporadic. I work on it in multiple intense bursts and then I am done for weeks, if not months.

As I age I think this is unsustainable, so I am going to try a new experiment. Though I frequently claim on this site that a leopard can truly change its spots, I am not confident in this case because this has been a chronic work pattern I simply cannot seem to break out of. But I am still going to try.

I will simply schedule an hour or two each day to work on my writing instead of trying to publish them at one burst. I may take longer to publish each piece, though in between I may publish casual, stream of consciousness pieces like this one.

Hopefully this will enable me to share more of what I’ve learned throughout the past few years. Meanwhile I am still relatively active on Instagram stories, and also occasionally I cannot help but tweet long threads:

I wanted to turn the above tweet thread into an essay, but this is an example of something that requires more detailed thought and nuance if it exists in long-form.

One of the more frustrating things in expressing my views is that it is difficult to communicate the relationships within an interconnected system:

…in a linear form like writing, but maybe this is something I can solve with time if I can manage to figure out how to work sustainably.

on my (lack of) emotional maturity

I told a close friend recently that I see myself as an emotionally immature person. She was surprised, saying that I tend to have a harsh assessment of myself. I am not sure if it is harsh, but for me it is an inner truth. It took me a long time to get to a point when I can actually see it in the various ways it manifests, and not be in denial about it.

When I was in my early 20s (like 20 years ago) I dated someone who accused me of being immature. I flipped. As a child I was constantly told I was mature beyond my years, so that became my identity. What I didn’t know then was that there is a difference between intellectual and emotional maturity, and there is also a difference between expressing maturity as a persona versus how we truly feel and react behind closed doors.

In many ways and for many reasons I grew up too fast for my own good as a child. It is only upon reading some child psychology books recently that acting like an adult as a child is not psychologically healthy. As a consequence I feel like I did not fully develop into an adult. It was like a leap between child and adult, and there was a void in between where normally kids would mature in developmental stages, whereas I simply started acting like an adult. A personality is complex, so one can display a maturity beyond one’s years in select situations, and yet still act like a child in others. An example I would apply for myself is that as a child I could carry out conversations with people double my age, but when my security is being threatened I would have a meltdown, especially with people close to me.

It may seem weird because it is so common, but a truly mature adult would not frequently go into meltdowns. I should not have to explain this, but I think many of us are so lacking in psychological knowledge. Losing one’s temper easily, raising voices, being unable to take criticisms and taking them very personally, issuing threats when threatened – behaviour that is actually really common even in really old people (physical age does not equate to emotional age), are symptoms of emotional dysregulation. A well-developed person would calmly assess the situation, take some time to weigh their options – not reacting instantly.

For a very long time I thought I was just an emotional person when seemingly minor triggers would cause extreme reactions. I was a timid person so I would not react outwardly much, but internally it would cause me a lot of turmoil and I would probably cry a lot privately. This affected my relationships, because I could not process people’s interactions with me objectively, I over-read everything, interpreted everything negatively, couldn’t communicate properly, didn’t have a sense of self to fall back upon.

This affected my personal relationships mostly as I over-compensated for my professional relationships by being as high functioning as possible. Yet the stress and disconnect between who I expressed versus who I really was made me burn out multiple times in my career. I took everything too seriously, worshipped my bosses, was over-eager to prove myself beyond my professional responsibilities, had zero boundaries, etc. I attributed my burnout to working too much, but only in recent times that I realised it is our internal narratives/scripts which are the root causes of perpetuating that behaviour.

My extreme personality brought me many opportunities because I tried and did many things many people wouldn’t, it also contributed a lot to any conventional success in my career. But I was like a quick-burning rocket: fast and furious before plunging deep into the ocean. Sometimes I wonder if I could have gone further in a more sustainable, meaningful manner if I had a more balanced personality with proper boundaries.

I was also a terrible partner in many previous relationships though I was mostly unaware of it at those points in time. I deeply regret them. It is difficult to be a good partner when one is always insecure. By the time I met my current partner I was single for half a decade, read enough to know why so I worked really hard on myself but probably wasn’t enough. Thankfully I was able to work together with my partner on improving our relationship, and she is very different from people I was attracted to before, probably because after reading a book I consciously stopped seeking out the previous dynamic that was playing out (once I was aware of the nature of that dynamic).

So, why am I airing my dirty laundry in public (again)? Because I think we don’t talk about what it means to be a work-in-progress, and the existential and environmental factors that contribute to shaping one’s personality. Unlike common belief that a leopard does not change its spots, it is entirely possible to change one’s personality. It is called growth and maturity. We believe one’s character is set in stone, and there are many of us who fault ourselves (and others) for being the way we are. This is a huge contributor to human suffering, I personally believe.

I know I personally emotionally and mentally suffered because I deeply hated myself for who I was – there was a huge disconnect between who I thought I was, who I wanted to be, and who I was truly capable of being. Just in case you think I making a molehill out of nothing because suffering only exists in war-torn zones and people who suffered terrible physical abuse – if that is the case, why is the mental health of the general population declining? Why are there still suicides in economically wealthy and safe countries? Why do people who seem to have everything choose to kill themselves? Why do kids think of jumping off buildings?

Unfortunately, the way we are capable of seeing ourselves affect the way we see others and how we interact in our close relationships. There are disconnects between how we want other people to be versus what they are truly capable of being. To understand why people are the way they are, we have to go deep into evolutionary history, history itself, neuroscience, human psychology, etc. But we judge people solely on their individual outcomes.

I digress. I wanted to write something about my emotional immaturity, and it became almost a full-blown commentary on why society is f*cked up. I guess what I really wanted to write was: once I had a more accurate understanding of who I truly was, where my maturity levels truly were, why they were stunted – the quality of my life improved by leaps and bounds. I stopped expecting myself to be a person I couldn’t be, I stopped expecting other people to be who I wanted them to be, I stopped expecting the world to be a place I thought it should be. I could engage with myself authentically, and I was better at meeting people where they are. I stopped having unreasonable demands or wishful thinking.

A person cannot direct his emotional life in the way he bids his motor system to reach for a cup. He cannot will himself to want the right thing, or to love the right person, or to be happy after a disappointment, or even to be happy in happy times. People lack this capacity not through a deficiency of discipline but because the jurisdiction of will is limited to the latest brain and to those functions within its purview. Emotional life can be influenced, but it cannot be commanded.

Source: A General Theory of Love | link

I am not saying we simply accept who we are and where things are. Rather, I am arguing that it is necessary to understand the true reality before we can know what are the tools we can actually use and what is the sort of change we can expect. We can’t expect a person who is born blind to see colours, but that’s what we’re expecting when we want people to be saint-like, rational, and faultless, when neuroscientifically it is virtually impossible.

I am still an emotionally immature person with plenty of flaws. This is not an excuse to behave badly, but I do keep my circle of interaction small so I do not unintentionally hurt people unconsciously. I know I am emotionally immature and have the potential to hurt, so I would rather not. I do try to be more compassionate with myself when I fumble, especially when I struggle with my own behaviour towards myself, such as unkind thoughts or unfair criticisms. My partner has become a great sounding board, though we do run the risk of becoming each other’s echo chamber. I do try to learn widely to expand my worldview and challenge my internal mirror.

I hope this could be clear by now, but I am not writing this post to intentionally praise or criticise myself, but rather – if I failed in my intended communication – to encourage all of us to be gentler in our interactions with ourselves and each other, because it takes a village to raise a child, and unfortunately the village that exists now is deficient, or perhaps a better way to look at it is that we are all – ancestors included –works in progress.


I guess 40 is the age when I should not be offended when people call me, “auntie”. It seems like many people are uncomfortable with ageing, but in general I like to age. It is ageing that has made me understand that I can have agency, it is also ageing that has given me perspective. I can now see why people mellow with age – so many things that used to make me boil with rage or shake with shame are now insignificant in the grand scheme.

If I could turn back time and make my younger self believe me I would tell her not to bother with the education system and instead take my self-directed learning journey more seriously. Yes, I am 40 and I still feel traumatised by my school days. Many experiences from that time still cripple me in many ways. I have spent my entire 30s trying to overcome the profound sadness I have felt in the first twenty years of my life.

I am 40 today, and I still feel profoundly sad. You know what they call an earworm? It is like a song that get stuck in your head. I think my sadness is something like that. It is a feeling stuck in the depths of my body and my psyche. But reading plenty of buddhism and psychology books had taught me that my feelings are not me, that the brain is designed to protect us and be efficient so remembering what used to threaten us will keep us safe by making us avoid those threats. I know all of that intellectually, so most days I try to make the best out of my time by somewhat co-existing with that sadness. It used to paralyse me.

Along the way I developed more compassion for myself. I used to get really upset with myself because I can’t function as well as other people, but now I understand it is just how my brain is wired due to previous experiences so there is very little I can do to rearrange those neurons in the short-term. There are things that we can do in the long-term like meditation or therapy, but I think what changed in the last year or so is my capacity to be more accepting when I regress or when progress is slow. The whole lockdown situation probably helped as I could no longer find distractions so I had to exist closely with my dysfunctional psyche. It was really unpleasant but only on hindsight – necessary. I became a lot more honest with myself. I mean, I always had the belief I was honest with myself but there are always deeper layers to unravel.

I am a lot more okay with being lacking as a person. To be irrelevant, behind, unseen. For me, that is one of the greatest sources of stability and peace. Because of society conditioning we are always trying to signal something whether consciously or unconsciously, so just plain giving up is really freeing. Sometimes I wonder if this is all something I could have done much earlier in my life, but maybe I had to experience the conventional life to truly know that is something I do not want. I am just thankful to know this early enough.

I am excited to start my 40s. When I became 30 I made it a personal goal to live my next ten years such that I can become an awesome 40 year old. My definition of “awesome” has dramatically changed. I think at 30 I imagined myself being some thought leader (hahahaha) somewhere doing world-changing things. Ten years are enough to know that it is tremendously difficult to change the world without harming it, because most of us cannot see the systemic effects of our actions. My ex-colleague used to tell me that she is skeptical of the word, “scale”, and I used to debate her strongly on that citing her of all the examples of how scale had changed the world for the better. It turns out now I think she was right, and “for the better” may only seem better in the short-term (see: my favourite fable on this).

Now, I just want to stop harming myself and the people around me (No I don’t go slashing people but psychological harm is a lot more insidious and long-lasting). My only wish if I may have one is to be healthier and that my loved ones stay healthy. 40 is the age when we start experiencing more death around us, and I am not prepared for it at all. It gives me terrible anxiety whenever I think about it (everyday). Tibetan buddhists spend a lot of their lives preparing for death, though it is in a different context because they believe in reincarnation, in my personal context I do hope I can develop the capacity to accept the inevitable with more grace. More importantly, I want to always be mindful of the time I have left with other people.

For the past few years, whether for new years or my birthdays I have probably wanted nothing more than inner peace. That’s probably because I had known nothing apart from inner turmoil. I cannot say I have attained inner peace – I don’t think even monastics lay claim to that, but I think I am feeling a lot more comfortable co-existing with my self and the world. I hope this is an upward trend as I age. I feel like I am only starting to discover my self because she was so deeply buried under all that societal conditioning. Who is the person when those layers are gone? Can they truly be gone?

In the right conditions (right conditions because inequality sucks), to be able to age, to be able to uncover ourselves as we become, is a blessing. I acknowledge this even as I am agnostic about the value of life. At every decade I am a vastly different person. I am unrecognisable from the person I was at 30 – my scifi mind cannot help but wonder if she would really dislike the person I am now if we’d met across time. She was narrow in both her worldview and her values. Maybe it is a good thing if I can say this about my current self if I get to 50, but maybe at 50 I can finally stop all this judgment.

I write one of these every year. Additional thanks to my partner for playing such an important role in my becoming.

falling petals

I missed a week of writing because I ate some champagne foam in a dessert and my body reacted so adversely to it I was sick for a week. In the middle of it all I had both gastric pain and migraine. I broke down and cried for a while because this happened just when I felt like I was gaining some momentum.

There’s some silver lining: I was too sick to visit my regular TCM physician so I had to visit one near my place, and she specialises in female hormonal issues so I’m going to give it a go. Again. She asked if I was frequently tired because my pulse seemed really thin, reaffirming what I already knew from my regular physician. These little things matter to me because my symptoms are mostly invisible to other people and it feels incredibly validating when someone can pick up on them. It has been a lonely journey: having a chronic illness makes you live on a different timeline and rhythm from the rest of the world. Everyone else seems to keep moving, whereas I’m just stopping and starting.

I am beginning – after six long years – to see the benefits of all that stopping and starting. I mean, what is beneficial is also subjective. I’ve been cycling really slowly recently because of my precarious health, and the enjoyment that arises has a sense of dispersive depth. Just today, I got to see otters rolling in the sand, one squirrel, human beings of all sorts of shapes and sizes, even pink flower petals falling onto the pathway as though it is autumn. I stood there with my bicycle for a long while just to see those petals fall.

I remember reading someone’s account of how everything felt so fresh and sharp when his stimuli was severely limited because of a ten-day silent meditation retreat. The feelings I have been feeling lately is obviously nowhere near that, but I have a sense that my body has been developing a different range of sensitivities ever since I left the hustle and bustle of a full-time tech job. I was a person who would never have had the mind space to cycle, much less stand there and admire falling petals.

I guess this is a new phase of my life? Where from time to time I still cry helplessly because of chronic pain and yet in between those times I am somehow growing the capacity to notice and appreciate the small. It took me six years to get to this point, and I think I spent most of it grieving over the loss of my past self, no matter how much her life was dysfunctional and unsustainable. I feel breathless when I see a tech person’s website now – all the projects listed, all the past jobs, all the achievements – things that would make me envious previously, they now make me a little nauseous. I don’t mean nausea in a negative way, but rather as a consequence of being overwhelmed. I definitely do not miss it.

One of the brighter spots last week was that I had finally decided to sign up for a bicycle mechanic course (scheduled in mid-july) after thinking about it for more than a year. I am a little nervous on how I’m going to withstand six full days of training with my body, but it is split into two weeks so I’m crossing my fingers. I have this strange dream of being a volunteer bike mechanic but things always sound romantic and ideal until we actually do it, so we’ll see. I do look forward to working on my own bikes, and some time ago I came across a woman who restores old bikes for a living. That made me envious.

It has been a difficult journey: to truly let go of a previous life and identity. It is still ongoing of course – how does one become immune to an achievement-oriented life after being conditioned to believe in it for multiple decades? But I feel a lot more comfortable with my current self, probably more comfortable than I ever was with my previous self. I feel like the old me was someone who was socially engineered into being, whereas I have let the current me develop somewhat organically. It is difficult to not want to twist myself into a certain way, after all I have been doing this twisting and shaping for so long.

faint embers

There are people who have a natural zest for life. If given the time they would live voraciously and they would wish to live forever if the option was available. Then there are people who okay with whatever status quo they are in, and they don’t feel terribly wrong going through their rinse-and-repeat routines everyday. Many others are simply too busy surviving to even think about how they actually want to live their lives – their options are limited by their societies and systems.

I don’t belong to any of these groups. Earlier in my life chronic stress made me feel life was rather meaningless, now I have removed most of my external stressors only to discover that my capacity to live well is low. If you put a dog in a cage and subject it to chronic stress for most of its life it will take a long time to be rehabilitated, if it was even possible at all. Like if you over-stretch a rubberband it will never return to its original shape again. I guess I can go on with the metaphors.

I think that is what modern societies are doing to a lot of people. We either thrive with the system by becoming a person good at chasing the designated milestones or we develop learned helplessness. We spend such a long time of our lives in a system that rewards us when we’re do what we’re told. Some of us would like to change, but it is difficult to develop boundaries and make decisions for ourselves when we are so used to being compliant and making decisions the supposed benefit of the group.

My partner loves making art. Whenever she has free time, she goes straight for her art, and doesn’t stop until she has to. Whenever I have free time, I doomscroll. There are things I would intellectually like to do, like work on this website. But somehow I am weighed down by a sense of chronic mental fatigue. I don’t know if this fatigue is the outcome of surviving chronic migraines or the outcome of fighting against the system my entire life, or both.

Sometimes I imagine myself being struck by a terminal illness or suddenly dying in an accident. I would be so upset with myself for all the time I had wasted doomscrolling. Other times I have this awareness that I lack compassion for myself – I am unable to empathise with the person who is in a long, drawn-out battle with her body and brain.

This has been a recurring theme in my recent posts: I think it takes energy to live consciously, to want to do wholesome things and actually do it. It is like eating. We could just buy an average takeout and be satisfied, or actually take the time and effort to cook something delicious for ourselves. Many of us would choose the average takeout, because we’re just too mentally tired to go through the work of cooking. I deeply envy the ones who really enjoy cooking and don’t relate to it as a chore.

A lot of things in life can be perceived as chores. Again, I think this is an outcome of being forced to do things from a very young age. Logically speaking, everyone should feel incentivised to eat healthily, exercise and lead a meaningful life right? Why do we constantly choose to distract ourselves with alcohol, shopping, relationships, etc instead?

Doing meaningful things require a sort of psychological stamina because they often require effort and they may not be instantly gratifying. Writing posts like this every week is definitely not instantly gratifying. Many a time there is no gratification at all. Scrolling reddit to look at cute animal videos seem more worthwhile to my dopamine starved brain.

I think I’ve exhausted my psychological stamina earlier in my life and now the consequence is my brain associates most activities as energy-draining. I do have two and a half faint embers flickering: bicycling and this weekly writing. Bicycles may be the only thing I claim to moderately love now. Writing is more of a spiritual commitment, a spiritual commitment to my self since I am not religious.

To write and publish, is a very conscious decision. There is no two ways about it. It is honestly easier not to write, and why should I publish my skeletons for everyone to see? Perhaps it is one of the few if not only connection to the outer world. As long as I continue to write, I can still see that I still care somewhat.

I call reading a half ember because there are long periods when I just don’t pick up a book. Everything needs momentum and to start reading requires a person to consciously drop everything else and enter a quiet mental space. Sometimes there’s just no such space available, other times the fatigued brain prefers bite sized social media just like a sugar addiction.

I often wonder what my life would be if I don’t suffer from migraines anymore. I wonder if that would finally give me the psychological stamina and momentum to work on my creative projects, or if I would end up taking my health for granted and burn myself out again. I wonder if I have learnt and fully digested all the lessons I needed to learn. I wonder if my migraines would fade if one day I find the elusive balance of regulating myself. So many ifs.

In the meantime I guess learning to lead a quiet life with the awareness to live small meaningful moments and knowing what to truly cherish while learning to regulate my self is my ongoing goal. I feel like there are times when I just give up and everything becomes trash, until a recovery period when I consciously decide to try again. If I’m lucky it takes days to complete one cycle. If I’m unlucky and lose myself it could take years.

My partner observes my spiralling periods have become shorter. There is usually a setback, then a spiralling, then a period of recovery, and then the slow acquisition of a well-being that is enough to start living meaningfully and being creative. I think my spiralling and recovery periods have become shorter, but the time to rebuild my spiritual and creative well is still long drawn.

Life is essentially a practice, a skill to be honed. I can only hope I have enough time, and enough moments of insight and awareness. Wanting more time is a strange twist for a person with chronic suicidal tendencies. That is a faint ember in itself I suppose.

returning to one’s core

In chinese there’s a phrase 初心, which is loosely translated as “original heart”, and it means one’s original intentions, the core of who we are. I do believe we are constantly evolving as people so there’s no permanent core but there is shifting baseline, a sort of driving force of how we make choices in our lives.

My brain/mind is like a broken radio station that broadcasts its own programmes, sometimes multiple ones at the same time. I constantly find myself being bogged down by day to day worries, getting lost in them, often forgetting what is the actual meaning I want to express in my life. Plenty of things seem worth worrying about until we juxtapose it with mortality. Is this something worth worrying about if I were to be seriously ill or die tomorrow?

I came across this beautiful quote on reddit that sums up my sentiment at this point in time:

Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
– Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

Source: What quote from a book actually made you think hard and sit back and go “Well, damn.” | link

Life can seem really long, but paradoxically it can also be very short, I don’t really want to spend so much of my life thinking and worrying about things that don’t mean much in the longer run.

Sometimes I think about my younger self, and I just feel like I had wasted so much of my life obsessing about things that didn’t really matter. I just lacked the perspective to understand reality and the true magnitude of societal concerns. I spent so much time in so much angst and sadness. How many tears did I shed and how much fear did I feel just because I didn’t do well academically in school? How much sadness did I go through because I was made to feel like a failure and a disappointment? On hindsight, did the education system make me a better person? I feel like on the contrary I had wasted so much of my life simply trying to survive and thrive in spite of the system. Everything of value I had learnt was learnt out of the system. I’m very lucky it did not kill me and my love of learning. (I semi-apologise for the rant, this post was not meant to be a criticism of industrialised learning but I couldn’t help myself.)

At the end, our lives are our own. We are the ones who have to live it, to live with the choices that we make. People love to be armchair critics of other people’s lives, but they are not the ones who have to deal with any fallout when things do not go according to plan. We are the ones that have to live with the horror of betraying ourselves when we make choices that go against our personal needs and values.

Unfortunately, we evolved to be social creatures, to be part of a tribe so we don’t die alone. So we are susceptible to feeling pressure from our social circles. I am somewhat of a hermit so I don’t feel much pressure from people these days. However, I do feel pressure from the social conditioning I have had all my life – it manifests as an inner critic or wet blanket. It also manifests in behavioural patterns that I find challenging to break. For example, it took me years if not decades to finally enjoy exercising, because I had associated it with negative experiences.

I associate so many things with negative experiences that I live in perpetual anxiety even though I intellectually recognise them as harmless. I still hate the phone ringing, still dread having to talk on the phone, still dread dealing with any bureaucracy, still get severely uncomfortable with any conflict of any sort, still feel like my world is going to collapse at any moment, still get stressed for things that should not bother me anymore.

I have a newish emerging voice that tells me my stress and anxiety is ridiculous, but my body does not listen. It shrivels and tenses.

So, I often find myself swimming in a pool of anxiety in paralysis even though objectively there is nothing wrong with my life right now. I spend a lot of time anxious, anxious about how much my anxiety is affecting me, and tired from feeling this anxiety.

The other day while stuck in a doomscrolling loop, I happened to look at some of my recent tweets on my twitter profile. They were made just weeks, months ago. Yet they were enough to surprise me, because I forgot the person who made those tweets. In recent months I am only on twitter when I feel well enough, I guess that is why she feels like a different person to me now.

Once again I am realising how important it is for me to put my thoughts and memories down in record, and also designing mechanisms in place to review them periodically. Like the above quote on the impermanence of life, I cannot take for granted that my mind will always remain lucid, that I will always remember who I am. I am not even talking about conditions like dementia. I think it is part of the human condition that we often get lost in the minutiae of life, and sometimes we get so lost that we may not return.

It takes strength to want to find our way back. It is easier to live in auto-pilot mode instead of harnessing all our energy and focus to create what we want in our lives with a conscious, lucid awareness.

The ability to access the thoughts that belonged to my past selves are important to me, because they remind me of who I was when I manage to grasp a firm hold on my life and thrive. I don’t mean the selves who were successful in the conventional sense, but the selves who loved to read, create things and be sensibly thoughtful.

If I didn’t know they exist, it is possible to believe I have always been this lost person walking in circles. I may have been lost forever.

Perhaps it is easy for some people to do the things they set out to do. It is incredibly difficult for me, because I have to deal with my uncooperative mind and body, a self who used to get so overwhelmed that contemplating suicide was the norm, my sensitivity to triggers that could send me spiralling into a deep, dark, hole, my unconscious self-sabotaging tendencies, a self who is really tired from all the surviving she had to do.

Yet I find myself returning to my 初心. There is a call to return to doing whatever I set out to do, no matter how inaudible it can become, but sometimes all it takes is to get a glimpse of my past selves to snap me right back, to attempt to restart my journey again.

getting lost in circles

Round and round I go in wider circles almost getting lost, until something returns me to my core again, but perhaps one day I can find myself walking in circles within my expanded core instead.