on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

writing as a practice

For most of my life, I depended on my feelings to do things. Writing was one of them. I could write regularly because I loved it and I actively wanted to write. But something has changed in the past few years. I am not really sure what exactly has changed, but if I were to hypothesise I think gaining inner peace is not really good for writing – at least in my shoes.

I am definitely not at peace, but my inner state is a lot less noisy than before. I was always simmering with some level of suffering that was induced by some form of self-torture. Thus I had looked forward to writing as a form of catharsis. There was so much pent-up energy, so much repressed sadness and anger.

Now I am a lot more moderate in my thinking and actions, so as a result everything else is also more moderate. Moderation is not a really good state for writing because it doesn’t compel – it doesn’t make our emotions well up ready to burst at any moment. Slowly, I sort of lost the desire to write. I say ‘sort of’ because now I can see that it is not that I truly lost the desire to write, it is just that I was so used to feeling a sort of emotion that would compel me to write, and I associated that with the actual desire to do so.

I didn’t “feel” like writing this piece for example, but I designated time to write this because I intellectually thought it was important. Now that I am actually in the middle it I am enjoying the process and the sound of words unfolding from my fingers. So if I had waited to “feel” like writing I probably wouldn’t have written for a long while until some major event shakes my life.

I guess I need to get used to my mind pulsing a lot slower now – the words are still there, but not boiling over like before. I just need to set aside some time and space for them to gently appear instead of how they used to be so fast and furious.

After going back and forth on this for now I am settling into the position that publishing regularly is a healthy practice for me. I was tempted to totally stop publishing because I just wasn’t sure if there was any value. Maybe I’ll still change my mind some day, but currently I think the practice of publishing regularly keeps me honest. It can be awkward and embarrassing when I realised I no longer agree with what I wrote, but to have a public changelog of how I have evolved as a person is somewhat humbling and clarifying.

Somehow the thoughts and words that appear on this website is very different from the ones in my private journals. I seem to have a different persona that is only revealed on this website. I appreciate quite a bit of stuff I have written here in the past, stuff that perhaps I wouldn’t have a record of if I didn’t make it a regular habit to capture a somewhat weekly snapshot of my psyche.

With the intention of gifting myself more flexibility, I had an invisible rule that I could publish any day I wanted as long as it was once per week. But as the days went by I found myself elongating the days in-between. Instead of publishing once every seven days I was averaging ten, sometimes 14 – as once per week became the first and last days of two weeks.

A few weeks back I decided I would go back to publishing on sunday, rain or shine. It is just easier to have a fixed and regular practice when I know I should show up and write no matter what. But I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t try otherwise.

I am trying to write drafts earlier though, instead of writing a full post in one sitting. Hopefully I’ll get to know my own cadence soon, and learn how to write meatier posts across multiple sittings in a more sustainable manner, on top of these stream-of-consciousness snapshots.

illustration on designated publishing day

I guess this is a very long way to say that I am back to publishing every sunday – which I had been doing for years since 2011 before the recent few – if you show up here on monday you could probably read something new. In-between I am still hoping to write a few notes here and there. I’ve always taken the ease of writing for granted because as mentioned I’ve always had thoughts bubbling over eagerly waiting to be translated into the written form, but as I get older and busier with other non-mind stuff like cooking, I have realised how much it takes to sit down, go into a light form of trance and write, even if it is just a short note.

But I think overall it is worth it if I bother to carve out this intentional space, because I learn so much from these past forgotten words my older selves have written.

on learning to be slow

I was doing my routine reading of “on this day” entries when itt made me realise how recent it was that I learned how to run:

I started running regularly sometime in 2018, and back then it felt so hard for me. I could barely run for 100 metres, much less 1km or 10. I remember trying to run my first 500m non-stop and it felt like my heart was going to give out. My heart-rate went up to the 190s.

It turns out that knowing how to run for endurance is a skill. I’ve always thought faster and harder was better, and that it was great to run every single day. As usual I had to stop running because I was getting burnt out and migraines.

Since then I had learnt that exercising too hard increases cortisol, a stress hormone in our body which defeats the purpose if we want to build health. Recovery time is essential for the body to rest and repair, or risk getting injuries or burnout. I learnt to run at zone 2, which is 60-70% of our maximum heart rate, because it improves mitochondrial (which generates energy for us) health and as a by product of that – fat metabolism. So, instead of running like a headless chicken, I slow jog with a watch app that lets me know if my HR goes below or above zone 2. I can now jog for a much longer time if I wanted to.

Apart from the sheer physical effort of running, there was the mental effort. Running can be a really boring activity if you’re used to having your brain constantly occupied by something. When I first started running I always wanted to get it over and done with because it felt like a tedious chore. But not only did running train my aerobic endurance, it also trained my endurance for boredom.

It has become increasingly apparent to me how much my incapacity for boredom and patience affected my life negatively. I’ve always wanted things to happen quickly and needed a lot of stimuli. They sound so innocuous but in reality they affected the quality of my life profoundly. Things can become deeply frustrating if we don’t like waiting, and constantly seeking stimuli brings a whole other host of problems.

Because of the pandemic and the vaccines (strenuous exercise discouraged for two weeks) I started walking round and round my apartment block for at least 30 minutes. That increased my capacity for boredom and repetition.

It was a similar experience for cooking. When I first started I wanted the most convenient, quickest way to make a meal. These days I experiment with slow-cooking predominantly for low heat cooking due to health reasons but I ended up enjoying the process of food taking its time to cook. I used to really dislike chopping, but now I enjoy its meditative quality. I am reminded of zen monk Dogen everytime I catch myself becoming aware of this. For Dogen, eating, cooking and cleaning are not mundane acts, they are zen itself.

I used to charge my devices with the quickest charger I could get my hands on. Now I charge them as slowly as possible, almost never exceeding a 80% charge to maximise battery life. Even my macbook is charged with a 20W charger. It seems like human bodies are like batteries. If we use it slowly and gently they will last longer.

It feels like this capacity for slowness has slowly infused different parts of my life. I find myself a lot less frustrated in general when I have to wait. I’m a lot less twitchy. My capacity for repetition has allowed me to gain a sense of freedom from my previous constant craving of novelty. I used to feel so low whenever I felt there was nothing new for me to experience. Now I simply feel neutral, and when a new experience does come by it feels heightened and not expected like it should.

I am finally meditating again, after so many stops and starts. On hindsight I think it was a mistake to expect my brain to go from hyperactive mode to meditative mode immediately. I am only able to meditate without much difficulty now because there was a long process of gradual slowing down.

For me, being slow is an ongoing lifelong practiced skill. Maybe some people are born with natural patience, but I reckon in this day and age it is difficult to be slow when speed and stimuli is encouraged everywhere. Slowness has to be deliberately learnt and practiced. Slowness can generate new emotions and experiences, because we start to have the attention we could never sustain, and we start to notice things that used to be a blur. The mind opens up with more rooms to hold things in, instead of being a perpetual rubbish chute because we’re constantly bombarded with a firehose of information which makes us lose our agency in deciding what information we wish to receive and hold.

We like being in a state of flow where we don’t experience time passing by because it is immersive. That is great if we’re in a state of flow doing things we want to do. But we often spend our days not knowing where time has gone. It can be an enlightening experience to notice time passing us by and what it carries and means.

I still spend my days in a blur. But to be able to choose when to slow down and to be capable of deliberately slowing down, that is something I cherish learning because it has gifted me a dimension of life I was never able to have before. And that could be a different response to having to wait, instead of frustration.

self-nourishment in times of despair

I grappled a lot with identity, self-worth, purpose and meaning after developing a chronic illness and quitting design as a job. I recognised my life then was unsustainable – I felt like I was living out an unhealthy internal script over and over again, leading me to burn out and hurt myself repeatedly. Throughout the years I have also witnessed behaviour of many people who set out to “do good” intentionally but unintentionally harmed the people around them because they were not aware of their own unhealthy behaviour. I was one of them.

Who am I, without a job, a professional role in society? Who am I, as a disabled person, rendered unable to contribute in ways I previously know how? But I knew I would rather contribute net zero than to unintentionally contribute negatively to the world around me. At that point in time, I have found this quote by the late Thich Nhat Hanh very helpful:

Non-action is already something. There are people who don’t seem to do very much, but their presence is crucial for the well-being of the world. You may know people like this, who are steady, not always busy doing things, not making a lot of money, or being engaged in a lot of projects, but who are very important to you; the quality of their presence makes them truly available. They are contributing non-action, the high quality of their presence. To be in the here and the now—solid and fully alive—is a very positive contribution to our collective situation.

Source: How to Sit by Thich Nhat Hanh | link

I wanted to become such a person. Even if I was unable to be richly present for people in general, I want to at least be present for my family, partner and myself. I am still on this long journey, but I do notice the quality of my relationships and my life transform as I continue to change internally.

I think because of the conditions most of us are raised in, we believe self-care is selfish. How can we possibly think of caring for ourselves when people out there are dying?

Yesterday I posted a picture of some food I cooked, and being mindful of current affairs I also wrote about how even in despair we should despair with a nourished body and spirit. I really believe this. I took years to overcome my previous mindset of how I should give all of myself away before I can even look at myself. All those years of supposedly giving myself away caused suffering, and these recent years of learning to care for myself made me much more aware of how I interact with people. My relationship with myself essentially dictates how I relate to others. It seems so simple, but it is not easy to have a healthy relationship with oneself.

While contemplating all of this I am reminded of a book I read years ago. It was a recorded conversation of Matthieu Ricard (the “happiest” man in the world) and his father. I wanted to share some snippets because I think it applies to the world right now:

A retreatant withdraws temporarily from the world to gain the spiritual strength required to help others effectively. The spiritual path begins with an inner transformation, and it’s only when that’s been achieved that an individual can usefully contribute to the transformation of society.

Source: The Monk and the Philosopher by Jean-François Revel, Matthieu Ricard | link

It is a tradition for Buddhist monastics to retreat from the world for years, decades, before they return to the world to contribute meaningfully. It seems like an absurd concept especially in this world where we’re thrust into society to work when we are barely developed as a human being. If we take a look at lawmakers around the world, I think they would benefit from a few years of developing their emotional maturity before they are allowed to make decisions for the greater whole. But it is 2022 and all we care about is how great we are in STEM and there is no discourse at all about how we handle our emotions and psychology.

Ricard continues by stating that peace can only come when we learn how to be peaceful internally as individuals:

The Dalai Lama says that outer disarmament can only take place through inner disarmament. If the individual doesn’t become more peaceful, a society that’s the sum total of such individuals will never become more peaceful either.

Source: The Monk and the Philosopher by Jean-François Revel, Matthieu Ricard | link

…which his father responded incredulously and Ricard reiterated his belief:

J.F. – Do you mean that the only way to attain lasting peace in the world is the reform of individuals? M. – To think otherwise is surely utopian. The reform of individuals would, of course, have to include our leaders as a first step!

Source: The Monk and the Philosopher by Jean-François Revel, Matthieu Ricard | link

He finally ends with what he (and Buddhists) believe is the chain of change:

In any case, the first thing is to make peace within oneself – inner disarmament; then peace in the family; then in the village; and finally in the nation and beyond.

Source: The Monk and the Philosopher by Jean-François Revel, Matthieu Ricard | link

As a society we’re obsessed with speed of course. I think this is because subconsciously we know we have relatively short lives, so we want to do everything faster. Because of this obsession with speed and progress we have designed our education systems to breed efficient workers, neglecting lessons of how to even exist as human beings. We’re bombarded with supposedly moral lessons like group before self, filial piety, obedience to seniority and authority – look where they have gotten us?

I don’t pretend to know the solutions. But I do personally believe that by learning to nourish ourselves we can then know what it means to nourish others. If you were like me and constantly feel guilty for trying to live well, I hope for us to consider that there is no net positive effect is everyone is drained, anxious and starved.

illustration of individualk among group

There is power in the inner work of an individual. Everything ripples out from the individual. Systems and policies are designed by individuals. I agree with Ricard: we cannot hope to have change on a large scale if individually we’re all still stuck in our old ways of living.

on living in a world like this

The other week I read that Peter Thiel is leaving Facebook woops I mean Meta’s board, so he can reportedly “focus on supporting candidates running for office who align with the Trump agenda“. My immediate reaction was who does that, then I remembered it is not surprising at all because it is Peter Thiel.

But on a metaphysical/psychological level I cannot help but wonder, why? Why are there people who experience deep existential guilt if they are born with privilege and then there are people who would use everything in their privilege to make sure other people continue in their oppressed suffering? It is one thing to have harmful behaviour because one is socially unconscious and another thing to outright perpetuate harmful narratives that become actual laws.

I don’t really believe that people are born evil but I guess it is genetically possible that some people are unable to feel empathy. But feelings aside, isn’t it rational to think that the interconnected whole can only flourish if its parts can individually flourish? Isn’t it a bit primitive to believe that it is necessary to harm others so that they cannot harm you? Isn’t hoarding just an obvious sign of insecurity?

I think we would like to think as though homo sapiens (btw I just found out this is latin for ‘wise man’ lol) is one homogenous species, but the reality is that some of us are so different that it seems foolish to apply the same expectations to everybody under one label. I think this can cause a lot of grief because we think fairness and justice are inherent qualities of the human race. But fairness and justice are concepts that some human beings invented. It is invented in the hope that we will be fair and just, but there is nothing in the natural laws that says we must be fair and just. We could envision an alternate timeline where democracy didn’t take place where we’re still ruled by feudal lords or something, and that would not be unrealistic at all.

Some time ago someone posted on reddit that their pet birds were cruelly beheaded by a wild bird. My partner and I were horrified that such a cute little bird is capable of such violence. But there are millions of examples like this in nature. The only difference is that human beings are the only species capable of murdering ourselves in great numbers. And we have a developing brain that has the potential of transcending our instincts and analysing our own behaviour unlike most animals.

I guess if birds are diverse enough to have cute little brutal impaling butchers, then having people like Peter Thiel pop up amongst the diversity of homo sapiens is not that bewildering.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I used to find great comfort in that, but I no longer believe in it. I think justice is a commendable value that human beings want to behold. Sometimes when I become misanthropic I am reminded that we are a species who invented laws so we can aspire to be just. We didn’t have to, but we wish to. That is something that is precious, even if we’re just a tiny speck in the universe. We’re a tiny speck that has aspirations towards so-called higher values. Or at least some of us do.

These days news headlines have become as though we’re all living in a satirical movie. It is natural to feel despair. There is already great suffering and even more oncoming suffering, and then there are people like Peter Thiel who wants to make life more miserable for more people. But there are also people who devote their lives to the greater whole, like healthcare workers.

Personally, I don’t carry much hope for human beings, and who am I to hope anyway? I think there is a harsh fact of reality that is really difficult to accept but once having accepted it life may be less frustrating. That life is just full of things happening – good things, bad things, neutral things, mixed things – there is no guaranteed happy endings or natural arcs that bends towards goodness, these are just storylines invented and conditioned into our heads so we can bear our existences. Whatever happens there will be grief, illness, death. One day the sun will die, and at this rate maybe human civilisation will end way before that anyway.

What matters is the now. If life is going to suck anyway perhaps what we can hope for is just to find ways to live in a way that will make us look back with less regret. Everything may not matter in the end, but carrying psychological burdens is just not a pleasant way to live as long as we still have to be alive. The important thing to figure out as early as possible is whether the life we’re living is the life we truly want, versus a life society has conditioned us to want.

I used to be so upset at everything and judging from this post I guess I still am to an extent, but I would like to think I took a good look at this world and saw it for what it is, not what feel-good stories have taught me to believe. This world is just chaotic and always has been. I can take the chaos very personally or see it as it is doing its own thing. The reality that is occurring now are not just events happening in our generation but they are actually an outcome of everything that has happened since the beginning of time (as hungry cave people scarcity is drilled into us). Change is possible but it has to be expected with realistic lenses. To live fully we have to discern what we can effect, and what we can’t.

how we assign value (and the complexity of nutrition)

At the end of a day last week I caught myself feeling bad because I felt like I did nothing productive. It is interesting how after so many years on this journey I still tie my sense of self-worth to being “productive”. Upon deeper contemplation I realised it wasn’t that I did “nothing”, but rather I didn’t do anything I mentally labelled as “productive” or “creative”.

There are certain activities I assign high value to, and they are mostly centered around what I perceive as part of my “identity”. Writing, reading, learning something intellectual, working on my website etc. But lately because of my partner’s histamine issues I have begun to put a lot more effort into cooking our meals and also making sure whatever I cook is nutrient-dense and varied enough. I could cook carrots for my partner everyday because they are so easy to cook and they seem nutritious, but apparently our skin can turn orange (not joking) if we eat too much of them and there are severe health issues with too much vitamin A.

I am just at the very beginning of this journey because planning nutrition to make sure we get all the micro-nutrients we need is challenging, and it is also a thorny topic even among the experts. Something as simple as how much salt we should consume can be polarising. There is a lot of modern research debunking so much of what we’ve been taught traditionally, and yet medical/nutrition professionals are very much tightly holding on to what they have studied for. Sometimes even the research studies cannot agree with each other. Results can also be different for men and women. We also don’t account for genetic differences when we say something is “good” or “bad” for health.

I was already generally on this journey because of my chronic migraines, but it was a lot more generic like all I paid attention to was the amount of carbs I ingested since insulin dysfunction can cause migraines and hormonal issues. I started logging my food into Cronometer a while ago to monitor my carb and electrolyte intake, but lately I’ve been looking more at other micro-nutrients. It turns out it is almost impossible for me to get enough iron (18mg according to the RDA) without over-eating. I’ve tested for anaemia multiple times before and I am not anaemic on paper, but everytime I lose blood through my monthly cycle I get a sort of lightheadedness that develops into a migraine. (Interesting case study of a woman who was also not anaemic on paper but supplementing made her symptoms go away.)

So last week when I experienced the same lightheadedness I started supplementing iron at a small dose, small enough that it is still hardly enough to reach the RDA (too much iron can cause severe issues), but more than I can ever practically eat. My lightheadedness went away. I will need more time to experiment to see if this is really working.

I have so many questions. Am I only anaemic only certain times of my cycle? Or that what is considered a “normal” value on a blood test is not the healthful value for a perimenopausal woman? Maybe they never bothered finding out the optimal range or they only bothered with men? Or maybe having enough in our blood does not mean we can utilise it properly (like diabetics have a ton of blood sugar in their blood but they can’t use it for energy)?

So even though in my mind I wasn’t being “creative” or “productive” (though I wish I can stop judging myself for these things), I was spending a lot of time and energy researching these things and also learning how to cook better. Not just better in terms of traditional cooking skills, but also like how to maximise deliciousness using the lowest amount of heat available (to retain nutrients and minimise oxidative stress). I figured I could use the air-fryer at low temperatures to cook something well enough, and use the high heat setting only towards the last couple of minutes to brown it enough. I could also use the pressure cooker to cook something and broil it for a few minutes. They wouldn’t be as delicious as something cooked in high heat of course, but it is enough knowing the tradeoffs.

I realised I don’t give value to what I call foundational skills to life: like cooking, maintaining a house, or how to exercise properly. To nourish myself properly is probably one of the most important things to do and yet to me it still feels like I was doing “nothing”. Working on this website is cool and all, but it is not going to fundamentally make me a thriving person.

I think it is interesting how we assign value to things. Maybe monastics seem to be doing nothing but to them they are probably doing the most high value activity. In my ideal world there would be less snap judgments of what is valuable and more authentic discernment of what we truly relish doing versus what we’re conditioned to think we should be doing.

It is also amusing how at the age of 40 I feel like only now I am learning the basics of actually living, instead of always being so goal and results oriented. To learn to focus on the actual building blocks of my life rather than something that is always so distant and abstract. I was actually very much less goal and results oriented compared to many people, but the fact the society places so much value on these things have made a significant dent to my sense of self-worth. I still have issues calibrating how I should feel about myself, and it is very tied to what I do versus who I am.

I very much aspire to be a person who is capable of nourishing herself, whether through actual cooking or emotionally. It is just that my instinctive feelings I feel internally have not updated to my actual aspiration. My emotions are still ruled by the decades of societal conditioning that only certain activities are valuable. I hope it would not take too long for me to regenerate new filters on how I live my life. I would not want to spend time feeling bad about the wrong things.

out of control

I don’t know about other people, but my relationship with life is as though I’m in an abusive relationship. I feel like I am always walking on eggshells, I am almost fearful when it seems nice to me, and I don’t know when it is next going to rear its ugly head.

Perhaps I lived through a similar life with plenty of other people, but I have always been exceptionally sensitive to its effects on me. Other people seem better at shrugging things off, whereas I dwell, and everything that happened in the past makes me afraid of the future.

We’re having an Omnicron surge in Singapore right now, suddenly tripling our cases from 5K+ to 13k+ in a day. There is a narrative that it is mild, but everyday I read about people who suffered devastating consequences despite being tripled vaxxed.

I worry about my loved ones everyday. I try to nag at them to practice social distancing more prudently, but it has been more than two years. How can I expect them to keep postponing their social activities? I am pretty hermitish, and I am tired myself, much less people with actual social needs. I resent that I could not even properly enjoy a chinese new year reunion dinner without calculating potential transmission probabilities in my head. I get upset looking at photos of reunion dinners in pre-covid years, where something as simple as eating with my parents in a carefree manner is no longer available to me. There is the worry about Covid, and then there is the wondering about how many reunion dinners are left for me.

So it is entirely understandable that people want to believe Omnicron is “just a flu”. They would rather gather with their loved ones and risk catching it. I too, want to believe that, but my internet habits are not allowing me to do so.

Every day I subconsciously brace myself for the worst. I am not sure when would be the last time I see a person. Externally everything seems like the same. I go on the same routines and live as though almost nothing has changed, but once in a very short while I get a stark reminder that everything has changed.

But I try to remind myself of the inherent impermanence of life, that there are many things out of my control. We can all do our best, and things still fail tragedies still happen. There is a sort of cold-blooded cruelty about life that most people have learnt to ignore, but I feel it everywhere. There is also beauty, love and joy – but me being me, I wonder if it is all worth it in the end.

The other day I was reading and I came across this quote:

I think that our human organism was designed to take in only so much suffering. For tens of thousands of years we lived in small tribes or villages that had maybe one or two hundred people. But now, through the media, we’re bombarded with much broader human suffering. To cope with that and live a life of freedom and happiness, we need extraordinary help, extraordinary medicine.

Source: The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation by multiple authors | link

It is quite thought-provoking to consider what we are actually exposed to in this day and age compared to our ancestors just a couple of generations ago. Perhaps without the internet I would be a lot less anxious about the virus and overall I’ll be a much happier person, instead of reading things like this:

Is the attitude of “ignorance is bliss” a better way of existing? Is knowing the truth and seeing reality as it is really that important? I don’t have firm views on this anymore, compared to my younger days when my belief in truth was absolute.

These days I take the view of: “do whatever it takes to survive life and make the most out of it with as little harm as possible to others and yourself”. I guess everyone has to weigh their priorities. Maybe to some people spending time with their loved ones is more important than long-term health – I can’t fault that, perhaps as long as everyone is willing?

I am not sure when I’ll tire of avoiding the virus myself. I just want to have a meal with my family. But I know I won’t be able to forgive myself if I pass on the virus and things are all mild and dandy for me, but not for them. Neither do I want to risk chronic issues arising from the virus, since I am already having chronic issues of my own.

But I also know we can do our best and still suffer the fate I most want to avoid. Such is life, though. This is the price we have to pay for living: to endure the beauty that comes with the fragility of moments.

how long it took

I’ve been having a certain sense of well-being for the past few weeks – I can be quite superstitious so I tend to refrain from making any positive statements in case I jinx myself. It just seems like every time I think I am doing well I inevitably suffer a relapse. Superstition aside I think it does make sense: I tend to over-exert myself once I feel well again because I am also trying to compensate for all that lost time, and also it is just part of a long-term chronic illness to ebb and flow.

It is funny how I don’t usually think twice when writing about the bad parts but I am actually afraid to write about the good parts. This is quite a common self-sabotaging behaviour, sometimes it is just better to get used to being in despair all the time than to actually hold hope in your hands and have it cruelly snatched away.

I was writing my morning pages today when I started thinking about how much and how long it took for me to get to this point. Currently I am:

  • taking two 30-minute walks each day with my partner, once in the morning and once in the evening
  • cooking both meals (I only eat two meals because I intermittently fast 16/8) for myself and an additional separate meal for my partner
  • washing dishes almost as soon as I finish my meals. They used to lie in the sink until the very last minute
  • restricting screen time to less than 4 hours a day. I don’t know if this sounds a lot to you but it was the “norm” for me to look at my screen for more than 8 hours a day
  • doing a thorough spring cleaning for the lunar new year, however I am chunking it into smaller tasks each day instead of an intensive 2-3 day clean

I don’t know if these things sound like a big deal but they are for me. Because I spent a long time of the past 7 years either unable to do much or not wanting to do much. Having a chronic illness means I can’t really tell which part of it is not being able and which part of it is not wanting to. How much of wanting to do things is affected on a biological level? Also I expended so much energy just trying to recover that I just didn’t have much left to do seemingly ordinary things. Back then, even taking a walk to the nearby mall felt exhausting.

I thought it would be interesting to map out a rough timeline of my illness and recovery:

  • 2015: start of severe dry eyes and migraines. Saw an eye specialist once I moved back to Singapore: oil glands and tear ducts in my eyes were not working. According to them there is no cure and I would have to put eye drops for the rest of my life. I also started seeing my family’s traditional chinese medicine (TCM) physician.
  • 2016: symptoms started improving with regular TCM. I could cry again? At this point I was probably still hopeful of making a full recovery.
  • 2017 – 2020: Ups and downs. Lots of migraines. Some good months, some terrible ones. In and out of existential depression. There is a lot of sadness and tortured thinking in my journal entries during this time. In 2017 I seemed to start accepting that this is going to part of the rest of my life.
  • 2019-now: During these years I gradually become better at regulating my emotions. I have less episodes of meltdown. I work harder at sustaining emotional stability intrinsically, gradually detaching myself from consciously seeking external validation.
  • 2021-now: Some time in 2021 I became okay with nothing in particular to look forward to, and because of that the space to find enrichment in my ordinary, boring life gradually opened up:

…realising that in this moment I am really okay sitting with the emptiness of my life. There are no highs, nothing really to look forward to, especially now with the covid situation I can’t even look forward to a trip overseas. There’s no career advancement, no new job, nothing. Just zero. And I’m okay with the zero.

okay with zero   from dayone 0 responses

There is probably a lot happening between 2017 to 2021 but I don’t want to go into an in-depth analysis of my journal entries now. The point I want to make in this post is that something really ordinary to some people can be really almost magical for me. There is so much work that has to go on to be able to enjoy something as innocuous as cooking. So much clearing of toxic beliefs and behavioural patterns, so much letting go, so much slowing down, so much unconditioning, so much of training myself to gain some control of how I perceive time: whether it is just huge blocks of hours blindly zooming by or being capable of noticing a very rich little moment happening in the present.

Back in 2015/2016 I read a book on burnout and the author said she took 8 years to recover. At that point in my life I was horrified at the possibility of enduring 8 years. This year I will be reaching my 7th year. Probably in many of the past 7 years it probably looked like nothing was happening on the surface. But there was just so much psychological processing, so much of trying to make sense of things, so much grief, and so much anger.

I’m not naive to think I am on the mend, but what buddhist meditation has taught me is that we have to look at the lengthening gaps between the noise. What buddhism teaches (according to my interpretation) is that we cannot expect our mind to become fully silent, but we can train the gaps of silence to become longer. So for me, I no longer expect full recovery, neither am I expecting actual improvement in terms of the total time of illness I have to endure, but rather I want to be better at living during those times I am well, or better at healing/resting during those times I am unwell. I am learning to cherish the gaps.

It took me probably 6 long years to get to a point when I started to have an interest in life. Prior to that I was constantly wondering about the point of my existence. I don’t what is it like for other people but for me I was so damaged that I could not feel life until I reached a certain threshold of healing.

My own journey makes me think about other people who are in similar or worse shoes. I know many people are not afforded the time, space and compassionate support that is needed to heal. It just takes so much time and space. I think about how much more alive this world can be if we prioritised healing, or even better, if we were capable of not inflicting damage in the first place.

new enjoyment in cooking

My partner suddenly developed a histamine intolerance – we only found out by trial and error because she started having stomach upsets after eating, even with the types of food that are typically designated for sick people like rice noodles or fish in soup. We usually eat out quite often but stopped since the delta strain, so we ordered takeout instead. There is virtually nothing that we can takeout that seems safe: at first we tried cantonese-style soups, but discovered they put dried seafood even in soups without seafood. So, I had to start cooking.

I’ve been trying to cook for ourselves since forever. I have had phases where I would go on a bout of cooking everyday, then stop for months. I have to admit I am a very “phase” kind of person. I would eventually get sick of my own cooking, or tired of the chores associated with cooking. It is not just about the effort to cook, it is also the time taken to plan groceries for two people with a small fridge and the desire to minimise wastage. I am also really bad at remembering to defrost food.

I remember writing a lot of journal entries on what I would like to improve in my life, and it is almost always, “cook more”. But I had found it difficult to enjoy cooking. The effort versus results ratio seemed skewed, I would spend all this time and effort, and the meal is eaten within thirty minutes. It seemed like a much better to outsource it and save the time.

Why do I keep wanting to cook more despite not enjoying it enough? I think nutrition is one of the biggest levers when it comes to one’s quality of life. For me, the most important element in my life is vitality. Vitality comes from energy and mental clarity. Energy and mental clarity comes predominantly from nutrition, and then exercise (on top of biological, genetic or psychological factors). We can’t exercise our way out of an unhealthy diet though. Exercise itself is not going to heal the systemic inflammation caused by an imbalanced diet.

Because of her sensitive digestive system, I had to do a lot of things I was dreading to do before, like peel a carrot. I disliked chopping and peeling carrots so much, for a long time I only bought peeled baby carrots, or frozen diced vegetables. The first time I tried to cook for her after she got sick I bought a bag of peeled baby carrots, but it felt slimy to the touch upon opening, so I was forced to buy an actual carrot. I wasn’t sure if she could digest carrot skin, so I had to peel it. I used a small paring knife at first, then she reminded me we had a peeler.

It turned out it was way easier than I thought. Like way, way easier. It is quite funny how many years of my life went by believing peeling is difficult. She was rapidly losing weight just eating chicken and vegetables in soup, so I had to peel sweet potatoes. They weren’t too bad either. So many things I learnt to do for the first time: process a pomegranate – wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole previously but it is good for mast cells so I had to do it for love. The first time I tried, our countertop looked like a crime scene with pomegranate juice flying everywhere. I also learnt how to process old cucumber (I was like why is there so little left), winter melon (this one is easier), pumpkin (omg they are difficult to chop), corn (use hands to break it instead of chopping it), etc.

I bought an instant pot a couple of years ago but didn’t use it that much. This time around it turned out to be a life saver. All I had to do is to dump all the chopped ingredients into the pot with some water, and voila delicious soup less than an hour later. It didn’t even feel like cooking. My partner kept thanking me for cooking, and I kept telling her it wasn’t me who cooked.

a typical low-histamine soup for my partner: chicken, apple, carrot and radish

At first I would cook for her and order takeout for myself. Then I got strangely jealous of her eating all that nutritious anti-inflammatory food. So I started cooking for myself too. I actually cooked our food separately, so instead of the effort to cook one meal for two people previously, I ended up cooking one meal each per person, sometimes twice in a day.

My experience cooking for her made me realise the prep work I used to dread wasn’t that hard. The way I develop permanent lifestyle changes seem to take place over multiple cycles instead of a single transition. It took me probably around a decade with a ton of starts and stops in between to actually like exercising. Now the national guidance is no exercise for two weeks after the vaccine (to prevent possible myocarditis), and I can’t express how much I miss it.

I think this new enjoyment in cooking is also made possible by the gradual change in my psyche over a few cycles. I used to be in a rush all the time and wanted to do everything quickly. So cooking was challenging because I would try to rush through everything. Somehow the rush makes it unenjoyable, as though it is something I would rather get it over and done with. There was already something negative in my inherent attitude towards it.

Now I seem to like doing things slowly? And I don’t get intimidated by a pile of dishes lying in the sink anymore. I just soap one dish at a time with no sense of frustration, and before I know it everything gets done? I enjoyed chopping vegetables for my partner in little cubes so she can digest it better. It took way longer, but I liked it?

I used to really dislike eating the same thing but due to wanting to simplify grocery planning I am basically cooking the same ingredients in different incarnations everyday. I found myself not wanting to eat takeout anymore, because I like the taste of my food better now?

I am typing all these question marks because I seem to be skeptical of my own statements? It is like a lingering disbelief.

My blood glucose, resting heart rate (RHR) and heart rate variability seem to be almost significantly improving. There was one day I took a break, eating a takeout meal and my RHR during sleep went up by a few bpm. It is a one-off thing but it would be interesting for me to make more observations.

left: RHR (lower is better, usually) right: HRV (higher is better, usually)

My hypothesis is that just avoiding all the inflammatory vegetable oil from food cooked outside would make a difference. I also try to cook on as low a heat as possible, even while stir-frying by constantly using an infra-red thermometer. I try to keep temperatures below 150 degrees celsius, sacrificing some taste and texture in return for lower oxidative stress. I am also eating less, because I can determine my portions.

What’s next? My partner’s issues seem to be improving – credit to her for being so disciplined, she didn’t waver for even once. She did ask for coffee and chocolate quite a few times (lol who wouldn’t), but I have to give her credit for not insisting when I reminded her they impact histamine levels – so I will try to cook some meals for two of us. I would like to be more adventurous and cook more complex recipes. My friend Adrianna and her wife cooks these complex meals all the time, and I admire it (but okay I am never cooking for ten hours):

As usual my caveat is that this may well be one of my phases, but I think at 40 it is really cool to go into new phases and not be stuck in an old pattern. It is such a wonderful thing to learn how to peel a carrot at 40, isn’t it?

the isolating experience of my migraines

Migraines are a strange illness. People who have not had it before think it is “just a headache”. If you can move around and accomplish more than half of your usual activities, that is probably not a migraine. My migraines incapacitate me: I get extremely nauseous, any slight movement will trigger cascading waves of pain, so I am likely to be bedridden until it decides to be over. On average, my migraine lasts 3 days, and thereafter it takes me more days if not weeks to recover. It is common to have post-migraine depression, not just because of the despondency that is caused by suffering through an episode, but the brain is physically depressed. There are significant changes in the brains of people who suffer from chronic migraines, such as lesions

I have written a few times here that sometimes out of a month I get one good week. I don’t know if it sounds like a joke because it really isn’t. Migraines are a leading cause of disability, second in both genders, first in young women. I was so relieved when I learnt about this statistic, because I can finally stop thinking of myself as useless. I am simply disabled, and I am not the only one. 

I plan my entire life around my migraines. I live a monastic-like existence with strict sleeping hours, strict-ish diet (as much as I can manage), careful planning of activities so I don’t accidentally exhaust myself, strict exercise routines, strict supplementation of vitamins and minerals. There is almost no room for negotiation because any slip-up may mean an unwanted relapse. I am almost resigned to the migraines that come with my monthly menstrual cycle, but I don’t wish to have more. 

When one suffers a chronic illness like this and has to live like that, we start being unable to relate to most people with normal, typical lives. I was constantly asked to loosen up with my sleep or diet requirements when I used to hang out more with people. People think I am being too militant, but they don’t know I have already spent years being in denial refusing to submit to such a lifestyle and have paid the consequences for it. 

Migraines are like such an invisible disease: there are no obvious bio-markers for it – we can’t go and get any test to prove we have migraines, so people tend to assume they are psychosomatic or we’re making a bigger deal then necessary out of it. It is not like diabetes where you can whip out a test result and tell people: hey stop asking me to eat more sugar because it may cause my legs to be amputated. I tell people I have migraines and hope they believe me, and not assume I am a hypochondriac. 

Since I can’t lead a normal life, I don’t feel like I can have normal relationships with people, or even with myself. I can lead a fairly okay life with quite a bit of function if I adhere to my strict regime. It takes a lot of work for me to have “normal” days. Something as innocuous as eating and being able to digest food is precious to me. 

It is a fairly isolating experience, or at least it has led me to feel isolated. I have to become a recluse when my attacks happen because I am mostly bedridden or getting over a post-migraine fatigue, so when I am able to interact with people I am already in a relatively healthy state. What they experience is a fairly healthy, normal me. But the reality is for long periods over the past few years, the fairly healthy me is only 25% of my existence, if I am being generous. 75% of the time I am just trying to survive. The person who is trying to survive is almost a different version of me. So to me, people interact with a version of me who hardly exists, which is not their fault of course. It is just what it is. People are busy with their own challenges in their own lives, so I get that it is unfair of me to ask of them to relate to my 75% invisible self, so I don’t. A few years ago I started to interact less with people overall because I got tired of explaining myself when I cannot be available, also there is a widening gap between the topics we can relate to, since I am all about optimising my health and simply trying to live, whereas most other people still have dreams and ambitions to pursue, because they can.

Of course I have to admit I like the dreamless, ambitionless version of me now. Yet to be honest I can really never know if this is because I have to. I don’t have access to a version of me where I never got ill. My present self believes I am a lot happier now, because I am no longer addicted to work or validation. But who knows? Maybe the healthy version of me would have figured out a way to find a harmonious balance. See that’s the thing. I cannot know, there is no choice for me to know. 

Very few people would understand what it is like to lose so much of yourself, to have so much of your life cut off. I am still grateful of what I have gained in return, I can also say if not for my migraines I would still be rushing headlessly into busyness without questioning if that is what I had wanted, but maybe it would be nice to have an actual, realisable choice. 

I am a very different person from whom I used to be. It has been difficult for most relationships because they are searching for someone who is no no longer there. There are some rare ones who have made the transition with me, though not without conflict and difficulty as they have to accept the loss of my old self like I had. I too, search for my old self still sometimes. I wonder if my insistence on working on this website is my only way of hanging on to a piece of my past self.

It has been almost 7 years of trial and error, of denial, bargaining, grief and acceptance. I am doing a lot better now than I used to. Maybe during good months I am 75% healthy. But I am irrevocably changed, and I know I can never return to whom I was. A friend innocuously commented that they wished I could be the designer I was, and it triggered so much anger in me. I know it is not their fault and they mean well, but it is also not my fault to feel this anger. Apart from feeling like salt is rubbed into my wound, I also feel that people tend to impose their values on me all the time. They want me to fulfil a certain image of me they have in their head. I guess I used to do the same to other people too. 

I keep my social interactions to the minimum now. I am not at a place where I want to deal with people’s conscious or unconscious expectations of me. Since I expend so much energy caring for myself just to remain sane, I don’t have much emotional bandwidth left for other people, other than my partner and my family. I know they say on average people live longer with an active social life, but I feel better with less.

I have been reading “Writing down the bones“, and it encourages us to write about the very details of our lives:

Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical. We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles. We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese, and hope we have enough money to pay for it. At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and all winters we are alive on the earth. We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important.

So here they are – my details. Maybe I am projecting, maybe everything written on this page is biased, but this is my true internal experience, even if heavily coloured by my illness. I can only be as honest as the awareness I am capable of cultivating. 

I know of people who are in worse situations than me with no hope of improvement or recovery, but I guess this is not a suffering competition. I want to feel free documenting my own experience on my own website. 

This is also why I remain extra sympathetic towards sufferers of long covid, and why I remain extra careful in avoiding getting infected. I come across stories of people killing themselves because they can’t deal with their symptoms anymore, and I can relate to that because once upon a time when my symptoms were relentless, I too wondered what is the point of living with so much pain and no quality of life.

I feel extra sensitive when people are callous with their health, just like how I used to be. If I knew what I know now I would not have abused my body the way I did, sleeping strange hours, drinking copious amounts of coffee everyday, eating everything in my sight. Maybe if my younger self met my current self she would think I’m being a hypochondriac too. We can only know what we know.

I am emotionally healthier now, compared to the person who was physically healthy. I think having to prioritise my health cuts out the unnecessary, and forces me to enforce boundaries. I am much better at letting go, because there is one thing I wish to hold on to. But it all comes at a price – a price I am willing to pay, but still thoroughly felt and grieved upon.

2022: 自乐 (self-amusement)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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