journal/

on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

how travel changes me

Roughly 12 years ago I was backpacking in thailand for a month. It was the first trip that was for an extended period of time with no particular agenda. I have a vivid memory of me passing through a rural village, and there was a bunch of kids playing at a stream. They laughed and ran around with a sense of freedom that felt new to me. Back then there was no airbnb, so we would go into a town hoping there’s available rooms at guesthouses. That was my first taste of experiencing generosity and connection with my hosts.

That month I was supposedly in between jobs, but that trip had changed me profoundly. It made me question the narrative of happiness being tied to material wealth (I never really believed it but it was another thing to experience it in person). The kids I saw looked much happier than the kids I would see in Singapore. It could simply be my perception but I don’t think the objective truth matters because what truly matters is being able to experience another set of images that can break the stranglehold perceived reality can have on us.

It was that trip that made me go into remote work at a time when remote work was still rare and controversial. I wanted to be able to work from anywhere in the world. So I spent the next five years or so remote working, though it wasn’t as fun as it sounds, but it taught me that alternative ways of life can be possible.

Then I went to San Francisco for the first time, another life-changing trip. San Francisco in 2011 is different from the San Francisco I left in 2015. There was a chill, hippie vibe: I saw people playing their guitars on rooftops or while strolling on the streets (these days they are too stressed trying to pay their rent and out-compete everyone else to play guitars). Back then it was full of optimism, crazy ideas, life-changing technology, emerging communities (rent wasn’t crazy yet, I paid $50/night for an airbnb omg can you imagine that). I felt like finally I found a place that I could belong, a place where wild ideas can grow and weird people like me can flourish (because over there, I am really not that weird comparatively).

Eventually I left, but I will always owe a debt to San Francisco and her people. It was there that I had finally experienced a kind of freedom that I had never experienced in my own country, where people saw me in ways I was never seen. I felt like a deflated balloon being breathed into life, and I learned to develop the courage to leave a place that made me strong in the first place, like leaving a nest. Perhaps, the more subtle truth is that it made me brave enough to face myself and my wounds.

Then, there was New York:

“She made me learn that in order to have my identity I must accept that I have no fixed identity. That I am everything, nothing and anything. I am defined because I am really undefined. With San Francisco I understood what it means for me to belong somewhere. New York has shown me that perhaps ultimately I don’t need to belong anywhere, because I will still be me, everywhere.”

Together, books and travel, if I ever had a religion perhaps they are it. They have taught me more about people, love and grace more than anything else. They have expanded me, raised me up, increased my empathy and challenged the narrow ways I have perceived the world. I am like a sponge that has absorbed everything I have read and witnessed, becoming more human as these forces gently nourish me.

Here I am in New Zealand, and I am no longer the same person I was before. Just a few weeks and there will always be this additional dimension of me that I will carry henceforth. I get scared and tired of travelling as I age: because of my chronic anxiety I haunt myself by imagining every horrible scenario my mind can think of. Some mornings I wake up anxious, missing the illusory safety of my home. But in between writing this essay, I take breaks by walking to the window near me, and I see sheep grazing in acres of green. I feel wonder, an emotion that is elusive in a city full of concrete.

Travelling forces me out of my safe, comfortable shell. At home I avoid interacting with people, but as a traveller there will be inevitable questions that google will not answer, trails not on the map, unexpected invitations to meals, provocations to our otherwise dormant curiosity. I can only wish I had travelled more when I was younger and had more courage, less commitments, and also a less anxiety-ridden mind. Who would I have become if I had a much earlier opportunity to see that the world I grew up in is so utterly narrow? That there is a million ways to live one’s life. That there is so much more to life than climbing ladders and impressing our peers. That maybe, we struggle to save the world because we don’t know how to be with the world, because somewhere along the way, we forgot we are companions to each other and to the world. Instead, we are obsessed with domination with carefully architected stories of ourselves, when all it takes is a step out into the vast wilderness of beauty, diversity and richness, to see how horribly misguided we are in picking illusory wealth over the natural richness we were truly endowed with, and in danger of losing very soon.

I don’t want to forget that I am part of nature, and I want to continue to learn about the expansiveness of this world, so I hope to continue travelling more in spite of my chronic anxiety. I can only wish that the opportunity to travel for expansiveness is something that is afforded to more people if not everybody (I don’t know how yet but I hope I can be part of a long chain to make this possible and maybe through my writing and pictures I hope to bring a part of my travelling to other people). I don’t think I’ll see this in my lifetime, but I hope for the sake of our own human potential that we are somehow walking towards that equitable world, maybe with lots of twists and turns, but still walking towards that anyhow.

And it is travelling (and books, which are a different way of travelling) that makes me believe that it is crucial to our development as a species, and makes me want to hope, even if current indicators point otherwise.

growing old with books

When I was a teenager I often discussed with my friends the age I would like to live until (sigh, teenagers). That age was 30. I felt like 30 years of miserable living was all that I could stomach.

Today I was reading Krista Tippet’s book, and one of her interviewees was remarking how great it was to live till his 80s, insinuating that it enabled him to witness the changes that had occurred in his lifetime. Imagine being born in the 1930s living through a world war, witnessing the civil rights movement and all the momentous events since. There was suffering as well as progress of course, but that is the whole point: life was not, and never will be, a single dimensional experience.

Reading that made me suddenly conscious of a new curiosity that had probably emerged slowly in the last few months: what would it be like for me to live till my 80s? In the past my instinctual reaction to imagining a long life would only be dread and despair, now I feel curious.

I am not at all romantic about living a long life, and it is not something I actively desire, and I definitely support compassionate euthanasia if quality of life deteriorates in old age. But in context of my chronic suicidal tendencies I think it is interesting that I am feeling neutral and curious about it.

In the last 7 years or so, life suddenly expanded for me. I attribute a lot of this expansion to the sudden increase in the number of books I have been reading. I think I entered a dead zone in my 20s, probably reading way less than 50 books in that decade. I started recording my reading in 2011 on Goodreads: I started with 3 books in that year. Then in 2012 it was 38, and every year since I have read more than 50 books per year. It was a deliberate commitment, because if I didn’t gamify myself, I know I would forget to read. It isn’t the quantity of course, but I think if there is a commitment to a certain quantity, there is bound to be some quality somewhere.

Books have given me courage and perspective. They made me question and redefine my lived experiences. There were life-changing decisions I made because someone in history left an indelible mark on me with their writing. They expanded the way I see the world, made me aware of possibilities I would never have encountered if not for them. There is a whole other essay on books contained here, but today I want to write about growing old instead.

So what have books got to with me growing old? I think of all the internal change that has occurred and is still occurring in me is due to the books I have read, and I start to wonder about all the books I have yet to read, that I will be reading, and how they will change me. This year I read more than previous years intentionally (I have just finished book 76), because I felt like I needed more to cope with all the change I have been experiencing. The more I read, the more I want to read.

I feel like whatever I have read is just such a tiny slice of the human knowledge available and yet they are already so expansive, I cannot imagine what is it like to go further and deeper. Which are the oncoming books that will shape my life dramatically? What about the books that are yet to be written, what would it be like as a cranky 70 year old reading something written by a fiery 25 year old?

I know there will be hard times ahead. I think my generation has experienced an extended period of peace and will not be prepared to face what is to come. But in some strange way I hope to be capable of witnessing this unfolding of history, to see the choices we will make, the ways we try to cope, the resilience that we will demonstrate, the people we will become, the youth that will inspire. I want to know if we would learn, improve, remedy. 80 years of life: it would be enough to see a few sweeping changes of history, maybe it wouldn’t be pleasant, but it would be something to be a witness to it.

The world is what we make out of it, what would we choose? What would I choose? What are the books I would pick? Would I write some? Who would I become in another twenty, thirty years?

Five years of intensive reading and I have changed beyond my own recognition. What would be the compound effect of more of those years?

I hope I’ll never lose my love for reading. I could argue it made me less dreadful of living a long life and maybe the crux is this: a world that has books, that has people who want to write books and people who want to read them, is a world capable of beauty and deserves our stewardship.

what can I do

We’ve been spending a couple of nights at each location in New Zealand, then driving roughly two hours to the next. I would like to think we’d made a nice compromise by not attempting to see the entirety of the north island (some people attempt both islands!), choosing to drive around the upper half instead. Some part of me would like to stay at a place longer, but the part of me that fears missing out tends to win. We compensate by staying indoors on some days, foregoing any frantic sight seeing.

Travelling can be stressful and tiring for me, especially having to keep intense concentration levels driving at high speed on the roads. We have met a couple of aggressive drivers who would sound their horns while tailgating us because we were too “slow” even though in reality we were actually driving at the speed limit. I would try to go into the shoulder whenever possible to let them pass me, but at high speeds the last thing you want to do is to stop. So at long periods I would end up feeling like I’m being chased for miles and miles of road. Upon reaching our destination, I am entirely spent.

Something must have changed along the years, because only a few years back I was the person getting impatient and overtaking “slow” cars on highways, now all I want is just to take it easy, and I no longer feel the absolute sense of control I used to feel at the wheel in my younger days. I distrust that sense of control.

I guess all of the above could be metaphors for my life. I am no longer driven by an urgent sense of adventure, the person who would seek adventures at all cost. I have to actually convince myself to venture out now, to be less afraid. I have become one of those happily boring people who like staying indoors preferring to do my exploring in books instead. I no longer mind when people are ahead of me, I don’t even know what “ahead” actually means now. I told a friend I feel a lot more centered than before, no longer feeling like I have to do what other people are doing. For the first time in my life, I feel like I can accept myself.

Self-acceptance, I have learned, is not a one-time decision. It is an ongoing exercise, a ritual one has to repeat. Sometimes it is because we progress, we grow into new selves; sometimes it is because we regress, and there has to be reconciliation again with our past selves. I think one of the greatest sources of suffering comes from the belief that life is linear and logical, that somehow things go from A to B and eventually to Z, and that everything that happens should make sense and go according to plan.

Shitty things happen all the time, and the sooner we can accept that, the earlier we can go back to living our actual lives instead of mulling over why. But I don’t. I magnify the problem, over-analyse it, go over it again and again in my head, making myself really miserable for a long time. It is as though if I do that, I could find some secret door that I can unlock and all would be well again. I don’t really know how and when I learned this behavior. Most of the time there are no secret doors in life, sometimes there are no resolutions, other times life is often unfair and unreasonable.

We just have to look at nature. Is there justice and is it reasonable that a lion eats a deer? Religious beliefs aside, I think that justice is a human-invented concept, a beautiful one at that. We just forget that it is something to be fought for, to be protected, it is not something we are entitled to, neither is it a natural law. The world has to be constantly forged and created in every moment, just like our individual lives.

So I think that there is a creative tension between accepting life is just what it is, and consciously choosing when to exert our intelligence and creativity to shape our lives and the world. Over-do it and there is destruction, under-do it and we ignore potential and possibilities. I grapple with this all the time in my personal life, and I contemplate on this in view of the wider world. Where do we draw the line?

I discovered belatedly one of the best ways to endure long drives is to listen to podcasts. The one we listened to just now features an astrophysicist, Natalie Batalha — she commented that science (in context of space) feels like an indulgence now, when the sustainability of this planet is in danger. The two other participants had eloquent responses to why they disagree (I wouldn’t attempt to butcher it). I think about this a lot myself: is travelling and inner-work an indulgence, a luxury at a time like this?

I think everyone’s answer will differ but particularly for me, the more I work on myself, the more I travel, the more I appreciate life itself, and the beauty that this world can offer. The more I have the capacity to be human, to be genuinely present. I am not sure if I’ll ever have the capacity to do more, but keeping myself alive and trying to do no harm is the best I can do right now. Whenever I tried to do more, I’d end up hurting myself and the people around me. Maybe this is something I have to accept, that a tiny capacity is all I have. This is something that has brought me a lot of shame previously especially in a capitalistic society like ours that prides nothing more than productivity and value, but I think I have come to see it differently as I progress. We can’t ask fungi to grow into trees. I can’t keep asking myself to be a tree when I am not, and I am not even fungi because they are actually really important to the ecosystem, maybe I am just a tiny blade of grass. I stopped questioning the function I provide to society because I no longer want to steep myself in a value-oriented mindset. I guess it is enough to be alive so the people around me wouldn’t be inflicted with unnecessary grief. Maybe once in a while someone out there would feel less alone with the words I write.

Maybe one day I’ll discover the will to live for myself or maybe till the very end I’ll still think that life is not worth living for me. But perhaps it is a worthwhile endeavour to experience the truth, to ensure I will at least fully explore the dimensions of existence, at the very least I have tried to get as close to the truth as possible.

I feel more centered with all the inner work I am doing. In turn, I feel the need to consume less, I tend to waste less, and I am more mindful with my being and actions. Perhaps this is my little contribution to climate change, that in order to learn how to live in harmony with the world, I have to learn to live in harmony with myself. I have an evolving theory that climate change is a problem rooted in human psychology (unstable psychology -> fear and insecurity -> design of systems that is short sighted in favour of temporary gain -> destruction -> cycle back to unstable psychology), but that will have to wait till a time when I can string it all together.

race against time

I am in New Zealand now, checking one of the biggest items on my lifelong bucket list. It had always felt like a faraway unattainable dream, so it is surreal being here now, surrounded by endless trees and green rolling hills. And I am here with someone whom I want to share the experience with.

I once told a couple of friends that I live life as though I have a 50/50 chance of dying at any given moment. They laughed. It is grossly statistically inaccurate of course, but I don’t think unfortunate events care very much about statistics.

As I got older and had gone through several life-changing events, I learned it is not about literally dying but rather it is about being prepared for the death of metaphorical selves we had, events we have no way of anticipating, the unexpected departure of people. We think of life as linear and progressive but for me it feels more like sudden sharp turns and cliffs. There were so many events I didn’t see coming, so many partings I didn’t plan. It is like being swept up in a tide and there’s very little I can do except go along with it, though usually after a tiring period of resistance.

So I am sort of in a race against time, fervently trying to do what I want to do in case for some reason I can’t do them anymore. The older we get, the more commitments we are obligated to pick up, the less free we become. People around us are getting older, we ourselves are getting older, my health seems to have a life of its own. I have been through long periods when I am unable to do much except curl up in pain, so I feel extra appreciative of the times I can do a one-hour hike, take in the beautiful environment around me without a pounding sharp pain in my head and eyes. Half the time I am resentful of the pain, the other half I remain grateful to it because it has made me want to do a lot more in my pain-free time than I would normally have. If not for the constant threat of my health, I would have led a more unconscious life, letting it bob me along a path not even of my own choosing, thinking that I’ll always have time and energy to do the things I want later on.

Sometimes we have time, other times we have energy, for me it is precious to have both and be aware of it.

It is a contradiction, being chronically suicidal and yet also being unwilling to take life for granted. Sometimes I can be in the most beautiful of places but feel numb to it, still not understanding why are people so attached to life that they would do anything to protect it. My personal theory is that it takes some sort of a life-force to appreciate life itself, and I don’t have much of it, needing to live like a monastic to carefully nurture it. So I don’t always live life on the edge, because I burn out easily. I live like a hermit back home, eating a strict diet, exercising everyday, keeping a strict sleep schedule, just so I can feel a bit more alive during these exhausting but beautiful experiences.

We’ve been on the road for three days, and I’m already exhausted from just driving an hour or two each day. There’s a fear of missing out, not knowing if I’ll ever be back here in this part of New Zealand again, yet I can’t risk burning out in the middle of nowhere. I have to learn to let go.

I guess that is the story of my life, at least for now. Learning to let go of most things so I can have a deep appreciation of whatever that’s left I can have. I guess life is about assessing the risks we are willing to take and the trade-offs we are willing to make. I am uncertain about the future, so all I can do is to make the best out of now, in the ways I am capable of. I am not sure when health-scares are going to pop up, whether for me or my loved ones, not sure how life would be like under the effects of climate change, not sure about the geo-political stability of the world, not sure about the resources I can have in the future. But even without all these risks I know life will change, so I’m in a constant race against time to live as much as possible.

I think a lot of it comes from the desire to compensate for not living a very unconscious, fear-driven, societal-directed life in the first 35 years of my life. I am still figuring out what it means to be truly self-directed, and if it is even possible with all the inevitable conditioning and inter-dependency we have.

I do know that travel, apart from books, is one of the most life-shaping forces for me, and I want to do as much of it as possible while I still can.

marvel

Today is the 2nd and a Sunday, so I am taking the opportunity to document us again. I wonder if I’m just regurgitating everything I’ve previously written, but I realised if that is the case it is actually a good thing that the beauty of this relationship has sustained for 31 months.

In reality this would be mostly impossible, because we’ve both become different people even in the short 31 months we’ve been together. When we’d met I was still a workaholic extolling the virtues of purposeful work, and I was trying to discourage her by asking her if she’s really willing to take second place to my work for the rest of our lives. Strangely she wasn’t discouraged, just like she wasn’t when I told her I’m chronically existentially suicidal and my dark moods would often render me unpleasant and unavailable. This quality of hers will prove to be one of the most important factors that will sustain our relationship – but to be truthful we both don’t know if she’s optimistic, gracious or simply really good at ignoring.

Perhaps even if I believed that her attitude wouldn’t sustain once the rose-tinted glasses fell off, I thought it was really something to enter a relationship with somebody like me anyway. I was depressed, sick, fatigued and wasn’t sure how I’d survive. 31 months on I am objectively in a much better shape than I was, but a lot of it is due to the support and safety I had felt from her in the first place. I am not sure how to describe in language what it means to feel this sort of support and safety when I have been used to a lifetime of insecurity and rejection. Perhaps it is like the magical feeling of being in a pleasantly warm climate after being born in a winter climate, not knowing that kinder temperatures even exist.

We have learned to fight better, and that requires the effort to know each other deeper: where are the trigger points, how we both handle and resolve conflict. There is a lot of letting go, not because of the desire to compromise, but the understanding of the actual intent behind the actions and words. We often think people we love are deliberately injuring us, when it is because we don’t know how to handle the injuries within ourselves. This is a lesson I am learning on my personal journey, and in parallel it is also unfolding in our relationship.

They say entering therapy changes not only the person but also our surrounding relationships, because when we change, our dynamics with people change too. I wasn’t in therapy long enough to benefit from this sort of profound change, but in these 31 months I’ve probably read and understood more than I have in my entire lifetime. It has been enlightening to see the outcome of this positively impact the way this relationship plays out.

But that sort of impact wouldn’t be possible if there isn’t a willing partner. Many a time one party changes, and the other party wants to stay in the same place, so the relationship disintegrates. We are both in major transitions of our lives, so we’re both radically changing in different ways, I think we could fall out of sync or diverge from our shared path so very easily. We fall in love with a person and months later the person is no longer the same person we fell in love with. So love has to be consistently renewed and reaffirmed from both sides.

At this 31st month mark, this is what I marvel about. That somehow all the adjustments and renewed understandings have been mostly seamless. There were definitely moments when it felt precarious as we both, formerly conflict avoidant, learned to assert ourselves and express our needs in the relationship. But we survived those (for now) and it made the relationship stronger because there is increased trust and safety, the knowing that there is a flexible resilience in place.

I remind myself every so often to be thankful because I know it isn’t easy at all to have a partner that is actively engaging in a difficult, intricate, precarious dance with you. People often prefer status quos and we somewhat prefer to break our own moulds.

These days my idea of leading a purposeful life is no longer work and busyness driven, but to take the time and effort to know oneself. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as a purposeless life, since in my opinion it is pretty pointless to define a purpose when the self becomes increasingly undefined. It is anxiety inducing, because the world that surrounds us live in a different rhythm and it is easy to succumb to what the mainstream society demands and expects of us – I would say, especially in an Asian society like Singapore where we’re so conditioned to not only follow the herd, but to sincerely believe it is a good thing to do so.

In my ideal world it shouldn’t be so, but I feel tremendously grateful for a partner who not only understand the journey into my inner-abyss, but exuberantly encourages it, partners it. I would have done the same if I was alone, but it makes a significant difference to have someone journeying alongside, to be a witness while I gradually learn about myself.

I think for me the most beautiful thing, which I left purposely at the end, is the privilege to partner and witness her journey as a new artist. I cannot emphasise how amazing it is to see someone who picked up art barely a couple of years ago, evolve the way she has so far. I often sit at the couch reading, and I remember to look up and I see her painting. To hold this sight, to know that it is beautiful and precious on a daily basis, that must be one of the greatest experiences of this relationship. I get to see something new birthed from her consciousness almost every day, it is a profound reminder how a random and cruel universe is also capable of finding itself expressed so beautifully through the love of an individual.

And that I remember to be aware of the marvel of it all.

the glass is already broken

A long time ago, a very short story left such a deep impression on me that I posted it as a facebook note (strangely it would be only one of the nine random fb notes I have posted over a decade):

“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

This story has somehow been hovering in the deep layers of my subconscious. I have been reading so much buddhist literature recently that the story surfaced into my consciousness again. I checked the date today and I was surprised that it was posted on 26 November 2009, almost exactly nine years ago to the date (it is quite uncanny that I am choosing to write about this today). It still surprises me that some threads of my life already had their roots a long time ago, getting almost forgotten with the mundane pursuits of life, only to resurface.

The glass is already broken. I am reminded of the movie Arrival (warning: spoilers ahead), where the protagonist was given the gift (curse?) of seeing time in a non-linear way by an alien race, and through that she knew her child would eventually die in her twenties but it arguably didn’t stop her from trying to live a full life with her daughter.

What would you rather choose? Would you choose the blissfulness of ignorance, bear the sudden terrible grief at the end and risk taking time for granted, or would you choose the painful baggage of having the awareness of knowing your child will die very soon and that makes you cherish every second of her life? Would some people avoid developing a bond with their child to avoid the pain of loss?

How does one live with the knowledge of knowing we are going to lose something we love very much, trying to love and cherish as hard as possible while racing against a countdown timer?

The truth is we are all racing against a countdown timer in some way or another. We can choose to be aware of it, and how aware we want to be.

I don’t think there is a right or wrong choice, it is a matter of preference and personality. It is like some people like saving up their money and spending it at the end, others like spending what they have at any given moment.

For me it wasn’t really a choice. I have been living with this hyper-awareness for as long as I can remember. Sometimes it feels like a disability and I envy people who can compartmentalise, other times it feels like a superpower that enables me to live a richer life. I often feel overwhelmed by sadness, especially I am getting to an age when the people around me are getting older and more fragile. Every interaction feels poignant because I don’t know when will be the last moment I get to be with someone while they are alive. Every goodbye feels loaded. I desperately try to hold on in vain by capturing photos of seemingly mundane moments…with the knowing that one day that there will be nothing I can do to have these mundane moments again.

This becomes more apparent with climate change. These days I try to appreciate my breaths of fresh air a lot more, not knowing how long it will last. I look at trees and flowers with refreshed awe. I don’t remember to do this every time, but it is arising more frequently in my consciousness: seeing everything not just in the current slice of time but interspersed with their potentialities.

Memento mori.

If I could choose, what would I rather choose? I would like to think I would still choose to be hyper-aware. Sometimes it feels tiring to live this way, to experience every moment imbued with the sadness of eventual loss. Sometimes I wish I can retain some naive innocence. But if I were to look at things in the grand scheme, I would still rather know. We love cherry blossoms because we know they will fall.

It is this hyper-awareness that allows me to overcome my fear and insecurity, to pursue change instead of resisting what is inevitable. Most people become aware of their countdown timers near the end, I don’t know when is my end or when are all the ends I am afraid of, but in many ways I feel lucky that I am aware of the ticking as early as possible. If anything, I do wish to cultivate more equanimity towards the ends I am in fear of, that life begins and ends with no personal vendetta against us, that if I at the very least attempt to be aware of each passing moment I will be spared a little less regret with the time comes.

The grief though, I think I am beginning to accept, will be inevitable. Grief, is the consequence of having loved, and perhaps it is fair to have the magnitude of pain directly proportionate to the magnitude of love.

It is still a choice: whether to live life within safe boundaries, or to push its limits and risk its consequences. I have come to a point where I think both are valid.

10% less unhappy

There is a book titled “10% happier”, which the author describes how he became slightly happier with meditation. I don’t believe in making happiness as a goal in life, and I have learned that unhappiness and happiness are actually on two separate spectrums. I have been happy, but my unhappiness did not decrease due to my increased happiness, and vice versa. So for me, it is more meaningful to work on decreasing my unhappiness, because what I want in life is to feel at ease, and happiness is a long way from feeling easeful.

I am not sure if I’ve written about my views on happiness before, but for the context of this post I’ll reiterate it again. I don’t believe pursuing happiness as society defines it is a sustainable way of living. If we think being happy should be the default, then we are set up for persistent failure because as it stands, the design of society makes life suffer. It is possible to demonstrate our supposedly indomitable human spirit and be radically optimistic and happy despite all the shackles that bind us, but I think for most people that means psychological repression, and that comes out in other ways.

There is also a philosophical question of “why”. Why do we pride and cherish happiness above all? My theory is most of us are wired to want to avoid pain, and the feelings of pleasure makes us forget about the pain of being alive, albeit temporarily. What about the sort of happiness that is not hedonistic, but it is more like the joy of seeing a child grow, or when we immerse ourselves in nature? I think those feelings are a very precious part of being human, but still yet not more important than other human experiences. It is ironically the desire to expose ourselves only to feelings of happiness and joy that creates suffering, in my opinion. Because the reality is, life is multi-faceted and complex, it will always inevitably hold the potential of the full spectrum of human experiences, so when we restrict ourselves to chasing a narrow spectrum, we miss out, we become smaller, we forego a huge chunk of our own human potential.

So why is decreasing my unhappiness more meaningful to me, compared to increasing my happiness? Like I mentioned above, increasing my happiness does not decrease my unhappiness, my unhappiness is in the way of appreciating my happiness fully. It isn’t happiness that makes me aware of the fragile beauty of a flower, in fact to me, it obscures it. I could be so immersed in the feelings of joy that I forget to appreciate what is right before me. What I cherish is aliveness, because that is the meaning of life to me. To be alive. To be alive is to be everything: happy, sad, joyful, grieving, laughing, crying, accomplished, fragile, vulnerable, lost, etc. To be capable of embracing pain, that is being alive. To acknowledge that everything is impermanent and that people will die, things will disintegrate, that enables me to hold the full dimensionality what is in front of me, in this very moment.

But my unhappiness, just like my happiness, obscures all of that. It is so heavy, so oppressive, that I am unable to experience much of anything else. There is a well-known buddhist parable of suffering: that when we are shot by an arrow, we actually experience the suffering of being shot by twice. The first is the actual arrow, the pain of suffering a physical wound. The second is our reaction to the first arrow.

The reaction, is ultimately a repetitive narrative in our heads. We get shot by an arrow, but it becomes a story that we are shot because we are weak or unworthy. That it is unfair, that we don’t deserve it, that we are deliberately targeted, that somehow it always happens to us, that we’re destined to be jinxed, that we’re dealt with an unfair hand while everyone else has a good hand.

I have a bunch of arrows shot at me decades ago, and multiple decades later I am still hurting over them.

And I slowly learned that healing from them is not to simply tell myself that everyone gets shot by arrows, that life is random and unfair, so I should just grow up and move on. I learned that intellectual knowledge does nothing to heal emotional wounds. I learned to truly heal, I have to learn how to become a parent to myself. I have to learn how to pick myself up gently, to treat myself like how I would treat a child who is crying right in front of me.

I have to first of all, stop being so angry with myself.

And you know, if you’re used to people always being angry at you and also always being angry at yourself, you have no other mode of operating.

It is like I no longer just have two arrows, the actual arrow and my reaction, but a third arrow that I kept jabbing into myself so I relive the pain over and over again. I have no conscious control over this. I didn’t know how to be, otherwise.

So I run. Meditate. Cry. I let my partner soothe me when I cry like a baby. I learned to grieve for myself. I let myself collapse into a heap and I slowly learned to judge myself less for always being so sad. I make less violent remarks at myself. I forgive a little bit of myself, even if only a little. I forgive a little bit more of people, even if only a little. I know intellectual knowledge doesn’t directly heal, but it equips me with better understanding and management over myself, so I read voraciously. I develop more empathy towards myself and others because I now know how much of this is unconscious and not within the typical locus of self-control. I become more accepting of my fragility. I stop demanding of myself to be “better”, whatever better means. I stop comparing. I stop focusing on what I cannot do and instead I concentrate on what I can do. I let myself be angry and grateful at life at the same time. I no longer live in a binary world. I no longer see myself as a on/off switch but a complex system of feelings. I increase my boundaries with people and accept my desire to be a hermit. I stop forcing myself to be anybody I don’t wish to. I try to discern what I truly want versus what has been conditioned to me. I try to feed myself better food but also stop berating myself for eating too much sugar. So I try to eat a little bit better and a little less sugar. Again, no extreme ons and offs anymore.

There is so much in the little. My entire life, I have been searching for the huge. I searched for saviours, for life-changing events. But the profound changes in me were only sustainable with small daily acts of grace and generosity towards myself.

I don’t know how and when, but recently I started to notice glimpses of what I call a non-narrative driven awareness. It could be a moment when I am reading, and I notice I am reading. That is all. I notice that there is no longer a background anxiety, and I am not stuck in reliving the past or imagining the worst. I am simply reading, running, or eating. There is no added narrative to those moments, no second or third arrows. I am just me in those moments, I no longer come with attached labels or descriptors. My mind is free from the stories I tell myself, even for just a moment.

I read “The Power of Now” many years ago and I was like WTF is he talking about. In recent months I read a ton of buddhist literature and because I am always holding so many intellectual opinions in my head and I prided the mental activity, it was difficult for me to grasp why they kept harping on the now.

For me the breakthrough isn’t so much the now, but the capacity to see reality for that it is, rather than the narrative layers we heap upon it. I am not saying I have developed that capacity, but it is fascinating to see glimpses of it.

So, I think I am 10% less unhappy. When profound changes take place so incrementally over a long period of time, it is difficult to notice them. But once in a while I remember the psychological state I was in say three years ago, I know I am a different person. I can just flip into my journal entries from then and there is a discernible difference (this is why I keep both a public and private journal, it is like version control for humans).

I am 10% less unhappy because I stopped believing in a story about who I should be or become. I accept who I am and where I am at the moment. The cynical voice in me says, obviously I am more at peace at a time in my life when I have not many commitments to fulfil, and I’m not oppressed by the demands of a full-time job. But that wasn’t a given. For myself (and many others I know), free time is a nightmare. I was that workaholic who asked to start new jobs ahead of time because I could not tolerate the idleness of having no work to do, nobody to report to.

I am not sure when I’ll be forced to be encumbered by commitments again, but I hope when the time comes I will be a person who is unafraid of facing them: to stoically walk down a difficult path simply by walking, not by imagining and being afraid of monsters ahead.

I do not know what the future holds, whether this is temporary and perhaps I’ll be back to my frenzied state tomorrow. But I know I have become aware of an anticipation towards more of what is to come, because this is the first time in my life I am trying to lead a self-directed life as much as possible, away from the safety of the mainstream. I have never known what it is like to live without worrying of what people will think or a life that is not fully dictated by the desire to escape oppressive circumstances. What will it be like, to lead a life without the weight of the invisible chains around me?

on being little

I noticed a recurring pattern whenever I try to embark on a new way of life, typically against the mainstream. I get really stressed before making the decision or change, followed by anxiety, a sense of abandonment or alienation – even though technically I’m the one doing the abandonment or alienation but I guess the feeling comes from the aloneness of leaving the herd – more low-grade anxiety, as though I am doing something really wrong, stupid and weird. Then one day without warning, I start to notice I no longer carry that weird swirly feeling in my chest, I stop hating myself and I start to feel at ease with the new path I am walking on.

I felt a lot of fear for leaving the tech industry for good. I was not leaving just a job, I was leaving my entire identity, my tribe: people who had made me few a semblance of normality, a sense of self-worth, and belonging. The past few years, all I kept doing was leaving. For someone like me who is chronically insecure, doing all this leaving was quite traumatic. I needed all of that to feel safe, and yet I left them behind.

But now, I feel a sense of peace, and a sense of firmness in my identity. I am no longer defined but what I do but who I am as a person. I feel less scared at losing things or experiencing changes in my circumstances, because I feel like I have acquired a sense of self that was not distributed to me by some external value system. I start to have an inkling of what is truly important to me, instead of holding on desperately to things that seemed to be important because, well, everyone else seems to think so.

It is difficult to live a life against the mainstream. First of, we seemed genetically programmed to want social acceptance (well I guess in cavemen times you would die if you don’t learn to cooperate with other people). Research seems to show that our brain reacts to social rejection the same way we react to physical pain. Also, the functioning of society depends on consensus, how do we know what is right and what is wrong if we’re on our own?

But what if, as history has demonstrated again and again, the majority consensus can be flawed?

I have derived great solace in reading books about monastic life. I used to holding conflicting opinions about monastics. On one hand, I feel admire their capacity to throw everything away. On the other, I wondered if they were escaping from life. Recently, I begun to develop a view that being a monastic is a radical rebellion to the way the current world works. It is like giving a giant middle finger to capitalism and materialism, making a deliberate choice to believe that a way of life is possible needing as little as possible, trying to constantly pare down instead of striving with endless greed. Now, I think monastics are not the ones escaping from life, but trying to go deeper into life by removing as much noise as possible.

I am beginning to understand almost everything in life is noise and distraction. The way society is set up right now, there is no choice for most people but to work. We work most of our waking hours away for the top 1%’s benefit, and work takes so much time away from what truly matters in life: love. People who have experienced brushes with death probably understand glimpses of that. What is the point of being the best anything in the world when you can’t spend time with people you love?

When I was busy with work I had no appreciation for most things. Because appreciation requires thoughtfulness, and thoughtfulness requires time. Seeing and knowing a person beyond their job title takes time. Wandering in nature and savouring the richness of what nature has to offer takes time. Remembering the impermanence of life and reminding ourselves of the fragile existence of our loved ones – these thoughts would not pop up when I was rushing from one deadline to another, or spending more than ten hours in front of the computer to prove that I was capable.

So what if I was capable?

So what if I was not?

I started contemplating this possibility when I started getting chronic migraines which inhibited my ability to work. What if in all definitions of the word, I become disabled?

I spent a lot of time in the past few years in despair, shame and fear. I think that is the consequence when we are conditioned to believe that our self-worth comes from social recognition defined by the work we do. But somehow, over the years I have slowly changed, and just like I described in the opening paragraph above, I stopped being anxious. It is almost like an addiction: it may be challenging to go without coffee for a while, but after some time we just get used to it. For me, it is the same for my dependence on social affirmation. Suddenly, it has become empty for me, it has lost its value.

I feel like I am okay being a very little person. A person who is little, has little value, and has little things. I like my littleness, the lightness that is derived from it. Since I no longer identify as a designer or anything really, I don’t feel the anxious need to protect that status. I don’t feel the need to make myself seem useful or capable anymore. I accept the very little that I can do.

In exchange for this littleness, I get time and love. Time to love, time to be loved, time to do things I love, time to discover experiences to love. When I projected myself as a very capable person I felt empty and I knew it was not real or sustainable. But projecting myself as a very little person with time and love, there is a sense of wholeness and anticipation. It takes very little to amuse me these days.

I don’t know if this is temporary, but in a way, everything is temporary. It is refreshing though, to have a little window of time in my life where I can feel this sense of space available, where I no longer feel that claustrophobic living in my own head and in my own life. I used to feel I lacked so much, so much. But now, I feel there is so much out there in the unknown to explore, once I stopped trying to pigeonhole myself into a self who was dependent on social acceptance.

It once seemed unthinkable to try to be as little as possible when this world is all about making ourselves as large as possible. But maybe between being a monastic and Elon Musk there is a long colourful spectrum where there is a sweet spot for me. It is just surreal to notice that what seemed so important to me, so unliveable without, has been reduced to something I now wonder why I needed it in the first place.

scratches & intolerance

Once, I noticed this tiny scratch near the headphone jack of my then newly-bought device. It made me really upset for a long time. Then we moved into our new home and I noticed fine scratches on our newly-installed stainless steel sink. Again it made me really upset, bordering on a meltdown. I would notice scratches here and there, and they took me a long time to get over.

Some time ago (probably due to the books I have been reading), I started to be curious about my feelings. Why did scratches make me so upset? I realised that a large part of it comes from blaming myself: I blamed myself for not taking good enough care of things. This has a history behind it. I was often careless with my things when I was younger and so as an adult I over-compensated for it.

Digging deeper, I learned that I am intolerant of faults. A scratch, no matter how tiny or visible it is, represents a fault in something that was once perfect and whole. This mirrored the relationship with myself. I was very intolerant of the flaws I saw in myself, and I berated myself over them again and again. It could be something like allowing myself to overeat, or unintentionally snapping at someone, or feeling insecure. I became conscious of the overwhelming, repetitive feelings my body induced in myself whenever I blame myself for something. It feels like this sinking, gnawing sensation – it often grows in the background until it becomes a wholesale depression.

All of this phenomenon, I haven’t been aware of it. I was just aware that I was sensitive and easily depressed, but I didn’t break it down. I think it was an assumption and societal conditioning that terrible moods are part of one’s innate character.

There are many complex, scientifically researched reasons for why someone can be prone to tempers and mood swings. It could be transgenerational trauma, feeling unsafe as an infant and/or child, disordered brain chemistry, bad diets, lack of exercise, etc. In reality all of those are often inter-related. But this researched knowledge made me learn that people are often not born a certain way. What we think of as “our character” is often a response to our environment. How about genes that we inherited? Even genes can switch on and off, they are not as static as we once believed.

What does this mean? For me, it means that for every seemingly bad behaviour or response, there is often a suffering behind it. We suffer, so either we retaliate/compensate in unhealthy ways often unconsciously or we internalise our suffering, directing it at ourselves. I have become intolerant of my own flaws and mistakes because society (especially in Asian society) is intolerant of flaws and mistakes in general. We often warn people from perceived dangers by issuing absolute threats: “if you do x you will regret it for the rest of your life!”. We don’t tell people it is okay to make mistakes most of the time, or failure is acceptable as a condition for taking risks, and most importantly, we don’t understand the psychology of negative behaviour, so we blame it solely on the individual. A good or bad person is determined by their decisions, without giving any consideration to what makes a person, a person.

Because I was intolerant I was also often intolerant towards other people. Slowly, I learned to see the suffering behind my flaws, my feelings. We are often told to get over ourselves, that focusing on the self is narcissistic, that in a confucian society we have to put the others before self. But ignoring our own pain, dismissing it, causes not only more pain to ourselves but to people around us as well. Pain causes suffering, suffering causes retaliation. Our own suffering causes us to be blind towards other people’s suffering, and we get so caught up in our feelings that we often don’t realise we are hurting people. I have observed people being unkind to strangers, or worse towards their own family, and I used to wonder, why? How can someone be so unkind without being aware the damage they are causing? There are many complex answers, but often people are more concerned about being right or not losing their authority/power because their very sense of security is being very threatened. Their own feelings of fragility has to be soothed immediately first, it is always about why people are nasty to them, why do people have to disagree with them, offend them, them, them, them, always their feelings.

By them, I also mean me.

The irony is, by ignoring our pain everything eventually becomes all about soothing our pain, without us realising it consciously.

How can someone be so unkind? I learned the answer by finally perceiving the ways I have been unkind, whether to myself or to other people. Unkindness is caused by internal suffering, the ignoring of such suffering.

To be kind, to truly be compassionate, requires us to learn how to notice suffering, to understand what makes a person a person. I feel like I am only beginning my journey, but I have begun to notice a gradual softening, a decreased propensity to react with anger instinctively, a willingness to learn and comprehend, both myself and the other.

How to capture and distribute what we learn?

Recently I’ve come across 3 websites that gave me a mini-adrenaline rush when I saw them:

Credit where it is due, 2 of them are from following Michael Nielsen who has a pretty amazing website himself. What the 3 of them have in common is the longevity and breadth of knowledge captured. I am envious, because I haven’t done much to capture my own learnings and I wish I have a history like these websites.

These make me want to work more on the learning network idea (prototype still alive here) I had been working on before I decided to focus solely on my health. I am frustrated by the flatness and linearity of how we currently store knowledge – there must be a better and a more dynamic way to do it right?

Form aside, it also takes effort to capture these notes in the first place. Is it a design issue? I don’t know. Over the years I’ve tried evernote, google keep, etc, the problem is always remembering to capture my learnings. I read a book, have a great epiphany, make a mental note to write it down later, but I never get down to doing it and the insight is lost. 

The second part of it is: even if we capture everything religiously, it is still a pain in the ass to retrieve strategic pieces of information when we need them. The most robust search engine still needs to know what to search for in the first place. How do we manufacture serendipity, when the right pieces of information comes to us during moments when we don’t know we need them?

Related to this, recently I’ve read Ray Dalio’s Principles. I’ve avoided reading this because “eugh hedge fund manager”. But somehow I thought that I’ll keep an open mind, and I can always do the “eugh” after I finish reading it if I really dislike it. Liking aside, I have found it interesting that Dalio has codified his life principles like how he has done so for his investment algorithms. He thinks it is possible to put a framework of how we live life into a computer and let it systematically gauge and measure the potential decisions we make. Similarly my friend Buster has a github repo on his beliefs, we can see how he has evolved from the changelog. I have an informal google doc where I note down similar observations about myself, namely the main challenges and anxiety I had been feeling at that point of time. It is a useful exercise for me to go back in time and see what used to plague me so much and how much they don’t anymore. 

What I really wish to do – instead of publishing my learnings as a book when I am in my 60s (like Ray Dalio) – is to make a “living book” (aka website) with the intention and knowledge that it will evolve. I don’t like the immutability of a printed book, especially when it comes to our philosophy on life. I am pretty sure if we write a book on our views in our 30s we will definitely cringe by the time we hit our 40s.

I think we need to rethink how we record and distribute knowledge as the world gets noisier and people’s attention spans get shorter. I have no answers, but instead of thinking I have the final solution, perhaps I can ease myself into thinking that the solution will continually evolve. I should at least attempt to start formatting what I’ve learned into something accessible for myself. Sometimes I read my own journal in reverse chron and I am disturbed by how much I’ve learned *and* forgotten. It is a point of failure to rely on myself to remember to read my journal or wait for an app to remind me that 7 years ago on this day I learned something new.

Last month I went to Kyoto for 3 weeks. While I was there I thought of closing my patreon account again, fueled by guilt. The hesitation comes from the unwillingness to lose this community, however small. At that point I felt like in the near future I would be writing mostly on obscure philosophy while I am figuring out my own existential crisis. What I’ve learned from reading a lot of psychology/philosophy is that instead of reacting to a feeling, how about containing and observing it for a while? Where is my guilt coming from, and is it objectively substantiated? I noticed that one of my major life issues is that I have an “all or nothing” mindset. I go into these obsessive cycles, burn myself out and then into avoidance mode. 

Again I don’t have answers or solutions. I think my guilt comes from neglect, and I neglect because I think I need to have something “meaty” to share. But I think there is value in the ephemeral and the personal. I have to go back to what I hope to achieve out of Patreon. I really relish being amongst the company of people who either have a common interest my experiments, or people who connect with my writing. I hope to have meaningful discussions and feedback here.

I want to continue mulling upon how I can share more of what I’ve learned and read. I’ve been reading a ton of interesting books but I am not capturing enough notes and thoughts that arise from them. Another thing I am thinking about is restructuring my online presence to reflect the evolution that is going on in my life. I don’t know who I am and where I am going, but I think that is the interesting part, how do I info-architect the online presence of someone who is constantly in flux?

My online presence and work is scattered all over the internet, because I believed that there are different expressions as a consequence of different mediums. My writing is split across medium, my public journal and the very rare tinyletter. There is also lucent.space which holds my experimental work. Yet I envy the single wholeness of the websites I mentioned above, a container for everything. Is it feasible to have a single website that contains my ongoing journal, random notes/learnings, essays and experiments? (I am also growing more wary/weary of using a centralized site like medium, but I appreciate the wider distribution there.)

I want to start capturing notes while reading books and share them. I wonder what is a good form/medium for them? 

What sort of updates on Patreon would you like to see from me?

Please feel free to leave your thoughts, I really appreciate them!


Originally published on Patreon.