on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

on coping with emotional dysregulation

I realised that I have problems regulating stress and my emotions, only sometime in the last couple of years. This reminds me of the time when I told an ex-colleague I may have chronic anxiety – she looked at me with her eyes wide open expressing her surprise that I didn’t know it earlier. In case you didn’t know too, most people don’t spend most of their lives worrying incessantly, neither do they have an impending sense of doom plaguing them. People tend to attribute behaviour with character, and character seems to be perceived as an inborn thing, so I thought being a worrier with my emotions flying all over the place and having a particularly short fuse was my character.

I think it was reading A General Theory of Love that made me learn the concept of emotional regulation. Due to a myriad of factors, some people may not develop the full capacity to regulate their emotions, so they suffer from emotional dysregulation. One of the tell-tale signs is that people like us are unable to calm ourselves down when we are upset, or we go from a zero to ten in response to a trigger. Just like how people develop diabetes from the body’s inability to regulate insulin, the nervous systems of people with emotional dysregulation are unable to regulate the flood of hormones that get triggered due to stressful factors.

What I hypothesise for myself is that I somehow managed to nurture the ability to repress that extreme response in inappropriate situations like work, as in I look unruffled or perhaps just mildly upset, but the meltdown and hormonal reactions take place internally within my psyche and body. After months and years of biting down these reactions, I developed chronic hormonal imbalances which lead to chronic illnesses, on top of burnout and breakdowns.

When one is used to being anxious and stressed all the time, we don’t actually notice it. So for years I was baffled why I kept burning out, kept falling sick, because consciously, I felt fine, thriving even. But unfortunately, age does catch up, the body gradually loses its ability to bounce back and one day, everything falls apart.

Now, I have become more attuned to my body and how it feels, so I have also become a lot more aware when my body is having a stress response. It has become both amusing and disturbing at the same time, because I am capable of observing the reaction and yet there is nothing I can do to stop it. I am more aware of emotional stress than physical and environmental stress, so sometimes it still surprises me when I suffer a relapse due to physical over-exertion. I notice my body is chronically tense and almost nothing except an intense massage can relieve it. It is not just my mind that is unable to relax, my body is in vigilant mode all the time even if I am doing nothing particularly stressful.

I am not very good at taking care of myself yet. I lack the awareness to know when is enough, especially because I was conditioned to believe nothing I do is enough or that I am not trying hard enough. So I tend to push myself to extremes, because I don’t know where is the range of moderation. I still don’t. It is a very slow trial and error, plus reconditioning process.

Sometimes I get really really tired of doing this. This is not something doctors know how to fix, if they take you seriously in the first place. They don’t consider the complex chain of hormonal reactions taking place in the body, they just want to treat the symptom and get over with it. I have been appalled by how doctors are fixated on what they have been taught 30 years ago and how they refuse to consider more recent developments in medical research. If I have migraines, chronic dry eyes, PMS and chronic mental health disorders, I have to see four different specialists, three of whom will simply give me painkillers.

(In case if you wonder why don’t I just take painkillers and get on with life, there was a period when I did take them regularly for my migraines and one day they stopped working, and then nothing else worked, except traditional chinese medicine, thankfully.)

So some days, I feel horribly trapped in this body. It doesn’t matter what other blessings I have in other areas of my life when I feel something stabbing the insides of my eye a few days a month if I am lucky, coupled with two weeks of low energy because of PMS, and everyday out-of-control stress reactions to a multitude of stimuli. Then I feel guilt for feeling this suffering because other people have it worse, and of course people seem to like to remind me of that though gratitude for my circumstances will not make my pain go away. I have internalised this accusation that I’m ungrateful, so I have developed an immense hatred for myself: I am so weak, I should try harder, I am a burden, my suffering is so insignificant.

All of this just makes me want to disappear. Since I am still lucid I do not want to cause suffering for people who care about me I cannot voluntarily end my own life, but to me it is sad that I cannot find other reasons to keep myself alive apart from the feelings of other people. I try to convince myself philosophically, that to know whether life is worth living or not requires me to be alive till the end, and that my current self cannot deprive my future self of the opportunities to know. That I can still be curious to see who I’ll become, even if I remain ambivalent to life for the rest of my life. I tell myself that even though the process is slow, I have become better at managing myself and my life. Some other days the injustice and absurdity of this world overwhelms me, and all my reasoning falls short. I tell myself perhaps the most I can do, is to bear witness, to the suffering of others and myself, to the unfolding, even if it is tragic.

I am contemplating whether to continue publishing this journal. I don’t want to whine at this corner of the internet while people are losing their lives and eyes in trying to protect the life they know. I am also thinking of going completely off social media, to reduce the amount of stimuli that will potentially trigger me. I guess if I can’t disappear off the face of the world, the very least I can do is to disappear off most of it. In parallel I am also curious to see if I can implement the ways of monastic life in my own home. It is not about following religion or rules set by a religious order, but rather making the intentional space for silence and contemplation. I am also wondering if reducing potential triggers as much as possible would give my body the time and space it needs to heal. I will feel guilty for not participating, but at this point I am not sure if my participation is a net positive to the world. I will probably still work on publishing book reviews, my research findings and the personal learning library.

I am not sure yet. I will miss the internet, and you – whoever have been reading my writing for this long. Thank you for making this world a less lonely place for me.

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a contemplation of the effects of stillness while in Slovenia

Being in Slovenia was an accident. I had planned a trip to Rome to see ancient ruins, and I thought why not swing by to visit my ex-colleague and friend, Romina who lives in Ljubljana – which is an hour’s drive away from the border of Italy.

Allow me to sidetrack for a little bit. I remember a conversation with Romina and her friend a few years ago, and they were saying how they had to drive to Austria to go to Ikea. That memory is permanently imprinted in my mind: for a Singaporean it is just so surreal to buy furniture in another country that is less than a two hour drive away. Venice is also two hours away, Milan is five. I took a picturesque, relaxing, six hour train ride from Vienna to Ljubljana. Can you imagine this is their everyday reality? I can’t.

So the original plan was to just stop by Ljubljana for a night or two just to see my friend, and to spend a few nights in Prague instead. But somehow in the process of research I saw pictures of how beautiful Slovenia’s natural landscape was. I wanted to visit Prague because everybody said you had to, and to be honest nobody ever talks about Slovenia, but I pictured us visiting another city with beautiful architecture and history versus a country where so much of the landscape is still unspoiled. This is one of the rare – I hope many more times in future – when I actually became aware of what my spirit wanted. (Here I don’t really mean spirit in the metaphysical sense, but the essence that exists beyond all that conditioning.)

I’ve taken quite a few trips in the past few years (because I am in a race against time), I have to say Slovenia is my favourite so far (Kyoto is a close second). In Slovenia I experienced a sense of stillness and a slowing down of time, as though I was transported into an entirely different dimension:

right in front of our airbnb in Robanov Kot

For those few days I felt like a whole person, instead of a person who has to make herself fit into the ways of a modern, dense, relentless city. We took hikes that ranged from thirty minutes to three hours, at some areas there wasn’t a single human soul for miles except us. We did however, bump into a couple of horses and pigs:

One could get used to this and take it for granted. But having lived my entire life in dense cities (so dense that San Francisco felt like the countryside to me), I felt like I was under a lingering, soothing, shower of gentleness.

I wondered how I can bring this inner experience back with me to Singapore, to retain that stillness within me. Will I quickly snap back into the haste and stress once I am back in the city? Where every corner I turn there is a tall building towering over me, unable to escape from the fumes of vehicles or the perpetual rush of people.

Lake Bohinj

To be fair it is now autumn, when all the summer crowds have long dispersed. Still I appreciated the quality of the space that was available to me. The unique thing about Slovenia is that you can go from a town to a beautiful, quiet hike in a thirty minute drive (in New Zealand I just felt like I was always driving but maybe I am just a fomo bad planner), so I still had the energy to truly enjoy the landscapes. Something that is more subtle is the sense of safety I felt, because the nearest town was always near enough.

I am so glad I chose to leave Prague for another time, spending almost a week in Slovenia instead. I think this experience is going to make me travel differently from now. I would look for more opportunities to experience different dimensions of stillness. I think it was a necessary process to get the fomo out of my system though. We are so conditioned to look for novelty, but now, only now I feel I have the capacity to experience being still for a while.

For a long time I had felt I was allergic to the city state I was born in. When I lived in San Francisco, each time I was back to visit family in Singapore I would get sick. People would laugh at me, saying it was all in my mind – now I know that actually has an element of truth, because the latest scientific research is showing that our psyche has the power to influence our bodies. But can anyone draw the line between what is considered our psyche, our brain, our nervous system and the physical body?

The latest Apple Watch OS has a noise app, because “Repeated, long-term exposure to sounds above 80 decibels can lead to permanent damage.”. People get heart disease and hypertension from noise exposure. We tend to notice only the extremes. Wikipedia lists a normal conversation at 60 dB. If chronic exposure to 80 dB can cause permanent damage, what is the effect of being surrounded by noise in the 40 dB – 60 dB range almost every single waking minute of your life?

“People living in cities are regularly exposed (against their will) to noise above 85 decibels from sources like traffic, subways, industrial activity, and airports. That’s enough to cause significant hearing loss over time. If you have an hour-long commute at such sound levels, your hearing has probably already been affected. Urban life also sustains average background noise levels of 60 decibels, which is loud enough to raise one’s blood pressure and heart rate, and cause stress, loss of concentration, and loss of sleep.”

– “City Noise Might Be Making You Sick”, The Atlantic

We are like sponges and mirrors. We now know that infants’ stress levels and heart rates are regulated by their caregivers:

“Prolonged separations even can be fatal to an immature nervous system, as vital rhythms of heart rate and respiration devolve into chaos. Sudden infant death is increased fourfold in the babies of mothers who are depressed—because without emotional shelter, infants die. The heart rhythms of securely attached babies are steadier than those with insecure relationships, just as the breathing teddy bear regularizes the respiration of premature infants. Synchronicity with parents (or, in a pinch, with another reliable rhythmic source) becomes the baby’s developing physiologic strength.”

– A General Theory of Love

I wouldn’t be surprised if science one day proves (it is probably out there already) that our nervous system responds unconsciously to the state of the people around us. We get stressed in a room full of stressed people, and we automatically relax when we are around calm people. This is not some new age thing, but a natural consequence of us being social creatures and having mirror neurons.

I am not sure what the future holds for us in context to climate change, but if we do survive it somehow, I remain optimistic that in time to come, we will learn to design societies and environments that will factor in what makes a human being truly thrive. It is not because it is moral or that it is the humane thing to do, but the logical consequence that healthy, thriving human beings will create healthy, thriving, societies. It is a little sad that in this time and age it still feels like an argument we have to make, but I think the leaders in power now are not exposed to this model of thinking (I guess all they learned was Darwin and Adam Smith).

Since quitting my last full-time job four years ago I have been wanting to live differently. I think I have made a lot of progress and have grown a lot in terms of being aware of my unconscious loops and behaviour, but very often even till now I have found myself repeating these unconscious loops in other areas of my life. I am too fixed in certain ways of being, largely influenced by my upbringing in a dense city. This trip made me contemplate how I have to be very intentional about how I want to live, the extra effort it really takes to be in a different mode. Stillness doesn’t come easy, it has to be actively pursued (yes I am aware of the irony of this sentence). I will have to be creative how I can intentionally envelope myself in stillness when I am back home in Singapore.

Note: following this line of thought I may periodically take sabbaticals from social media though I will regularly update this journal, so sign up for my tinyletter if you would like to be notified of updates.


Travelling – apart from the sheer experience – nudges me to expand the boundaries of my mind in perceiving the world. Today we visited the Hundertwasser Musuem, which prior to visiting I am almost embarrassed to say I had no idea who Hundertwasser was. I had no idea who Gaudi was too, before visiting Barcelona a few years ago. I blame it on the “pragmatic” upbringing I had as a 1980s Singaporean child, where poetry and art were viewed as a luxury (I am not sure if things have changed much).

Hundertwasser Musuem

Photography is not allowed in the museum, so I can only write about what I’ve seen and learned. Hundertwasser was an advocate for living in harmony with nature: he believed in having trees as co-tenants (thats why you see plenty of trees poking out of the windows of his buildings), that straight lines would lead to the downfall of humanity, hence he designed his buildings with curves and uneven floors:

“If a man is forced to walk on flat floors as they were planned thoughtlessly in designers’ offices, estranged from man’s age old relationship and contact to earth – a decisive part of man withers and dies. This has catastrophic consequences for the soul, the equilibrium, the well being and the health of man. Man’s ability to experience ceases and he becomes disabled, mentally and organically…The uneven floor becomes a symphony, a melody for the feet and brings back natural vibrations to man. Architecture should elevate and not subdue man.”

– Hundertwasser
Hundertwasser House

Later on, looking at an architectural model of a beautiful daycare center he designed, he proclaims:

“Nature and art are a unity, they are both creation, but we have disunited them. Our true illiteracy is not the inability to read and write, but the inability to be creative. Especially in architecture for young people…Rectilinear, ice-cold repression of the children’s soul and the suppression of growing creativity has been practiced for years. Simply by the aggressive, levelling architecture in which our youth have to spend the most important years of their life…In Heddernheim the young people will be in a permanent, animating, positive contact with nature, beauty and creativity…They will communicate to other people the beauty and harmony they witnessed and spread the message to the world.”

– Hundertwasser

If you know me personally, it would be easy to guess why I appreciated his philosophy. I still have nightmares from my school years, almost two decades after leaving the system. As a former designer I had found it easy enough to solve design problems, but till today I have issues expressing my creative self spontaneously and freely. My partner commented that his art was brave, because they look like children paintings and she wondered if that would be criticised by his peers since it was an age where they were still obsessed with technical prowess. My response: it is extremely difficult to paint like a child.

Green Town (credit)

His statements about straight lines and industrialised architecture seems to be very provocative and exaggerated at first, but upon contemplation I think it is safe to say that our desire for order in the easiest, fastest, way possible has created unintended profound consequences.

We now know how to make ourselves fit neatly in squares and rectangles, even if that meant cutting parts of ourselves because they stuck out.

I do think that architects these days think more holistically and ecologically in their designs. But the Hundertwasser musuem provoked me into wondering how much of the world would have been different if we thought more deeply about: our relationship to the world, what it means to be human, how to preserve and honour our inherent creative gifts – when it comes to designing our systems and environment.

And yet we insist on seeing ourselves as an utility.

a tiny blip is perhaps still a blip

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can I give them a piece of me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the weight of my footprints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To acquaint myself with nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to be acquainted more with nothing.

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

learning to co-exist with uncomfortable feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hope in the inevitability of climate change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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