on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

looking back at 2021

I tend to write long essay-ish review posts, so this time I’ll attempt to write a bullet-point-ish one.


  • had a day surgery to remove two infected cysts on my chest – it was very painful. I also developed two small keloids as a post-surgery effect for the first time in my life. The surgeon said it was expected because the chest area is prone to keloids.
  • finally had the courage to pause my patreon account permanently (writing this now still gives me anxiety):

When I started this I wanted to believe I could make a reasonable living while doing what I love: making experiments and writing. I believed that getting 1,000 people to pay $1 so I can create and write for the public in peace without ever getting involved in corporate politics again was not an unreasonable dream. But after learning so much about myself I have realised I have neither the health, personality or the psyche to be a creator making a living through subscriptions. It takes a lot of self-promotion, and if you have been following my work long enough you will know I am almost allergic to anything that resembles self-promotion. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think self-promotion is bad at all, I am just too socially anxious to do it. I thought it was something that I could overcome, or at least I could do it on my own terms. But my health kept failing, and I cannot upkeep any semblance of a creative momentum. My journey is full of stops and starts, nothing sustained.

  • got double-vaccinated (waiting for the partner to overcome her histamine intolerance issues so we can get boosted)
  • acquired a printer so I printed postcards
  • measured my ketones for the first time in order to understand more of my biological data
  • picked up photography
  • got introduced to the world of DACs, passive speakers and raspberry pis as an audio transport
  • added /notes to this website to embrace shorter-form writing
  • learning to co-exist with my messy brain
  • restarted writing morning pages every morning since Oct 11 in an attempt to stop my morning doom-scroll habit
  • got used to living in a semi-lockdown
  • listened to a lot of 70s (before I was born in 1981 – anything before 1990 is probably foreign to me) music for the first time: Carole King, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac

note-worthy posts

yearly stats

  • wrote 39 long-form posts (including this one) vs 39 (2020)| 45 (2019) | 59 (2018)
  • read 52 books (but some were photography books) vs 41 (2020) | 55 (2019)
  • 2,012,846 steps vs 2,175,497 (2020) | 3,561,874 (2019) | 3,695,978 (2018) – there is a stark difference compared to pre-pandemic times

general thoughts

In the beginning of 2021 I wrote that my goal for the year (if any) is to seek emotional freedom. Reaching the very end of 2021, I don’t have any objective measure but I do feel freer. It seems evident from reviewing the tortured entries I used to write. I read them now, and I am like why was I always so tortured, why was I always deluding myself with the stories I make up in my head?

turning point

I think (with some hindsight bias) that I was in an existential depression/slump that persisted from 2020. There was a turning point around the time when I wrote, “my messy brain“. I can’t articulate how and why, but I got fed up with being in a slump and being unable to will myself to do things I want to do. I won’t say I woke up one morning and changed overnight, but it was a gradual upwards trajectory in terms of reclaiming myself. I think the crucial difference is the acceptance that I may have impaired brain functioning and I need to work within that, not deny or ignore it. That made me understand what I can expect out of myself and what I cannot make myself do. It wasn’t positive thinking or that I could suddenly change my will, but rather a conscious redesign of my day so I don’t have to leave it up to my “will” to do things. Writing morning pages made a huge difference because I no longer started the day with doom scrolling, so I exhausted my mental capacity a lot less from the get go. More on that in a full post.

learning to be slower

I learnt to be much slower – I get a lot less frustrated whenever I have to do things that require a deliberate slowness, like chopping vegetables. I exercised less and gave up pursuing streaks, instead working with my menstrual cycle to determine my exercise schedule. I also learnt to demand a lot less of myself since I recognised my own impairments in several areas.

Picking up photography and listening to music allowed my brain to process a lot less words. I hope to veer more in this direction.

I am not sure if it is learned helplessness, but I stopped being so frustrated and upset with the whole virus situation. I saw that it was something out of my control, and that throughout history terrible things happened to human beings all the time, so why should I or the current generations be an exception? I could continue moping, or I could try to pursue whatever mundane aliveness I could have. Again, I just want to reiterate it wasn’t a switch I could turn on or off, but a very slow, deliberate attempt to recalibrate the way I think.

a good baseline

I personally believe human beings thrive when they are at a good emotional and psychological baseline. A good baseline that does not require much external stimuli. I feel that I have made great strides towards this in the past year, even if much of it is forced due to our personal movement being limited because of the delta strain. I think a lot of it came from efforts to down-regulate my over-stimulated brain. It is training myself to coexist with the initial difficult boredom that stems from a brain always seeking adrenaline and dopamine.

My usual skepticism and pessimism makes me feel that this won’t last, but I think this is a good state to end the year, at the very least.

Note: I think writing a review of an entire year on the last day of the year would not be very accurate since we have a recency bias. Nevertheless, this is a slice of this year from my current POV.

Archive of previous years

the paradox of the self

When I was younger (actually, not too long ago) I was often trapped in my own pain and suffering. I would wonder very often why did terrible things constantly seem to happen to me, there were a lot of “why me”s. I was deeply depressed because I couldn’t see a way out.

One thing about reading Buddhist philosophy is the concept of no-self, or not-self, or emptiness (depending on who and what you read). There are various interpretations on what the original Buddha actually meant, and a lot take it to mean that in order to achieve enlightenment or happiness we shouldn’t be self-centered or narcissistic – we should put the needs of others above ourselves.

Some Buddhist teachers have been on the record saying that they don’t like western psychotherapy, because it focuses too much on the self. I think there is a paradox of the self. Narcissism in general (without accounting for genetic reasons) is typically not an outcome of too much self-love or self-centeredness, it is what happens when the self feels deprived. We often develop obsessions over things we cannot have. If we feel we have enough attention, why would we keep wanting more of it? Human beings are not the bottomless pits of greed we think we are.

Zen, which is a branch of Buddhism, is a little closer to what I personally think of as reality (I am not a scholar so don’t quote me). There is a well-known quote by Dogen, one of the founding fathers of Soto Zen (if this quote doesn’t make sense to you, welcome to Zen):

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”

There seems to be a narrative (Buddhist or not) that we should aim to be good by being selfless. In Buddha’s time (or any previous time in history) there was no concept of boundaries, or how having no boundaries can result in toxic relationships and systems. The reason why everyone should have boundaries is difficult to understand, especially in a Confucian society. But which human being is capable of always being hungry, sick and deprived and yet without any trace of resentment give away their food to anyone who asks? If we’re always tired because we’re always giving away our energy, how can we deliver our best? I think we ask too much of human beings, and the result is dysfunction because everyone is tired and hungry, except the ones profitting off the rest (which is another story but I do not want to digress).

In order to thrive we need to figure out our boundaries in order to protect our energy, work on our selves so we don’t end up hurting other people or ourselves unconsciously. On paper it would seem that I disagree with Buddha.

But if we go beyond mainstream or religious Buddhism, what Buddha was trying to teach is not to forego the self, but rather that the self is an illusion. This view has its equivalent in psychology. What we think as our character, our selves, is simply a composite of stories and conditioning. It is not so much that we’re a metaphysical illusion and we all live in a simulation – well you can believe that if you want but it doesn’t really confer benefits in practical day to day living I think – but rather the idea of our selves is not as concrete as we think.

The idea that our self is an illusion can be quite depressing at first, but hopefully we can move out of that and realise its freedom. That we don’t have to be who we were, or who people think we are.

Therein lies the paradox: we have to focus on our selves in order to lose our selves, it is in losing our selves where we can find how we may thrive and therefore make the ecosystem we’re part of a greater whole.

Going deeper into the implications of no-self: it is not just about the self being an illusion, but also that we’re not as standalone as we think, that we’re all interdependent and a part of a larger reality. This is not woo-woo at all, I mean we’re all particles and you can’t say one particle is more solid than the other; we’re all part of an ecosystem that is dependent on everything working in harmony for our survival.

What I’ve found comforting in this whole no-self thing: that while it may seem that my life has been put on hold, that I am deprived on all the comforts and experiences I had, that I have encountered so much malaise and am bracing for potential grief – the reality is, we as a whole is suffering. No one, like the Buddha once proclaimed, is spared from the suffering of living, ageing, illness and death. It is just a matter of how and when. It is not just my life that is on hold because of this virus, everyone’s lives are on hold (to varying degrees and I acknowledge my privilege), and everyone is trying to cope. Random shit happens. People develop chronic illnesses, people suddenly die. To live is to endure heartbreak and disappointment.

Just a while ago I have found this extremely unhelpful in my own suffering, knowing that everyone is not spared from suffering does not reduce my own suffering. But I think I went through the five stages of grief: I am now at the acceptance stage. I don’t think acceptance reduces suffering, but what it does is that it may free up our energy for something else. Once I accept the inevitability, that terrible things are going to happen anyway, I want to focus on doing my best to love and live. It is not like less living is going to make the suffering go away, it is not like we can avoid grief by consciously or subconsciously punishing ourselves. I still suffer, maybe as much, but I want to develop the room for other dimensions of living.

I can understand why Buddha wanted people to detach from the idea of the self: because when we’re too attached to our story as the sole protagonist, we live in a world where we experience nothing but our own suffering. That severely limits our experiences of life and the world. It just reinforces a story that is not rooted in reality, and that same story perpetuates our suffering, especially if we’re led to believe we’re alone in our suffering, that we deserve our misfortune. All of us are outcomes of a complex systemic loop.

I look back at our history: we were always killing each other, dying of illnesses, waging wars. Our life expectancy was 40 not too long ago. I think we have been deluded by the somewhat peace of the recent decades. But shit always happens. I just wish that we can figure out how to hurt each other less and let nature do its thing. But nope, we have to heap more suffering on each other on top of the inherent grief that comes with living. All that randomness, fragility, impermanence.

Cherish the present, because it is all we have. It sounds so cliche, but I have found it to be poignantly true in recent times for obvious reasons. I try to look at my partner more with undivided attention, I wash dishes and feel the thrill of clean water, I thank my lungs for supporting me when I run. I struggle at times with my chronic illness, but it has made me learn so painfully not to take my days of health for granted.

I am not a Buddhist, and I am not sure why I wrote this. But these thoughts have been hovering on my mind for a while. I am not sure if anyone else would find it helpful, or if I am able to convey why I have found this to be ironically enriching my life these days. Maybe these are glimpses of being able to free myself from the trappings of my own mind.

I like Joseph Campbell’s approach to living and learning because he never subscribed to one particular school of belief. He tried to integrate everything he learnt. I think the Buddha would have taught differently if he had access to neuroscience (and understood how trauma impacts us). He was astute and ahead of his time in terms of human psychology, but I think it was still a product of his times.

the reality of emotions

Imagine if you can put your swirling emotions in a crystal ball, then elevate the ball in mid-air before scrutinising them from a distance. What would it be like to be able to take them out of you and look at them from a distance?

I don’t really know why – maybe a result of all the buddhist books I have been reading over the years – I have been doing this mental exercise lately on my morning walks. I project my emotions a distance from me, imagining that I can twirl the ball and look at it from different directions. Somehow the mere act of visualisation puts some form of a virtual distance between my self and how I feel. It is a rather trippy yet intriguing experience (not that I’ve ever been on a trip before).

Even though it is just my imagination, this exercise has allowed me to perceive the invisible space between me and my emotions. I had always identified as my emotions, my inner pain and sadness had threatened to overwhelm me to the point of repeatedly thinking of how I could end it all.

As if I’ve just woken from an immersive dream, I wonder why I had allowed my emotions to take over my life, my living? It is a pointless question really, because I was not a person capable of separating my emotions from my self.

Still, it is an interesting question. Why, why do we let our emotions direct us? Think about the state of the world: how much pain and suffering do we experience because we cannot overcome how we feel. How many times: wars have been broken, people have been killed, children have been hurt – because of our unbearable emotions?

Our bodies can be really intelligent or really primitive. I have realised that my body/nervous system sometimes lives an almost separate life from me. How I feel at times is not rooted in reality. Like a stuck record player it keeps playing the same note over and over again. The body is intelligent because it aspires towards efficiency by remembering things for us; it is primitive because it remembers things we no longer want to remember. I feel like my body was once very very sad, and that’s the main if not only emotion it can remember feeling, so that’s the resident emotion I feel. Even if there is nothing objectively sad about my life now I still feel sad. Or at least the emotion I label as sad. I used to try really hard to look for the reason of my sadness, that it could be something I am not conscious of.

But I gradually learnt to be aware that it is really simple to colour our emotions. Just having not enough food can dramatically alter our moods and lower our emotional resilience. Just the wrong part of my monthly cycle can trigger suicidal feelings. Nothing much has changed in my life or in me internally between one week and the next, except I went from the follicular phase to the luteal phase.

If food, drugs and hormones can alter our emotions so easily, are they that real and concrete to begin with? Who is real: the person before being chemically altered or after?

Some days I wake up and I feel like something terrible has happened to me, or is going to happen to me. I eat breakfast and suddenly the world is radiating rainbow colours. I have learnt not to trust how I feel, which is the opposite of conventional wisdom but in parallel with buddhist philosophy. My brain likes to run its own programs, whether I prefer to have them or not. When I am in a good mood all of this is quite amusing to me.

I am a lot less unhappy these days, and my frequency of having overwhelming emotions have lessened considerably. Avoiding known triggers when I can is tremendously helpful. Because I am a lot more stable, I am able to look back at my past selves with some level of objectivity, if that is even possible. I feel a little disconnected from them, and there is some regret. I wish I have known how to get help much earlier on, or have known how to help myself (reading the right books are very helpful imo). Then I wouldn’t have wasted so much time being so sad that I was unable to live. I was like a sad zombie walking around with not many other emotions available to me, unable to experience the fullest possible spectrum of life. I wish I knew that it was possible to hold my sadness and yet not submit entirely into it.

Like just hold that sadness and all its accompanying emotions in a crystal ball and look at it curiously, from as little distance as I can make. Just imagine that it can exist out of me a little while. There is a seizable gap I perceive, no matter how small it is and how short the moment lasts.

I am not sure if this is just temporary – my capacity to put a bit of a distance between my emotions and myself. But sometimes, all we need is to see the possibilities of that little gap. Maybe the gap will disappear for a long time returning us to where we were, but the first time that gap appears, it opens up the reality that what we believed as a concrete state is actually malleable.

RSS feed updates, and the spirit of NetNewsWire

This is a tiny break in regular programming just to notify that I’ve updated the RSS feed for this site to include /notes. The main feed used to fetch everything from /journal, /essays, /experiments, and /poetry. I deliberated for a while whether I should make people subscribe to /notes as an additional feed if they are interested, but I had decided that I’ll make it less work for people who want everything.

For people who just want my long-form writing, you can subscribe to this feed instead.

There is a strange bug for people using Feedly: if you simply input “” it ignores my html header and keeps fetching my old rss url from the old subdomain where journal used to live, so if you want to make sure you’re getting all my posts, please resubscribe with this url on Feedly:

For people new to RSS, you can use something like Feedly to subscribe to posts, or on the Apple ecosystem there is the very excellent NetNewsWire that is free, and it syncs via icloud to all your devices. A tiny digression: why is NetNewsWire free? I was really curious about it, so I googled, and i turns out the spirit is something really admirable:

I should explain: the app is better — much better — than it would be if it were a for-pay app. If it were a for-pay app, it would be just me working on it instead of this great team of volunteers. There probably wouldn’t be an iOS version at all: it would be Mac-only. The kind of features I don’t enjoy doing, such as the Twitter and Reddit integration (and others), wouldn’t even exist.

And it would be slow going. NetNewsWire 5 would have shipped much later than it did, and NetNewsWire 6 would not have shipped until next year, probably.

Instead, because it’s open source, we have this amazing team of people willing to work on it in their spare time. During a pandemic and everything. They’re bringing you something great out of love, with the goal of writing an app of the highest quality.

We don’t have to rush and Ship Right Now in order to make our revenue numbers. We don’t have to pick feature X over feature Y because we think it will bring in more conversions. We can care about performance and efficiency; we can say no to things that might have made money but that are outside our vision.

– Brent Simmons, The lack of a price tag seems almost criminal

Wow. I’ve never thought of a free, open-source app this way. I’m like really cynical of tech these days but once in a while it still brings the best stories of collaboration. Even the article on “How to Support NetNewsWire” is admirable.

This is a post that would typically belong to /notes, but I wanted to reach out to people who is reading the discontinued rss feed on Feedly that only fetches posts on /journal, which means they may have missed out on posts on /essays and /experiments over the past 2 years. Oh well. I don’t think I have that many readers anyway, but it seems 30 odd people on Feedly may have subscribed to the old feed, so hopefully they’ll see this.

And for those of you who had subscribed all this while, thank you for being with me on this lonely journey.

Carole King, and discovering the magic of sound

As noted a while ago I went into a deep rabbit hole after wondering if the Apple lightning to 3.5mm dongle affects audio quality. So there is a chip inside the small dongle that converts the digital audio signal to analog. In case you’re wondering, apparently the $15 (SGD) dongle is pretty good for its size, and people are speculating that Apple may be taking a loss on those dongles.

Anyway, that made me extremely curious so I started exploring these converters – known as DACs. Before you know it I now have a desktop DAC that connects my mac mini to speakers, and also allows me to connect regular wired headphones. I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to hear the difference, but connecting the speakers directly to my mac mini’s audio jack was audibly worse to my untrained ears.

I wanted to understand more about audio quality, so guided by the hive mind of reddit I started exploring this B&W list of 50 albums, adding them to my streaming service. Their write up for this particular album was particularly intriguing for me. Keywords: female singer-songwriter, iconic, masterpiece. Imagery: Hippie, barefooted, ordinary woman on cover. Wow.

I am ashamed to write here that in my 40 years of life I haven’t really heard or known of Carole King. Only upon consulting Wikipedia I realised I’ve been hearing her songs (for herself and for others) all my life, I just didn’t associate them to a single person.

I played different albums recommended by that B&W list, plus some others recommended on reddit. But for some weird reason I am not even sure I can put my finger on till now, I kept coming back to Carole King’s Tapestry. I am not sure if words can articulate why I am enamoured but I’ll try. The music was surprisingly well engineered – I am a complete audio n00b but they made my ears tingle – I tend to associate 70s music with muffled mono-sounding music. The instruments and the vocals were simple, not heavily electronic like the music these days. I also love the piano.

I discovered she did a performance at Hyde Park in 2016 at age 74, so I promptly ordered a bluray/cd combi. I just watched half of it this morning, and I couldn’t stop crying?

Carole King Live at Hyde Park
Carole King: Live at Hyde Park blueray/cd

Again, I don’t really know why. Sometimes things just move us, and it is a very direct, visceral experience. She was just so alive on that stage, at age 74. She has like ten times more energy than me at almost double my age. Her voice sounded a lot more raspy, but she still hit the notes perfectly (a lot better than some much younger professional singers going out of tune these days singing live), accompanied with very energetic piano playing.

It transported me into another plane, where I was contemplating how amazing music recorded in the 70s can still be thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated forty odd years later, that we can record hi-res video and enjoy the energy and expression of a concert till the end of time (or as long as we’re still alive and possess energy and resources like chips).

I also wondered to myself what is the point of watching a concert where the artiste is just sitting on her piano playing and singing without much visual fanfare. Why not just listen to the CD? But I think to me that is the whole point. She is just sitting there playing her piano and yet it was extraordinarily beautiful to me. In chinese we have this phrase: “台风”, which loosely translated to stage presence. I think for her it wasn’t necessarily stage presence per se, but a sort of beautiful aliveness that is somewhat provoking? It makes me ask myself, how can I be like that?

In the liner notes of the bluray she described the effort and detail that went into the recording of Tapestry:

‘Often Lou and recording engineer Hank Cicalo handled the preliminary stages of mixing and then had me come in with fresh ears. After they had spent hours experimenting with where to put the cymbals and percussion in the stereo pan in relation to Danny’s rhythm guitar and my piano, I’d come in and say, “Try bringing the reverb down on my lead vocal at the beginning of the first verse”, and then other things would fall into place…As well as listening through the Altecs, Lou often listened through headphones so he could hear the discrete left, right, and center separation more clearly. Years later, when I asked Lou why he used the headphones so much he said, “I always liked hearing your voice and piano in the middle of the top of my head.” As we got closer to the final mix we switched alternately to smaller speakers as the Auratones perched on the bridge of the console or the tinny, monoaural car radio speaker durectly in front of us that replicated the conditions under which most people would be listening. If a mix sounded good through all four systems, we took it to the next level: the “over-night listen” in which we brought acetates home, played them on our respective stereos, and got further input from friends and family members.’

I guess it was no accident that the album sounded so good even though recorded in the 70s, and then I can’t help but feel impressed that they involved her in the process and took her seriously. I mean, it was the 1970s after all.

She added more observations on the ordering of the tracks:

“On analog vinyl albums and casette tapes there was an interval approximately midway through, during which the listener had to turn the product over. Until CDs made that interval obselete, an album sequence had to take that pause into account. Knowing that pacing could make or break an album, I suggested several different orders for Lou to try, but we always kept coming back to his sequence. Now I can’t imagine it any other way.”

There, I’d learnt something new today again. I had never thought about that pause that used to exist. Or that order mattered that much (until recently Adele made a fuss over disabling shuffle mode on Spotify). I knew quite rarely order mattered because an album was telling a specific story, but to be honest most albums’ tracks just sound random to me. This makes me think about the little details we may neglect.

We’ve been spoiled by the convenience of music streaming, and the power of making our own playlists with single tracks. I have not listened to entire albums for a long time, probably since I discovered mp3s and that Faye Wong went into retirement. I’ve not bought a CD for eons prior to this exercise. I’m delighted to rediscover this experience again. I can’t help but wonder what else has technology and convenience has taken away from us (but technology has also allowed me to watch a concert in HD quality and listen to hi-res music online so I am not complaining)?

So the Apple dongle opened up a whole entire world for me. I feel lucky that I can discover 60s-70s music now in year 2021, and it is like a whole new experience for me. I am an 80s kid so I am very unfamiliar with anything before 1985. I think it is really cool that something that is so old is something that is so new to me.

They were not joking about the sound of these old records. I’ve only just discovered classics like, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “Pet Sounds”, Miles Davis, Steely Dan, etc. They are classics, but they sound like a new genre to me, which is mind boggling. What art.

I thought the Apple earpods/airpods or the Bose noise-cancelling headphones I used in my old job were of good sound quality (I don’t like heavy bass), until a pair of IEMs that costs 1/3 of the Apple airpods stunned my ears and mind. I didn’t know sound can be expressed across so many dimensions. Instead of listening to music as a mixed whole now I am noticing the details.

Somehow I feel that there is some metaphor for life hidden somewhere here. That perhaps when we reach a certain age we think we know a lot of the world and of ourselves, but there are entire hidden, intricate worlds out there, if only we veer off the mainstream path just a little bit. Maybe most people will never question the standard audio jack that comes with their phones, or the little dongles they use. Everything seems to work as they should, and that should be good enough. But a little curiousity can open up so much. Sometimes I think what we experience in the mainstream is just the tip of the iceberg, and all the deliciousness of life are hidden in little niches.

working with seasons

Jerry Seinfield, apart from being famous for his sitcom, is also well known for popularising the concept of the “habit chain“: you complete one thing you really want to accomplish for the day, mark a giant X on the calendar, rinse and repeat everyday. Soon enough you’ll have a chain of Xs which makes you not want to “break the chain”.

I was a big fan of this concept, and over the years I used apps with this feature to track the habits I wanted to form. I managed to swim, read, write, run for hundreds of days in a row without a break using this tool. It really helped me to have structure, which made me feel grounded.

However, a migraine would disable me for days. Even so I would still try to do things like run because I didn’t want to break the chain (or streak). So I would drag myself to the park and try to run through the pain. On hindsight, that was extremely silly. But I didn’t know better. I would blame myself for breaking the chain even though I was sick, so it made things worse.

But in recent times I deviated. I grew more aware of how I felt with my body, made sure I journalled about my symptoms every day to see if there were any patterns before an attack. I was most prone to a migraine a few days before my menstrual cycle, during the cycle, and when I am close to ovulation. I don’t actually know the scientific reasons why – googling doesn’t help much either – but the body seems extremely stressed out during those times. It takes so much energy to expel the lining and to release an egg that it kicks me out of homeostasis and impairs my other bodily functions. My glucose metabolism goes haywire, I become extremely dehydrated and fatigued, and my body aches like I just ran a marathon.

On “normal” days my body seems to self-repair and maintain homeostasis pretty well. During cycle-related days every little amount of stress makes it go berserk. It doesn’t matter if it is physical or emotional stress.

I used to be stressed everyday so I didn’t actually know I was stressed. I only became aware of how stressed I was because I started to have non-stressful days. I am not very good at knowing where are my energy boundaries. I don’t know how to take breaks and rest when I am tired, because I don’t know when I am tired. I was used to being tired all the time, so being moderately tired and very tired felt the same to me.

Doing things through fatigue seems to be the norm. People still run and work when they are tired. In fact it seems to be like some invisible test where being capable of working through tiredness seems to be one of the most validating things you can do as a human being. If something matters so much to you, you have to do it regardless of the state you’re in right? That’s a sign of mental strength.

See, that’s why we have people burning out and going into depression. Even dogs know how to lie flat on the floor when they are tired.

I don’t know when it started, probably around this year, but I started to experiment being a lot more careful with my energy levels. I think the last straw was when I broke into an extremely debilitating migraine after I went out for a consecutive few days (something that wouldn’t trouble a normal human being). I started to wrap myself in cotton wool thereafter. I track my cycle, so each time I am close to “danger days” I take slow walks instead of any intense exercise, I try to stop being so demanding and judgmental of myself. I try to understand my body is going through something taxing.

chasing a streak vs being flexible

This is not something that is easy for me to learn. I am still learning to watch for signs every day. Things that seem innocuous like taking the train for thirty minutes or so can have a detrimental effect on my fatigue levels. I believe I have undiagnosed sensory processing difficulties. Writing uninterrupted for hours can be enough to trigger a migraine.

I think it has been an interesting journey for me to experience how traditional “productivity” hacks or advice may actually be unhealthy or unsuitable for me. I still love keeping streaks: I have an unbroken daily bullet journalling streak for almost six hundred days and I love it. But I have to be aware what are the things which I am capable of doing, which of these are worth doing, and when to have recovery periods.

These days, even athletes modify their training according to their bio-signals like heart rate variability. I do use my own HRV data as a guide to make decisions on my exercise regime, but through my own experience the data still has to be viewed with the context of my cycle. For example, my HRV tends to be really high during the first day of my cycle, which my apps would interpret it as a good day to do intense exercise, but I now know it is because my body is extremely stressed and my parasympathetic system is trying to calm it down. How do I know this? Months and months of trying to live my life as per normal during days of my cycle and ending up with a migraine at the end.

It is a lot of trial and error, a lot of self-denial also. It is difficult to accept that I can’t have the same routine, energy, health or creativity every day. The week before my cycle I am almost useless. It would have been much better if I had simply accepted it and design softer activities for that week instead of trying to brute force myself into doing things. It is hard when there is a ongoing momentum – like I had a couple of good weeks on working on this website so I was so excited for it to continue, only to be feeling unwell the next week.

Our metabolism is considered healthy if we’re metabolically flexible: we can easily switch to burning fat or glucose anytime without repercussions. I think it is the same for mental/creative flexibility – to not be so fixated on one particular way of doing things but to switch quickly according to the situation and context. I spend too much time feeling bad about the things I cannot do.

So I am trying to learn to be more flexible. It is not easy because I realise I can be quite set in certain ways of thinking. Think of traditional farmers working with seasons. They plant, harvest and rest according to the seasons. They don’t insist that the crop grow during winter. It is just unrealistic. But why do I insist on trying to do the same things everyday? We’re organic creatures with organic rhythms, but somehow we insist on treating ourselves like robots.

breaking the doom scroll

7 days ago I changed my morning routine: previously I would doom scroll with my morning coffee, but for the last week I’ve been writing my morning pages instead. I had the idea to do this for the longest time, but it is difficult to move myself out of a deep-rooted habit, until I came across this tweet:

I sort of know this already, that the semi-conscious state of the mind in the morning is precious (especially for spiritual development), but who wants to write 750 words the first thing in the morning? Most people don’t desire to do things that are valuable for us in the long term: exercise, eating better, reading books, etc. I think about this phenomenon a lot. I desperately want to be healthier, but I cannot resist things that make me unhealthy, especially food. It is very strange to be living with such a contradiction, yet it is very much part of the human condition. To know something is very different from applying it.

I was tired of doomscrolling. I suspected it was sapping my mental energy (duh), but when things seem so dire around the world, watching cute dog videos are soothing. I was desperate to look for things that are funny, inspiring, heartwarming, or something new I could learn. I could relate so much to this tweet:

For me the question was, out of say a hundred social media posts, how many are truly interesting to me? I have to scroll past a lot of noise or consume quite a bit of garbage information (like fast food, they can be quite delicious and addictive) for the few posts that brighten up my day or my soul. By then I would have been mentally exhausted, and if I’m not careful I’ll end up with an additional eye strain. The irony is, the more mentally exhausted I become, the more I doom scroll.

So I thought I’ll just try it for one morning. In parallel I am also trying to recondition the way I think about my self and the things I do. I recognised the value of simply wanting to try, even if it fails. The spirit of wanting to try is not something that is easy for me to cultivate, because it is just so much easier to roll over and give up.

Finding a true motivator

I know I’ll not be able to convince myself to do things if there wasn’t a deep enough reason for them. It wasn’t enough for me to exercise because it is supposedly good for my health. I had to educate myself on how exercise affects hormones and brain growth in order to truly keep convincing myself to do it.

Writing my first morning pages in years that day, I had a sudden insight on why I keep repeating certain behaviours even though I rationally do not want them. The part of me that is constantly seeking instant gratification is simply a small but very dominant part of me. It is that part of my brain that wants to be quickly soothed. Our brains prefer the path of least resistance, even it is not good for us in the long run. It is probably unable to evaluate results for the long run. All it cares about is to survive now. Survival now means trying to get over nasty feelings. Who cares if the brain and body becomes dysregulated? The body only knows how to send primitive signals like pain and fatigue when things go wrong. It doesn’t have the capacity (yet) to warn us that eating that donut repeatedly will lead to diabetes and heart disease one day.

When I kept reaching for reddit or that delicious carb I wasn’t making a choice. They were a consequence of automatic, default, conditioned behaviour, a consequence of the primal part of the brain. But I am so much more than my primal desires or fears. I want to be able to make choices on behalf of my whole self – the self who has aspirations, hopes; a self who desires to be physiologically well because the rational part of the brain knows that physiological fitness is the key to fulfilling those aspirations and hopes. Do I want to soothe the part of my brain who is always mistakenly believing that it is in danger, or do I want to empathise with the self who wants to live as her whole self? I don’t want to be someone who is always defined and limited by her default responses.

Developing the muscle to make choices

That is where meditation comes in. For the longest time I couldn’t understand why was meditating useful. I did find that it extended my patience and that alone added value to my life. Of course, deep breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve, and that can have multiple cascading health benefits. Some schools of meditation teach practicing the ability to observe and analyse your thoughts. From observing thoughts we can start to see patterns. When we become aware of those patterns we can try to intercept them. Building that capacity to intercept our unhealthy patterns – that is what I consider as the true ability to make choices.

Part of meditation practice is also developing the ability to bring ourselves back to that present moment. What does that mean in pragmatic terms (the “present moment” always sounded so woo woo to me)? It means that we can start to notice that we’re time travelling (thinking about the past and future), or that we’re letting our automatic responses rule us. It is interesting because we’re either obsessed with the past or future, or we are so taken by the immediate desire that we are blind to the true impact of those actions.

To be honest I barely meditate, at least in a traditional manner. But I’ve gone through long enough periods of regular meditation before, and I seemed to have developed something from them. I apply the principles of meditation to my daily life, whenever possible. So before I reach for my phone to doomscroll, I try to find that space to ask myself: do I really want to do this, and why? Even hesitating for a split second instead of defaulting to that patterned behaviour seems to be meaningful enough for me to try to divert my attention to where I really want it to go. I hope it is like a muscle I can build upon.

Working with instead of against

I used to approach trying to change my maladaptive behaviour as though I was an Asian parent trying to discipline my child. It was either through brute-force or guilt-tripping. It is of no surprise that they were unsustainable. Now, I’m trying to see it as trying to make choices for my whole self instead of that narrow part of me who is having so much difficulty with resisting instant gratification. My whole self wants to thrive, to know what it is like to feel well. That self wants to have the capacity to contain and sustain different things. I want to find room for more.

I also think it is important to have compassion for that part of me who wants and needs to be soothed. Instead of self-blame, I try to understand where are the feelings coming from. This is not easy because again, self-judgement has been my default response for most of my life.

Observations for the first week

The first day felt weird and difficult, but the following days felt easier. I thought it would be much harder, but it seems like I just need some separation to disengage my automatic behaviour. I was expecting to crave but I mostly did not.

I didn’t have extreme rules: I just didn’t want to doomscroll first thing in the morning, so I told myself I could do it if I wanted to after I’m done with the morning. The plan is to do the more mentally-taxing stuff in the morning, and once I get my meaningful tasks done I can do whatever I want.

It turned out I didn’t even reach for my phone until late afternoon, and when I did try to doomscroll it didn’t seem as interesting as before? It reminds me of how I used to add extra sugar in everything and now everything tastes too sweet to me.

I did get a lot more reading done, and also I managed to work more on this website for the first time in many months. It turns out that my hypothesis that doomscrolling was mentally exhausting me (duh) was right. I had a lot more mental energy to work on stuff, at least for now. But I need to be careful not to burn out or develop a migraine, so I am trying to take a five-minute walking break every thirty minutes with a timer on my menubar.

Will this sustain? I do not know. I’d been hopeful and enthusiastic about several budding habits but I couldn’t sustain them. Most of the time it is because I lose momentum due to a forced change of routine or a relapse of health issues. But I’ve also successfully changed several of my deeply-rooted behaviour. I think just having a spirit of experimentation – trial and error – would help. For now, I’m just pleasantly surprised to observe the differences.

every day now

This pandemic has not been good for my nervous system (I wanted to write “mental health”, but I think that is potentially a misleading term because it makes it seems like actual biological conditions are just “mental”, as though it is a pure product of the mind). I already had generalised anxiety pre-pandemic, so for almost two years I’ve just been even more worried, stressed and anxious.

The vaccine held some hope, but with more recent data it seems some people are still getting pretty ill – anything that doesn’t require oxygen is considered “mild” but you can still feel like shit for weeks and also risk long covid – with breakthrough infections and older people with underlying conditions are still at risk of serious illness. The risk is lower of course, but it is still there. The underlying conditions are diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol which most people above the age of 40 probably have some form of the above because of our national carb-heavy diet with high stress levels.

People close to me have been getting non-covid related illnesses, and everytime they need to visit a clinic or hospital it stresses me out, because the probability of getting infected in these places are higher. Some of the elderly live with unvaccinated kids or people who have to regularly expose themselves due to work, so that worries me too. I can’t stop worrying.

I am already pretty lucky in terms of what I have to deal with compared to many other people, yet I’m still so stressed and anxious. I cannot imagine what it is like for other people.

On the other hand I see many people trying to go on with their lives as per normal, because what else can we do except to try to survive? But the pandemic for me and probably some of us is not just about the uncontrollable virus situation. It is also about how much we’ve witnessed over the past 1.5 years: the competency of politicians, people being severely misled by misinformation, the lengths people go to defend their own beliefs and “sovereignty”, how people are harming others because of their own unchecked psyches.

The world is in chaos, but we’re trying to tell ourselves everything is fine and please carry on. We’re going to feel the repercussions of this for years to come, on top of dealing with climate change. I am not sure what to do myself except trying to cherish whatever time and peace I have now.

It still feels wrong to try to do fun things in these times when so many people are suffering. My pace of writing here has suffered, because each time I write something it sounds like this. Half the time I feel like I am an unlikeable wet blanket, the other half I feel like I am only expressing the reality I experience.

I “console” myself by reminding myself of the inherent absurdity and suffering of life – no one is spared the pain of existence, going through the process of living, ageing, getting ill, and eventually dying. People from former generations have been through wars and great famines. Perhaps we’ve been lulled into a false sense of safety for the past few decades, with promises of unbridled technology advancement that were supposed to solve all our existential problems. But can technology nourish our deprived psyches, our propensity to harm?

Every day now I mentally brace myself for bad news, like the ancient stoics. Every day that goes peacefully without drama I silently thank my lucky stars. I know I am living on borrowed time, because I know each time something heartbreaking happens a part of me dies.

I think the pandemic has changed the world dramatically permanently, but we’re still trying to believe it will go back to where it was. At this time I find buddhist philosophy helpful, even if I know it is simply another narrative for me. There is no other way, except to tell ourselves whatever stories that will make us feel better.

the long haul

There are many people online who are unhappy with the government for not opening up as promised when we reached 80% vaccination in Singapore. They want us to be like the UK, where people are going about maskless, even though there’s like hundreds of people dying everyday. That’s less than 1% of their total daily cases – seems like an acceptable statistic. After all, the narrative is that only the elderly and the ones with pre-existing conditions are dying.

This is what happens when we are taught to think about life and death in terms of probability and statistics I guess. There are elderly and immunocompromised people in my life whom I care deeply for, and I don’t wish for them to be part of that 1%. But I understand the tradeoffs in terms of the economy – how it affects people’s livelihood and mental health. It is still disturbing how callous some people sound when they are like “only the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions are at risk”.

My partner and I are virtually hermits since March 2020. We stopped having a social life, because we don’t feel safe meeting people in situations where we all take off our masks. We all have our own family and friends, and we have no idea where everyone has been and how much potential exposure there have been. We wear a mask even when visiting our parents in their homes.

This probably sounds extreme. But I am a person who has been dealing with chronic illness since 2015, and I know what it is like to be a shell of my former self. My chronic illness has stolen my life away from me. I can say I am grateful for all the lifestyle changes I have made and all the things I have learned since then, but it doesn’t take away the grief I feel when I know I am not a person who is able to do anything she wants. Right now there is no light at the end of the tunnel, every so often when I get a migraine attack I seem to have to start at a negative again. My strength and life force gets zapped away, I have no will nor motivation nor strength to do anything.

It is incredibly isolating, because most people simply do not relate to having a chronic illness. I am tired of giving reasons why I don’t turn up for things, or why I seem so unreliable. I am unreliable even to myself. I break promises I made to myself all the time, because I suddenly get sick, my plans for myself get derailed, I take one step forward and suddenly I find myself ten steps backwards. I often get accused of imagining my illness, or being demanded of things that can only be demanded of a healthy functioning person.

I read accounts of people having long covid and I relate so much to them, though whatever I’m going through seems so trivial compared to them. I have good bouts of days, perhaps at least a week every month. Sometimes when I’m lucky, I enjoy three good weeks. People with long covid suffer every minute of their lives. I know what it is like just to suffer the loss of myself for a mere couple of weeks every month, and the thought of suffering even more everyday is enough to make me a hermit for the rest of my life if that is what it takes to retain some sanity. I think people who have not been seriously ill before tend to have a cavalier attitude towards health. It is something you don’t truly know what you possess until the day you lose it.

Since Covid is relatively new, and the delta variant even newer, there is not enough data for me to make an informed decision. There is not enough data about the probability of getting long covid for vaccinated people. Right now it seems like the odds of getting long covid is one in four people, and for the vaccinated is cut by half, and the chances of having a breakthrough infection with the pfizer vaccine seems to be 40%. So my bad math tells me the probability of me getting long haul is about 5%, which still seems too high for my personal comfort.

There is also not enough information about how people are getting infected even though we have a strict mask mandate in Singapore, with social distancing implemented everywhere except for public transport. Are people getting infected even though they are wearing masks? Or is it only in situations where masks are down, like during dining?

There are so many unanswered questions. I have some hope in medical technology. It is always advancing. Perhaps long covid is an outcome for some nutritional deficiency? Just in case you think I am joking, there is sufficient evidence to suggest bad outcomes of Covid-19 is co-related to Vitamin D deficiency.

For now, we’re choosing to do mostly outdoor activities (japanese youtube video on how aerosol spreads indoors), and we eat at places where we can dine alfresco. Even though it seems bleak right now I am hoping that as much as it is part of the human condition to self-sabotage, it is also very much part of the human condition to continually make new positive leaps and discoveries. Maybe it is too difficult to survive if we have to imagine the alternative scenario.

coping with loneliness

Since as far as I can remember I have been feeling lonely. I was so lonely that for long periods of my life it was tempting to believe I was an alien abandoned and forgotten by her mothership. This sense of loneliness – that I was all alone in this world with nothing for me to relate to – plagued me my entire life even till now, and it probably contributed to my chronic suicide ideation and depression. For many people, the worthiness and meaning of their life is not something they even need to think about, because their reasons and desire to live are so obvious to them.

For me, it is a life long search.

I am not sure if there is something neurologically broken in me, or multiple experiences in my early childhood left such a deep imprint in me that all the love I can have now doesn’t seem enough to mend this deep gaping hole. You would think that having a partner who loves me like her entire world would make this go away – which it did, some of it – but even when I am safely tucked in her arms the profound sadness exists. It makes me feel like I am such an ungrateful person, to have so much and yet feel so lacking, which makes me feel even worse.

It doesn’t help that I have been pursuing a non-mainstream way of life. There are two contradicting parts of me: one part wants to feel accepted and approved of, the other part of me feels that it is of utmost importance to carve out a life which is of one’s own. I didn’t realise it earlier, but now I see that one of the persons who makes me feel the most unsafe is myself, because I force-drag myself to unchartered territories all the time and make myself embark on risky experiments. I am not one of those people who thrives living life on the edge. I am pulled almost hypnotically to the edge, but it makes me stressed and anxious. (This phenomenon can probably be explained well by the Internal Family Systems model or the inner child model, conscious/unconscious etc, depending which metaphor one prefers.) I live a very boring life now, because I am so tired of everything I put myself through.

Since this sense of loneliness can cause me to feel profound sadness, there are plenty of times when I feel like I want to give up doing the things I do. Like stop writing this blog. Stop publishing on social media. Psychotherapists would probably find my behaviour common and expected due to my history: I would rather abandon than to feel abandoned. Sometimes I feel no one ever reads this, so why should I keep on writing?

I think the human psyche is made to crave feedback. I mean, without this sensitivity to feedback human beings would be wiped out by now. Intellectually I think it is more important to do the things I feel are important even if I don’t get feedback, but emotionally I crave for the feedback, just like any other human being. I know of many people who are brilliant writers or artists but they would rather not publish or make anything than to open themselves up to feedback. Then there are other people out there who create things based only on the crowd’s feedback, and it shows in their work, for better or for worse.

I think life is very short. Every day now I am reminded of this. I consider myself again split: one part of me is severely ambivalent to the value of life, the other part of me does not want to waste it. I think it is shortchanging ourselves if we stop doing the work we are called to do or want to do because we don’t get the feedback we crave for. I hate to bring up the cliche here, but even Van Gogh died a sad, lonely, angry man because no one cared about his art, but we all know now how much less this world would be if he stopped painting because of the feedback he didn’t get. Most of us are definitely not Van Goghs, but it doesn’t mean that one’s work must be universally recognised in order to be meaningful. Maybe all it does is to allow ourselves to express just one tiny part of ourselves in the most authentic manner we can muster. Isn’t that meaningful enough? To get to know ourselves?

In a way, because of my wide ever-changing interests, I will never really have a stable audience. One moment I am writing about chronic depression, the next I am writing about interactive experiments, and then before you know it I am writing about bicycles and cameras. Who knows what’s next? Existential philosophy?

It is the same for my instagram account. It is like rojak (a type of fruit salad, in Singapore we also use it to describe something that is wildly mixed). Now that I’m posting street photography I was wondering if I should keep that and my personal pictures separate. But I want to be a whole person, just like this website which went from one website to like five before I merged everything together again. Society likes to split things up and make everything its own tiny category with gatekeeping, my own psyche is split up by different entities wanting different versions of me, I am frenzied and flustered because different parts of me want different things.

I want to be whole and integrated. I don’t want to have five websites and five instagram accounts. Maybe I feel lonely because I can never seem to feel like all of me can belong together. There are parts of me I feel self-conscious about, like they shouldn’t exist. I judge myself before anyone else.

Putting parts of myself online is a part of my healing process. I told published that I was gay on a geocities website when I was 15. Everything that I could not tell to a real person, I wrote them online. Modern social media can make people feel extremely lonely, but it was the traditional blog that made me feel that pieces of myself can exist somewhere.

People often tell me that I am brave for writing so vulnerably online. The truth is if I didn’t I am not sure if I would still be alive now. It has made me less lonely and more lonely at the same time, because through this medium I have found strangers who resonate, yet people who know me in real life may start to relate to me differently once they get a glimpse of my inner reality.

So for me it is a practice and commitment. To make the choice to be whole, again and again. I continue to write and publish my photos regularly, less so because I want the attention or feedback (the attention and feedback is still nice nonetheless), more so because I need to see pieces of myself somewhere. If not, I’m not sure where I’ll be repressing them, unconsciously ashamed of pieces of myself.

This is how I feel less lonely, to learn how to be at ease with myself. To go against the mainstream tide of splitting ourselves up, to warm up to that uncomfortable sense of loneliness that comes up everytime I put something online. Maybe this is a pervasive feeling that stemmed from all those times parts of me felt rejected and abandoned when I tried to express myself when I was young.

Once in a while, somebody leaves a comment on this blog or on social media. Half the time they are strangers. Some are colleagues or friends I haven’t seen in years, decades even. These comments warm me profoundly, in the opposite direction of my sadness. These are comments people would probably never say to me in person. The anonymity and distance of the internet has made plenty of people say nasty things they would never have the courage to say in person, but it has also allowed people communicate at a level of psychological intimacy that would rarely exist in physical reality.

Whoever you are out there, thank you for making my existence a less lonely one.