on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts


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.

On working on the self and being a wider container, in spite of the crumbling world

I was telling my partner that I am suffering from an existential writer’s block: I cannot help but feel everything I write or tweet would seem frivolous at this point in time when people are violently oppressed for fighting for something they believe in or simply because of who they are. Imagine someone out there losing an eye or the only world they ever knew, and here I am, writing about how I want to live and how I’m processing my own struggles.

My personal struggles seem so small compared to people getting the shit beat out of them if not cruelly murdered. I watched an episode of Netflix’s “Comedians of the World” where an African comedian made jokes about privileged people making protests about saving pandas in contrast to the suffering people from his continent go through. It made me deeply uncomfortable. I understood his point, but do we stop working towards higher aspirations as long as there are horrors in this world?

The first time I went to my therapist, I told her that my suffering seemed so trivial compared to people who have been through much worse. She looked at me compassionately, telling me softly: “suffering, is still suffering”. In that moment, my world changed.

This is the kind of violence we do to ourselves. The comparison of who had it worse and who deserves what. Each time we invalidate someone’s suffering, we shut down a tiny piece of them. We lose the capacity to see another human and to be a human. We unconsciously devalue other people because we have been so devalued ourselves. We see everything as a hierarchy, even when it comes to suffering.

If having basic needs met equated to a reduction of suffering, you would think that first-world countries would be at the bottom of this ranking of countries by suicide rate per 100,000. But the picture is a lot more complex.

Yesterday I delivered food to people working in a F&B establishment. The distance was probably less than 100m, but they felt sorry that I had to carry their food, and gave me a tip. Their small act of generosity changed the quality of how I felt about the world in the next hour or so – the world and her people felt so expansive and warm.

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.”

— Henry David Thoreau

A couple of hours later, I had another customer living in a swanky downtown condo felt like she waited very long for her food (according to the app, I was on time), so she vented her frustration on me. I knew I shouldn’t take it personally, but her energy rubbed off me. I felt so small.

It occurred to me through these experiences that it is important to learn how to be a wider container. The latter customer seemed she wasn’t intentionally unkind to me, but she couldn’t help but let her frustration spill. It reminded me a lot of my old self. I was constantly spilling.

broken container overflowing
by @launshae

If I wasn’t mindful, I would probably carry on that chain of reaction, venting my frustration of her frustration on the people I interact with next. It could be as simple as being grouchy to my partner even though she didn’t do anything to deserve it. Maybe she would retaliate and it’ll snowball from there.

But if either one of us was a wider container, we could contain that frustration there and then, stopping the ball from rolling further. If we were more intentional and skillfull about it, we could appease that frustration and turn it into something benevolent. It is not about passive acceptance when someone is being mean, but truly understanding another person’s inability to contain their frustrations is different from being a personal attack on us.

Unfortunately many of us are constantly spilling, so we participate in a giant network of agents passing along hurt to other beings.

We have learned to feed ourselves materially, but we are still deficient spiritually. Yes it is a fact of our existence that there is immense suffering everywhere. But it feels like our evolution has stunted somewhere, because we are still violent to one another even when all our requirements of physical safety are met.

Throughout my life I have multiple people telling me that they prefer to be nasty to others lower in the ladder because things get done faster and “it just works”. In places of supposed safety and peace, though we are not hitting people with our hands, we are still killing ourselves slowly, and softly.

Perhaps in a time like this, at first glance it may seem self-centred and frivolous to work on ourselves, or to work on art and literature. Yet in Buddhist and Zen philosophy, it is all about working on the self. Putting abstract philosophy aside, I can now argue that in times of loss, pain and violence, it is even more necessary to ensure at the very least, we are not trying to harm the people interacting with us. That we can learn to be wider containers to people who are in need of being held. For those who have sacrificed their lives to move humanity forward, the rest of us can at least be stable agents and facilitators to ensure that their sacrifices do not go to waste. On the giant shoulders of various philosophers, I argue further that it is our moral imperative to deeply understand what makes us suffer in order to have any hope of ending systemic suffering.

What about art and literature? Here, I’ll have to borrow the words of the recently passed Toni Morrison:

“Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.”

– Toni Morrison, source

…and when words are not enough, only art can express the human experience, even in the worst of times.

I have chronic health issues, and I have an unstable psyche. Even when I am alone, I torture myself in my own head. I often wish I could be out there with others on the frontline trying to make the world better, but I think acknowledging one’s limitations and hence true potentialities is one of the most profound ripples of transformation we can make to the interdependent system we belong to. If we keep making fish climb trees we’re just making the fish miserable when they are beautiful fish in their own right. If everyone only wants to plant beautiful flowers, the ecosystem will fail. I think seeing a bright, alive, child grow up to be a zombie-like resigned adult is one of the saddest phenomena to witness.

The world is crumbling, but it is simply a symptom of us crumbling. My small hope is that my words here would bring some comfort to people like me out there, but if not, I wish my self would crumble a little less, just to reduce my debris in this complex brutal pain-ridden but yet still aspiring to be humane in the most unexpected ways – world.

negotiating peace within me

I reworded the introduction on my homepage yesterday to better reflect who I currently am as a person now. I wanted to acknowledge my ongoing struggles with my chronic health issues. It has been almost five years since I’ve started getting painful dry eyes and migraines regularly, and I am done hoping that I would make a full recovery. These few years I’ve experienced bouts of good health, but the pain always returned. It just takes a few missteps, and I am out of action for days, if not weeks.

This is my new reality, and I accept it.

I want to accept it because it gives me a new platform on how I live. Instead of being in grief when I fall ill again, I can now calmly accept it as though it is an inevitable process. I had this epiphany a while ago that I should take responsibility for the frequency I have been falling ill. The problem is with each recovery I start to abuse my body again. I keep thinking that I can keep pushing my limits like the days of my youth.

But I am no longer young, and my body has had her fill of being pushed to her limits.

If I can learn to treat myself with the sort of gentleness I would hold to treat a chronically ill person, perhaps, just perhaps I would enjoy longer periods of manageable health. I would learn to tread carefully, instead of running around like a headless chicken. I would stop ingesting food that does nothing but tax my body. I would finally learn to treat my body like a temple. I hope.

Today I started running again. I haven’t been running since I started delivering food, but I gradually realised the fitness that comes with walking a lot is different from the fitness that comes with intense exercise (duh). Stamina versus strength.

I go into these cycles. I experiment with a new regime, I tire of policing myself, then I slip into extended periods of existential depression when I feel fatigued and numb. I lose all my good habits, and I rebel against myself. I become a renegade, doing whatever I please. Doing whatever I please is not a good thing for me, because I prolong the ill-effects of not taking good care of myself.

This is where it gets interesting. Sooner or later I tire of: being ill, being not at my optimum, feeling tired all the time – I start to desire to live like a monastic again. I wish to try again. To attempt to find a balance in my regime so this time I don’t have to rebel. There is a subtle flickering of life in me, a renewed interest in things I used to be interested in. I start reading voraciously again.

I don’t lose my chronically suicidal tendencies unsurprisingly to me but perhaps so to others, but I regain an interest to experiment with life, almost for nothing else but the spirit of experimentation.

I don’t wish for my suicidal tendencies to disappear, that is perhaps not the outcome I want. Like two warring states, I wish for my internal conflicted selves to be capable of co-existing in a negotiated peace. I don’t aspire to fall in love with life, but I hope to be able to endure it.

I often feel existentially lonely. It is not a loneliness that can be compensated with social company, but the persistent feeling that I am all alone in pursuing my journey. Yet ironically I think that is precisely the beauty of life: that because we are all very different people made up from our genes, ancestral history, culture, environment, family, community; for better or for worse we all have individually unique journeys to pursue.

I think to be able to rest in this existential loneliness, to be with it accompanied by full ownership, responsibility and with the pride of an aliveness-bearing person – perhaps that is the key to negotiating peace within me.