on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

the contrast of nine years

A couple of days ago I had a day surgery for an infected skin cyst. It was minor but very painful. I couldn’t help but think about another previous skin cyst surgery I had nine years ago (I don’t know why I keep having them but I won’t complain about a nine-year interval).

Back then, I was all alone. I had to do everything myself, including heading back to my temporary accommodation post-surgery while I was still recovering from all the pain I had felt. I remember being very drowsy from the strong pain killers that were dispensed to me, sleeping a lot, bleeding a lot, fumbling with my dressings a lot. I probably didn’t eat much – back then there wasn’t many food delivery options, and the place I stayed was not near food.

Nine years later, my partner accompanied me to all my appointments, waited for me outside during my surgery, comforted me when I came out of the room with blood drained from my face. I couldn’t stretch my hands much, so I had to stand there helplessly while she undressed me before my shower, listened to the doctor intently as she was taught how to change my dressing and apply paper stitches on my wound if they come off.

I thought about everything I had to do alone nine years ago, and everything I have her to do with me now. I am very much in support of singlehood because I am cynical and I think the probability of finding someone compatible is almost zero, and being with an incompatible partner is life-exhausting. I told my partner that if this doesn’t work out I’m just going to be with myself for the rest of my life. I am done with relationships – I consider myself unsuited for them and I prefer to live out every inch of my weirdness than to hope for someone to accommodate them.

But for now, I lucked out I guess. We are still a relatively young relationship at almost five years old so I won’t jinx it. Yet in life the magnitude of certain moments will cause them to be etched in our permanent consciousness no matter how short-lived. For the past couple of days, even if it is just for a short while, I felt like I wanted and needed nothing else from life. How precious it is to have someone willing to wipe pus off your skin and hold your hand while someone is trying to slice through your body. Someone whose tender care is something that one that can trust and relax into, instead of feeling bad that one has to be taken care of. A tender care that is truly warm and comforting, not strangely foreign and weight-inducing.

A well-intentioned friend mentioned that he wished I would still be doing what he thought I did best – design. He was probably thinking of the version of me that existed nine years ago. But my career did not make me feel life was worth living, in fact it probably exacerbated my suicidal impulses. I am tired of living life as though report cards and resumes are the only measurements that matter. I don’t enjoy being seen as a specimen that is deemed to be thriving or not because of the work I do or some signals I fail to emit.

I may be different tomorrow, next week, or next year, but right now I have everything I can possibly want: a quiet simple vacuum that I can exist in with my partner facilitated by the bond we have with each other. I marvel while she makes her art, we discuss what I write and learn, sometimes we just hold each other and enjoy each other’s presence, other times we act like kids and laugh, every now and then we grieve together about the state of the world.

I have learnt that that the capacity to truly behold what I have is actually a skill. It is a form of heightened awareness, that a lot of what seems mundane now is what I didn’t have nine years ago, that peace is not the default state of this world but rather it has to be fought for, that even if I live for thirty more years it is barely 10,000 more days. I am already in the process of grieving the people who will leave this world before me.

When I look back at my past 14,000+ days, there aren’t many good periods I can remember. I know there will be periods of intense grief in my future as everyone ages. I wish to have some good periods to pad that oncoming grief. That when I look back at my life, it wasn’t just full of stress, anxiety, deadlines, insomnia, migraines, eye pain, people’s expectations, emotional trauma, grief, sadness, numbness. I don’t even need laughter and joy. I just want more moments in my life like the moments I had post-surgery: the awareness that I have everything I need. What I felt then was better than joy or any spikes of positive feelings. It was a feeling of calm completeness.

I don’t need other people to know it or validate me. I just need my self to learn how to recognise it more.

2021: little bits

I am still not sure if there’s any point to writing a post like this because no one can know what will happen in an entire year, but I thought it may be valuable for my future self to have a record of my sentiments at this point in time. My 2020 post sounded a little angry to my current self, so I’m curious to know what would my 2022 self think of the me now?

Last year I wrote about pursuing non-pursuing, in a way I couldn’t have foreseen I guess my intentions were fulfilled? It was a year I couldn’t have pursued much anyway. I had to cope with all the inner depression, frustration, grief and angst that had no external channel for escape.

I think I learnt to sit with myself a little better, though I think it is only the beginning of the journey. My goals if any, are mostly the same as the last few years though: I seek emotional freedom.

I am aware that I have a recency bias and for now I don’t really want to sift through my previous posts, but it feels like in recent times I have begun to be a lot more aware of how my mind imprisons me. It still does so, very much. I am in a lot of anxiety every day, though objectively I am probably a lot better than before. Some of my thinking is simply not flexible which is a surprise to me because I had always perceived myself as a very open-minded person. It is funny to me how inaccurate our perceptions of ourselves can be.

I wish to be less tortured by my self. That the climate of my thoughts and emotions can become a bit more neutral. To a person with chronic trauma, the only options that seem to be available are either flight, fright, or guarding each moment with extreme vigilance. I have no idea of what true relaxation really means, what does it mean to be present with the moment instead of being afraid of what the next moment may bring.

There is improvement though, however slow. I find reading through my old journals and timehop entries amusing and enlightening. Reading these things used to make me upset, but I am in a place where I can laugh at my old deluded selves now. The big reveal was how much I used to live in a world full of my own concocted stories.

It made me go through a writing slump because I was really afraid to write anything that would make me sound stupid to my future self, or worse, write something misconstrued as “advice” to people who may read this blog. I am a lot more careful to insert caveats into my writing – that whatever I’m writing probably only applies to me.

I do want to continue writing in public despite my misgivings. This is my part – however naive – in trying to express something into this world that is a little bit more authentic, even if the idea of authenticity itself feels inauthentic. Once in a while I stumble onto people’s sites that make me feel a little less lonely in a world filled with so much noise, and I hope that my little footprints online will leave a trail that would comfort someone out there, or someone like my younger self. I had derived so much courage and comfort from people’s writing online, especially during my teenage years when the world was a lot more unaccepting in many ways.

For 2021 I would like to learn to chill a bit better and a bit more, and I hope to continue tending to this website like a garden, and maybe I’ll develop the courage to pick up my newsletter and patreon account again in a way that doesn’t trigger my anxiety.

Maybe 2020 made it really clear to me that I am truly afraid of life and everything that comes with it, and I wish to be a little bit braver, and a little bit more at ease with the world and myself, a little bit less paralysed by my anxieties.

I think having many years of recorded writing taught me that a journey to wholeness is not inevitable or linear, it is a path that one must struggle to keep walking on, because without deliberate intentions and awareness we tend to walk in circles that gradually grow smaller, circles that may eventually become invisible chains that will slowly drain the aliveness out of us.

documenting 2020 in pictures & some words

This was the post I meant to write yesterday, but I guess in psychoanalytic fashion I had to express what was truly plaguing my subconscious first. I do not wish to twist 2020 in a positive spin, yet because of its conditions I was able to experience some new dimensions of life and myself. Here’s an attempt to document them:

Falling in love with the bicycle

Cycled a road bike for the first time

I’ve ridden bicycles on and off throughout my life but I’ve never really liked it much. I think there were two missing factors: my fitness and the bicycle itself. I had bought a second hand foldie for food delivery, it was a moderately enjoyable ride but that was it. Food delivery improved my fitness, and it piqued my interest in bikes because I wanted to see if I could improve the riding experience in order to deliver food for longer periods of time. The process to satisfy my curiosity made me slightly bike crazy.

So, towards the end of 2019 I had gotten my first road bike which turned out to be a giant blessing in disguise, because the pandemic induced a severe shortage for bicycles and now it is impossible to get a good one at a reasonable price. Also, being able to cycle my road bike every morning during the lockdown was probably one of the few things that kept me sane.

The love for my road bike deserves an essay on its own, but the tldr is cycling on a road bike is almost a completely different experience from cycling almost anything else (maybe mountain bikers would beg to differ). It made me completely fall in love with cycling and with bicycles, and now I am amazed at how wondrous is this piece of mechanical machine.

Changed my bike’s handlebar grips for the first time

Riding long distances gave me pain in the hand, so I had to change the grips. Removing foam grips is truly a pain in the ass, and it probably took me a much longer while than it would take an experienced mechanic. It is only a small task, but it whetted my appetite to do more to the bicycle. I am hoping to build my own bicycle one day.

Memorable random experiences

Saw numerous beautiful sunrises

The only reasonable time to cycle long distances in hot and humid Singapore is early morning, and I got to witness some truly amazing sunrises.

…and some sunsets

The lack of movement during the pandemic made us take some evening walks, and that gifted us with incredible sunsets.

Delivered parcels & bouquets

Before the virus became a serious concern, we spent the first couple of months trying our hand at being a parcel courier. I have a lot of respect for couriers now. Being adhoc couriers gave us the opportunity to discover some very interesting places and businesses. I would totally continue to do it if I wasn’t worried about catching the virus.

Let my partner cut my hair for the first time

I am sensitive to feeling weight even if it is my short hair on my head. Before the pandemic I would cut my hair at least every month. Throughout our relationship my partner offered to cut my hair several times but I would always say no because I am vain about nothing else except my hair. I couldn’t tolerate my hair growing to become a mop eventually, so I reluctantly let her do it. She did a surprisingly good job of it considering she had zero training, so now she cuts my hair. I’ve also become a lot less conscious about how my hair looks now.

Mechanical things

Replaced my 2013 11″ Macbook Air’s battery

This Macbook Air of mine has a ton of sentimental value, so I was sad that the battery started to be incapable of holding a charge last year. A few months ago I plucked up the courage to replace the battery on my own, and it turned out to be way easier than I expected. It makes me a sad that Macbooks (or anything made by Apple) are impossible to repair ourselves now. Also this machine is still functions pretty well for a seven year old laptop.

Tried to repair my xbox

Encouraged by the success of my Macbook Air I tried to fix my xbox (which is basically a glorified bluray player because I don’t really video game) myself. The hardest part is actually taking off the plastic case…I managed to successfully swop out the fan but it is still overheating when I put the case back on, so I’m going to try replacing the thermal paste soon.

I used to build my own PCs. I forgot how much I enjoyed tinkering with hardware, so this would be something I’ll be hoping to explore more in 2021.

Creative things

Cooked a lot more

Got sick of ordering takeout and wanted to eat a little healthier, so I tried cooking. The phase lasted longer than I thought it would, but I eventually got sick of my own cooking. Still hopeful of picking it up again.

Tried different writing set ups

I went into an e-ink rabbithole and tried different ways to improve my writing experience. I get sick a lot, and sometimes I cannot bear to be near my computer because it is something that makes me sick, unfortunately. So I am still experimenting to see if other setups would get me to write more. I am also trying to be more conscious about noting down my ongoing transient thoughts and feelings because since I’ve started to review my past journal entries regularly I’ve learnt that writing from my past selves is contains valuable information for my present self. It is not easy for me though, to be intentional about writing down what seems to be transient.

Wrote 39 posts

I wrote a lot less compared to previous years, because of the reasons mentioned above, that I got sick a lot. My physical illnesses make me mentally ill, and vice versa. I go into phases when I just cannot bring myself to do anything else except doomscroll. Still, I am thankful that despite everything I even wrote 39 of them.

Read 42 books

I had a goal of reading 100 books, but ended up with a number that is like a historical low for me in recent years due to the same reasons. I don’t wish to get too caught up in a number game though, but the number keeps me mindful of how limited is the number of books we can read in one lifetime. Say I read a book a week for the rest of my life, I would barely hit 2,000 books. To know this makes me sad.

Experimented with Roam Research

This also contributed to me reading less for a while because I was making notes from books I’ve read instead of reading new ones. I am still trying to find a system that works for me that can contain Roam, this website and my health in the picture.

Other notable events

Closing thoughts

Like yin and yang, I guess I needed to pair yesterday’s depressing post with today’s because it wouldn’t be accurate to say that despair was everything I felt in 2020. It wouldn’t feel right to put them in the same post either. I guess I am the documentarian of my life so I can slice and dice in whichever way I want, and I’m doing this more for myself than anyone else.

My depressed brain doesn’t remember accurately how I’ve truly lived. I had to go through my photo library to write this post.

That is why.

looking back at 2020

I’m not entirely sure how accurate can a review post be, versus being a snapshot of how one feels at the very end of the year. Memories are always sort of fuzzy, and we tend to have biases. But maybe the mere attempt to reflect is worthwhile.

2020 feels like a lost year to me, and I’m probably not the only one who feels this way. I think we’re conditioned to believe life is a linear upwards journey, and we don’t take it very well when we seem to regress. I didn’t really have plans for 2020, but it is one thing to choose not to have plans, and another thing to be deprived of the opportunity to have them.

On the surface I wasn’t very much affected by the situation. I’ve been living a hermitish life for a long while now, so I wasn’t affected by the distancing measures for the most part. But I felt very anxious for the older folks in my life, and a lot of sadness for not being able to visit them. I am very aware that time is running out for me to spend time with them even without Covid19, and losing months of visitation opportunities made me feel terrible, like desperately trying to hold on to sand tightly with my palm. However they are safe now, and I am thankful I don’t have to endure the losses so many people in other parts of the world are dealing with.

I did have to deal with the inner rage and anger at people’s self-centered behaviour, which is still somewhat manageable if they are strangers off the internet, but not when it is from people I respected and/or cared for. I think this is still something I am still trying to reconcile, and I am not sure if I should or can.

Overall, I am aware I am experiencing a chronic sadness and grief. I know I can be a very self-centered person myself, still I don’t deal well with knowing that so many other people in the world are suffering greatly. Sometimes I cannot help but wish I wasn’t alive so I don’t have to witness all of this. Is that selfish? To be unable to bear the consequences of being alive? To wish to disconnect myself from the reality of the suffering that exists in this world?

I tried to numb my feelings with distractions, but was not very successful. My health this year has somewhat worsened, though I am trying to deny it but I wouldn’t be surprised if a huge part of it is due to the necessary repression of my emotions. I feel like in order to survive and thrive in this world, one will have to be okay with walking away from the Omelas, or live in denial of this knowledge. I try to comfort myself with the oxygen mask theory, that I have to put on the oxygen mask on myself first before I can put it on for others, but in reality I don’t have that much agency over how my psyche chooses to feel.

I am not a very altruistic person. I don’t think it is a conscious choice to feel emotions that arise out of other people’s suffering. I believe it is simply a consequence of being alive and human. Who knows, perhaps if shutting down that part of me was a choice – I may have made it (I guess I can sort of understand why people turn to substances)? To be paralysed with sadness is not a sustainable way to live.

I guess that is my 2020. It is a year of coping, and I feel bad for even saying that I have been trying to cope, when I am safe while others are not. But it is my truth, that probably most things I did this year is an outcome of trying to cope. I was not really consciously choosing to do anything, they were choices made almost out of desperate attempts to numb my feelings.

If there’s any consolation, it would be that 2020 is a rehearsal year of what is to come in our future, with the permafrost melting at unprecedented rates and all that. I am trying to remain Peter Pan-like for as long as I can, hoping to acquire a repository of good memories to tide me through more bad times later. Yet it feels really wrong trying to thrive and seek joy in these times.

How does one cope with incoming losses, an inevitable consequence of aging? This is the question I’m living with these days. I’m an atheist, but I’ve been trying to incorporate more Buddhist/Taoist practices and philosophy in my life. To seek harmony and balance, to be more intentional and mindful, to develop more tolerance and compassion to endure being alive. I am less interested in being judged well or reaching nirvana because personally I think it is philosophically meaningless to believe in an afterlife. I guess I just want to tolerate being in this one.

Though I wrote that 2020 felt like a lost year to me, on an intellectual level I think it is valuable to experience uncertainty and fragility in this manner. It is a reminder to me that everything can crumble in a split-second. I have not dealt with this well, but the hope is that like antibodies after a viral attack my psyche will be more tuned to experiencing what Buddhists call groundlessness.

To be able to walk calmly on even while knowing the ground may shift or break under us anytime, to me that is the meaning of true freedom.

Previous yearly reviews

the (lack of) capacity to love one’s work

Yesterday I was watching a kdrama about classical musicians, and there was a scene where an actor explained why he quit playing the violin even though he was good at it. He came across another person who loved practicing the violin all the time whereas he saw the practice as a chore. It made him realise no matter how hard he tried he wouldn’t love violin playing as much as her, so he gave it up. He found his true passion repairing violins instead.

My partner is going through a journey where she went from experimenting with art to doing the occasional commercial graphic design work. She loved art enough to pursue it as an academic subject during her teenage years, but gave it up because a teacher was discouraging. She picked it up again after a gap of almost two decades. It is very intriguing for me to witness her journey. She loves working so much that she cannot stop doing it. She stops only to prevent physical health issues.

It is through seeing how much she loves her work that made me thoroughly realise how much less I loved design work, or perhaps could not. During the younger years of my freelancing days I would always dread doing the work and left it to the last minute, during the older years I was weighed down with a greater sense of purpose and responsibility so I did it efficiently and effectively. But I was never, ever, like her. The most intense bouts of my work was driven by a strong curiousity and a desire to discover, to problem solve, but I am not sure if it was ever accompanied by pleasure.

Maybe pleasure is the wrong sentiment to define the love for work, or I cannot find the right word to describe what I’m trying to, but all I know is I worked because I had to, whereas my partner works because she really loves to work.

For a long time, I thought I loved my work. Now I think I was in love with the story that came with it. The identity of being a designer, the validation it gave me which I couldn’t find elsewhere in my life, the (illusory) sense of purpose it gave me.

(I think the only time I remembered I was once like her was when I first discovered how to make websites at 15. I mistook that passion as a passion for design, but what I think I really enjoyed was the experimenting. I did enjoy working on my interactive experiments and also this website, but I don’t think it is close to that sense of oneness I have seen with other people.)

I am not sure where it starts and where it ends – if I even have a capacity to love work. My psyche has been broken for a long time, if it was ever unbroken. In recent years I’ve been a lot more aware and sensitive of the areas I am lacking in, and how much my psyche gets in the way of everything I experience. Apart from my partner I have worked with some individuals (they are rare though) who are capable of not letting their selves get in the way of their work, and it was fascinating to observe as though I have discovered a new species of human beings. They don’t respond to people’s insecurities, projections and anxieties with their own.

Sometimes I read about how people’s ADHD symptoms manifest in their daily lives, how it prevents them from doing the tiniest things that everyone else finds so easy (I don’t have ADHD or at least undiagnosed, but there is some overlap of symptoms with CPTSD). It makes me aware of how much anxiety and dread that fills me with most things I do. This has given me a lot of grief because I was labelled as lazy and even I had judged myself similarly…only now with a lot of healing I am able to look back with hindsight how so much of my behaviour was influenced by the invisible weight I carried and still carry.

I have learned a lot about myself simply by living with my partner. The invisible weight I have is very obvious because she lives with an ease I am deeply envious of. I had assumed everyone has this weight, but now I notice it when some people don’t. Apparently not everyone replays things in their head over and over and over again?

My partner countered with an argument that perhaps it is okay to like something moderately enough to do it. I agree, and I think that is perfectly fine if that is what somebody wants. Yet I yearn to find something that is able to capture me like how she is captured by her work.

I don’t know if this would be available to me, if this sense of weariness would ever lift. Perhaps for people like me, to be able to function moderately is the most we can ever ask for. To desire to thrive, is one step too far.

P.S. In this context the work I am mentioning is not work in the capitalistic sense, but an endeavour of one’s choosing. But I guess if one truly loves their job for some reason, not because they need the narrative that comes with it, that works too.

the truth of insubstantiality

I’ve been noticing an uncomfortable energy in my body, like I am unable to be still, a sort of twitchiness. I am not sure if I have always been this way or it has progressively gotten worse. Like everyone else, pre-covid I could always find distractions, but now I am haunted by an insistent buzz.

This year I have read a lot less books compared to previous years, ironically. You would think the opposite would happen with more time and distractions. I have also probably written a lot less. I think writing is something that requires regular input, and a large source of that input comes from the provocation that reading brings.

Also, I can no longer tell if I’m more existentially depressed as part of a linear downward spiral, or if this is because of the virus situation. Sometimes I think I need ways to escape from myself: it is like we have to go out in order to come home, and without the means to go out of my own psyche I am unable to rest into myself.

Both writing and reading requires a form of meditative space. It is a deliberate act of progressively slowing down my mind until I can enter a space slightly below my regular consciousness. Once I am there, the words seem to flow magically. It has been harder for me this year to do so. I have always believed my desire to seek distractions was unhealthy, but now I realised one cannot suddenly go cold turkey – from a wide array of readily available distractions to almost none.

Anxiety breeds anxiety, and I am finding it harder to stop myself from feeling so twitchy, so unsettled. The phone has become a safe but unhealthy haven for me as I scroll endlessly, hoping to find the stimuli and connection I am deprived from in real life. I keep on scrolling, and the twitchiness gets worse. It is the easy way out, and I take it. Like an addict, I am unable to feel centered without reaching for my phone to see if there’s something new to discover.

A while ago I started reading seriously again, prompted by a desire for relief from my twitchiness. I read quite a number of books on modern Buddhism – I guess because the entire religion/philosophy is all about easing that twitchiness. I had thought they would become repetitive after a while, but the repetition is useful because of our brain’s susceptibility to suggestion (which we should totally use to our advantage). It is also interesting to see how different authors interpret the same thing in different ways using the beauty of language. Stephen Batchelor, an author who specialises in writing about secular Buddhism, seems to describe the twitchiness I had felt:

It suggests that we spend a great deal of time stumbling about distracted, veering from one thought to the next, forgetting what we had intended to do as soon as a more diverting possibility presents itself.

Source: After Buddhism | link

Similarly, another author I particularly enjoy reading Mark Epstein – he writes about Buddhism on top of his psychoanalytic training – interprets that we seek distractions or sensual pleasures because of “the truth of insubstantiality” (source). The first time I came across this phrase: the truth of insubstantiality – it hit me profoundly. There is something about the word insubstantiality. Usually in this context Buddhist writers have a preference of using the word impermanence. Impermanence describes a condition of life where everything doesn’t last; insubstantiality however, evokes this feeling of not being concrete enough. Our moments in life are not just fleeting, they almost don’t seem real, and our selves never seem enough.

I am almost always seem to be floating somehow, as though my existence does not have the weight to anchor itself down, to put a foot down. I am not sure if this feeling I am describing is similar to what Epstein describes as disassociation in the same book – we cannot bear the weight of our feelings, so we disassociate from them.

He explains that there is a cost to this disassociation. When we avoid our feelings, we also lose the capacity to feel positive emotions like joy. More than joy, I desire to feel calmness, but it is a sentiment that feels remote to me.

My friend earlier today shared a post that dogs trained with negative reinforcement still display signs of fear and aggression long after their training. I responded that I still feel scared for no apparent reason everyday. It seemed like a casual remark, but borrowing and twisting Epstein’s words, it is a substantial truth for me.

I am haunted by a pervasive fear, and this fear creeps into every single dimension of my life. It is not something that was conscious and obvious to me until these recent years.

I am scared of myself, of making mistakes, of not being enough, of disappointing people, of disappointing myself, of not being able to do what I wish to do, of people dying, of hurting people, of feeling alienated, of being abandoned…the list goes on.

I guess that is why I was so disturbed by the word Epstein had used. I am scared of being insubstantial in an insubstantial world, living an insubstantial life, treating people and being treated insubstantially. But like Batchelor and Epstein had pointed out, the core lesson that the Buddha was trying to teach was that these anxieties are part of living, and it is possible to thrive in co-existence with them.

Many a time the books I am reading are fascinatingly interconnected. I discover this quote in Epstein’s book which he referenced Batchelor

As Stephen Batchelor has written, “When the stubborn, frozen solidity of necessary selves and things is dissolved in the perspective of emptiness, a contingent world opens up that is fluid and ambiguous, fascinating and terrifying. Not only does this world unfold before us with awesome subtlety, complexity, and majesty, one day it will swallow us up in its tumultuous wake along with everything else we cherish. The infinitely poignant beauty of creation is inseparable from its diabolic destructiveness. How to live in such a turbulent world with wisdom, tolerance, empathy, care, and nonviolence is what saints and philosophers have struggled over the centuries to articulate. What is striking about the Buddhist approach is that rather than positing an immortal or transcendent self that is immune to the vicissitudes of the world, Buddha insisted that salvation lies in discarding such consoling fantasies and embracing instead the very stuff of life that will destroy you.”

Source: The Trauma of Everyday Life | link

Embrace the very stuff of life that will destroy you, they suggest. Apparently it would help by learning how to sit still and breathe. It is intriguing to me how difficult it is to do something that sounds so stupendously simple. I’ve been trying to meditate regularly for years and yet it is a task that I consciously and unconsciously avoid.

Why is it so difficult to be quietly with myself? Can I gradually learn to be less twitchy, or somewhat co-exist with my twitchiness? Can one truly embrace the very stuff of life that will destroy you? I ask, as I hope to continue along this path.

a fleeting meditation on kindness

Yesterday I was waiting to enter the elevator with my full-sized bicycle, and it arrived with an elderly couple. I usually prefer to ask people to go ahead as no one likes feeling stuck with a bicycle diagonally imprisoning them into a corner. But the couple cajoled me into the elevator even though I kept asking them to move on. They were full of smiles with tender voices and a body language bleeding with kindness. Once again I felt the quality of my day change after the encounter, and it made me contemplate the interaction for a long while as I was cycling.

Having taken the elevator plenty of times with a bicycle, it is definitely not the norm to encounter kindness. When I first started doing food delivery, I was paranoid about losing my bicycle, so I would wheel my foldie into the elevator with me, and several times I would encounter unpleasant reactions. Elevators seem to be a common trigger for people. So, the tender behaviour of the old couple made me all emotional inside.

I think we have gotten the narrative about kindness wrong. Kindness has been pitched to us as though it is our inherent human quality, that it is only right and natural as a human being to be kind. To be otherwise goes against our instincts. Maybe that is true if we are born in a utopia, but most of us are raised in a competitive, harsh, capitalistic society. There is a lot of conscious and unconscious programming that makes us believe it doesn’t pay to be kind, and in reality, it seems like the ruthless hustling types who get rewarded.

In my opinion, growing a hard shell and being detached from other human beings is the norm. To survive psychologically we have to learn to ignore people’s suffering. Many a time, we are conditioned to think about our selves first.

I think being kind takes extra effort, whether the effort comes from resisting society’s programming or going against our instincts to be self-centered. It should be recognised as such. But I think somehow we have some paradoxical complex beliefs about kindness: that it should be inherent so we don’t fully appreciate it or try to cultivate the capacity to be kind, or the other extreme end where we think it is so rare so we celebrate it when acts of kindness gets published in the news, thinking it is not within our reach.

I think we should encourage kindness not because it is right or nice, we should encourage it precisely because it is not necessary. We should not see ourselves – human beings – as utilitarian creatures, but beings who are capable of values that belong to a transcendent level. We should be kind because we are capable of being kind, that we should see ourselves as more than creatures who are driven purely by needs. I think kindness shouldn’t be driven by moral teachings either: we should aspire to be more, not to be right. Isn’t it wonderful that we are capable of choosing to do unnecessary things?

I feel that we sell ourselves short when we see kindness as a moral neccessity. Kindness is something that transcends justification. It accentuates life and gifts us a deeper dimension to our selves and our relationships to others.

It is like cooking: do we cook simply to feed ourselves or do we cook to experience flavours of possible dimensions? It would be sad if we think of ourselves as creatures who should simply go through the motions of living, to merely survive.

To cultivate a presence and being who is capable of changing the quality of someone’s day through simple interactions, to know what it is like to be capable of bringing someone joy just by being ourselves, isn’t that an existence that is worth aspiring for? Not because it is the right or better thing to do, but to open up spaces in people in a harsh by default environment, to me that is almost like magic, something that shouldn’t even exist because it is so against the grain. That, I think is something beautiful that I have experienced in the human spirit.

This would perhaps be addressed in another post, but I have to say that the capacity to develop kindness is often a privilege in this society. Many people have too many life stresses to cope with. Cultivating kindness in itself requires space, a space that is not afforded to many millions of oppressed people. It remains a tragedy of our species that we think of ourselves as powerful when we mistreat our very own, that somehow we pat ourselves on the back when we deprive others of opportunities to aspire.

55 months of weighing the costs

When we got together I told her I would like to celebrate a monthly anniversary. At first it was because I was hugely skeptical of our relationship, and in general I was skeptical of all romantic relationships, unlike many people I don’t have the confidence to celebrate yearly anniversaries. I don’t know what tomorrow brings, much less next year.

Then, as our relationship length started to be counted in years our monthly anniversaries became opportunities to be mindful of the state of the relationship: do we still cherish that day every month when we spend quality time together? Do we still feel excited about making special plans together? Does it still feel special or has it become a chore, a routine?

I think in general human beings are not very good at noticing the passage of time, or how impermanent everything can be. I have become appreciative of the deliberate markers I have set up in my life, precisely because I know how easy it is to live in autopilot mode, or how easy a relationship can go from full-on romance to housemate-mode.

Today is our 55th month together. 55 months of special dates, 55 times of intentional renewal and celebration in our 4 year-ish relationship. It could easily be just 4 times instead, but why choose 4 when we can have 55?

This month especially, I feel like this date we have put aside is not only beneficial for our relationship but for us individually. We are both people who can easily be entrenched in our day to day routines, or develop obsessions we may find it difficult to snap out of. But today, almost like a habit, we are able to put aside everything we are used to doing, in order to spend the day intentionally together. It is an accidental way for me to practice being mindful, to take a day out to recalibrate myself instead of just being autopiloted by my routine and habitual behaviour.

For the past 55 times I have written a reflection of our relationship. It is interesting how an act of deliberate reflection is nurturing to the relationship itself. Reflecting allows me to take stock of where we are, who we were, who we have become. It never fails to amuse and amaze me how not only we are able to last this long, but how synergistic we are to each other.

I am a person who actively pursues freedom in my life. There were many times in our relationship when I felt like we both would have been a lot more free without each other. I don’t like feeling like I am a burden to somebody, and it is very difficult for anyone with existential depression to not be an actual burden. Being alone feels very freeing: I don’t have to worry about darkening anyone’s day with my moods, I can be as depressed as I want to, I don’t have to feel bad navigating my life in a deadened and grouchy manner. 

It is very different when we live together with another person. Suddenly our condition has the power to profoundly affect another person. There are perhaps things she would like to do if she didn’t have to consider my feelings or the fact that I need to feel psychologically safe. If I am alone I can be as insecure as I want without it affecting someone else’s decisions. The most annoying thing about being in a long-term relationship is that our partners become walking mirrors to our selves. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have told her tearfully that I, do not like to be reminded of my neuroses.

But still, we are actively making the choice to stay together. I call it an active choice because I’m constantly putting the choice in question. I know this would not work out for other people, but for us — both commitment phobes — the frequent questioning serves as a chance to renew our desire to be together.

Earlier on before we got together she amused me with an idea: that there should be a rental service for partners. She said for her most relationships have a limited life-span, and wouldn’t it make more sense for it to have an agreed-upon termination date? 

I have probably never met anyone else as commitment phobic as me, and I have never heard something so musical to my ears. We joked we should have a contract that would renew every year, only if we are still fulfilling the conditions of the contract.

How can something so unromantic sound so romantic to me? That is the secret to our relationship. We are both individuals with really some strange quirks, and somehow those quirks which would have been unacceptable to most other people are like honey to us.

Maybe the yearly contract was a joke, but perhaps in a more subtle manner we are renewing the contract every month instead. Should there be a day when either of us do not look forward to celebrating our relationship anymore, we should let this go.

There is a considerable loss of personal freedom in a relationship, it is an actual cost that has to be taken in consideration. Weighing the cost accurately allows the space for actual romance to take place, instead of letting the cost creep up unaware. However, in exchange for it, if we have the ridiculous luck to meet the right partner, there is another kind of freedom to be found.

Since I’ve been with her I’ve felt more free to grow into myself than ever. She has given me the space and nurturing I could not give myself. Mirrors will reflect back neuroses, but sometimes they might reflect back certain good parts of ourselves we were not able to see. She makes me feel free from me: I get to take a break from the harsh environment of my mind every once in a while. I also feel more free to pursue my obscure interests, because internally I sneer at myself for being too weird, whereas she very concretely loves my quirks.

This 55th month I feel grateful and tremendously lucky to be able to pen my thoughts down in this manner. I am not very good at growing things, except for this relationship which in learning how to grow it as carefully as I can muster (basically not that careful because I’m born a klutz), I am also learning to grow myself, and there is someone who is willing to learn from the inevitable mistakes with me.

safeguarding our personal expressions

Sometime last week someone tweeted that people make the mistake of writing things that are interesting to themselves – they should write stuff that people want to read. I think that is an unfortunate view, because the world would be so much lesser if everyone only wrote about mainstream topics and no one wrote about niche interests. That view is valid if we’re trying to make a living through our writing…but in this current world, there are very few places in the world one can be truly themselves, and our personal websites should be considered a sacred place where we can be so.

I was clearing my RSS feeds that were accumulated over the course of over ten years, and it was genuinely saddening to me how many websites or blogs do not exist anymore. Because of its digital nature, websites are treated as transient, fleeting. But they have this power to affect people, to open rare windows into people’s personal thoughts and private lives. Social media has somewhat cheapened this because of its velocity and noise. But once upon a time, the internet was a magical place where I derived so much joy, comfort and inspiration from people’s blogs.

I still think the internet is a magical place, just that the magic is buried among the noise. While cleaning my RSS feeds I happened to read this beautiful piece. I cannot precisely say why it is beautiful to me, but if I could take a guess perhaps it is the way the writer took what he consumed, thought and felt deeply about them, and expressed those sentiment through picking words and weaving them into sentences the way only he can. Or at least it made me feel that way – that only a person like the writer could have written this piece: it was a piece that was produced through his lens, his filters, his worldview, his language arsenal. A piece writing about a theme everyone is concerned about, but managed to sound profoundly emotive.

It made me want more. Where can I find writing like this? Who are the bloggers writing like this these days? They are probably buried in substack somewhere. Maybe it is too much to ask for writing like this to exist on a public blog for free.

I myself have learned that the force of personal expression must be fiercely guarded. This world is always tempting us to sway. To dilute our voices, our interests, so we can feel like we fit in. It was also on twitter that I found this piece by C.S Lewis on the dangers that come with wanting to fit in and also the reward if only we can break out of it:

The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.

C.S. Lewis, The Inner Ring

I like discovering esoteric gems like that even if I don’t fully appreciate it. That is why periodically I still comb twitter as if I was on a beach with a metal detector, even though I have social media fatigue. It is a lot of work to sit in the noise, an effort that is worth it whenever I come across something that changes the way I feel or think about the world.

We are 7 billion+ micro-realities interacting with each other:

it occured to me that everyone’s inner world is an unmatched micro-reality on its own (it is impossible to have two exact same psyches), which means that there’s 7 billion plus interacting micro-realities walking around in this world. Wow. We affect each other’s reality by the quality of our own inner-reality.

– dayone, 1 Sep 2018

The things I choose to write, to observe, to document, to analyse, the way I string together my words, the words I choose — these are all outcomes of every single thing I have experienced in my life. No two people can have the same experience. No two people can interpret their experiences the exact same way. You are the only person in the world who can make something that comes out of your own inner-reality, an outcome of the unique mix-mash of the experiences you have and the media you consume.

obviously both my art and I are clumsy

That is beautiful and precious, it is not something that can be replicated. It is an opportunity to allow another person to experience you, to experience your inner world, your imagination, in a way that is not possible in a physical interaction. The internet is a place where we as clumsy human beings can translated into art, and I wish the spirit to encourage personal expression (within legal and ethical limits) can be safeguarded.

to uncover a self

Last week I read about Kodo Sawaki, a zen master who apparently called himself the most deluded human being in the world, that is why he must meditate. This is why I appreciate zen — it is about cultivating the capacity to see reality as what it is, rather than perpetuating a narrative about an unattainable state.

The more I am able to see reality for what it is, the more I am able to see myself for who I am. The sight is not pretty, and it is worse than I thought. But perhaps one would rather know where the hidden land mines are, even if it takes away the former illusion of safety and the spirit to walk freely. It can be tiring, to try to avoid stepping on mines with every step of the way, so tiring that I am inclined to walk right into them even if they injure me again and again, just so I can keep up the illusion that I am free to walk anywhere I want.

It is a strange kind of freedom, a freedom that comes from knowing and accepting that we are almost never truly free. We become free from aspiring for states we would never reach, and instead if we’re lucky we would expend our energies on things that are within reach instead.

But I have discovered repeatedly that this journey is not linear as I find myself returning to unhealthy habitual old ways simply because it seems easier. They say ignorance is blissful, and we can choose this sort of bliss if we’re willing to pay the price. Sometimes I think it is almost a clear choice of accepting the pain that comes from truth, and the pain that comes from chronic self-sabotage.

But there is a risk of backfiring if we try to walk too quickly on this journey. I think the quest for spiritual strength is similar to physical strength. Exert our muscles too much, and we risk burnout and regressing. Finding the correct speed to operate on is mini-quest in itself: it requires growing the capacity to be aware of our selves.

I have learnt that when it comes to my physical health the reason why I always seemed to fall badly sick is because I am not tuned into the seemingly subtle signs my body give me when I am approaching ill health. These days I am trying to be extra paranoid when it comes to signs of fatigue. Previously I may go about and stop only at the brink of exhaustion, now I seek restoration once I am 50% tired. I wonder if this applies too when it comes to growing spiritual strength?

What is this spiritual strength I am writing about? It is neither religious or mystical. I am describing the strength to accept reality and truth, to remain spirited when the going gets tough, yet accepting our fragility when the situation calls for it, the willingness to encounter failure, and the will to pick oneself up when we fall. To be capable of not taking things personally, to discern what is really happening versus believing things are happening for us, to be equanimous instead of being petty, to be aware of how much our psyche and memories have influence over our behaviour, to elongate the pause between our feelings and actions. This sounds a lot like Stoicism I guess, but these are also qualities in Zen/Buddhism and perhaps the ideal outcome of psychotherapy.

For me the purpose of cultivating spiritual strength is not moral, but rather I believe it is the most effective way to thrive. Life is too short to spend time on things that do not matter, it is waste of time, energy and potential to be governed by our undirected psychological impulses.

art by @launshae

For many of us, our thoughts and beliefs are not ours, but conditioned. I believe it is a worthwhile and perhaps lifelong journey to find out if we can truly generate thoughts of our own choosing, not thoughts incepted by our societies, cultures and upbringing. Isn’t it a curious thing to know if we can grow or uncover an actual self, instead of a self that is a consequence of beliefs we don’t even seek to question if they are ours? Why do we want what we want?

p.s I asked the partner to read a draft of this post and draw whatever she wanted – a huge leap for me since I am a closet control freak when it comes to the images that accompany my post. I had not titled it, and as it turns out we are pretty in sync. We both need a sort of letting go when it comes to our creativity.