on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

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.

on writing to exist, and website graveyards

I suppose the momentum of writing is like maintaining a bicycle chain, if too much time passes the chain becomes rusty and it becomes a lot harder to get it going again. I think any act of creativity requires some sort of a reserve, a reserve that I have been lacking in the recent weeks. I have been ill before but I still found the desire to write, but this time around it wasn’t just the lack of health that hindered me, but I found my mind and perhaps my soul running empty.

I consider this website an extension of me, or a more accurate version of me even. I put up a lot of socially conditioned behaviour in real life, but it is on this website that I attempt to express as much depth and complexity as I possibly can. I wouldn’t be able to express verbally even 10% of the stuff I convey in my writing – it is of no wonder my partner often asks why I sound totally different in writing and in person, and this is a person who has encountered the most intimate of my thoughts.

That’s partially why I find it difficult to maintain in-person relationships. I feel like most people wouldn’t be able to truly know me unless they read me, and asking people to read me is just too much to ask for. And if they are not interacting with who I truly am, then who are they interacting with? I find this difficult to reconcile, especially because I can only interact with people when I am well, but such a huge part of me is the person who is deeply struggling with chronic illness. I am sad, angry, resentful and dark in many moments of my life but that’s not what people see, and even that I resent.

I am hence thankful to my partner – I have never understood how essential it is to have a witness until these recent years, or at least at this point in my life when everything seems so shaky and transient, how much it means to me that my ongoing existence is being witnessed. That all of this is real, someone is seeing my pain, my struggles. I think this is the outcome of feeling not being taken seriously my entire life.

One of the things I think about once in a while is the existence of this website once I am no longer around. I think it is a bit ironic for a person who is chronically suicidal to care about her website’s existence after she’s dead.

Websites shouldn’t have to go offline once their creators are dead, yet they mostly will unless they are hosted on a free service that will likely sustain long-term into the future (i.e. or github). I believe websites will be future archaeological artefacts. I hope there’s a website graveyard where I can house this before I die. I mean it is one thing for my writing to die, but my personal learning library could have value? This is contradicting my metaphysical values that everything is ultimately transient and meaningless so I have to meditate on this a bit more.

p.s. if you still somewhat wish to hear from me when I’m not publishing as expected, I’m frequently on instagram stories, unless I’m very sick.

p.s.s. maybe I’ll try to write shorter and more transient posts like this – I’ve tried a few times previously, but I tend to very unmindfully reset myself into a “I only want to write when I have a point to make” mode, which is fine if that’s what other people want, but that’s not I want. I wish to capture the impermanent bits of my existence.

the invisible threshold

I wanted to write on sunday, but I was having my monthly migraine, so only today I seem to be slowly recovering. I still feel like shit though. This month’s menstrual cycle started out so well, hardly any PMS, cycle arrived on the 28th day unlike most months, no migraine prior and during. On the 5th day I went out for a while longer than usual, and the next morning I woke up as if I was hungover, and that extremely uncomfortable feeling progressed into a migraine by the evening.

The thing with a chronic illness is that I’m often left playing guessing games with myself: was it the food I ate, should I have wrapped myself in cotton wool longer and not gone out, was I hydrated enough, etc. Five years have passed since I started having these issues, and I don’t feel like I know any better.

I am not sick enough to be in a hospital, and yet sick enough to have not much of a quality of life. Days like these make me wonder what is the whole point of living, as I can do nothing much except lie in bed, and even lying in bed makes me feel fatigued from the body ache. There are things I want to do, but every cycle I spend so much time being sick and recovering that by the time I’m physically well, I am too mentally and spiritually exhausted to do anything.

There is an invisible threshold I’m trying to find. After experimenting for so long, I have learned that too much or too little of something is not healthy. Every person’s body is also different, so what worked for one person may not work for another. A lot of health research is also done on participants of a certain gender and ethnicities, so something that is “scientifically proven” may have different results for the specific individual. Also, after reading so many books on health, I have learned that researchers can be extremely biased, their interpretations can be suspect and their statistical methods can be flawed. Corporations fund research in their favour. The core lesson I’ve learned is: don’t trust anyone with your personal health, not even doctors, not even “science” – do your own research and decide what to believe

The reality is most people don’t really feel the need to do much research, because their health is mostly uninterrupted. This is not a luxury I have, unless I decide to simply give up. Giving up doesn’t mean status quo though, it will probably mean that my health will continue to degrade as I age.

Some new research points to oxidative stress as a possible cause to PMS symptoms and migraines:

Oxidative stress is a phenomenon caused by an imbalance between production and accumulation of oxygen reactive species (ROS) in cells and tissues and the ability of a biological system to detoxify these reactive products.


What causes oxidative stress? Diet – meat or vegetables according to who you believe, too much or too little exercise, stress in general, environmental toxins, etc. Migraines or PMS are considered “mild” symptoms of oxidative stress, comparatively to cancer and Alzheimer’s.

There is a theory that migraines are a way the body brings itself back into homeostatic balance after suffering from oxidative stress:

An increasing amount of evidence — much of it clinical — suggests that migraine is a response to cerebral energy deficiency or oxidative stress levels that exceed antioxidant capacity and that the attack itself helps to restore brain energy homeostasis and reduces harmful oxidative stress levels.

The metabolic face of migraine — from pathophysiology to treatment

The way I interpret this is that my migraines are a response to trying to cope with the overwhelming oxidative stress I am having, and if I don’t find out how to live in a way that is able to lessen the stress enough, it may have long-term negative repercussions on my body.

So, I need to find the invisible threshold of enough. Enough exercise, enough micro-nutrients, enough water, enough stimuli.

I feel like I’m close, but not close enough. And what is enough is dynamic according to the stage of my menstrual cycle:

What I notice for myself is that I tend to get sick during the periods when there is a sharp drop in my hormones. Estrogen affects insulin and cortisol – the lack of it seems to make my body exceptionally sensitive to stress. On good days I seem to recover from the daily transient stresses easily, but during times of extreme hormonal movements every little thing I do is a possible migraine trigger. It is also not just one area of my life that I need to be careful about, the stress is accumulative of every single choice that I make.

The threshold I’m trying to find is elusive. Each cycle takes a month or so, so I will have to experiment for the entire cycle before knowing if whatever I’m doing is working. Some months are bad, I spend the entire month in chronic pain before the next cycle is about to start again.

Today is the 10th day of my cycle. I am barely recovered from the last bout of my migraine that started on the 5th. I’ll be ovulating in a few days if I’m lucky, and I’ll probably enjoy one sane week before starting PMS again. Sometimes I get very delayed ovulation because my body spent so many days just recovering.

Is there a silver lining? Sometimes, as written many times previously before, I resent the tendency to want to find a silver lining. Yet if I am ever able to find the elusive invisible threshold I am looking for, perhaps I could derive a sort of complex twisted satisfaction from being able to live so tenderly and lightly in my very fragile body. Maybe as a consequence, I’ll develop a framework to maintain optimal health for the rest of my life.

These days I joke that I’m both healthier and sicker than I ever was. During good days because of all the changes I’ve made, I do thrive better than before. My energy is stable, I actually have a stamina now, I don’t get cognitive fog much anymore, I stopped getting food comas, and I am able to do a lot of things I was never able to do. Being sick has taught me patience and how to live according to seasons. It would never have been sustainable living like I was before with no respect for my body or psyche, it was a matter of time that I would suffer some serious consequence.

Now, I just need to find out how not to be too sick during those estrogen drops.

finding freedom in prison

Someone recommended a book, “A Buddhist on Death Row” on reddit – I was immediately drawn to the title, but something in me was hugely skeptical. I am personally uncomfortable when religion is used as a means of escape, or when there is a dangerous narrative that suffering is meaningful (guess it shows that I am jumping to conclusions about the title). I did save it on a list, and after being reminded of “Eat, Sleep, Sit” in my last post, I decided that I was still curious about people experiencing the effects of what Buddhism can bring to them, so I finally decided to read it.

I ended up reading the book in two long sittings, and all I can say for now is that the book disturbed me on many levels. I may review the book in full later, but I wanted to write about how I related to it since it is still relatively fresh in my memory.

The author writes about Jarvis Masters, who has been in prison since he was 19, and on the death row. He stumbled into Buddhism almost accidentally: someone told him to meditate and even with huge skepticism he tried, and slowly he went deeper and deeper, in that process he had a Tibetan monk and Pema Chodron visting him in prison, developing close relationships with both.

Apparently he is now 58, so that is 39 years in prison. As of now he is still on the death row. Within that time he wrote poems, published a couple of books, made a ton of friends (many Buddhist ones), stopped a few violent events from happening, got married, etc. One could say he’s actually more alive than the average person while being imprisoned and on the death row, an irony that is not lost on him:

By then Jarvis had learned that Buddhism was filled with paradoxes and contradictions that messed with his mind. Sometimes it seemed as if those paradoxes were beyond his comprehension, but the mind is much more capacious than we think. He reveled in a fresh paradox: the death sentence that could kill him had given him life.

Source: The Buddhist on Death Row | link

I think similarly about my chronic illness sometimes. Obviously I am not comparing myself to someone on the death row, but I can relate even at some remote level. I resent my illness, I grieve for my old self, but at some profound level I know it gave me a new lease of life. Without the conditions and limitations of my illness, I would have never learned to slow down, to cherish, to be present, to ride a bicycle, to cook, to discover so many dimensions of myself that was previously non-existent.

Since the virus situation unfolded, I have gradually found myself living in a different dimension than before. Initially I was frustrated. It took away so much I used to take for granted, but so many of the things I used to do were perhaps distractions – distractions from the uncomfortable anxiety and emotions that were chronic in me. I always felt like something was wrong with me, and it was not unusual for me to wake up having a deep pervasive anger and sadness about life. Like many others I sought a lot of external experiences in hope that these experiences can compensate for the chronic deficiency I feel in my body every moment.

But being in lockdown meant I could no longer do a lot of those, so I sought to compensate in other ways: ordering food delivery from different restaurants, cycling long distances. My body didn’t like those, my health issues worsened during the lockdown.

I have learned a lot about my body in the meantime. I am still experimenting, but for now I realised my body doesn’t like to be sedentary, but that doesn’t mean I can compensate that with intense bouts of exercises. I do the best when I am able to be in low-intensity movement throughout the day, not just a bout of 2-hour morning exercise followed by sitting the rest of the day. Because I am chronically inflamed, a problem made worse by eating outside food all the time, I was forced to cook and I ended up learning to enjoy not only the experience itself, but the slowing down of time.

Like being on a meditation retreat, I can no longer depend on external factors to temporarily lift my spirits, so for the first few months perhaps I was having low-grade existential depression (yet again) with bouts of extreme despair and suicidal tendencies, especially around my period.

Recently I observed an internal shift. I think being forced to go slow on so many things sort of made my brain gradually detox itself from dopamine addiction, and I no longer feel anxious and frustrated on a day to day basis. I no longer feel like I am perpetually missing out on something, and I spend a lot less time on social media. I spend a lot of time thinking about what to cook, or seeing other people cook. I know it sounds weird, but I used to feel like I have to “turn up” on social media every day so people won’t forget me. Or I’ll feel like I have to make my friends feel like I didn’t forget them, so I try to react to their posts to let them know I am still around, and I still care about what they are up to.

Now, I am just living on my own rhythm. For years I was very reluctant to let go of the network and friendships I have built up while working, I wanted to feel like I was still relevant. But it has been five years since I left my last full-time tech job, three years since I left my last part-time tech job, a couple of years since I wrote my last tech-focused post. It has been a long goodbye for me, especially so since I have abandonment issues. I don’t like being abandoned, neither do I like abandoning if I can help it.

But space must be made in the garden if we want to grow something new. Being connected online comes with its own anxiety, and it is time consuming. Even if I had spent my time offline I would feel anxious, like I’ve missed out on something. I guess this is the outcome of decades of living an ultra connected life. Social media had become a part of me, and cutting it off feels like carving into my own flesh. For so much of my life my online communities have been a source of comfort.

I feel like I need less comforting now. I don’t want to jinx myself of course, because I go through periods when I am feeling at peace like now followed by a period of intense despair. I don’t think we can ever avoid feeling despair, because life is complex, whole, and unpredictable:

Then he said, “I thought this Buddhist shit was supposed to protect you.” Pema looked at him and sighed. “Jarvis,” she said, “there’s no protection from pain and grief. It’s a fantasy to think we can be protected. You wouldn’t want to not feel grief when someone dies. What kind of person would that make you? A very coldhearted person.”

Source: The Buddhist on Death Row | link

What matters I guess is building up the reservoir to face despair when it comes. I am not a Buddhist though I read a lot on it. I appreciate a lot of its philosophy and I don’t agree with all of it. But like psychotherapy, it can be an effective method to face suffering, though I don’t think there is one true/right way.

This was a passage I found especially poignant:

“People think as a Buddhist you want to transcend the everyday, transcend the past, transcend the pain. But the goal isn’t dangling above the messiness of life, it’s sitting in it; you don’t want to transcend the past but be there fully. When you fully connect with your past… that’s when it begins to lose its ability to harm you—to control you. What you do is go to the events; you don’t judge them as good or bad, and you sit with them even if they scare you.” She added, “Especially if they scare you.”

She offered a poignant example: “Let’s say your child is very ill. All you want to do is run away from the bad feelings. It feels as if they will kill you—that’s how afraid you are. You do anything not to feel them. But unless you feel them, they don’t go away. And here’s the thing: if you sit with those feelings, it doesn’t feel good, but it feels honest and true. When you stop running, you can be with your child who’s ill, which is where you want to be for yourself and for him.”

Source: The Buddhist on Death Row | link

Different schools have different interpretations of Buddhism. Some of it can be off-putting, I generally dislike anything that tells me “this is X, so you must do Y”. I also don’t appreciate positive reframing of something bad. But I appreciate a philosophy that encourages us to open up our minds and look at things from different perspectives, and we could adopt that perspective only if we want to and it makes sense to us. So this is how I approach Buddhism or any metaphysical or philosophical learning. I use the texts to open up my mind and I takeaway lessons that are meaningful to me. Sometimes I don’t understand it until much later. Other times the meaning changes.

I like the idea of seeing reality as it is, developing the capacity to meet it, and respond meaningfully to it. There is no repackaging of the human suffering that exists, in its place it tells us to be compassionate precisely because we are all suffering.

Sometimes I get really angry at the conditions that exist in this world in the first place, it is like we’re set up to suffer (imagine a bunch of apes in the middle of nowhere fighting to survive) and then we get the blame for it. I disagree with Buddhism (and probably other religions) is that we suffer because we have desires. I think we have desires because we suffer. If we feel whole, what would we still desire?

Other times I think there’s no point getting angry with history because we’re living in the now, and if the suffering is current, what can we do to ease it?

I’ve asked myself this question a million times. Once in a while I would think if I am genuinely alone in this world I’ll stay sick, seething and mad just as an act of rebellion. I resent the idea that I should find meaning in suffering or try to seek happiness from these conditions when I specifically did not choose this scenario. Imagine feeding a child sand everyday and telling the child that they must imagine it to be delicious or that eating sand will make them grow stronger so they must learn to see the joy in eating sand. Yes, my convoluted mind thinks of such thoughts very often.

The redeeming factor is conscience I guess. I cannot in good conscience become poisonous to other people if I must live with them. So I try to let the poison seep out of me slowly. I still try to avoid interacting with people as much as possible, and as a consequence I am finding myself somewhat at home in the empty space left behind (with a partner who is as unsocial as I am).

What I seek is psychological freedom, not happiness – if I resent feeling trapped, then perhaps the only thing I can do is to learn how to feel free, even if if it is simply an illusion. And if and when I do feel free, would I still experience life as a prison?

We’re all doing time. We’re all in prison. We’re all on death row. And we can all free ourselves.

Source: The Buddhist on Death Row | link