on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

on becoming a person

If I can only recommend one book in my entire life till now, it would be Carl Rogers’ “On Becoming a person“. Every book has its flaws and will never be complete in its purpose, but for me this is one of the best resources I’ve ever come across on how to be whole as a human being.

I discovered this book by accident. A friend on facebook had posted this:

Involved in this process of becoming himself is a profound experience of personal choice. He realizes that he can choose to continue to hide behind a façade, or that he can take the risks involved in being himself; that he is a free agent who has it within his power to destroy another, or himself, and also the power to enhance himself and others. Faced with this naked reality of decision, he chooses to move in the direction of being himself.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

At that moment in time I was a few months along into my sabbatical, and everyday it was a struggle with the profound loneliness that comes with disowning what society has conditioned upon us and trying to walk on a path out of my own authentic choices. In this society, attempting to live authentically often means resigning to a lifelong experience of never belonging. The quote continued:

But being himself doesn’t “solve problems.” It simply opens up a new way of living in which there is more depth and more height in the experience of his feelings; more breadth and more range. He feels more unique and hence more alone, but he is so much more real that his relationships with others lose their artificial quality, become deeper, more satisfying, and draw more of the realness of the other person into the relationship.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

My memory may be flawed, but at that point of time I wanted to try to live authentically simply because I was tired of living otherwise. It came out of fatigue and illness, not because of an aspiration. Yet according to Carl Rogers, being true to oneself is necessary if one aspires to experience life in a wider, richer way.

The core ideas

Person-centered therapy

I was relatively new to the whole realm of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy when I started reading Carl Rogers. I was already reading Jung, whose brand of psychoanalysis was a lot more human-centered than Freud, whom unfortunately I never took seriously because he unfamously attributed all human problems to sexual angst.

People often mix up psychoanalysis and psychotherapy (which are both different from counselling), and they may be used interchangeably, but their intentions were very different. Psychoanalysts are meant to be uncaring and neutral, they believe this is necessary for the true content of your subconscious to surface.

It may seem ludicrous now, but before Carl Rogers therapists didn’t really care about people’s feelings. People were like scientific objects in therapy, they were viewed suspiciously and borderline negatively by their therapists, because they are seen as always conspiring to delude their therapists and themselves, or they are seen as overgrown-children whose lives are often unconsciously directed by their childhood wounds.

These views in my opinon, are not wrong, but Carl Rogers was the first (at least the first known) therapist to center his therapy based on the idea that the clients know themselves the best,

it is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

and hence all it required was an “unconditional positive regard” from the therapist – an unconditional listening and acceptance – to establish an environment safe enough for the client to discover themselves and self-direct their own growth:

If I can create a relationship characterized on my part: by a genuineness and transparency, in which I am my real feelings; by a warm acceptance of and prizing of the other person as a separate individual; by a sensitive ability to see his world and himself as he sees them; Then the other individual in the relationship: will experience and understand aspects of himself which previously he has repressed; will find himself becoming better integrated, more able to function effectively; will become more similar to the person he would like to be; will be more self-directing and self-confident; will become more of a person, more unique and more self-expressive; will be more understanding, more acceptant of others; will be able to cope with the problems of life more adequately and more comfortably.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

Therapy as a means to self-actualisation

This idea was revolutionary for me. I had viewed therapy as fixing: people go to therapy because they are broken and they need therapists to heal them, but for Rogers, everyone should go for therapy to become a person – to know who we truly are so we can become the best of who we are:

The effect on the individual as he apprehends this attitude, is to sense a climate of safety. He gradually learns that he can be whatever he is, without sham or façade, since he seems to be regarded as of worth no matter what he does. Hence he has less need of rigidity, can discover what it means to be himself, can try to actualize himself in new and spontaneous ways. He is, in other words, moving toward creativity.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

What it means to be whole

I was obsessed with being good. My idea of being good meant a lot of repression of my true feelings, and there were probably plenty of emotions I avoided having because they were perceived to be bad, such as anger. But it was through reading Rogers and other psychology books with a sprinkle of Zen and Taoism that taught me the importance of balance and integration:

He finds that gradually he can be his anger, when anger is his real reaction, but that such accepted or transparent anger is not destructive. He finds that he can be his fear, but that knowingly to be his fear does not dissolve him. He finds that he can be self-pitying, and it is not “bad.” He can feel and be his sexual feelings, or his “lazy” feelings, or his hostile feelings, and the roof of the world does not fall in. The reason seems to be that the more he is able to permit these feelings to flow and to be in him, the more they take their appropriate place in a total harmony of his feelings. He discovers that he has other feelings with which these mingle and find a balance. He feels loving and tender and considerate and cooperative, as well as hostile or lustful or angry. He feels interest and zest and curiosity, as well as laziness or apathy. He feels courageous and venturesome, as well as fearful. His feelings, when he lives closely and acceptingly with their complexity, operate in a constructive harmony rather than sweeping him into some uncontrollably evil path.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

Anger not being destructive? What an idea! That every spectrum of feelings can have a place in me? Wow. I gradually learned that if I stopped rejecting and repressing these feelings in me I could possibly find healthy ways to express them, that I would stop letting them accumulate unconsciously. I often had unwanted, destructive explosions of my anger which resulted in irreparable situations. Who knew being “nice” had a price to pay?

On the paradox of acceptance and change

People are ambitious and hence seek improvement, so we often try to change people and ourselves, often by force and manipulation. Yet for Rogers, the paradox is change only arrives upon acceptance:

Yet the paradoxical aspect of my experience is that the more I am simply willing to be myself, in all this complexity of life and the more I am willing to understand and accept the realities in myself and in the other person, the more change seems to be stirred up. It is a very paradoxical thing—that to the degree that each one of us is willing to be himself, then he finds not only himself changing; but he finds that other people to whom he relates are also changing.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

I have experienced this phenomenon myself. There seems to be this defensive defiance of the psyche: the more we exert change by will, the more resistant it becomes (and I never fail to be amazed by the wonders and tricks of the psyche). What it seems to need is the space to be acknowledged that it exists. This seems to be related to the inner-child theory. That the moment I grow the capacity to really see, hold and accept the wounded child in me, to tell her that it is okay to be sad and angry, it is okay to resent, it is okay to not be nice – there is a sense of release, like a ghost who was waiting forever to be seen, and the ghost can now leave peacefully. Otherwise, our psyches are like springs, the more we push, the harder it springs back.

This happens in our relationships to others as well:

The more I am open to the realities in me and in the other person, the less do I find myself wishing to rush in to “fix things.” As I try to listen to myself and the experiencing going on in me, and the more I try to extend that same listening attitude to another person, the more respect I feel for the complex processes of life. So I become less and less inclined to hurry in to fix things, to set goals, to mold people, to manipulate and push them in the way that I would like them to go. I am much more content simply to be myself and to let another person be himself.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

Later in his book he relates this to the way we raise children:

This concept of trusting the individual to be himself has come to have a great deal of meaning to me. I sometimes fantasy about what it would mean if a child were treated in this fashion from the first. Suppose a child were permitted to have his own unique feelings—suppose he never had to disown his feelings in order to be loved…He would, I believe, be a responsible and self-directing individual, who would never need to conceal his feelings from himself, who would never need to live behind a façade. He would be relatively free of the maladjustments which cripple so many of us.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

The above sentiment breaks my heart. Considering this book was published in 1961, I wonder how much have we evolved since. I believe the reverse is true too: the more we seek to control ourselves, the more we seek to control others, the more others will seek to control themselves and others. It is just a sad, tragic loop.

On self-direction, freedom and responsibility

To be responsibly self-directing means that one chooses—and then learns from the consequences. So clients find this a sobering but exciting kind of experience. As one client says—“I feel frightened, and vulnerable, and cut loose from support, but I also feel a sort of surging up or force or strength in me.” This is a common kind of reaction as the client takes over the self-direction of his own life and behavior.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

Here he explains that with freedom, comes responsibility. We often think if we’re able to do whatever we want, we will be happy and fulfilled. But what we neglect is that the freedom to choose means our choices are freely taken by ourselves and hence there is no one else to blame if there are negative consequences from our actions. We have to bear the responsibility that comes with the freedom of our choices, and for many people, this is a responsibility that can be frightening, at least on a subconscious level.

I used to seek out advice a lot. While seeking the wisdom of others can be a good thing if sought for in balance with our own inner-wisdom, it is often a disguised attempt to seek validation for our own choices and distribute the responsibility of that choice. It also betrays a lack of trust in ourselves. If something goes wrong, we can easily tell ourselves: well, we listened to those people, and look what happened! I should have never listened to them. Less often we think: I made that choice to seek these people’s opinions so I bear that responsibility.

a sort of surging up or force or strength in me…his client describes. Each time we make a choice and learn to bear the consequences, the reward is that we develop the capacity to endure and recover from mistakes. Half the time we may realise it is not as bad as we imagine, the other half we may develop the fortitude to deal with more. What doesn’t kill us will make us stronger, as they say. Part of the learning experience is to learn what we can actually manage on our own and what we need others for support. I do think there are experiences that may break us with irrecoverable damage, and this is when hopefully the support of other people will tide us through. Nevertheless, there will always be risks in embarking on a quest:

it is only as I see them as you see them, and accept them and you, that you feel really free to explore all the hidden nooks and frightening crannies of your inner and often buried experience. This freedom is an important condition of the relationship. There is implied here a freedom to explore oneself at both conscious and unconscious levels, as rapidly as one can dare to embark on this dangerous quest.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

What it means to become a person

Stringing it all together, Rogers describes a person who has gone through therapy successfully:

The client has now incorporated the quality of motion, of flow, of changingness, into every aspect of his psychological life, and this becomes its outstanding characteristic. He lives in his feelings, knowingly and with basic trust in them and acceptance of them. The ways in which he construes experience are continually changing as his personal constructs are modified by each new living event. His experiencing is process in nature, feeling the new in each situation and interpreting it anew, interpreting in terms of the past only to the extent that the now is identical with the past. He experiences with a quality of immediacy, knowing at the same time that he experiences. He values exactness in differentiation of his feelings and of the personal meanings of his experience. His internal communication between various aspects of himself is free and unblocked. He communicates himself freely in relationships with others, and these relationships are not stereotyped, but person to person. He is aware of himself, but not as an object. Rather it is a reflexive awareness, a subjective living in himself in motion. He perceives himself as responsibly related to his problems. Indeed, he feels a fully responsible relationship to his life in all its fluid aspects. He lives fully in himself as a constantly changing flow of process.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

In another part of the book, he describes this process in the form of an internal dialogue:

Thus they often follow the schematic pattern, “I am thus and so, but I experience this feeling which is very inconsistent with what I am”; “I love my parents, but I experience some surprising bitterness toward them at times”; “I am really no good, but sometimes I seem to feel that I’m better than everyone else.” Thus at first the expression is that “I am a self which is different from a part of my experience.” Later this changes to the tentative pattern, “Perhaps I am several quite different selves, or perhaps my self contains more contradictions than I had dreamed.” Still later the pattern changes to some such pattern as this: “I was sure that I could not be my experience—it was too contradictory—but now I am beginning to believe that I can be all of my experience.”

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

His view on humanity

Unlike some schools of psychoanalysis which regarded people as ignorant unconscious creatures directed by their primitive desires, Rogers had a very idealistic and positive view of human beings:

when one is truly and deeply a unique member of the human species, this is not something which should excite horror. It means instead that one lives fully and openly the complex process of being one of the most widely sensitive, responsive, and creative creatures on this planet.

Source: On Becoming a Person | link

I consider myself a misanthrope most of the time, but upon re-reading this quote, there seems to be an undeniable truth in his statement. Yes, we are often self-destructive, violent and awfully stupidly short-sighted, yet we are equipped with a consciousness that has the potential to be widely sensitive, responsive and creative as per his description. We wouldn’t have made so much humanistic progress otherwise.

Based on my regular outlook on humanity, most of us should still be warring and killing each other openly, living like savages. It would not be surprising to me. But there is something in some of us that aspires to be just, to be kind, or we wouldn’t even be having the struggles we have today. Because if violence and oppression is the accepted norm, there wouldn’t even be a struggle, there will be a resignation. But we don’t resign, we continue to aspire.

How this book has changed me

I speed read books, and most of the time I don’t really remember what I’ve read. But the subconscious works in miraculous ways, so the ideas I’ve come across in books often influence profoundly me on a subconscious level. However, this is a book which core ideas continue to impact me on a conscious level. I have to emphasise again how revolutionary it is for me to think of becoming a person the way Carl Rogers has written about. There are countless books on self-improvement, so much ideology on becoming a better human, but how often do we come across an idea that all we need to do, is to facilitate the process of letting people become themselves? Carl Rogers may not know it, but he is very Taoist in his beliefs – the idea that the use of excessive force often backfires towards its original intention.

Reading this book has gradually made me into a more expansive person, in the sense that I am a lot more accepting of my previously unwanted emotions and those of other people. It has also made me think a lot more of the power of space and presence – how transformative it can be to genuinely listen, empathise and accept, whether towards other people or ourselves:

I am now an advocate for therapy (with a good therapist) for everybody and anybody. Even the most well-adjusted person would benefit from a therapist’s capacity to contain a safe and unbiased environment for them to understand and connect with themselves. Everyone inevitably has blind spots.

For me this book is not just a book explaining the ideas and process of psychotherapy, but it is a cornerstone of my own personal philosophy (when I am not being a misanthrope) and belief system. That if everyone has the space to confront the false selves that society has conditioned onto them, discover their own nature and learn to understand and accept their shadow selves, they will function at a higher, more creative level and contribute more to their society, more human potential will realised, and there will be less destruction in this world.

Since this is one of my favourite books I wish to share how I feel about it in a manner that it deserves, but like all my other writing the more I wish to write something well, the less I am able to write it, so my desire to share something so that other people may experience the similar benefits to what I’ve gotten out of it often never comes to fruition. So here I publish something that is probably not very coherent as a whole, but still I hope someone out there would get something out of it even in its most iterative form, rather than absolutely nothing if it didn’t at all exist.

the clarity of a sickness

I’ve been down with a persistent cold for two weeks now. It got better in the middle, but it flared up again twice. I hardly get flus or colds, but this year this is the second time I’ve had a cold.

My chronic migraines tend to paralyse me with pain. With a cold, I seem to hover between almost being fine and yet everything seems to exist within a fog. I have trouble sleeping, because I cannot breathe and my throat is painful. It is a discomfort I am not used to, because what I am used to, is pain.

Two weeks is long enough to go through several stages where initially I was annoyed with the inconveniences of having a cold, then I was confident it would pass soon – I mean it is just a cold right – to being frustrated that it doesn’t seem to go away, to now: I am in a state of surrender.

There is almost a slightly positive connotation with the word surrender especially in spiritual or religious contexts. The reality is the state of surrender is often invoked when there is no other choice, so we can either go on fighting with no winnable outcome or we can gracefully surrender. I have become a very cynical person, so I don’t feel that being in a state where there is no choice but to surrender is a positive state, neither do I feel that living a life where we are just acting out another entity’s will is a meaningful life. But what I like about reading zen is that it doesn’t seek to associate words with a value, but rather it seeks to perceive things as what they are, not what they mean.

So I think being sick sucks, but yet I do appreciate how it strips everything away. The radius I am able to interact with becomes almost claustrophobically small, but this allows everything to become really simple. It gives me a clarity I sorely lack otherwise. My mind is usually in a constant buzz, but the fog of sickness dulls it down to a point where it stops haunting me, for now.

What is ambition, social status and all the things we think are important when there is no health? In the past I was often deeply resentful towards the failure of my body. Now, I appreciate that falling ill often has led me down a path I wouldn’t have walked on otherwise, the opportunity to live a life where I can no longer be distracted or numbed by external factors so I can take a long, hard look at myself.

Here, I am not sure whether I am spinning a narrative to make myself feel better. From my point of view, if I could choose again I would still gladly take this path over the other. But am I saying this because I didn’t have much of a choice so I am sour-graping? I am not that sure. But I know if I live long and well enough on the path I am on, I may have a shot at finally knowing how to be sustainably and truly alive, than to rely on artificial constructs that will only prop me up in short spurts.

Maybe one day, I don’t know, I am actually not that hopeful – my body will feel safe enough to stop falling sick so often, because I am no longer subconsciously harming myself, or unwittingly putting myself in harm’s way because I didn’t know better.

That’s how the light gets in

A long while ago I passed by a painted quote on a street in San Francisco that moved me. I took a second picture of it a few months later, without realising I had taken it before.

Only yesterday I got to know who was the author. It says:

ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering
there is a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in

– Leonard Cohen

I didn’t really know who was Leonard Cohen. Music was never really my thing. I was intrigued to find out more about him only because a couple of years ago I listened to Pico Iyer mentioning him in an OnBeing episode, recounting that Cohen gave up everything to become a zen monk for five years at the peak of his career. I was very drawn to zen back then, and also the idea of having the courage to renounce everything, so I made a permanent mental note. What he didn’t mention was that Cohen was in his 60s when he reached the supposed peak of his career.

I came across an instagram picture of a Cohen book last week which made my interest pique again, so this time I started reading his biography. I finished it in one day yesterday. It is epic to me in many ways: covering a lifespan that lasted 80+ years. Cohen was first and foremost a poet, only becoming a musician in his 30s (because poetry doesn’t pay the bills), writing a few novels along the way, the US didn’t care about him for a few decades but strangely he was popular in Europe and the UK. He made music that his label in the US didn’t like but somehow they continued to release his records because they could still sell in Europe. He came from the upper middle class, but he seemed to enjoy living in some form of austerity. His place in Hydra, Greece didn’t have electricity or water for a long time.

He was depressed for his entire life, until his zen monk stint and a stay in India. He himself couldn’t explain why the depression went away. There were a few things that made my skin shiver when I read his biography. He struggled for 30+ years till he was in his 60s before he was really considered a success – in the middle he made a few albums that were considered flops. I mean, most people would have given up in less than a decade if nothing worked out. He persisted in making his music, and he was not classically trained which seemed to become an advantage in the long run. He loved playing for people who stayed in mental asylums, and suicidal people would claim that his music saved their lives.

What blew my mind was the fact that he was forced to go on a 2.5 year tour in his mid 70s because his manager took all his money. Can you imagine being 70ish and still sing for over 3 hours to a crowd? I would collapse before the first hour is up, much less for 2.5 years. That tour that he was forced to go on to, made him wealthier and more popular than ever. But the most important part of it was that he finally – after 40+ years – truly enjoyed performing. Previously he was so uncomfortable with it, hating so much that he had to drink a ton of alcohol and be on several drugs while on tour.

He wanted to let it go. The money. He didn’t want to pursue the case or be caught up in a lengthy lawsuit. But he couldn’t, because they told him he had to pay the hefty taxes that was drawn out of his retirement account even though he didn’t spend it.

These days I am very skeptical of the hero and the hero’s journey, but I can’t help but be enamoured with this story. He wasn’t perfect (nobody ever is) and he was probably terrible to his romantic partners, but the difference is, he knew. And he wrote about it in his poetry and songs.

He put in the work. For years he did long zen meditation sessions, and served his teacher as an attendant. He said that there is something about hard work that makes one forget oneself:

“They just work you to death so that you forget about yourself,” Leonard said, “and forgetting about yourself is another kind of refreshment. There is a strict sense of order, but I like that sort of thing. Once you overcome your natural resistance to being told what to do, if you can overcome that, then you begin to relax into the schedule and the simplicity of your day. You just think about your sleep, your work, the next meal, and that whole component of improvisation that tyrannizes much of our lives begins to dissolve.”

Overall, for me this is a story about a man who had a singular purpose: to really be capable of reaching, knowing and living who he truly is. He took five, ten years to write, record and produce a single song because they just didn’t sound right or true enough to him. He would become disillusioned with his recorded music because they didn’t turn out like what they were supposed to sound like. He couldn’t describe what was missing, but perhaps he meant the elusive essence of something authentic, and expressed in a form as pure as one can get.

Maybe this is what most artists aspire to do. One gets an inkling of something transcendent, true and raw, and one tries to express it into a form that is as faithful to the feelings we had felt when the original idea had arisen.

It wasn’t explicit, but he achieved this state in the ripe old age of his 70s. Prior he would be severely blocked, tortured, and he took five, ten years to release one album. In the last five years of his life, he released 3 albums.

How many people can release a significant work at 82? He would die in the same year.

I think this is the gift of age. To have enough time to work out all the conflicts of our personalities, to truly understand one can never reconcile life’s paradoxes, yet to develop the capacity to bear one’s fortune and misfortune – to become the rawest version of who we are.

A few days ago my partner asked me what would be the greatest regret if I die in the next moment (we often have these morbid conversations), and my response to her was: not being able to know who I would have become. She asked, isn’t this true of any age though? I think it is, but I guess if we are lucky, if we truly work on it, age is an exponential factor. For me, my 30s was all about trying to understand why I suffer, to attempt to remove the invisible chains around my ankles. If I work hard enough, perhaps I could be a little freer in my 40s, and by my 50s I would learn how to walk without those chains, and in my 60s I can only hope my spirit can operate in a space of an agency as close to free will one can possible get to in an interdependent existence.

The story of Leonard Cohen – perhaps in a biography one can never get close to the truth and one can only derive the truth from what has existed and what exists, his work and what it made people feel – taught me that one can look forward to the gifts and curses of ageing, that life is short and also long, that as long as one keeps on trying to really live there will always be a spectrum of possibilities, that it is possible to live through misfortune at what looks like the end of life and still end up thriving a long time after it.

His life is an exception of course. Most of us would never be an accomplished musician even if we spent the next 50 years trying. But for me it wasn’t his success or fame that is the whole point of this story. It was that he kept on searching, kept on creating, kept on trying to uncover words and sounds that were true to him. The bonus was leaving behind a story and a full body of work that would continue to remind others of what living one’s truth can be.

Note: It only occurred to me recently that writing attempts to express ideas, thoughts and feelings in a form as close to the original stream as possible but perhaps it is never possible to transmit something in its entirety, and yet we can only persist to try. So here I try to share what I have felt from reading a book, but it still comes across a fragmented experience.

on obsessions, levelling up and living widely

I have an addictive personality. I am surprised that I haven’t had much of a problem with addictive substances so far, though I have a genetic double mutation that prevents me from metabolising alcohol, else I suspect I could have ended up as an alcoholic.

But I get addicted to other things: computer games obviously, people, the concept of romantic love, food, random hobbies, etc. My latest addiction is food delivery, though I couldn’t understand why at first.

Once I got addicted to play Stardew Valley. For two weeks I hardly did anything else apart from toilet breaks, eating, and sleeping. I went into a black hole and didn’t respond to any attempt of external contact with the exception of family. Those two weeks, I had found a kind of joyful peace. My brain was occupied with something and didn’t have much space to spiral into unhealthy thought patterns, and since I wasn’t exposed to much stimuli I didn’t get triggered.

It was during those two weeks that I realised how miserable my brain was making me, and also how much I appreciated being a hermit.

In Stardew Valley there are multiple quests to complete. Some are sequential, some can be played in parallel. You have to finish a certain sequence of tasks and fulfill certain conditions to complete a quest. I have an obsession with levelling up and completeness – I need to complete the things whatever I set out to do or else I wouldn’t be able to relax and my mind wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about it. This unhealthy trait was actually considerable fuel for my previous career. Give me a design problem or aspiration and I wouldn’t be able to stop working until I come up with a satisfactory solution. But it is also a fuel for quick burn out.

There was a point last week that it dawned upon me that I was playing Stardew Valley in real life by delivering food. The premise of food delivery is simple enough: navigate to a vendor, pick up food, navigate to the customer and drop it off. I started off in my own neighbourhood and apart from the physical fatigue it felt simple enough. I had some anxiety when it came to interacting with both vendors and customers but I soon got used to it. Then I started delivering in the central business district. My first few days I often got lost. I bought a $50 android phone and it didn’t come with compass functionality, so I didn’t know which direction to move into. Since it is a very dense area the GPS signal itself could be inaccurate or misleading. There are some parts of the CBD that are not organised in a grid so some places are harder to locate. Some food areas have a ton of food stalls and their units are not clearly labelled so we can spend ten minutes walking around in circles just to find the stall.

Around the two week mark I found myself walking around without the help of Google maps, seeing the building name or address and knowing in my mind’s eye where exactly is the place. I got to discover the short cuts or appropriate underpasses, where are the pedestrian crossings (sometimes if you miss one of them you’ll have to walk an extra long stretch to find another one or risk getting hit by a car), how much time does a traffic light junction take to turn the lights in my favour. Every building has a different security and lift system – I remember the first time I was taking one of those new-fangled lifts I was very confused which of the 20 lifts available I should take. Or why I had to interchange lifts twice at a certain level only to find out I have taken the wrong lift lobby. Some buildings have three concierges in a row at the same lobby and we have to know which one to approach based on the floor number or business name.

So I got better gradually at all of those. Then I bought a second-hand foldie so I could try out food delivering cycling in my neighbourhood. Again, the first few days I struggled with where to lock my bike, making turns, knowing when to dismount, how to brake properly so I won’t lose my balance, how to store food in my thermal bag so they won’t spill.

There was also the fear of the unknown. I worried a lot about whether cycling was even feasible and safe, whether my bike would get stolen despite being locked, whether it would be too stressful for me. I worry a lot about little things like these, just like before I started delivering in the CBD I worried about the experience of delivering to offices because I had never done it before. Would it be easy to find people in their offices (mostly, except people who don’t answer their phones and do not leave instructions), would the security be mean (mostly nice with some exceptions)?

There are also more subtle, softer aspects to learn. When are the best time slots for certain areas? I had to experiment with a few, and in order to know there were long periods of time I had to spend idle because there were no orders. For a particular delivery company, should I accept every trip so I could get an extra incentive for X trips completed or should I cherry-pick with no possibility of incentive? Is it worth taking a longer-distance trip with higher payment or multiple short trips?

I have been living in my mind my entire life. Everything I liked to do is cerebral, both work and hobbies. There’s too much thinking and too little use of the physical body.

This is the first time in my life I had to work physically so hard (I did waitressing before which is a different kind of physical fatigue) and build up skills mostly unrelated to a computer. I got better at walking longer hours and cycling up slopes. It is fascinating for me to feel my body change.

All my life I have been obsessed with learning, but it mostly involved very cerebral skills like design and programming. I am not very street smart in many ways: I would struggle to read a physical map, I would probably die if I get stranded in a forest some day, before food delivery if I had to walk long distances to forage for food I would probably starve (not that I really have the will to survive anyway). I really enjoyed levelling-up on little things like getting better at maneuvering my foldie bicycle.

On a psychological level, I realised how much I enjoyed having my brain be occupied by something and be given a sequence of tasks to do so it would stop swimming in anxiety. I don’t necessarily think this is an entirely good thing because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life distracting my brain so I can live in an artificial peace. But both playing Stardew Valley and delivering food gave me opportunities to know what it is like if I cut off a lot of noise from myself and how much noise is generated internally and externally, and how much it impacts my well-being.

It is like if you’re born in a city and have lived there all your life, you wouldn’t know what it feels like to live in the countryside. That’s my mind: I was born with a noisy mind and I didn’t know that it could exist in a different frame.

On hindsight, when I set out to experiment with my life I was still thinking of it in a pretty narrow scope, but I couldn’t have known otherwise when I have only been exposed to such limited ways of living in the society I grew up in. I feel glad for myself that I have made a little step out of my very afe and comfortable zone:

Yet at the same time that my mind became more peaceful with the perception of safety, it also became smaller. It’s as if it shrank to become compatible with the size of the room.

Mingyur Rinpoche

I don’t know how long if this phase will last, and I am still finding out if I’m overdoing it in the danger of losing sight of the bigger picture (what is the bigger picture anyway, haha), or is it okay to do something wholeheartedly (or actually obsessively) and trust that I will do the right thing for myself when the time comes.

Whatever it is I’ll hope I’ll always have the courage and fear to see opportunities for a wider experience of life. I think I am afraid of wasting time and going on detours, yet I am also aware that this is an utilitarian mindset I am trying to overcome.

To live more thoroughly, perhaps that is my bigger picture.

going against instincts

I’ve been delivering food for more than 3 weeks now and it has been interesting to observe my own behaviour from the beginning till now. I thought these recent years of inner work have made me a lot more zen, but I guess it is easier to be zen when stimuli is removed.

Delivering food however, is all about handling various stimuli. Crowds, people’s behaviour, weather, buildings with poor wayfinding, slow lifts, etc. I did realise I was a lot less frustrated compared my old spoilt self, yet I still found myself constantly anxious, because the mechanics of food delivery is designed to make one anxious. The faster you deliver, the more you earn, sometimes when you take too long to deliver the peak hours or your shift ends and the result is making less deliveries than one expects in a typical period. It is interesting for me because I am not exactly doing it for the money, and yet I found myself getting caught up in trying to “win the game”.

My hypothesis is that our primal brain is just difficult to turn off. When there is a competition we are primed to want to win it, even if we don’t really need to win. I am not typically competitive against other people (or so I think) but I am competitive in solo games and I had also found myself competing against my partner since she works the same shifts as me.

So I have to learn to cajole myself to slow down, to work against my instincts. The first week I was brisk walking on the verge of jogging, I was always running to be in time for pedestrian lights in my favour, I was very anxious to complete the job because the next one is in the queue and if one is too slow to complete the current one the one in the queue disappears (and it may take a long while for a new order to come in again)! I thought it was very funny that I was behaving that way. It was as if I wasn’t in control and once I am thrown into the game, I lost any sense of self-direction and I became directed by the game itself. Sounds like a metaphor of life, huh?I

So slowly I trained myself to walk slower, to ignore the job in the queue, to stop running for traffic lights and to be chill whenever I have to wait for very slow lifts. My original motivation was to do this for exercise, and it defeats the purpose if I become more anxious than I was.

This is bringing me opportunities to exercise my spirit and also to train my capacity to tell my instincts to chill. Every shift is a mini-series of zen exercises. The most important part of this is that: this is done on my own terms. I am not forced into work arrangements against my will, I could also choose to disengage anytime I want.

I got sick yesterday because I worked a little too long and too hard, and it brought me back into a familiar pattern. I guess the hope for self-improvement is to keep trying to do the same thing over and over again with the hope that one day I could respond differently to something that keeps impacting me negatively. I have a hard time discerning when to stretch my limits and when to give myself a break. I think this stems from my out-of-sync relationship with my body. I am just terrible at listening to it.

When I was working in tech it felt a little abstract and without knowing it I probably had a sense of entitlement. That because I worked in a swanky office and did things with the computer I felt like I was special. It made me disconnected from human beings in a not-so-good way. Delivering food snaps me back to reality, to be part of a reality that many people are facing. The fatigue, the stoicity, the challenges, and that includes the perception that food delivery is an unsavoury occupation. There are people who treat us like we’re meant to be ordered around and we don’t deserve respect. So this teaches me to be a much better person than I was in treating other people – I think I was always trying to be nice, but I was probably not very kind, the sort of kindness that comes with genuine appreciation, presence and respect.

Yesterday I made a delivery with a half-spilled Tom Yam soup and it stained the rest of the food containers. It was in a thermal bag that was strapped to the back of my bicycle and I didn’t expect it to spill. Now I’ve learned that spillage is so common that some riders bring their own cling wrap to prevent it. I was very apologetic to the customer and she didn’t make me feel bad even though I know she could. I guess because of the nature of the job there are a ton of opportunities for mistakes and delays, which becomes a win-win situation for me, because when I meet nasty people I practice equanimity, and when I meet gracious people I practice gratitude and connection.

Some people may think that this is a waste of my “talent” and skills, but I have learned that talent and skills amount to nothing if it brings me nothing but misery, sickness, and a contempt for people. I have become very skeptical of tech and it would be difficult ethically and psychologically for me to step back in again. And if I do ever do so for some good reason, I hope my psyche is whole enough to be with the power and responsibility that comes with it.

Else, I am okay with trying to live as best as I can, and to continue working on my spirit – not because I am trying to be a better person, but rather I think the only way to know whether life is worth living or not is to widen one’s perspective and deepen one’s spirit, enough to be genuinely present with the world and not just relating abstractly to it, or trapped in false narratives.

developing equanimity and experiencing goodness while delivering food

I had a hard time understanding the definition of equanimity when it first appeared in my consciousness. What does it mean to be equanimous? It was a zen story that illustrated the concept of equanimity to me at a deeper level:

A beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who was the father. The anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, the Zen master. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter’s accusation, he simply replied “Is that so?” When the child was born, the parents demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. “Is that so?” Hakuin said calmly. For many months he took very good care of the child until the daughter could no longer withstand the lie she had told. The parents immediately went to Hakuin to see if he would return the baby. With profuse apologies they explained what had happened. “Is that so?” Hakuin said as he handed them the child. – source (edited for conciseness)

When I first read this story I felt it was both ludicrous and inspiring. On one hand this feels like a passive way of living, to have terrible things happen to us and yet calmly accept them; on the other hand it must feel strengthening and liberating to be so unshakable by our circumstances.

I had a glimpse of what it means to be equanimous personally when I first started running. It became much easier when I stopped approaching inclines as though they are out to get me, instead I focused on my feet: one foot in front of the other, until I ran past the incline. There were also times when I felt like I couldn’t go on any further because I was in a lot of discomfort, but again I focused on putting one foot ahead of the other. That mentality enabled me to go the distance from 1km all the way till 5.

There were numerous times in the past few weeks delivering food when I felt that the old me would have lost my temper, had a meltdown, or simply give up permanently. First of all it is physically exhausting. A typical day I cover about 12km minimum under the brutal hot sun. Some days my feet feel like they are about to break. But that’s the easy part.

When we are lucky we pick up and drop off food within a ten minute walk. Sometimes it is at least 1km from one point to another, back to back. Imagine walking 1km to your destination, trying to find the vendor in an underground maze of shops, only to find out it has closed or moved. Well, that’s still the easy part, though I think the old me would have been a little boiling at this point.

Then, because of the craziness of the lunch crowd, I meet vendors who are on the verge of a meltdown themselves. They become rude and snappish. I found myself surprised when I didn’t respond unkindly, because my old self definitely would. It seemed like something new in me understood that it wasn’t personal, that they were reacting to the unfavourable circumstances even though I bore the brunt of their frustration. Most of the time they do recover, and they seem grateful that I am there just waiting and still smiling. I do know of delivery people getting upset whenever they have to wait longer than usual, and that too is understandable, because every delay eats into their daily income. Sometimes, that means being unable to pay the bills.

Since I walk in the central business district, it is interesting delivering food to different buildings and people. People receive food and treat me in a multitude of ways. I’ve gotten a couple of tips, some take the time to wish me safety, others grab the food as though I am invisible. You can never judge a book by its cover. I’ve gone into swanky buildings and had the most pleasant interaction with their concierge and security, I’ve also had very difficult times with not-so-swanky buildings which insist that we can only use their cargo lifts. Since only one cargo lift serves an entire 20-40 storey building, it can take ten minutes just to wait for the lift per ride. The people who work in those buildings seem oblivious to these rules, and they insist that we take the passenger lifts, trying to be kind to us but causing us more delays.

So, there is a lot of waiting, frustration, wasted time, unkind treatment. Just yesterday I had to deliver food while being ankle deep in the torrential rain. My umbrella was too small, so I was soaked through. It felt amusing delivering a sandwich while I dripped rainwater all over their hardwood floors. I contemplated asking for a break through the system, but I wanted to know what it was like to continue. At the end I was cold, soaked and tired, but strangely luminous. Once in a while I have to carry food for ten people in two big bags while walking for more than ten minutes. Imagine my internal dialogue lugging all that weight in the hot sun while I contemplate my previous existence as a tech worker.

I wanted to do this for physical exercise, but it turns out that it is exercising my spirit even more. I gradually learned not to rush, to calmly take things as they come: rain, shine, rude people, broken lifts, spilling food. I am now 300% nicer to people when they deliver food to me.

But even though this post is about developing equanimity for myself, the most profound lesson is the goodness of people I have encountered thus far. Most people are really kind. I have met countless people who tried to help me while I seem lost in their offices. Vendors who tell me to be careful, to not be so caught up in pursuing money that I neglect my own safety. Concierges and receptionists who greet me with such friendliness even though I am a lowly food delivery worker. People who stop whatever they were doing to ask me if I need help even though they didn’t have to.

Suddenly, I became aware of how easy it is to be cynical while being cooped up in the isolation and safety of my own hermitdom, when every time I’m out to deliver food I experience such diversity of goodness. It isn’t a rare occurrence, it is actually the norm. I feel so much more inclined to be kind to the next upset person I interact with because things simply suck sometimes due to nothing of our own fault, and I am made to understand again and again how much it means when I receive grace unexpectedly, so it makes me want to pay it forward.

I can afford the space to chill and wait when things don’t go smoothly because I don’t have pressing needs that is banking on the income of this job, but I know I am the exception. That’s why it feels even more of a societal responsibility to hold and give that space for people because they don’t have the luxury of choices I possess.

first impressions of being a food delivery person

I started delivering food last week. At first I wanted to keep it private, but I didn’t want the hassle of having to explain myself if I ever bumped into someone familiar, so I wrote about it on social media.

One of the reasons I felt secure enough to come back to Singapore was because the standard of living is much lower compared to the US (there are many ethical prices to pay, like there is no minimum wage here) and with the emerging gig economy I knew I had more options for work. I figured if I kept my expenses low I could survive with a reasonably paid part-time job – I wouldn’t have to be forced to return to tech again, and I could preserve my creative energy for things important to me: such as this website.

We know that Einstein was a patent clerk, and it turns out that the creator of Stardew Valley worked as a part-time usher for four years before publishing the game:

While I was developing Stardew Valley, I worked part-time as a theater usher, and also lived with my girlfriend who received a grad school stipend. So with our combined income from that we got by. I purposely took a non-coding/art type job so that I could devote all my mental & creative energy to Stardew Valley – source

The point I am trying to make is not that I am aiming to be Einstein or a “success”, but rather that having a creative job sounds like a dream come true, however the reality is most of the time it disproportionately benefits someone else’s profit margins and/or political agenda while we end up burnt out.

I don’t have the stomach to play political games, but unfortunately that is required to do anything of consequence. Having to deal with people’s emotions, psyche and motivations stressed me out so much that I developed chronic physical symptoms.

I choose my health over anything else. Even if the martyr in me doesn’t mind being physically sick, the depression that comes along it doesn’t only affect me, it is toxic to the people around me. I now believe it is not ethical to be in a position of power if we don’t have our psyches sorted out, because every single decision we make ripples far and wide.

So I am now delivering food. At first it was just an experiment to satisfy my curiosity, but now it feels like something I wish to do regularly. It is physically exhausting: the first day I did it I delivered only 3 orders and I felt like I was about to collapse – I walk, by the way.

Yet I feel alive. I feel alive because I am now interacting with so many different people every day, it gives me a visceral feeling that I am an interactive node in the giant web of humanity. I encounter kindness and generosity. There seems to be a shared understanding that we are all facing similar challenges in the work we do, so people try to help each other out. A friend tells me that this seems to be also anthropological for me.

For me, there is also a theme of ableness. For years I struggled with disability as I developed painful migraines, anxiety and eye pain whenever I worked with the screen. It was very disempowering to not be able to work, especially when I really wanted to. It felt to me like it was the only outcome I had to accept, that I may never be able to work for the rest of my life. But apart from physical soreness, I seem to not be exhibiting any of my chronic pain symptoms. Yet. I tend to jinx myself. For now it feels good to be walking 12-20km every day without waking up feeling like I want to die. I think my months of running helped.

I am still dealing with the physical fatigue, but I hope to get my body acclimatised and get into a sensible rhythm where I can split my time between food delivery and my creative projects.

Another unexpected side effect is that this seems to have a positive effect on my depression and anxiety. Obviously there is the physical exercise aspect, there is also a meditative aspect where I am too focused on getting from point to point instead of spiralling into my over-thinking. I was never really aware how much of my overthinking is toxic to me, but somehow this year I have developed the capacity to catch myself in these thought spirals and how much they paralyse me.

I also spend less time on screens and social media now, which helps my mental health too. I am slightly worried that this physical exertion will disrupt my fragile hormonal balance. I’ll be having my monthly cycle soon, so I will know.

Ironically there is a sense of freedom, delivering to these gated tall offices made me keenly aware of how much I don’t want to be in them again. I may be profusely sweating, carrying a big thermal bag of food for a fee that will never be anywhere close to my previous rate per hour even if I worked 10-hour shifts, but in return I am free from being somebody’s political pawn and a desk binding me. My eyes are thankful.

I am not sure how long this will last, but even a short-lived romance is worth documenting. I am also aware that I am privileged to be able to have these choices. I am not romanticising a job that is physically demanding and requires long hours if one needs a full-time wage to feed a family, but I am still grateful that there are options like these now, whereas previously I would be limited to inflexible part-time shift work that is location-binding. From the group chats that I am participating in, this is a sentiment shared by many others, they are earning more than they had in previous work, with the added flexibility of choosing how much they wanted to work.

(There are issues like the protection of workers etc, but we have limited protection here in Singapore anyway…since this is an emerging industry I hope it will continue to develop in a humanistic direction. What if the food delivery industry collapse one day? Well, in my opinion there wouldn’t be safe industries any longer because of climate change, so we have to do whatever we can to adapt.)

Do I care about what people think? Honestly, I did. But I choose myself: the choice that would allow me to expand wider in my becoming. Perhaps more about that in another post.

how do we dream in the face of climate change

There was news last week that CO2 on earth has reached 415ppm, the highest it has been in millions of years. Our permafrost is melting at an unprecedented rate. The projections are depressing: even if we emit zero carbon now for the rest of our lives, we will still be facing dire climate change effects for at least the century to come:

So even if carbon emissions stopped completely right now, as the oceans catch up with the atmosphere, the Earth’s temperature would rise about another 1.1F (0.6C). Scientists refer to this as committed warming. Ice, also responding to increasing heat in the ocean, will continue to melt. There’s already convincing evidence that significant glaciers in the West Antarctic ice sheets are lost. Ice, water, and air – the extra heat held on the Earth by carbon dioxide affects them all. That which has melted will stay melted – and more will melt. – source

Our food chains will be disrupted as insects, fish, etc die out, and it is a matter of time we’ll be facing food shortages, diseases and unliveable conditions.

So I find it disturbing that most people are still going about as though nothing is happening. I wonder what is truly needed for us to stop in our tracks and think seriously about how we are going to live. I am not even talking about dropping everything to become climate activists or changing our consumption habits dramatically. I am thinking of how do we plan our lives, even if we want to live a self-centered existence, when climate change is looming over our heads?

Say saving or investing for example. The conventional wisdom is that we invest our savings in an index fund and watch it compound at an interest rate of at least 4% for decades to come. But I’m really skeptical that investment instruments and assets will be afforded the space to grow for the years to come (central banks are already sounding the alarm), especially if we’re facing times of political and economical instability. So the question is: how much longer can we invest traditionally, what will be truly valuable when everything goes to shit?

In the letter published by the Bank of England on Wednesday, Mr Carney and Mr Villeroy de Galhau describe “the catastrophic effects of climate change” already having an impact on the planet, such as “blistering heatwaves in North America to typhoons in south-east Asia and droughts in Africa and Australia”. They say that “these events damage infrastructure and private property, negatively affect health, decrease productivity and destroy wealth”. – source

People seem to think that we wouldn’t be experiencing the catastrophic effects in our lifetime. I think we’re misled by looking at things linearly. I personally believe it will hit a tipping point and suddenly it will look like the apocalypse. Wars may breakout because of resource shortages. But everyday I encounter people talking about the lives and plans as though there is all the time in the world. We’re still celebrating the IPOs or fundraising of companies that are toxic or do not add value to society. Our governments and media are obviously not sufficiently alarmed.

I find it difficult to plan for my future. I am looking at a ten-year path into psychotherapy and I am not even sure what the state of the world would be like in ten years. Someone wrote in his newsletter about Ted Chiang taking four years to learn about linguistics in order to write “The Story of Your Life” – the short story which was made into “Arrival” – and my immediate reaction was: yes we’re sorely missing the time needed to craft something of substance, but how many four years can we now afford?

How do we dream? Of writing that book, of improving our craft, of stepping into that career in our mid-lives, of doing that PhD, when everything seems so unstable? Do we go wholeheartedly into doing something we truly want to do regardless of the timeline, because we don’t know when and living to the fullest in spite of existential despair is the best response? Or do we give up our dreams because dreams do take time, and instead we should use that time to love? To spend our last years of relative peace with the people we love, the nature that is going to die, the cities that may no longer be preserved in their beauty?

I would like to know what you think.

on the effects of being sick

I missed publishing a post last Sunday, because I was down with a cold turned migraine. I haven’t been sick for this amount of time since a long while ago, and it served as a reminder as well as a trigger. 

I started reading a lot of zen and buddhism at a time of my life when I was constantly sick, because being sick forces a person to learn how to let go. There is no choice, and the only thing I could do is to learn how to sit with the fact that I am powerless over the state of my body. I am still not very good at it now, but I do notice the effect such studies have had on the rest of my life during times when I am healthy. I am still not very good at being healthy either, but I know that I am less antagonistic overall, less of an enemy to myself. 

Being sick is to sit in endless frustration. There is the very noticeable pain, the discomfort of the entire body, the inability to do anything meaningful. I gradually learned to be more okay with being useless while being sick so often, though I definitely did not choose this lesson. But the past few years have been very enlightening on how much I saw other people and myself in terms of our productive value, and how much is actually left when the ability to work is taken away. I thought a lot about what does it mean to live, what does it mean to be a contributing member of society. It gave me the time I wouldn’t have taken to contemplate why things are the way they are, why do we seem to be swimming in endless vicious cycles. I am not sure what kind of person I would have grown to become had I not been sick so much. I think I would still be running headlessly around, trying to do more than I can do, hopelessly trying to build my sense of self-worth through professional and social achievements without stopping to think what is the whole point of it all, if upward progression is something I truly wanted, if that was the life I must live. I would continue to hurt a ton of people through the careless management of my relationships because I was simply drowning too much in my own feelings to truly consider theirs and their positions. I would still have a short temper that I would have no control over because I had never realised how terrible I was at regulating my stress and emotions. I would become old and bitter, without really understanding why, maybe then in the twilight of my years it would suddenly dawn upon me that I had exchanged my self-respect for societal approval, and what I mistook for self-respect was actually the silent soothing of the fear that I would be abandoned by my society.

I dislike being sick, and I cannot describe what it is like to try to sleep feeling as though a dull knife is cutting through my brain, but I have to say I am profoundly grateful for it. It cuts through all the bullshit and forces me to reevaluate my life.

I wrote in previous entries that I have been starting to contemplate of this is simply my new normal. I have been trying to get better for years, and days like these make me feel like I am not having much progress. I came across a lawyer on twitter who tweeted that migraine is considered a disability in the US: 

I think a lot of work I have done in the past few years is working up the self-compassion to accept that I may be living with a disability and yet I am still a whole person. Also, to cope with the profound loneliness that comes with people not understanding the limitations I have to live with or worse, people who simply don’t take my illness seriously. I often have to put up with the frequent jokes that my illness is a result of my imagination. I mean, first I have to put up with people telling me my depression is imagined, then the pain of a dull knife sawing through my brain is also deemed to be imagined. I would love to tell them why psychosomatic illnesses are real, but few people would take me seriously enough to sit through a 30-minute neuroscience pseudo-lecture.

I have disengaged a lot from people in the past year or so. I have realised that my issues are my own and therefore I have no obligation to explain my decisions to most people (well, except my patreons which I do send them updates).

I have to work through a lot of feelings of guilt and grief. I am grateful for this point in my life to reevaluate who I wish to become, but still I grieve over the person I was. I was a person who would work as hard and as long as I chose to, and that was such a part of me I cherished – mostly for the wrong reasons but it is really nice to be able to work long enough to enter the flow without feeling my head is going to split apart. 

Now I am a person who has to regularly police myself. Each time my migraine occurs I interrogate myself on everything I could have done wrong: sleep, diet, exercise, stress, over-exertion, stimuli, etc. Who knows? Was it the pasta I ate? Was it because I chose to stay out a little while longer? 

A lot of life is about being able to sit through things without letting it frustrate us too much, to be able to face things full on. My illness has taught me an invaluable lesson in sitting through difficult feelings and still trying to live as well as I can despite whatever is happening. Unfortunately I think this would be useful in the time to come because of climate change. Not only do I have to accept that I have little control over my body at times, I will have to learn how to live in a world that is decaying as we speak, to deal with the knowledge that I am also complicit in its decay, there is so little I can do about it, yet I have to try to do whatever I can in my limited power to live with my head held up high.

I would like to be able to look back at my life and know that however I lived, I met my life and the world with as much lucidity as I can muster, without denial of the truth.

on metaphysical beliefs and the determination of worthiness

I was having a conversation with my partner – I can’t remember what exactly I was responding to, but I said something along the lines of, “That’s why I try to cherish our time together now, in case this is actually a dream I wake up from and you’re no longer here with me”. She asked, isn’t it the opposite? If it is a dream and all of this is not real, wouldn’t all of it be worthless?

We launched into one of our long philosophical debates of: what does “real” even mean in the first place, and does an illusion have less worth because it is not “real”? Will we ever know what is the ultimate reality, whether we are the dreamers or the dream?

I asked her in return: if one day she were to realise I wasn’t real, would she think whatever we have shared in this time together, worthless?

I used to believe in reincarnation for a long period of my life. It gave me comfort: a reason for my existence and suffering. After a lot of reading – I guess that is why they say knowledge and questioning can be poisonous – quantum physicists argue that time is not linear or that time may not even exist; I am not even sure if the universe that contains us is the only universe or is it simply a child of an infinite series of russian doll-like universes, or like what tech hippies like to think: we are just a simulation of an advanced civilisation.

We could probably think of infinite theories, or for some people they believe in an absolute truth of their own choosing. But what I’ve concluded personally is I may never know, and it doesn’t really matter.

How can it not matter!? Personally, no matter how I think, whether there is an absolute truth or not, should not alter the way I choose to live my life. If I am a good human being because of what awaits me in an afterlife, am I really a good human being? In my opinion, the point of being human is the capacity to exercise agency, and agency requires free will, and a choice made freely should not be governed by the promise of reward and punishment. Isn’t the point of having consciousness the potential to develop the capacity to discern what right, wrong or grey?

And so what if there are multiple lifetimes, parallel existences, or not? Even if there is an infinity of lives, the life I am living now is the only version of the one which will exist. This is an assumption that the set of variables and conditions will never be replicated in another lifetime. If they are being replicated exactly, it doesn’t mean the outcomes will be the same, with the assumption that every entity capable making of choices in that lifetime has the capacity to have a range of responses to the same stimuli.

Let’s say we don’t actually have free will, and everything is replicated a million times, in the exact same way – we wouldn’t absolutely know anyway, so for our own sanity it is better to err on the side of caution, that we have free will, and therefore, responsibility.

That being said, I don’t necessarily think life is innately precious because there is only one perceived version of it. I don’t think scarcity should determine worth. There is an abundance of oxygen and water (for now), that doesn’t mean it is not precious. And just because no two snowflakes look the same doesn’t mean we have to find a way to freeze all snowflakes permanently.

Neither do I think the realness of life should determine its worth. Our consciousness is still being transformed whether we are living in a simulation, an infinity of universes, or a single planet capable of sustaining life. Similarly, if one decides life is meaningless, would it be enough if we tell them they are the consequence of a billion years of evolution?

I want to live in a way that I could live with, regardless of metaphysics. Because along the way if I knew that I didn’t live the life I could have lived and wanted to live, I would be slowly dying, not living. It wouldn’t matter if there was nothing or something after the end.

While having the argument with my partner it suddenly occurred to me that I was arguing for the worthiness of life, even if temporal or illusory. I guess what I was really arguing for is the worthiness of our time together, but the deeper question to myself is: would I relive this life all over again just to have this time with her?

I am not sure. Maybe if I am lucky enough to live long enough, the answer would unfold itself. If not, then perhaps it is enough for the question to exist.