on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

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

on cooking, emptiness, and creativity

Cooking is one of those things I’ve tried a million times and any attempt to cook regularly was never sustained, until the recent weeks. I cannot put a finger to how and why, except perhaps there was this threshold I crossed where it became less messy and tedious. I think it was a combination of keeping things simple like the same few ingredients in different styles over and over again, keeping the prep work to the minimum, learning how to clean as I cook, and overall becoming better at timing.

So the interesting I observed was: once I got better at the simple basics, I was willing to tolerate a lot more complexity in the cooking. Then, I started to find it fun. As I’ve written before, cooking is very similar to interactive work. We add or subtract something, shorten or lengthen the time, experiment with different modes or mediums – every variable changed results in something different.

Last week I finally learned to brown chicken properly, and I thought I would try pan-frying chicken thighs for lunch today, but I used a bigger pan for the two of us on top of a bigger stove ring, and the chicken ended up being really, really burnt (because I went to wash the dishes thinking it was safe to let it sizzle). It was slightly demoralising, but there is this newish feeling of wanting to try the same thing soon again, so I can recover from the mistake and complete the learning journey. Previously when I’d cooked, it was so tedious that I felt like I would never want to cook again, so I thought it was interesting that I’m starting to look forward to the next.

The difference between experimenting with interactive work and cooking is, I have to wait for the next meal to experiment again, whereas I would keep going on if I was trying to solve a coding or interaction issue. This actually works out better for me, because I have driven myself to burnout so many times with design and code, but with cooking I just can’t keep going on.

Somehow along the way, I’m also getting better at waiting and doing boring, repetitive tasks. I believe it was all the running and cycling without music that prepped me for this. There was a point in my life I couldn’t even sit still enough to read a book, so now I’m almost relishing the slowing down of my mind when I chop onions and wash dishes.

Whenever I find myself feeling a profound sense of subtle joy doing seemingly menial tasks like chopping and washing, I am reminded of a book I’ve read: “Eat, Sit, Sleep” – a memoir of a japanese man (who was also a designer haha) who entered one of Japan’s most rigorous zen temple for a year. They practice Soto Zen, whose founder Dogen wrote precise instructions for how to eat, how to sit, how to cook, and even how to poop. There, he went through rigorous training and unrelenting strict routines.

By contemplating life as it is, stripped of all extraneous added value, I found I could let go of a myriad of things that had been gnawing at my mind. Through the prosaic repetition of Eiheiji’s exacting daily routines for washing the face, eating, defecating, and sleeping, this is the answer that I felt in my bones: accept unconditionally the fact of your life and treasure each moment of each day.

Source: Eat Sleep Sit | link

When I read the book a few years ago I could not relate to it at all, but I was intrigued, similar to the intrigue I felt when friends would tell me how their silent meditation retreats have affected them. I also found it challenging to relate to the zen concept of emptiness. But recently, perhaps as the outcome of spending the last few years trying to observe my psyche at some distance and realising how much rubbish was in there, I think I am beginning to have some moments when my mind is not ruminating about something terrible, but in their place there is a space. It is that space that allows me to directly experience the act of chopping instead of my paranoid jumbled thoughts, it makes me feel like time has slowed down, and there it is: me, relating to the world that surrounds me, without all that noise. It is an effect enhanced by a repetitive act, an act that has almost no stimuli. Maybe Dogen is on to something after all.

I started cooking because I was not well, and now having eaten numerous home cooked meals (my mom is also cooking some of my meals) I think I am starting to feel better. My ovulation seems to be on time this month, though I don’t want to jinx myself. I am becoming very interested in using food as therapy, down to the molecular level. For example, do you know we need magnesium to metabolise vitamin D, and vitamin B6 is the precursor to melatonin? I started taking B6 for PMS and I started sleeping so much better.

I’m also looking forward to learning the science of cooking: anyone can cook an egg but it is challenging to cook good eggs. Now I know how to make good enough half-boiled eggs on the stove top, and fry a decent sunny side up. I would love to learn how to make a hongkong-style scrambled egg next. There is so much one can learn about cooking temperatures, and how to use salt.

I tweeted yesterday that I think I’m getting more creative as I age, and it probably seems strange because I no longer work in the creative industry. But it is sad to think of creativity only in terms of commercial work. Work had always felt somewhat oppressive to me, and a huge part of that is how I treated myself, and how I let others treat me. Psychologically I had also found it difficult to feel free creatively, everything was always somewhat boxed in. I feel like I am finally starting to loosen up, to truly enjoy the creative process instead of constantly needling for a desired outcome.

Just try something and see what happens – that gives me a sense of curiousity and wonderment instead of a pervasive stress to make something that is expected out of me. I’m only learning how to have fun as I near 40, and if the world doesn’t combust I’ll be keen to see where this goes.

writing to listen to our selves

I gifted dayone to my partner when we started dating, and ironically she is more diligent than me when it comes to documenting her life. She has filled up enough of it to have a memory pop up for the 365 days of the year for “on this day”, and now she uses it to resolve our arguments if it is related to historical accuracy.

I used to write sporadic entries whenever I felt like it, and I also had long 100 day streaks on 750words which is created by my friend Buster. But writing 750 words a day is genuinely both a time and psychological commitment, so I stopped a couple of years ago.

I became envious of the richness my partner had in her journals, and I also wanted a memory to pop up everyday for myself. At the same time, Covid started and I realised how precious is the mundane:

It is not that easy to commit to journalling everyday. It can feel like a chore, especially in times of depression and chaos. So to make it easier for myself I decided to just write bullet points and include some daily photos. It can be as mundane as writing:

  • cycled 14km today
  • read more of <insert book title here>
  • cooked <photo>

It worked, and as of today I am on a 180 day streak, which is possibly my longest streak ever.

A few weeks ago Buster was calling out for beta testers for the new 750words he is building, so I gladly volunteered. I wanted to be a good tester (not just frivolously clicking around), so I started writing 750words longform again.

I was surprised by the experience. The first entry felt tiresome, it took me another 7 days to write the second entry, followed by 3 days for the third. Today I am on a 7-day streak, on top of writing bullet points on dayone.

I realised it is through the act of longform journalling that I am setting exclusive time to listen to myself:

How often throughout the day do we give shape, form and consideration to our thoughts? We are often doing, if not scrolling, consuming or interacting. There is no space for our feelings to develop a concrete form, and without a concrete form it will most likely exist as a background anxiety. Many of us are also probably not very good at developing arguments and logic in our minds, because that requires holding a long thought process without interruptions. The act of writing down our thoughts let them become actual seeds that can be transformed into other forms. Else, thoughts would most likely remain fleeting.

Bullet journalling has been valuable to me, and I will continue to do it for documentation purposes. But I now realise (again) that it is through longform journalling that has profound compounding effects on me.

I think I have become a lot less anxious in the past few days, and a lot more grounded. Anchoring my thoughts down is a way of giving my self more presence in my own life. I am constantly surprised at what comes out of my private writing, and I am continually surprised at how much of my old selves have to teach me (I totally forgot I wrote the tweet above).

I also don’t notice how much I’ve transformed as a person until I read some old entries. It is both sad and funny how much certain things used to torture my consciousness and how detached I feel from them now. This makes me hopeful for my future self (if I stay alive long enough), that given enough time and conscious effort, whatever anxiety that is plaguing me currently will eventually become an artefact of my personal history.

As a sidenote, I’ve been thinking how to surface learnings and themes in a more efficient manner apart from reviewing entries “on this day” style. This is not just for my journal entries but also notes and highlights from books, etc. There is so much depth in the past, if only I can find meaningful ways to regularly analyse the synthesis of their connections.

the passageway

I moved out of my parents’ when I was around 19. For approximately 18 years I was renting, moving in and out of apartments every few years. Most of the time the move was not voluntary: the landlord is selling the place, the end of relationships, moving across continents. For many years I stopped buying physical books though I love them because I was afraid of moving them.

In 2011-2012 I mostly lived out of one suitcase. It was liberating, and I learnt how much I didn’t need. But I had the chance to settle permanently (I thought) in SF, so I happily signed a lease.

I had to move back to Singapore in 2015, and I thought I was going to have to live out of one suitcase again. Fate had other plans for me. I met my partner in 2016, and we decided to become joint tenants (of a 94 year lease) of a public flat in 2017. Paperwork and renovations took 9 months, and finally we moved in somewhen in 2018.

I remember vividly the first morning I woke up. I opened the door of our bedroom, and I looked into the passageway that leads to the living room:

illustration of passageway
procreate illustration of the passageway from our bedroom

I remember feeling that huge sense of relief mixed with joy and a little trepidation. This is the first time I was not subject to a landlord, and barring drastic circumstances I wouldn’t have to move again for the rest of my life. As a young adult I had greatly underestimated the psychological safety and stability a physical living space can bring. I thought I loved being a nomad – the idea of working anywhere in the world with one suitcase was greatly appealing, until it is not.

For the next few months every morning I walked out of our bedroom I would look fondly at the passageway, thanking my lucky stars. But gradually, time and routine took over.

They say we are on a hedonistic treadmill:

The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.

In Wikipedia’s definition it says we quickly return to a stable level of “happiness”, but I think it is more accurate to call it a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. It was probably advantageous for us in terms of evolution, without it human beings would not be seeking improvements or progress (although there are cases of tribes staying content where they are).

But taken to an extreme in modern societies, the constant desire and addiction for the next thing can cause chronic unhappiness and blindness to what truly surrounds us. But I am not writing this to give a commentary on society, but rather a reflection on my self.

I have a depressed brain and a depressed psyche. I am not sure which is the cause and which is the effect. But I am aware that my mind has a tendency to think itself in depressive loops. Once in a while I am able to break out of one depressive loop, and suddenly my newer self wonders why former self had spent so much energy relentlessly focusing on something that seemed like a complete waste of time now. But when I am caught in that loop, that single detail may seem like life or death to me, and I am capable of triggered by something really trivial into a blackhole of despair.

I don’t mind being in despair if the situation calls for it, but upon reading my old journals I realised so much of it was unnecessary, and was also a product of an over-active mind and an unhealthy psyche. But it is difficult to see our own blindspots.

One recent morning I was walking into the passageway, and suddenly I experienced the abstract memory of how it felt like to walk here for the first time. I couldn’t feel the physical sensations of the original relief and joy, but I could remember the thoughts I had intellectually.

It actually felt disturbing to me afterwards, because I realised how easy it is to forget what I actually have and to take it for granted. In zen it is an important part of the practice to cultivate the capacity to see each moment as a fresh moment. It is one of those things that sounds so simple but in reality difficult to practice.

In current times it is understandable to be in despair. I don’t think blind unbridled optimism is the way to go either. But when buddhism/zen prompts us to see reality for what it is – it is not just about seeing the suffering some of us don’t see, it is also about noticing the dimensions that exist but we’ve lost the capacity to be aware of them (and it is also about noticing how much of ‘reality’ is actually noise we generate in our minds but this noise contributes to real outcomes and our own suffering).

I can’t tell anyone how to respond to the world right now, but personally my current response feels complex but I’ll try to articulate it. I think it is important to witness the suffering and not deny it, but I also think if it is possible, to not let the empathy become compassion fatigue, or a weight that leads to disabling depression. However, I think if depression and fatigue is the only response we can muster, it is a valid response. Sometimes, we need the time and space to grieve, to rest, to be still.

I don’t have a material goal in life or at least I am not aware of it. I have a philosophical question, which is whether life is worth living. I know it sounds like a frivolous question to ask when people are out there fighting for their lives. But it is a question that has been asked seriously throughout human history, and I wish to answer it for myself, because unlike most people I have never found the actual will or interest to live for the sake of living. People fight to live because they want to live, for whatever reason. But there’s never a single moment in my own life when I truly felt I want to live.

I think to answer this question fairly I have to seriously try to live in the fullest manner possible. If I tried everything in my capacity to live well, and at the end of my life I still feel like it was not worth it for me, this should be taken as a valid response.

This is a longwinded way of explaining, why it is important for me to learn to see reality for what it is. If I’m only biased to seeing suffering in everything I perceive, then life will just be a vehicle for suffering to me. But I know that there are other dimensions of life, it is just that I am unsure if experienced as a whole, it will make up for all the suffering we have to go through.

Hence, along with the despair and suffering I currently feel, I want to also encompass the relative goodness I have in my life too, so I can experience life wholly and not just in a single dimension. I want to understand what it really means to live life fully, what would it actually take for me for life to be worthwhile, or is my psyche forever incapable of living?

It feels like a long journey, but it is probably just the beginning, if I don’t die soon. I don’t actually know what makes me come alive. Maybe I have dysfunctional neurotransmitters and I lack the ability to feel aliveness. But I see my partner living her life through her art, and I feel a deep sense of envy. I don’t have to ask her what makes her come alive, I just need to look at her to feel her aliveness. I am not sure if my interest in writing or interactive publishing is just a historical artefact of my past or if I’m truly interested in it. How do I know, and would I ever know?

What I do know, is that I still feel immensely thankful that I have a physical space to be psychologically safe in, if and only I remember to be aware of it. So the past few days, I’ve been practicing using the passageway as a cue. Every morning I wake up, I try to hold and feel that sense of tiny joy whenever I enter that passageway.

It is not just a cue for me to remember what I have, but also a powerful reminder of how far I’ve come along – from a place of frequent instability to a space where I can finally stop being distracted with constant threats to my psychological safety because I had always feared being homeless. I feel thankful not because I should, but because recalling vignettes of my past makes me acutely aware of how precious is stability, and how fleeting it can still be, and I want to consciously cherish this stability for as long as I can.

The world as we know may be ending – though I still hope against all odds it wouldn’t – or perhaps the world we know is always ending because it is in a continuous transformation, whatever it is I hope with whatever remaining time I have left, I can at least try to live fully, whatever fully means. At the very least I want to be consciously aware of how my time is passing, and the last thing I want for myself is to spend my days living like a forgetful, unconscious, blind, numb, zombie.

contemplating on how to respond

Trying to publish regularly is a commitment. I used to write every sunday, rain or shine, whether I felt like it or not. Nowadays I’m trying to be easier with myself so I gave up on the sunday routine, telling myself that I’ll write at least once per week on any day, and it doesn’t have to be on a sunday. Ironically that was meant to encourage myself to write more, not less, because I felt like I was restricting my own spontaneity by only writing on sundays.

I read somewhere that spontaneity can only exist when one feels healthy and safe (by Winnicott). My health in the recent few months has worsened, so I’ve been thinking and looking at almost everything with dread. Writing, having been such a source of comfort and catharsis to me for such a long time, has also become something I dread. The internet and the world have become a different place too – is it even appropriate to still publish mundane writing online when there is so much chaos and suffering?

Nothing is probably appropriate anymore – that is probably why I read of so many people going into deep depression or zombie-like paralysis. Life when times were good was already stressful for me in many ways, and now I feel bad for even existing and being safe when so many people have lost their lives. I don’t really know how to respond, except that diminishing myself will do nothing to lessen the suffering of the world anyway.

This is actually a familiar scenario for me. I came to a metaphysical position that I personally want nothing out of life and I am somewhat still existing in order not to cause more suffering in this world. How does one live when one sees no purpose or meaning in life? The initial response is usually existential depression, because we’re so used to the concept that everything must have a reason and/or purpose. We’re utilitarian creatures, especially us in Singapore. Utility is comforting, it is comforting to know all of this is for a use, for an outcome.

I could go into minimal existing mode: just feed myself and make sure I do the bare minimum to survive. But imagine being trapped in a box for a very long time, do you really want to lie there and wait for inevitable death, or try to be in such a way that the journey to death is not just filled with boredom and dread?

If death is the outcome, we could try running away from it, resist it for as long as possible, pretend it doesn’t exist, or perhaps – march peacefully (my initial choice of word here is joyfully, but on second thoughts I don’t want to reinforce the belief that joy is necessary or the only state we can desire) towards it with as much dignity and as little harm as possible.

Of course, the typical response I would guess is to fight against it, whether is it climate change or death. I can’t speak for other chronically ill people, but I spend most of my waking moments fighting for my own body, much less have the energy to do anything else. How does someone like me tolerate the frustration and sadness of witnessing so much suffering and not being able to do anything about it, whether for myself or for others?

I don’t have answers for now, but I think at bare minimum I don’t wish to live as though nothing is happening. Even if I am ill, frustrated, sad and helpless, even if I can do nothing to ease the situations, I will try my utmost to not run away, and be with this.

Religion and philosophy are ways humans cope with the reality of existence. Some people turn to stoicism, some turn to buddhism, some prefer the comfort of the abrahamic religions. I personally prefer some sort of creative flexibility in how we live and respond to the world and ourselves. When it is time to grieve perhaps grieve with all our hearts, when there is pain and suffering perhaps the rightful response is to sit with it and not dismiss it with unempathetic optimism. There is often so much conditioning, so much social pressure, that we often do not know how do we individually wish to respond to a situation – we try to opt for the socially acceptable reaction.

What is personally acceptable to our selves? I think this is a question we’ll be asking ourselves again and again as we navigate into unchartered waters in the next decade or so. I hope we do, to exert that bit of a consciousness we possess to contemplate how we wish to respond to everything that is unfolding in front of us.

online, offline

These days I feel like I’m in a competition with my old self: the one who is excited about interactive projects and possibilities, whereas my current self is obsessed with pressure cooking. I also swing between the mindsets of tomorrow may never come, and wanting to participate in the slowness of life.

There is also survivor’s guilt from knowing that tons of people are suffering while I am safe. I think this is part of the human condition, because from the beginning of our history our survival instincts had always inevitably caused others and ourselves to suffer, but that is another essay for another day.

This is my online journal though, a place where I consciously observe and document my ongoing feelings, so I want to try to express the mix of what I feel no matter how convoluted or ironic they may seem to be. Last week I had this thought that my online journal had somewhat failed its purpose. I only write when there’s some heavy topic disturbing me, or something that I deem meaty enough to write about. But I would like it to be more scrappy, more ongoing, more whole – something that can express the mundane, perhaps boring aspects of my life.

This year I have doing a lot less of what I used to do. For example, I used to read a lot, like 70-80 books a year, and my current count is in the 20s. My old self is filled with guilt, like I didn’t live hard enough because there’s only so many books I can read in my lifetime and I am “wasting” my reading opportunities away. There’s also a whole ton of plans for this website I am not acting upon. It makes me feel bad, until I remember and remind myself I am expanding in ways that I did not.

My old self, the self that has gotten me so many connections – both professional and personal – a self I still find it difficult to let go off because she had brought me so much, is a narrow self. I lived and breathed on the internet. I don’t think there is anything wrong with a narrow self should one chooses to be that way, we can think of artisans for example where they have to be narrow because of their craft. But for me, it wasn’t a conscious choice. I was that way because that was the only way I knew how to live and survive, a life where I grew up seeking comfort in books and digital interfaces. I had experienced the wonders of creating something when I first learned to built a website at 15, and that feeling made me believe I could never be interested in anything else.

So I didn’t have an offline life. When I wasn’t working I was on the internet. But I developed chronic eye pain, and it was actually surprising how lost I felt without the capacity to look at a screen or a book. Still I didn’t have anything I enjoyed doing without requiring the intense use of my eyes. I chose to watch TV whenever I had eye pain because it was less intense comparatively. It is still a screen though.

I think it was doing food delivery that first allowed me to spend hours outside without looking much at a screen (apart from the app itself). It was enlightening how liberated I felt freeing myself from the bondage of screens. I found myself developing a new sense of wonder just observing other neighbourhoods, the plants people grew, things people put in their doorways.

The pandemic hit, so I stopped delivering food. I was lost again and I went back to a screen-heavy life. I cycled daily to keep myself sane. Only recently I realised I have to cycle not so much for fitness, but rather the hour or two it makes me peel my eyes away from a screen. It acts like a circuit breaker, for the lack of a better phrase. It gives me just that bit of time for my natural thoughts to arise without the constant provocation of new information. It feels almost like a relief.

I begun getting sick again probably because of low grade covid depression – the existential feelings of not knowing when this may end and the inescapable sadness of witnessing chronic suffering – and also the sedentary claustrophobic lifestyle of the lockdown. It also didn’t help I kept compensating myself with ordering a lot of takeaways. Reluctantly, I started cooking…it is remarkably difficult to find a takeaway that does not spike my insulin levels, inexpensive, and non-greasy.

I found it tedious at first. I stopped, started, stopped, started. Like many other things, the tedium comes from inexperience. I tried too hard, did too much, so it just felt like endless prep work and washing (which some people may enjoy). Gradually I learnt that I enjoyed it the most when I kept everything simple and short.

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today I cooked my version of butter chicken — am too lazy to get the dozen or so spices to add to this dish, so I made up my own recipe: tomato purée, butter, coconut cream, greek yoghurt, minced garlic, chinese cooking wine, some turmeric powder, a dash of fried onions and chinese parsley. I learnt that to brown chicken you have to cook a few pieces at a time or there’ll be “overcrowding”. The next time I’m going to try to skip the browning step and see if it makes a difference. So what I do is to browse online for a general idea of what a recipe needs and I’d modify it for my convenience, mainly to keep the ingredient list and prep time short. It is my personality to go for the big picture and neglect the details…anyway she says this is the first time I cooked “out of my range” because I tend to cook everything with vinegar and chinese parsley lol. It turned out quite delicious, sometimes it is hit and miss for me because I tend to experiment and I eyeball the quantity of the condiments, so a few times I had to eat my own frankenstein meal. I think I’m beginning to really enjoy cooking, isn’t it a bit like alchemy — mix a bit of everything and if it works it tastes like magic? For me as long as it hits the right spectrum of notes it doesn’t have to be exquisite, and most things in life are enjoyable with a huge dose of letting go in enjoying the process and not get too focused on the minute details. This is served on a bed of spinach konjac noodles so I can keep it relatively low carb and prevent insulin spikes (which create a cascading effect for my hormones and cause PMS among other issues for me).

A post shared by Winnie Lim (@wynlim) on

This new self who is emerging, is unfamiliar to me. I feel anxious that I am not working on the things that I’ve always wanted to previously, but in a way I am making up for all the lost time in the last couple of decades when my entire life revolved around the internet.

What is interesting to me is, that cooking gives me a similar experience with my interactive experiments: the experience of being in conversation with something, adding and mixing it up until something results from it, and in that process it changes me a little bit. Except that with cooking I am not just moving my wrist ever so slightly to shift things on the screen, I am using my entire body, my senses, an intuition that involves a sense of timing, smell, taste, viscosity, colours, sizes, even sounds. I don’t follow recipes – guess I’m an experimentalist even with cooking, so I guesstimate and eyeball everything. I try to recreate tastes I remember, whether from childhood or from travels – it is profound how taste can be such a powerful memory –sometimes I combine them:

This is the literal version of dogfooding (a popular term in software). There were times I had to eat not so palatable experiments especially because I have no idea what are the basics of food science. My chef friends may frown at me (hi Margaret!). I learn a bit more as I go along, especially from my mistakes.

I spent the past few days learning about electric pressure cookers – is an instant pot worth the price, is the ability to cook low pressure important, etc. My old self is not happy, because she feels it is a waste of time. I guess I tend to label some activities as worthwhile and some others as not. This is not something I wish for myself, as I consciously pursue width and wholeness.

The thing about learning with new experiences, new dimensions, is that through learning we inevitably learn new things about ourselves. I learnt what type of cycling and cooking I liked: I tend to like doing things just a little bit above the average and hover around there. So I am happy cycling with a relatively inexpensive road bike at the park yet I have no desire to venture on the road, and I am happy experimenting with various cooking techniques but I am not doing precision cooking. I think we tend to sucked in by the mass perception that we have to keep getting better at everything we do, sometimes it is important to know what we ourselves prefer to be doing. As long as we enjoy the process and it makes us come alive, does it really matter that it is not “good”, whatever good means?

I’ve seen people I know give up small inner nudges to pick up hobbies or new crafts because they have this belief they can’t be good enough. I think this cultural conditioning deprives people of feeling tiny joys they should be entitled to have. Look at kids when they make art, they don’t stop to consider if the art they make is good enough, they just enjoy making it. Why do we have to give this up adults?

I learnt that I can be capable of liking new dimensions in my life, that my self is ever evolving, that I shouldn’t be too quick to shut myself down, to be a nurturing parent to myself instead of a cynical one. It took me a really long time, but I feel like it has only been recent that I have allowed myself to enjoy things just because, for no rhyme or reason. They don’t have to add up to some grand purpose, just bits and pieces of me waiting to be discovered and known.

Many times the past few years I’ve had this feeling I’m like a baby learning to crawl again. To learn to discern what is something I truly want to do versus something I am conditioned to believe it is good for me to do. Things I actually like doing rather than to fulfil some romantic image I had of myself.

I’m not sure if I am good at telling the difference yet, but I know what I would like most is to truly experience living, to experience both the width and depth of life, rather than to accept what is perceived by society to be what is worthwhile and what is not.

Is it possible to live in a way that I myself find worthwhile living and be thriving, even if the price to pay is social alienation?

yearning for relief

(cw: euthanasia & suicide) I haven’t written here for a couple of weeks, mostly because I was sick. Usually I get one migraine per cycle, but this cycle I had another one just a couple of days after I recovered from the last.

It is demoralising and depressing.

Being sick has robbed me of all the things I used to enjoy doing. Apart from health there is a momentum when it comes to working on creative projects. Once I get a migraine I am not only down for the entire span of time I am nursing one, I am also down for the days after. Depression and fatigue is known to be a common postdrome. So I lose my previously accumulated momentum, and it takes weeks to restart another one, if I do bring myself to do so. Then before I’m barely started, the next attack destroys me again.

It gets really frustrating and dark. So I tell my partner that I wish euthanasia is legal here. She takes it in her stride and doesn’t take it personally, even if I ask hypothetically if she’ll be there with me at the end of my journey if it becomes an option. I know I am asking too much of her, but I ask anyway, because I must.

Sometimes the only relief from not being able to end my life is to tell someone I wish there is an option to do so.

I am capable of laughing, of cracking jokes, of being lighthearted, of filling up my days with things I like doing, so it doesn’t seem like I am the person capable of writing a post like this. Sometimes she forgets, and I myself forget. Until the next moment that desperate feeling arises again. It is just a feeling, as illusory as an imagined narrative, as real as an impulse before it turns into action. Just because I intellectually believe I shouldn’t act on it, just because I refuse to hurt anyone who remotely cares about me, doesn’t mean that the feeling ceases to exist.

I think it will always be part of me, for better or for worse. It is already so much of my history. I don’t think it is something that has to be hidden or rejected. I don’t wish for it to be gone, like a shameful secret. It is what that keeps me alive in a way. The fact that I still yearn for relief, for something that makes me feel better than now.

I would imagine it may be disturbing for some people to read something like this. But I also imagine a society whereby people are free to express such thoughts, that perhaps just the act of putting them out there in the open is freeing them from the massive weight that may compel them to act on it.

My partner and I started dating because she sent a message to me (to ask to hang out, not to offer help) after she read a post I wrote about my chronic suicidal tendencies. I have always thought it was very strange of her to want to date a person who has publicly stated multiple times of her wish to die. Now upon writing this and thinking of this memory, maybe she was ahead of me all along. That she didn’t see it as a flaw, or something that I should be cured of, or something to be avoided. She saw it simply as a part of who I am, how I thought and felt, and she told me then she felt like I was one of the most alive people she’d ever known.

I thought it was funny and ironic, and I didn’t really know what she had meant. But now I think I understand, the willingness to feel such pain and desolation, in a way it is an extreme attempt to not let life deaden me.

personal (biased) reflections of Singapore’s 2020 elections

(cw: suicide) I had refrained from commenting on Singapore’s politics prior to the elections, because the more I grow the more I realised what I do not know, so I don’t want to influence anyone’s vote in case of unintended repercussions. Imagine a scenario where I think that choice A is right and I persuade you to make choice A, but a decade later I’m horrified to know that actually choice A is flawed – do I take responsibility for your choice and the ripple effects it may have? I don’t want to have this power as much as I have the power to influence how much influence I have as a person.

Now that the elections are over I would like to document my own thoughts, and hope that in time to come I will have the humility to go over them to see how much I have differed or stayed. My own desire to document my thoughts publicly for the last couple of decades has prevented me from escaping from my own personal failings. I cannot selectively alter my own personal history as long as I am committed to keeping my writing online. This is something I personally appreciate because I’ve witnessed how selectively altering history can hurt.

As a caveat I would like to state that all views below an outcome of my personal worldview and lived experiences, and I do not intend to persuade but rather to participate in a world that I still believe will benefit from diverse views.

From deep resentment to mild appreciation

I grew up really disliking the incumbent party and their policies. I’m convinced that if there was an easier way to end up own life I would not be alive today. I disliked the whole success narrative, I still get nightmares about taking exams, and till now I have not recovered the self-worth I have never gotten because this society is so focused on material success. For me, the successful life they have painted – was not worth living and is still not. What is the meaning behind chasing grades and status our entire lives, getting a superficial sense of happiness from bragging rights? Isn’t that a pathetic way to live, to feel worthy only if other people decide so? That a life is only valuable if one is productive in terms of economics?

So when the opportunity came to move to the US I went after it as though my life depended on it. My life did depend on it. Prior to moving to the US I was having another long intense suicidal ideation phase. I am also still convinced that I wouldn’t be alive today if I couldn’t move.

In San Francisco (cannot speak for other places) I found the only place where I felt like I belonged. People appreciated the fact that I didn’t have a conventional background, and my skills were highly in demand. It was the first time in my life I wasn’t treated like some pariah. For the entire time I was there, I lived with both fear and joy because I was deeply afraid I would lose my visa status and I would have to return to a country who made me chronically suicidal.

However, life for me tends to have dramatic turns. I have written in multiple posts why I chose to return so I will not rehash it. When I returned I mentally expected to be in a chronic state of unhappiness, but surprisingly I gradually learned to appreciate being here.

The irony is that I can only appreciate my life here because I had the chance to live elsewhere. Not everyone reacts the same way I do, some people leave and they never want to return (why would anyone want to return to a place that causes so much trauma), just like my younger self. It depends on what a person needs and wants out of their life.

On healthcare

For starters, I was struggling with chronic health issues. I very much appreciate the state of healthcare here. In Singapore I could see a private doctor without having private insurance without fearing for my life. It would have been impossible to live in the US as a sick, unemployed person even as a citizen. It is not easy dealing with health issues even as an employed person. So I appreciate our healthcare policies, our robust enough public healthcare system, that I can use my Medisave to pay for a hospitalisation plan if anything went wrong.

Embarrassingly, that was the first time in my life I learned that psychological safety is very much tied to financial safety. It is not about having enough money to retire, but rather to not live in fear that an unlucky life event will drive you to bankruptcy. I can live with having to work in low-wage jobs for the rest of my life because of my chronic ill health, but I cannot live in a country that will make me fear going to the doctor.

This alone gave me the time and space to focus on getting better.

On housing

One of the things that gave me a lot of stress before I moved to the US was the high rent I had to pay in Singapore because I moved out from my parents’. When I moved back I turned 35, so I was so glad that I could apply for a 2-room BTO flat under the single Singapore Citizen scheme. It was affordable enough so I could probably afford it with a part time job if my health didn’t allow me to return to the workforce full-time. Unexpectedly I met my partner who is a year older, so when our relationship became stable we could buy a public flat in the resale market under the Joint Singles scheme. We could both afford the flat because of the CPF scheme.

Because I lived in the US, I didn’t have any illusions about how having a public flat is an investible asset that would make me prosper with time. I just wanted an affordable roof over my head. So I see the our public flat schemes as what Americans call rent control. Being able to “buy” or legally lease a HDB flat for 99 years is a way to have an affordable fixed cost of living. This is something that is close to impossible in the US.

When I first got back I wanted to learn more about what I used to dislike so much, so I started reading books on our founding Prime Minister and also other civil servants. I actually cried a lot while reading those books. I didn’t know why we have trees everywhere in Singapore, something I took so much for granted until I started living in the US. I also didn’t know what our civil servants had to go through during times when Singapore was the pariah country in Asia. I’m not sure if they teach this in history classes these days, but I hope they do. Because in my time what I got was this boring narrative about a fishing village and Sir Stamford Raffles, not some outrageous story about how our civil servants had to pretend to have things we didn’t have, to convince investors to take a chance on Singapore.

I started to understand why we had the policies we did. Why our public education system had to be so suffocating. I didn’t understand the existential threat we faced and still face when I was much younger.

Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing but it helps to bridge

Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing. Decisions are also made on a spectrum, they are not binary. It is easy to look back and say we could have made better choices as a country when we are now the beneficiary of our economic success. There is no alternate timeline so we’ll never know if we could have been otherwise, but at the very least I understood why certain decisions were made. Perhaps I still don’t agree with some of them, but at least I don’t think they were made with no practical basis.

Now that I am almost 40, I am a beneficiary of many policies made by the government. Our needs and concerns change as we age. I like that CPF exists. Without CPF I’m not sure if I would be able to buy our place back then. I think and plan for my old age and I appreciate the 4% interest rate in our retirement accounts.

Appreciation does not equate to accepting status quo

It is also only as I grew older that I learned we can like and dislike something at the same time. That the incumbent party can do a lot of things right and also make mistakes. I resent and appreciate it at the same time. There are some issues that I think the country should do better on, not just because it is the right thing to do, but rather I believe it will benefit us in the long run:

Sensitivity to racial issues

When someone tell you they have been hurt throughout their life, it reflects a lot on us if we tell them they are wrong and they are imagining things, without even trying to understand why they feel that way in the first place. Why are we so triggered every time we discuss majority privilege? The problem I see is the general populace here doesn’t understand the dynamics of power and privilege. We think just because we suffer too, it cannot be true when other people tell us they are suffering more.

I hope we will gradually address this issue because it will only benefit the entire country if minorities are not held back unnecessarily. Pretending it doesn’t exist or that we “import” these ideologies (seriously wtf) will only increase the divide and will produce systemic repercussions.

Growing inequality

I am not an economist, so I will not pretend I have the answers, but I do think more work can be done here. Whenever we debate about social welfare inevitably the question is where the money is going to come from. It seems like some economists believe we can afford to provide stronger welfare nets. Again the solution is not binary – possible or not. I hope we’ll make the math work. I feel like a repeating record, but addressing inequality is not just about justice per se, but rather enabling the potential we have as a nation. Less financial stress improves health and other life outcomes, it is win-win for everyone if we are willing to redistribute the wealth more evenly.

Improvement in housing policies

I hope we can find a balance between having enough housing and supporting people who do not fit in traditional moulds, such as single parents or younger adults. Many people do not know what it takes to manage a household (or actually, themselves) until they are married or when they reach 35 because they live with their parents. This is not ideal for enabling the development of maturity and independence and could cause further issues down the road. Perhaps a good midway step is to allow unmarried adults to buy on the resale market if they wish to. This still gives priority to families (although I don’t personally agree with this but for the sake of being realistic about how society works here) for subsidised new housing.

Education system and mental health

Everyday on reddit I see people writing posts like “I cannot take it anymore” or “I am seriously depressed please help me”. I feel like in my time things were already bad enough to drive me to contemplate suicide as a kid, it feels like things are both worse and better for kids these days. There are definitely more study/career options, yet it also seems like they are expected to cope with more demands. There are some right steps being taken, like abolishing ranking and mid-year exams. I do hope apart from policy decisions the culture will gradually change to accept more diversity in how people can develop or make life choices. Not everyone wants or needs material success, and that should be accepted.

I also wish to see less focus on STEM and ideally incorporating subjects like systems thinking, philosophy, financial literacy and mental healthcare into the curriculum at a younger age. Being good at science and math doesn’t make you become a better human being, you know?

I personally believe the reason why people are participating in gutter politics is because we are not taught to think and participate politically. People can only express what they know and what they experience. I think this is the outcome of our narrow education system and the government is dealing with the seeds they sowed.

Diversity in society and politics

I feel cautiously optimistic when our prime minister offered to make the leader of Workers’ Party the official Leader of the Opposition, promising to send resources and staff to support him. I didn’t see this coming because I’m so used to witnessing ungraceful behaviour.

I think it is better for Singapore as a whole if our political system matures. Having a one-party system may have worked well in our infancy as a country, but as we develop we should build the necessary infrastructure for diversity to flourish, instead of being afraid of it.

I think the world has been built on a myth that a monolithic culture thrives better, but taking a lesson from nature, it is diversity that will make an ecosystem flourish. It is when different ideas come together in connection that we experience creative breakthroughs. When we keep reusing the same ideas over and over again because it historically worked, we fail to consider the potential that may come from reconsidering the world in an entirely new angle.

nature thrives with diversity (artwork by @launshae)

I don’t pretend to know better, and I can only express the view of someone with a very specific lived experience. But that is the beauty of diversity, that we do not and cannot experience life the same way as the next person. If people don’t express their unique views, society will just have the assumption that we are all the same, and policies will be made based on this false assumption. This has real consequences on people’s quality of life.

I hope the next time when someone tells us their life is different from ours, that their lived experiences challenges our perception of reality, we can at the very least take the time and space to ask, why?


the long view: note-taking and becoming a person

The other day I was reading a book on “How to Take Smart Notes“, what I was really fascinated with wasn’t the note taking system itself, but the story about the person who was famous for using the system: Niklas Luhmann. He was a sociologist who wrote 58 books in his lifetime, and he credited his prolificity to his robust note-taking system (with 90,000 index cards), “zettelkasten“. Once he was asked what his main research was and how long would he take, and his reply was:

“My project: theory of society. Duration: 30 years. Costs: zero” (Luhmann, 1997, 11)”

How to take smart notes

Can you imagine asking anyone these days how long their project would take, and how your response would be if they reply, “30 years”? We would be shocked if they said something like 3 years.

When I started architecting this website I knew I wanted towards something that would last a very long time. The growth of this website is nowhere near linear, as I frequently take long breaks due to health reasons, or I take a necessary detour like what I’m doing now with Roam Research, or I go on long reading sprees trying to fill up the gaps in my knowledge. The past few weeks I’ve just been processing a ton of notes in Roam, and it made me feel that I was neglecting this website. What I’m doing is building the scaffolding I need for the content I want to produce: I need a quick and easy way to surface connections between things I’ve read. Luhmann wrote a theory of society, and I wish to write a theory of a person, even if that theory only applies to myself.

The story of Luhmann investing years on a system made me remember the time I turned 30, I told people that I want to take my entire 30s as an incubation period so that I can become the 40 year old I wish to be. We talk about 5 year plans in terms of careers and businesses, but we don’t talk about long-term views in personal development.

The way I spent my 30s wasn’t the way my 30 year old self imagined to be. I thought I would get rid of whatever shackles I had in my 10s and 20s (which I felt I had wasted) and become a successful person, whatever success meant to me at that point in time. It turned out I reached my original goal much earlier than expected, and it promptly drove me into an existential crisis. As a 30 year old, I only knew what it meant to be successful externally and that was what I pursued. External success, is a very insecure and fleeting experience, and it made me think if this is all there is?

I was always insecure and anxious, always seeking for approval and validation. I had no stable sense of self, and minor traumatic events would send me into deep depression. It didn’t matter what I achieved professionally, or how many people told me how good my work was. I felt empty, fragile and exhausted. I felt like I had to keep up that relentless pursuit just so I can be continually validated so I can continually exist.

Thankfully my 35 year old self, probably on the verge of a serious breakdown, decided that my existence wasn’t sustainable and decided to call it quits.

I’m turning 40 next year. The world is a mess, a huge cesspool of suffering and I think we’re on the brink of a major political disaster at any given moment. But I’ve come a long way on a personal level. Yes, I’m still chronically sick, anxious and insecure, I threw my career into a garbage can and if not for Covid19 I’ll be delivering food, but I no longer feel like I’m a walking imploding tornado.

I’ve transitioned into doing things that are meaningful to me personally, and I’m developing the courage to nurture this sense of doing into something that sparks deep fulfilment to my life. To even have the idea that this is something that can be developed and nurtured, is a huge step for me. There is also this on-going effort to develop the willingness to endure frustration and ambiguity when solutions and completeness is not in sight that is signature for any long-term undertaking.

I have a private document that lists my ongoing anxieties, and from time to time I refer to it. Plenty of things that used to make me anxious no longer has the same power over me. You know how the brain is a sponge and how we can internalise people’s criticisms? It turns out the same mechanism is also effective at internalising values we keep reaffirming to ourselves. Maybe talking to ourselves in the mirror works after all – I don’t talk to myself in the mirror, but I talk to myself a lot in my journals.

When we write resolutions they tend to be pretty short-term. I think it is meaningful to contemplate the kind of persons we want to be in decade jumps. Becoming is slow, and it needs time. We don’t give ourselves time, and so we don’t give people time. Yes, life is short and unpredictable, I could be dead tomorrow much less achieve my dreams of becoming a 50 year old I can respect, but the paradox is nurturing anything meaningful, sustainable and deep doesn’t take place at a frenetic pace. We talk about long-term responsibility to the natural eco-system and to society, but my suspicion is that till we learn to undertake long-term responsibility for ourselves, we will not be in the position to undertake that on a societal level.

One of the most important things I’m trying to do is to learn how to take better care of myself so I can bear the grief I know that will come. To be capable of bearing grief one has to learn how to cherish the present so there is no regret of letting what is important simply pass us by, to learn how to cherish the present means nurturing the capacity to be present. The capacity to be present is developed by truly listening to our needs. Society has always preached that we need to put the greater whole above the individual, but I dare say that without knowing our own wholes, without learning to love our whole selves wholly, we will always be subconsciously driven by our personal needs and yet never learning to satiate them truly – we can’t be thinking of the greater whole or the other when we each feel perpetually deprived and untended to.

We can only stop chasing unnecessary things and learn to be still here, if we learn how to properly tend to our needs.

I know I am not there yet. I’m always anxious and still constantly seeking to be soothed in unhealthy ways. But I think the work I’ve put in for the past five years has nudged the needle considerably. Yet without the first half of my 30s giving me the opportunity to know what external success feels like, perhaps I wouldn’t have known that is not how I wish to live my life.

I feel like I’m constantly loosening the invisible chains on myself with every year that goes by. I think the gift of working on ourselves is emotional freedom, and it is emotional freedom that gifts one creative freedom. There has to be a sustainable, steady force propelling us through a 30-year project, and we cannot let our psychological baggage be dead weight in that long, possibly arduous journey.

In parallel is the long process of taking notes and processing them. It feels like a lot of tedious work. I did just one book and I was like, how am I going to do this for the hundreds of books I’ve read?

I think about the 20,000+ word post I wrote in 2015, how I meticulously manually included my book highlights, social media posts and writing, how I tagged them – how much value I derived and still derive out of it. I still get shivers looking at that post. Perhaps one day I’ll create a meta-commentary on that post with the benefit on hindsight, five years on.

The notes I take, gradually becomes me. When I revisit them, that part of me is reinforced. When I forget them, that part of me is forgotten too.

I believe the processing of the notes and the slow evolution of this website will hit a tipping point and become tremendously valuable to the work I am trying to do and the person I’m trying to become.

illustration on notes becoming a person
art by launshae

I guess this is yet another longwinded post to say, there is unquantifiable value in long, labourious processes. I am still chronically passively suicidal, but perhaps one day I may bring myself to say the same of life itself.

P.S. I know I have had incredible luck and privilege to get to where I wanted and decide that it wasn’t where I wish to stay. I think part of not wasting that privilege is taking the time I’m given to understand who I am, what I’m capable of, and learning what is the best way to live it out. I know the fire is burning, but the person I am now is not capable of doing anything about it. Apart from dealing with chronic health issues, I’m aware my worldview needs to be way wider and I’m also always unconsciously projecting my suffering onto people. I would like to at least do no harm, and try to become a more whole person first.

on processing books for kindling

Out of four weeks of a month if I am lucky I’m relatively well for two, and sick for the other two. I have tried to incorporate a daily routine for years but failed, because my body doesn’t behave the same way everyday. Only now I am learning to live according to the mini seasons of my body. The last two weeks were rough for me as I struggled with PMS related chronic fatigue, and I am only beginning to get better again.

Trying to write honestly on this public journal is also a constant struggle, especially with what is happening around the world these days. It seems unfair that I am here writing in relative safety while people are out there either dying due to injustice or fighting for it. But I know if I get caught up in activism I won’t be able to survive the grief and fatigue that comes along with it. To survive, I have to carve a little bubble around me for as long as I can. The price to pay is the existential guilt that I carry around with me everyday.

When I feel well enough these days I do this thing where I would “process” the books that have changed my life. I am using Roam Research to input the raw highlights of the books manually, then I’ll try to synthesise some of those highlights into key learning points. I did this for one of the most important books in my life, “A General Theory of Love” recently:

We can expand one of those points and see the supporting highlights referenced from the book:

The ultimate goal is still to import these synthesised learnings into this website’s library, but Roam allows me to process highlights and see/make connections between them a lot quicker. There are a ton of youtube videos on Roam’s features so I will not go into them for now.

I want to remind myself to always be willing to experiment, so in that spirit I quickly made mobile-friendly screen captures of the above and collated them into Instagram stories. It is now pinned as a highlight on my profile if you would like to take a look. In my past life as a designer I was obsessed with tappable stories, and seven years later I guess I still am. Even though I’m just tapping through a bunch of raw screenshots, there is really something about that format versus a lengthy essay-like book review.

I felt very self-conscious posting these on Instagram, because I have this idea that people want to see happy pictures, not summarised learnings on trauma. Imagine being at a party where people are happily talking about what’s beautiful and exciting in their lives, and here I am being a party downer by telling them how deeply a childhood can affect one’s life. There, I just summed up my entire existence.

That self-conscious feeling follows me everywhere I go: on social media where people tweet about their career achievements or activism, and here I am in my corner, publishing about how our psyches can mess up our entire lives. Because I have abandonment issues, no matter where I go or what I do I feel alienated, isolated from what everyone else is doing.

So it has been deeply comforting to me when internet strangers send me messages to tell me that they resonated with what I shared. It is not validation that I seek, but resonance and connection. Sometimes, I would like to feel less alone. I would also like to facilitate the space for others like me to feel less alone.

That’s why I made this website, or why I took the effort to do the very tedious processing of my books. I’m hoping that somewhere out there, someone could save precious time on their self-healing journey if they came across my notes. And I am doing this with the awareness that an effort like this will not be popular or recognised. I know it will just be a handful of people that will find this useful.

Carl Jung once wrote,

“the sole purpose of human existence: to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being”,

and what I’m really trying to do is to kindle a light in my own darkness of being. If along the way the light I’ve kindled for myself happened to light up someone else’s way, that would be enough.

art by launshae

On a metaphysical systemic level, I do personally believe that true sustainable change can only happen when collectively we understand the importance of an individual’s psyche. As long as we keep dismissing people’s pain and our own pain, there will always be vicious cycles of suffering.

I don’t pretend to think that just by sharing a few learnings of books I’ve read I would be doing anything to contribute to the solution, but on a realistic level in this messed up world, even to ease one person’s one moment of suffering – is something I try to take comfort in.