on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

my long, winding, challenging road to healing

In my last few posts I wrote about how I’ve become increasingly more aware of my dysregulated nervous system. Just like the analogy I have used that I don’t expect a person without limbs to run a regular marathon, I have begun to experiment with treating myself as a person who should avoid potential emotional triggers, because I want to give my nervous system a chance to heal.

Most humans are naturally wired to be social – the hypothesis is that being anti-social would result in an early death for us as cave people. Regardless of the cause I believe most people can relate to the pain of rejection. On top of that I have a fear of abandonment, so it has been a continual challenge for me to put myself in situations where I feel alienated or disapproved of.

Strangely despite my fear of abandonment since I was a teenager I have been putting myself in many situations where social alienation is the outcome. I think because of my strong lack of desire to live has caused a strong fear of feeling trapped, so that fear of feeling trapped wins the fear of social disapproval. But I think the hurt that comes from the social disapproval doesn’t go away simply because my desire to feel free is stronger. It just accumulated, making me chronically sad and exhausted.

So for a long time I am caught in a catch-22 situation: focus on myself but risk alienation, or enjoy the safety of being in a group and be sick. Why is focusing on oneself alienating? There are a multitude of complex reasons, but for the sake of this post I will list a few:

  • focusing on oneself is perceived as selfish because we’re conditioned to put the group above oneself (thanks Confucius and other unnamed individuals!)
  • usually whatever that is affecting our health right now is arising from the status quo, so that means having to change the status quo, but many people with emotional dysregulation are addicted to stimuli and the need for approval so it is asking of us to change or leave the very situation that has sustained us in many other ways
  • much of modern societal behaviour is unhealthy, so to not practice such behaviour sometimes requires leaving society for a while, i.e. being a hermit
  • the lack of education and awareness of neuro-psychological disorders creates stigma, people tend to think we are making a big fuss out of nothing, or that it is something we can change by just making a mental decision
  • our sensitivity to suffering makes it difficult to ignore social issues and yet activism can be very triggering and exhausting

I just want to point out there’s many levels of social approval. For example, one could still reject the mainstream and be in a smaller but still highly celebrated peer group such as entrepreneurship. I rejected societal norms in Singapore by dropping out of school and being a freelancer (yeah in my time people frown upon freelancers haha), but I had felt accepted and approved of by the tech community. It was considered cool back then, not many people quit their full-time jobs, not many people wanted to risk their career by working in startups, very few people would choose design as a career here.

When designers became celebrated instead of being seen as pariahs I felt like years of my so-called terrible choices were validated. Nobody would believe me now, but I had to face a ton of obstacles just to be a designer. No one approved of my decision. There was a lot of social stigma. I had zero support except from an ex back then.

I earned very little from the early days of my design career, and being a freelancer only made that slightly better. For almost ten years I was very used to running out of money. Around the ten year mark I started making substantially more, and when I worked in the US I could afford to buy almost anything I wanted.

To throw all of that away, to go back to having to tighten purse strings and to leave the psychological safety and social validation of my career – I don’t have words to describe the shame, fear and insecurity I had felt making that decision. It is a decision I have to continually reaffirm. It was not a clean separation either, I tried to leave ‘halfway’ by trying to work for social causes instead. Then I poured my heart and energy into my interactive experiments. I probably subconsciously wanted to prove that I could still gain peer validation even if I quit my full-time job.

The past few years have been an exercise of letting go. I am still learning to let go. For a person who is so afraid to be abandoned, it has been difficult learning to live with the uncomfortable feelings and the social stigma of not having a career. Emotionally I’m a wreck, but intellectually I know I am doing the right thing for myself. I know if I don’t have the courage to quit the validation addiction, I will remain a slave to it for the rest of my life, I will never have the opportunity to discover what it means to live a life that is something I truly wanted, I will never know if I could ever be healthy.

Progress is difficult to measure when it comes to psychological progress. Like a changelog I had made for this site today, I have a private changelog of ongoing my life challenges. Only upon looking at it once in a while I get to see that despite feeling like I am still as wrecked as before, I am no longer as bothered by situations that used to bother me a lot.

But I go through cycles and seasons. I have spent months in depressed stupor. It takes a huge amount of psychological energy to make life changes and to transform our own psyche. I go through periods of good phases and then one day without reason or warning I slip into depression. The thing is, there is no measure for psychological energy. It can seem like I am doing nothing because I am not physically exerting myself but I am using up all the mental energy and will I have to make better decisions for myself. It is also tricky to expect psychological will from someone who doesn’t even really have the will to live for herself. So whatever reserves I had built up for myself would sooner or later be exhausted, and it would take me a long, unspecified time to recover.

I measure my recovery by how interested I am in things I am supposedly interested in. When I am in a phase of depression, I have interest in nothing. Not even this website. So when I am on the brink of recovery I would start working on the site again, and I would do things that I would do when I am actually interested in myself: journalling, eating better, exercising, tracking habits.

Recovery is not guaranteed or part of a natural outcome. I am not really sure of how and why it happens, but I hypothesise that it is a combination of:

  • having a very tiny flicker of life-force emerging again
  • being mindful of and isolating myself from triggers
  • quality of the recovery phase, as in trying to really let myself recover instead of being hard on myself
  • having another type of exhaustion occur: the exhaustion of feeling shitty everyday, so there is some desire to feel a little better but doing some intervention activity, like going for a run

A long while I go I drew this graph:

healthy cycles

as opposed to this one:

burnout yet again

I have yet to learn how to exist in a cycle like the earlier graph. Instead I am hoping the spikes become gentler, the despair phase shorter, and also the recovery time easier:

I guess on a meta level we could see how much difference the years have made to me by the visual quality of the graphs. I am a lot less vain now. Still vain, but less.

I am still figuring out what is enough. I tend to swing in extremes, so I always go from living a very unhealthy lifestyle to an extremely healthy one. I am currently experimenting with how much recovery time to give my body in between bouts of exercises, and how to eat moderately because being strict on my diets lead to unhealthy eating. I have struggled with boundaries and moderation my entire life, so I feel like a baby learning to crawl again.

To heal from emotional dysregulation requires time, patience, a ton of repetition and courage to leave potentially triggering but rewarding situations. The challenge is that a dysregulated nervous system makes it difficult to be patient, so the trick as I intellectually know is to treat it like how physical exercise works: stress it a little to build endurance, but not too much, rinse and repeat until the endurance slowly builds up. The key is to have a sense of agency in terms of how much and when is the exposure to stress. This is unfortunately almost impossible to do for most people which makes me really sad, because not allowing people the space to heal perpetuates cycles of pain and violence.

But for now I am in a position to carve this space for myself, and I hope to document my journey for other people in similar situations. Having space opening up doesn’t equate to automagic healing because we have internalised unhealthy behaviours so deeply that acting against these behaviours induce guilt and shame. I would have loved to read someone’s log of their journey when I first started out, it would probably cut short a lot of my confusion and grief, and even if it didn’t because for some reason I needed to experience these for myself, it would have still made it easier because I would have felt less alone.

sometimes the best one can do is to step away

I think that many people who suffered some form of oppression before will feel an extra sense of responsibility towards working for justice, because there is both a sensitivity and projection of what it feels like to be disempowered. I believe people with privilege has a responsibility towards underprivileged people. This was one of my favourite quotes:

“The Moneyball story has practical implications. If you use better data, you can find better values. There are always market inefficiencies to exploit and so on. But to me, it has a broader and less practical message: Don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck. And with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”

– Michael Lewis

I considered myself to be very lucky. After all, I don’t have to work to take care of family, I was fed relatively well my entire life, I mostly didn’t have to worry about paying for school. I am gay and yet nobody bullied me for it, I was not chased out of my family home. I didn’t go to college yet I had built a relatively successful career, and I had even gotten a coveted H1-B visa to work in the US. I had felt it was my obligation to pay it forward.

So I tried to make a difference in my work, paid or not. I volunteered, I worked in places with social causes, I tried to work on meaningful civic projects with friends. But as many of you have already known this familiar storyline: I kept burning out, and I kept falling sick.

For a long time I was mystified. They keep saying if you find meaningful work you will not burn out. If you enjoy your work you will not burn out. But only upon many years of self-investigation I realised what I had was a lot of circumstantial privilege and luck, but what I lacked was something a lot more obscure, subtle, misunderstood: a healthy psyche and body.

Because I had felt my obligation to pay it forward so deeply, I overworked myself, emotional blackmailed myself, guilt-tripped myself, verbally abused myself. I was never good enough for myself, I was never doing enough. I was weak. I couldn’t be like my friends who held successful jobs or businesses and still had multiple side projects. Every time I read about someone who launched a wonderful side project despite having full-time work I felt bad about myself. I thought I was lazy, like people had said about me when I was young.

Obviously, whatever unhealthy psyche I had was made worse by how I treated myself. This mindset is also reinforced by peers, and for a long time hustling and having no sleep was considered not just virtues, but necessities (thank you science for proving otherwise). Then there is this whole Singaporean conditioning in place.

There is this belief that it is worthwhile to work ourselves to our deaths for the outcome, especially when it is concerning social justice. But again, what we do not know enough of, is the subtle and obscure effects our unhealthy psyche and habits have on the people around us, and worse, the people who look up to us and see us an examples of a good life to lead. We don’t see how our sleep-deprived, suffering minds impact the decisions of our projects, because these effects could be long-tail, or require dedicated work to excavate. We are only good at measuring short-term effects with the metrics we know. We may not know how much stress we are putting on our colleagues or family. We measure the number of lives impacted, obviously five people suffering is a worthwhile sacrifice if five thousand people can be helped, right? We don’t see how some of our unhealthy internalised beliefs may creep into the design of our projects. Let’s make marginalised people upgrade themselves and work harder!

But over the years I have witnessed how people with healthier psyches respond to challenges, and I came to a very painful point of acceptance that I may be more of a hindrance than help. At first I blamed it on my in-born character, that I was simply born fragile, then I learned about why I am the way I am. Even though I have been a mental health advocate for years and I had known since the beginning of my awareness that I was chronically depressed that mental illnesses were very much physical illnesses, I still got very upset when people insinuated that my illnesses were imagined into being. Both of my being and my work requires me to convince people to update their belief system, to open up their minds to new research and ideas. However, the act of explaining and swaying would exhaust and upset me to no end. Again, I blamed my character.

I learned about emotional dysregulation and c-ptsd over the past couple of years, and it dawned upon me finally that my adverse reaction to having to explain or defend myself or my ideas triggered a very deeply set pain. The author of “Complex PTSD” named them emotional flashbacks. Instead of a normal memory flashback when we would recall a vivid memory in our minds’ eye, emotional flashbacks are the body’s recall of the emotions felt in the past. So we have these very upsetting feelings happening again and again whenever there is a trigger, but we may not have conscious awareness that these feelings were tied to actual events in the past, since there may not be a visual memory attached to them.

“Emotional flashbacks are also accompanied by intense arousals of the fight/flight instinct, along with hyperarousal of the sympathetic nervous system, the half of the nervous system that controls arousal and activation. When fear is the dominant emotion in a flashback the person feels extremely anxious, panicky or even suicidal. When despair predominates, a sense of profound numbness, paralysis and desperation to hide may occur. A sense of feeling small, young, fragile, powerless and helpless is also commonly experienced in an emotional flashback, and all symptoms are typically overlaid with humiliating and crushing toxic shame.”

Pete Walker, Complex PTSD

I get very distressed when I encounter conflict because it reminds me of times during my childhood when I had to explain or defend myself desperately due to criticism, getting put down, or getting shut down. The sense of powerlessness I had felt. The feeling of not only being unloved, but of not being worthy to deserve love. The shame. The harshness and the cold. The loneliness. That I had nobody to turn to, no place where I can feel safe. That my existence is only a burden, if only I could be like other kids. The feelings of struggle because I was unable to cope, to meet expectations, and yet all I had gotten was labelling: lazy, a disappointment, a troublemaker, a rebel.

(My thoughts and feelings towards this are complex, especially after learning how little of our conscious minds and behaviour we can actually control especially without the help of therapy or healthy role models, and also the impact of intergenerational trauma on our DNA and physiology. I blame it on the system, on circumstances, on luck – the luck to be born in a family with less historical psychological baggage, or to have family who had the tools to transcend their programming, some people found loving mentors – a lot less so on the individuals.)

Each time I get into a conflict – it doesn’t matter what is the topic – just the act of having to explain or defend provokes my body into a chain of stress reaction. I can feel my face getting flushed, my heart rate spiking, the desire to cry, and this profound desire to not exist. This exacerbates and contributes to my chronic disorders because having stress hormones coursing perpetually through my body will not allow my body to heal.

I guess this is an extremely long-winded way (and probably not long-winded enough to include the actual research and explain the nuances) to say I have finally begun to accept that I simply cannot compare myself to a healthy individual or make myself perform my life the way a healthier person would. I wouldn’t ask of a person without legs to run a marathon, why would I ask of myself with a dysfunctional nervous system to respond the way other people can?

For most of my life I believed conflict avoidance is a bad behaviour, and I should overcome it. So I forced myself to grow a thicker skin. The skin never really grew. I think what happened was a gradual disconnect to my emotions which I think made things worse.

So for now, I try not to get into any interactions that would be potential for conflict. I don’t expect myself to participate in arguments anymore. I don’t wish to explain myself too much if a person cannot understand my position. I still think it is important work to do in this political climate, but that person cannot be me. It is extremely difficult to argue in a meaningful manner when I’m hyperventilating inside and all I feel is that my entire existence is under threat. It also triggers my depression and suicidal tendencies. Being at the brunt of the aggression and contempt that comes with the way some people argue is highly stressful for me as well. It doesn’t matter what my mind intellectually think, the body goes into an automatic response.

This is finally an explanation (for myself) why I have always preferred asynchronous communication, and also why I can broadcast (i.e. write here and tweet) when I am not in a good shape, but I cannot respond to 1:1 interactions. Broadcasting is mostly one-way and I can choose not to respond, but I can’t leave 1:1 conversations midway.

I think I should make space for myself to heal. If I keep expecting myself to behave like a healthy person and keep doing the “right” thing, my body will never know the experience of relaxation my entire life. I would never know if I can heal.

I am finally in a place where I don’t think I need to explain my life decisions or behaviour to anybody. Many people will never understand what it is like to feel chronically tense and unsafe, or to suffer chronic disorders for most of their lives. What it is like to be in so much emotional distress that death seems like an attractive option. To hate oneself so much, to always feel like a burden. I write here in hope that someone out there would know they are not alone in feeling alone, and these are the people I am writing and researching for.

when small is beautiful

I was trying to psych myself up to start cooking instead of eating out (and delivered food) all the time, so I started watching an episode of Chef’s Table. I recommend watching it if you haven’t even if you’re not interested in cooking, because it is above all a documentary series about creativity: the leaps and sacrifices people have to take to pursue what they believe in.

I particularly enjoyed the episode about a Buddhist nun (Vol. 3, ep 1) blowing culinary experts’ tastebuds with her monastic vegan food. I also fondly remember the very first episode where the wife of an Italian chef said something that profoundly impacted me at that point of time: that if we don’t pursue something we really want to, it will continue to haunt us. I don’t watch all the episodes and I take a non-linear approach, choosing whichever ones that appeal to me the most.

The episode I chose to watch this time is on Bo Songvisava, a Thai chef in Bangkok. I chose it because it is close to home and therefore more relatable, plus the fact that she is a woman in a male-dominated industry. When she started to learn to cook Thai food she found out that nobody really knew how to cook Thai food traditionally anymore, and the ingredients used in Thai cooking these days were mass produced stuff like white sugar. So she set out to preserve the traditions in Thai cooking.

It is really interesting (and obvious in hindsight) how preserving traditions overlap a lot with low environmental footprints. She couldn’t find good quality organic ingredients in her local markets. It took a lot of time and effort but slowly she managed to find small-scale organic producers for her restaurant. I was very moved by the scenes of a palm sugar farm, where they had to climb the trees two to three times a day for harvesting because they don’t use pesticide, and the amount of work involved to produce the sugar without machinery.

Sometimes the beautiful thing about human beings is that they seem completely irrational, although depending on how we define as rational. I was very intrigued with the psychological motivations behind these small-scale farmers. They were not hipster farmers but rather people in remote areas choosing to upkeep their traditions. Why did they keep their farms small? Why do they not use machinery and pesticides like everyone else? Why are they okay with earning way less? It is not like they went on a Vipassana retreat or they read Rachel Carson (yes I am aware of how I sound here). When everyone else is obsessed about growth, these people made a conscious choice to preserve their roots, when it would make much more economic sense to follow suit.

Because we have a bunch of people who are going against the mainstream plus a chef who cares about preserving her tradition, we can now taste what Thai food could possibly taste like with quality organic ingredients. We are conditioned to think sugar is sugar but I would love to have a taste of that palm sugar. In Singapore I am not sure how long our traditional hawker culture will last before being taken over by generic bland food courts. When everyone operates from a point of economic incentives, we lose so much of ourselves and damage our environment in the process.

There is something really beautiful about how food gets sourced and made in Bo Songvisava’s kitchen. To see food as not as just a source of sustenance but to treat it with so much respect that in order to cook it we have to treat the way we cultivate the ingredients with the same amount of respect. That respect runs along the entire process from growing the food to serving it on the table, and it shows in the taste. Isn’t it the same for human beings? That if we see ourselves like machines we’ll inevitably treat everything like machines, including the planet we live on which unfortunately is not a machine. The amount of respect we truly have for ourselves shows: just like how we flippantly use environmental resources, we are also flippant in the use of our selves.

I am glad we are living in an age where we are debating whether billionaires should exist and if tech giants should be broken up. We are so addicted to growth that we don’t question what should we be growing, how should we be growing, and what are the costs. Growth is a very easy measure to hang on to, while the more difficult question has always been: why?

on coping with emotional dysregulation

I realised that I have problems regulating stress and my emotions, only sometime in the last couple of years. This reminds me of the time when I told an ex-colleague I may have chronic anxiety – she looked at me with her eyes wide open expressing her surprise that I didn’t know it earlier. In case you didn’t know too, most people don’t spend most of their lives worrying incessantly, neither do they have an impending sense of doom plaguing them. People tend to attribute behaviour with character, and character seems to be perceived as an inborn thing, so I thought being a worrier with my emotions flying all over the place and having a particularly short fuse was my character.

I think it was reading A General Theory of Love that made me learn the concept of emotional regulation. Due to a myriad of factors, some people may not develop the full capacity to regulate their emotions, so they suffer from emotional dysregulation. One of the tell-tale signs is that people like us are unable to calm ourselves down when we are upset, or we go from a zero to ten in response to a trigger. Just like how people develop diabetes from the body’s inability to regulate insulin, the nervous systems of people with emotional dysregulation are unable to regulate the flood of hormones that get triggered due to stressful factors.

What I hypothesise for myself is that I somehow managed to nurture the ability to repress that extreme response in inappropriate situations like work, as in I look unruffled or perhaps just mildly upset, but the meltdown and hormonal reactions take place internally within my psyche and body. After months and years of biting down these reactions, I developed chronic hormonal imbalances which lead to chronic illnesses, on top of burnout and breakdowns.

When one is used to being anxious and stressed all the time, we don’t actually notice it. So for years I was baffled why I kept burning out, kept falling sick, because consciously, I felt fine, thriving even. But unfortunately, age does catch up, the body gradually loses its ability to bounce back and one day, everything falls apart.

Now, I have become more attuned to my body and how it feels, so I have also become a lot more aware when my body is having a stress response. It has become both amusing and disturbing at the same time, because I am capable of observing the reaction and yet there is nothing I can do to stop it. I am more aware of emotional stress than physical and environmental stress, so sometimes it still surprises me when I suffer a relapse due to physical over-exertion. I notice my body is chronically tense and almost nothing except an intense massage can relieve it. It is not just my mind that is unable to relax, my body is in vigilant mode all the time even if I am doing nothing particularly stressful.

I am not very good at taking care of myself yet. I lack the awareness to know when is enough, especially because I was conditioned to believe nothing I do is enough or that I am not trying hard enough. So I tend to push myself to extremes, because I don’t know where is the range of moderation. I still don’t. It is a very slow trial and error, plus reconditioning process.

Sometimes I get really really tired of doing this. This is not something doctors know how to fix, if they take you seriously in the first place. They don’t consider the complex chain of hormonal reactions taking place in the body, they just want to treat the symptom and get over with it. I have been appalled by how doctors are fixated on what they have been taught 30 years ago and how they refuse to consider more recent developments in medical research. If I have migraines, chronic dry eyes, PMS and chronic mental health disorders, I have to see four different specialists, three of whom will simply give me painkillers.

(In case if you wonder why don’t I just take painkillers and get on with life, there was a period when I did take them regularly for my migraines and one day they stopped working, and then nothing else worked, except traditional chinese medicine, thankfully.)

So some days, I feel horribly trapped in this body. It doesn’t matter what other blessings I have in other areas of my life when I feel something stabbing the insides of my eye a few days a month if I am lucky, coupled with two weeks of low energy because of PMS, and everyday out-of-control stress reactions to a multitude of stimuli. Then I feel guilt for feeling this suffering because other people have it worse, and of course people seem to like to remind me of that though gratitude for my circumstances will not make my pain go away. I have internalised this accusation that I’m ungrateful, so I have developed an immense hatred for myself: I am so weak, I should try harder, I am a burden, my suffering is so insignificant.

All of this just makes me want to disappear. Since I am still lucid I do not want to cause suffering for people who care about me I cannot voluntarily end my own life, but to me it is sad that I cannot find other reasons to keep myself alive apart from the feelings of other people. I try to convince myself philosophically, that to know whether life is worth living or not requires me to be alive till the end, and that my current self cannot deprive my future self of the opportunities to know. That I can still be curious to see who I’ll become, even if I remain ambivalent to life for the rest of my life. I tell myself that even though the process is slow, I have become better at managing myself and my life. Some other days the injustice and absurdity of this world overwhelms me, and all my reasoning falls short. I tell myself perhaps the most I can do, is to bear witness, to the suffering of others and myself, to the unfolding, even if it is tragic.

I am contemplating whether to continue publishing this journal. I don’t want to whine at this corner of the internet while people are losing their lives and eyes in trying to protect the life they know. I am also thinking of going completely off social media, to reduce the amount of stimuli that will potentially trigger me. I guess if I can’t disappear off the face of the world, the very least I can do is to disappear off most of it. In parallel I am also curious to see if I can implement the ways of monastic life in my own home. It is not about following religion or rules set by a religious order, but rather making the intentional space for silence and contemplation. I am also wondering if reducing potential triggers as much as possible would give my body the time and space it needs to heal. I will feel guilty for not participating, but at this point I am not sure if my participation is a net positive to the world. I will probably still work on publishing book reviews, my research findings and the personal learning library.

I am not sure yet. I will miss the internet, and you – whoever have been reading my writing for this long. Thank you for making this world a less lonely place for me.

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a contemplation of the effects of stillness while in Slovenia

Being in Slovenia was an accident. I had planned a trip to Rome to see ancient ruins, and I thought why not swing by to visit my ex-colleague and friend, Romina who lives in Ljubljana – which is an hour’s drive away from the border of Italy.

Allow me to sidetrack for a little bit. I remember a conversation with Romina and her friend a few years ago, and they were saying how they had to drive to Austria to go to Ikea. That memory is permanently imprinted in my mind: for a Singaporean it is just so surreal to buy furniture in another country that is less than a two hour drive away. Venice is also two hours away, Milan is five. I took a picturesque, relaxing, six hour train ride from Vienna to Ljubljana. Can you imagine this is their everyday reality? I can’t.

So the original plan was to just stop by Ljubljana for a night or two just to see my friend, and to spend a few nights in Prague instead. But somehow in the process of research I saw pictures of how beautiful Slovenia’s natural landscape was. I wanted to visit Prague because everybody said you had to, and to be honest nobody ever talks about Slovenia, but I pictured us visiting another city with beautiful architecture and history versus a country where so much of the landscape is still unspoiled. This is one of the rare – I hope many more times in future – when I actually became aware of what my spirit wanted. (Here I don’t really mean spirit in the metaphysical sense, but the essence that exists beyond all that conditioning.)

I’ve taken quite a few trips in the past few years (because I am in a race against time), I have to say Slovenia is my favourite so far (Kyoto is a close second). In Slovenia I experienced a sense of stillness and a slowing down of time, as though I was transported into an entirely different dimension:

right in front of our airbnb in Robanov Kot

For those few days I felt like a whole person, instead of a person who has to make herself fit into the ways of a modern, dense, relentless city. We took hikes that ranged from thirty minutes to three hours, at some areas there wasn’t a single human soul for miles except us. We did however, bump into a couple of horses and pigs:

One could get used to this and take it for granted. But having lived my entire life in dense cities (so dense that San Francisco felt like the countryside to me), I felt like I was under a lingering, soothing, shower of gentleness.

I wondered how I can bring this inner experience back with me to Singapore, to retain that stillness within me. Will I quickly snap back into the haste and stress once I am back in the city? Where every corner I turn there is a tall building towering over me, unable to escape from the fumes of vehicles or the perpetual rush of people.

Lake Bohinj

To be fair it is now autumn, when all the summer crowds have long dispersed. Still I appreciated the quality of the space that was available to me. The unique thing about Slovenia is that you can go from a town to a beautiful, quiet hike in a thirty minute drive (in New Zealand I just felt like I was always driving but maybe I am just a fomo bad planner), so I still had the energy to truly enjoy the landscapes. Something that is more subtle is the sense of safety I felt, because the nearest town was always near enough.

I am so glad I chose to leave Prague for another time, spending almost a week in Slovenia instead. I think this experience is going to make me travel differently from now. I would look for more opportunities to experience different dimensions of stillness. I think it was a necessary process to get the fomo out of my system though. We are so conditioned to look for novelty, but now, only now I feel I have the capacity to experience being still for a while.

For a long time I had felt I was allergic to the city state I was born in. When I lived in San Francisco, each time I was back to visit family in Singapore I would get sick. People would laugh at me, saying it was all in my mind – now I know that actually has an element of truth, because the latest scientific research is showing that our psyche has the power to influence our bodies. But can anyone draw the line between what is considered our psyche, our brain, our nervous system and the physical body?

The latest Apple Watch OS has a noise app, because “Repeated, long-term exposure to sounds above 80 decibels can lead to permanent damage.”. People get heart disease and hypertension from noise exposure. We tend to notice only the extremes. Wikipedia lists a normal conversation at 60 dB. If chronic exposure to 80 dB can cause permanent damage, what is the effect of being surrounded by noise in the 40 dB – 60 dB range almost every single waking minute of your life?

“People living in cities are regularly exposed (against their will) to noise above 85 decibels from sources like traffic, subways, industrial activity, and airports. That’s enough to cause significant hearing loss over time. If you have an hour-long commute at such sound levels, your hearing has probably already been affected. Urban life also sustains average background noise levels of 60 decibels, which is loud enough to raise one’s blood pressure and heart rate, and cause stress, loss of concentration, and loss of sleep.”

– “City Noise Might Be Making You Sick”, The Atlantic

We are like sponges and mirrors. We now know that infants’ stress levels and heart rates are regulated by their caregivers:

“Prolonged separations even can be fatal to an immature nervous system, as vital rhythms of heart rate and respiration devolve into chaos. Sudden infant death is increased fourfold in the babies of mothers who are depressed—because without emotional shelter, infants die. The heart rhythms of securely attached babies are steadier than those with insecure relationships, just as the breathing teddy bear regularizes the respiration of premature infants. Synchronicity with parents (or, in a pinch, with another reliable rhythmic source) becomes the baby’s developing physiologic strength.”

– A General Theory of Love

I wouldn’t be surprised if science one day proves (it is probably out there already) that our nervous system responds unconsciously to the state of the people around us. We get stressed in a room full of stressed people, and we automatically relax when we are around calm people. This is not some new age thing, but a natural consequence of us being social creatures and having mirror neurons.

I am not sure what the future holds for us in context to climate change, but if we do survive it somehow, I remain optimistic that in time to come, we will learn to design societies and environments that will factor in what makes a human being truly thrive. It is not because it is moral or that it is the humane thing to do, but the logical consequence that healthy, thriving human beings will create healthy, thriving, societies. It is a little sad that in this time and age it still feels like an argument we have to make, but I think the leaders in power now are not exposed to this model of thinking (I guess all they learned was Darwin and Adam Smith).

Since quitting my last full-time job four years ago I have been wanting to live differently. I think I have made a lot of progress and have grown a lot in terms of being aware of my unconscious loops and behaviour, but very often even till now I have found myself repeating these unconscious loops in other areas of my life. I am too fixed in certain ways of being, largely influenced by my upbringing in a dense city. This trip made me contemplate how I have to be very intentional about how I want to live, the extra effort it really takes to be in a different mode. Stillness doesn’t come easy, it has to be actively pursued (yes I am aware of the irony of this sentence). I will have to be creative how I can intentionally envelope myself in stillness when I am back home in Singapore.

Note: following this line of thought I may periodically take sabbaticals from social media though I will regularly update this journal, so sign up for my tinyletter if you would like to be notified of updates.


Travelling – apart from the sheer experience – nudges me to expand the boundaries of my mind in perceiving the world. Today we visited the Hundertwasser Musuem, which prior to visiting I am almost embarrassed to say I had no idea who Hundertwasser was. I had no idea who Gaudi was too, before visiting Barcelona a few years ago. I blame it on the “pragmatic” upbringing I had as a 1980s Singaporean child, where poetry and art were viewed as a luxury (I am not sure if things have changed much).

Hundertwasser Musuem

Photography is not allowed in the museum, so I can only write about what I’ve seen and learned. Hundertwasser was an advocate for living in harmony with nature: he believed in having trees as co-tenants (thats why you see plenty of trees poking out of the windows of his buildings), that straight lines would lead to the downfall of humanity, hence he designed his buildings with curves and uneven floors:

“If a man is forced to walk on flat floors as they were planned thoughtlessly in designers’ offices, estranged from man’s age old relationship and contact to earth – a decisive part of man withers and dies. This has catastrophic consequences for the soul, the equilibrium, the well being and the health of man. Man’s ability to experience ceases and he becomes disabled, mentally and organically…The uneven floor becomes a symphony, a melody for the feet and brings back natural vibrations to man. Architecture should elevate and not subdue man.”

– Hundertwasser
Hundertwasser House

Later on, looking at an architectural model of a beautiful daycare center he designed, he proclaims:

“Nature and art are a unity, they are both creation, but we have disunited them. Our true illiteracy is not the inability to read and write, but the inability to be creative. Especially in architecture for young people…Rectilinear, ice-cold repression of the children’s soul and the suppression of growing creativity has been practiced for years. Simply by the aggressive, levelling architecture in which our youth have to spend the most important years of their life…In Heddernheim the young people will be in a permanent, animating, positive contact with nature, beauty and creativity…They will communicate to other people the beauty and harmony they witnessed and spread the message to the world.”

– Hundertwasser

If you know me personally, it would be easy to guess why I appreciated his philosophy. I still have nightmares from my school years, almost two decades after leaving the system. As a former designer I had found it easy enough to solve design problems, but till today I have issues expressing my creative self spontaneously and freely. My partner commented that his art was brave, because they look like children paintings and she wondered if that would be criticised by his peers since it was an age where they were still obsessed with technical prowess. My response: it is extremely difficult to paint like a child.

Green Town (credit)

His statements about straight lines and industrialised architecture seems to be very provocative and exaggerated at first, but upon contemplation I think it is safe to say that our desire for order in the easiest, fastest, way possible has created unintended profound consequences.

We now know how to make ourselves fit neatly in squares and rectangles, even if that meant cutting parts of ourselves because they stuck out.

I do think that architects these days think more holistically and ecologically in their designs. But the Hundertwasser musuem provoked me into wondering how much of the world would have been different if we thought more deeply about: our relationship to the world, what it means to be human, how to preserve and honour our inherent creative gifts – when it comes to designing our systems and environment.

And yet we insist on seeing ourselves as an utility.

a tiny blip is perhaps still a blip

Rome was such a surreal experience. Surrounded by ruins that are 2,000 years old, I am filled with awe, wonder, curiousity, and yet in lying in the background was an unshakable sense of impermanence. 2000 years later, we can only form hypotheses of what had actually happened, and what was once so painstakingly built and glorious is now very beautiful rubble.

Today I woke up with a depressive claustrophobia, a pervasive feeling I often have – that I am trapped in my life, my body, and my mind. I used to spiral hopelessly into the depths of these feelings and they would render me handicapped. I would be unable to surface out of these feelings, and I would feel like I am drowning in an unending ocean of sadness and bleakness. These days, I still spiral, but on the side I am observing myself with almost cruel humour, wondering why do I give so much power to my feelings, why are mere bodily sensations capable of such control over my life?

I think about how we are a species and a civilisation run on feelings: pride, self-importance, saviour complexes, grudges, vengeances, the desire for validation, control, comfort and pleasure, etc. How much of our history is played out a certain way because of someone’s feelings?

I find it interesting to juxtapose the vividness, the seeming importance of my feelings right at this very moment against a place that has contained the passing of 2,000 years. There were probably once dreams, ambitions, broken hearts, courage, bitterness held by the people who lived here 2,000 years ago, and now there are virtually no traces. Nobody remembers who they are, unless their name happens to be Julius Caesar, nobody cares how much or how little they have felt. I bet nobody really cares about Caesar too.

Everything is just a blip in the ruthless passage of time – that is if we actually believe in time although quantum physicists would argue otherwise – we could see that nothing really matters or we could argue that a tiny blip is still a blip. My current view – subject to evolution – is that to live a sustainable, healthy, meaningful life, one has to know when to zoom out and when to embrace the tiny moments. That life is full of paradoxes, such as even if nothing really matters in the grand scheme of things, the fact that we are choosing to believe we matter, the fact that we somehow still care, that is something worthwhile to think about. Nothing in this world points to the fact that we matter (unless you are religious but I am not) or that we have to care for the other. I complain a lot that as a species human beings are both suicidal and homicidal, but to endeavour to care for the greater good, that there are some of us who wish to care for all sentient beings, that is something that is uniquely human (for now).

Another paradox: in what we know about human psychology, we need to learn how to care about our feelings before we can truly let them go. A sign of an imbalanced psyche is obsession, like my obsessive ruminating sadness. It is not something that I can control, but the more I ignore my feelings, the more they haunt me. In relation to my earlier point, because we are ruled so much by our emotions, I think true freedom in life is emotional freedom: the ability to choose what are the feelings we want to have, which are the ones we have to let go of, or to just co-exist with them without letting them consume us. Imagine what life can be without our invisible chains…to not blindly pursue something simply because we were conditioned to, but to really learn how we truly wish to exist for that tiny blip in an infinite, possibly inherently meaningless universe. Some people choose to believe the meaning of life is what we choose to give it meaning, but in reality, how many of us have the capacity to do so (that is not profoundly influenced by conditioning or limited by circumstances)?

Can I give them a piece of me?

[tw: depression] I was telling my partner a few days ago that if I could, I would divide myself into ten pieces and give them to anybody who wants it: my privilege, my life span, whatever assets I do have, my functioning organs, etc. If I could do this without making anybody feel pain, I would.

I just don’t enjoy life very much. That’s why I get triggered when someone says innocuously that I seem to be enjoying my life because they saw the photos I post. I post pictures publicly because I want to share whatever beauty I do experience, but that doesn’t mean beyond those photos I am enjoying life.

Life feels like a long drag to me. Sometimes I am really tired of trying to do so much just to be functioning. I am constantly exhausted and sad. But I try to be otherwise for the people around me, because I don’t want to cause any suffering to them. The better my life gets (better in terms of how the world measure better), the more guilt and weight I experience, because it makes me feel tremendously bad that some stranger out there will never get the same opportunities I have had, and yet it feels I’m squandering everything. Telling me I have it better than many other people makes me feel worse.

I have the most wonderful thing I can have in this world. The love of my partner. But it doesn’t make me feel less exhausted or sad. She cannot take away whatever that is so deeply etched into my body and soul. But she softens the edges, and I appreciate her witnessing. Because she is the only person who sees everything I have been through – beyond the smiles other people see on my face.

My life is a lifelong explanation. I am constantly explaining: yes I know I have a lot compared to other people, no I cannot think away my depression, do you know depression is a neurological disease, no I did not imagine my migraines, yes I quit my very promising career because it was slowly killing me, no I am not lazy my brain has problems with dopamine, no I am not travelling because I enjoy life, I am travelling to distract myself from my pain, to convince myself there is beauty, yes I know I am loved, sorry knowing I am loved is not enough to make me want to live, sorry I am just so incapable of living, yes I know people are suffering so much elsewhere it makes me so sad and here I am wallowing – can I give them a piece of me?

I try to keep my head above the water. I do not wish to contribute to more suffering in this world, so I try to keep myself alive. I don’t want to make people feel sad by letting them see my sadness, so I laugh, and I smile. I keep my answers superficial, to keep my own weight from weighing down others. I just get so tired sometimes.

I can only fully exist with her, and here. I guess that is more than I can ask for, in a world like this.

the weight of my footprints

It was very intentional when I named this space a public journal. I was hoping that the word journal would inherently mean that the writing here is transitionary and unedited – I mean who edits their journal? The word journal means “daily” in Old French, which even though I didn’t know this till now, I wanted to be able to post more frequently than the current once per week frequency.

It is not that I don’t have enough to write. Maybe because of the nature of my self, my writing has centered around topics like the meaning of existence, personal suffering and the expression of my heavy thoughts. Everytime I start a new piece I feel like I have to make Some Great Point. But plenty of times I just want to write, just for the sheer pleasure of it or simply for the desire the express what goes on in my inner world, no matter how incoherent, no matter how insignificant the details are to the audience.

I used to be a lot more afraid of what people think of me – in this context, if I write something Not Interesting Enough – but since I’ve been cannibalising my own identity I care a lot less about that. I still care, just that it no longer bothers me enough. I think it is like an invisible prison to be subscribed to Some Great Idea of our selves.

There was this vivid moment one day this year, probably spurred by a conversation with my partner that I asked: so what if people think I am a loser? That was followed by, so what if I am really a loser? I don’t know how and when, but suddenly it didn’t matter so much anymore, the idea that I could possibly be a loser. Also suddenly, I started to wonder why the hell did it make me hurt so much? The only possible explanation I could conjure is: we’re programmed instinctively to react badly to being perceived as useless, because that could threaten our survival in more primitive times. It is still threatening now, but at the very least we don’t get kicked out of our tribe and be left out to die in the open because they would rather conserve their resources than to feed a seemingly “useless” person. As I am writing this, I question too, is that a myth? There were probably tribes who were better at taking care of their weak, depending on their collective strength.

The process of personal transformation fascinates me. Time and time again, I had suddenly realised how certain things that used to bother me so, so much, no longer has power over me. It doesn’t feel very linear or gradual. It sort of snowballs in the background.

Last weekend, I was a panel to talk about passion and suffering. To cope with my social anxiety, I made a deck of slides to cue myself on what I wanted to say. I am relatively cynical, so I am not sure a ten-minute lightning talk would be meaningful or have an actual impact. But see, this is a pervasive old narrative I have, that things we choose to do have to be impactful or it is not worth doing. I want to be able to do things simply because I think I want to do them, and there could be a multitude of reasons why. In this case, I am not sure how people felt after listening, but the day after while walking to get breakfast alone I felt this inner-clarity: that the deck of slides was only made possible because of the past few years of self-analysis and investigation into my own suffering. It may not change anyone else’s life, but the process that cumulated into those slides changed mine.

I was only able to spend this much time because I quit my job and industry. I am in a privileged position for sure. I know not everyone can do this, and I have immense existential and survivor’s guilt. But to have that privilege and still continue to be a blind asshole is something I don’t want for myself. I have come to a point where I deeply recognised that my own suffering has caused me to relate to other people and myself in various unhealthy ways. It has handicapped me psychologically, emotionally and physically.

I get triggered all the time. I still do. These triggers cause me to react unhealthily to them, and I lose the capacity to respond meaningfully. It could be something as innocuous as a colleague making a remark about me, and I feel like they are attacking my entire integrity. Or I spend days ruminating over something someone said, and it may not even be directed at me. I had constantly passed on my suffering to other people unconsciously. It could be a passive aggressive joke. Or giving people advice through my narrow worldview. Or something a lot more gray and subtle like over-empathising with someone’s suffering and enabling their behaviour. Or to not be capable of seeing the whole and reacting poorly because I felt threatened.

It is of no wonder I felt so exhausted all the time. I was also exhausting people all the time. To be able to look back and clearly see that is saddening, threatening and yet illuminating. To go from I think I was a Very Nice Person to OMG I was an Unconscious Unaware Unintentional Asshole has been quite a process.

It has been a long journey, to develop the self-compassion for myself because I just couldn’t see an alternative timeline for myself, and yet to accept my role in my circumstances. The acceptance of my personal role is a shock to my identity, and I could say the majority of it was unconscious, but the power comes from making the decision to try to re-inhabit that role, this time with as much consciousness and agency as possible.

I change not because I want to be a better person, not because I want to change the world, but simply because I wish to reduce my own suffering. The hope in reducing one’s suffering comes from the hope that despite overwhelming odds, we can attempt to transform our inner-worlds, so that our inner-worlds can co-exist peacefully and meaningfully with the outer-world. I may not change the world, but I have changed my personal world: the dynamics of the relationships I have with other people and my self.

While I am still alive and I cannot prevent myself from interacting with the outer world, I wish to have a lighter footprint on other lives. Not because I wish to be a saint, but because the weight of my own footprints make me suffer.

This is not the content of the slides I presented even though I used some of its images, but rather some personal thoughts and feelings in relation to it. Hopefully I’ll get to post the actual content soon.