on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

how we assign value (and the complexity of nutrition)

At the end of a day last week I caught myself feeling bad because I felt like I did nothing productive. It is interesting how after so many years on this journey I still tie my sense of self-worth to being “productive”. Upon deeper contemplation I realised it wasn’t that I did “nothing”, but rather I didn’t do anything I mentally labelled as “productive” or “creative”.

There are certain activities I assign high value to, and they are mostly centered around what I perceive as part of my “identity”. Writing, reading, learning something intellectual, working on my website etc. But lately because of my partner’s histamine issues I have begun to put a lot more effort into cooking our meals and also making sure whatever I cook is nutrient-dense and varied enough. I could cook carrots for my partner everyday because they are so easy to cook and they seem nutritious, but apparently our skin can turn orange (not joking) if we eat too much of them and there are severe health issues with too much vitamin A.

I am just at the very beginning of this journey because planning nutrition to make sure we get all the micro-nutrients we need is challenging, and it is also a thorny topic even among the experts. Something as simple as how much salt we should consume can be polarising. There is a lot of modern research debunking so much of what we’ve been taught traditionally, and yet medical/nutrition professionals are very much tightly holding on to what they have studied for. Sometimes even the research studies cannot agree with each other. Results can also be different for men and women. We also don’t account for genetic differences when we say something is “good” or “bad” for health.

I was already generally on this journey because of my chronic migraines, but it was a lot more generic like all I paid attention to was the amount of carbs I ingested since insulin dysfunction can cause migraines and hormonal issues. I started logging my food into Cronometer a while ago to monitor my carb and electrolyte intake, but lately I’ve been looking more at other micro-nutrients. It turns out it is almost impossible for me to get enough iron (18mg according to the RDA) without over-eating. I’ve tested for anaemia multiple times before and I am not anaemic on paper, but everytime I lose blood through my monthly cycle I get a sort of lightheadedness that develops into a migraine. (Interesting case study of a woman who was also not anaemic on paper but supplementing made her symptoms go away.)

So last week when I experienced the same lightheadedness I started supplementing iron at a small dose, small enough that it is still hardly enough to reach the RDA (too much iron can cause severe issues), but more than I can ever practically eat. My lightheadedness went away. I will need more time to experiment to see if this is really working.

I have so many questions. Am I only anaemic only certain times of my cycle? Or that what is considered a “normal” value on a blood test is not the healthful value for a perimenopausal woman? Maybe they never bothered finding out the optimal range or they only bothered with men? Or maybe having enough in our blood does not mean we can utilise it properly (like diabetics have a ton of blood sugar in their blood but they can’t use it for energy)?

So even though in my mind I wasn’t being “creative” or “productive” (though I wish I can stop judging myself for these things), I was spending a lot of time and energy researching these things and also learning how to cook better. Not just better in terms of traditional cooking skills, but also like how to maximise deliciousness using the lowest amount of heat available (to retain nutrients and minimise oxidative stress). I figured I could use the air-fryer at low temperatures to cook something well enough, and use the high heat setting only towards the last couple of minutes to brown it enough. I could also use the pressure cooker to cook something and broil it for a few minutes. They wouldn’t be as delicious as something cooked in high heat of course, but it is enough knowing the tradeoffs.

I realised I don’t give value to what I call foundational skills to life: like cooking, maintaining a house, or how to exercise properly. To nourish myself properly is probably one of the most important things to do and yet to me it still feels like I was doing “nothing”. Working on this website is cool and all, but it is not going to fundamentally make me a thriving person.

I think it is interesting how we assign value to things. Maybe monastics seem to be doing nothing but to them they are probably doing the most high value activity. In my ideal world there would be less snap judgments of what is valuable and more authentic discernment of what we truly relish doing versus what we’re conditioned to think we should be doing.

It is also amusing how at the age of 40 I feel like only now I am learning the basics of actually living, instead of always being so goal and results oriented. To learn to focus on the actual building blocks of my life rather than something that is always so distant and abstract. I was actually very much less goal and results oriented compared to many people, but the fact the society places so much value on these things have made a significant dent to my sense of self-worth. I still have issues calibrating how I should feel about myself, and it is very tied to what I do versus who I am.

I very much aspire to be a person who is capable of nourishing herself, whether through actual cooking or emotionally. It is just that my instinctive feelings I feel internally have not updated to my actual aspiration. My emotions are still ruled by the decades of societal conditioning that only certain activities are valuable. I hope it would not take too long for me to regenerate new filters on how I live my life. I would not want to spend time feeling bad about the wrong things.

out of control

I don’t know about other people, but my relationship with life is as though I’m in an abusive relationship. I feel like I am always walking on eggshells, I am almost fearful when it seems nice to me, and I don’t know when it is next going to rear its ugly head.

Perhaps I lived through a similar life with plenty of other people, but I have always been exceptionally sensitive to its effects on me. Other people seem better at shrugging things off, whereas I dwell, and everything that happened in the past makes me afraid of the future.

We’re having an Omnicron surge in Singapore right now, suddenly tripling our cases from 5K+ to 13k+ in a day. There is a narrative that it is mild, but everyday I read about people who suffered devastating consequences despite being tripled vaxxed.

I worry about my loved ones everyday. I try to nag at them to practice social distancing more prudently, but it has been more than two years. How can I expect them to keep postponing their social activities? I am pretty hermitish, and I am tired myself, much less people with actual social needs. I resent that I could not even properly enjoy a chinese new year reunion dinner without calculating potential transmission probabilities in my head. I get upset looking at photos of reunion dinners in pre-covid years, where something as simple as eating with my parents in a carefree manner is no longer available to me. There is the worry about Covid, and then there is the wondering about how many reunion dinners are left for me.

So it is entirely understandable that people want to believe Omnicron is “just a flu”. They would rather gather with their loved ones and risk catching it. I too, want to believe that, but my internet habits are not allowing me to do so.

Every day I subconsciously brace myself for the worst. I am not sure when would be the last time I see a person. Externally everything seems like the same. I go on the same routines and live as though almost nothing has changed, but once in a very short while I get a stark reminder that everything has changed.

But I try to remind myself of the inherent impermanence of life, that there are many things out of my control. We can all do our best, and things still fail tragedies still happen. There is a sort of cold-blooded cruelty about life that most people have learnt to ignore, but I feel it everywhere. There is also beauty, love and joy – but me being me, I wonder if it is all worth it in the end.

The other day I was reading and I came across this quote:

I think that our human organism was designed to take in only so much suffering. For tens of thousands of years we lived in small tribes or villages that had maybe one or two hundred people. But now, through the media, we’re bombarded with much broader human suffering. To cope with that and live a life of freedom and happiness, we need extraordinary help, extraordinary medicine.

Source: The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation by multiple authors | link

It is quite thought-provoking to consider what we are actually exposed to in this day and age compared to our ancestors just a couple of generations ago. Perhaps without the internet I would be a lot less anxious about the virus and overall I’ll be a much happier person, instead of reading things like this:

Is the attitude of “ignorance is bliss” a better way of existing? Is knowing the truth and seeing reality as it is really that important? I don’t have firm views on this anymore, compared to my younger days when my belief in truth was absolute.

These days I take the view of: “do whatever it takes to survive life and make the most out of it with as little harm as possible to others and yourself”. I guess everyone has to weigh their priorities. Maybe to some people spending time with their loved ones is more important than long-term health – I can’t fault that, perhaps as long as everyone is willing?

I am not sure when I’ll tire of avoiding the virus myself. I just want to have a meal with my family. But I know I won’t be able to forgive myself if I pass on the virus and things are all mild and dandy for me, but not for them. Neither do I want to risk chronic issues arising from the virus, since I am already having chronic issues of my own.

But I also know we can do our best and still suffer the fate I most want to avoid. Such is life, though. This is the price we have to pay for living: to endure the beauty that comes with the fragility of moments.

how long it took

I’ve been having a certain sense of well-being for the past few weeks – I can be quite superstitious so I tend to refrain from making any positive statements in case I jinx myself. It just seems like every time I think I am doing well I inevitably suffer a relapse. Superstition aside I think it does make sense: I tend to over-exert myself once I feel well again because I am also trying to compensate for all that lost time, and also it is just part of a long-term chronic illness to ebb and flow.

It is funny how I don’t usually think twice when writing about the bad parts but I am actually afraid to write about the good parts. This is quite a common self-sabotaging behaviour, sometimes it is just better to get used to being in despair all the time than to actually hold hope in your hands and have it cruelly snatched away.

I was writing my morning pages today when I started thinking about how much and how long it took for me to get to this point. Currently I am:

  • taking two 30-minute walks each day with my partner, once in the morning and once in the evening
  • cooking both meals (I only eat two meals because I intermittently fast 16/8) for myself and an additional separate meal for my partner
  • washing dishes almost as soon as I finish my meals. They used to lie in the sink until the very last minute
  • restricting screen time to less than 4 hours a day. I don’t know if this sounds a lot to you but it was the “norm” for me to look at my screen for more than 8 hours a day
  • doing a thorough spring cleaning for the lunar new year, however I am chunking it into smaller tasks each day instead of an intensive 2-3 day clean

I don’t know if these things sound like a big deal but they are for me. Because I spent a long time of the past 7 years either unable to do much or not wanting to do much. Having a chronic illness means I can’t really tell which part of it is not being able and which part of it is not wanting to. How much of wanting to do things is affected on a biological level? Also I expended so much energy just trying to recover that I just didn’t have much left to do seemingly ordinary things. Back then, even taking a walk to the nearby mall felt exhausting.

I thought it would be interesting to map out a rough timeline of my illness and recovery:

  • 2015: start of severe dry eyes and migraines. Saw an eye specialist once I moved back to Singapore: oil glands and tear ducts in my eyes were not working. According to them there is no cure and I would have to put eye drops for the rest of my life. I also started seeing my family’s traditional chinese medicine (TCM) physician.
  • 2016: symptoms started improving with regular TCM. I could cry again? At this point I was probably still hopeful of making a full recovery.
  • 2017 – 2020: Ups and downs. Lots of migraines. Some good months, some terrible ones. In and out of existential depression. There is a lot of sadness and tortured thinking in my journal entries during this time. In 2017 I seemed to start accepting that this is going to part of the rest of my life.
  • 2019-now: During these years I gradually become better at regulating my emotions. I have less episodes of meltdown. I work harder at sustaining emotional stability intrinsically, gradually detaching myself from consciously seeking external validation.
  • 2021-now: Some time in 2021 I became okay with nothing in particular to look forward to, and because of that the space to find enrichment in my ordinary, boring life gradually opened up:

…realising that in this moment I am really okay sitting with the emptiness of my life. There are no highs, nothing really to look forward to, especially now with the covid situation I can’t even look forward to a trip overseas. There’s no career advancement, no new job, nothing. Just zero. And I’m okay with the zero.

okay with zero   from dayone 0 responses

There is probably a lot happening between 2017 to 2021 but I don’t want to go into an in-depth analysis of my journal entries now. The point I want to make in this post is that something really ordinary to some people can be really almost magical for me. There is so much work that has to go on to be able to enjoy something as innocuous as cooking. So much clearing of toxic beliefs and behavioural patterns, so much letting go, so much slowing down, so much unconditioning, so much of training myself to gain some control of how I perceive time: whether it is just huge blocks of hours blindly zooming by or being capable of noticing a very rich little moment happening in the present.

Back in 2015/2016 I read a book on burnout and the author said she took 8 years to recover. At that point in my life I was horrified at the possibility of enduring 8 years. This year I will be reaching my 7th year. Probably in many of the past 7 years it probably looked like nothing was happening on the surface. But there was just so much psychological processing, so much of trying to make sense of things, so much grief, and so much anger.

I’m not naive to think I am on the mend, but what buddhist meditation has taught me is that we have to look at the lengthening gaps between the noise. What buddhism teaches (according to my interpretation) is that we cannot expect our mind to become fully silent, but we can train the gaps of silence to become longer. So for me, I no longer expect full recovery, neither am I expecting actual improvement in terms of the total time of illness I have to endure, but rather I want to be better at living during those times I am well, or better at healing/resting during those times I am unwell. I am learning to cherish the gaps.

It took me probably 6 long years to get to a point when I started to have an interest in life. Prior to that I was constantly wondering about the point of my existence. I don’t what is it like for other people but for me I was so damaged that I could not feel life until I reached a certain threshold of healing.

My own journey makes me think about other people who are in similar or worse shoes. I know many people are not afforded the time, space and compassionate support that is needed to heal. It just takes so much time and space. I think about how much more alive this world can be if we prioritised healing, or even better, if we were capable of not inflicting damage in the first place.

new enjoyment in cooking

My partner suddenly developed a histamine intolerance – we only found out by trial and error because she started having stomach upsets after eating, even with the types of food that are typically designated for sick people like rice noodles or fish in soup. We usually eat out quite often but stopped since the delta strain, so we ordered takeout instead. There is virtually nothing that we can takeout that seems safe: at first we tried cantonese-style soups, but discovered they put dried seafood even in soups without seafood. So, I had to start cooking.

I’ve been trying to cook for ourselves since forever. I have had phases where I would go on a bout of cooking everyday, then stop for months. I have to admit I am a very “phase” kind of person. I would eventually get sick of my own cooking, or tired of the chores associated with cooking. It is not just about the effort to cook, it is also the time taken to plan groceries for two people with a small fridge and the desire to minimise wastage. I am also really bad at remembering to defrost food.

I remember writing a lot of journal entries on what I would like to improve in my life, and it is almost always, “cook more”. But I had found it difficult to enjoy cooking. The effort versus results ratio seemed skewed, I would spend all this time and effort, and the meal is eaten within thirty minutes. It seemed like a much better to outsource it and save the time.

Why do I keep wanting to cook more despite not enjoying it enough? I think nutrition is one of the biggest levers when it comes to one’s quality of life. For me, the most important element in my life is vitality. Vitality comes from energy and mental clarity. Energy and mental clarity comes predominantly from nutrition, and then exercise (on top of biological, genetic or psychological factors). We can’t exercise our way out of an unhealthy diet though. Exercise itself is not going to heal the systemic inflammation caused by an imbalanced diet.

Because of her sensitive digestive system, I had to do a lot of things I was dreading to do before, like peel a carrot. I disliked chopping and peeling carrots so much, for a long time I only bought peeled baby carrots, or frozen diced vegetables. The first time I tried to cook for her after she got sick I bought a bag of peeled baby carrots, but it felt slimy to the touch upon opening, so I was forced to buy an actual carrot. I wasn’t sure if she could digest carrot skin, so I had to peel it. I used a small paring knife at first, then she reminded me we had a peeler.

It turned out it was way easier than I thought. Like way, way easier. It is quite funny how many years of my life went by believing peeling is difficult. She was rapidly losing weight just eating chicken and vegetables in soup, so I had to peel sweet potatoes. They weren’t too bad either. So many things I learnt to do for the first time: process a pomegranate – wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole previously but it is good for mast cells so I had to do it for love. The first time I tried, our countertop looked like a crime scene with pomegranate juice flying everywhere. I also learnt how to process old cucumber (I was like why is there so little left), winter melon (this one is easier), pumpkin (omg they are difficult to chop), corn (use hands to break it instead of chopping it), etc.

I bought an instant pot a couple of years ago but didn’t use it that much. This time around it turned out to be a life saver. All I had to do is to dump all the chopped ingredients into the pot with some water, and voila delicious soup less than an hour later. It didn’t even feel like cooking. My partner kept thanking me for cooking, and I kept telling her it wasn’t me who cooked.

a typical low-histamine soup for my partner: chicken, apple, carrot and radish

At first I would cook for her and order takeout for myself. Then I got strangely jealous of her eating all that nutritious anti-inflammatory food. So I started cooking for myself too. I actually cooked our food separately, so instead of the effort to cook one meal for two people previously, I ended up cooking one meal each per person, sometimes twice in a day.

My experience cooking for her made me realise the prep work I used to dread wasn’t that hard. The way I develop permanent lifestyle changes seem to take place over multiple cycles instead of a single transition. It took me probably around a decade with a ton of starts and stops in between to actually like exercising. Now the national guidance is no exercise for two weeks after the vaccine (to prevent possible myocarditis), and I can’t express how much I miss it.

I think this new enjoyment in cooking is also made possible by the gradual change in my psyche over a few cycles. I used to be in a rush all the time and wanted to do everything quickly. So cooking was challenging because I would try to rush through everything. Somehow the rush makes it unenjoyable, as though it is something I would rather get it over and done with. There was already something negative in my inherent attitude towards it.

Now I seem to like doing things slowly? And I don’t get intimidated by a pile of dishes lying in the sink anymore. I just soap one dish at a time with no sense of frustration, and before I know it everything gets done? I enjoyed chopping vegetables for my partner in little cubes so she can digest it better. It took way longer, but I liked it?

I used to really dislike eating the same thing but due to wanting to simplify grocery planning I am basically cooking the same ingredients in different incarnations everyday. I found myself not wanting to eat takeout anymore, because I like the taste of my food better now?

I am typing all these question marks because I seem to be skeptical of my own statements? It is like a lingering disbelief.

My blood glucose, resting heart rate (RHR) and heart rate variability seem to be almost significantly improving. There was one day I took a break, eating a takeout meal and my RHR during sleep went up by a few bpm. It is a one-off thing but it would be interesting for me to make more observations.

left: RHR (lower is better, usually) right: HRV (higher is better, usually)

My hypothesis is that just avoiding all the inflammatory vegetable oil from food cooked outside would make a difference. I also try to cook on as low a heat as possible, even while stir-frying by constantly using an infra-red thermometer. I try to keep temperatures below 150 degrees celsius, sacrificing some taste and texture in return for lower oxidative stress. I am also eating less, because I can determine my portions.

What’s next? My partner’s issues seem to be improving – credit to her for being so disciplined, she didn’t waver for even once. She did ask for coffee and chocolate quite a few times (lol who wouldn’t), but I have to give her credit for not insisting when I reminded her they impact histamine levels – so I will try to cook some meals for two of us. I would like to be more adventurous and cook more complex recipes. My friend Adrianna and her wife cooks these complex meals all the time, and I admire it (but okay I am never cooking for ten hours):

As usual my caveat is that this may well be one of my phases, but I think at 40 it is really cool to go into new phases and not be stuck in an old pattern. It is such a wonderful thing to learn how to peel a carrot at 40, isn’t it?

the isolating experience of my migraines

Migraines are a strange illness. People who have not had it before think it is “just a headache”. If you can move around and accomplish more than half of your usual activities, that is probably not a migraine. My migraines incapacitate me: I get extremely nauseous, any slight movement will trigger cascading waves of pain, so I am likely to be bedridden until it decides to be over. On average, my migraine lasts 3 days, and thereafter it takes me more days if not weeks to recover. It is common to have post-migraine depression, not just because of the despondency that is caused by suffering through an episode, but the brain is physically depressed. There are significant changes in the brains of people who suffer from chronic migraines, such as lesions

I have written a few times here that sometimes out of a month I get one good week. I don’t know if it sounds like a joke because it really isn’t. Migraines are a leading cause of disability, second in both genders, first in young women. I was so relieved when I learnt about this statistic, because I can finally stop thinking of myself as useless. I am simply disabled, and I am not the only one. 

I plan my entire life around my migraines. I live a monastic-like existence with strict sleeping hours, strict-ish diet (as much as I can manage), careful planning of activities so I don’t accidentally exhaust myself, strict exercise routines, strict supplementation of vitamins and minerals. There is almost no room for negotiation because any slip-up may mean an unwanted relapse. I am almost resigned to the migraines that come with my monthly menstrual cycle, but I don’t wish to have more. 

When one suffers a chronic illness like this and has to live like that, we start being unable to relate to most people with normal, typical lives. I was constantly asked to loosen up with my sleep or diet requirements when I used to hang out more with people. People think I am being too militant, but they don’t know I have already spent years being in denial refusing to submit to such a lifestyle and have paid the consequences for it. 

Migraines are like such an invisible disease: there are no obvious bio-markers for it – we can’t go and get any test to prove we have migraines, so people tend to assume they are psychosomatic or we’re making a bigger deal then necessary out of it. It is not like diabetes where you can whip out a test result and tell people: hey stop asking me to eat more sugar because it may cause my legs to be amputated. I tell people I have migraines and hope they believe me, and not assume I am a hypochondriac. 

Since I can’t lead a normal life, I don’t feel like I can have normal relationships with people, or even with myself. I can lead a fairly okay life with quite a bit of function if I adhere to my strict regime. It takes a lot of work for me to have “normal” days. Something as innocuous as eating and being able to digest food is precious to me. 

It is a fairly isolating experience, or at least it has led me to feel isolated. I have to become a recluse when my attacks happen because I am mostly bedridden or getting over a post-migraine fatigue, so when I am able to interact with people I am already in a relatively healthy state. What they experience is a fairly healthy, normal me. But the reality is for long periods over the past few years, the fairly healthy me is only 25% of my existence, if I am being generous. 75% of the time I am just trying to survive. The person who is trying to survive is almost a different version of me. So to me, people interact with a version of me who hardly exists, which is not their fault of course. It is just what it is. People are busy with their own challenges in their own lives, so I get that it is unfair of me to ask of them to relate to my 75% invisible self, so I don’t. A few years ago I started to interact less with people overall because I got tired of explaining myself when I cannot be available, also there is a widening gap between the topics we can relate to, since I am all about optimising my health and simply trying to live, whereas most other people still have dreams and ambitions to pursue, because they can.

Of course I have to admit I like the dreamless, ambitionless version of me now. Yet to be honest I can really never know if this is because I have to. I don’t have access to a version of me where I never got ill. My present self believes I am a lot happier now, because I am no longer addicted to work or validation. But who knows? Maybe the healthy version of me would have figured out a way to find a harmonious balance. See that’s the thing. I cannot know, there is no choice for me to know. 

Very few people would understand what it is like to lose so much of yourself, to have so much of your life cut off. I am still grateful of what I have gained in return, I can also say if not for my migraines I would still be rushing headlessly into busyness without questioning if that is what I had wanted, but maybe it would be nice to have an actual, realisable choice. 

I am a very different person from whom I used to be. It has been difficult for most relationships because they are searching for someone who is no no longer there. There are some rare ones who have made the transition with me, though not without conflict and difficulty as they have to accept the loss of my old self like I had. I too, search for my old self still sometimes. I wonder if my insistence on working on this website is my only way of hanging on to a piece of my past self.

It has been almost 7 years of trial and error, of denial, bargaining, grief and acceptance. I am doing a lot better now than I used to. Maybe during good months I am 75% healthy. But I am irrevocably changed, and I know I can never return to whom I was. A friend innocuously commented that they wished I could be the designer I was, and it triggered so much anger in me. I know it is not their fault and they mean well, but it is also not my fault to feel this anger. Apart from feeling like salt is rubbed into my wound, I also feel that people tend to impose their values on me all the time. They want me to fulfil a certain image of me they have in their head. I guess I used to do the same to other people too. 

I keep my social interactions to the minimum now. I am not at a place where I want to deal with people’s conscious or unconscious expectations of me. Since I expend so much energy caring for myself just to remain sane, I don’t have much emotional bandwidth left for other people, other than my partner and my family. I know they say on average people live longer with an active social life, but I feel better with less.

I have been reading “Writing down the bones“, and it encourages us to write about the very details of our lives:

Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical. We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles. We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese, and hope we have enough money to pay for it. At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and all winters we are alive on the earth. We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important.

So here they are – my details. Maybe I am projecting, maybe everything written on this page is biased, but this is my true internal experience, even if heavily coloured by my illness. I can only be as honest as the awareness I am capable of cultivating. 

I know of people who are in worse situations than me with no hope of improvement or recovery, but I guess this is not a suffering competition. I want to feel free documenting my own experience on my own website. 

This is also why I remain extra sympathetic towards sufferers of long covid, and why I remain extra careful in avoiding getting infected. I come across stories of people killing themselves because they can’t deal with their symptoms anymore, and I can relate to that because once upon a time when my symptoms were relentless, I too wondered what is the point of living with so much pain and no quality of life.

I feel extra sensitive when people are callous with their health, just like how I used to be. If I knew what I know now I would not have abused my body the way I did, sleeping strange hours, drinking copious amounts of coffee everyday, eating everything in my sight. Maybe if my younger self met my current self she would think I’m being a hypochondriac too. We can only know what we know.

I am emotionally healthier now, compared to the person who was physically healthy. I think having to prioritise my health cuts out the unnecessary, and forces me to enforce boundaries. I am much better at letting go, because there is one thing I wish to hold on to. But it all comes at a price – a price I am willing to pay, but still thoroughly felt and grieved upon.

2022: 自乐 (self-amusement)

I write one of these every year to pair with my year-end review. Part of me ponders again what is the point of setting intentions for the year when the marking of a year is arbitrary, and it is actually really difficult to set intentions for the entire 365 days when conditions change so quickly in days, much less months. 2020 was very different in our imaginations when it first started I am sure, or even 2021. But it would be a fun exercise nonetheless, a snapshot of my psyche.

I wrote that for 2021 I wanted more emotional freedom. I feel that I worked deliberately hard on it, and I seem to have some results from it — though one can never tell if it is true freedom or some kind of subconscious blockage of feelings. Time will tell I guess, through the unfolding of events and the benefit of hindsight. For 2020 I want more of the same, and I’ll actively work towards a higher baseline of well-being.

In Chinese there is a phrase, “自乐”, which is loosely translated to self-amusement. It could also be translated as “self-joy”. I guess self-amusement and self-joy are not very different. If I can amuse myself, it would probably bring me joy. I aspire towards being capable of self-amusing, to derive a sense of joy emanating from my self.

I had a difficult time like anyone else since March 2020 started. Probably a lot less difficult than many other people, but still difficult nonetheless. I was used to having a huge array of available distractions and stimuli: travel, eating, delivering food and parcels, etc. Things got better when Singapore managed to lower her case count to mere single digits per day – we even ate out indoors a few times – then Delta hit. Vaccinations gave some hope, but it turned out one could still get pretty sick with Delta (and in truth, my real fear is long covid).

I just kept waiting for the whole thing to pass, so I can go back to my “regular” life. At this point in time, it isn’t clear when it is ever going to pass. I am sure it will somehow pass one day, or we will conjure up new ways of living with this virus, but right now it feels like this is going to be our new reality for a pretty long time.

Viruses mutate, they come and go. But the inability of human beings to prioritise the long-term over short-term, plus the obsession with defending their own tribal beliefs, are characteristics that have existed since the beginning of our history. Even if the virus situation eases, we still have to deal with climate change. We will somehow cope with it, like we always did, but coping is not the same as returning to whatever it was before.

On an abstract level looking at it through a Buddhist lens, things have always been the same: that they are never the same. There will always be chaos and suffering from the inability to accept change and decay.

As I walk into my 40s I am increasingly aware of the incoming losses I will have to endure as people around me age. The reality of what is going to happen will not change, but what I can hope for is for more capacity to regulate my internal states.

I have been through several stark changes in my life. The year I left SF I wasn’t expecting it at all. When the time came to leave I really had to leave, even if on some level I didn’t want to. This experience has left a deep imprint in me: I’ll never know when shit hits the fan. My now recurring migraines started around the same year and they never went away again. Who knows what is next? I don’t know what is going to happen in the next moment that will severely affect the quality and expectations of my life. I only know that it has happened before and it will happen again.

I also know I don’t want to spend so much time and energy mourning over what I cannot have, if I can even help it. In the time I have left, I don’t want my own miserable mind to be the source of my suffering. The suffering will come nonetheless from other sources, but imagine spending whatever short time I have left hating and berating myself?

I just want to be capable of living a little more, not trapped in the narrow confines of my mind. I want to my baseline state to be harmonious and well, not deprived and empty when I can’t access the things and activities I used to have. After all even in a state of voluntary semi-permanent lockdown, I can still create, read, listen to any music I want, watch fascinating videos on youtube, cook nourishing meals for myself, enjoy connecting to my partner, care for my family. I am still safe, for now. I have recurring migraines every month or so, but I can still breathe, I still enjoy days when I feel relatively normal, my heart doesn’t race wildly every time I stand up to walk, I can still think clearly even if in shorter spans compared to my younger days. Why do I need so much more to feel a baseline level of wellness?

I feel that after almost two years of this whole thing I have gotten better – through deliberate effort and active conditioning – at appreciating everything in my present moment instead of the continuous state of dissatisfaction I was in. I now appreciate that I can wash dishes with clean water, that I still have access to nutritious food, that my partner is alive in the same generation with me, that I have a safe roof over my head. These are things easy to take for granted, but I have also learnt to take less things for granted after all the unexpected losses in my life. On hindsight, those losses were valuable to me because I think they gave me the time I had needed to steady myself for even more losses. I don’t think I can ever be ready to endure loss, but being less surprised when it comes somewhat helps. Pre-emptive grief makes me cherish the present even more, though a little self-torturing. I try to strike a balance.

I am not always this lucid. I regress. But in writing this I hope I have a cornerstone to refer to when things get bad. I told my partner I see myself as a stew, with ingredients slowly simmering over time adding more flavour to the soup, very slowly but surely. I would like to further enrich my inner world through the course of my life, reminding myself that enrichment can arrive from unexpected sources. I would like my inner state of being to be a source of richness I can access at any point in time.

Life will inevitably make me sad, but it can’t take away the richness I have experienced and have accumulated in my self (unless I get some degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s but at least I hope to be as alive as possible till that point).

looking back at 2021

I tend to write long essay-ish review posts, so this time I’ll attempt to write a bullet-point-ish one.


  • had a day surgery to remove two infected cysts on my chest – it was very painful. I also developed two small keloids as a post-surgery effect for the first time in my life. The surgeon said it was expected because the chest area is prone to keloids.
  • finally had the courage to pause my patreon account permanently (writing this now still gives me anxiety):

When I started this I wanted to believe I could make a reasonable living while doing what I love: making experiments and writing. I believed that getting 1,000 people to pay $1 so I can create and write for the public in peace without ever getting involved in corporate politics again was not an unreasonable dream. But after learning so much about myself I have realised I have neither the health, personality or the psyche to be a creator making a living through subscriptions. It takes a lot of self-promotion, and if you have been following my work long enough you will know I am almost allergic to anything that resembles self-promotion. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think self-promotion is bad at all, I am just too socially anxious to do it. I thought it was something that I could overcome, or at least I could do it on my own terms. But my health kept failing, and I cannot upkeep any semblance of a creative momentum. My journey is full of stops and starts, nothing sustained.

  • got double-vaccinated (waiting for the partner to overcome her histamine intolerance issues so we can get boosted)
  • acquired a printer so I printed postcards
  • measured my ketones for the first time in order to understand more of my biological data
  • picked up photography
  • got introduced to the world of DACs, passive speakers and raspberry pis as an audio transport
  • added /notes to this website to embrace shorter-form writing
  • learning to co-exist with my messy brain
  • restarted writing morning pages every morning since Oct 11 in an attempt to stop my morning doom-scroll habit
  • got used to living in a semi-lockdown
  • listened to a lot of 70s (before I was born in 1981 – anything before 1990 is probably foreign to me) music for the first time: Carole King, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac

note-worthy posts

yearly stats

  • wrote 39 long-form posts (including this one) vs 39 (2020)| 45 (2019) | 59 (2018)
  • read 52 books (but some were photography books) vs 41 (2020) | 55 (2019)
  • 2,012,846 steps vs 2,175,497 (2020) | 3,561,874 (2019) | 3,695,978 (2018) – there is a stark difference compared to pre-pandemic times

general thoughts

In the beginning of 2021 I wrote that my goal for the year (if any) is to seek emotional freedom. Reaching the very end of 2021, I don’t have any objective measure but I do feel freer. It seems evident from reviewing the tortured entries I used to write. I read them now, and I am like why was I always so tortured, why was I always deluding myself with the stories I make up in my head?

turning point

I think (with some hindsight bias) that I was in an existential depression/slump that persisted from 2020. There was a turning point around the time when I wrote, “my messy brain“. I can’t articulate how and why, but I got fed up with being in a slump and being unable to will myself to do things I want to do. I won’t say I woke up one morning and changed overnight, but it was a gradual upwards trajectory in terms of reclaiming myself. I think the crucial difference is the acceptance that I may have impaired brain functioning and I need to work within that, not deny or ignore it. That made me understand what I can expect out of myself and what I cannot make myself do. It wasn’t positive thinking or that I could suddenly change my will, but rather a conscious redesign of my day so I don’t have to leave it up to my “will” to do things. Writing morning pages made a huge difference because I no longer started the day with doom scrolling, so I exhausted my mental capacity a lot less from the get go. More on that in a full post.

learning to be slower

I learnt to be much slower – I get a lot less frustrated whenever I have to do things that require a deliberate slowness, like chopping vegetables. I exercised less and gave up pursuing streaks, instead working with my menstrual cycle to determine my exercise schedule. I also learnt to demand a lot less of myself since I recognised my own impairments in several areas.

Picking up photography and listening to music allowed my brain to process a lot less words. I hope to veer more in this direction.

I am not sure if it is learned helplessness, but I stopped being so frustrated and upset with the whole virus situation. I saw that it was something out of my control, and that throughout history terrible things happened to human beings all the time, so why should I or the current generations be an exception? I could continue moping, or I could try to pursue whatever mundane aliveness I could have. Again, I just want to reiterate it wasn’t a switch I could turn on or off, but a very slow, deliberate attempt to recalibrate the way I think.

a good baseline

I personally believe human beings thrive when they are at a good emotional and psychological baseline. A good baseline that does not require much external stimuli. I feel that I have made great strides towards this in the past year, even if much of it is forced due to our personal movement being limited because of the delta strain. I think a lot of it came from efforts to down-regulate my over-stimulated brain. It is training myself to coexist with the initial difficult boredom that stems from a brain always seeking adrenaline and dopamine.

My usual skepticism and pessimism makes me feel that this won’t last, but I think this is a good state to end the year, at the very least.

Note: I think writing a review of an entire year on the last day of the year would not be very accurate since we have a recency bias. Nevertheless, this is a slice of this year from my current POV.

Archive of previous years

the paradox of the self

When I was younger (actually, not too long ago) I was often trapped in my own pain and suffering. I would wonder very often why did terrible things constantly seem to happen to me, there were a lot of “why me”s. I was deeply depressed because I couldn’t see a way out.

One thing about reading Buddhist philosophy is the concept of no-self, or not-self, or emptiness (depending on who and what you read). There are various interpretations on what the original Buddha actually meant, and a lot take it to mean that in order to achieve enlightenment or happiness we shouldn’t be self-centered or narcissistic – we should put the needs of others above ourselves.

Some Buddhist teachers have been on the record saying that they don’t like western psychotherapy, because it focuses too much on the self. I think there is a paradox of the self. Narcissism in general (without accounting for genetic reasons) is typically not an outcome of too much self-love or self-centeredness, it is what happens when the self feels deprived. We often develop obsessions over things we cannot have. If we feel we have enough attention, why would we keep wanting more of it? Human beings are not the bottomless pits of greed we think we are.

Zen, which is a branch of Buddhism, is a little closer to what I personally think of as reality (I am not a scholar so don’t quote me). There is a well-known quote by Dogen, one of the founding fathers of Soto Zen (if this quote doesn’t make sense to you, welcome to Zen):

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”

There seems to be a narrative (Buddhist or not) that we should aim to be good by being selfless. In Buddha’s time (or any previous time in history) there was no concept of boundaries, or how having no boundaries can result in toxic relationships and systems. The reason why everyone should have boundaries is difficult to understand, especially in a Confucian society. But which human being is capable of always being hungry, sick and deprived and yet without any trace of resentment give away their food to anyone who asks? If we’re always tired because we’re always giving away our energy, how can we deliver our best? I think we ask too much of human beings, and the result is dysfunction because everyone is tired and hungry, except the ones profitting off the rest (which is another story but I do not want to digress).

In order to thrive we need to figure out our boundaries in order to protect our energy, work on our selves so we don’t end up hurting other people or ourselves unconsciously. On paper it would seem that I disagree with Buddha.

But if we go beyond mainstream or religious Buddhism, what Buddha was trying to teach is not to forego the self, but rather that the self is an illusion. This view has its equivalent in psychology. What we think as our character, our selves, is simply a composite of stories and conditioning. It is not so much that we’re a metaphysical illusion and we all live in a simulation – well you can believe that if you want but it doesn’t really confer benefits in practical day to day living I think – but rather the idea of our selves is not as concrete as we think.

The idea that our self is an illusion can be quite depressing at first, but hopefully we can move out of that and realise its freedom. That we don’t have to be who we were, or who people think we are.

Therein lies the paradox: we have to focus on our selves in order to lose our selves, it is in losing our selves where we can find how we may thrive and therefore make the ecosystem we’re part of a greater whole.

Going deeper into the implications of no-self: it is not just about the self being an illusion, but also that we’re not as standalone as we think, that we’re all interdependent and a part of a larger reality. This is not woo-woo at all, I mean we’re all particles and you can’t say one particle is more solid than the other; we’re all part of an ecosystem that is dependent on everything working in harmony for our survival.

What I’ve found comforting in this whole no-self thing: that while it may seem that my life has been put on hold, that I am deprived on all the comforts and experiences I had, that I have encountered so much malaise and am bracing for potential grief – the reality is, we as a whole is suffering. No one, like the Buddha once proclaimed, is spared from the suffering of living, ageing, illness and death. It is just a matter of how and when. It is not just my life that is on hold because of this virus, everyone’s lives are on hold (to varying degrees and I acknowledge my privilege), and everyone is trying to cope. Random shit happens. People develop chronic illnesses, people suddenly die. To live is to endure heartbreak and disappointment.

Just a while ago I have found this extremely unhelpful in my own suffering, knowing that everyone is not spared from suffering does not reduce my own suffering. But I think I went through the five stages of grief: I am now at the acceptance stage. I don’t think acceptance reduces suffering, but what it does is that it may free up our energy for something else. Once I accept the inevitability, that terrible things are going to happen anyway, I want to focus on doing my best to love and live. It is not like less living is going to make the suffering go away, it is not like we can avoid grief by consciously or subconsciously punishing ourselves. I still suffer, maybe as much, but I want to develop the room for other dimensions of living.

I can understand why Buddha wanted people to detach from the idea of the self: because when we’re too attached to our story as the sole protagonist, we live in a world where we experience nothing but our own suffering. That severely limits our experiences of life and the world. It just reinforces a story that is not rooted in reality, and that same story perpetuates our suffering, especially if we’re led to believe we’re alone in our suffering, that we deserve our misfortune. All of us are outcomes of a complex systemic loop.

I look back at our history: we were always killing each other, dying of illnesses, waging wars. Our life expectancy was 40 not too long ago. I think we have been deluded by the somewhat peace of the recent decades. But shit always happens. I just wish that we can figure out how to hurt each other less and let nature do its thing. But nope, we have to heap more suffering on each other on top of the inherent grief that comes with living. All that randomness, fragility, impermanence.

Cherish the present, because it is all we have. It sounds so cliche, but I have found it to be poignantly true in recent times for obvious reasons. I try to look at my partner more with undivided attention, I wash dishes and feel the thrill of clean water, I thank my lungs for supporting me when I run. I struggle at times with my chronic illness, but it has made me learn so painfully not to take my days of health for granted.

I am not a Buddhist, and I am not sure why I wrote this. But these thoughts have been hovering on my mind for a while. I am not sure if anyone else would find it helpful, or if I am able to convey why I have found this to be ironically enriching my life these days. Maybe these are glimpses of being able to free myself from the trappings of my own mind.

I like Joseph Campbell’s approach to living and learning because he never subscribed to one particular school of belief. He tried to integrate everything he learnt. I think the Buddha would have taught differently if he had access to neuroscience (and understood how trauma impacts us). He was astute and ahead of his time in terms of human psychology, but I think it was still a product of his times.

the reality of emotions

Imagine if you can put your swirling emotions in a crystal ball, then elevate the ball in mid-air before scrutinising them from a distance. What would it be like to be able to take them out of you and look at them from a distance?

I don’t really know why – maybe a result of all the buddhist books I have been reading over the years – I have been doing this mental exercise lately on my morning walks. I project my emotions a distance from me, imagining that I can twirl the ball and look at it from different directions. Somehow the mere act of visualisation puts some form of a virtual distance between my self and how I feel. It is a rather trippy yet intriguing experience (not that I’ve ever been on a trip before).

Even though it is just my imagination, this exercise has allowed me to perceive the invisible space between me and my emotions. I had always identified as my emotions, my inner pain and sadness had threatened to overwhelm me to the point of repeatedly thinking of how I could end it all.

As if I’ve just woken from an immersive dream, I wonder why I had allowed my emotions to take over my life, my living? It is a pointless question really, because I was not a person capable of separating my emotions from my self.

Still, it is an interesting question. Why, why do we let our emotions direct us? Think about the state of the world: how much pain and suffering do we experience because we cannot overcome how we feel. How many times: wars have been broken, people have been killed, children have been hurt – because of our unbearable emotions?

Our bodies can be really intelligent or really primitive. I have realised that my body/nervous system sometimes lives an almost separate life from me. How I feel at times is not rooted in reality. Like a stuck record player it keeps playing the same note over and over again. The body is intelligent because it aspires towards efficiency by remembering things for us; it is primitive because it remembers things we no longer want to remember. I feel like my body was once very very sad, and that’s the main if not only emotion it can remember feeling, so that’s the resident emotion I feel. Even if there is nothing objectively sad about my life now I still feel sad. Or at least the emotion I label as sad. I used to try really hard to look for the reason of my sadness, that it could be something I am not conscious of.

But I gradually learnt to be aware that it is really simple to colour our emotions. Just having not enough food can dramatically alter our moods and lower our emotional resilience. Just the wrong part of my monthly cycle can trigger suicidal feelings. Nothing much has changed in my life or in me internally between one week and the next, except I went from the follicular phase to the luteal phase.

If food, drugs and hormones can alter our emotions so easily, are they that real and concrete to begin with? Who is real: the person before being chemically altered or after?

Some days I wake up and I feel like something terrible has happened to me, or is going to happen to me. I eat breakfast and suddenly the world is radiating rainbow colours. I have learnt not to trust how I feel, which is the opposite of conventional wisdom but in parallel with buddhist philosophy. My brain likes to run its own programs, whether I prefer to have them or not. When I am in a good mood all of this is quite amusing to me.

I am a lot less unhappy these days, and my frequency of having overwhelming emotions have lessened considerably. Avoiding known triggers when I can is tremendously helpful. Because I am a lot more stable, I am able to look back at my past selves with some level of objectivity, if that is even possible. I feel a little disconnected from them, and there is some regret. I wish I have known how to get help much earlier on, or have known how to help myself (reading the right books are very helpful imo). Then I wouldn’t have wasted so much time being so sad that I was unable to live. I was like a sad zombie walking around with not many other emotions available to me, unable to experience the fullest possible spectrum of life. I wish I knew that it was possible to hold my sadness and yet not submit entirely into it.

Like just hold that sadness and all its accompanying emotions in a crystal ball and look at it curiously, from as little distance as I can make. Just imagine that it can exist out of me a little while. There is a seizable gap I perceive, no matter how small it is and how short the moment lasts.

I am not sure if this is just temporary – my capacity to put a bit of a distance between my emotions and myself. But sometimes, all we need is to see the possibilities of that little gap. Maybe the gap will disappear for a long time returning us to where we were, but the first time that gap appears, it opens up the reality that what we believed as a concrete state is actually malleable.

RSS feed updates, and the spirit of NetNewsWire

This is a tiny break in regular programming just to notify that I’ve updated the RSS feed for this site to include /notes. The main feed used to fetch everything from /journal, /essays, /experiments, and /poetry. I deliberated for a while whether I should make people subscribe to /notes as an additional feed if they are interested, but I had decided that I’ll make it less work for people who want everything.

For people who just want my long-form writing, you can subscribe to this feed instead.

There is a strange bug for people using Feedly: if you simply input “” it ignores my html header and keeps fetching my old rss url from the old subdomain where journal used to live, so if you want to make sure you’re getting all my posts, please resubscribe with this url on Feedly:

For people new to RSS, you can use something like Feedly to subscribe to posts, or on the Apple ecosystem there is the very excellent NetNewsWire that is free, and it syncs via icloud to all your devices. A tiny digression: why is NetNewsWire free? I was really curious about it, so I googled, and i turns out the spirit is something really admirable:

I should explain: the app is better — much better — than it would be if it were a for-pay app. If it were a for-pay app, it would be just me working on it instead of this great team of volunteers. There probably wouldn’t be an iOS version at all: it would be Mac-only. The kind of features I don’t enjoy doing, such as the Twitter and Reddit integration (and others), wouldn’t even exist.

And it would be slow going. NetNewsWire 5 would have shipped much later than it did, and NetNewsWire 6 would not have shipped until next year, probably.

Instead, because it’s open source, we have this amazing team of people willing to work on it in their spare time. During a pandemic and everything. They’re bringing you something great out of love, with the goal of writing an app of the highest quality.

We don’t have to rush and Ship Right Now in order to make our revenue numbers. We don’t have to pick feature X over feature Y because we think it will bring in more conversions. We can care about performance and efficiency; we can say no to things that might have made money but that are outside our vision.

– Brent Simmons, The lack of a price tag seems almost criminal

Wow. I’ve never thought of a free, open-source app this way. I’m like really cynical of tech these days but once in a while it still brings the best stories of collaboration. Even the article on “How to Support NetNewsWire” is admirable.

This is a post that would typically belong to /notes, but I wanted to reach out to people who is reading the discontinued rss feed on Feedly that only fetches posts on /journal, which means they may have missed out on posts on /essays and /experiments over the past 2 years. Oh well. I don’t think I have that many readers anyway, but it seems 30 odd people on Feedly may have subscribed to the old feed, so hopefully they’ll see this.

And for those of you who had subscribed all this while, thank you for being with me on this lonely journey.