on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

the long view: note-taking and becoming a person

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

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

How to take smart notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

illustration on notes becoming a person
art by launshae

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

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

on processing books for kindling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl Jung once wrote,

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

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

art by launshae

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

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

searching for an enough in health

I got sick again this week, so just paying attention to my cardiac data didn’t work. But the data did serve as data points to an ongoing mystery, and at the very least it eliminates some possibilities so it inevitably demonstrates some possible next steps.

by @launshae

What I do know is that my migraine started somewhen near or on my ovulation, so it seems there is something about the drop in estrogen that is causing me pain.

There was a time when I had a few pain-free months because I was regularly seeing my family’s traditional chinese medicine sinseh. Her explanation was that my liver was “heaty” and I don’t have enough qi. I know this sounds like hogwash to a lot of people, but TCM is the only thing in my life that has successfully relived my symptoms so far, so I would say that 5,000 years of wisdom is not something to be trifled with.

Why didn’t I stay on it since it worked for me? I really wanted to understand the roots of my issue, and everytime I had tried to go off the medicine the issue would return. Something in my biology, in the way my body is struggling to maintain homeostasis, is resulting in systemic biological pain for me. The herbs were balancing whatever deficiencies I was having, but it didn’t feel like a sustainable long-term solution.

That said, there may come a day when I have tried everything I can possibly think of and if nothing worked I would accept the lifelong reliance on TCM. I would love to have some quality of life. Perhaps sadly something inherently imbalanced in our biology is not something that we can recover from. I hope this is not the case, and this is why I’m fervently documenting this journey.

I do believe one day (if we don’t self-destruct so soon) we would be able to map the TCM system to Western science. Right now, my current hypothesis that what we think of as “heat” in TCM is actually chronic inflammation, and the lack of “qi” is the inability to metabolise energy efficiently. Only in recent years did medical science catch up with what TCM has known for thousands of years: that the health of the gut leads to the health of everything else.

I think there is something about my lifestyle and internal responses that are overworking my liver for some reason, causing some repercussions on my estrogen balance or perhaps it is the other way round. Do you know levels of estrogen is directly tied to fatty liver? I had no idea until yesterday when I was trying to research the effects of a low-carb diet on estrogen. So much I’ve learned on this journey.

I was exercising a lot and eating a pretty low-carb diet before this bout of pain, so in response I am going to tone both down a little. The relationship between carbs, insulin, serotonin and female hormones is complex – too much carbs and we can develop insulin resistance and PCOS, too little carbs and our reproductive system may shut down and we may become insomniac and depressed. But how much is enough?

I think what is “enough” is different for every individual. It would be nice if one day we can do some scans and bloodwork and it would automatically tell us the breakdown of the nutrients we need to maintain homeostasis. I would gladly pay for a service like this.

Meanwhile, I will be on this very long search for my enough.

making sense of health

I would like to lose the weight I feel whenever I publish anything on the internet. There is an automatic self-consciousness, the idea that people would judge me. You would think that after writing publicly about having chronic suicidal tendencies I would lose that self-consciousness, but it is always there, lurking.

I think it is difficult to be rid of that sensitivity, especially after a lifetime of feeling that sensitivity because there was so much fear of experiencing shame. I do wish to actively work on this, because I’ve been thinking about the impermanence of life a lot, and I don’t wish to wait till it is too late to do what I want to do.

Apart from self-consciousness I’m limited by my health. I can no longer look at a computer screen for too long. Back in 2015 when I first started experiencing eye pain I thought it would be temporary until I made a full recovery, but it seems till date there is no longer such a thing as full recovery for me. I do get good periods when I don’t experience any pain or discomfort but they are far and few in between, and I don’t know how to prolong these periods. This month I was optimistic because I experienced very little PMS symptoms compared to the usual, but right after my period I started having what I call malaise – the most obvious and common symptom is brow pain, like a little dull knife carving behind my brows. Sometimes they are so mild I don’t consciously notice a pain until I press them, but I feel a deep fatigue with the inability to look at the computer screen without feeling as if my face is cramping.

Just like right now, my face is mildly cramping, and if I don’t finish writing this soon, it may develop into a migraine.

I have no idea what’s really causing all of this except my lifelong inability to regulate stress is causing these chronic symptoms. I wish I knew what to avoid and what to do to manage these symptoms, but I don’t, so I can only do everything that science has taught me to: exercise, eat a moderately healthy diet, get regular sleep, drink enough water, eat some recommended supplements.

The good news is even though I’m chronically unwell, I no longer experience terrible bouts of pain that used to make me suicidal. For now. It is a slippery slope because every time I go off my disciplined regime the migraines come back again. But I do get self-policing fatigue, so now I’m trying to see if I can have some cheat days stashed in between the tightly policed ones.

Since this is such a long journey I have learned a lot, so much that my GPs have no idea what I am talking about when I wanted to test for several blood markers, and also that what we’ve been taught through the mainstream about health is mostly wrong. I am also learning about new things all the time as I go deeper into my research and self-experimentation.

When we just dip your toes slightly into the subject of health one will quickly realise everything is systematically connected. Well, except many doctors who prefer to treat each symptom in their own silos. When one is experiencing chronic symptoms like me, you will quickly learn that we must be our own advocates and many doctors cannot be trusted with their outdated knowledge. Someone I know has pre-diabetes and her assigned nutritionist from the public healthcare system told her to eat five meals a day including one before bedtime. This is the opposite of what the latest science is saying about diabetes, insulin resistance and fasting.

art by @launshae

It frustrates me to no end because this is very real damage we are talking about. We can’t just prescribe eye drops to people with dry eyes or painkillers to women with PMS symptoms and tell them to suck it up and there is no hope of getting better. PMS symptoms are often a precursor to much more serious issues because every hormone causes cascading and ripple effects to other hormones.

Just one hormone – insulin, is able to wreak havoc on anyone’s health. Just one factor – stress, can cause a severe hormonal imbalance. Yet we are taught nothing about this.

The other day I was thinking about my mortality especially in the light of Covid19, and despite being somewhat nihilist I asked myself what would I like to complete the most before it is too late. I would like to document my journey and learnings in an accessible manner. So a couple of weeks back, I started collating my writing and books into a notebook. It makes no sense yet, because I have no clarity yet on how to format it in a way that would be useful to both the public and myself.

Today co-incidentally I came across Laura Deming’s Longevity FAQ (thanks Conor!) and I was excited that something like this exists. However, I’m personally not interested in longevity but rather the optimisation of well-being – I would rather live a very healthy long enough life versus a chronically long but unhealthy life – in general. I think something like this would be the simplest implementation on what I have in mind, though if given the time, space and health, I would probably experiment with a more exploratory interactive format once I am able to nail down the basics.

I wish we would have more systemically-linked content than time-sensitive posts. But there is very little incentive to make permanent content in a recency-obsessed society.

I’m not sure how long it will take, or if this is something I’ll ever complete. I can only work in very short spurts before I literally need to lie down. I also go through lengthy periods when I can’t do a single thing except maybe read. But I do hope that every tiny iteration can mean something.

improving hormonal imbalances with cardiac data

I wrote in a previous post that I’ve been gathering data from my heart in order to understand my body. I’ve had chronic health issues since 2015, and thankfully a lot of it has cleared slowly over the past few years – like my previously dead tear ducts and oil glands in my eyes, they are now alive – but one persistent issue is chronic migraines that I get every month either during or after my monthly menstrual cycle. They last for days, and thereafter I take days if not weeks to recover from the fatigue and depression.

No one knows why hormonal fluctuations causes migraines, and actually no one knows why in general migraines occur.

There is a lot of history I could write regarding this, but to keep this post short my current hypothesis is that my inability to self-regulate is causing chronic stress in my body, which is in turn causing chronic hormonal imbalance, which causes my migraines. Since regulation is largely an autonomic process, there are two main things that one can try to improve it:

  • meditation: stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system
  • exercise: balances hormones and improves stress resilience

I’ve been regularly exercising since end 2015 to improve my symptoms. For a long time I was obsessed with forming habit streaks, so I pushed myself to exercise everyday regardless of how I felt. I started with swimming which is a gentle exercise, but when I lost access to a pool I started running. I grew to like running enough, but it didn’t stop my migraines.

I’ve had the Oura ring for about a year now. It measures my heart rate variability while I sleep, and along with other factors it calculates a score it calls “Readiness” which is supposed to inform me whether I should push myself hard for that day. Unfortunately my inability to self-regulate also means I would be in some form of denial when it comes to the score and I would continue to push myself regardless. So I would still regularly burn out from over-straining myself.

I couldn’t deliver things anymore because of the virus, so my main source of exercise is gone. I became worried about losing fitness because for me losing fitness is not just about energy levels but it also means the potential for my symptoms to worsen. I started cycling everyday, and when the country went into a partial lockdown I started cycling more to compensate for the sedentary lifestyle. In the middle of March I got sick, so for the first time I started paying serious attention to my cardio data to decide whether I should exercise for that day or not. Stress can impair the immune system, so I really didn’t want to compromise my immunity especially at this time.

After I recovered from that bout of sickness I decided that cycling wasn’t enough to improve my fitness, so I started running again. I got used to measuring my HRV every morning – a ritual I started when I was sick – and I used the data as signals to tune the intensity of my exercise that day. I remember burning out during the time I was running everyday, so this time I decided I would only run if my HRV during sleep and upon waking is trending positively, cycle for longer distances if my HRV is average according to my long-term baseline, and exercise minimally or rest if my scores are below average.

(Caveat: an unusually high HRV is also a sign of stress.)

Ultimately my goal is to improve my hormonal balance. I was never a healthy or fit person, so I am really curious if I can overcome my inherent biology to become healthy and fit.

While paying attention to my resting heart rate (RHR) and heart rate variability (HRV) I realised they were always trending negatively after ovulation. A quick google search confirms my suspicion. Basically because of hormonal fluctuations, a woman has a few days of good energy levels a couple of days after menstruation, and it lasts till ovulation, which thereafter it dips until the cycle starts again.

Perhaps for a healthy woman the difference between very good and a little bit worse is not a lot. I have friends who don’t even notice their period, which is the way it should be. For a person like me with PMS – both pre and post – I am basically healthy, sane and productive for like ten days out of an entire month if I am very lucky. This has drilled into me the point that wanting to achieve daily consistency is actually counter-productive. To really achieve well-being, I need to learn how to live according to the seasons of my body.

In health, I think what is important is to improve the baseline. It is the baseline that drives the overall system, and the baseline that determines how much stress one can endure before breaking down.

I decided that what I want to focus on is the baseline of my luteal phase, which is the phase between ovulation and menstruation. That phase is the hardest for me – emotionally, physically, and mentally – and it is fourteen whole days of every month of my life, until I reach menopause which is going to bring me a new set of problems. But I am hoping if I do this right now, I can have a gentler transition to menopause.

The past few days, I’ve been pulling data from my Oura ring and analysing it in the simplest way possible. I’ve only looked at the data for the past three months because that’s when I started paying a lot more attention to my health because of the virus.

To keep it simple for now, below is a table showing the data from my Oura ring, though I do use other devices as well. I included cycle length because my research tells me that the longer I take to ovulate, the unhealthier I was. This month, I had my first period in months that didn’t come with a serious migraine, but sometimes when it doesn’t happen during then it will happen a bit later (sometimes during ovulation) so I don’t want to jinx myself. Is this because of my newly started HRV-based exercise experiment since mid-March? Was 30 days enough to make significant improvements?

What I’m interested in is to improve my data during the luteal phase: I want a trending lower RHR, a higher HRV, and an average cycle length that is not more than 30 days. The goal is to use HRV to exercise dynamically to improve my body’s capacity to endure stress which a lower RHR and HRV will indicate, and hopefully my body will produce less stress-related hormones, and that will restore balance to the rest of my hormones, eventually leading to the cessation of my migraines, or at least allow me to reach more clarity on my own condition.

MonthAverage luteal RHR
Average luteal HRV
Cycle Length
data from past 3 months of menstrual cycles

It is too early to tell and I am still experimenting with my dynamic exercise regime, but I want to start documenting this process from the beginning.

As we can see from the table, during my luteal phase my average RHR is trending slightly upwards due to the increase in exercise, whereas my average HRV is improving though there was a dip in March because I was sick. What will be interesting is to see longer term trends. Will exercising according to my HRV lead to a drop in my RHR eventually? Will learning to be gentle with my body lead to the health improvements I’ve always wanted? How much exercise is too much?

It is probably a strange topic to most people, writing so much about my menstrual cycle. But in my own process of research I realised this is something not many people are willing to write about in an open manner, even though it heavily affects the health of many women.

There is also very little blog posts about using data to improve health on a personal level. Based on my own understanding on global trends, chronic health issues will be an increasing concern in time to come. I hope by trying to shed some light onto my process, this information may be useful to somebody out there, no matter how obscure it seems to be now.

Further reading:

Wikipedia: Menstrual migraine

on westworld, freewill & exercise

[mild spoilers ahead] When I gotten from reading a copious amount of psychology and neuroscience research is that it is very debatable that human beings have free will at all, and that all of us are trapped in our own scripted loops unconsciously.

Of course, I am not the only person thinking about this. So I wasn’t very surprised when these themes are being investigated in this season of Westworld. In previous seasons I felt like the robots trapped in the actual Westworld was like a metaphor for how we as human beings are similarly trapped, but for this season it is no longer a metaphor. A machine can accurately predict the trajectory of every single human being through artificial intelligence and the acquisition of personal data, and in doing so it also makes those predictions come true by limiting the choices they are allowed to have. The reason for this is so that the world can have predictable order instead of chaos.

There is no such machine in today’s real world, but in its place there are a ton of mini-systems designed to fulfil a similar purpose, such as how something that seems so innocuous like Facebook can greatly influence political results. Our resumes are probably filtered by some algorithm and perhaps in some companies they will never get to see the light of the day if we don’t have an ivy league education.

Putting technology aside, our brain works the same way as A.I.s do, even though we would like to pretend otherwise. It takes inputs and they form the basis of patterned outputs. A huge amount of these inputs are determined by the place of our birth, our DNA, our ancestral history, and the external environment we grew up in. Perhaps these I can accept, but my world came crashing down when I read A General Theory of Love and made the inevitable conclusion that even love, something that seems so magical and soulful, is merely a patterned product of the brain too.

art by @launshae

We can consciously break these loops, if we do become aware of it at all. There is therapy, meditation, cognitive exercises, etc. I guess for me the magic question is, is awareness itself also part of one’s predictable destiny?

I think I have broken my own loops by reading extensively, going for therapy, quitting a lifelong career and changing my way of life dramatically. But, was my so-called awakening moment a predictable consequence of my personal history? If someone else walked with my shoes, would they have come to this reckoning as well? It is like if you continually stress an animal, they too would exhibit a radical change in their behaviour as well right? Well, I could say perhaps some animals develop learned helplessness and they just accept their fate, but in my case I think there were a mix of inputs in my life that made me unwilling to continue life as before, and these inputs were not within my control and will.

I don’t believe for a single moment that my personal will is a result of my own making. I have to admit I have been dealt with a very kind hand among all the pain I have experienced.

So, is a person who decides to go for therapy primed by previous events to make that choice in the first place? Someone was famous for saying that we can’t change our circumstances sometimes but we can change the way we respond. But recent neuroscience research has shown that chronic stress makes people make bad choices. Can you fault a person for making a bad choice if they can’t control how their brains respond? Can you credit a person for making a good choice if they were blessed with a healthy psyche due to their circumstances?

The other morning I was doing my routine exercise, and I realised one of the reasons why i love exercise so much is that among the unpredictability of life, exercise is one of the rare things in life that has a predictable input/output system. The body is incredibly adaptable, and one can go from almost hyperventilating on a slow run to running a full marathon in a relatively short time.

It also allows me to at least contemplate the possibility that I can break some of my own patterned loops. Like I can be cycling six laps everyday for months, and one fine day, I decide that I will do one extra lap. Because of the circuit breaker I have been sitting for most of the day after my morning exercise, so one day in the evening I decided to go for a thirty minute walk. Nothing dramatic, nothing life changing, but it is a break in my patterns and thus it feels liberating, that there is still a small portion of my life under my control.

For me the magical part of it is: because of my obsession with self-quantifying data, everytime I introduce something novel to my exercise routine I get almost immediate feedback, like improvement in my cardiac data. I was very surprised to observe that though my first run in months stressed my body out, by my second run I was recovering above my baseline the very next day.

I have never imagined myself to be a fit person, and now I’m almost excited to see where the values of my cardiac data can go.

Yet the meta thing is, my exercise itself for the most part is a very routine loop. I cycle and run the same part of the park everyday, I walk the same few rounds with my partner around our estate every evening.

But I realised that my endurance for boredom has greatly increased. I mean, I was the person who cannot stop scrolling twitter. Because of my daily looped cycling, runs and walks, I’m used to moving in circles. And somehow through that voluntary conditioning, I have started to learn to observe, even within loops there can be unpredictable beauty and moments of wonder.

I thought I’ll be really claustrophobic because of the lockdown even by my introverted standards, but once I settled into my daily loops in them I have found a space for creativity and restoration, whereas previously I could always find something to distract myself from my feelings.

Maybe I can never find answers to the greater philosophical questions of freewill, but I think I agree with the dead philosophers that it is better to pretend that we have some locus of control, no matter how tiny it seems to be. Sometimes it can be as tiny as walking one extra step – I pretend that I’m giving the middle finger to the heavens above by demonstrating that I’m behaving out of my expected loop on that day.

on exercising with data from the heart

I went for a run this morning, my first run in months. I have been cycling everyday instead, because cycling felt a lot easier to sustain for a longer period of time. Because of the lockdown apart from my morning exercise I’m sitting or lying down at home, so I have become concerned with the muscles in my body would start to dystrophy.

Why should I care about the muscles in my body at this time? Is it for vanity or fitness? The problem is once my muscles start to dystrophy, it causes a cascading effect where I’ll get body aches, tense muscles, poor blood circulation, and then complex hormonal effects which thereafter I’ll end up with terrible PMS and a PMS-related migraine. The effects seem worse as I age, and I’ve been trying to experiment with both exercise and diet to try to mitigate them as much as possible. I haven’t had a migraine free menstrual cycle in months, if not years.

I noticed that while cycling with my road bike – which I do favour – my max heart rate per minute is around 130bpm and that’s if I cycle like a maniac, which is dangerous for the park connectors (max 25 km/h legally) I cycle on. That range is enough to build endurance, but not enough to build fitness and strength. I’ll have to do more research to cite more evidence, but my intention for higher intensity exercise is to increase my tolerance for stress. The slightly counter-intuitive thing is, the higher amounts of targeted physical stress we put our body through, the easier it becomes for it to relax, because it builds a tolerance and capacity for the stress. That’s why elite athletes have very low resting heart rates, their hearts hardly need to work to pump enough blood for their bodies.

Since the lockdown my resting heart rate has been increasing. I have no idea whether it is the sedentary lifestyle or the chronic omg-the-virus-is-destroying-the-world-as-I-know-it stress – probably a bit of both. So I decided to restart running again to rebuild my fitness since my suspicion is my cycling will only maintain it.

The difference between this new bout of running versus my old running routine is that I’m going to use bio data to help me manage it. I used to be really into daily streaks and was very unwilling to break them, so I ran everyday rain or shine. That was actually not healthy for me, as I burnt out without knowing it.

I am probably going to write another post about the devices I use to measure such data, but in summary I check my heart rate variability every morning to see how intense my exercise should be:

I use a polar chest strap for the first app and my apple watch for the second. Why two data points? I actually use four including the oura ring and a whoop strap I use during sleep (these are all devices I acquired in different points of my life in case you think I went crazy and got all of them at the same time). The reason why I use four different devices is because each one of them have their own flaws and there’s many conditions that may cause readings to be off since HRV is a sensitive measurement. So I use all of them to gauge an average sense of my daily capacity to exercise.

When it is in the green like the above, I’m good to exercise at high intensity. At yellow, it will be better if I limit it to a slow, recovery-type of exercise. If I’m reading a red score, I should have a rest day no matter what I actually want to do. Over-exercising can cause injuries and worse, burnout which make take months for recovery.

The real reason why I’m relying on data instead of my own good sensibilities is because many years of experience have taught me I have no good sensibilities and I only know how to burn out. I am also hopeless at being attuned to my body.

Today, I ran about 6km around the route I use to cycle. I have never ran that part of the park before, and it was surreal to experience how different it felt. It felt like time stood still as the park was eerily quiet with birds singing and sounds of trees rustling in the air. Experiencing that on a bicycle and on my two feet feels radically different, like time has slowed dramatically down.

I thought it would be hard. I used to struggle with 2km, much less 6km. The fitness that comes from cycling does not translate to running. My heart rate spiked to 150+bpm compared to my fitter days of 130+bpm for a slow jog. I had to be careful not to overdo it in case I burn out and fall sick yet again.

But I was surprised to learn that I didn’t feel like I was forcing myself to do something I disliked. I used to look at my watch a lot and wish the metres would rack up quicker so I could finish it as soon as possible. Today I looked at my watch often enough, but it didn’t feel terrible.

My cycling didn’t contribute to my running fitness as my heart was still struggling, but it contributed to the endurance. My chest didn’t feel like it was going to burst, my body didn’t feel like it was going to fall apart from all the weight I was making it carry at speed. So it was quite intriguing for me to observe that experience because at that 150bpm+ heart rate I was expecting to feel terrible but I didn’t. I definitely didn’t feel it was effortless – I could cycle intensely and it would never feel like a real effort to me – but it actually felt moderate. I never thought I would use the word moderate on running.

I’m looking forward to running whenever I am in a good physiological state as determined by my HRV, acquiring more long-term data and see if my hypothesis that this will lower my resting heart rate would be correct.

To really build strength I would probably have to start on weights and HIIT, but I am not there yet. I’m not sure if I would ever want to go there, but I never thought I’ll be ever cycling a road bike, so who knows?

I don’t know what are other people doing with the blogs or newsletters. I have one acquaintance on twitter who tweeted that someone wrote to him to say that his newsletter was tone deaf because he didn’t write about the virus situation at all. His reason was that there’s already a lot going on about the virus, he wanted to add a different quality to the world.

I hesitated to write a post like this, because who cares about my personal fitness when people are suffering so much? But I’ve written quite abit about my feelings towards the situation, and it is my personal belief that precisely because I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, it brings a bit more urgency to me to document the mundane qualities of life. In our history even at the darkest times, we have always been making art and documenting (I sometimes think about Anne Frank writing about her desire to kiss another girl).

I don’t know about you, but personally I think everyone should do whatever it takes to cope, as long as there’s no intention to harm other people (not practicing distancing is harming people). I may not like what other people are doing for whatever reason, but I don’t have to do the same or participate in it. Similarly, nobody has to read this very mundane, specific post if it is not their thing.

At a time like this, perhaps there are other people struggling with their chronic health like me and would like to experiment with their HRV. The most cost effective and accurate way would be the Polar H10 chest strap which costs about $120 SGD / $80 USD. You can also use your existing Apple Watch if you already have one. I acknowledge these things are not cheap, but regular visits to the doctor is definitely more expensive (unless you have socialised good healthcare). The whoop band costs $30 USD/mth which is the most affordable start cost but will add up in the long-term.

More on these devices later.


I write one of these every year, since the age of 30. This is my tenth year writing, and from reading posts from the previous nine years you could see the trajectory of my identity. Apparently last year at 38 I found myself at 37 too serious, but today I have found my 38 year old self also way too serious. I think it is a good gauge of my personal growth.

It is strange to look back at my selves for the previous nine years and be able to see with clarity how tortured I used to be. I have way too many thoughts, and I wanted so much control over my life and myself.

This year, I am at a loss for what to write here. In the space where that many thoughts used to reside, there is an emptiness. Is it a good or bad emptiness, I do not know. Maybe it is related to the sense of emptiness I feel towards the entire situation right now, and the emptiness I feel towards my life for the past year.

In Buddhism there is a concept of emptiness called shunyata. I came across it while reading a book about Chogyam Trungpa (whose existence is riddled with scandals and for now I don’t wish to go into a debate if we can separate the teachings from the scandals, I am just cherrypicking what I want) – I found this quote in a previous post I wrote:

“For instance, if you are studying music, the starting point is to realise how unartistic you are. That’s a hopeful situation. That you have the intelligence to see how unartistic or how unmusical you are is the starting point. Hopelessness is the starting point. That is extremely powerful actually, and the most positive thought that you could have. It is an extraordinarily positive thing to discover how bad things are.” – Chongyam Trungpa, Glimpses of the Profound

I only remembered this today for the purpose of this post, but some of it must have seeped into the deeper layers of my consciousness as some time last year I tweeted:

The more I learn about neuroscience and psychology, the more hopeless I become towards the state of the world. So the gradual outcome is, I don’t ask much out of people including myself these days. There is an intellectual understanding towards why it is so difficult to ask for transformation. The emotional understanding, the compassion, is difficult to develop for me. But in a meta fashion I don’t ask of myself to develop that emotional capacity any quicker than I can too, because I have finally understood why I am not capable.

Perhaps that’s the biggest awareness I have had of myself this last year. I have always thought of myself as a person with a deep emotional capacity because I am an emotional person, only to find out that what I have are dysregulated emotions, not emotional capacity. What I felt for other people is a projection of my own feelings, not true empathy.

Recognising how empty of a shell I am has given me a way to ground myself, a starting point. I no longer ask of myself to be a person I am not, neither do I swim in a pool of guilt when I am unable to fulfil people’s expectations. You wouldn’t ask a person dripping of blood to give blood, would you?

I am not sure what comes after tomorrow, much less who I’ll become. I don’t really know who I am anymore and I confuse myself all the time, and I think I am beginning to be okay with that. I am developing a lot more respect for the unconscious processes that take place within us, and I have learnt to give less power to my conscious intellect. I am just a fumbling person, like everyone else.

If anything, I would like to be more capable of giving room to the fumblings of everyone, including myself. But I am nowhere remotely near there, yet.

the weight of a physical presence

It is surreal. My partner and I are self-isolating most of the time ever since we knew about the possibility of asymptomatic spread and the exponential math. But we’ve been homebodies before the pandemic, and if we don’t ever read the news it would seem as if everything has been the same.

I still do my morning cycle at the park near our home. I keep my distance of course, and hopefully my sanity. Most mornings I take a picture or two of the sunrise almost at the same location, but they never look the same. That is the beauty I have learnt to appreciate in the sameness of the everyday.

Some mornings I find myself crying in the middle of cycling. I am petrified at the thought that I might not see the people I love, again. If I choose to see them I put their lives at more risk. The most terrible thing is not knowing when it is going to end. Is it three months, six months, a year or two? When it ends, will things slowly churn back to what life used to be, or will we be living among wreckage? I can deal with a lot of things in life, but not my heart torn into a million pieces.

The elderly in my life. One of the main reasons I returned to Singapore was to spend their remaining years with them. Without this virus situation I was already in preemptive grief knowing there’s not that much time left. Now, I live in fear and anxiety not knowing whether they will be kept safe.

So I remain angry and upset. Especially at people who can choose to self-isolate and yet they don’t. It is difficult to reconcile this with the knowledge that these people are putting other lives at risk.

I often write about the impermanence in life: that I have been in a race against time, and that I regularly remind myself and people I care about to not wait too long to do the things that matter. This acute awareness of time has led me to live my life very differently from the trajectory that seemed destined for me. My partner and I – we often talked about living in a way that would anticipate climate change, illness, grief, deaths, sometimes even the possibility of war. But a pandemic? This soon? We were hoping to keep our innocence for at least five more years.

I am upset with myself. I have an aunt and uncle – they raised me – whom I visit every month. Now I wish I could reverse time and made weekly visits instead. I call, and as a person who never understood why people love meeting in person so much when text messages would suffice, I now know what is the weight of a physical presence.

It is what I’ve been missing since this started.

hypocrisy. anger. sadness.

Just a few posts ago I was writing how in recent times I have lost the desire to write as I no longer needed it that much as a crutch and as a medium for catharsis. I was learning to live a more physical life: doing deliveries, going for long bike rides, exploring the world. Well, all of that is mostly gone, except my daily morning bike ride, which I am not sure how long it’ll last for since we may go into a full lockdown, and we may get sick.

Many a time I’ve always wanted to write and publish more often, but there is a considerable amount of self-censorship. Who wants to read my mundane or cynical thoughts?

I used to keep a livejournal back in the early 2000s, and I would update it almost everyday even if there were only one other person reading it. It was a time when I wrote because I wanted to. There were no considerations of the repercussions. People like to read hopeful, positive stuff, and I write about my inner truth. Sometimes that inner truth is hopeful, sometimes it carries beauty, but most of the time it is simply dark and cynical. I do not disown this in me, but I am cautious of being a perpetual wet blanket to the world.

I once wrote to someone that all my life I’ve just been trying to free myself, over and over again. No matter how much work I’ve done on myself, sometimes I still feel like I walk around with a rope tied around me. An elephant with invisible chains, as they say. I consider too much of what people may think, still. Some frightened seven year old inside me still has abandonment and rejection issues.

But this whole virus thing is making me angry and sad all over again. The last time this happened was when Trump was elected – I went into a deep depression. How can they? I felt betrayed when some friends on facebook made it sound like a good thing. I wish I had screenshotted those, there’s a part of me that would like to see those faces now.

Anger makes me childish, but the suppression of it is not a sign of maturity either. The past two days I’ve just allowed to feel the anger that’s been building inside me for a while now. There are people I care about who are at risk because they have chronic conditions, and their very lives are endangered by people who go on their lives as per normal. There are medical workers who are risking their very lives this very moment. Sure, the number of cases in Singapore are not a threat to our capacity. YET.

I tried to make my case, but trying to change human behaviour is a mostly frustrating and fruitless exercise.

There is an asymmetry of information, as most people rely on mainstream media to inform them, while I read up as much as I can to placate my anxiety. I realised, not to my surprise, that many people are not interested in more information even if we put it on a silver platter and serve it to them. They were only interested in their own lives.

Today. Something clicked in me. Something inside me went dead. Again.

I am a very selfish person. I have known about climate change for years, but I wouldn’t say I’ve altered my behaviour significantly that much. That’s partially because I know the main bulk of power still lies with political leaders and the industries.

But this thing, this is a thing where one person can start a whole butterfly effect on the system. This is a thing that will affect the elderly in our families. The is a thing that will kill the people who have chosen to take on roles as healers in our system. Now. Not in some undetermined timeline in the future.

I tell myself I am a hypocrite for being angry, because this affects me on a visceral level whereas maybe other issues that are equally as important to other people fell on my deaf years too.

But I have decided that I will write about my hypocrisy. And anger. And sadness. All of it.

I can only say I am the person I am because of the life and psyche I have. The world is a giant rorschach test, and we can only see what we can see. So I will write about what I see.