on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

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.

The fire is burning

We see a fire burning, and we go around telling the entire village. They ignore us, and continue to have fun. By the time they notice it, it is too late. Those of us who saw the fire early has a choice. Do we run for our lives, or do we die along in solidarity?

The above storyline has been repeating through the course of history. Sometimes it gets worse, because a select few get to decide who should escape and who should not. Other times, there’s no escaping regardless because we’re all inter-connected so there’s nowhere to escape. Many of us have to pay with our lives because of the decisions of the few.

Such is the power dynamic of life, such is the unfairness of it all. I have lost hope for humanity quite a while ago, especially since I have begun to learn how our brains and psyches work. Perhaps the Buddha saw the same, so his solution was to live a desire-free, do-no-harm sort of life and hope one day we can be released from the cycle of rebirth and suffering. His hope was not in a human life, neither did he think that humanity would transcend themselves and become better humans – his hope was in nirvana, in an after-life. Of course, there are people who argue that right here, right now, is nirvana itself, if only we can see it. But even if that can possibly be true, we are interdependent, so nirvana really depends on how everyone else around you behaves.

I am not a Buddhist, but I appreciate some of the philosophy that stems from it, especially Zen. According to my shallow understanding of Zen, at a time like this, the best thing to do is to experience reality for what it is. There is no denial, no over-interpretation, no convoluted narrative or reasoning. Life is full of paradoxes, contradictions and hypocrisy, and ironically it gets easier once we are able to live with that.

In a way, I am really self-centered and yet not. I find it extremely difficult to feel safe when I know there are millions of people out there unsafe. I struggle to live even before all of this shit, and yet so many people are fighting for their lives. I am grateful for my privilege – that I can remain at home and I don’t have to worry about bills for the near future, but there is an tremendous amount of guilt that accompanies this. Why do I get away with it?

Once we have gone through enough of life and come to the startling conclusion that we are not that special, none of us deserve to be more privileged than the other, that so much of life is due to the lottery of our births rather than our talent, hard work and abilities: it becomes extremely challenging to be at peace and happy. Our safety, peace, and happiness comes at the expense of many other people who are not safe, happy or peaceful. I complain about the inequality in the world, but I am part of it. I want to do something about it, but I am too sick and broken to do so.

If I had a choice in the beginning, I would have chosen not to partake in any of this. There is no winning in life. Someone is always losing. Know this at our core and we’ll never be truly happy; ignore this and choose personal happiness but we’ll lose our humanity.

personal thoughts & anxiety on the virus situation

I will admit that when the whole virus situation started I didn’t take it seriously. I don’t remember being concerned about SARS, H1N1 or any similar diseases. I think there is a callousness and naivety that comes with youth. Maybe the effectiveness of the Singapore government in those earlier situations lulled me into a false sense of security.

Then the news and research started trickling in, before exploding in line with the case numbers. I became seriously concerned with South Korea, and the rapid spread in Italy along with the rest of Europe kickstarted my sense of fear and dread, especially after parsing through threads like this on twitter:

This is the first time in my life we’re facing a global epidemic, and nobody has any idea what is truly in store. There is the part about the virus, then there is the part of the fallout due to the virus. The former is bad enough, and I shudder to think about the latter.

Singapore is lauded, probably rightly so for handling the situation well. But I think we’re hardly out of the woods. We are not in lockdown, people are still flying in, and the malls are still crowded. We just need a few asymptomatic people walking around to start new clusters and make the linear growing numbers into exponential ones.

There are so many threads on social media about the situation in Europe, with many people saying that one week ago they were living their lives as per normal, and it took just one week for their hospitals to reach their capacity. I strongly feel that Singapore should do perform tests on anyone who wants to be tested, as well as people exhibiting mild symptoms. I am worried that if we wait till the number of cases implode, it will be too late:

I am a nobody, and people hardly read this blog. I am not writing this to advocate for action, but rather to express my fear. I don’t mind laughing at my own paranoia in future. I realised many people are relying on mainstream media for their updates, so they may not know how dire is the situation in other countries, or that there is increasing evidence that people who exhibit no symptoms can be highly contagious.

“On Tuesday, Dr. Sandra Ciesek, director of the Institute of Medical Virology in Frankfurt, Germany, tested 24 passengers who had just flown in from Israel. Seven of the 24 passengers tested positive for coronavirus. Four of those had no symptoms, and Ciesek was surprised to find that the viral load of the specimens from the asymptomatic patients was higher than the viral load of the specimens from the three patients who did have symptoms. Viral load is a measure of the concentration of the virus in someone’s respiratory secretions. A higher load means that someone is more likely to spread the infection to other people.”

Infected people without symptoms might be driving the spread of coronavirus more than we realized, CNN

I am personally staying at home as much as possible, except for my morning rides at the park where it is open air and everyone is at least a few metres away from me. I remain grateful that I have cycling as my crutch.

I don’t feel safe at all. I am very worried for the elderly in my family, especially those who already have chronic conditions. I can only hope that the current measures will work against all odds, and that this is the precise time when we can demonstrate the advances in our medical science to develop an effective treatment for it.

Everyone, please stay safe, and try to keep everyone else safe by practicing social distancing.

some thoughts on publishing, and the preciousness of the ordinary

I used to love writing because it was cathartic – I had a lot of repressed and suppressed feelings which I couldn’t express in person. These days I have found myself wanting to write less because I don’t repress myself that much anymore, at least to the extent I am conscious of. I also think that blogging has become complicated, people used to share the mundane things they do and now it has become a personal marketing tool. Additionally, I am afraid of the power of my words: I share very personal experiences about my life truly in the spirit of sharing, I don’t want people to take my words as advice or some version of objective truth. I loved writing online because I felt free doing so, and now I don’t know how I feel about it.

I have changed so many selves throughout the years, and I love reading through an archive of my old selves to discover how much I have changed. My old writing no longer represent the beliefs I have now, but I am reluctant to take it down because I am an archivist at heart. A few months ago I read “At the Existentialist Cafe” and Becoming Beauvoir among some other biographical accounts of philosophers, and it struck me how often these philosophers changed their minds and worldviews, but the world only remembers their philosophy that was frozen in the permanent legacy of their famous books. Apparently Sartre wanted very much to correct his philosophy that he was so famous for, but he died before he could complete his work, through the alcohol and drugs didn’t help as well.

I am always in the process of becoming, so I don’t wish to have a fixed view permanently attributed to me. I don’t think the world has solved this problem yet, to deal with the dynamism of text. Maybe you would think I’m exaggerating to call it a problem, but I think the static quality of books, the time it takes to publish new information that is capable of eradicating its predecessors and seep it into the public consciousness, is causing the human consciousness to have a very serious time lag.

It has repercussions in real life. An example that frustrates me to no end is doctors dishing out information and advice that is severely outdated to patients, hence affecting their quality of life and chances of recovery. They regurgitate what they learn in school decades ago, and school itself is already behind the latest proven research. We trust slow-moving institutions too much, to our own detriment.

Of course, on the other extreme end is the barrage of live feeds. There’s so much new information that we no longer know what is real and useful anymore. We need something that can negotiate the deadness of a book and the liveness of a feed. I wonder if I’ll experience something that I’ll be truly astonished with in my lifetime.

The whole virus situation has made me deeply reflect on how one can have almost everything possible but nowhere to spend them if the world becomes unsafe enough that the mobility we take so much for granted is taken away. I am hesitant to visit loved ones in the event I am an asymptomatic carrier. I read in the national news that after a patient was finally discharged from the ICU, all she wanted was to return to her ordinary life: cooking for her family, exercising with her friends, buying groceries.

An ordinary life, something so many of us fervently try to avoid in pursuit of the extraordinary. But for me it is the ordinary that gives me the most joy. All I want is some time to ride my bike, eat some good food, read some thought-provoking books and spend quality time with my loved ones. If I had to be Sisyphus I would be contented having a repetition of a day that allowed me to do all the above. This would sound super weird to my younger self, and she would probably look very down on me, just as much as I would laugh at her foolishness.

Contentment it turns out, is truly feeling the awareness of how precious the ordinary is. Yet it is not easy to filter all the noise that exists, process all that trauma, uncondition ourselves from all that unhealthy mainstream thinking, and settle into an ordinary life of our own choosing. As I have once written before, there is nothing simple about being simple.

This morning I read a really sad story on Reddit. A man lost his wife to cancer only 108 days after she first experienced health problems. They were both just 25. How much he would give just to experience the ordinary again with his wife.

Extraordinary stories are still inspiring. Sometimes I think my way of life must be really weird to the mainstream society, then I come across examples of people who truly put me in my place, such as this woman who cycled around the world alone for almost 10 years now, relying mostly on donations. It is not uncommon for people to take long cycling trips, but 10 years!!

I don’t think there is anything wrong with the pursuit of the extraordinary, but be sure to pursue the definition of extraordinary in your very own terms, not a peer-pressured, society-defined one.

on the process of learning to be less unhappy

Having been raised in a materialistic society it is difficult to uncondition ourselves from believing that success equates to happiness. Some of us turned our backs on conventional success and chose to pursue our passion instead, so there’s this counter-narrative that it is pursuing our passion that will make us happy.

I think ‘passion’ is often a misused term. Only upon hindsight I realised what I believed to be my passion was simply the first thing I latched on to that offered me some semblance of agency and room for self-expression. It felt like a relief compared to the mainstream narrative of scaling corporate ladders in a 9-5 job.

We are told that in order to succeed in our passion we have to sacrifice for it. Due to the naiveness and bravado of my youth I worked countless nights till 5am in the morning for the sake of my “passion”. Being a designer was not in the list of “approved” professions back then, so apart from low pay, abusive bosses and long hours, I had to put up with disapproval, discouragement and disappointment from the people around me.

My career bore some fruit in my early 30s. For the longest time I did not have the courage to contemplate I was unhappy because of the blood, sweat and tears I had put in. I went through some traumatic times to sustain my career for that entire length of time – how could I give it all up when I had worked so hard for that respect, approval and validation? So I blamed it on my chronic depression.

I think one of the factors that cause the great unhappiness in society is the sunk cost fallacy.

It is extremely challenging to sort out which part of the chronic depression is causing the chronic unhappiness and which part of the chronic unhappiness is causing the chronic depression. I also think it is one of humanity’s greatest talents to be in denial.

Depression itself is a complex condition that may mean a thousand things. But for the sake of this context I will define it as a biological regulation disorder. Compared to the average healthy person it is more challenging for me to regulate my emotions, meaning I tend to swing from one extreme end to the other, and I am very easily stressed – whether mentally or physically. These extreme swings and stress makes it difficult for the neurotransmitters to be regulated (just the presence cortisol for prolonged periods is enough to cause a spectrum of hormone-related conditions including diabetes), therefore resulting in a chronically low mood.

I have thought of myself as a resilient person precisely I went through so much and survived it all, to finally acknowledge that I am a fragile, easily stressed person was embarrassing and disempowering in a society that prides people on being tough. Can you imagine telling a prospective employer you’re easily stressed? Can you imagine a prospective client reading my blog? Nobody would hire me.

But if I didn’t acknowledge my fragility I would only continue to put myself in situations where I continue to burn out over and over again because I wouldn’t protect myself from exposure to stress. It is like dunking a person who doesn’t know how to swim into the ocean over and over again and expecting them to thrive.

It is helpful that I am somewhat still driven to understand my condition, so reading a ton of research of chronic depression and emotional dysregulation allowed me to stop feeling so lousy about myself. We tend to blame fragility on one’s character, as though it is something that can be improved if one decides to. But do you know our nervous systems can be greatly impacted even as an unborn fetus? It can result in lifelong consequences.

I started to understand my condition as a systemic condition. Stressful societies and environments produce stressed people and they in turn produce stressed children. Then, we all go on to perpetuate the conditions of a stressful society, because that’s all we know. Because that’s all we know and all we’ve done to survive, even thrive, we celebrate and glorify being able to cope with extreme stress. Clap clap.

For me, it is so obvious on hindsight and a lot of introspection that I have been conditioned to expect happiness from all the wrong places. I thought I had everything, but I was still miserable. I think we assume the capacity to be happier is an innate human condition, but for some of us, it is something that has to be learned and developed.

What made me a lot happier – again I wouldn’t say I am happy but I would say I am a lot less unhappy – weren’t accomplishments or even love. My career achievements brought me temporary elation, then emptiness. Then it got worse because we are told that we are supposed to feel grateful with all the material privilege we have been given. But material privilege doesn’t buy you psychological stability, the inner capacity for happiness, or the self-awareness that one needs to work on oneself. However, it can buy time to try to develop them. But to take the time, effort and challenge to do so is not something money can buy too, because we tend to avoid difficult feelings and/or internal experiences, and/or admitting that something is wrong to begin with. I spent a long time trying to avoid going through wholesale changes because I just didn’t want to admit everything was just not working out and I have to start learning how to crawl again. It is also potentially a very isolating experience because everyone else is going through life status quo while I went for gatherings and even on social media supposedly expecting to feel the same but all of a sudden nothing ever feels the same again.

People who have been interacting with me for a long time expected the same behaviour from me – why wouldn’t they – but I simply wasn’t the same person anymore. I was not interested in most things people were interested in, I put up way more boundaries, said no to most things and effectively isolated myself for a long while. I couldn’t figure out how to interact with people when I didn’t even know what to expect from myself.

I probably fell into a deeper depression than the one I was already in. Losing everything familiar including my previous self was a thoroughly disturbing experience.

Maybe it took two years or more? In the recent months I have observed myself to be a lot less depressed. I still experience low moods but a lot less suicidal ideation. I definitely have more physical energy.

I can only explain this in the way I can in this very linear format, but the entire experience was nowhere linear. I think I went through a long period of detox from things that gave me short-term dopamine hits and I felt very lonely for a long while because I no longer felt connected to anything, but I walked out of it suddenly realising what used to matter so much to me no longer mattered, and now I am free to find what truly mattered.

That also meant that old triggers triggered me less since they mattered less. Being less triggered meant less emotional upheavals which meant less depressive burnouts. I took most things less seriously. Perhaps I would leave this for another essay but it is difficult to take anything seriously when one realises most things are just a story we tell ourselves. Everyone is living according to an internal script we have of our own lives and of ourselves, everyone else is fulfilling a role in that script. One day, we can just stop following that script and drop out of people’s scripts too.

There are things that are as real as reality can get, like viruses and mortality, but something like I must be a hardworking person or everyone including myself will despise me is just a story. It is a story that becomes very real and will have actual impact on someone’s life because a society’s culture can determine whether people’s opinions of you matter especially if you’re underprivileged (society just sucks) but many a time the power we assign to these stories are disproportionate to the actual impact it can have of us. For example, for the longest time I truly believed I was a nice person and wanted everyone to like me – but what the heck? It is simply a story I made up and I believed it so much that I made myself miserable living it. It felt like the end of the world if someone disliked me but in actual reality it is just one person’s story of me. Sometimes we cannot control how someone perceives us because everybody has their complex psychological histories and responses. If someone dislikes us, it may not even be about us at all. This is one of the hardest things to learn in life but also one of the most beneficial – to learn that many situations in life are people acting out their inner scripts. It is even more beneficial to understand how powerful our own inner script is, and yet how much we can change it.

I like being a not-so-nice person who knows how to say no and enjoys being a somewhat hermit, I am also more at peace with however people wish to perceive of me. At the end, I am the person who has to live my life and inhabit my own mind and body. Someone’s dislike and disapproval of me may hurt my fragile feelings but it shouldn’t cause me to detest myself and my life so much that I frequently wished a car would knock me down while I cross the road. Especially if people’s views are simply a bunch of stories told to them too.

What I learned is that while my chronic depression is still very much a biological condition, lessening the factors that worsened it gave me the opportunity to develop some psychological stability and awareness – including the awareness that a huge chunk of my misery is caused by the thoughts I have of myself and the world, which comes from what I imagine people to think of me as well as past experiences of people hurting me consciously and/or unconsciously (and I blame evolution and the system for a lot of this shit). Everyone’s mileage may vary, but in short a huge chunk of my unhappy feelings come from other people (and/or my projections of them). Just developing the capacity to live in a world slightly apart from most people and construct a life where I am capable of amusing myself is making me a lot less unhappy.

I think most people including myself crave for a sense of belonging and appreciation, which is probably wired into us for evolutionary survival. That is probably why we are so susceptible to peer and societal pressure. I guess I just want to clarify that my point is not that being around people is bad, but it shouldn’t make one feel bad about themselves. Sometimes it could be our own projections – we imagine their feelings of us – but other times some people are just not aware of the hurt they are causing other people. Sometimes I am the one making people feel bad about themselves which I only realise upon hindsight which in turn makes me feel bad about myself, and taking time to be with myself gives me an opportunity to reflect and become a more aware and resilient person.

It is not easy to become a person who doesn’t hurt another. For me, being a hermit is one of the easier ways to take myself out of everybody’s complex psychological histories and responses. I get to give my own hyper-responsive nervous system a break too. I don’t recommend this to anyone because loneliness is triggering for some people but for me, learning to co-exist with existential loneliness has gifted me a profound sense of peace and freedom.

TLDR: believing in the wrong stories can cause great misery.

Note: I’ve been writing less because now I’m posting more videos on instagram, so pop by there if you want to know what I’ve been up to.