on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts


Today is the 2nd and a Sunday, so I am taking the opportunity to document us again. I wonder if I’m just regurgitating everything I’ve previously written, but I realised if that is the case it is actually a good thing that the beauty of this relationship has sustained for 31 months.

In reality this would be mostly impossible, because we’ve both become different people even in the short 31 months we’ve been together. When we’d met I was still a workaholic extolling the virtues of purposeful work, and I was trying to discourage her by asking her if she’s really willing to take second place to my work for the rest of our lives. Strangely she wasn’t discouraged, just like she wasn’t when I told her I’m chronically existentially suicidal and my dark moods would often render me unpleasant and unavailable. This quality of hers will prove to be one of the most important factors that will sustain our relationship – but to be truthful we both don’t know if she’s optimistic, gracious or simply really good at ignoring.

Perhaps even if I believed that her attitude wouldn’t sustain once the rose-tinted glasses fell off, I thought it was really something to enter a relationship with somebody like me anyway. I was depressed, sick, fatigued and wasn’t sure how I’d survive. 31 months on I am objectively in a much better shape than I was, but a lot of it is due to the support and safety I had felt from her in the first place. I am not sure how to describe in language what it means to feel this sort of support and safety when I have been used to a lifetime of insecurity and rejection. Perhaps it is like the magical feeling of being in a pleasantly warm climate after being born in a winter climate, not knowing that kinder temperatures even exist.

We have learned to fight better, and that requires the effort to know each other deeper: where are the trigger points, how we both handle and resolve conflict. There is a lot of letting go, not because of the desire to compromise, but the understanding of the actual intent behind the actions and words. We often think people we love are deliberately injuring us, when it is because we don’t know how to handle the injuries within ourselves. This is a lesson I am learning on my personal journey, and in parallel it is also unfolding in our relationship.

They say entering therapy changes not only the person but also our surrounding relationships, because when we change, our dynamics with people change too. I wasn’t in therapy long enough to benefit from this sort of profound change, but in these 31 months I’ve probably read and understood more than I have in my entire lifetime. It has been enlightening to see the outcome of this positively impact the way this relationship plays out.

But that sort of impact wouldn’t be possible if there isn’t a willing partner. Many a time one party changes, and the other party wants to stay in the same place, so the relationship disintegrates. We are both in major transitions of our lives, so we’re both radically changing in different ways, I think we could fall out of sync or diverge from our shared path so very easily. We fall in love with a person and months later the person is no longer the same person we fell in love with. So love has to be consistently renewed and reaffirmed from both sides.

At this 31st month mark, this is what I marvel about. That somehow all the adjustments and renewed understandings have been mostly seamless. There were definitely moments when it felt precarious as we both, formerly conflict avoidant, learned to assert ourselves and express our needs in the relationship. But we survived those (for now) and it made the relationship stronger because there is increased trust and safety, the knowing that there is a flexible resilience in place.

I remind myself every so often to be thankful because I know it isn’t easy at all to have a partner that is actively engaging in a difficult, intricate, precarious dance with you. People often prefer status quos and we somewhat prefer to break our own moulds.

These days my idea of leading a purposeful life is no longer work and busyness driven, but to take the time and effort to know oneself. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as a purposeless life, since in my opinion it is pretty pointless to define a purpose when the self becomes increasingly undefined. It is anxiety inducing, because the world that surrounds us live in a different rhythm and it is easy to succumb to what the mainstream society demands and expects of us – I would say, especially in an Asian society like Singapore where we’re so conditioned to not only follow the herd, but to sincerely believe it is a good thing to do so.

In my ideal world it shouldn’t be so, but I feel tremendously grateful for a partner who not only understand the journey into my inner-abyss, but exuberantly encourages it, partners it. I would have done the same if I was alone, but it makes a significant difference to have someone journeying alongside, to be a witness while I gradually learn about myself.

I think for me the most beautiful thing, which I left purposely at the end, is the privilege to partner and witness her journey as a new artist. I cannot emphasise how amazing it is to see someone who picked up art barely a couple of years ago, evolve the way she has so far. I often sit at the couch reading, and I remember to look up and I see her painting. To hold this sight, to know that it is beautiful and precious on a daily basis, that must be one of the greatest experiences of this relationship. I get to see something new birthed from her consciousness almost every day, it is a profound reminder how a random and cruel universe is also capable of finding itself expressed so beautifully through the love of an individual.

And that I remember to be aware of the marvel of it all.

the glass is already broken

A long time ago, a very short story left such a deep impression on me that I posted it as a facebook note (strangely it would be only one of the nine random fb notes I have posted over a decade):

“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

This story has somehow been hovering in the deep layers of my subconscious. I have been reading so much buddhist literature recently that the story surfaced into my consciousness again. I checked the date today and I was surprised that it was posted on 26 November 2009, almost exactly nine years ago to the date (it is quite uncanny that I am choosing to write about this today). It still surprises me that some threads of my life already had their roots a long time ago, getting almost forgotten with the mundane pursuits of life, only to resurface.

The glass is already broken. I am reminded of the movie Arrival (warning: spoilers ahead), where the protagonist was given the gift (curse?) of seeing time in a non-linear way by an alien race, and through that she knew her child would eventually die in her twenties but it arguably didn’t stop her from trying to live a full life with her daughter.

What would you rather choose? Would you choose the blissfulness of ignorance, bear the sudden terrible grief at the end and risk taking time for granted, or would you choose the painful baggage of having the awareness of knowing your child will die very soon and that makes you cherish every second of her life? Would some people avoid developing a bond with their child to avoid the pain of loss?

How does one live with the knowledge of knowing we are going to lose something we love very much, trying to love and cherish as hard as possible while racing against a countdown timer?

The truth is we are all racing against a countdown timer in some way or another. We can choose to be aware of it, and how aware we want to be.

I don’t think there is a right or wrong choice, it is a matter of preference and personality. It is like some people like saving up their money and spending it at the end, others like spending what they have at any given moment.

For me it wasn’t really a choice. I have been living with this hyper-awareness for as long as I can remember. Sometimes it feels like a disability and I envy people who can compartmentalise, other times it feels like a superpower that enables me to live a richer life. I often feel overwhelmed by sadness, especially I am getting to an age when the people around me are getting older and more fragile. Every interaction feels poignant because I don’t know when will be the last moment I get to be with someone while they are alive. Every goodbye feels loaded. I desperately try to hold on in vain by capturing photos of seemingly mundane moments…with the knowing that one day that there will be nothing I can do to have these mundane moments again.

This becomes more apparent with climate change. These days I try to appreciate my breaths of fresh air a lot more, not knowing how long it will last. I look at trees and flowers with refreshed awe. I don’t remember to do this every time, but it is arising more frequently in my consciousness: seeing everything not just in the current slice of time but interspersed with their potentialities.

Memento mori.

If I could choose, what would I rather choose? I would like to think I would still choose to be hyper-aware. Sometimes it feels tiring to live this way, to experience every moment imbued with the sadness of eventual loss. Sometimes I wish I can retain some naive innocence. But if I were to look at things in the grand scheme, I would still rather know. We love cherry blossoms because we know they will fall.

It is this hyper-awareness that allows me to overcome my fear and insecurity, to pursue change instead of resisting what is inevitable. Most people become aware of their countdown timers near the end, I don’t know when is my end or when are all the ends I am afraid of, but in many ways I feel lucky that I am aware of the ticking as early as possible. If anything, I do wish to cultivate more equanimity towards the ends I am in fear of, that life begins and ends with no personal vendetta against us, that if I at the very least attempt to be aware of each passing moment I will be spared a little less regret with the time comes.

The grief though, I think I am beginning to accept, will be inevitable. Grief, is the consequence of having loved, and perhaps it is fair to have the magnitude of pain directly proportionate to the magnitude of love.

It is still a choice: whether to live life within safe boundaries, or to push its limits and risk its consequences. I have come to a point where I think both are valid.

10% less unhappy

There is a book titled “10% happier”, which the author describes how he became slightly happier with meditation. I don’t believe in making happiness as a goal in life, and I have learned that unhappiness and happiness are actually on two separate spectrums. I have been happy, but my unhappiness did not decrease due to my increased happiness, and vice versa. So for me, it is more meaningful to work on decreasing my unhappiness, because what I want in life is to feel at ease, and happiness is a long way from feeling easeful.

I am not sure if I’ve written about my views on happiness before, but for the context of this post I’ll reiterate it again. I don’t believe pursuing happiness as society defines it is a sustainable way of living. If we think being happy should be the default, then we are set up for persistent failure because as it stands, the design of society makes life suffer. It is possible to demonstrate our supposedly indomitable human spirit and be radically optimistic and happy despite all the shackles that bind us, but I think for most people that means psychological repression, and that comes out in other ways.

There is also a philosophical question of “why”. Why do we pride and cherish happiness above all? My theory is most of us are wired to want to avoid pain, and the feelings of pleasure makes us forget about the pain of being alive, albeit temporarily. What about the sort of happiness that is not hedonistic, but it is more like the joy of seeing a child grow, or when we immerse ourselves in nature? I think those feelings are a very precious part of being human, but still yet not more important than other human experiences. It is ironically the desire to expose ourselves only to feelings of happiness and joy that creates suffering, in my opinion. Because the reality is, life is multi-faceted and complex, it will always inevitably hold the potential of the full spectrum of human experiences, so when we restrict ourselves to chasing a narrow spectrum, we miss out, we become smaller, we forego a huge chunk of our own human potential.

So why is decreasing my unhappiness more meaningful to me, compared to increasing my happiness? Like I mentioned above, increasing my happiness does not decrease my unhappiness, my unhappiness is in the way of appreciating my happiness fully. It isn’t happiness that makes me aware of the fragile beauty of a flower, in fact to me, it obscures it. I could be so immersed in the feelings of joy that I forget to appreciate what is right before me. What I cherish is aliveness, because that is the meaning of life to me. To be alive. To be alive is to be everything: happy, sad, joyful, grieving, laughing, crying, accomplished, fragile, vulnerable, lost, etc. To be capable of embracing pain, that is being alive. To acknowledge that everything is impermanent and that people will die, things will disintegrate, that enables me to hold the full dimensionality what is in front of me, in this very moment.

But my unhappiness, just like my happiness, obscures all of that. It is so heavy, so oppressive, that I am unable to experience much of anything else. There is a well-known buddhist parable of suffering: that when we are shot by an arrow, we actually experience the suffering of being shot by twice. The first is the actual arrow, the pain of suffering a physical wound. The second is our reaction to the first arrow.

The reaction, is ultimately a repetitive narrative in our heads. We get shot by an arrow, but it becomes a story that we are shot because we are weak or unworthy. That it is unfair, that we don’t deserve it, that we are deliberately targeted, that somehow it always happens to us, that we’re destined to be jinxed, that we’re dealt with an unfair hand while everyone else has a good hand.

I have a bunch of arrows shot at me decades ago, and multiple decades later I am still hurting over them.

And I slowly learned that healing from them is not to simply tell myself that everyone gets shot by arrows, that life is random and unfair, so I should just grow up and move on. I learned that intellectual knowledge does nothing to heal emotional wounds. I learned to truly heal, I have to learn how to become a parent to myself. I have to learn how to pick myself up gently, to treat myself like how I would treat a child who is crying right in front of me.

I have to first of all, stop being so angry with myself.

And you know, if you’re used to people always being angry at you and also always being angry at yourself, you have no other mode of operating.

It is like I no longer just have two arrows, the actual arrow and my reaction, but a third arrow that I kept jabbing into myself so I relive the pain over and over again. I have no conscious control over this. I didn’t know how to be, otherwise.

So I run. Meditate. Cry. I let my partner soothe me when I cry like a baby. I learned to grieve for myself. I let myself collapse into a heap and I slowly learned to judge myself less for always being so sad. I make less violent remarks at myself. I forgive a little bit of myself, even if only a little. I forgive a little bit more of people, even if only a little. I know intellectual knowledge doesn’t directly heal, but it equips me with better understanding and management over myself, so I read voraciously. I develop more empathy towards myself and others because I now know how much of this is unconscious and not within the typical locus of self-control. I become more accepting of my fragility. I stop demanding of myself to be “better”, whatever better means. I stop comparing. I stop focusing on what I cannot do and instead I concentrate on what I can do. I let myself be angry and grateful at life at the same time. I no longer live in a binary world. I no longer see myself as a on/off switch but a complex system of feelings. I increase my boundaries with people and accept my desire to be a hermit. I stop forcing myself to be anybody I don’t wish to. I try to discern what I truly want versus what has been conditioned to me. I try to feed myself better food but also stop berating myself for eating too much sugar. So I try to eat a little bit better and a little less sugar. Again, no extreme ons and offs anymore.

There is so much in the little. My entire life, I have been searching for the huge. I searched for saviours, for life-changing events. But the profound changes in me were only sustainable with small daily acts of grace and generosity towards myself.

I don’t know how and when, but recently I started to notice glimpses of what I call a non-narrative driven awareness. It could be a moment when I am reading, and I notice I am reading. That is all. I notice that there is no longer a background anxiety, and I am not stuck in reliving the past or imagining the worst. I am simply reading, running, or eating. There is no added narrative to those moments, no second or third arrows. I am just me in those moments, I no longer come with attached labels or descriptors. My mind is free from the stories I tell myself, even for just a moment.

I read “The Power of Now” many years ago and I was like WTF is he talking about. In recent months I read a ton of buddhist literature and because I am always holding so many intellectual opinions in my head and I prided the mental activity, it was difficult for me to grasp why they kept harping on the now.

For me the breakthrough isn’t so much the now, but the capacity to see reality for that it is, rather than the narrative layers we heap upon it. I am not saying I have developed that capacity, but it is fascinating to see glimpses of it.

So, I think I am 10% less unhappy. When profound changes take place so incrementally over a long period of time, it is difficult to notice them. But once in a while I remember the psychological state I was in say three years ago, I know I am a different person. I can just flip into my journal entries from then and there is a discernible difference (this is why I keep both a public and private journal, it is like version control for humans).

I am 10% less unhappy because I stopped believing in a story about who I should be or become. I accept who I am and where I am at the moment. The cynical voice in me says, obviously I am more at peace at a time in my life when I have not many commitments to fulfil, and I’m not oppressed by the demands of a full-time job. But that wasn’t a given. For myself (and many others I know), free time is a nightmare. I was that workaholic who asked to start new jobs ahead of time because I could not tolerate the idleness of having no work to do, nobody to report to.

I am not sure when I’ll be forced to be encumbered by commitments again, but I hope when the time comes I will be a person who is unafraid of facing them: to stoically walk down a difficult path simply by walking, not by imagining and being afraid of monsters ahead.

I do not know what the future holds, whether this is temporary and perhaps I’ll be back to my frenzied state tomorrow. But I know I have become aware of an anticipation towards more of what is to come, because this is the first time in my life I am trying to lead a self-directed life as much as possible, away from the safety of the mainstream. I have never known what it is like to live without worrying of what people will think or a life that is not fully dictated by the desire to escape oppressive circumstances. What will it be like, to lead a life without the weight of the invisible chains around me?

on being little

I noticed a recurring pattern whenever I try to embark on a new way of life, typically against the mainstream. I get really stressed before making the decision or change, followed by anxiety, a sense of abandonment or alienation – even though technically I’m the one doing the abandonment or alienation but I guess the feeling comes from the aloneness of leaving the herd – more low-grade anxiety, as though I am doing something really wrong, stupid and weird. Then one day without warning, I start to notice I no longer carry that weird swirly feeling in my chest, I stop hating myself and I start to feel at ease with the new path I am walking on.

I felt a lot of fear for leaving the tech industry for good. I was not leaving just a job, I was leaving my entire identity, my tribe: people who had made me few a semblance of normality, a sense of self-worth, and belonging. The past few years, all I kept doing was leaving. For someone like me who is chronically insecure, doing all this leaving was quite traumatic. I needed all of that to feel safe, and yet I left them behind.

But now, I feel a sense of peace, and a sense of firmness in my identity. I am no longer defined but what I do but who I am as a person. I feel less scared at losing things or experiencing changes in my circumstances, because I feel like I have acquired a sense of self that was not distributed to me by some external value system. I start to have an inkling of what is truly important to me, instead of holding on desperately to things that seemed to be important because, well, everyone else seems to think so.

It is difficult to live a life against the mainstream. First of, we seemed genetically programmed to want social acceptance (well I guess in cavemen times you would die if you don’t learn to cooperate with other people). Research seems to show that our brain reacts to social rejection the same way we react to physical pain. Also, the functioning of society depends on consensus, how do we know what is right and what is wrong if we’re on our own?

But what if, as history has demonstrated again and again, the majority consensus can be flawed?

I have derived great solace in reading books about monastic life. I used to holding conflicting opinions about monastics. On one hand, I feel admire their capacity to throw everything away. On the other, I wondered if they were escaping from life. Recently, I begun to develop a view that being a monastic is a radical rebellion to the way the current world works. It is like giving a giant middle finger to capitalism and materialism, making a deliberate choice to believe that a way of life is possible needing as little as possible, trying to constantly pare down instead of striving with endless greed. Now, I think monastics are not the ones escaping from life, but trying to go deeper into life by removing as much noise as possible.

I am beginning to understand almost everything in life is noise and distraction. The way society is set up right now, there is no choice for most people but to work. We work most of our waking hours away for the top 1%’s benefit, and work takes so much time away from what truly matters in life: love. People who have experienced brushes with death probably understand glimpses of that. What is the point of being the best anything in the world when you can’t spend time with people you love?

When I was busy with work I had no appreciation for most things. Because appreciation requires thoughtfulness, and thoughtfulness requires time. Seeing and knowing a person beyond their job title takes time. Wandering in nature and savouring the richness of what nature has to offer takes time. Remembering the impermanence of life and reminding ourselves of the fragile existence of our loved ones – these thoughts would not pop up when I was rushing from one deadline to another, or spending more than ten hours in front of the computer to prove that I was capable.

So what if I was capable?

So what if I was not?

I started contemplating this possibility when I started getting chronic migraines which inhibited my ability to work. What if in all definitions of the word, I become disabled?

I spent a lot of time in the past few years in despair, shame and fear. I think that is the consequence when we are conditioned to believe that our self-worth comes from social recognition defined by the work we do. But somehow, over the years I have slowly changed, and just like I described in the opening paragraph above, I stopped being anxious. It is almost like an addiction: it may be challenging to go without coffee for a while, but after some time we just get used to it. For me, it is the same for my dependence on social affirmation. Suddenly, it has become empty for me, it has lost its value.

I feel like I am okay being a very little person. A person who is little, has little value, and has little things. I like my littleness, the lightness that is derived from it. Since I no longer identify as a designer or anything really, I don’t feel the anxious need to protect that status. I don’t feel the need to make myself seem useful or capable anymore. I accept the very little that I can do.

In exchange for this littleness, I get time and love. Time to love, time to be loved, time to do things I love, time to discover experiences to love. When I projected myself as a very capable person I felt empty and I knew it was not real or sustainable. But projecting myself as a very little person with time and love, there is a sense of wholeness and anticipation. It takes very little to amuse me these days.

I don’t know if this is temporary, but in a way, everything is temporary. It is refreshing though, to have a little window of time in my life where I can feel this sense of space available, where I no longer feel that claustrophobic living in my own head and in my own life. I used to feel I lacked so much, so much. But now, I feel there is so much out there in the unknown to explore, once I stopped trying to pigeonhole myself into a self who was dependent on social acceptance.

It once seemed unthinkable to try to be as little as possible when this world is all about making ourselves as large as possible. But maybe between being a monastic and Elon Musk there is a long colourful spectrum where there is a sweet spot for me. It is just surreal to notice that what seemed so important to me, so unliveable without, has been reduced to something I now wonder why I needed it in the first place.

scratches & intolerance

Once, I noticed this tiny scratch near the headphone jack of my then newly-bought device. It made me really upset for a long time. Then we moved into our new home and I noticed fine scratches on our newly-installed stainless steel sink. Again it made me really upset, bordering on a meltdown. I would notice scratches here and there, and they took me a long time to get over.

Some time ago (probably due to the books I have been reading), I started to be curious about my feelings. Why did scratches make me so upset? I realised that a large part of it comes from blaming myself: I blamed myself for not taking good enough care of things. This has a history behind it. I was often careless with my things when I was younger and so as an adult I over-compensated for it.

Digging deeper, I learned that I am intolerant of faults. A scratch, no matter how tiny or visible it is, represents a fault in something that was once perfect and whole. This mirrored the relationship with myself. I was very intolerant of the flaws I saw in myself, and I berated myself over them again and again. It could be something like allowing myself to overeat, or unintentionally snapping at someone, or feeling insecure. I became conscious of the overwhelming, repetitive feelings my body induced in myself whenever I blame myself for something. It feels like this sinking, gnawing sensation – it often grows in the background until it becomes a wholesale depression.

All of this phenomenon, I haven’t been aware of it. I was just aware that I was sensitive and easily depressed, but I didn’t break it down. I think it was an assumption and societal conditioning that terrible moods are part of one’s innate character.

There are many complex, scientifically researched reasons for why someone can be prone to tempers and mood swings. It could be transgenerational trauma, feeling unsafe as an infant and/or child, disordered brain chemistry, bad diets, lack of exercise, etc. In reality all of those are often inter-related. But this researched knowledge made me learn that people are often not born a certain way. What we think of as “our character” is often a response to our environment. How about genes that we inherited? Even genes can switch on and off, they are not as static as we once believed.

What does this mean? For me, it means that for every seemingly bad behaviour or response, there is often a suffering behind it. We suffer, so either we retaliate/compensate in unhealthy ways often unconsciously or we internalise our suffering, directing it at ourselves. I have become intolerant of my own flaws and mistakes because society (especially in Asian society) is intolerant of flaws and mistakes in general. We often warn people from perceived dangers by issuing absolute threats: “if you do x you will regret it for the rest of your life!”. We don’t tell people it is okay to make mistakes most of the time, or failure is acceptable as a condition for taking risks, and most importantly, we don’t understand the psychology of negative behaviour, so we blame it solely on the individual. A good or bad person is determined by their decisions, without giving any consideration to what makes a person, a person.

Because I was intolerant I was also often intolerant towards other people. Slowly, I learned to see the suffering behind my flaws, my feelings. We are often told to get over ourselves, that focusing on the self is narcissistic, that in a confucian society we have to put the others before self. But ignoring our own pain, dismissing it, causes not only more pain to ourselves but to people around us as well. Pain causes suffering, suffering causes retaliation. Our own suffering causes us to be blind towards other people’s suffering, and we get so caught up in our feelings that we often don’t realise we are hurting people. I have observed people being unkind to strangers, or worse towards their own family, and I used to wonder, why? How can someone be so unkind without being aware the damage they are causing? There are many complex answers, but often people are more concerned about being right or not losing their authority/power because their very sense of security is being very threatened. Their own feelings of fragility has to be soothed immediately first, it is always about why people are nasty to them, why do people have to disagree with them, offend them, them, them, them, always their feelings.

By them, I also mean me.

The irony is, by ignoring our pain everything eventually becomes all about soothing our pain, without us realising it consciously.

How can someone be so unkind? I learned the answer by finally perceiving the ways I have been unkind, whether to myself or to other people. Unkindness is caused by internal suffering, the ignoring of such suffering.

To be kind, to truly be compassionate, requires us to learn how to notice suffering, to understand what makes a person a person. I feel like I am only beginning my journey, but I have begun to notice a gradual softening, a decreased propensity to react with anger instinctively, a willingness to learn and comprehend, both myself and the other.

How to capture and distribute what we learn?

Recently I’ve come across 3 websites that gave me a mini-adrenaline rush when I saw them:

Credit where it is due, 2 of them are from following Michael Nielsen who has a pretty amazing website himself. What the 3 of them have in common is the longevity and breadth of knowledge captured. I am envious, because I haven’t done much to capture my own learnings and I wish I have a history like these websites.

These make me want to work more on the learning network idea (prototype still alive here) I had been working on before I decided to focus solely on my health. I am frustrated by the flatness and linearity of how we currently store knowledge – there must be a better and a more dynamic way to do it right?

Form aside, it also takes effort to capture these notes in the first place. Is it a design issue? I don’t know. Over the years I’ve tried evernote, google keep, etc, the problem is always remembering to capture my learnings. I read a book, have a great epiphany, make a mental note to write it down later, but I never get down to doing it and the insight is lost. 

The second part of it is: even if we capture everything religiously, it is still a pain in the ass to retrieve strategic pieces of information when we need them. The most robust search engine still needs to know what to search for in the first place. How do we manufacture serendipity, when the right pieces of information comes to us during moments when we don’t know we need them?

Related to this, recently I’ve read Ray Dalio’s Principles. I’ve avoided reading this because “eugh hedge fund manager”. But somehow I thought that I’ll keep an open mind, and I can always do the “eugh” after I finish reading it if I really dislike it. Liking aside, I have found it interesting that Dalio has codified his life principles like how he has done so for his investment algorithms. He thinks it is possible to put a framework of how we live life into a computer and let it systematically gauge and measure the potential decisions we make. Similarly my friend Buster has a github repo on his beliefs, we can see how he has evolved from the changelog. I have an informal google doc where I note down similar observations about myself, namely the main challenges and anxiety I had been feeling at that point of time. It is a useful exercise for me to go back in time and see what used to plague me so much and how much they don’t anymore. 

What I really wish to do – instead of publishing my learnings as a book when I am in my 60s (like Ray Dalio) – is to make a “living book” (aka website) with the intention and knowledge that it will evolve. I don’t like the immutability of a printed book, especially when it comes to our philosophy on life. I am pretty sure if we write a book on our views in our 30s we will definitely cringe by the time we hit our 40s.

I think we need to rethink how we record and distribute knowledge as the world gets noisier and people’s attention spans get shorter. I have no answers, but instead of thinking I have the final solution, perhaps I can ease myself into thinking that the solution will continually evolve. I should at least attempt to start formatting what I’ve learned into something accessible for myself. Sometimes I read my own journal in reverse chron and I am disturbed by how much I’ve learned *and* forgotten. It is a point of failure to rely on myself to remember to read my journal or wait for an app to remind me that 7 years ago on this day I learned something new.

Last month I went to Kyoto for 3 weeks. While I was there I thought of closing my patreon account again, fueled by guilt. The hesitation comes from the unwillingness to lose this community, however small. At that point I felt like in the near future I would be writing mostly on obscure philosophy while I am figuring out my own existential crisis. What I’ve learned from reading a lot of psychology/philosophy is that instead of reacting to a feeling, how about containing and observing it for a while? Where is my guilt coming from, and is it objectively substantiated? I noticed that one of my major life issues is that I have an “all or nothing” mindset. I go into these obsessive cycles, burn myself out and then into avoidance mode. 

Again I don’t have answers or solutions. I think my guilt comes from neglect, and I neglect because I think I need to have something “meaty” to share. But I think there is value in the ephemeral and the personal. I have to go back to what I hope to achieve out of Patreon. I really relish being amongst the company of people who either have a common interest my experiments, or people who connect with my writing. I hope to have meaningful discussions and feedback here.

I want to continue mulling upon how I can share more of what I’ve learned and read. I’ve been reading a ton of interesting books but I am not capturing enough notes and thoughts that arise from them. Another thing I am thinking about is restructuring my online presence to reflect the evolution that is going on in my life. I don’t know who I am and where I am going, but I think that is the interesting part, how do I info-architect the online presence of someone who is constantly in flux?

My online presence and work is scattered all over the internet, because I believed that there are different expressions as a consequence of different mediums. My writing is split across medium, my public journal and the very rare tinyletter. There is also which holds my experimental work. Yet I envy the single wholeness of the websites I mentioned above, a container for everything. Is it feasible to have a single website that contains my ongoing journal, random notes/learnings, essays and experiments? (I am also growing more wary/weary of using a centralized site like medium, but I appreciate the wider distribution there.)

I want to start capturing notes while reading books and share them. I wonder what is a good form/medium for them? 

What sort of updates on Patreon would you like to see from me?

Please feel free to leave your thoughts, I really appreciate them!

Originally published on Patreon.

unpeeling layers

Years ago I had a job I thought I had loved. But it came to a point in time when circumstances made it untenable for me to stay – it was only then when I realised how much my identity was tied to work and the company I worked for. Then one day I didn’t want to be a designer anymore. Slowly, layer by layer, the “I” I knew myself as unpeeled. Part of it was exacerbated by my ill health. If I could no longer do what I used to be good at doing, what is left?

After a ton of reading and self-contemplation I realised that a lot of what I wanted and who I thought I was, was simply conditioning and a response to my environment. I wanted to be seen a certain way. I wanted to prove all those naysayers wrong. But that is a sad life to lead, because first of I’m spending a lot of time and energy to prove myself to people who didn’t accept me for who I was in the first place, secondly it is crushing to realise that decisions I thought I have made out of my own agency were motivated by external forces I was not conscious of.

On hindsight I am grateful that this process happened so unexpectedly when I am still relatively young and have half a life ahead of me. I wouldn’t want to wait till I’m 60 before realising my entire life has been a lie.

There are a lot of questions I’ve been asking myself since. Many of them remain unanswered, and a lot of my behaviour remain conditioned habitual responses. I think what makes us slightly different from animals, is that apart from basic survival instincts, we’re primally wired for connection. A lot of that effort that goes into making an image for ourselves has really to do with how much we desire to be accepted by our peers, even at the expense of living a lie. But that is the outcome of being born in and bred into a capitalistic society, a world that teaches us to value people more on what they do versus who they are. Kind people are nice, warm and fuzzy, but who do we really admire? Who does society reward? Why spend our lives being kind, giving and sharing when we see billionaires and politicians having all the power to decide how the rest of us should live?

A lot of my self-judgment is internalised from all the external judgment I have received throughout my life. I cannot be simply alive or just a simple human being. I have to be a thriving, contributing one. My contribution has to be measurable or visible. I stop myself from doing a lot of things because I perceive them to be frivolous, and I make myself do a lot of things because they feel like an obligation. My life was not mine, I was simply living out someone else’s story, it is a story woven together by all the expectations I have had from other people. The expectations have become mine.

Who am I truly? I am still trying to find that out. How would I live if I truly no longer cared what people think of me and if I let go of who I thought I should become? What would I be doing if nobody saw what I did?

I read a book on Tibetan buddhism last week, and the teacher was trying to explain the state of shunyata(emptiness). What struck me was that he said that hopelessness from knowing that everything is empty is the beginning of true hope:

“In that sense, that something is not seen is the beginning of seeing. 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 related a lot to what he said. Removing layers of my self was painful and extremely insecurity-inducing. But after all of that bit by bit I feel lighter. It is liberating to discover that slowly I am beginning to have a firmer grasp of who I really am, what I really want and therefore I become a little bit less self-conscious of how people perceive me. Previously, my existence felt like a house of cards. Quitting a job felt like a major crisis, because I had depended on that job and everything that came with it – reputation, income, brand – to give me my sense of self, solidity and security. It was intoxicating and yet disturbing how people responded to me when I revealed where I worked. It was horrifying to know that even as I consciously tried to be as authentic and as unmaterialistic as possible, I could not escape trying to spin a narrative around myself.

I wonder if my suicidal tendencies are tied to having an existence that was not real and unsustainable. I am not sure, till today I feel like I still have a long way to go before reaching an empty state, if that is even possible.

I found out a couple of buddhism books I had loved (including the one I quoted above) were written by people embroiled in sex scandals. I struggled to reconcile the wisdom they were capable of expressing and the people they were in reality. It reminds me of my disbelief when I found out Orson Scott Card is a bigot because a major theme of his books are about learning to know and empathise with beings that are radically different from us. It disturbed me for a long while, before I realised I am too, capable of that sort of contradiction. Having values and living them out are two different things. I guess even Buddhist teachers (or any religion, really) can become blind to the image they have created for themselves and unconscious of their shadows.

In Jungian psychology the concept of shadows (basically our unsavoury selves) is very fascinating. The gist is that if we don’t face our shadows and learn how to integrate them, they will cause us to act out unconsciously and unexpectedly. This is a topic worth expanding upon in another post.

In line with trying to unpeel myself I have been trying to be more of myself in my writing and also on social media. I started posting on Instagram Stories to see if I can really be spontaneous – the answer is no, once I started seeing heads bobbing out on my viewer count. But I appreciated the opportunities to compose haikus on the go and seeing what kind of art I can make in this ephemeral format.

Yesterday I updated a profile picture which I wouldn’t post previously even if you paid me. My hair was unstyled, I was wearing very casual clothes, and clutching soft toys. But I just want to break out of my vanity, you know?

In between posts of extreme hope and despair I am a mundane person, unlike people who believe that only quality should exist online, I personally believe that a whole picture – the truthful reality with all its mundaneness and messiness, should exist.

We cherrypick too much out of life, and mislead ourselves to believe that life is all about the highs, and without them we are reduced to nothing.

stripping away suffering

I woke up feeling unwell yesterday and decided against going for a run. I was worried that it would flood my body with more cortisol, putting it under more stress than it was already under. The rest of the day I suffered, and I spent the rest of the day wondering if I should have gone for that run instead.

What is this suffering I speak of? It is emotional, mental, physical and spiritual, all rolled into one. Only recently I have begun to notice it was a discernible physical feeling: a pressure creating a tight band around my head, an inescapable anxiety that feels like a tightening around my chest – I struggle to find the words to describe the sensations that have so frequently triggered a cascading torrent of anti-life thoughts. I would feel like all life-force has drained out of me and I am on the brink; anything would set me off into an almost unending despair.

As I go through this anguish I found myself going into third-party observer mode. Why do I suffer so? What has caused my psyche and body to be in this horrible union? Why can’t I seem to deflect my pain and thoughts like most other people?

Overall, I seem to be getting better at this suffering. Sometimes, I have developed the capacity to detach from the sensations and feelings, to not identify with them. Other times, I go through the motions of my finely-tuned recovery process. But once in a while, I catch a glimpse of a pain so profound, that it makes me wonder if there is actually progress versus being better at putting a bandaid over myself.

I am not religious and for many reasons (which I cannot go into for the moment without sounding disrespectful) I will probably never be. But in recent times I have found myself seeking some solace in Buddhist philosophy. I like a philosophy that starts out with the assumption that life (or at least the illusionary life) itself is suffering. But I don’t agree with some parts of it. I am curious though.

This curiosity has brought me to read many books on Zen over the past year, and last week I read a memoir of a Japanese designer who decided to be a Soto Zen monk at the age of 30. For a year he gave up his freedom while he learned punishing rituals, other trainees and him would frequently get punched or kicked if they didn’t get their learning right. They were given so little to eat that some of them gorged on rice, developed beri beri and had to be hospitalised. Everything had to be learned as a complicated ritual, including defecating (basically Soto Zen’s founder wrote an essay on how to defecate properly and they all had to follow it). He barely had any personal time, his life was a series of instructions from senior monks. It was really fascinating to read through his journey, where at the beginning he described his fears and yet towards the end, he wrote:

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

Why? Is it because there is an inner freedom to be found when everything external is stripped away? Perhaps there is also some sort of resilience that was developed, that if we could go through a year of living as a strict Zen monastic, we could therefore have the courage to face the upheavals in our secular lives? He also hinted that he valued his personal freedom a lot more after that one year, that he didn’t know what he had until everything was taken away.

At first I had found it depressing that we seem to require extreme circumstances to know who we are and what we want. But after continued thought I think this is necessary because we are raised with so much conditioning, so many layers of our supposed personalities heaped upon us. Without extreme conditions, how can we peel away these layers? Everything is so patterned and ingrained that it would take extreme mental discipline – which many of us living in first world conditions do not possess because we’re used to a certain level of comfort with basic necessities easily accessible – to remove these layers.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was astounding to me now that I have never questioned the constructs of my identity until a few years ago. Am I the person I believed I am or am I simply a conditioned response to the environment I was brought up in? I have found so much of what I valued to be meaningless and yet at crucial times I have found myself clutching to them for the illusion of safety and security. What disturbs me is that I know security is an illusion, and yet I hold on to it so tightly like everyone else.

Why do I suffer, I question myself repeatedly nowadays. What is it I can do to release myself from this suffering? I feel like an ex-addict who is no longer beholden by the choice of drug but still has to painfully deal with the aftermath of the withdrawal and the harmful chronic effects of the addiction.

Why do I suffer, I feel like these days this question has become a zen koan to me. I feel so close to grasping the answer and yet remain befuddled at the same time.

Today I woke up feeling similarly unwell like yesterday, but this time I chose to go for a run, though the decision took an hour. I ran, and I endured a different kind of suffering: feeling the fatigue in my body, out of breath, the discomfort of being physically unfit. I persevered somehow, midway I felt a pressure lift of me, almost as if running removes the tiring weight of my body and mind. For a few minutes there was just me, stripped down to my barest essential, and I felt free. Who was that “me”? Was it the personality described as me, my brain, or my consciousness? For that few minutes I felt like I almost understood the Japanese designer’s lesson during his Zen monk stint, it is as though we can only be who we are, if we are able to forget who we have become.

responding meaningfully

I only ran once in my entire trip in Kyoto. I justified it with the amount of distance I was walking every day. Upon returning to Singapore I went for a run the very next day, thinking that it would be painful to restart the momentum again. I was wrong: I actually felt like my stamina was stronger than before. The actual physical impact of not running for 3 weeks actually came after my menstrual cycle. I was ravaged by a fatigue I haven’t felt in a long while since I began to run.

There was something more subtle. In Kyoto I experienced flashes of my rage and sadness, and since returning I have been more anxious and depressed than I was prior to the trip. I started to wonder if running was simply numbing my wounds as opposed to healing them. Perhaps interventions, whether it is running or anti-depressants can only open up the space and energy to heal but the actual inner work still has to be done rigorously.

I do think I now have a tried and tested repertoire to cope. Running, cutting out carbs and sleeping well deals mostly with the physical side of things, and reading allows my mind to elevate itself out of its narrow perspective. The only caveat is that all of these things take motivation and discipline, which are non-existent during a depressive episode. Taking a leaf from books on trauma, the body has an unconscious memory. It remembers and accumulates pain, that is why we are often frozen in the rumination of our past, and also why we are often triggered by the smallest of events. What running has done for me is to leverage this unconscious memory to remember positive feelings when I do energy-affirming things for myself. That is why consistency is important: it is required for the body to build what we commonly call the muscle memory.

I ran for 84 days consecutively before my trip, so when I started running again it almost felt like my body was home.It craved running like I crave food. Every stride felt like a loving caress. Having hated anything that resembled moving most of my life, it was such a cognitive dissonance. I feel unfit now, but I am moderately confident that within weeks I will feel better.

I think this is what building resilience is about. We often intervene only when things go wrong, but it is during good times that we have the capacity to build our strength. I know there will be times of crises in future or simply times like my trip when I was not able to keep a routine. So the in-between times become really important to build my fortitude. I am not preparing for a time when I would be so strong that I would not break, but rather to break gracefully and be capable of recovering well when it comes.

I am not there yet.

Ironically I am grateful for my time in Kyoto because I had the opportunity to remember who I was with my anger and sadness. I don’t want them to magically fade away. I want to learn how to cope with them so I am prepared to face new sources of anger and sadness. I lived life with a lot of fear, trying to avoid as much pain and suffering as possible, only to experience the extent of my fragility when it hits anyway. That sort of life is limiting and unsustainable. Spending life in avoidance mode will shrink a person. I want to be capable of experiencing anger and sadness without destroying other people and myself.

I took most of last week off social media and messages. I am lucky enough to grow up in an era where you lost contact of a person if they moved and changed their land-line number. We had a handful of friends who had our phone numbers and that was it. Sometimes you would call a person and they may or may not return your call, or their family hogged the line. There is less expectation to be available. Now we are contactable by people we knew as a child to the people we barely acquainted with on multiple platforms and it seems that it is considered rude if we simply don’t respond to messages.

I don’t have the capacity to respond to myself, so I don’t have the capacity to respond to anyone else. What I have been learning is I also lack the skill to respond meaningfully. I once read a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh and he kept writing about “skillful means” and I didn’t have much of an idea what he really meant until recently. There are entire books written about what it means so I wouldn’t attempt to define it academically, but for me, it is the capacity to meet where a person is and respond to them with wisdom and compassion. i.e. Sometimes brutal honesty is simply brutal, or sometimes we need to have the wisdom to know if we’re being biased. I’ve been reflecting on my past behaviour and it is horrifying to be aware of how much hurt I’ve been delivering unconsciously to people. I believe the way we treat people is co-related to the way we treat ourselves (this is one of the main theories of psychotherapy) so I think a huge component of my suffering is my inability to treat myself skilfully. Hence I am going to spend more time in contemplative solitude so I don’t walk around hurting other people without knowing it.

There is a lot to unpack about this so perhaps I’ll write more in another post.

A couple of days ago I spent some time reading some autograph books (where classmates write down their thoughts before splitting off) from my secondary school days. I was reminded of a few incidents which I have completely forgotten: like how much I loved the overhead projector and often got mad when teachers abused it, and how I accompanied a crying classmate I barely knew to see the principal because a teacher made a mistake in marking her test papers (and refused to rectify it). Apparently I was also talking about a ramp onto the internet (have no idea what it means) in front of the entire cohort and often expressed strong feminist views during class at age 16. I was also remembered by almost everyone who wrote in that book to be generous in sharing my stash of snacks and sweets under my desk. LOL.

I wish I knew what really happened from then on, for me to lose my voice and developed such a pervasive fear of people that I became a recluse for a long period of time in my 20s. I didn’t keep a journal, and can only speculate from a faulty memory.

Maybe life would have been radically different for me if I had access to a supportive mentor and/or psychotherapy. But I remain comforted I kept a tiny fragment of my past, a fragment which reminded me that a sense of justice had been deeply rooted in me, even at an age when I knew no social incentive to be so.

dark times

I am sad and angry over Kavanaugh, just like how Trump’s election pushed me into a deep depression for a long while. These events are reinforcing how people are rewarded with bad behaviour, and it also shows how a lot of people are willing to support these bad actors in the system even at the expense of harming many other people because they want to preserve their own status quo when it comes to their sense of privilege.

People ask me why am I suicidal, I actually wonder why they are not suicidal. Society as it is now works on oppression, and I find it profoundly depressing. We seem to enjoy reducing other people’s potentialities in order to make ourselves feel better. I wonder why isn’t this ironic paradox more apparent to other people, what is the point of feeling powerful when you can only gain it through the disempowerment of other people? Isn’t true power the ability to feel secure even if other people are equal or more than you?

Unfortunately if we care about human suffering we have to care about politics. It is politics that are disproportionately determining whether people are suffering or not. I can’t help but feel like we’re at the prologue of The Handmaid’s Tale if we are not careful. I am also worried about how the destiny of America will affect global politics and the already difficult fight for human rights.

We are entering dark times, like frogs in a boiling pot. My inclination is to hide, to surround myself with mundane joys so I can avoid thinking about what all this means. Buddhist monastics are encouraged to detach themselves from worldly affairs, but how can one be truly compassionate and not be an activist in times like these?

I tried to make an analogy with the practice of medicine. If one sees a lot of deaths due to the unavailability of medical intervention, one may be called to be a doctor. But being a doctor requires years of medical training, just because we see people dying around us doesn’t mean we should be performing surgeries on them if we are not skilled.

That’s how I think of myself for now. I am not sure if that’s the right way to think about it. But I’m wounded myself. Everytime I think I’m recovering the wound splits wide open again as though to prove me wrong. My own suffering overwhelms me, much less being able to alleviate someone else’s.

I’m trying to take time off everything including interacting with most people to try to gain some internal clarity. If we are all frogs in a boiling pot, what is the best way we should live moving forward? What is the best way I should live? Maybe I am asking the wrong questions, because even the basic act of keeping myself alive and sane is already a challenge in itself.