on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

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.

how we hurt

There were many points in my life I expressed views which I believed were right, only to grow in maturity enough to be embarrassed for my past selves. There were so many times I was sure I gave people the right advice, only to realise now that I have failed to meet people where they were, I also had survivorship bias, and I really liked being self-righteous.

In recent times, if I do express a view, I would make sure to remind the other party all the fine print that goes along with it: that this is just my opinion, not advice, I am probably not skilled enough to deliver a balanced view, and most importantly of all, I am not the other party and I can never be, so it is important that they decide for themselves.

We often want things that are best for people we care about, and people who love me often want the best for me. But in many of such scenarios these intentions do the most harm. With their best intentions because they care, I have been inevitably forced to conform and feel bad about myself. It is only very much later that I realised that people had their own ideal versions of me, and it was beyond them to even consider that I was really not the person in their head. I think this forms the basis in most relationships: our versions of people interact with the other parties’ versions of us. Dissatisfaction happens when people’s behaviour do not conform to what we expect based on our beliefs of who they are.

The older I grow, the more ignorant I feel, the more embarrassed and apologetic I become of my past selves. I have come to realise how much hurt we can cause if we don’t fully understand our own intentions and motivations, and if we lack the skill to see and empathise with other people. I am also beginning to be very much aware of how much my anger is clouding and triggering me, restricting my capacity to engage with life and other people fully. I too, have a version of myself in my head that is different from who I really am. I read a book on Zen Buddhism yesterday, and the roshi calls this being at constant war with yourself.

Sometimes when some of my friends suffer in similar ways I do, I ask them a question which I have found helpful for myself in trying to determine the cruelty I inflict on myself: “Would you say this to a friend, or to a child?” Many of us would never contemplate hurting another person like the way we hurt ourselves. Why do we become such masters at self-torture? Because we internalise the voices which hurt us the most.

Without knowing it, we are inflicting hurt on ourselves, hurt on other people, thinking it is because we care and we have the best intentions. Hitler thought he had the best intentions for his people too. Sometimes the best way to express the best intentions for someone else is to let them unfold by themselves, to trust and support their agency, but that is incredibly hard to do. We like to think we are agents of change, but we try to change everything and everybody around us except ourselves. It is easier to work on external problems thinking that once external circumstances change, our inner state changes too.

I am reluctant to participate and engage with the world because I am no longer sure of the implications my actions will bring. There are some values I value above all, like openness and honesty. That is why I write and share my life publicly. Or so I think. Is that really so? I am not sure. I cannot be sure how my intentions will be interpreted.

These days, I feel inclined to lead a fully private existence, away from everyone I know. I have been having these feelings for a Long while, but I have been hesitant because of what I view as my social responsibility: to write so people like me can feel less alone, to try to be a positive representation for the lgbtq community, to amplify marginalised voices, to bring awareness to social injustice. I have always believed in the power of the individual to make a difference and in some ways I still believe so. But I am learning that the power of the individual also depends on the individual’s capacity to operate with clarity and awareness. Right now we are also seeing organisations and cooperations having a negative impact on the world even though they started out with the best intentions they had.

I am also tired. I no longer want to be at war with myself, to impose on myself who I should be and what I should or should not do. I would be a nun if I wasn’t partnered or have family who would be upset. But I think I can be a hermit for a while.

What about the world that is burning down at this moment? I don’t think I am in a position to make quality contributions because I have too much anger and sadness in me. There is a difference between believing in the power of the individual and thinking that the world would combust without me. And to be very honest, if humans go extinct I wouldn’t really care, in my opinion that seems a better scenario than what we have now: a world of people who are intent on hurting other people, a world that has most people in invisible chains.

Kyoto’s zen

The older I get, the more fearful of travel I become. My sanity is established on the routines I’ve set for myself: my morning runs, diet, circadian rhythms. There is a sense of psychological safety at home. I can understand why people dislike change.

But comfort is a sweet, slow-acting poison. We stop expanding the moment we stop having new experiences. Home establishes fitness for my body, and travel expands my consciousness. I need this oscillation in my life, at least until I can figure out how to find some harmony between the two.

There is a reason why I tend to plan longer trips these days. There is a fear of missing out, that there is not enough time to see everything. Some people spend two weeks in Japan travelling across the entire country, I opted to spend most of these two weeks in just Kyoto. The first couple of days we walked until we became numb to the beautiful zen gardens as we zoomed in and out of the temples like there was no tomorrow. I had to keep reminding myself that there was still plenty of time, we could afford to see a little less and be a little more. So we spent the next couple of rainy days spending long periods of time sitting in cafes: she painting and I, writing, sometimes reading. It seems fitting that we are able to find our own inner zen-ness in the city of zen instead of trying to rush through it all.

Being able to travel is a privilege, so is being able to spend long periods of time to do so — I am painfully aware of that. I feel existentially guilty as a traveller for so many reasons. But there is a small part of me that reminds myself that I consciously chose time over busying myself, it is still a choice I have made to let go of it all.

Maybe that is why I was attracted to Kyoto in the first place. It was during times of personal turbulence I turned to zen texts and stories, to try to understand what it means to be present and let go. I have found great comfort in them, even if more than half the time I had spent scratching my head trying to understand the essence of what they were trying to convey. There is both comfort and discomfort in mystery, in things that cannot be explained by language but must be experienced and felt. I am a person who likes to ask why, and even to live I needed a reason as to why. But the last few years have taught me a profound lesson: sometimes there is just no why, and are we able to live with that? Being able to let go consists mainly of being able to let go of pursuing the whys, to develop the capacity to take in what is in front of us and experience the moment without spinning any narrative around it.

I think in another life, I would be okay being a monastic.

I love travelling because it makes me open my mind to ways of life I have never thought possible before. The diversity in human beings. I read in a magazine that people in Kyoto are okay being slow, in contrast to their compatriots in Tokyo. Sometimes living in a somewhat homogenous country like Singapore makes me forget that slowness is a popular choice elsewhere. It seems incredible to me that in some places in the world, sitting in a room quietly for hours at a go is not considered a waste of time.

Why do we ever let ourselves be convinced there is only one right way to live? Why do some people insist on making everyone else live like them? Travel has taught me that diversity is a beautiful, precious thing, it is one of the few rare things that makes me consider that life is worth living. I am grateful that there are human beings who have forged out different ways of living for themselves, because it makes me contemplate the array of possibilities I can have for myself.

That is why I find inequality profoundly depressing and tragic, to carry the weight of the knowledge that some people will never be able to have the choices I can make. Travelling only serves to make that more pronounced. How does one live with that?

Life to me, is all about being able to carry different weights and yet at the same time be capable of momentarily let them go in order to be able to cherish the present; at the same time trying to philosophically resolve the delicate balance between growing ourselves away from the noise and the social responsibilities we have as interdependent beings.

We think of personal growth as levelling up and achievements, but perhaps a rarer form of growth is to not be driven by fear, impulses and primal motivations, in order to reach a centered clarity with regards to how does one act and live. I think that is a huge premise of Buddhism and by extension, Zen Buddhism but people focus more on the ascetic ways of life than the fundamental philosophy at the root.

I have nowhere to go with this post, no point to make, and I think that is representative of where I am in life now. I think of this as considerable progress because I have worked so hard my entire life so I can be seen, only to find out that I don’t even know who I am and how I want to live. I still don’t know, and maybe like Buddhism there is no concrete ‘I’, that it is a fixed idea of who I am that has caused me so much suffering.

love does not run on autopilot

Today is my writing day (typically on sunday), and it also happens to be our 28-month anniversary, so I thought I’ll take the opportunity to reflect on us.

2 years-ish is not a very long time for a relationship, but it is long enough to get past the initial honeymoon stage where everything seems sunny and full of promise. This is the time when masks if any start to drop, and we go from our very best selves to…just being our selves. The romance fades, and couples become like housemates.

Having been in and out of several relationships for the last 2ish decades I was aware of the transience of “romance”. The word “romance” and “love” seems to be thought of interchangeably. They can be, if we’re lucky, but most of the time romance means all the elaborate gestures we do for our partners in the initial stages, including the heartbeat-pulsating intense feelings. The curiosity and pleasure of knowing and being with a new person: wow, what a rush.

I guess I am lucky and old enough now to know, romance is not love. This is what that makes or breaks relationships, because of stupid hollywood movies and korean dramas we tend to mistake romance for love. So when the romance and intense feelings fizzle out, we wonder where is the love?

I’ve written about what I think love is, so I will not repeat it here. However, I would like to point out: long, great, love can be romantic too. It just takes effort and mindfulness. But the horrid truth is – which hollywood movies or kdramas do not tell us – we are awfully lazy and mindless creatures. Most of us don’t like to think too deeply about things or raise questions about the status quo. So we tend to end up transitioning from being a couple to living like housemates.

I didn’t want my relationship to be like that, especially since my last one was that way and I didn’t even realise it – the difference between co-dependency and love – so this time around I sought to change fate. I insisted that we celebrate our anniversary monthly, no matter what.

So every month, we try to do something nice for us. I tend to like eating, she likes nature and art. So far, we haven’t missed any one and I am rushing to finish this one so we can commence on today’s.

I don’t think love and/or romance runs on autopilot. People think they meet the love of their lives and we will live happily ever after. I really blame the media. Celebrating an anniversary monthly is a checkin in reality: does this date really mean something still, how do I still feel about this person, remembering how much we went through to get together, how easy to let time pass and things slip, how much gratitude we have to be able to wake up to the person next to us. It is a time to put aside all the mundane responsibilities and chores in a partnership to really see our partner, to re-demonstrate the love in case we let this precious time and love pass us by without even being aware of it. In fact, a monthly reminder is too far apart, it should be on a daily basis, to remember to love and not just live with. But I acknowledge as humans it is difficult to get past our conditioning to take the least effort as much as possible.

Not many people know this, but I was convinced I would never consciously choose monogamy again. I thought it was a fallacy brainwashed into us so that society would be neater. How could one person really love just one other person for the rest of our lives, how could said person remain lovable?

2 years-ish is a short time compared to the rest of our lives. But like I have mentioned a while ago, it is also enough time for a relationship to change its quality – usually for worse. When they say marriage is like wine because it gets better as it ages I was like what the hell are they talking about? Relationships cannot fight against the law of diminishing returns, so I thought. Most people just accept it as a law of nature, so we all settle and compromise with good-enough.

On our 28th-month anniversary, I would really like to express the sentiment: marriage does get better with time. Obviously we’re not legally married because we can’t in our own country and for now it is a little pointless to get married elsewhere because we don’t enjoy any economic or legal privilege as a married couple, but we have joined our names in a estate purchase and we operate just like any other married couple. It doesn’t mean it would be impossible for us to split, but straight people divorce like three times and they still get unlimited chances to marry, so the only way to view a marriage is to tend to it as though we mean it for life, just like my partner and I do so now.

What gets better with time is the level of psychological intimacy. We have been so intentional with our honesty to each other – well some couples talk in code even after decades of marriage – that in the initial stages of our relationship I was skeptical if it would endure all that truth. There was no up-selling right from the start, in fact I was very deliberately down-selling. We placed all the possible difficulties and anything that may be dealbreakers right at the start, when it was the most fragile. So we fought and cried a lot. We fought so deeply that every monthly anniversary then felt precarious, like we were never going to celebrate the next, so we were exceptionally conscious of it.

But now, we get to enjoy the wine. We put us through tests, power struggles, airing of skeletons in the closets, psychoanalysing, terrible ending scenarios, emotional manipulation – till it got to a point where we now have an acceptance, understanding and love of each other that I presume will take a lot to break. We have created a psychological safe space for each other and for the relationship where we can be our worst selves and yet know that we’re both trying our best to work on it. That we will never consciously choose to hurt each other. If there was some hurtful behaviour, we usually understand that it was probably an accumulation of events that we both have responsibility towards, so we work together on it. We try to problem solve the issues caused by our different psychological dynamics. Together.

Previously, I would just keep my true feelings to myself, feel unsafe, blame everything on my partner that they didn’t love me enough, but suffer like a martyr because “I was willing to suffer for love”. Didn’t they tell us it is all about sacrifice and compromise? They didn’t tell us a relationship is dysfunctional if the compromising and sacrificing is based on unequal terms and repression. A relationship should be expansive, it should not make us feel like we’re shrinking. (There is a lot I have to write about unhealthy relationship dynamics which I’ll probably do so in another post.)

There is a certain joy and sense of home to be felt in a relationship where we can feel safe with. To share our darkest thoughts with, to confront our darkest selves with, to co-create a future and home together. Life really sucks sometimes and if we can find someone who is there to hold our hand through the best and worst of us and times, then I think it is one of the luckiest and most privileged events that can ever happen to us.

And I consider myself extremely lucky and privileged to be in this relationship.

accumulating data for health

Today is the second day of my post-menstrual migraine. It seems to be less painful than yesterday, alleviated a little by a bout of running. The pain returns after my body settles down post-run. Nobody really knows what causes migraines and why menstrual hormonal fluctuations triggers them. They are all hypotheses at the moment. In traditional chinese medicine, there could be a number of causes: excessive liver heat, qi and blood deficiency. According to my sinseh I suffer from all of them. They probably influence each other.

My body feels exhausted during PMS, in pain and fatigue from the blood loss during the cycle, gets a migraine post-cycle, so in reality I only feel relatively well for 1-2 weeks each month. 2 weeks if I am lucky and if I live religiously like a monastic.

I tested my blood glucose upon waking up today. My reading for fasting blood glucose was not ideal. Based on information from yesterday and today, I seem to fall upon very borderline pre-diabetic ranges, though there is also varying information out there on what is considered pre-diabetic. I have terrible food comas so I already know that my insulin response is not great, so this is not surprising. But on the other hand I have excellent pulse rate, heart rate variation and blood pressure, so there is a part of me that expected a much lower reading, especially since I intermittently fast.

Until I found out fasting can also cause blood glucose levels to spike. Trying to get healthy is like walking around blind trying to find some semblance of light somewhere. There is conflicting information everywhere. Know what can cause glucose spikes? Waking up, exercising, low carb diets, fasting, etc. Do you know what can improve the insulin response? Exercising, low-carb diets, fasting.


I think what matters are the long-term trends. I regret not doing this blood glucose monitoring thing earlier because of my fear of blood and needles. It would shed a lot of light on whether my current readings are an improvement or a deterioration.

There is a wildcard in all of this: stress. Stress produces cortisol, and cortisol causes elevated blood sugar. So I need to run and control my eating but not too much. But how does one know what is too much?

Is blood glucose monitoring a little extreme? Well, if I’ve been trying to be healthier for the past three years and nothing seems to really work, then I guess I should try everything I can in my power and capacity. Maybe I could have gotten healthier earlier if I haven’t been so resistant to being extreme. To be fair, I did get healthier compared to 2015. My eyes have stopped being chronically dry and painful all the time, my migraines are considerably less painful, less lasting and they occur less frequently. At least now it is once a month and I can time it.

It is my 50th consecutive day of running today. Last week I got to run 5km without stopping and it felt like a big milestone. But this couple of days I gave up jogging without a pause because the research seems to be more in favour of running intervals. So I vary it in a single run. I jog, stop to walk, sprint, brisk-walk, alternating between them. There is a certain allure to endurance runs: I think there is a masochistic part of us that likes to see how much we can push ourselves and how much we can improve our limits. I find it interesting to observe how reluctant I was to give up my long jogs in favour of intervals, despite the science.

I look forward to accumulate more data to look at the longer term trends. It’ll be a bonus to feel a little more alive in the process.

P.S. I forgot to explain why I’m monitoring my blood glucose in relation to my migraines. The evidence is pretty compelling that migraines is an by-product of chronic inflammation, and chronic inflammation is directly linked to high blood sugar (and hormonal dysfunction). It is a vicious cycle, because the more chronically inflammed, the worse the insulin response, the higher the blood sugar goes. My suspicion is that my health is not so bad that I am diabetic but it is chronically bad enough that it is causing a whole host of issues and I’m definitely on a slow long ride to worse complications if I don’t nip it in the bud now. I don’t care much about dying, I just don’t want to live a slow, long, painful death. I already feel semi-dead now: my migraine feels like someone twisting a blunt object in the insides of my head. It is exponentially worse than the needle pricks for my blood glucose monitor.

My dentist & I

Last week I visited my dentist of 12 years for a 6-monthly checkup. It seems innocuous, but I am embarrassed to say this is the first time in my life I actually turned up for a dental checkup on time.

As a child the adults around me all had dentures, so I naively believed that was the rite of passage for everybody. I thought since I was going to get dentures sooner or later, why waste time taking care of my teeth?

By the time I grew up to know that was not the case it was too late. I was traumatised by all the pain I had endured at my school’s free dental service, so I developed an intense phobia of dentists. Obviously it became a vicious cycle: I avoided dentists so my teeth got worse, and so by the time I had to visit one – usually only because of a really bad toothache – the pain would be excruciating, so it made me fear dentists even more.

Until one day in 2006 I broke a front tooth while eating. It was unsightly, so I had to visit a dentist as an emergency. I picked one near my office then, mostly because I like its name and decor.

The dentist fixed my front tooth, along with countless other decaying teeth. She was grouchy and frustrated with my dental hygiene, sighing and scolding me repeatedly. But there was one thing which left a deep positive impression on me. Apart from fixing the teeth, she was obsessed with making them look good. She not only fixed my front tooth, she replaced the discoloured parts with tooth-colour matching dental fill.

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t afraid to smile and I stopped being so self-conscious of my teeth. She told me to visit her again in 6 months. I didn’t turn up.

Until years later. I was going to move to SF, so I wanted to make sure my teeth was in good order. This time around I told her I was afraid of her, because she was so scary during my last visit. She was surprised, but she became a lot more gentler with me. Along with fixing a few decaying teeth here and there, she suggested she sculpt my front teeth and put on veneers. It was not only for cosmetic reasons but my front teeth was crowding the rest of my teeth, so it was causing problems.

It was very expensive, and I didn’t have a lot of money back then, it wiped out most of my savings but I trusted her with my teeth.

Hours later, for the first time (again) I have a smile with perfectly straight front teeth. I didn’t have to put on braces, it was like a combination of art and magic.

I moved to SF with a kind of confidence to smile like never before.

A few years passed again and this time I moved back in Singapore. I went to a branch office of hers near my place and the dentist there told me I had a couple of decaying teeth. Without hesitation I knew I had to go back to my original dentist to fix it.

Suddenly, it was clear to me how important is trust even in service provider relationships. The only other long-term service relationship I have is with my hairdresser (also 12 years). We have a plethora of options these days and we usually hop around for the best offers. But I would rather pay top dollar to go back to her (and I had become jobless so I was taxing my savings).

She had moved to a new location, and we greeted each other like old friends who have not seen each other for a long time. I was just so full of joy to see her, to visit her new beautiful office and to discover a sense of lightness of her I have never experienced before. She has aged, and so have I. There was a lot less weight felt in both of our presences.

She fixed my teeth again, and she told me to visit her in 6 months.

That was my visit last week, and for the first time there was no teeth to fix.

I had grown up, and I now know myself as a person with healthy teeth.

I wrote this post because it made me happy to see my dentist and I feel privileged to have had witnessed her work. She operates like a craftswoman. It is rare for me to have such deep admiration for someone’s work, and it is just so amusing that the subject is a dentist.

How many people can claim to change people’s lives when they provide a service? I feel like my dentist has changed my life, she has given me the gift of my wide smile, which I flash unabashedly these days. It has made a whole world of difference to my self-image and esteem.

Also I was embarrassed about my teeth for the longest time and I was fearful that people would find out I have veneers on my front teeth. But I am now in a different place in my life. I think it is important to know that some chronic damage can be reversed, and also that I would heartily recommend people to go for cosmetic procedures if it truly makes them feel better about themselves and allows them to express themselves more freely.

I know I did.

I am no longer afraid for people to know I have veneers. I am glad I did something for myself that was life-changing. I also enjoy airing the skeletons in my closet.

It is so freeing.