on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

surprising myself with my self

I have always thought of myself as an open-minded person, but in recent years due to increasing self awareness I realised I can be very set in some patterns of my thinking, especially when it comes to my self. I have pretty strong ideas of what I like and dislike, or what I enjoy or dread doing. I tend to not retry something I’ve already tried before. I have spent a huge part of my former (pre-2015) life doing plenty of things I didn’t like because I had no boundaries and was always seeking approval, so this makes me more allergic to doing things I think I dislike doing.

When I finally got sick of my old self I went all the other way and started saying no to most things. There were times I thought I kept my mind open but that led me back into old unhealthy patterns so I became more resolute about saying no. It is difficult to know what are boundaries or where are them when I never had them before. I didn’t even know what I truly liked or enjoyed because everything seemed like a response to societal, environmental or familial conditioning. 

All of this contributed to me being very unwilling because I felt like I spent my life being too willing. It took years thereafter to heal from all that compression — I felt like I was being compressed into a tiny box. I couldn’t differentiate whether I am being my self or being the box. I am still healing: I can see that from how I respond to certain triggers. But I feel like there has been more space opening up to feel where are the edges of myself or to grow new parts of myself.

illustration of my boxed self vs my spacious self

As part of my healing process I did consciously try to do things I had disliked because they were necessary. Exercising was a huge part of that. It may seem trivial now because I ended up enjoying it so much that I now cannot stop even when I am supposed to, but when I first started out it took me a lot of effort, willpower and failures. I also had to restrict my diet and sleep religiously before 10pm – in my mind I was already willing myself to do so many things for my health, I felt like I had no capacity to try new things.

So for years my partner has been asking me to try yoga and I was like nope. I disliked the slowness of it: it felt dreadful each and every time I tried. But I have been so obsessed with running that I had to find ways to recover from my fatigued legs. That made me want to try yoga again. And this time, I didn’t hate it. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it either or that it made me feel good like the way so many people talk about yoga, but I didn’t dislike it enough to stop trying it again.

Then the other day my partner wanted to visit a crafts sale. I joked that maybe I could try cross stitch. She laughed. I decided to buy a kit almost as though I was trying to spite her. In truth I was curious to see how I would respond to working on it, because again I dislike anything that requires slowness and I have some resistance towards needlecraft in general.

So far I’ve only made 3 rows of stitches, but I was surprised to learn that I don’t hate it and I am looking forward to continue on it again.

photo of my first adulthood cross stitch

That’s the thing about the self. I am sure I am not the only person experiencing this rigidity of the self – it forms the premise of Buddhist philosophy. We seem to have fixed ideas about who we are, what we welcome as a person and what we would reject. We also have illusions of who we are, stunting us from discovering our potentialities. If I kept believing I was an open-minded person I would not be able to see where I was being close-minded. This leads to a form of semi-conscious suffering because of the incongruence between reality and my deeply-held beliefs of my self. It could manifest as me behaving defensively without knowing exactly why I had to be so defensive. The human psyche fascinates me sometimes, because of all the ways we sort of know who we are and yet we would do everything to avoid acknowledging it.

We are constantly changing as a person. We are being fed with new information, experiences, stimuli all the time. When the inputs change the output inevitable changes too. But I think some of us react to this by sticking even closer to the old fixed beliefs of our selves. Maybe sometimes we call them “values”. Or integrity, I don’t know. Or it draws us to rules like Confucius. Because it is scary to have no stable ground to stand on.

I am like that in many ways. I think I am not a needlecraft person so I avoided it. But today I am not the same person as yesterday. My old self disliked needlecraft because I could not stand the feelings that come with the stillness of time, but my current self is growing to appreciate that. I may end up still not enjoying it much but it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.

I have a similar trajectory in my photography journey. I set out to take street photography because that’s what I’m instinctively drawn to, but I quickly realised that the environment can often be uninspiring. If I choose to only take photos when I am inspired, then it would greatly limit my photo-taking opportunities. I think photography is a great tool to open our minds and the way we see. How can we find a photo when nothing seems obviously calling out to us?

“I’ve been trying to achieve a breakthrough by taking photos that don’t involve people — I guess I believe it is possible to see beauty in the most mundane of environments, but can my eyes see it? this is the ground floor of our public flats, some of them have interesting feature walls like this. I find it fascinating that there is an attempt to be creative even if the apartments were built for a very practical purpose.”

– original caption of the photo above, originally published on instagram

I have quite a few things I had aspired to learn for a long while now. One of them is learning how to play the keyboard, and the other is learning how to draw. I don’t aspire to be good at them, I just want to be capable of enjoying them. I have a keyboard I have gotten in 2016, and my partner is amused I keep buying these drawing books but I don’t actually draw (apart from the ugly drawings I make sometimes for these blog posts). Or will they have a similar fate like my running shoes?

The by-product of all of these mini-experiments and experiences is surprise. I am surprised by my self, which is enriching. As artists we often start out with an idea and a blank canvas, many a time we have been surprised by both the process and the outcome because the actual journey and eventual outcome is different from what we’ve imagined in the first place. This is similar to how I feel about my self if I take myself as an instrument for creativity. I don’t necessarily mean creativity in a traditional artistic sense, but think of the infinite ways we can create new layers of ourselves, as long as we believe we can. Don’t associate myself with needlework? Pick up a kit and bam, I can now associate myself with needlework, an association that did not exist in my entire life before. The surprise does not only come from the feeling of wow I didn’t know I could do this, but also the journey itself teaches me new things, and I also get to know newly formed layers of myself. There are many dimensions of surprise that can be evoked when we try doing something new.

Sometimes I think of life like how Sisyphus is rolling up the same rock up a hill over and over again. It can be repetitive, dreadful and monotonous, like being caught in a trap. But perhaps even Sisyphus may become a different person each time he rolls the same rock up the same hill. Each repetitive journey is never the same journey because experiences are accumulative transforming our psyches in the process, and the conditions are never totally the same.

The part of my self writing this essay is elusive. I am seldom like this, whatever this is. I guess that’s why I write whenever I can, to remember the parts of me who can be like this. Maybe this is an ongoing practice too, to become a person capable of surprising myself with my self so frequently and with so much ease that I no longer feel like I am both trapped in the box and I am the box.

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