I moved out of my parents’ when I was around 19. For approximately 18 years I was renting, moving in and out of apartments every few years. Most of the time the move was not voluntary: the landlord is selling the place, the end of relationships, moving across continents. For many years I stopped buying physical books though I love them because I was afraid of moving them.
In 2011-2012 I mostly lived out of one suitcase. It was liberating, and I learnt how much I didn’t need. But I had the chance to settle permanently (I thought) in SF, so I happily signed a lease.
I had to move back to Singapore in 2015, and I thought I was going to have to live out of one suitcase again. Fate had other plans for me. I met my partner in 2016, and we decided to become joint tenants (of a 94 year lease) of a public flat in 2017. Paperwork and renovations took 9 months, and finally we moved in somewhen in 2018.
I remember vividly the first morning I woke up. I opened the door of our bedroom, and I looked into the passageway that leads to the living room:
I remember feeling that huge sense of relief mixed with joy and a little trepidation. This is the first time I was not subject to a landlord, and barring drastic circumstances I wouldn’t have to move again for the rest of my life. As a young adult I had greatly underestimated the psychological safety and stability a physical living space can bring. I thought I loved being a nomad – the idea of working anywhere in the world with one suitcase was greatly appealing, until it is not.
For the next few months every morning I walked out of our bedroom I would look fondly at the passageway, thanking my lucky stars. But gradually, time and routine took over.
They say we are on a hedonistic treadmill:
The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.
In Wikipedia’s definition it says we quickly return to a stable level of “happiness”, but I think it is more accurate to call it a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. It was probably advantageous for us in terms of evolution, without it human beings would not be seeking improvements or progress (although there are cases of tribes staying content where they are).
But taken to an extreme in modern societies, the constant desire and addiction for the next thing can cause chronic unhappiness and blindness to what truly surrounds us. But I am not writing this to give a commentary on society, but rather a reflection on my self.
I have a depressed brain and a depressed psyche. I am not sure which is the cause and which is the effect. But I am aware that my mind has a tendency to think itself in depressive loops. Once in a while I am able to break out of one depressive loop, and suddenly my newer self wonders why former self had spent so much energy relentlessly focusing on something that seemed like a complete waste of time now. But when I am caught in that loop, that single detail may seem like life or death to me, and I am capable of triggered by something really trivial into a blackhole of despair.
I don’t mind being in despair if the situation calls for it, but upon reading my old journals I realised so much of it was unnecessary, and was also a product of an over-active mind and an unhealthy psyche. But it is difficult to see our own blindspots.
One recent morning I was walking into the passageway, and suddenly I experienced the abstract memory of how it felt like to walk here for the first time. I couldn’t feel the physical sensations of the original relief and joy, but I could remember the thoughts I had intellectually.
It actually felt disturbing to me afterwards, because I realised how easy it is to forget what I actually have and to take it for granted. In zen it is an important part of the practice to cultivate the capacity to see each moment as a fresh moment. It is one of those things that sounds so simple but in reality difficult to practice.
In current times it is understandable to be in despair. I don’t think blind unbridled optimism is the way to go either. But when buddhism/zen prompts us to see reality for what it is – it is not just about seeing the suffering some of us don’t see, it is also about noticing the dimensions that exist but we’ve lost the capacity to be aware of them (and it is also about noticing how much of ‘reality’ is actually noise we generate in our minds but this noise contributes to real outcomes and our own suffering).
I can’t tell anyone how to respond to the world right now, but personally my current response feels complex but I’ll try to articulate it. I think it is important to witness the suffering and not deny it, but I also think if it is possible, to not let the empathy become compassion fatigue, or a weight that leads to disabling depression. However, I think if depression and fatigue is the only response we can muster, it is a valid response. Sometimes, we need the time and space to grieve, to rest, to be still.
I don’t have a material goal in life or at least I am not aware of it. I have a philosophical question, which is whether life is worth living. I know it sounds like a frivolous question to ask when people are out there fighting for their lives. But it is a question that has been asked seriously throughout human history, and I wish to answer it for myself, because unlike most people I have never found the actual will or interest to live for the sake of living. People fight to live because they want to live, for whatever reason. But there’s never a single moment in my own life when I truly felt I want to live.
I think to answer this question fairly I have to seriously try to live in the fullest manner possible. If I tried everything in my capacity to live well, and at the end of my life I still feel like it was not worth it for me, this should be taken as a valid response.
This is a longwinded way of explaining, why it is important for me to learn to see reality for what it is. If I’m only biased to seeing suffering in everything I perceive, then life will just be a vehicle for suffering to me. But I know that there are other dimensions of life, it is just that I am unsure if experienced as a whole, it will make up for all the suffering we have to go through.
Hence, along with the despair and suffering I currently feel, I want to also encompass the relative goodness I have in my life too, so I can experience life wholly and not just in a single dimension. I want to understand what it really means to live life fully, what would it actually take for me for life to be worthwhile, or is my psyche forever incapable of living?
It feels like a long journey, but it is probably just the beginning, if I don’t die soon. I don’t actually know what makes me come alive. Maybe I have dysfunctional neurotransmitters and I lack the ability to feel aliveness. But I see my partner living her life through her art, and I feel a deep sense of envy. I don’t have to ask her what makes her come alive, I just need to look at her to feel her aliveness. I am not sure if my interest in writing or interactive publishing is just a historical artefact of my past or if I’m truly interested in it. How do I know, and would I ever know?
What I do know, is that I still feel immensely thankful that I have a physical space to be psychologically safe in, if and only I remember to be aware of it. So the past few days, I’ve been practicing using the passageway as a cue. Every morning I wake up, I try to hold and feel that sense of tiny joy whenever I enter that passageway.
It is not just a cue for me to remember what I have, but also a powerful reminder of how far I’ve come along – from a place of frequent instability to a space where I can finally stop being distracted with constant threats to my psychological safety because I had always feared being homeless. I feel thankful not because I should, but because recalling vignettes of my past makes me acutely aware of how precious is stability, and how fleeting it can still be, and I want to consciously cherish this stability for as long as I can.
The world as we know may be ending – though I still hope against all odds it wouldn’t – or perhaps the world we know is always ending because it is in a continuous transformation, whatever it is I hope with whatever remaining time I have left, I can at least try to live fully, whatever fully means. At the very least I want to be consciously aware of how my time is passing, and the last thing I want for myself is to spend my days living like a forgetful, unconscious, blind, numb, zombie.