A beautiful garden

Sometimes I feel like my inner world is an actual, physical place I can visit.

Here I am, firmly in the real world. But at any moment, whenever I feel like it, I can take a walk and open a door. Then I step into a room that looks like a beautiful garden.

It didn’t always look like a garden, much less a beautiful one. Many times in the past it has resembled a rubbish dump or a dark, cold, featureless place. It used to be haunted by monsters.

I have talked about my experience with depression/anxiety but failed to mention that at my lowest, I feared walking on bridges or going up tall buildings, because all I wanted was to jump off them. Killing myself felt like a logical solution to my “problem”, which seemed grand and unsolvable.

12 years ago I woke up and suddenly felt the quality of my mind changed, darkened, to the point that going from my bed to my bathroom felt like the world’s greatest impossibility. I began to have constant panic attacks. I also began experiencing something called depersonalization disorder, which made me feel like I was constantly living behind a veil, separate and disconnected from the rest of the world.

It was scary beyond description. I didn’t think I would ever get better. My room was a prison. My mind was the imprisoner. And I was the only soul in this room. This went on for many years.

Fast forward to 12 years later. I am still here, having never succeeded in killing myself. There are still some monsters in my room, but I am much friendlier with them now. Most days they don’t appear at all. I have low days, but they are normal low days, not fuck-I-really-want-to-kill-myself kind of low days. I haven’t experienced a panic attack in four years now. On occasions when I feel one bubbling up – which is hardly at all – I welcome it and say hello to it. It then loses its energy and slithers out of the room quietly.

I don’t want to downplay the difficulty of recovering from mental illness. And of course many other things helped (when one is trying to recover from mental illness one tries every solution available), but really, nothing has helped me as much as realizing that the monsters in the room aren’t as scary as they seem to be and that they aren’t. Even. Real.

(To be clear, this has nothing to do with positive thinking. Positive thinking sucks – it’s forceful and denies reality. What has helped me is meeting reality as it is and accepting it, warts and all.)

I write this because one of you reading this might be experiencing what I once felt. Maybe you are fighting a daily battle to stop the pain you are feeling. Maybe there is no light in your life. Maybe you just want to kill yourself.

I write this to remind you – or even my future self – that even if your room feels like it’s haunted by monsters right now, one day it can feel like a beautiful garden, warm and full of interesting things that you want to spend a lifetime exploring and learning about.

So get friendly with your monsters. Acknowledge them and find out why they are there. Then open the door and let them out.

Your garden awaits.

Killing the ego

I’ve been wary about the “content” I put out (is that why it took me a month to publish this issue? Oops!). Increasingly I don’t want to create things that simply help to advance my career or to improve my reputation in this world. I want instead to create things that make this world better, even if slightly.

As I continue to work on my awareness (a much-needed exercise, I must add), I’m beginning to see that so much of the world is built on ego. The ego is a double-edged sword that allows us to survive and thrive in this world, but if we are not careful it can also become highly destructive and unhealthy.

Nowadays, when consuming (an article, a book, an app, or any kind of product), I stop to ask myself if this is something that was built on the foundation of one’s ego. Of course, everything in this world is built on the ego, but to what extent? The extent matters. The second question I ask myself is, does this thing create good in the world, no matter how little?

That’s my guideline to consumption nowadays, but it also influences the things I put out into the world.

The truth is that I can do a lot if I allow my ego to steer the way. I have certainly gone down that road before. I can use my ego to help me achieve more, go more places. I can second-guess my audience and put out things that I know they will like. I can be much less sincere and much more calculated. But once I do that, my intention has become tainted by the ego.

Our ego wants to build a self-image that can stand up to the impermanence of the world, so that it can sweep all our deepest, darkest issues under the carpet: Our lack of love and respect for ourselves, our low self-esteem, our desire to be loved by others…

Since the ego fiercely fears its destruction, it can be very hard to separate the ego from your “self”. The ego lies and tricks, so how do you know you’re doing something with the right intention rather than just wanting to go on an ego trip, to feel good about yourself, to fill that hole in your heart?

Having noticed this fact, it’s still really hard to kill the ego, or as they say, to “die to myself” daily, but that’s precisely what I need to do every single day in order to walk the path back to my true self.

One thing I have realised is that my social media use reinforces my ego daily. My posts scream to the world that “I AM HERE. Look at me.” I crave for people to like and comment on my posts so that I can get the validation that I sorely need. And why do I post at all? A lot of times it’s to build and bolster my own self image. I’m trying to seem a certain way to people – successful, well-rounded, self-assured, secure in the world. That’s what I want to be, and that’s how I want people to see me.

All of that occurs in my subconsciousness – half the time I’m barely aware of what’s happening. But upon careful, constant reflection I find that this is the truth – distasteful, uncomfortable, but the truth.

But of course, I don’t want to succumb to perfectionism. It’s tempting to want to be perfect and flawless. And you see, that’s the ego speaking again. Instead of perfectionism, perhaps what we can more healthily strive for is working for other people’s good in mind, without wanting anything back. This is the opposite of perfectionism, which is self-oriented. Being other-oriented might be the antidote that can help drag us out of our narcissistic stupor and bring us back on the path towards ourselves, but we must be careful not to do it with ourselves in mind. Tricky yah?

For all the awareness in the world, it can still be hard to practise this whole “killing my ego” thing, but practise we must. It’s the only way out of suffering. Yet practice implies that one never becomes perfect – one only gets better. The curve goes upwards, endlessly.

There is no ending point to aim at, no point at which one becomes “perfect”. I think this is an extremely helpful thing to remember.

The joy of solitude

I’m here in Kanazawa on a two-week solo trip. I’m not really doing anything special here. My goal of being here – if there is one – is to be by myself and to reclaim some silence. As an antidote, I guess, to the busy-ness of my life back in Singapore.

I’m walking a lot here, since the Airbnb I live in is about, on average, 2km away from most places I wanna see around here (museums, cafes, Samurai houses, etc). I also rented a bike, although most days I still prefer to walk – the pace suits me better (and being on a bike still feels way too fast and not slow enough for me to savour the sights along the way). Most of Kanazawa is criss-crossed by rivers and streams that are embedded among residential neighbourhoods and shops, so now, after a week of being here, I hardly have to use Google Maps anymore. I simply follow the curves of the streams, knowing that as long as there is the sound of water flowing, I am on the right path towards wherever I wanna go.

I enjoy being alone here very much. And generally, I enjoy being alone anywhere very much. It’s only when I am alone that I can really meet myself and hear myself. I often have the experience of feeling disoriented after spending a long time not being alone. It’s almost like being surrounded by other people constantly (no matter how much I love these people) causes my internal channels to get clogged up, and for that reason it becomes difficult to know what I want. Traveling solo is a way for me to declog my internal channels, to recalibrate, to clean up my mind and find my direction again.

I wrote something related to this on Instagram awhile ago, which I still believe in:

“How would you know what is really important to you if you never have time and space to listen to yourself? How would you know what are the essential things to pursue and keep in your life if all you do is run frantically on the treadmill of life? How could you be happy if you never allow yourself to rest, to wander, to not be found by others? There are all kinds of invisible rules that imprison us to a life that we never wished for. But the rules are not real. Someone made them up. I think if we want to live a happy life we must learn to unlearn those rules and live according to what is personally important to us. But for that to happen we must first have the time and space to think, to be alone, to hear our own thoughts. We must have ‘a room of one’s own’. We must have our very own well that we can climb down to whenever the noise becomes too loud, the chores become overwhelming. May you find your own room, your own well, wherever that might be.”

My well is right here, wherever I am alone.