Wherever we go, there we are

The sun beats down in Denver, and yet the heat doesn’t feel oppressive. When evening comes around, the air cools and a comfortable, warm breeze envelops the Mile High City. In the distance – but not too far away – the majestic Colorado mountains rise up and frame the skyline.

I never imagined I’d find myself in Denver, the city of Dean Moriarty’s ghost (fellow fans of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” will understand this reference), but yes, I’m officially 9,000 miles away from home. Our Lyft driver, upon finding out we’re Singaporeans, exclaimed, “You have come from so far away!”

But nowhere is too far away. Nowadays everywhere is a flight or two away. Distance is no longer measured in miles but hinges more on how willing we are to go away. If we imprison ourselves with reasons as to why we shouldn’t go here or do that, then it’s true, everywhere is too far away and everything is too impossible.

So why am I in Denver? The honest answer is, I’m here for no reason. We wanted to spend a month in the States, and since we were visiting our friends in Portland and our flight home to Singapore would depart from San Francisco, we figured we would visit a few cities along the way. So Denver it is, then Chicago and New Orleans after.

Wherever we go, there we are.

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.

Flow with the river of life

I think in 2019 I am going to focus on being a sloth.

Sloths are very interesting animals. They have very little energy, move very slowly, sleep 16 hours a day, take up to a month to digest their food and defecate only once a week. In short, they do very little, but they probably live only in the moment and are pretty contented with life.

That’s how I want to live in 2019 – the sloth life! (There is even a group I found on the internet called The Sloth Club, I wanna join!)

I will still work on my goals, which continue to revolve around the two main creative areas of my life – photography and writing. I will continue to write essays here and work towards publishing something. I will work harder at becoming a better photographer. I will still do this or that fun project (like our LITO podcast). But I’m going to do everything with a relaxed heart, like a sloth… 😉 (And really, goals are not so important to me at the moment!)

Direction-wise, I would like to move inwards rather than outwards. That means placing very little emphasis on achievements or on how people view me, but focusing on what’s inside instead. In other words, my mind.

Meditation will be an important practice for me in 2019 as I further explore and get to know my mind. I know that as meditation helps me to see reality even more clearly – and rid myself of all the mirages and illusions of life – I will get to experience even more peace, joy and happiness.

I also will continue to simplify my life. This is a big topic for me because I really would like to own less. I am giving away my books, reducing my wardrobe drastically and trying to part with anything that doesn’t spark joy (thank you, Marie Kondo, for this brilliant concept). I hope to be a much more mindful consumer as well.

Like a sloth, I am going to have lower – or maybe even no – expectations of life. Have you ever walked into a cinema and watched a movie without having any expectations of how good it would be? Usually the movie turns out surprisingly good. It has almost very little to do with the actual quality of the movie itself, but more so with your very low expectations. I believe that one of the keys to happiness is exactly this – not expecting much out of life, you will find it far easier to be contented and happy, because anything is good enough.

By now you must realise that the big theme of my 2019 is going to be this: flow. I just want to flow with the river of life. I don’t want to try to mould life so that it looks or fits a certain way, or chase after my goals at the expense of life. I don’t want to give myself unnecessary stress about which path I should or should not take. All I want is to enjoy the scenery, no matter what path I’m on.

I simply want to flow because I have seen how destructive and painful it is to resist reality or to try so hard to change reality. Even if we succeed, resisting or changing reality comes at a cost, and a very high one at that. The truth is that we are here, living this terrible and beautiful and incomprehensible life, and there is very little we can control about it, except for our own reaction to it.

So we can choose to swim against the current or flow with the river.

I choose to flow.

2018 annual review

There is always this danger when we write, and it is the danger of making things seem simpler or tidier than they are, when life is neither simple nor tidy.

After having written 56 issues of this newsletter I still occasionally suffer from self-consciousness and acute self-doubt. I wonder often if I am making things seem too simple or tidy, or if I am presenting ideas with too little nuance or too little depth. I wonder also if there is a need for my voice in this world, if my writing is even necessary.

I wonder, and I wonder, but at the end of the day I remember again that everything we do matters.

So I shrug my shoulders, buckle down and do it all over again.

I remind myself also that I am doing this because I have the desire to do it. That must surely mean something. Maybe everywhere we go there is an invisible compass guiding us. Who knows? Otherwise why are we inclined towards doing this or that? Rather than resisting or asking why, maybe life would be far more fruitful and interesting if we would just go where we are urged to go.

As the year comes to an end I find myself reflecting on the last 12 months. But I am the kind of person who can’t think well when I am not writing, so here I am, dumping my thoughts on you. I’m sorry.

How was 2018 for you? 2018 was a lot of me following where I was urged to go. I continued writing because I wanted to. A few weeks ago Daniel and I spontaneously started our podcast (we are enjoying this side project so much!). I traveled a lot, as usual. I read more, watched more movies. I worked on some pretty cool projects. But I also failed a lot. I was defensive. I was selfish. I was more detached than I wanted to be. Also my short film didn’t materialise. My ebook didn’t happen. I wasted a lot of time wanting and hoping to do things and not doing them.

So in 2019 I have a few things I want to do (still the same old things). Publish an ebook (about the art and business of creative freelancing). Publish my photo-book (or two). Experiment with filmmaking. Meet more interesting people. Be kinder. Be much kinder. Continue to write. Continue to work on my photography. Continue to do the inner work I need to do. Continue to go where I am urged to go. Other than that, I don’t want to think too much or plan too much.

Just flow with the river of life. That’s good enough for me.

How about you?

Caring deeply

In 1962 Fred Rogers created “Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood”.

For 31 seasons, 912 episodes, over a span of almost 40 years, Fred Rogers showed up – rain or shine – at his “television house” and talked directly to children about subjects as disparate as kindness, death, assassination, divorce and so on, and at a pace so slow and gentle as to seem radical today.

He taught millions of children about self worth and made them feel – even through a television screen – that they are loved, cherished, important. He taught them to be open to all kinds of feelings, no matter good or bad, and showed them that it’s okay to feel blue sometimes. He taught kids to wonder and to make believe, but he also taught them how to deal with the darkness of this world:

“The world is not always a kind place. That’s something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it’s something they really need our help to understand.”

Fred Rogers made wonderful, meaningful television that created a real impact in countless children’s lives, and he did it consistently for 40 years. And he did it because he cared.

He cared deeply about the well-being of children. He saw that television was instrumental in shaping the inner lives and consumption habits of children who would grow up to be adults, so he created a children’s TV series that had nothing to do with coveting, but “about appreciating what you already have, about caring for others and seeing the best in them”.

Fred Rogers once said that caring is discipline. He didn’t explain further, but he must mean that to be able to create top-notch work day in, day out, one must be disciplined, and this discipline must surely be fuelled by a deep caring.

What is it that you and I care deeply about? What do we care about so deeply that we can find the will in us to be so disciplined that we can work at something in a consistent manner over many years?

I think this is a decent question to ask ourselves every day. Because when you really think about it, consuming meaninglessly, upgrading our homes, chasing after the next promotion, mindlessly pursuing financial goals – these just don’t cut it. When it comes down to it, we must recognise that life is finite. We are only here for awhile. And yet there seems to be some deep, mysterious, inexplicable joy to be had when we get to do something we truly care about, no matter how hard or painful the process might be.

Maybe the answer to that question will not be immediately obvious or take the form you were expecting. But listen to your inner voice. Reject convention. Take that first step. Fuck, jump off the cliff if you need to. But whatever it is, know that as long as you are seeking the answer, the answer is already revealing itself to you.

May we all find what we are looking for.

Always on the go

It was words that made me want to travel.

Bruce Chatwin and his Patagonia. Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories. Paul Theroux catching train after train on “The Great Railway Bazaar”San Mao’s wild tales in the Sahara Desert. Jack Kerouac traipsing across America, cigarette and beer in hand. Allen Ginsberg, journaling his way across India. Then there was Chet Lam, writing melancholic songs about New York and Vancouver and other places he’d been to…

“This morning I’m leaving New York / A place of letting go / A place of moving on / Here’s to New York… / Don’t matter where you’re from / Just matters where you go / No one clings for long / New York…”

So I did. I traveled. Tokyo, Sapporo, Taipei, San Francisco, Boston, Portland, LA, Copenhagen, Munich, Budapest, Prague, Dubrovnik, Oahu… Further and further away from home I went.

And I’m still on the go.

One reason I love traveling – especially alone – is that I fall into a zone that doesn’t seem to exist when I am home. An alternate universe of sorts, you might say. The things I see, the people I meet, even a random walk down a foreign street can cause my brain synapses to connect in a different way from usual. My awareness is heightened. New ideas bubble up easily.

Traveling has become an important part of my creative process. It allows me to escape into a pocket of peace, and in this pocket I can think and hear myself more clearly. I can write and plan and brainstorm with little disturbance. Then I bring these ideas back home and see how I can execute them later.

Traveling alone also fulfils a strange desire of mine to be apart from society. Just another stranger in a foreign city, doing my own thing. Zero attachment, no obligations and nowhere I absolutely need to be. And to be away from the daily drama and hustle and stress of being in Singapore.

Sweet freedom.

Last year I spent a few weeks in Boston. I had no agenda for being there. I had a friend in the city who was there studying for her PhD. I bunked in her bedroom. I spent the days alone and did whatever I wanted to – lying under a tree in Harvard Yard, sketching and people-watching; visiting bookstores; walking along the Charles River; writing in cafes. At night I’d meet my friend and her housemates for dinner if they were free.

I have come to love and relish that feeling of being both apart and a part of something.

Now I’m in Hong Kong, just for the weekend, typing this in a Starbucks in Lan Kwai Fong. I first came to this Starbucks maybe ten years ago. I remember it was my first time overseas. Hong Kong was rainy and grey that time. One cold afternoon I found this particular Starbucks and found some unexpected warmth in this crazy city. Today I came back here again in search of that long-lost feeling, that tiny memory of a place from ten years ago, and Jeff Buckley was singing “Hallelujah” through the speakers.

I was just listening to the same song yesterday.

I take that as a sign from the universe that I am at the right place at the right time.

=)

Be

Most of us are good at doing, but not so good at being.

Doing is fantastic. It’s how we create beautiful things in this world. It’s also the way most people know how to exist in this world.

Being is harder, because it requires that we do nothing.

The people I admire the most are not the ones who have achieved a lot in life, but those who are contented being nobodies. When you are contented to be a nobody, it tells me a lot about you. It tells me that you are secure and your identity is not hinged upon external validation. You are happy just being you!

We are used to celebrating successful people. But look deeper and you will see that sometimes successful people work so hard to succeed because of their inner wounds and fears. Their success is only a plug to stop their pain from oozing out.

All our life we have been taught to do, to work our ass off. But what if we learned to simply be?

Our careers, our daily pressures, and all the expectations to be somebody rather than nobody are worldly things dreamed up by worldly minds like ours. It’s not to say they are bad things, but maybe they are imaginary and not as real as we think they are.

I believe there’s more to life than life. Think of the ocean – sail upon its surface and you might think it exists only in one dimension, but dive into it and you can travel for miles and miles into the deep mysterious blue.

Life seems to have that kind of unfathomable depth. The only problem is that our minds are so used to being on the surface.

But learning to be is like diving into the ocean. You break into the depth and you find things you have never seen before on the surface.

When Buddhists talk about awareness or Christians talk about being with God or mystics talk about being at one with the universe, I think they are talking about this sense of simply being.

To be is nothing physical. It’s purely inner work.

To be is to accept yourself. To be is to stop wanting to be a better version of yourself. To be is to, in Zhuangzi’s words, “follow along with things the way they are” without resistance.

Some people might say that to be is a simple concept, but it is not easy to achieve at all.

Precisely. There is nothing to achieve. To be is to rest. It is the total lack of struggle. It is the putting down of your arms and your desire to achieve anything more with and in your life.

I was always an ambitious person. To me it has always been important that I become somebody rather than nobody. Sometimes I trace it back to my inferiority complex as a child or simply my Dad’s genes.

Now I can see that I was always only chasing after happiness and acceptance. I thought I’d be truly happy when I fulfilled all my dreams and found the freedom I so desired, but now I see that if you are not already happy, no amount of money or fame or any other worldly thing you can think of can ever give you that.

So my only urgent task, my biggest practice, is not how to be a more successful photographer or earn more money or do more exciting projects. It is not even about learning how to be a happier person.

My practice is simply to be. It’s not just a high-brow philosophical concept, but an idea that must infuse my every decision, action and thought. It must be lived.

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28

“Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.” – Zhuangzi

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Laozi

Becoming who I really am

I’d never seen so many stars in my life. I was on Mauna Kea – highest point in all of Hawaii – my fingers frozen, my head buzzing from the altitude (13,000 feet!).

Our guide had set up a telescope for us. Throughout the course of the night we gazed at Saturn and Jupiter and marvelled at twin stars. A distant galaxy, drifting 38 million light years away, was pointed out to us. Through the telescope the galaxy appeared as a wisp of light, only faintly discernible. We lined up constellations too and found improbable order in disorder, and I could only wonder what went on in our ancestors’ heads when they woke up to a world like this, at a time when there weren’t yet books written about the stars.

Standing under this glassy bowl of a hundred billion stars I was overcome suddenly by a powerful urge to become the person I really am. I cannot say where that feeling came from. But there it was, and I felt it profoundly. It was a mystical moment to say the least (and perhaps only to be found on top of a mountain, 13,000 feet above sea level).

In the milky dark night, in the midst of the mystery and wonder of my own existence – and the existence of everything in this universe – I understood something: If I could only become who I really am, I would be able to live a limitless life.

In that moment I understood also – or rather I knew – the utter pointlessness of success or achievements of any sort. I needed to pursue instead deeper spiritual growth, expansion of my consciousness, and a greater love for all things.

Call it a message from the stars.

On our way up to the mountain, our guide Gordon told us that he hadn’t originally applied to be a guide. He was a jolly good fellow – in his 50s, maybe – with a dry sense of humor and a chill vibe. Very Hawaiian.

“I applied to wash vans, actually. But the boss asked me, why don’t you be a guide for us? You have a degree in Geology! But I told him, I only want to surf, go fishing and wash your vans for two hours a day!”

Again the stars were talking to me. This guy – who only wants to surf, go fishing and wash vans for two hours a day – feels like someone who’s just being exactly who he is. Completely comfortable, non-competitive, at peace with wherever life brings him.

As for me, I have been trying to unpack what “becoming who I really am” means.

Fundamentally, I think, to become who I really am is to live out of love rather than fear. The root of my past misery has been my fear of not being loved and accepted and the fear of never being good enough. All my insecurities, desires and superficial goals stem from that fear. That’s why I always needed to be good at something; that’s why I always wanted to be successful; that’s why I always dreamed of achieving so many things. I was only afraid of not being loved.

But when I become who I really am, I am no longer afraid. I am no longer ashamed of myself, I no longer need outer validation, I no longer need every one in the world to love me, and I certainly don’t need to be anything the society expects me to be.

When I become who I really am, I move beyond my ego – which is my false self – and I stop wanting things and giving things for the wrong reasons.

Knowing who I really am – already perfect and wonderful as I am – I then have the courage to go out into the world and live a deep and true life out of love, and not fear.

I have always known this, all that I’ve just written about, but standing on a million-year-old mountain and being so close to the stars had a way of drilling the message in deep.

Finally, I think, knowing is not enough. Now I have to live this knowledge through every decision I make every day of my life. And that is the mammoth task. But there is no other way to live.