A good day’s work

I’m kind of a productivity geek. Life is short, and there is a lot I want to squeeze into this short life, so I am constantly thinking of how to optimize my days.

(That also means I am always trying different productivity systems on for size, which is very fun and extremely unproductive, I must say).

But what, really, is productivity, and why does it matter?

According to Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, at the end of the day we’re all just looking for progress in our lives – each of us wants to move further along the path towards realizing our potential or achieving our most important goals. That’s why we want to be “productive”.

Note that it’s about having important goals, and not just any goal. Because being productive is not just about ticking off our to-do lists mindlessly. It’s not about doing busy work. It’s not about waking up and attacking our email inbox thoughtlessly, mechanically.

Good productivity is about doing a good day’s work, and I think Jason Fried is right – it’s about progress, it’s about becoming better, it’s about evolving, and these things must be done towards the right goals.

As Shawn Blanc – a writer and creative whom I admire very much – also said, “Meaningful productivity means consistently giving our time and attention to the things that matter most.”

So even before thinking about how to optimize my days, I must first be honest with myself about what I want to fill my days with and be extremely mindful of whether these things are even important in the first place.

So I’ve been thinking, what matters most to me?

Personal peace and a sense of emotional well-being. This is the foundation of everything for me. Hence the tools to create personal peace – like meditation, like prayer – are things I must prioritize doing every day. There should be no question about whether I should meditate/pray or not, since my peace and my well-being are dependent on them. Starting my days with meditation, ending my nights with prayer – surely that is a good container for a good day’s work.

My health and my fitness. I love feeling fit and healthy. But we are the stories we tell ourselves. All my life I have told myself – and have been told by others – that I am not a sporty person. So I spent many years of my life thinking exercising or sports isn’t for me, that I’m never going to be any good at it. But I slowly changed the narrative for myself, and have in the last few years enjoyed playing squash, running, rock-climbing and swimming.

I love the after-glow of exercising and I love how the lessons I learn while running or swimming cross-over into the other parts of my life. For instance, when learning TI Swimming, I realize very quickly that it’s not about becoming a perfect swimmer overnight. During every practice session, the focus is often on a mini-skill, a small part of one skill. With mindfulness and careful attention and pleasure, you work on that mini-skill. The next day, you focus on another mini-skill. At no time do you fixate on your end goal. Instead, you enjoy every moment of your practice. By slowly progressing through all these mini-skills one at a time, you are promised that everything will converge eventually and you will suddenly find yourself becoming a good swimmer. Like a caterpillar slowly transforming into a butterfly. Isn’t that a beautiful analogy for life too?

My relationships with people I love. This is extremely important to me. I am a recovering workaholic. Even though recovering, some of my workaholic tendencies have become firmly embedded in me. Sometimes I get really obsessed with doing work (because to me, work is actually fun) that I’d rather work than spend time hanging out with my friends or family. But because this is so important to me, my days would not be complete or meaningful if I didn’t also carve time out to be with my family and friends.

My work as a photographer. I consider my work as a photographer a life-time vocation. Maybe, in 20 or 30 years, I will not be shooting for money anymore, but I don’t think that will ever stop me from thinking of myself as a photographer. But now, while I am a professional photographer, there are important goals associated to it that I must pursue. For instance, my goal as an advertising photographer is to create personal work good enough that I am hired not just for my style, but for my creative vision. As an editorial photographer, I want to move towards doing fewer lifestyle stories and more substantial documentary work, with an eye towards social issues. I want to do photography work that is increasingly meaningful and interesting. This means it’s important that I dedicate a portion of my days to working on advancing these goals (doing personal projects, studying photography and the work of photographers I admire, contacting photo editors who can help me further my goals), instead of simply firefighting and riding on any work that comes my way. It is important that I actively sculpt my path as a photographer instead of simply allowing the current to push me forward.

My creative energy. There are a lot of other things I want to do besides photography. I am interested in books and writing and the mechanics of building a small business and technology and publishing and education. All of these things come with potential project ideas. It’s important that I spend time working on some of these things. That’s one of the reasons why I write this newsletter/blog – it’s an extremely important creative outlet for me.

My desire to do meaningful things in this world. Life is not just about earning money and buying things and living the good life. All of that is great, but I want to do meaningful things with my time as well. What is “meaningful” differs from person to person. For me, meaning is an intangible feeling, a sense that I have lived a worthwhile life, one in which I have used my skills and talent to help bring something useful and beautiful to other people. I am currently in the midst of doing something (using photography) with a local foundation to help kids who have been touched by cancer. This is personally meaningful to me because my life has been touched by cancer as well – my aunt passed away from cancer when she was 40, a schoolmate of mine died from bone cancer when he was 14, and my good friend from Taiwan died last year at the age of 36 from metastatic breast cancer.

Reading and learning. I don’t know what I would do without books. Every time I feel stuck, sad, or lost, it is books that I turn to first. There is always someone somewhere out there who has experienced exactly what I have, and who has written a book about it. Being able to read and learn makes me feel invincible, like nothing in this world is too difficult to be solved. So it’s very important that there is time in my schedule to read and go to the library, which is my personal happy place.

That’s largely about it. At the moment, these are the things I want to consciously fill my days with. Knowing what truly matters also helps me to have some form of clarity about the shape my life should take, and what to be “productive” about. In the midst of life’s chaos, I guess this is my own way of finding some semblance of order.

The question of what tools I use to effectively organize my life and fit all these into my days is an article for another day.

But first, what is important to you? Have you ever given it any thought?

Swimming


“Swimming is simply moving meditation.” ― Cesar Nikko Caharian

I can’t remember when I fell in love with swimming. A part of it is nostalgia, I suppose. When I was a kid my parents used to bring me and my siblings to Bishan Swimming Complex, a local public pool, on the weekends. It was a rowdy and happy affair. I can still smell the chlorine, taste the cheap microwaved pool-side cafe food and remember how smooth my skin felt after my post-swim showers. It’s been 20 years since, but it still feels like yesterday.

When I grew older, swimming became a refuge. I swam whenever I was upset or depressed. And it helped – I was always left happier after each swim, and my head clearer. Sometimes I’d also have light-bulb moments in the pool, ideas bubbling up from seemingly out of nowhere. The pool, for some reason, inspires, elevates and is a great cure for many ills.


Bishan Swimming Complex, where my parents used to take me and my siblings.

About three years ago, I decided to go for proper swimming lessons. What I knew about swimming, I’d learned from my grandfather. I knew the breaststroke and how to trap water and float, but that was the extent of it. I wanted to learn proper techniques and to swim less like an amateur and more like a person who knows how to swim. More importantly, I desperately wanted to learn how to swim freestyle.

So I started taking lessons from Sue, a 65-year-old swimming coach I’d met serendipitously at a photoshoot. Sue has a fascinating life story. She started swimming in 1993 after she strained her back propping her sick husband up in bed. Visits to the doctor didn’t help, so heeding a friend’s advice, she started swimming 25 laps a day. Her back was cured after two or three months.

Sue rides a motorbike, travels once a month, wakes up at 5.30am to walk 5km a day, has done a marathon and several half marathons, and swims the same number of laps as her age on every birthday. Just this past October, Sue turned 68 and swam 68 laps at the pool.

How cool is she?


This is how my swimming coach Sue looks like – at 65! And yes, she got me to do a photoshoot for her. Haha.

This reminds me of another story Terry Laughlin – the legendary swimming coach who invented Total Immersion Swimming (TI Swimming), a method that teaches people how to swim like fish – told about his oldest student ever, Dr. Paul Laurie, who at age 93 picked up TI Swimming on his own through a DVD, and then showed up at the doorstep of Laughlin’s swimming studio at 94 requesting for lessons in swimming the butterfly stroke. At 94!

Before that, Dr. Laurie had spent 40 years as a Pediatric Cardiologist, and upon retirement, became an emeritus professor at a medical college for another 25 years.

Even without knowing the details of his life, I can already sense Dr. Laurie’s palpable zest for living.

About two weeks ago, Terry Laughlin, the inventor of TI Swimming and whose blog I have enjoyed reading (through which he muses passionately about the link between swimming and happiness and the joy of mastery) passed away. His passing made me pick up the TI Swimming book that has been collecting dust on my bookshelf. It made me think of why I’d stopped swimming when it was clearly something I enjoyed and wanted to improve at.

Like Dr. Laurie, I too have the Total Immersion Swimming videos downloaded on my computer, but unlike him, I never had the self-discipline and will to commit to the programme long enough to see any huge improvement in my swimming. I did learn to swim a very beginner’s version of the TI freestyle, but it’s nothing to boast about.

I am lazy and inconsistent, but deep in my core, I want to be as cool and awesome as people like Sue and Dr. Laurie, and anyone else who dedicates themselves to a sport or an activity or a craft. But in particular, a sport. There is something about moving and training your body that intrigues me. I was never an athlete and never thought of myself as a sporty person, but TI Swimming preaches exactly the fact that you don’t need to be young or athletic or particularly strong to become good at a sport like swimming.

It is also true that I feel best when exercise is a big part of my life. When I was running a lot, when I was swimming regularly, when I was rock-climbing two or three times a week (right before my jaw surgery), I felt good, and both stronger and lighter. Sometimes it would strike me that that’s all it takes to be happy – one good session in the pool, one long run around my block, one challenging climb up the wall.

So I have a renewed desire to make sports and exercise a big part of my life. And hopefully by doing that I can age as gracefully and healthfully as Sue and Dr. Laurie and Terry Laughlin.

More importantly, I want to start doing the things I want to do. For real. And to quit simply thinking about doing them. And sports/exercise on a regular basis is just one of the many things on my list.

I guess you could say that I want very much to squeeze every drop out of this short but sweet life, and I’m not going to let my laziness and inconsistency stop me from doing that. Even if I fail (at anyone of those things on my list), I’m going to try again and again.



Swimming and watching the sun set counts as one of the best experiences one can have in life.

But yes, TI Swimming. As much I want to run and hike and rock-climb and play table tennis, what I want to do the most at the moment is to master TI Swimming. That’s because I’ve been talking about learning it for the longest time. It’s not that I’m going to stop running or rock-climbing, but for now, I want to put a lazer focus on swimming.

In Terry Laughlin’s last podcast interview, he talked about how, to master something, there are two keys: pleasure and attention.

It sounds obvious but it’s not. Too few of us find joy in the things we are doing or learning to do, and even fewer of us pay careful attention to the task at hand.

If I want to master swimming, then, I must first enjoy the hell out of swimming (which I do). Then I must engage with it, pay close attention it, learn its theory, practise its skills. I must engage with it at a deeper level. In other words, I must not be mindless about the process.


One of my favorite places to swim in Singapore – a pool that overlooks the city.

I think we can also apply the principles of pleasure and attention to almost every other aspect of our lives (but I can attest as to just how difficult it is to do that).

So, what is it that you have been wanting to do but have never gotten down to doing? Are you going to finally start doing them? Share your stories with me if you want by replying to this email. I receive all the replies directly and appreciate every email and story, but might take 2 million years to reply. Even so, I will get back to you eventually.

Now enough talking, let’s start doing.

PS: If you are interested in seeing TI Swimming in action, check out this video titled “The Most Graceful Freestyle Swimming by Shinji Takeuchi”. It’s a short 3-minute video of a 40-year-old Japanese man swimming… like a fish. Shinji Takeuchi also self-taught himself TI Swimming through a DVD. In this video you can see that there is so little splashing of water, so little evidence of effort, and yet he cuts through the water as if a line were pulling him forward. That’s the magic of the TI Swimming method.

PPS: TI Swimming in open water is just as graceful and beautiful.

“If you want to get unstuck, don’t use your mind – use your body.” – Turia Pitt

The art of self-education and the art of insane possibility

I’m back! I was gone for awhile but I’m… back. And it’s about time too.

In July I underwent a jaw surgery (not life-threatening, but still a pretty major surgery) and I got knocked off my path for a while, as you might have noticed. The physical recovery after was intense, but the emotional aspect was worse. To be honest, I dipped into a dangerously low place for a bit, and that’s why it was quite impossible for me to keep up with writing this newsletter/blog.

In other words, I was down in the dumps. Depressed. Very depressed in fact.

Ironically, my last article was about positivity and how I am often “too positive” for my own good. This episode with my post-surgery depression reminded me that I am made of quite fragile stuff, and that I am not immune to depression (even if I have kicked its butt once before). It also goes to show that we human beings are more complicated than we can ever imagine ourselves to be. Turn a bend and there it is, a side of you that you never knew existed. Turn another bend, and you are unrecognizable.

I also learned that when shit really hits the fan, and nothing anyone says can help make you feel better (and I mean not even a psychiatrist, whose words can ring pretty empty at times like these)…

And no amount of self-help works or amounts to anything remotely meaningful…

You pray. You pray hard. And you let time do its magic.

So my major lesson has been that I am weak, but that I am also – strangely, bizarrely – strong. Who the hell even knows what that means? But there is a mystery to it all – this falling and breaking and healing and becoming stronger – that I am still trying to digest and understand.

It’s an ongoing process.

After an ordeal like this, I can’t help but notice that life begins to take on more shades. Don’t ask me why. But the world seems filled with more blues, more greens, more reds. And mostly more grays.

Not quite so black and white anymore.

I started this newsletter/blog to share my thoughts about what I think makes a good life. I also started it because I needed and wanted an avenue to write, to practise writing.

As a wannabe writer, and a person who wants to think hard about what it takes to live a “good life”, it is a blessing – however unwanted – to be able to meet with disasters and unexpected difficulties. That’s when I bump up against the limits of my old views, and I begin to see more clearly and inch somewhat closer to the truth.

So overall, it’s always a good thing when bad things happen, because we learn. Unless we don’t learn, then the bad thing just becomes a pointless tragedy.

I wanted to jump right into today’s topic – “self-education” – which is something I have been pondering over, but I thought it would be good for me to explain my absence over the last 3 months. After all, I had promised to write one article a week. You don’t make such a commitment and just disappear for 3 months!

So I’m back writing. And thinking. And hopefully writing and thinking with a little more nuance, a little more maturity.

Right. On self-education.

Recently I have been toying with the idea of going back to university. As you know, I never did graduate. I was an English major at NTU (a public university in Singapore) for exactly one year, then I dropped out. That’s the extent of my higher education.

As a photographer, and as someone who intends to be a photographer for a long time, I have no need for a college degree. But sometimes I think about how wonderful it would be to go back to school again, to be surrounded by books and ideas and people who love learning as much as I do.

When these thoughts appear in my head, they often come tinged with a purplish dreamy hue.

I think that’s because I have been dreaming of a false and idealistic image. I was a university student myself back in those days, and I hated school. I had zero appreciation for my privileged education. All I wanted then was to be let loose onto the big wild world out there. What learning? What knowledge? What I yearned for was the world out there, that seemed ever so enthralling and full of wonders and bright lights. I wanted to be a music producer. I wanted to write. I wanted to meet people who were doing amazing things with their life. I wanted to create, make a name for myself… so get me the hell out of here right now!

That was my 20-year-old inner monologue.

Now, at 31, after having taken a spin in this “big wild world”, I want increasingly to go inwards instead. Enough of the crazy noisy world out there, I want to know the answers to some big questions. Like who am I? What am I made of? What is a cell made of? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? Does my mind affect my body or does my body affect my mind? Why do countries go to war? How does history affect our lives as citizens today? Why are people not as moral as we want them to be? What is the implication of artificial intelligence? Where will technology take us in a few decades? And do we want to get there?

The more I thought about it though, the more it seemed that maybe going back to university won’t cut it. I love my freedom, and my job requires me to travel at short notice. So short of going back to a physical university, what can I do to effectively educate myself?

Enter MOOCs.

MOOC is basically short for Massive Open Online Course, courses put online for anyone in the world to participate in, learn from. Some of these courses were originally taught in some of the best universities in the world – Harvard, MIT, Yale, Stanford – and now they have been put online, in platforms like Coursera and EDx, for free or at an extremely low fee.

So instead of going back to university and slogging through four years of academic sludge, I now get to learn from some of the best university curriculum in the world. For free or next to nothing. And I get to design my own education by making my own decisions on what I want to learn, based on the questions that I am currently obsessed with.

I’m enrolled now in a few courses. “Minds and Machines” is one – it’s an Introduction to Philosophy of Mind course offered by MIT to its first year undergraduates. “Philosophy and Critical Thinking” by University of Queensland is another one. As you can see, I’m interested in, amongst other subjects, philosophy. But there are courses in hundreds of other subjects – music, the history of the western civilization, biology, law – whatever you can think of, whatever you might be interested in studying, I have no doubt there’s something for you.

The other thing I’m trying to teach myself to do is writing. Yes, I know you wouldn’t be reading this if I didn’t know how to write. But that doesn’t mean I’m a good enough writer. I want to teach myself to be a better writer. That’s why I started this newsletter/blog, so that I have an audience to write for. And with the help of writers like William Zinsser, who published the famous “On Writing Well”, I am learning slowly to become a better writer.

Already Zinsser has influenced me profoundly. He was the one who said, “the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” So nowadays, all I do is cut, cut, cut. Instead of trying to create a style deliberately, I simply say what I want to say and cut the fluff out. It makes writing 200% easier.

I get excited just thinking about the things I want to learn in future.

One of the joys of learning, I think, is simply the joy of learning itself. Learning reminds us that we are indeed alive and changing. We are not static and can transform our bodies and our minds. And that’s good news.

To be able to teach ourselves new skills is also to have the means to be anything we want to be. We can learn to code, to sketch, to argue better, to build a house (if we are so inclined), to play the cello – anything at all. The internet is our best friend. But the fuel must come from us in the form of our urge to learn.

And of course, a measure of discipline and a sprinkling of will.

What are you interested in learning? Please swap learning stories with me! Would love to chat more about this. You can just reply to this email and I’ll be able to get your message.

Till then, happy learning.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Putting life at the center


“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” Jack Kerouac, On the Road”

July, August and September were spent traveling. I went to Tasmania and drove a couple of hundred miles across the island, accompanied by Jason Mraz’s smooth voice drifting out of the stereo singing, “Drive a little slower / not ready to go home / I’d rather stay with you…”; In August I was in Japan, traveling in Shikoku, hopping between the Setouchi art islands; after that I came back to Singapore, took another short trip to Tokyo, and then flew directly to weather-perfect Boston, where I stayed for about 2 weeks.

It’s kind of insane when I type it out like that, but for some time now I have been living this way, traveling for months out of a year, so it doesn’t seem that unusual to me. But people are always telling me, “You really travel a lot!” or “You travel too much!” To which I routinely reply, “But I like traveling!”

I guess this is how I want to live my life right now, doing more of the things I like and lesser of the things I dislike, and to work less and live more.

There is a constant tension within me: Part of me wants to be and enjoys being a productive, useful member of society (creating / working / hanging out with people is a lot of fun and often makes me dizzy with excitement); another part of me yearns very much to be alone with my books and music and solitude for long periods of time, preferably at somewhere beautiful and surrounded by nature.

I need this swinging between the two states (40% connection, 60% isolation) in order to feel balanced, happy, sane.

So I work hard for months, and then drop out, go somewhere far enough, and try to disconnect.

I like this kind of life. I have always wanted to live this kind of life.

Of course, to live such a lifestyle also means having to unlearn many of the ideas fed to me while I was growing up. Like the idea that the best thing for us is to find a stable job and work hard and retire at the age of 65 or so. Anything less is considered irresponsible, lazy.

Well, I’m a freelancer. I’m a photographer. I’m everything my father told me not to be. Maybe I’m irresponsible and lazy, but I’m happy. I work hard when I want to. I reject jobs when I need to focus on other parts of my life. I don’t see the need to constantly feed the economic machine. I earn money and I save my money. I don’t need a lot of material things. Maybe I will never get to buy a private property or a fancy car – that’s totally fine with me. But I want to always have time to read books and see new places and listen to music and be with my cats and learn how to be an urban sketcher and take swimming lessons.

I chose to have less so I can be more.

So… questions:

Why can’t we retire at the age of 35? Why 65? Or what’s to stop us from redefining the terms “retirement” or “work” or “play”? Why can’t work be play? Why can’t play be work? Why can’t life be work + play + do nothing in particular at all in equal measures? And why are we so scared of leisure?

Why can’t we build our life around… life, as opposed to building it around work? Think about it – if your life is at the center, as it should be, then work becomes just one component, along with all the other things that matter – your relationships, your hobbies, your travels, etc. Wouldn’t that be absolutely cool?

Then instead of blindly heading to work and coming home every day, seeing your bank account increase by a fixed amount every month, by putting your life at the center, you force yourself to constantly think about what matters, how you want to live, and what makes a good life. Then when you are able to attempt to put all these philosophical meditations into real-life action, you begin to live an embodied life, not one where half of your life happens only inside of your head.

Since I dropped out of university 11 years ago, I have pondered and wrestled with the following question. It’s a very thorny question and is at the heart of life itself. How do I get to live life the way I want to live life, without being sucked into the machinations of society?

I haven’t figured everything out, but in my mess, I feel like I have succeeded somewhat in proving my own thesis – at the very least to myself – that it’s possible to live life with some degree of freedom. Of course, that’s because “freedom” is something I value a lot. You might not value it as much as I do, so the shape of your life is probably going to look very different from mine.

But the point is, we must individually overcome the fixed ideas we have been burdened with by society since our birth, whenever it makes sense. And we must find our own true north through this laborious process. It is in this questioning and through years of trial and error (which means we must go out and try doing things at the risk of failing at them) before we can slowly create a life whose shape is pleasing and satisfying. That’s when you can begin to know what the center of your life even looks like.

And – in a more practical sense – we must learn to want less, lest we get strangled by the money monster.

And maybe, just maybe, we can then die without too many regrets.

Isn’t that what life is all about at the end of the day, this eternal struggle to find your own comfortable place in the world?

Too positive?

A friend told me that she finds my writing “too positive”, and the moment she said that, I kind of got what she meant.

Looking back at the articles I have written, I get how there just might be a tad too much “life is good and everything is going to be alright” sort of vibe to my writing.

So I feel the need to put out a disclaimer today: I am not happy all the time, and life is not all rainbow and fluffy clouds for me 24/7 (and no, I am emphathically not a unicorn).

Perhaps I just need to be a better writer so I can more fully express not just the brightness of life, but also its shadows and its dark corners.

But my friend’s comment made me think.

While it is true that I have bad days and sometimes horrible days, it is also true that generally, I see the world in a positive light.

I have my fears and worries and insecurities and sadness, but at my deepest core, I know that there is always a way out of my suffering.

It’s this conviction that has led me to work at trying to understand what it takes to be “truly happy”. If I didn’t believe that such a thing were possible, I would not have continued to search for it.

And yet I don’t know where this faith or confidence comes from.

Could it be that I was born positive? And if it were only a matter of genetics, then aren’t those who are born negative doomed to a life of darkness?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but maybe science can offer us some insight.

Matthieu Ricard is a Tibetan Buddhist monk who is known as “the world’s happiest man” (although he dislikes the title). He earned this title after a 12-year scientific study, during which he was hooked up to fMRI machines while he meditated.

His brain scans showed that whenever he was meditating, areas of his brain would light up with excessive activity, as compared to a normal person. These areas are usually linked to happiness “and a reduced propensity towards negativity”.

Years of skillful meditation have altered his brain and made him experience greater happiness.

In “The Joy of Living”, Buddhist monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche describes what it takes for our brains to create thoughts or memories: Neurons (a specialized nerve cell in our brain) transmitting electro-chemical signals to one another. Every time neurons connect, they form “a bond very much like old friendships”. The more they connect, the stronger the bond.

So if I grew up in a broken family where my parents were always quarrelling, everytime they fought, the same signals would be passed from one neuron to the other. Over time, the bonds between these neurons would be so strong that any small thing would trigger these bad memories of my childhood. It is very likely then that I would grow up with a propensity towards more negative thoughts.

This is basically what is known as neuroplasticity, which is the scientific consensus that our brains are not static, and that they can change over our lifetime.

What this implicates is huge.

If our brains have the plasticity to change for the worse (i.e. childhood experiences leading to a more negative personality), then it means our brains also have the plasticity to grow towards greater happiness.

Maybe it is an uphill task by the time we try to change our brains as adults, but I still think it is worth a try.

To end this article, I must say, I do get sick of saying/typing the word “happiness” over and over again. I don’t even like that word much, because it’s so vague. What does it mean when someone says she is happy? Can we be sure that what she is feeling is true happiness?

“Happiness” as a word has lost its meaning because we have over-used it, or we have misunderstood it.

For me, happiness is not just a mood, but a kind of peace and non-resistance that sometimes has nothing to do with merely pleasant feelings. Happiness, to me, is also the full acceptance of all my emotions, whether good or bad. It is the result of constant honest self-reflection, constant self-discovery, and the growing ability to see life for what it truly is. It is, finally, the taking off of my mask that I have put on all my life, and now, in my nakedness, I am finally free to be myself, warts and all.

It is truly a life-long journey of self-education.

So what is happiness to you? What have you done to achieve it? And are you happy now?

I would love to hear from you.

Downsizing

My life keeps getting smaller these days. Just today I got rid of a calendar, a photo-holder and a book whose author I no longer hold in high regard. Every day I feel the urge to get rid of a few more things in my life.

In fact, I want to do it until I am left with only the things I need. The essential things. It’s a high ideal, and one that requires constant mindfulness. After all, it’s easy to think that we need an extra pair of scissors at home, when the truth is we can survive just as well on one (true story: I have two pairs of scissors in my kitchen and I can’t make myself get rid of one of them. Yet.)

But I have been getting better at getting rid of a whole bunch of other things – clothes I don’t like, decorative pieces around the home that don’t quite spark joy, random things I bought from my travels overseas.

I’m not quite a minimalist yet but you can definitely say that I aspire towards being one, or at least have the inclination of one.

Although, I have to say, I used to really enjoy buying things.

I have tasted what I thought was true happiness when I walked into a store and bought an iPad mini on the spot. Or when I was buying a $1,000 bicycle just one day after the thought of buying a bicycle drifted into my head. (I have barely used both the iPad mini and the bicycle since. The joy of buying both of them wore off in less than a few days after the purchase.)

It used to be that I would walk into a mall and think of things to buy (not that I needed anything in particular). I’d feel my body awash with the pleasure of the anticipation of spending money on something, anything. It was almost primal. Nowadays, sometimes, when I have had a long day, I find myself dropping back naturally into the habit of wanting to walk into a mall and look for things to buy, but I have learned to dismiss the thought.

(Actually, now I sometimes feel not just zero urge to buy things but a slight discomfort at the number of things that are on sale in a mall. Imagine the amount of resources it must take to produce all these things.)

As time went by, I began slowly to suspect that my things were a barrier towards more happiness in my life. Firstly, I was spending so much money on them, money I could have invested or saved. Secondly, even though I owned all these things, I never did learn to savour each of them. I would buy something and move on to the next thing or gadget I wanted to buy (I was always looking out for the next version of Kindle, for example).

So I began the process of wanting not just to buy fewer things and save more money, but also to look deeply into why I wanted to do this. And I realized it was because I wanted to have the opportunity to see clearly, for myself, what are the truly important things in my life.

These days I make myself own one pair of sandals, one pair of sneakers, and one pair of track shoes. One for every possible occasion. I like all of them, and I don’t question any more if my footwear fits my outfit – my sandals are black and my sneakers are white, so they fit almost anything!

I also got rid of my Spotify and New York Times subscriptions (and a bunch of other superfluous subscriptions I signed up for on a whim), deleted Uber off my phone (saving Grab for the really dire moments when I absolutely need to pay $20 to get a ride home, as opposed to less than $3 if I take the train home), trimmed down my insurance policies, cut my spending on books by 90%, stopped buying new clothes, etc.

In the last year I have managed to save quite a lot of money, way more than I have ever saved throughout my entire life. Having saved this much money means I now have the freedom to ride out the tough times of my freelance career if it ever comes to that, start a side business, or even better, not work for awhile if I want to, without having to worry about money issues at all.

Also, I don’t spend precious time battling my craving to shop online anymore, nor do I waste time researching on the best, for example, wallet or bag to buy. I’m happy enough with the wallet and the bag that I already own.

That’s the beauty of being a more minimalist lifestyle – you learn to enjoy and savour what you already have.

Freedom and time – now those are things that are truly important to me.

As I said, I am merely an aspiring minimalist. I don’t live in a clutter-free home yet (although I try to keep my living room neat, my store-room and study room are still piled with clutter that I hope to clear some day).

But I don’t think there’s any turning back. I have enjoyed the benefits of buying and owning fewer things too much to morph back into a maximalist again.

And I certainly hope to one day live in a home as cool and awesomely minimalist as this guy’s 😉

Crafting a life that matters

All of last year I had a meaning crisis. I was shooting a lot and working with a lot of cool companies and brands, but I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing.

Things felt hollow, devoid of significance. True, I was earning money doing what I enjoy doing, I was self-employed, I didn’t have to work for a boss in an office, I had a lot of freedom to go wherever I want and whenever I want – these are all things I’d worked very hard to achieve over the last decade (yes, decade!).

But now that I’d “arrived” (not that it’s some big accomplishment, but it was a destination I’d dreamed of for awhile), I started asking myself, “So what?” And of course, “What’s next?”

At first, I wondered if this was a matter of me being never satisfied, of not knowing how to appreciate the here and the now. Perhaps it was just me wanting to be, as usual, somewhere else.

I was troubled.

I discussed this existential crisis with my friends and my family and then one day my sister said to me, “But what you do matter! The photos you took for me elevated my brand and helped me reach out to more people. Even though you don’t think that you are helping people with what you do, you are. You helped a small brand become more visible and allowed me to help more people lead a healthier life, and that’s something.”

(For those who don’t know, my sister runs the cold-pressed juice company Antidote.)

I’d never thought of things that way.

And then I realized something: For the last 10 years, all my efforts had been directed at achieving things for myself. I had spent years and years being introspective and asking myself:

“What do I really like to do?”

“What do I really want to become?”

“What will really make me happy?”

These are not bad questions to ask myself at all – in fact these were the very questions that led me to building a career with all the elements that I originally yearned for – freedom, money, enjoyment.

But it was all me, me, me.

I’d never actually thought of my work in terms of helping other people.

I had spent, on the contrary, a lot of time thinking about how to help myself: How to have more clients, how to have a better portfolio, how to get the attention of the brands I love so I could get commissioned by them to work on new projects, but I hadn’t focused on helping people.

In a book I’m reading now – “The Power of Meaning” – the author writes memorably about a group of people who devote their lives not to personal happiness but to a meaningful life that has, at its foundation, a service mindset:

“Though the darvishes led seemingly normal lives as lawyers, construction workers, engineers, and parents, they adopted a meaning mindset that imbued everything they did with significance – whether it was helping to clean up a dinner spread or singing the poetry of Rumi and Attar and living by its wisdom. For the darvishes, the pursuit of personal happiness was completely beside the point. Rather, they focused constantly on how they could make themselves useful to others, how they could help other people feel happier and more whole, and how they could connect to something larger. They crafted lives that mattered – which leaves just one question for the rest of us: How can we do the same?”

Nowadays, I too try to imbue everything I do with a service mindset. It’s not an easy thing to do for a person like myself who has been, all along, so self-centred about achieving and realizing my own goals, my own dreams, my own desires.

Looking outwards and trying to make other people’s lives better through my work as a photographer gives new meaning to what I do, and lifts me out of the sense of futility and purposelessness I’d been feeling over the last year.

It’s an ongoing process where I learn to put others ahead of myself (it’s truly not quite as easy I’d imagined).

And this spills over, naturally, to my personal life as well, where I have discovered just how important it is for me to be a better, kinder and more giving friend, sister, daughter and partner.

Living a life where I put others before me also means having the courage to make commitments. Being so obsessed with freedom, I have been actively shunning making new commitments for a long time, not wanting to be tied down to any project or any community.

But yesterday I met with a few new friends from the mindfulness retreat I attended a couple of weeks ago.

We had gathered to discuss coming together to build a mindfulness community made up of young people in Singapore, as part of the Wake Up movement inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh. The conclusion, at the end of our meeting, was to meet weekly as a group and eventually organise regular events, like a Day of Mindfulness, to reach out to more young people and help bring to them the joy, happiness and peace that can be the result of a mindfulness practice.

Leaving the meeting, I was both inspired by and in awe of my new friends – many of them don’t just talk about being compassionate but really walk the talk by already being involved in organizations that advocate for animals and tackle climate change; one of them has accompanied a doctor on trips overseas where they operate on children with cleft palates, and another has pledged to give 10% of his income to charity for life.

These are people who not just talk about putting others before them, but live this principle out through their own lives.

I have a lot to learn from them.

Lazy Day

In Plum Village, the mindfulness practice centre and monastery founded by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, one day a week is designated as Lazy Day, where everyone practices being, rather than doing.

On Lazy Day, there are no scheduled tasks, no one has to do anything, and the day is allowed to unfold naturally and with ease.

As a former, recovering workaholic, I love the idea of a Lazy Day so much. And I love, even more, the idea that it’s okay to sometimes do nothing in a world that has fallen in love with the notion of being busy all the freaking time.

At one point in my life, I thought work was everything. I was a productivity addict, addicted to the high of optimizing my days. And I worked and worked, all the time. I thought I was happy, but the truth is I was scared to death.

I was worried that if I stopped working I would find less success in life. And then life would be a disaster.

Then I almost had a burnout last year. That was when I decided to take two months off. During that period I found myself living in Taiwan for a month, in a hostel with many young people from all around the world.

I remember one of them was an American who woke up very early every day to meditate. He would then spend the rest of the day doing nothing but wander around Taipei admiring the city’s architecture. I asked him why he did that, and he said it was because he wanted to. It was as simple as that.

Every night, a bunch of us would gather aimlessly at the hostel’s living room to talk about random things. Someone would bake a cake and leave it on the table for everyone to share. We never had to fix a time to meet; everyone just wandered into the living room whenever they wanted to.

Sometimes we would spend an entire evening just sitting there, eating, chatting, doing nothing of much consequence.

There was no agenda, no project, no goal, but yet it felt nourishing to the soul.

There is a Plum Village song that goes like this:

“Happiness is here and now,
I have dropped my worries,
Nowhere to go,
Nothing to do,
No longer in a hurry.

Happiness is here and now,
I have dropped my worries,
Somewhere to go,
Something to do,
But I don’t need to hurry.”

That month in Taiwan taught me a lot about how to be happy doing nothing.

At the mindfulness retreat I just went to, time also lost its meaning there. We had a schedule to follow, but there was often ample time in between the activities. One morning, after eating breakfast by the sea, I even fell asleep under a tree. When I woke up, groups of other retreatants were still near me, talking and enjoying each other’s company and the breeze from the sea. It was magical.

And amazingly enough, even though I wasn’t replying to my emails or working during the retreat, the world didn’t end. In fact, to me, the world sparkled and glowed. In each present moment, I found something beautiful to live for (the early morning light, the bowl of porridge I was eating, or a kindred moment with a new friend), something that had nothing to do at all with my future success, or my future happiness.

Back in the real world, it’s a little hard to do nothing all the time. We are all so busy, and we all have responsibilities. That’s why I enjoy the idea of designating a Lazy Day, to remind us that it’s okay not to be buzzing around doing things all the time.

If you want to take it a little further, you can also spend your Lazy Day practicing mindfulness throughout the day. When you eat, only eat. Eat slowly and in silence, chewing each mouthful at least 30 times. When you wash dishes, only wash dishes. When you are with your loved one, only be with your loved one. Keep your phone away. Quit social media for a day. And remember, do nothing and let the day unfold naturally and easily.

Lazy Day is also an effortless day. No struggling, no striving, just being.

If a Lazy Day like this isn’t refreshing and nourishing, I don’t know what is 😉

Practice your way to happiness: 5 things I learned from attending a mindfulness retreat

I recently spent 4 days at a mindfulness retreat, waking up at 5am every day to meditate, eat in silence and walk mindfully.

I had no idea what to expect from such a retreat, but now that I have come out the other end, it’s safe to say that it’s one of the most inspiring and moving experiences I have ever had.

We human beings suffer. A lot. We also find it extremely hard to be happy and contented.

Mindfulness is the art of being fully present and awake to each ongoing moment. By being fully present, you will be able to taste the joy and sweetness of each moment in life. It is, when practiced, a powerful way to end individual suffering, and can lead to an enduring, deeply rooted happiness.

Sounds miraculous? I thought so too.

One day, sitting by the sea and eating dinner with the monk attached to our group, I asked, “Brother (the monks and nuns leading the retreat are all addressed as brothers and sisters), are you allowed to read books about subjects other than Buddhism? If so, what do you like to read?”

The monk smiled at me and replied, “Yes, we are allowed to read everything and anything after we become a more senior monk. I like to read about science, especially physics, and psychology. I also keep updated on the news. Do you know? Science is also now very interested in the positive effects of mindfulness.”

For me, that was a clear sign of what I already know to be true, which is that Buddhism is not simply a religion but a spiritual path tempered by inquiry, rationality, experimentation, intellectual openness, scientific soundness and psychological insight. Talking to the monk, I came to an understanding that he is on this spiritual path because it can be and has been demonstrated by science to be an effective way for human beings to truly understand their own minds and achieve true happiness.

As you already know, I don’t think it is possible (or desirable) to be a successful creative or entrepreneur without also being a happy human being. It is my personal belief that it’s healthier to create from a joyful place. The practice of mindfulness, I believe, will allow us to do better work and to do work that is better for the world.

Here are some of the practices I did during the retreat that gave me a glimpse into the powerful results of mindfulness. In those short few days, these practices had brought much joy and happiness to me. I hope to continue to practice in daily life (that, of course, is the hard part, but I am going to try). Over time, I believe the practice of mindfulness will transform my life.

1. Waking up at 5am every day

During the retreat, activities typically ended around 8 or 9pm. Lights out was at 10pm. I don’t usually sleep early, so this was a challenge for me. But I did manage to fall asleep around 11 or 12am every day, and thankfully, I also managed to wake up at 5am every day.

I thought I would hate it, but this turned out to be one of my favorite practices. The first thing we did after washing up was to sit in the meditation hall in silence. By 5.30am, about a hundred people would be there, sitting silently in a hall, surrendering themselves to the present moment.

It was wonderful and kind of awe-inspiring.

How to practice this in daily life: Waking up early is something I have tried and failed to do repeatedly. I want to wake up early because I genuinely enjoy early mornings – the cool silence, the world only slightly rousing, most people still deep in sleep, with hours of quiet moments still ahead of me. But it has been difficult to achieve for me.

The retreat has, thankfully, slightly reset my inner clock, and I hope to continue to wake up at 5am every day, and to spend those early morning hours in quiet contemplation or in sitting or walking meditation (see below), so that I can start the rest of the day with a clear and peaceful mind.

2. Walking meditation

Walking meditation was fun, but only if you don’t mind weird looks by people who pass you by in the park. When doing walking meditation, you are to walk slowly in accordance to your breath (you might look a little like a zombie, or a zombie who walks really slowly, so to prevent looking like an unfriendly zombie, remember to smile a little while walking so that you look like a friendly zombie).

We were guided to take about 2 steps for every in breath, and 3 steps for every out breath. But it’s up to you, really. While walking, simply be aware that you are breathing in and breathing out. When thoughts inevitably arise, let them. View them with no judgement. Soon the thoughts will fade away on their own accord. But even if they don’t, it’s ok. Just be with them gently.

You may also look at your surroundings and marvel at the miraculous nature of the leaves, the trees, the sky, the clouds, and realize that you are here, now.

There is nowhere you need to go and nothing you need to do to be happy in the here and now.

How to practice this in daily life: You may do walking meditation after breakfast, which is what we did during the retreat. Since you are going to be walking quite slowly, the walk might take about 45 minutes to an hour. It might sound long, but the after effects include glowing in happiness and having a rather peaceful mind. I personally think it’s worth it.

3. Eating meditation

I have never cried in joy at eating a bowl of vegan food before until I attended this camp (true story), but yes, it happened. During one of the meals, one of the monks picked up his guitar and suddenly started singing a song about how the food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard and loving work.

It was achingly beautiful. I looked at my bowl of rice and vegetables and tofu and my eyes filled with tears.

Even though we ate our meals together in the hall, every meal was eaten in total silence. We were also encouraged to chew 30 times for each mouthful. Again, about a hundred people eating slowly in total silence and enjoying their very humble bowl of rice and vegetables – it was awe-inspiring (I’m going to use this phrase too many times in this article).

Before each meal began, one of the monks would read The Five Contemplations, reminding us to eat with gratitude, to recognize the food as a gift of the earth, to recognize our greed and to eat in moderation, and to keep our compassion alive by eating in a way that reduces the suffering of living beings, stops contributing to climate change, and heals and preserves our precious planet. You may see the full Five Contemplations here.

Eating with these reminders in mind, the food becomes transformed into something magical.

How to practice this in daily life: In my daily life, I usually eat my meals while I read or watch a video. Sometimes it’s because I want to optimize my time, and sometimes it’s because it’s just a habit – I have been eating and multi-tasking all my life. After coming back from the retreat, I have decided to eat my meals mindfully. I chew each mouthful slowly and when I eat, I don’t do anything else. No reading, no videos. Just me and the delicious food in front of me.

Also, one of the tenets of eating meditation is to eat with compassion, so as to reduce the suffering of fellow beings. That means eating a lot less meat, and if possible to become a vegetarian or a vegan. The latter is very difficult to achieve for me at the moment, but I am certainly going to drastically cut down on my meat consumption.

4. Working meditation

During the retreat, we were split into groups, and each group took turns to do “working meditation”. For us, that meant cleaning the food trays and washing basins, and clearing the food area. When you work with mindfulness, even something as simple as washing dishes becomes an act of meditation. You wash a dish with love and affection, as if you were bathing a baby. So an activity that you normally view with annoyance gets transformed into a nourishing and even enjoyable one.

How to practice this in daily life: At home, I am always annoyed at having to wash dishes, to change my sheets, to do my laundry. I have always viewed these chores as, well, a chore, something that takes up my precious time that could be better used for working or creating or relaxing. But when you do working meditation, you transform your view of the work.

Now, cleaning dishes mindfully also means that you think of cleaning dishes as an essential activity that helps you to have nice, clean dishes, which you can use for your next meal. Doing chores around the house means you get to have a comfortable and clean house. By doing each chore lovingly, you get to enjoy the current moment and not waste the moment being unhappy and annoyed.

I am going to try that with my dishes later, haha.

5. Sitting meditation

Sitting meditation has a bad rep. For many people, it’s the world’s most boring thing to do. During the retreat, we often had to sit in meditation. Not just during the early morning meditation session, but also whenever they ring the mindfulness bell, or before our meals begin.

I was never bored. Whenever I had to do sitting meditation, I merely sat there and allowed my thoughts to arise. There was one morning when my back really ached – that was difficult, but not boring. I enjoyed being with my mind and watching my unruly and negative thoughts lose their power whenever I watched them with loving kindness.

It’s hard for me write about sitting meditation eloquently and intelligently, so I recommend reading books about it, and even better, practicing it yourself. Your experience will be a good teacher. Some good books to read includes Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever You Go, There You Are”, “The Miracle of Mindfulness” and “The Sun My Heart” by Thich Naht Hanh, and “10% Happier” by Dan Harris.

How to practice this in daily life: I don’t meditate enough. But after the retreat, I have a much deeper understanding of the beauty and power of meditation, and I have a renewed desire to let meditation become a daily part of my life. I suggest doing sitting meditation right after you wake up and before your walking meditation, but really, you can slot it in any part of your day. You can also meditate for any amount of time. For me, I am currently comfortable with about 30 minutes of meditation in the morning, and at night I meditate for a few minutes before I go to bed.

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Mindfulness is something to be “practiced”. It is not merely a concept or an idea, and in fact, it is meaningless as a concept and as an idea. It is only when mindfulness is practiced that it creates the happiness and the joy and the peace that it promises and that we all yearn for.

My suggestion – also my reminder to myself – is to keep an open mind and an open heart, and to not just think about mindfulness intellectually but to practice it with my actions in my daily life.

That’s how I intend to do it.

*

If you are interested in the retreat I went to, visit the Plum Village website. Plum Village is a mindfulness practice centre founded by Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Naht Hanh.

They have practice centres in France, Thailand, Hong Kong, New York, California, etc. The locations are all beautiful and near nature. You practice together with the monks and nuns.

Why write?

Writing sucks (or at least the act of writing does), but I keep doing it anyway.

Didn’t the writer Dorothy Parker once say, “I hate writing, I love having written”?

She’s a total kindred spirit.

Writing is painful and torturous, but if you are like me, and Parker, you understand the bizarre satisfaction and joy of having written, of having produced words that somehow bring shape to your thoughts and help you build a more solid identity in this sometimes fluid world, in which we are so often lost.

Somehow, writing makes me feel more like a person. Or maybe I am already a person, but now I feel like I have told my story, and therefore I am better connected to the larger world outside of me.

In other words, I feel less alone.

Ever since I started writing regularly on my blog, I have also had a few friends come up to me telling me about how they too would love to start writing or to write more.

I do think there is something visceral about writing that draws a certain group of people irresistibly to it. And there’s no denying that in many people, there is this deep need to at least make some kind of noise, so that the world knows of their existence, and then they can feel like they have lived as a main character in this bizarre story of life instead of having just floated past, like a ghost.

I am of course talking about myself.

Crucially, I also have come to see how necessary writing has become in my growth as both a creative and a human being.

And despite the self-doubt (do my thoughts matter?) and the insecurity (who is even reading this?) and the lack of confidence (maybe I should leave the writing to people who are smarter than me!), I feel more and more certain that writing is something I need to do.

And certainly, starting to write regularly has been one of the best things I have done for myself in 2017.

Not only that, I have a strong feeling that writing consistently will pay off in more ways than I can imagine. How, I have no idea yet.

For now, I soldier on.

During my short blogging hiatus recently, I have had a lot of time to rethink my reasons for writing. Here are some of them.


Writing to learn

I’m a learning geek/nerd, and the best way to learn is to teach others. Some people like to learn the French language or American history or astronomy; I like to learn about how to live life to my fullest potential, and how to find true peace and happiness and meaning in my life. When I write about what I have learned – either through the experiences I have had in my own life or through books I have read – my learning solidifies, deepens, becomes a more permanent part of me. (Plus I have such a bad memory, so writing helps me to remember more of my life than my memory is capable of doing…)


Writing to understand myself

Self-knowledge is key. It is true that sometimes even I don’t know who I am or the reasons behind why I do the things I do. When I write, I open a door into a deeper part of myself. And if I give myself the opportunity to write honestly, without garnishing or covering up, then I also give myself the chance to see myself for who I am. And truly, I think, genuine self-understanding is the path to greater meaning and happiness, because if we don’t know who we are, how can we begin to contemplate how we want to live in this world, or what kind of a life is worth living? These are questions no one can answer except ourselves. And we must start to answer these questions by looking at ourselves honestly, even if it hurts.


Writing to organize my thoughts better

I’m not a good talker. It’s always hard for me to adequately express what’s in my head when I talk, because unlike writing, I cannot sit down and edit and re-edit and organize and re-organize, which is what I do with my writing. Writing allows me to sort through my thoughts and imbue them with some kind of coherence and clarity. I also sound slightly smarter when I write =]


Writing to help and inspire

I can’t tell you how many times an article or a book or even a single sentence has helped pull me out of a rut or shine a light through the cracks exactly when I needed it. My personal experience tells me that it is important for people to share their knowledge openly and generously, and writing is a great medium for that. Who knows when you can save a life with just one sentence in one entry on your tiny obscure blog that is read only by 20 people on most days? For me, if I can just make one person’s day brighter, I already have a good enough reason to write.


Writing to build a community

Ever since I started writing, I have been getting emails and comments and messages from total strangers. They write me to tell me that they are on a similar path to living life on their own terms, or that they have a similar view towards life, or that they appreciate that I have written about my struggles, since they share the same struggles, and I realize: Wow, we are all part of an invisible tribe. As virtual as this tribe is, it is nevertheless real.


Writing because it is hard

A part of me is stubborn and enjoys challenges a little too much. Writing is challenging. Writing one article a week is even more challenging. But I want to do it anyway because sometimes it’s fun to do things that are hard. And it’s also rewarding, because the harder it is to write, the better I am going to be as a writer as time goes by. It’s like going to the gym, only I am growing writing/thinking muscles rather than actual muscles.


Writing because I enjoy writing

I know I already said that I find writing to be a rather painful affair, yet it’s also true that I enjoy writing. On good days, the words flow. They come tumbling out of me. Writing becomes easy. But even on days when writing is tough, I do still enjoy doing it. I can’t really explain why, except that maybe it’s… true love?