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.

Bourdain

Photo from Anthony Bourdain’s Tumblr

I was a fool to have found Anthony Bourdain’s work so late. But now he is dead.

There is something I enjoy about Bourdain, but it’s hard to write about without — in Bourdainesque language — fucking it up.

But okay. Okay.

It’s the idea of Tony Bourdain, alright?

Imagine him, sitting on the back of a scooter in Hanoi, the traffic roaring. There is exhaust and smoke everywhere. CHAOS. Cut to another scene — he is eating dinner by the roadside on a low red plastic stool, adding with abandon fish sauce and chilli into his piping hot Cơm Hến and slurping it up. Then he’s riding across Myanmar on a crazily jumpy train — almost under threat of derailment — sleeping right through the journey. An old-school Chinese song plays, and suddenly he is walking through Chungking Mansion in Hong Kong, cool as ice. Another cut again brings us to him, knife in hand, killing chickens for stew in the dark (with much difficulty, it must be added) as a boat brings him slowly downriver into the jungle of the Congo…

You can’t deny that he is full of… swag.

But he is also king of the kind of seductive, beautiful, sordid imagery that paints the world as it is. He knows that the world is complicated, so he doesn’t try to package it. He tries simply to be a part of that complexity. Maybe we can say that the final products of No Reservations and Parts Unknown are still well-packaged, highly edited, biased works of one man’s views and imagination, but if there is anyone out there who’s trying his hardest to cut the bullshit, it’s Tony Bourdain.

Then there is the other idea of him — 44 but still broke, behind on rent, living in a rent-stabilized apartment, without health insurance, with little to no hope of ever realizing his dreams of traveling the world. This other Tony Bourdain decided to write Kitchen Confidential — the book that lifted him out of obscurity — for other cooks and waiters who were as angry and self-loathing as he was. “Fuck everybody else,” he thought, and wrote the book that he thought no one else would read.

Then there were the drugs. He wrote all about it in his books. There was no attempt to hide. The addiction, the depression, the suicide attempts, the desperation. It was all out there, like barely healed cuts on one’s inner arm.

So I guess I appreciate Bourdain because he was many things —all the good (his success, his talent, his vision) and all the bad (so broken, so afraid of the world and so fucked up), but mostly because, he always tried to be true.

And not to mention the swag. The swag.

Strip naked

Writing reveals who we are — it’s like that steamboat voyage Charles Marlow undertook that brought him riding straight into the heart of darkness.

There is always something to be found in our hearts — some true part of ourselves — that is revealed when we journey inwards, putting pen on paper. Or fingertips on keyboard. Whether we like it or not, whether we try to present the truth as something else or not, something slips out. Always.

The whole process of writing, for me, is to be okay with that. Wanting to be seen as cool is a thing of the past. That was when I was 20 and still wrecked with debilitating insecurity and a sort of damaged ability to love myself. Back then I thought everyone was better and more lovable than me, and I’d better have a talent or be good at something so people would love me a little more than I deserve.

But now I am older and I just want to strip naked. Come and see my heart if you want. Explore the dark bits and the bright parts and see that it’s all me. It’s all me.

Today they call it “living with authenticity”.

They can give it whatever label they want but it’s okay, I am gonna strip naked anyway.

I want to get real. I think getting real helps with my writing. Being honest means that I don’t have to come up with things to write about — they simply bubble up out of me because that’s the way things are.

Mostly it’s just a relief. A weight off the shoulder, not having to pretend to be someone I am not.

What can I say? You’re gonna see a lot of that here.

Loneliness kills

I do believe loneliness kills.

One year I was in Sapporo. I went there because I wanted to run away from myself, but at that time I didn’t know yet that you can’t outrun yourself.

I rented a private room in a hostel. The first few days were hellish. I fell sick, suffered a few panic attacks, ate kombini food in my room, and walked through wind-swept downtown Sapporo alone, a lost soul. I didn’t know anyone in the city. Not a single person in the whole of Sapporo knew my name.

One day I got talking with one of the owners of the hostel. I’d tried to avoid talking to anyone (I thought being alone would help me better run away from myself), but it was hard because my room was just right beside the hostel’s reception area.

That was the day my trip changed from a slow-moving heavy-hearted indie film dripping with a kind of end-of-the-world emotional darkness to a light-hearted summer flick filled with friendship and laughter, I kid you not.

I was promptly invited to join them for dinner the next day, during which we made some kind of Japanese wrap together and were joined by not only guests but the hostel owners’ friends from the neighbourhood. There were sake and stories shared. A good night.

One morning I went with a bunch of them to the riverside for yoga. They held yoga sessions once in awhile for their guests and friends. My new Japanese friends had woken up early to make onigiri from scratch (still the best fucking onigiri I’ve ever had in my life) and brought tables and chairs to set up a coffee station. The sky was a soft but brilliant blue. After the yoga some of them sat around talking and eating, while others started kicking a ball around. The breeze was sharp and cold, but not painfully so. It was so damn idyllic.

From then on I had friends. More than a few people knew my name now in Sapporo. I volunteered to photograph their hostel for their website, and I spent a short morning doing some portraits for the three owners of the hostel. Some afternoons we’d sit together in the living room and the owners’ friends would be there, playing guitar and goofing around.

I befriended one of these guys, Shiraki, and spent one evening at his tiny apartment. He told me all about his dad and showed me his records. He chain-smoked all the way as we shared our life stories with each other.

My time in Sapporo would have been very different without these people. Whenever I recall my time there, I don’t think quite so fondly of the nights I ate alone in my room. I think instead of the time I spent together with these new friends, and my heart feels all warm and fluffy.

Not only that, I saw how beautiful the whole Waya Guesthouse community was (go to the landing page of their website and you will see the photo I took for them!). Started by three friends who had come home to Sapporo after some years of working in cities like Tokyo, the trio dreamed of bringing their community together. The hostel was built literally by hundreds of friends and neighbours who saw Waya’s Facebook posts and came out to help. Every bit of wood was drilled by a friend or a neighbour.

I was inspired – and my heart warmed – by that. It planted a seed in me that took years to germinate, but now I am a firm believer in community.

In my view, everyone has two tribes – one, your personal tribe made up of family and close friends with whom you can eat and laugh together; two, a bigger tribe made up of a group of like-minded people you genuinely enjoy being with and with whom you can collaborate, make things, work towards a cause together. I urge you to cultivate both tribes with equal commitment. After all, these are YOUR people who will journey with you through this life.

2017 annual review

Happy new year my friends!

Before we know it we have already stepped into 2018 – another chance for a new beginning! Always grateful.

I’m going to keep this year’s annual review simple by answering a few questions my inspiring friend Samantha came up with. I hope you will give these questions a try too, and if you’d like, feel free to share your answers with us. I’d love to have a read!

Look back

1. What would you say was the theme for your 2017?

Learning to love myself for just who I am.

2. What’s one new thing you discovered about yourself this year?

I don’t have panic attacks anymore! I used to have bad panic attacks for years but ever since one night about 2 or 3 years ago, when I got fed up with yet another anxiety attack and woke up in the middle of the night and found this website, I have learned to deal with the anxiety and panic attacks with what I can only describe as fully-embodied, radical, total, nonchalant acceptance. So even through the most stressful moments of my life now, my body/mind simply doesn’t respond with panic attacks anymore. Hallelujah.

3. Tell us a happy and an awful thing that happened between Jan-Jun.

Happy: I was surprised in February with a birthday trip to Bali… on business class! I was at a cafe with a friend but suddenly got “kidnapped” to the airport blindfolded; when the blindfold was taken off I was standing at the business class booth, being handed a ticket to Bali. That was truly awesome!

Awful: Nothing really awful happened in the first half of 2017, I think. It was pretty awesome actually! I started the year off with a shoot for The New York Times, then Tokyo (my favorite place) for another shoot, and then Design Hotels flew me to Taipei for yet another shoot. Got to do my first two big Singapore Tourism Board campaigns too, so early half of 2017 was epic! Oh and I also went for a Plum Village meditation retreat that greatly inspired me.


Plum Village meditation retreat

4. Tell us a happy and an awful thing that happened between Jul-Dec.

Awful: I’ll start with the awful first. On 7 July I went through a double jaw surgery. It was not really that difficult physically (I was on GA, and because of nerve injury, I didn’t feel much pain at all after the surgery and took only one pain-killer), but emotionally I was a wreck. In my post-GA state of confusion and my post-surgery state of vulnerability (I was so swollen I looked like a completely different person and since my teeth was completely sealed shut I had to eat through a syringe – only soups and finely-blended food – for a few weeks), I fell into a bad depression for awhile. So that was awful awful awful.


What an experience!

Happy: Even though the second half of 2017 started off awful with the surgery and the depression, these events reminded me of how blessed and loved I am. Being so vulnerable meant that I had to be taken care of by others, and the people around me did a great job of doing that. Things started picking up when my housemate dragged me to Tasmania a few weeks after the surgery so I could take my mind off things. Tasmania was beautiful and helped in lifting my mood slightly. After that, as swelling began to go down, I began to feel much better about myself. In September I went to Japan twice, and on a whim I decided to go to Boston to visit my friend who’s studying there and just spend two weeks there reading, writing and thinking. It turned out to be one of the best trips I ever went on. Other happy things included finally upgrading to medium format (for the camera nerds, I’m using the Fujifilm GFX 50s now) and fully switching to the Fujifilm system from Canon; learning Total Immersion swimming; discovering the joys of rock-climbing; continuing to write for this blog. Come to think about it, I did so much in 2017!


Reading under a tree in Harvard Yard and pretending to be a Harvard student


Glorious New York City… although I still like the quieter Boston more!

5. A worry that turned out to be completely unnecessary.

I was worried mainly about my face in 2017. I thought I would be no longer be loved by my loved ones since I now look a little different after the surgery. But obviously that has been an unfounded worry!

6. Any random thing you’ve missed telling us because life moves faster than fingers?

Even though I rant about social media and its pervasiveness, I’m actually grateful for Instagram and my blog and my notes and diary entries on Evernote for reminding me of just what happened this year. Sometimes life does move faster than fingers, so I think it really is important for us to keep recording the moments of our lives, so that we will never forget.

Look ahead

1. What do you want the overarching theme for the next year to be?

Open-ness.

I am prone to thinking errors. I have been fooled by my thoughts before into thinking that A must be A, B must be B. But in reality, life can be anything. One big lesson I have been learning – and want to continue to learn – is how to be completely open to what life has to offer. This means planning less, having fewer goals. Being less rigid. In a way when I am traveling I am already doing this. When I went to Boston earlier this year, I booked a ticket and simply went there. I only knew I had a place to stay and I knew I had to visit Harvard and MIT. Everything else was fluid, and it of course turned out to be a magical trip. I ended up spending days sketching under a tree in Harvard Yard, eating ramen with a Japanese lady, stumbling into an art festival in the middle of downtown Boston, etc.

The other thing that relates to living an open life is to spend less time seeking for meaning or happiness in such rigid terms. This is about coming to terms with the fact that meaning or happiness does not have a specific shape. It doesn’t always look like what I think it’s supposed to look like. They can come in the most unexpected forms. One thing to remember is that life is already meaningful right now – everything I do contributes to the giant web of interconnected life. In my work, in my writing, in my day-to-day interactions with both strangers and people I love, how I behave or what I choose to do are already opportunities for me to find meaning and happiness. Again, I want to listen to my inner compass. I think that will lead me to where I need to be.

So yes, wide, wide open-ness.

2. Which personal quality do you want to develop or strengthen?

Love for others and learning to give more.

I know I am very flawed in this aspect. I have limited time and sometimes I don’t know how much to give or how to give. That’s why this is a consistently big theme in my life. Even in my love for solitude, I understand that I sorely crave and need companionship, friendship, relationships. I know at the end of the day, when all is said and done, it’s people who matter the most. Everything else is secondary and will fall away.

3. Name three goals for the next year (resolutions).

Continue to be obsessed with photography.
Be always exercising.
Be open to the possibilities of life!

4. Give a one-liner to motivate, inspire or encourage yourself in 2018. (e.g.: Don’t worry be happy)

I’m fucking perfect, and so are you!

Inner compass


(Image by my favorite Nicholas Stathopoulos)

I’m sure I am not the only person on earth who is always thinking to herself, “Oh my god, oh my god, I’m alive! Against all odds, I’m here. Wow, wow, wow.”

This confused wonder at my sheer existence started when I was a kid. Today a lot of the energy that I put into my life comes from this deeply-rooted amazement at the fact that I am alive – not juat that, I am an actual human being who lives on a little rock called Earth. This rock doesn’t just spin on its axis, it also rotates around the sun at the freaking insane speed of 30km/sec.

30km/sec!

My body, and everything else in this world, is made up of atoms. The general consensus is that the particles that make up an atom – protons, neutrons and electrons – were first formed out of the Big Bang, an event that also created time and space and Earth itself. I’m amazed, but I’m only pretending to understand what that means, because how does anything create time and space? How?!

And atoms, when you further split them, become particles called quarks that behave strangely and are so mind-blowingly tiny they measure 10-15 meters wide, meaning one millimeter of space can contain a trillion quarks.

Take a moment to let that fact sink into your consciousness.

So the world is not as mundane as we think it is.

Our lives are not as mundane as we think they are.

Sometimes when I get tired of life (there are certainly moments haha), I find myself thinking of all these and some perspective returns, and I’m reminded: Life is a delicious mystery and everything is weird and strange and yet,

I’m here. You are here.

That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?

Spiritual leaders like to ask us to wake up. But they might be right – we need to wake up to just how cool it is to be a human being.

Because we’re here, we can do things. We have a mind (another weird thing) and we can think. We have time (weird, so weird), which is a sort of concept/idea, but it feels so real that our entire lives are anchored upon it.

(Does time exist? I don’t know. The world’s smartest people are still debating about it.)

When we walk, we walk through this wonderful thing we call space, which is actually made up of atoms, with atoms themselves made up of mostly space, so can someone tell me what the hell is really going on?

And while here, we can fall in love, despair, dream, imagine.

The most epic thing of all: We can use our free will and actions to create change both in this world and within ourselves. We are small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but we’re far far far from powerless. In fact I dare say we’re pretty magical beings, because we can alter reality (although we don’t usually think of it this way).

So that’s the basis of my thought process when it comes to contemplating about how to go about this whole life thing. I can’t help but lean towards the idea that I am very privileged to be here to experience all of this magic, and since I am here, I  might as well have a decent go at it.

But how? How do we know we are doing life right?

If you ask me, at this moment in time, with my limited, limited wisdom, here is what I understand: We all have an inner compass. When we listen to it and act accordingly (the key point here is to act), we are guided in the direction towards wherever we need to be.

It sounds really frilly, but let me use Darius Foroux’s definition of a good life to further illuminate my point:

“To me, living properly means that I’m satisfied with my life. That I can look myself in the mirror, and genuinely say, ‘I like my life.'”

Without knowing it, I realized I have also been navigating and measuring my life in this rather simple and clear-cut way.

Thinking about whether my life is satisfying to me and whether I like my life helps me to find my way through life, even if as metrics they feel vague to others. Perhaps some things cannot be properly measured, but if we can be genuinely honest with ourselves when answering these two questions, we will somehow find the answer from deep within our hearts. This is how I activate my inner compass.

Did I like my life when I didn’t know what I was good at? No. I didn’t like my life either when I was working in a job I didn’t like. I didn’t like my life when I didn’t understand how I fit into this world. I didn’t like my life when I had no savings and had to live hand-to-mouth.

And I don’t like my life when I don’t have the time to create. I don’t feel satisfied when I don’t have good relationships with the people I love. I don’t like my life when I go too fast and forget to fully taste the current moment. I’m not satisfied when all I do is work and earn money. I don’t like my life when I don’t get to read or go to the library. And I certainly don’t like my life when I try to be happy all the time.

Whatever I didn’t like, I changed. Every time I changed, I moved in a direction I was supposed to go. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t foresee what was going to come next. All I knew was that I had to change, so I took action. If I didn’t like that I didn’t have time to create, for example, I would try to find time, or acknowledge that it’s really my excuses that are stopping me from creating, and not because of an actual lack of time.

My inner compass would do its job, and I would listen and act accordingly.

For me, it’s very simple – I change until I am living a satisfying life that I genuinely like. It’s a direction I’m always trying to move towards. (It’s a work-in-progress, of course, and I fail more often than I succeed.)

So these two very simple questions…

1. Am I satisfied with my life?
2. Do I genuinely like my life?

… are at the core of my inner compass.

I remind myself constantly that there is only the individual path and no universal path. I don’t have to be like anyone else, and I have to always discover my path for myself.

And this is all things go: My path gets clearer over time. Then it gets muddled. Then it gets clearer again. The struggle is the path; it’s okay. Half the time I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m still trying and life is still glorious and I’d still rather be alive on a small rock in the middle of nowhere than dead.

As a way to end the article, I’d just like to note that happiness is not the point at all. I know we all instinctively seek happiness, but to be happy, we cannot make happiness a goal; happiness can only be a by-product of living a good and meaningful life.

As for what good and meaningful entail, that will take us a whole lifetime – or more – to find out, but that’s the whole point of this grand adventure we call life, I think.

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?

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.