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.

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.

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.

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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.