Friday, February 16, 2018

System Administrator of the Mind

When the city is emptied of people, the mind is freer to reflect, as it happens every year during major festive holidays. It is Chinese New Year again and it is one of the best times of the year to remain in the city. There's a certain nostalgic languor in its sunlit, car-free streets, redolent of quieter and simpler times.

I've made many reflections during Chinese New Year celebrations in the past about the nature of Chinese people and their culture. It is an admirable culture that is resolutely forward-looking, progressive and materially expansive. I am Chinese, and to some degree I am either genetically or culturally-driven by its social values and ethos. However I see these Chinese impulses in me as another "module" in my mind, in line with modern neuro-psychological models of the mind. At times, this Chinese mental module occupies a dominant position, and on other occasions, depending on the task at hand, its influence gets diminished by other equally strong modular traits which rule my brain in a kind of "separation of powers" governance model.

We experience and interact with the world with our minds. The mind is all we've got. The mind is our window to the world and this window is far from transparent--it shades and colours our perception of reality. Our genetic and cultural programming always influence how we view the world. It is therefore important for us to be aware of the intermediary filters that preprocess the flow of information between us and the world.

We must be cognizant of the fact that all human views have biases, because of our built-in cultural lenses. That by itself is not a sin, but to be completely ignorant of it, is. If we are all prisoners of our cultural biases, how then do we factor them out in our daily interactions with the world?

It is easy for us to point out the mistakes of others but when it comes to examining our own faults and biases, we hit a conundrum: it is like trying to see the spots and blemishes on our spectacles while we are wearing it. And this is where the practice of meditation comes in.

Meditation is that specific training devised for us to train our minds to see its own contents and processes more clearly. The way I explain it to my IT-literate friends is that meditation is like typing the command "ps -ef" on a Unix operating system. It will list down all the processes that are currently running on the time-shared multitasking system. The interesting thing is that, the "ps -ef" command itself, will also show up as another process that is running in the system.

All system administrators are also skilled with using the "kill" command to terminate any processes that are no longer serving any purpose and could be hogging system resources. "Kill" is another process. It takes another process to kill other processes. All processes have their own specific powers.

In meditation, we introduce a process (a thought): observe the breath and try to kill other processes that try to compete with it for system resources. ideally, there should be one process running, but the mind being what it is will continually trigger new processes into the system. You as the meditator, just have to kill them as the arises and allow only that single process which you intended to run. That's all there is to meditation. It takes skill and practice to be a good system administrator of our own minds.

When we have gained a certain amount of "mindfulness" as meditators like to call it, we are better at knowing what are the processes that are currently occupying our minds and decide whether they are appropriate for the moment. This skill alone makes us better and happier people because we are no longer slaves to our thoughts, but instead masters--or in Unix parlance, the "root user".

All biases, prejudices and impulses are mental processes introduced by the many modules in our mind. Sometimes they are useful, sometimes they are detrimental to our personality and mental health. Allowing them to hog system resources can result in bigotry, selfishness and other ugly personality traits. Processes are just tools. Use the right too for the right occasion and use housekeeping tools like 'ps -ef' and 'kill' to keep things in check.

Now you see how the mind works? I started with a reflection on Chinese New Year and the characteristic of Chinese culture and I ended up talking about the 'kill' command on the Unix operating system! Unix is a great operating system, or which its core--the kernel--is simple and robust. It's richness comes from its huge repertoire of commands, which are simple application utilities, written by different people and bundled together in its various distributions over the years. One of the many commands is "wall" - (abbreviation of 'write-all') which can be used by the system administrator to send a broadcast message to all users in the system. Example:

$ wall 'Gong Xi Fa Cai!'

Broadcast message from kenny@Tangerine (pts/0) (Fri Feb 16 12:50:39 2018):

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Seeds Across Space and Time

New Year's Eve is a good time to review the year that has just gone by and to peer ahead a little to see what's in store. I timed my year-end in such a way that I was able to finish reading my last book of 2017--Zaid Ibrahim's Assalamualaikum, which was recently banned by the government. I've had the book in my possession for a while but had no inclination to read it until I was reminded of it by the government's inexplicable move to ban it.

I have a huge array of books lined up for the coming year. The difficulty is always in deciding what to read. For 2017, surprisingly, my most enjoyable read was a collection of stories by Joseph Conrad "The Eastern Stories", which includes his short stories set in the Malay archipelago like Youth: A Narrative, The Lagoon, Karain: A Memory, The End of the Tether, Because of the Dollars and The Secret Sharer. And what great tales these are!

I actually bought this paperback volume back in 2001 at a bookshop in Nouvena, Singapore and have not gotten to reading it, as I found Conrad's prose a bit too ornate and convoluted for my liking. But I suppose our tastes change as we age, what was tedious about Conrad's writing then now seems so satisfyingly rich in atmosphere, memorable characterization and heart-wrenching emotion.

I have many books which I've bought but have not felt the inclination to read them yet, but I know their time will come. Books are like seeds that lie dormant, each one will have its time to sprout and grow in my mind, when the conditions are right. And as you grow older, you have a better sense of timing--what is the right thing to do at each moment in time. Every book will eventually have its day.

There was once a time during my youth when I had lots of time and not enough books to read. Now, I live in an age of information overload--there's simply too much content and way too little time to consume them. So I have to prioritize things wisely. Books are nourishment that one feeds to the mind, they provide maximum boost to the soul when ingested at the right time.

The anthology of stories by Joseph Conrad had to wait exactly 16 years before I was ready to appreciate the beauty of its writing. Books are durable supplies which we carry along with us through the journey of life, providing us the right nourishment at different way-stations along the path. And what wonderful nourishments do they provide!

One thing that has been constant all my life is my love for books. Thinking back, I've been an avid reader ever since I was a child and this habit did not let up even when I started working. 20 years ago, when I was working in Singapore, I spent many happy nights reading in my small HDB room in Bishan; I had spent long flights to US, engrossed in the collected works of Vivekananda and the autobiography of Isaac Asimov; I remember cold nights in Californian motels poring over books on the Mutiny on the Bounty and fond memories of myself sitting at a park in Geneva, reading The Horizontal Instrument by Christopher Wilkins; Yes, I was reading Sukarno's biography on one of my many happy train rides to Bandung; And that magical year 1995, spending hours reading Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi at the Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong, while waiting for my flight back to KL.

To me, part of the pleasure of travel is the opportunity to read. When you sit down at a cafe or a park at some foreign location, you get to slowly absorb the local rhythms of life. Travel is not simply shuttling from one tourist distraction to another. Travel, at least to me, is diving deep into the soul of a place. No better way to do that than sitting at a public place, with a good book and simply watch the world go by, as your attention dips in and out of your book, in between sips of freshly brewed coffee.

There's no greater joy in life to me than reading. Perhaps that's why I'm a reasonably happy person--because I have an endless supply of books to read! As I close the last chapter of 2017, I am opening another delicious new book: 2018. I welcome the new year with the anticipation of an eager reader, ready to dive into another new tome of adventure filled with thought-provoking ideas and wonderful leaps of imagination. Life is great simply because there are books and because there are readers and writers who partake in the ecstatic joy of the written word.

As I look back at all the books that I've read throughout my life, at various locations that I've been to, at various points in my life, I marvel at the many works that have enthralled me and influenced my thinking--seeds that I've gathered across space and time, seeds that have germinated in my mind and made me, for better or worse, the person I am today.

Let's now turn the page and dive into our new book: 2018!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Child of Christmas

Festive holidays are a great time for philosophical reflection. It is time for another one of my rambling posts on...whatever that pops into my head at the moment.

It is raining outside, and rain usually brings a certain feeling of nostalgia--I remember the fresh smell of the wet grass in the garden of my childhood home, the cacophonous croaks of frogs somewhere in the distant, the dark looming foliage of rubber trees, all wet and damp under the incessant patter of raindrops, and especially on nights like these--Christmas Eve--a certain feeling of peace and contentment envelops the night.

On nights like this I feel forever a child, and even at my age, I feel as if I've never outgrown that childhood sense of wonder and beauty, of carelessness and curiosity. It is a childhood innocence that is at once naive and noble.

This Wordsworthian conception of childhood has always been a part of my soul. Even when life plunges me into depths of despair, I would stare into the abyss, and see the child staring back at me. It is what gives me strength. It is what reaffirms life. It is what keeps me out of the abyss.

Newton famously said that he felt as if he was a child playing on a shore, engrossed in the beauty of pebbles and shells while the great ocean of truth still lay undiscovered before him. The great man knew how little we know about our universe, how much there is to learn, how humbly small that we as humans stand before the great immensity that is space and time.

It is the knowledge of our smallness before a greatness, a greatness which some reverentially refers to as 'God', that makes all children. And it is this enchanted child within all of us that saves us from the dreariness of everyday life. The saviour has always been within us. No one sees more awe and beauty than the child. And as long as we do not crucify the child within, we are the Messiah of our own fate.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Envelope, please

I've been wanting to blog over the long Hari Raya break. Now is my chance.

I haven't been working that much over the past couple of days. In fact I've been taking it easy since Friday. I had some errands to run in Cyberjaya, so I went to my apartment with the intention to set up shop there for the day, answering emails if any and do some light coding work. But I spent almost the whole day sleeping and reading instead.

It was a good break because I was feeling very exhausting due to the late nights that I've been keeping over the week. My Cyberjaya apartment is my sanctuary, even though I don't even have a bed there as I see it more as an office and library for me to think and work. Occasionally I'd crash on the sofa or pick out some tunes on my digital piano.

Being alone has never bothered me. One is never lonely when one is truly alone. Being alone keeps one alive: it sharpens one's senses; it keeps one balanced and focused. And if you are wise enough, you'll realize these are genuine moments of happiness.

We spend so much of our time worrying about finding our place in society--to have a social standing, to have a family to call our one and to leave behind a legacy. In other words, satisfying our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs. So we work, find a life partner, start a family and try to find success in our chosen career. And on our deathbed, we'll go with the satisfaction that there are loved ones who will mourn and remember us. We don't want to die alone and insignificant.

Is this a so-called meaningful life?

Part of life is seeking an answer to the question above. There may not be a single definitive answer to the question. To live is to examine this very question of life. Perhaps each one of us has a sealed envelope hidden somewhere in this universe with the correct answer. One thing's for sure though: it won't be handed to us on a silver platter.

Perhaps this envelope contains more envelopes with even more questions, hinting at other envelopes elsewhere?

There are definite things that come in envelopes: like the stacks of bills on my desk, which I clear at the end of every month. So we spend our entire lives, serving these envelopes that come with clockwork certainty. Every envelope contains the karmic price that we have to pay for our needs and desires. We consume and we pay for it. The bills that come in envelopes are the easy part. These are kind of tangible needs, of which we choose to pay with our hard-earned money.

The really costly things are our intangible needs, which we usually have to pay with time and energy. The bills for them don't come neatly quantified in sealed envelopes. Sometimes you don't even realized that you are paying or have already paid for them.

Sometimes we literally do receive the answer to the meaning of life in envelopes--religious pamphlets that claims to know the ultimate purpose of our existence. I used to read them very diligently in my youth. They can be very uplifting.

In this age of emails and electronic messaging, thankfully we are getting less and less of these paper envelopes. That bad thing is that they come in even bigger torrents, clogging up your inboxes and buzzing your smartphone every other second. Sometimes, they also claim to elucidate the meaning of life--in 140-character nuggets of wisdom.

So, be prepared to open more envelopes--some virtual, some emotional ones with hidden bills. The flood of envelopes will not stop. Life is a series of envelopes. Sometimes they contain bills, sometimes junk, sometimes a plea for donation. Handle each envelope once (as the paper management gurus would say). Handle them decisively. More importantly, know how much that is asked of you in each of these envelopes. Each one brings you slightly closer to the answer.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Religion as a Hobby

Let me write about religion.

Now, haven't I said enough about this subject? Perhaps. Maybe it's because the subject of religion has been bothering me a lot lately. Why is religion so important to so many people?

Why do people do unspeakable things in the name of religion?

Three words: fear, ego and ignorance.

At the root of our existence is fear: the fear of death. Nothing terrifies us more than the annihilation of our existence. So we seek answers to the eternal mystery of death. Is there a life after death? Where do we go after death? How do I transcend death. Religion do provide some ready-made answers to these questions. It gives us a certain sense of comfort to know what to do here and now to guarantee our salvation. It provides us with a philosophical doctrine that pseudo-intellectually convinces us of its authenticity. Equipped with this certainty, we feel more confident of our place in the universe. We have a path to follow; a moral guide for leading our lives.

Religion also feeds our needs for ego and identity. It immediately aligns us with a group of like-minded people: your fellow believers and comrade-in-arms who will defend you and help you in times of need. You can proclaim your religious identity proudly on bumper stickers; you can judge the conduct of others with the moral authority of scriptures and you can show off your piety and flaunt your religious credentials on social media by spouting verses from the canon. You are right and the poor unbelievers are wrong, to be condemned in this and the afterlife in the fires of hell. How great a feeling it is to wallow in self-righteousness.

You think you are fortunate enough to be enlightened by your so-called spiritual knowledge. The light of spiritual awakening is so dazzling that you feel that you are already on the right track. Can't others see how true and deep this feeling is? Why are others so ignorant? Just read and listen to these wise holy men who talk with such confidence and exudes such charisma. If you follow what they say, you would be safe. Let's all hide under the umbrella of their all-encompassing wisdom. You will read their books and lap up every word they say. And that's all you read.

When you think you've found the answers to everything, you tend to be self-assured. You force your family and friends to follow what you've discovered and experienced. You are supposedly doing it out of love. You are saving them. You want to share your spiritual joy with them. Why are the unbelievers so stupid? Why can't they feel the glory of the divine? You are determined to transform their lives. They too will soon see the truth.

The life of a spiritually-inspired person is very different. It is like being born again. It is like falling in love. You see the divine in everything. Every incident in your daily life has some cosmic significance, in alignment with some divine purpose. The glory of that purpose brings you ecstasies, which the unbelievers can never comprehend.

To understand religion is to understand the primal instincts that drive our behaviour. If the human species is mostly wiped out but for a few pockets of survivors everywhere, the human race will likely rise again, and new religions will be reinvented. Religion is an inevitable product of life itself, like art and culture. Every civilization creates its own doctrines and dogmas anew.

Religion becomes a problem when we take it too seriously. Religion should be treated as a hobby. Everyone is entitled to pursue theirs as a hobby. You can pursue it as seriously as you choose to, but you should never impose your hobby on others. Every hobby has its therapeutic value; it might even make you a better and more well-balanced person. You could be even be obsessive about out it, like how some people are fanatical collectors of Star Wars memorabilia. But everyone knows that ultimately a hobby is a hobby and the hobby you choose to call yours is a matter of personal taste.

Isn't there some deep metaphysical truth about religion itself? You feel it in your gut. You get a glimpse of this deep connection with something higher when you pray or meditate or worship or do whatever you do as your spiritual practice. Perhaps. Artists and musicians experience that too when they are inspired, even astronomers when they peer into a telescope and see the majesty of our universe. It is not a monopoly of religion.

For the good of humanity, do not take your religion too seriously. Your religion is not better or truer than others. Be humble about your insights. Be aware of the fear, ego and ignorance that underpins your religious belief. Treat religion as a hobby. The world will be a much better place for it.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Beauty of Life's Purpose

I marvel at people who are driven by an ambition to earn as much money as possible. Their objective seems so clear and inevitable. I need this and this much to support my family and to pay for my children's education. I have no choice. I have X number of children, hence I'll need to make sure I have X x amount in the bank for their education.

I myself have gone through periods in my life when cash was tight. Even now, I would not consider myself very well off, even though I live comfortably enough. I am not ambitious in the conventional sense. That's perhaps one of the advantage of being a confirmed bachelor: I don't really have to worry too much about the next generation. Neither do I have thoughts about emigrating to another country where the grass is supposedly greener.

My philosophy has always been to focus on doing good work in whatever I do. Money will take care of itself. Being frugal helps. I consider luxury a bit of a handicap--once you've tasted it, you cannot do without it. So I like to keep my life simple. My only 'luxury' is books (both the dead-tree ones and their audio counterparts). And I have more than enough books that I could ever read in a lifetime.

Why do I work so hard then? I answered that in another blog entry of mine. Rereading it makes me kind of chuckle a bit: so that one day, I can afford to live without a car and have the luxury of taking public transportation.

Why did I think that taking public transportation such a luxury? Well, it's the luxury of time: time to wait for the next train or bus; the luxury of not having to hurry, of having the leisure to enjoy the journey. I wrote that entry in 2006, more than 10 years ago. My philosophy in life still hasn't changed that much.

I've been asked this question before: What's your goal or purpose in life? I can't give the conventional answers, like: to see my kids through college and retire comfortably or to build a successful business that will sustain me and my family for the rest of my life. These 'achievements' somehow feel empty to me. I'm not exactly a card-carrying Buddhist, but I have this Buddhistic impulse in me that compels me to see all worldly attainments as ultimately 'unsatisfactory'.

Then how does one live one's life? Is a life dedicated to spiritual pursuits the only 'meaningful' one?

That could be slippery slope too, if one sees spiritual pursuits as a 'goal' in life. How then should one approach life? Our mental thirst for a definite answer to these things is insatiable.

It is in precisely situations like these, pursued by the ever inquisitive student, the Zen master would further befuddle the poor guy with a seemingly dismissive koan: "When hungry, eat; when tired, sleep".

There are many such Zen sayings that pop into my mind whenever people ask the question about life's purpose.

"Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."

"Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and grass grows by itself."

This I think, is probably the closest answer to what my goal in life is: Everyday, I chop wood and carry water; when hungry I eat; when tired, I sleep; time passes and the grass grows by itself. Such is the beauty of life's purpose.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

One Man's Pleasure

We've all become suburban creatures: unshaven weekend slobs in slippers and shorts, jostling carts along the hypermart aisle, grabbing discount toilet-rolls by the dozens, helped by our once delectably lissome spouses--now tubby tiger mums with icecream-cheeked kids in the tow.

We choose our pain to get the happiness we want. Pain and pleasure, like a particle-antiparticle pair that comes into existence together in equal but opposite strength.

A monk values solitude as a time to pray, meditate and develop spiritually. The layman sees solitude as unbearable loneliness, utter and desolate.

So each one of us seek out a life partner that we may have a companion for life's journey. To start a family with bright bubbly kids that one may be proud to call one's own; and then to see them growing up, being educated and successful. That's happiness. So we are more than willing to take the pain that comes with it.

What's the pain of middleclass life? Mostly the fear of the future and the unknown: Will we be able to keep our jobs? Will we be able to afford to send our kids to the best schools? Will our kids grow up to be successful? Will we remain healthy to see our mission through?

Of course, we shall take the office politics with gritted teeth so that we may get our five-figure pay-cheques at the end of the month to pay for all the good things that we give our families. That's pain that we have chosen to accept for the prize of our middleclass happiness. It is a happiness we have taught ourselves to believe in. It is good happiness.

But one man's pleasure is another man's pain. A monk would see such a middleclass existence as empty and hopeless. A life wasted in the pursuit of petty things. A life of accumulating stuff that ultimately disintegrates. A life as hopeless as one could imagine; a life in denial of the ultimate spiritual purpose. A life utterly unexamined.

And here I am the eternal student, marveling at the play of pain and pleasure, awakening a little more with each passing sip of experience.