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 life partners, start families and try to find success in our chosen career. And one 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 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.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps

I run quite consistently, at least every Saturday morning. This morning was another great session in the park, with continuous running for half-an-hour followed by some simple calisthenics. And while running (as always, ideas come streaming into my head) it occurred to me to blog today about the scientific method. This is probably because I've been catching up on some of the developments in particle physics recently and I'm back in my "scientific mood".

I think I've blogged elsewhere before that an education in the science stream during my secondary school days has been one of the biggest influence in my life. Since those feverishly passionate days of devotion to science, I've always adopted a scientific attitude towards everything in life.

What do I mean by the 'scientific attitude'? Well, it is at its core, a respect for hypothesis, experimentation and data. No assumption should be left unexamined; skepticism should be the guiding principle towards everything, including everyday life situations.

Does that mean that one goes about life not trusting anything or anyone? Certainly not. It means, first and foremost, never prejudging any situation or anyone. Always go by the facts and never jump to any conclusions. Even when something seems 'obvious', always verify. Never assume.

The other scientific attitude that I adopt is: always go for the simplest explanation as a starting point. It doesn't mean that I'm being simple-minded or naive, on the contrary, it reflects a cautious attitude towards any superfluous explanations of things. Occam's Razor is my favourite instrument. Someone texts me about some rumour; I'll read it and say in my mind 'perhaps'. 'Perhaps' is my mind's favourite word. And perhaps not coincidentally, one of my favourite oldies is the song, 'Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps' (of which Nat King Cole's rendition Quizás, Quizás, Quizás is my favourite).

I am comfortable with not full knowing everything. Sometimes we just don't have sufficient facts to conclude about something; so just let it be and wait until there's further data. Ask more questions, investigate and always ask yourself: is there an alternate explanation for what is being implied by something or someone.

A scientific attitude towards everything is even more important nowadays when our social media is littered with unverified or downright fake news. Sometimes we just believe what we like to believe. What we want to believe in is usually driven by our ego and prejudices. A true scientist knows that he has to put aside his favourite hypothesis, no matter how reluctantly, if the facts do not support it. As did Johannes Kepler (read my previous entry, Perfect Ideas), who had to give up his idea of perfect circles for the orbits of planets around the sun when Tycho Brahe's accurate measurements indicated that they moved in ellipses.

The scientific attitude also comes in handy in my line of work, which involves a lot of debugging and troubleshooting. We coders know that it is very difficult to detect our own bugs. That's why, alpha and beta testing phases are very important in development. Similarly, anyone who writes frequently also knows that it is difficult to detect one's own typos. Our minds tends to move faster than our hands or fingers.

We must be aware that the mind has a tendency to assume and gloss over things. The only way to overcome this mental bias is to habitually relook at things from a different perspective. Break the pattern: Read, starting from the last sentence to the first. Or go do something else first: get something to eat, take a walk, water the plants and then come back to tackle your work with a fresh mind.

Looking at things from many different perspectives is a very scientific attitude indeed. After Kepler successfully described the elliptical orbits of planets around the Sun, Isaac Newton re-looked at it and figured out that Kepler's laws are a natural consequence of a universal force of gravity acting between objects with mass: the Sun's gravitational force keeps planet in their elliptical orbits and they can be proven mathematically from the basic principle of an inverse square law. And then, in the 20th century, Einstein astounded the world with his General Theory of Relativity which re-formulated Newton's law of gravity as the geometric curvature of space-time. How simple and ingenious is Nature!

To adopt a scientific attitude is to apply some very basic common sense. With so much data and information bombarding our senses should our phones, tablets, computers and televisions, it is increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. But one should not despair: access to information is better than none. Question is: will we always be able to distinguish the true from the false? I don't really know. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Learning, Unlearning and Relearning

Most people will be starting work tomorrow. The past week has been good as the traffic in KL was still rather sparse; it was great being able to zip from place to place easily.

I've made a resolve to be more independent when it comes to work. I used to have to depend on the services of a graphics designer to do some of the design that comes part and parcel with app and web development. Engineers are usually hopeless when it comes to even the simplest graphics design. They are almost aesthetically blind, having no sense at all of the basic elements of balance, contrast and harmony.

I've been spending the past week doing some of the graphics on my own. All graphics designers have Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator as their basic tools. Many use pirated copies. I don't own or pay subscription to any of these tools. And I was reluctant to invest time to build up proficiency in using proprietary tools, even though they are considered industry standards.

Frustrated by the entire industry's dependence on these tools and how we are forced to pay for them, I made a resolve to find open source alternatives. Here, I'm glad to say that I've tested and found good open source substitutes: GIMP for bitmap images and Inkscape for vector graphics. Using them, I'm already able to import all my old Adobe Illustrator assets and make modifications to them. I am finally free, at least for what I'm doing, from the need for the services of a graphics designer and the tyranny of Adobe tools. And it feels very liberating indeed.

I've also made another resolve (I actually have new year resolutions after all!), to be free from the Windows operating system. Unlike many of my friends in the industry, I'm also not a Mac die hard. On the server side, I've been using various distribution of Linux for years and have no issues with it. My laptop is set up to dual-boot with Windows and Ubuntu. And lately, I've been finding myself using Ubuntu exclusive for all my needs and I'm doing just fine. GIMP and Inkscape work beautifully on Ubuntu. Being completely free from Microsoft, Apple and Adobe definitely gives me a great sense of satisfaction.

I rarely write about IT matters on my blog, even though that's been my profession all these years. Today's entry must seem like a rare exception. But I'm also trying to inject fresh subjects into this blog of mine and there are many philosophical insights that one can gain from IT too. These will be interesting blog topics for the future.

I guess 16 years is long enough time for me to get over any disillusionment I had with the industry. I realized that it is the only industry where the skill to learn is perhaps the most valuable skill of all. The pace of change in this technology is staggering and the only survival skill one needs is the skill to re-skill oneself. As the eminent futurist Alvin Toffler once said: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

And that's the only thing that I've been doing consistently all my life.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Running Meditation

A good run and workout at the park early this morning completely rejuvenated my system. It was much needed after all the gluttony and food-induced torpor of the Chinese New Year festivities. A good exercise session is like rebooting your computer: you get to clear away all the background processes that are hogging your memory and restart again with a clean slate.

I've been running on and off at the same park here at my neighbourhood for more than a decade now. The park is located just beside the mosque about 10 minutes walk from my home. I enjoy waking up to the sound of the azan, which is the time when I usually go for my run.

As the handful of faithfuls stream to the mosque, I run my routine 6 circuits around the park. Running when it is still dark with the crisp morning air coursing through my lungs is extremely invigorating. All vestiges of the previous night's sleep are wiped away, setting myself up perfectly for a productive day ahead.

I even turn my morning runs into sort of a meditation session. You see, some people, like the author Murakami, listen to music; others let their minds wander aimlessly when they run. I prefer to "meditate".

What I do is that I embark on a session of Buddhist loving-kindness meditation in my mind as I run, mapping each phase of the meditation into a single circuit around the park. That way, I get to kill two birds with one stone: exercising both the mind and the body. The distinct phases of the meditation also helps me to 'count' the number of rounds I've completed.

I simply love this running meditation practice of mine. Meditating in close proximity to a mosque also puts one into the right reverential state of mind. After my run, I do a series of calisthenics making use of the exercise and children play stations that are available in the park.

My exercise session closes with some deep breathing, a routine involving outstretched arms, open chest and toe-touching--all these facing the minaret of the mosque. This breathing 'puja' is a great warm-down routine, allowing my tired limbs and torso to stretch and relax. Sometimes I also do some breathing meditation here: focusing on the in-breath and out-breath, allowing my body to merge with the dew-covered greenery of the park.

When I finish my session and start walking away from the park, the aunties will start trickling in for their morning walks and tai-chi sessions. Usually the sun will be rising, with the LRT rumbling in the distant, shuttling the early commuters to their workplace. Every time I get to complete a session at the park, I feel confident that my the day ahead will be harmonious and productive. I'm not a religious person, but my morning exercise is the closest thing that I have to a worship ritual. And I'm all the healthier, mentally and physically, for it.