Saturday, November 08, 2003

Gluttony of the Mind

Gluttony of the Mind

Wanted to do some work in the office early this morning but unfortunately workers were fogging the place. Had to abort my plan and do my usual Internet cafe routine at Sarinah instead.

When I was in Singapore, I used to work at odd hours--going to the office when everyone else was going home and then working throughout the night. Part of the reason was because I always had to be calling people in the US at midnight or participate in conference calls with them. I also liked the peace and quiet in the office at night; I could accomplish more in one night than an entire week at the office, working from nine to five.

Since coming to Jakarta, my work hours have been pretty regular. I try not to give too much importance to work. I have a lot of other personal projects to pursue--some which I haven't even hinted in my blog yet.

My colleague Djoni sent me an SMS last night, asking me to purchase a book for him, The Tibetan Art of Living from the QB World bookstore where I am a member and entitled to 10% discount. I haven't read the book myself. I have to be very selective about what I read because my time is very limited. Sometimes just browsing and scanning through a book at the bookstore is good enough for me to get a gist of what the author is trying to say.

I used to have more patience in tackling difficult books during my teenage years. I would read a book from cover to cover even if I only understood 30% of its contents. But at that time books were rare and expensive to me; every one of them were perused thoroughly and treasured as a prized possession. These days I buy more books than I could ever read in a lifetime.

And other things vie for our attention too--movies, DVDs, music CDs. We are so spoilt for choice these days. Our attention span is getting shorter and shorter--we are already used to the quick cuts of MTV music videos, where scenes never last longer than two or three seconds.

Our minds are insatiable; we want to be fed things constantly. Not sure whether this is good or bad. But I suspect, gluttony, whether of the mind or the body is bound to do harm. Ramadhan is a good month for some abstinence. Let's take this opportunity to put our much abused minds back in order, by regulating what we feed into them.

Friday, November 07, 2003

The Choice of Purpose

The Choice of Purpose

Everyone's mood is buoyant on a Friday. People come in casuals, they plan for a good lunch at some place nice, and they also take the opportunity during lunchtime to browse through the video stalls and stock up their supply of bootleg DVDs for the weekend. The young and energetic would make plans to go clubbing for the night.

We would come back on Monday, "recharged" from our hangovers and our hours of vegetating in front of the TV. Another week in office begins and the cycle repeats itself. And ocassionally we would make the philosophical comment about how fast time flies.

I have written in a previous entry about how time appears to fly mainly because our lives are monotonous--we repeat our routines day in day out, week in week out. There is no differentiation between one day and another--no peaks and valleys from which we could mark time with. Everything collapses into a flat expanse of dullness and monotony.

But a monotonous life can be a happy one too. Monks live lives filled with strict rituals and routines. I suppose they are happy. A monotonous life is also stress-free life. No one should complain about that.

Some of us thrive on challenges. We want a cause to fight for, without which we feel our lives aimless. A purposeful life with challenges propels a person forward and makes him or her grow.

A magnet generates a force field around itself, aligning iron fillings sprinkled on a piece of paper held above it in a pattern dictated by its invisible lines of force. Every iron particle suddenly has a "purpose". Remove the magnet, the pattern falls apart with the slightest jerk of the paper.

Even when our lives are seemingly filled with rituals and routines, we can still inject a healthy sense of purpose into it. Our challenges need not necessarily be physical ones--it can also be psychological or mental. Challenging yourself to stop smoking is an example. When we have a purpose, all our actions are aligned towards one direction. Without it, our lives disintegrates into randomness.

Emmanuel Kant, the great German philosopher was a creature of routine too. Neighbours set their clocks by the regularity of his daily activities. He was born in K?ningsberg, Prussia and never left the place in his entire life.

One would think that the life of this nerdy scholar must have been very dull. And to the average reader, his monumental work, Critique of Pure Reason would also make very dull reading.

But the Critique of Pure Reason is considered one of the greatest works of philosophy--an edifice of human understanding from which subsequent generations of philosophers and thinkers were able to build their works upon.

We don't need to be an Everest mountaineer or a freedom fighter to have a sense of purpose in life. Even within the seeming dullness of our mundane lives, we are still capable of engineering greatness. A piece of white canvas can be turned into a filthy rag or a masterpiece painting, depending on what we do with it. The choice is ours.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

The Gravity of Ego

The Gravity of Ego

We always have to be examining the underlying motives of our actions. I might even go so far as to say that most of the things we do are driven by the ego.

Self-preservation is an instinct honed by millions of years of evolution. It is only natural that most of our actions are guided by selfish interests. Even when we appear to be magnanimous or altruistic, we are sometimes driven by the desire to be recognized or we could be attempting to allay feelings of guilt inside us. All of these are still egoistic motives.

Sometimes we claim to be working for the greater good--we criticize what we think is wrong in other people or in the society which we live in. Yes, wrongdoings need to be pointed out but with the sincere intention of rectifying them. It can be done with great tact and subtlety; one's first instincts should be to help, rather than to condemn.

Often we are tempted to criticize because it gives us a certain "pleasure"--we are implying that we ourselves are free from such faults, and that we are better than them. We are indirectly praising ourselves. The ego is again lurking somewhere beneath.

Is it such a sin then to be egoistic? Shouldn't we feel proud of ourselves, our own abilities and our achievements? Is it that bad to satiate the ego a little bit?

Well, I don't see such things as good or bad. I see them as natural physical processes of the universe, obeying natural laws. If we do not understand and learn how to master the laws of nature, we ouselves would suffer from their consequences. You see, ego is like gravity.

Ego is the natural tendency of the self to accumulate things--be it praise, wealth or attention. Anything in the universe that possesses mass, exerts a gravitational pull on other objects with mass. That's Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation.

Stars and planetary systems are formed basically from the attractive forces between lumps of matter in the universe. Matter attracts matter, and in space, they lump together to form massive stellar objects such as stars, which further attract more matter to themselves. (I have used this celestial analogy before in a slightly different context, in my previous entry on marriage.)

In the end, some stars become so massive that they collapse under their own weight, attracting everything that come their way, including light and become what astronomers call, a black hole. Such "egoistic" stellar objects are frightening. They "puncture" the very fabric of space-time itself.

People who constantly satiate the demands of their ego risk becoming a "black hole"--someone who's so self-absorbed that he or she has no single thought for anyone else. Their ego is so inflated that any perceived slight-- which normally would be brushed aside with a laugh--becomes a great insult to them. Any minor defeat, a great humiliation. These people suffer greatly from their own "gravitational collapse".

We must always be conscious of the size of our ego. Keep it in check with great doses of humility. The ego is always there in the background, attracting, growing and inflating.

White dwarf stars with masses exceeding what astronomers call the Chandrasekhar Limit, could collapse into a black hole. At some point too our ego becomes so big that collapse becomes inevitable, and we become a "black soul". That is indeed a frightening prospect.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Writer's Blog

Writer's Blog

It is easier to blog than say, to write a formal report or letter. When we are blogging, we just let go: grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and rambling sentences are tolerated as long as the message gets through.

But we often freeze whenever we are asked to write formally on a particular subject or topic; the mind goes completely blank. We don't know how to start. Why? Most of the time it's because we try too hard. We try to put on the straight-jacket of form, style and substance, paralyzing our writing in the process. Sometimes we unconsciously attempt to immitate another writer and failing to do so, we end up feeling frustrated.

A lot times, we try to get it perfect on the first attempt. That's not possible. We forget that most of the books out there in the market have gone through a thorough process of editing and rewriting. What's important is to get thoughts out on paper first. We cannot write and edit at the same time in our heads. These are two independent processes. Do one thing at a time; one word at a time.

In Finding Forrester, directed by Gus Van Sant, Sean Connery, playing an aging writer, gives a piece of good advice to his young protege (Rob Brown):
"No thinking - that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is to write, not to think"
By writing freely without inhibitions, we allow our thoughts to free-associate and this opens up interesting possibilities. We are able to tap into the fount of creativity and ideas would flow out incessantly. The results can sometimes be quite amazing.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

The World of the Basement

The World of the Basement

All drivers and front passengers in Jakarta will have to wear seat belts starting tomorrow. Having accustomed myself to using seat-belts in Malaysia, I used to buckle up instinctively everytime I take the front passenger seat. But I've since got rid of the habit, as some of my Indonesian friends think I'm questioning their driving skills if I do that. Now it looks like I have reacquire the habit again.

I have written before about the relative patience of drivers here compared to those in Malaysia. Of course, one can always find exceptions but in general, I think this is a fairly accurate picture. The traffic here is more chaotic, hence minor transgressions are always tolerated. Everyone takes liberties with traffic rules.

What I also admire here are the tukang parkirs (parking attendants) and satpams (building security guards) who would go out of their way to help you look for a parking space. The satpams are quite wonderful people--I think they even see it as part of their job to help people park.

Of course, parking space is used a lot more efficiently here. Double and triple parking is the norm: It is an unwritten rule that those who double-park, will not engage their car handbrakes--so that their cars can be pushed aside if necessary, to enable the cars inside to come out.

Help is always available in the streets or in parking basements. Flat tire? No problem. There will always be drivers or tukang parkirs who will be ready to lend a helping hand--for a tip, of course. See some reserved parking spaces? Tip the tukang parkir and it's yours.

In some ways, driving in Jakarta is a lot less stressful because of all these. Well, if you are tired of driving yourself, you can always afford your own supir (chauffeur). Parking basements here are very supir-friendly: There's always a corner with TV and benches reserved for these supirs who spend most of their time waiting for their masters' "car call" from the PA system.

Usually a small warteg (cheap eating stall) would also sprout up beside it and you can see these supirs smoking and chatting happily there among themselves--a micro-community among themselves. Every tiny nook and corner of Jakarta is filled with humanity and the struggle for survival--even in dingy basement parkings.

Yes, there are lots of sufferings but there are simple joys too: The simple joys of basement people which I am often very envious of.

Monday, November 03, 2003

The Instrument of Mind

The Instrument of Mind

We forget that we have a mind sometimes. Well, one could say that this is normal, because we are also not aware that we are using our eyes, ears and hands most of the time. We just receive input, process them and generate the necessary output.

The output or response that we generate are in the form of action or words. Most of our responses are instantaneous. Someone says something and we respond immediately. The whole of our waking lives are filled with such automatic stimulus-response transactions.

What determines our responses? Why one particular response and not another? We are aware that the quality of our response determines the quality of our lives. Our response triggers a set of corresponding responses from other people which then determine the chain of events of which we are inexorably caught.

We often respond based on "instinct", based on the tendencies of the mind, or what we would call our nature. We could laugh, lash out, criticize, sulk or even react violently. Sometimes we do not react, but only because we are consumed by fear--which we have no control of.

At times such reflex responses are necessary--good sportsmen are often instinctive: An avid golfer would tell you that golf is a mind game, not because you need to use your mind that much but more because the distractions of the mind are often the greatest obstacle. We train to perfect our strokes so that everything becomes instinctive. The mind only creates doubt which we can do without. Doubts and distractions only arise because we do not have conscious control of our minds.

We claim that we do think before we act. But most of the time our minds are so clouded that this so-called "thinking" ultimately reduces to a reinforcement of existing trains of thoughts and tendencies inherent in the mind. Nothing original comes about.

Then is it possible for us to always respond in life with the right action or the right words? How do we control the tendencies of the mind?

First, by remembering that we have a mind. And that the mind can be put under our control and is the only intermediary between stimulus and response. Without the intercession of the mind, we would be mere automata.

How then do we regain this control? We do it by stopping the inflow of stimulus and consciously introducing a non-random stimulus into it. In other words, do a mental checkpoint. Reexamine your inner motives. Realign them them with your goals. Restart your engine. Reset. Reboot.

Well, sometimes we call it meditation or prayer.

The only problem is, we are often reluctant to stop this flow of stimulus. We do not like to remain quiet, not even for one minute: we need to switch on the TV, listen to music or talk to someone. The mind abhors a vacuum. We treat our minds like how we treat our computers when it is idle--we run screensavers.

Many of our daily activities are just "screensavers". We just want to fill up the mind with something, even noise. Often it is just a form of escapism to drown out reality or painful memories. Silence equals loneliness. We try to consciously forget that we have a mind.

Let's say we pray five times a day. By doing so, we subject our minds to regular realignments that help us handle the stimuli that come our way throughout the day better. At a superficial level we are reminding ourselves of our divine obligations. And for those who are not religious, we could reaffirm oursleves of our goals in life.

Our minds, like pianos or any other stringed musical instrument, need to be constantly tuned. A perfectly tuned mind responds to stimuli in harmony with the laws of Nature or God's Will. To Bach lovers, the mind should be like a "Well-tempered Clavier".

To tune the mind, first eliminate ambient noise and all external stimuli. Listen to your thoughts and feel them subsiding. Without external stimuli they die. The mind becomes quiet. Then slowly introduce your desired thoughts, one at a time. Listen to how each one vibrates. Feel its pitch. Let them reverberate throughout your mind. Let them sing.

We often treat our musical instruments with great care but for some reason subject our own minds to all sorts of abuses. Time for us to remember our minds, the ultimate instrument. For the mind is instrumental in determining the quality of our lives.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

The Streets of Jakarta

The Streets of Jakarta

Slept late last night and woke up late this morning. It has been raining for the past couple of days, quite heavily at times, but this morning, the sun was scorching the sidewalks when I emerged from my hotel.

The weather in Jakarta is actually a lot more pleasant than KL's. The hottest day in Jakarta is still relatively bearable. KL's climate is a bit like Surabaya's--hot, stuffy and stifling. The weather is not a problem in Jakarta, the pollution is.

Despite the pollution, there are a lot of people who spend their entire day in the streets--asongans, ojeks, pengamen, beggars and street hawkers. Along Jalan Wahid Hasyim where I live, I see people playing cards, carrom and chess, oblivious to passers-by. Some of these street vendors actually sleep and do all their household chores like ironing inside their small wooden cubicle stalls from where they also sell cigarettes and mineral water.

Sometimes you encounter Kodak moments--like a child bathing and splashing in a pail of water by the streets. At other times, you see heart-wrenching scenes of babies sleeping on the sidewalk. Some sights are downright disgusting, such as people peeing everywhere. The telephone booths outside Sarinah are popular peeing places. Ocassionally you even see the female beggars stripping and changing their clothes right in the middle of the busy sidewalk!

And amidst all these, there will be people eating soto and sate kambing on makeshift tables by the roadside; cars, buses and bajajs will be whizzing past inches away from them, enveloping everyone in clouds of dust and smoke.

Sights like these amazes me. These people live their lives completely in the open. They make great photography subjects. But I think I have been taking too many of such photos lately. Even the beggars are beginning to know me.

Now everytime I pass them by, they'll be shouting "foto, foto!".