Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Healing Process

The Healing Process

Healing is a process that takes time; a person in pain must be allowed that space and time to recover. Usually, he or she has to go through what is called the trauma cycle: a whole gamut of emotions will take its course--starting from shock and denial, progressing to anger and fear and finally acceptance.

Ultimately acceptance has to take place, and through total and complete acceptance, real healing begins. Sometimes we find ourselves very helpless when faced with a situation where we can't seem to do much to help a person who is in pain. There's actually not much that we can do except assist the person in lessening the impact of the trauma cycle, and hasten the process of recovery.

When we live in a family or community, we naturally develop an attachment to the people around us. This bond is forged through having a shared destiny and a mutually nurtured atmosphere of love and understanding. This interdependent community of people is what I call an ecosystem of love--a group-soul with its unique ego and identity. It is another step on the path of humanity's spiritual evolution, a notch up from our individual egocentric worlds. Such a group-soul behaves almost like a single organism.

When we learn to love or care for someone other than ourselves, we are progressing along the path of spiritual evolution. The world "spiritual" unfortunately brings about certain mystical connotations but in reality there's nothing supernatural about spiritual evolution; it is simply an emergent property of biological systems--a spontaneous organization of matter in accordance with the natural laws of the universe.

When an emergent organism forms, it begins to distinguish what is "external" to itself, and seeks to preserve what's within its own boundary--what is "me" and what is "not me". Ego is a natural consequence of the process of the emergence.

Our physical body is an emergent system. When a part of the body is severed, we suffer enormous pain because the system is disturbed. The nervous system issues a warning--pain--telling us that a part of us is missing and we need to do something to rectify the situation.

The pain of losing a loved one is like having a part of our body being torn away. This kind of pain is even more acute because not only physical loss is involved, the rest of the four-layer stack are also affected: that is, the emotional, intellectual and spiritual layers. We bleed and suffer through all four bodies.

When a system encounters shock and pain, it attempts to reorganize itself to achieve stability again. This is the healing process. If somehow stability cannot be achieved because the shock encountered is too severe, the system disintegrates, dies and dissolves itself back into the environment.

Helping someone to overcome pain is to ensure that the person does not veer into a state of instability. One has to protect the system from further shock so that there's proper space for the healing process to do its work.

Sometimes, the system undergoing the process of healing takes a perverted path and latches on to a temporary stable state, which usually impedes further healing. There's momentary comfort in such intermediate states, but they are ultimately unstable.

We can see this happening when a suffering person latches on to his feeling of anger or self-pity and begins to develop a deep hatred towards the world or withdraws himself completely from it. Because of this reaction he often gains a certain strength--all because he has found a cause, warped though it may be, for his wounded self to rise again.

Healing is a slow and delicate process, but it is a natural one. We must let nature take its course. Depending on the kind of wound inflicted, sometimes the scars can run deep. But heal it must, and heal it will.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Citizens of the Cosmos

Citizens of the Cosmos

Man, despite his technological mastery, is still powerless when Nature unleashes its full might. When natural disasters on such a scale strike, mankind realizes how fragile they are--tiny carbon-based creatures trying to so desperately to harness and control its environment with its still imperfect knowledge of the universe.

It takes global disasters for people of the world to realise that we all have a common destiny and that all our quarrels are very petty when viewed from a cosmic perspective. We are but transient inhabitants of this pale blue dot floating in the immensity of space--a flicker of an existence, a small insignificant ripple in the ocean of the cosmos, from which the forces of evolution had sparked a faint glimmer of consciousness.

When we worship and surrender to God, we acknowledge the infinite vastness out there and the great powers of the universe that we, its humble creatures, have not been able to fully grasp. Even though our understanding of the universe is still at its infancy, we sometimes behave as if we have all the answers. We slaughter and subordinate our fellow human beings for not sharing our own beliefs; we force uniformity when diversity is the natural tendency of nature.

The ancients worshiped the forces of nature not because they were more ignorant than us, but because they had a closer connection with the universe and understands intuitively, the intimate relationship between Man and Nature.

We have unfortunately lost our ability to listen to the whispers of Nature. We are creatures of the mind who listen to the deafening voice of the ego within. The ego seeks to obliterate and shape nature to satisfy its craving for possession, control and sensuous gratifications.

In times of tragedy, it is perhaps no solace for us to realize that Nature is neither an ally nor an enemy; it is neither cruel nor benevolent: Nature is there as it is, dispassionate and incapable of discrimination. And we the human species and other lifeforms--be they dormant, emerging or advanced--are all equal citizens of the cosmos, to share and suffer alike, to participate in that eternal dance of creation and destruction.

Friday, December 24, 2004

The Price of Freedom

The Price of Freedom

Last Christmas eve, I was in Jakarta, struggling to finish a project while the rest of the whole was out partying. It has been a year. What has changed?

Nothing much. I am still struggling over Christmas eve to finish yet another project. To some people, my life must be an utterly boring one. Well, I don't totally disagree.

This year has been a busy one for me compared to my previous two years in Jakarta. In a way I have no choice because if I don't work I will have no income. So I shouldn't be complaining about having too much work; it means that my cash register is constantly ringing.

I try not to worry too much about money. You see, I like to believe in this rather naive theory that one only needs to focus on doing good work and the money will follow. It seems to work for me. It also helps that I don't have too many materialistic wants except for books. Even that has been reduced over the years.

When you don't have too many wants, you feel very free. And that feeling of freedom is the greatest joy of all. Sometimes we tell ourselves that only after we have earned a certain amount of money, we will be free. Maybe, if we keep our commitments constant, we might be able to achieve it. But usually as we earn more, we get ourselves entangled with even more commitments.

One becomes free not by acquiring but by relinquishing. But that doesn't mean one should shun material possessions altogether. Some of us will definitely acquire a lot of wealth through practising his or her God-given skills or talent. Go out into the world and "fight the good fight"--to use Paulo Coelho's words. Enjoy the fruits of your labour but don't be dependent on them for happiness.

Happiness comes from transcending wealth and freeing yourself from its bonds. Only then do we realise that freedom can't be bought because freedom itself is free--it has been with us all this while.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Random Thoughts of a Workaholic

Random Thoughts of a Workaholic

I've been holed up at home for the past few days, trying to get some work done. For a while now I've been working from all the Starbucks, Coffee Bean and San Francisco Coffee outlets in Subang Jaya, PJ and KL but recently I found that my productivity level has dropped. Perhaps I'm starting to get lazy. Whatever it is, I realized that I have to do something to halt this slide.

Like how a football coach would substitute players in a match to change the pattern of play, I too strive to change things by revamping my daily routine. A change of environment often provides a new impetus to whatever you are doing. In my case, a change of environment means staying at home, to work.

Staying home brings about other challenges--books, TV, telephone and many other domestic distractions. It takes a lot of willpower to be able to bring about a state of mind that's clear and focussed. But I have some weird rituals to help me achieve that: like lighting an aromatic incense, or putting on some Gregorian music in the background.

The so-called "work" that I have to do can perhaps be divided into two categories. The first category comprises of activities that "do not" require any thinking (or perhaps only at a very superficial level); this includes meeting people, making phonecalls, discussions and replying e-mails. These are easy and do not require a special frame of mind to tackle.

The second category of work is the most taxing: writing proposals and reports, researching, tabulating facts and figures, technical design, analyzing information and coming up with new ideas. It requires one to focus, dissect, analyze, synthesize and create. Like playing football, one's mental performance can also be quite inconsistent. Sometimes on a good day, ideas just come flowing to you. Other times, you are stuck.

When you encounter a block, it is good to break your current pattern of thinking. A change of environment helps sometimes. A change of background music could also do the trick--I have tried everything from Gregorian chants to Big Band Jazz to keroncong.

Classical music--Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi works best for me. Beethoven is a bit too tempestuous to be used as background music. In general, there's evidence to suggest that Baroque music induces a relaxed state of mind, making it conducive for learning. Keroncong is also very relaxing but it reminds me too much of Indonesia, and ends up being a distraction. I only use it when I'm in Jakarta.

Sometimes its just plain staleness and tiredness that's preventing us from achieving peak mental performance, in which case a break is needed. Maybe it's time for me to plan another pilgrimage to Indonesia...Blitar?

OK enough; no more crazy ideas, go back to work.

Monday, December 20, 2004

A Way With Words

A Way With Words

"Don't get stuck on the level of words. A word is no more than a means to an end. It's an abstraction. Not unlike a signpost, it points beyond itself", writes acclaimed spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, in his book The Power of Now.

Whenever we need to communicate our thoughts, we have to use words. Some people express themselves better than others; but no matter how good your communication skills are, the words that come out from your mouth or pen are ultimately imperfect representations of what you seek to convey in first place.

What you think and feel inside can never be fully expressed with words. A lot of arguments arise between people because they do not see words as being imperfect representations of the original thought or idea. Sometimes people read too much into words and veer way off-course as a result. At other times, they selectively emphasize certain nuances of words and sentences based on their personally biases.

The word "flower" for instance, would trigger very different images in my mind and yours. My understanding of "flower" is the result of my own personal experiences--perhaps the image of a hibuscus which grew in abundance in the garden of my childhood home springs to mind. No two person sees the word "flower" the same way.

Poets understand the limitation and potential inherent in words. So they seek to experiment with fresh combinations of words and sounds to trigger the desired effect in the reader's mind. Poetry helps to extend the possibilities of our language.

But people always complain that they can't understand poetry. The real joy of reading poetry is not in understanding, but in feeling. To me, poetry--like music--is not to be "understood"; understanding comes much later, sometimes years after you have read them.

Words are signposts. The signpost is not the actual destination, it merely points the way. By following these signposts, one can get closer to the destination, but never reaching it.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Spontaneous Nature

Spontaneous Nature

I hate to miss even a day of blogging; but sometimes time is not always under our own control. Even though I might give the impression that I'm a bit of a control freak, I actually don't micro-manage time. I believe a little bit of spontaneity makes a healthy life.

When I was in school, for a short while, I did experiment with half-hourly schedules. I wanted to make sure that I cramped as much as possible into my 24 hours. And so to prevent "time leakage", I had all my daily activities allocated neatly into 30 minute time chunks. No "elevenish" or "after nine" kind of thing.

In the end, this ambitious scheme was too stressful for me to manage. It proved to be quite impossible to schedule my life in such a way that I was to have exactly half-and-hour for a meal and to study for the following one-and-a-half hours, and after that, exercise for half and hour and so forth.

That kind of precision makes your life extremely stressful because you are constantly looking at your watch. By trying to execute things at the trigger of the half-hour mark, like a machine, you don't allow time to "warm up" and "wind down". Of course, one could, schedule warm-up and wind-down time too, but again, one will be faced with the problem of having to worry when to start and stop the warm-up/wind-down session!

I know there are people who suffer from insomnia simply because they try too hard to "schedule" their sleep. They go to bed with a "performance target": they must get x hours of sleep so that they are fresh for work the next day.

When they switch off all the lights, anxiety immediately creeps in: time is ticking. I must fall asleep now, this very second. The seconds become minutes and suddenly he finds himself shifting restlessly for hours in bed.

Sleep is something that cannot come at will. There must be a winding down period where one slowly calms one's thoughts down and then sleep will arise spontaneously. Sleep cannot be micro-scheduled.

By allowing time to be slightly flexible, one actually gives space to spontaneity. A bit of jam karet can sometimes be good, for creativity arises out of spontaneity. The creative forces of the universe will work for you if you let things take their time, sometimes.

How does one know when to be flexible and when to be strictly time-regimented?

I don't have a simple answer. Again, it is a problem of balance. And finding the right balance between flexibility and rigidity requires wisdom.

And what is wisdom? It is nothing but spontaneous knowledge that arises from the mind uncluttered by ego-centric thoughts.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Sea of Life

The Sea of Life

Real happiness does not come from an unrelenting search for peak experiences but through cultivating a constant state of mental peace.

All pleasures of the senses belong to the former category--the pleasant feeling arises, peaks and dies away--like a wave. And when they are gone, we crave for them again. This cycle repeats itself, ad infinitum. Which is why most Eastern religions preach transcendence of the senses as the key to salvation. By realising this simple fact, one's spiritual evolution is hastened a thousand fold.

There's nothing "sinful" as such about the pleasures of the senses; just that they will all be ultimately unsatisfactory, because they never last. To depend on them for lasting happiness is a sure cause of pain.

Does that mean we have to give up the world of sensuous pleasures and live like a monk?

Not necessarily so. Monks are like professional golfers--they strive for higher levels of perfection in their game. But that doesn't mean the average person cannot enjoy a regular game of golf, and perhaps even playing it well.

When we experience the world with all its joy and sadness, its pains and pleasures, we can choose to experience it with equanimity. Therein lies the key to mental peace or true happiness.

Peace of mind comes when one is completely at ease with the world--no conflicts with one's spouse, no problems with bosses, no fear of the future nor regret for the past. We accept the world as it is; we do what we can to improve things and we accept whatever outcome that arises. And we move forward, constantly.

It is the nature of the sea to have waves. When every experience in life is like a wave, you don't cling to the crests and avoid the troughs. Instead one learns to be a better swimmer by understanding the dynamics and physical characteristics of water--one accepts its nature.

One can be a better swimmer in the sea of life by adhering to these two simple principles:

1. Every pleasure or joy is a blessing. Be grateful for it. Enjoy it but don't cling to it.
2. Pain is a fact of life. Accept it. Take comfort in the fact that it too will ultimately fade away.

That way we always remain afloat, and we are constantly moving forward.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Poverty Planning

Poverty Planning

In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell, writes about being poor, from his first-hand experience living penniless in the slums of Paris:

And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.

Most of us would have, at one time or another, fantasized what it would be like if we were rich. But what I find even more intriguing is to imagine what it would be like if we were poor:

What is the minimum amount of money that I would need to be able to survive? What kind of lowly jobs would I be willing to do, if my professional skills are no longer in demand?

It's a fun exercise to play in your mind and has its practical value too, like a mock disaster recovery drill. It could happen anytime you see--what if you lose your job or have your income drastically cut?

I always try to use my student days as a benchmark: can I still survive like how I did as a student? When I was studying at a local university, I was able to survive on 300 ringgit a month. A third of that went to lodging--a small rented room which I shared with a friend--leaving only 200 for food and transportation. (But that's still above the poverty line for Malaysia--which is around 500 ringgit for a family of five)

I tried to limit my daily spending to five ringgit. It wasn't that difficult then because there were cheap food stalls and restaurants that catered for students--each meal costing merely 1.30, with drinks thrown in. Breakfast was even cheaper if you eat at the faculty canteen--fried noodles and tea for 70 cents.

Newspapers at 50 cents then was a bit of a luxury, reserved only for weekends; magazines were out of the question. But I was never short of reading materials because I had all the wonderful books in the university library at my disposal.

If one is prudent enough, one could even save a little bit for a movie during weekends. Life wasn't too bad: there were lots of friends for company in our student house, even though ten of us had to share one toilet. Kind of like living in a cheap rumah kos in Jakarta.

But that was two decades ago. If I factor in inflation, what is the minimum now that I can survive on? I don't know, but I'll be quite happy if I can successfully survive on a three-figure budget.

I've acquired a lot of "bad habits" over the years--I need a car to drive around in KL, I'm used to sleeping with air-conditioning, I need broadband Internet access and I'm accustomed to having my own personal bathroom. Can all this "damage" be undone?

It's going to be tough but somehow I feel it's probably easier for me than for many of my friends--one of the advantages of leading a single and nomadic life. For years I've managed my life in such a way that I am never addicted to luxuries. You see, I have this extremely perverse attitude of considering luxuries a "handicap". Well, I have nothing against luxuries; as a matter of fact I do enjoy a fair amount of it whenever I'm travelling on business, but my point is, one should be able to give them up easily when need be.

I love wine but can easily do without it; I won't mind taking trains and buses to get around and if I need to access the Internet, I can always sneak into any Starbucks outlet and use the free Timezone wireless broadband service (without buying their exorbitantly priced coffee of course). There are always workarounds.

I have other strange habits too: I can live without a TV--a habit I acquired during my student days for I didn't have access to one then. But it's no big deal, one can easily watch TV anywhere these days, especially in mamak stalls. Books? I think I already have enough in my personal library to last me a lifetime of reading. Worst come to worst, I'll read all the volumes of my Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z.

When it comes to good food, I'm a philistine, so a simple diet of Maggi Mee, nasi lemak and roti canai is perfectly fine with me. In Jakarta, I'd probably join the taxi drivers and labourers, eating at the cheap wartegs (warung tegal). It's probably not very healthy, but what's the difference--rich people eat themselves to death anyway.

I think with some luck, I should be able to survive. Wouldn't call it poverty, but spartan living nonetheless. And knowing that one can take it--like what Orwell said--is indeed a feeling of great relief and comfort, almost a luxury.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Visions of Light

Visions of Light

I went for my morning jog today under clear blue skies and a brilliant sunshine. What a good day for photography, I thought. But before such mundane thoughts could take hold of my mind, I was suddenly seized by fragmentary visions and memories of the past:

I remembered my "pilgrimage" to Borobudur earlier this year under similarly beautiful weather; that ancient structure was a magnificent sight to behold that day, with its weather-beaten stone reliefs and stupas against the dazzling blue of the heavens, supported by a backdrop grass and trees, bursting with a felicitous green. And up there, silent buddhas stared serenely into a verdant horizon of hills.

How beautiful is sunlight--it is like the physical manifestation of God's love. Sunshine invigorates and breathes life into everything it touches. The life that we possess in our mortal bodies are but tiny fragments of that Divine Light; how brightly we shine depends on how well we tap this source of illumination within us.

When we love someone, we share this gift of light; we bath ourselves in each other's radiance; we nourish in its life-giving energy; we become beings of celestial light.

Sunlight evokes such beauty. The leaves, the grass, the entire universe seem to sing under its presence. And this morning, I walked under a warm shower of sunlight, and occassionally I would peer into the azure sky and let the sun catch my eyes.

In the bedazzlement of it all, I would see myself as a child again, happily lost somewhere in an abode of trees where sunlight peeped through a riotous canopy of leaves, scattering its radiance over the crystal waters of a murmuring stream; and there in that splendorous pastoral paradise, we had revelled in complete abandon, in our innocent childhood games, with God smiling lovingly from above.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Pleasurable Pressure

Pleasurable Pressure

With the year coming to a close, I realized that this is the year that I've watched the least number of movies. I missed almost every major movie that was released except for Troy which I managed to catch when I was in Bangkok, and the rather disappointing Exorcist: The Beginning a couple of months back at in Jakarta. Other than that, I cannot recall having seen any other movie...yes there was one that I watched at the Shaw House theatre in Singapore, but I can't even remember the title.

I did manage to enjoy The Passion of the Christ on DVD though but that seems to be the only movie I've caught on DVD this year. Four movies in a whole year? I used to watch that many movies in one week!

I think I also spent less time reading for pleasure this year because so much of my time has been spent on work. Should I be complaining? Probably not. Sometimes work can be pleasurable too, even though there's always a lot of pressure when I'm on a project because every customer situation is slightly different. Hence work is never routine and time is never enough.

I'd like to think that the pleasurable part of my work is being able to meet and chat with different levels of people in the customer's organization--from CIO to datacenter operators. The pressure comes from always having to be prepared, alert and sharp in every meeting; but if you are relaxed, open and sincere, people are always willing to share information and their views with you and your job is made a lot easier.

I try to look at pressure positively--a football team always play with a little more urgency when they are one goal down. It's important to know how to manage pressure: one must be conscious of how much one is able to stretch oneself--a healthy amount of it induces growth, too much of it brings one to the point of breaking.

I try to look at it this way: Pressure is painful but it can also be a kind of positive pain--like a good hard massage one gets at Bersih Sehat. I always expect pressure in my line of work and I try to manage pressure well so that it can be a catalyst for growth and healing, like the pressure applied by the skillful hands (and feet too, if you like shiatsu) of a masseur: Pleasurable pressure. Going to work should be like going for a massage. Expect pressure!

One must also learn to see work-related pressure in its proper perspective: What's the worst that could happen? In the end, it's only work--it's not a matter of life and death. Yes, one could lose one's job and reputation but hey, it's not like we are going to starve to death if we do. We suffer mainly because we are more worried about our reputation and ego--that illusory self that we try so hard to maintain. The ego is the cause of all pain but please, don't get me started on that...

Friday, December 10, 2004

Tha Inner Voice

That Inner Voice

Dr Stephen Covey's latest book--a sequel to his classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People--called The Eighth Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness has finally hit our bookstores.

I am not exactly a big fan of motivational books in general, even though the things I write in my blog might give the impression that I habitually consume them by the dozens. Actually, I find most of them quite boring.

I first read the Seven Habits more than a decade ago. Initially I was turned off by its title--it sounded a bit too prescriptive and simplistic for my taste. But I read it anyhow because its reputation was too huge for me to ignore. I was glad that I did--its many insightful lessons have remained with me all these years.

Today the Seven Habits are staple reading for most executives, even though I'm quite sure not many seriously understand and adopt its principles. Nevertheless one certainly hears lots of Coveyesque phrases like "win-win", "proactive" and "first things first" being spouted all the time in business meetings. They have sadly become quite trite and meaningless through abuse and overuse.

Critics of Steven Covey have accused his writings of being pseudo-religious values cloaked in business garb. Indeed, Dr Covey himself is a devout Mormon. But that doesn't take away anything from the many rich conscience-based principles and lessons that are actually quite universal, which he elucidates so well in his book.

Even more lucid is Dr Covey as a speaker. I have listened to a couple tapes by Dr Covey before; as a matter of fact, I have just finished listening to the unabridged audiobook version of The Eighth Habit, read by the author himself. He is quite a joy to listen to, for sincerity and humility rings clearly in his voice.

The Seven Habits are already part of our popular culture; but what is this brand new Eighth Habit? Well, I wouldn't want to include too many spoilers here but the Eighth Habit is something that encompasses and underpins all the rest of the other habits. In one sentence, it is about "finding your voice and inspiring others to find theirs".

Well maybe, I'll blog about this Eighth Habit in greater detail someday. But I believe there'll be many who will cringe at what Dr Covey teaches and accuse him of sounding like an over-preachy spiritual teacher who had somehow found a pulpit in the boardroom. They will scoff at his values as being too straight, too soft, too old-fashioned for today's world.

But to me Dr Covey is refreshing; simply because there have been an over-emphasis on a culture of glibness, posturing and self-exaltation in the corporate world. Dr Covey's ideas and teachings are in complete concordance with my personal moral philosophy--those often twisted nuggets of wisdom which I splash throughout my blog. OK, I agree that I am perhaps too idealistic in some of my beliefs; but reading and listening to Dr Covey to me is to nod in complete agreement and to have many of my core principles reinforced.

It looks like the older I get, the more old-fashioned my values have become. But that's alright, I'm comfortable with that. In the end, what matters most is one's own voice, conscience, that spark of divinity or whatever one chooses to call it, which one must somehow find deep inside, within this brief lifetime given to us.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Lingua Franca of the Archipelago

Lingua Franca of the Archipelago

Yesterday a Malaysian friend who was on a business trip to Jakarta SMSed to ask me where's the best place to go for nasi padang. I replied: Sari Bundo, Jalan Juanda--and couldn't help feeling a pang of envy.

I had planned to make a trip to Jakarta this month; but it doesn't look like my schedule will permit it. Half my life is still in Jakarta: my new QBWorld membership card is still waiting to be collected from their Jalan Sunda store, my Sarinah VIP card is with Marlyn, I'm still maintaining my bank accounts and credit card over there and I need to top-up my XLcom prepaid account!

Back here in Malaysia, I still haven't really settled down to living like a local KLite yet, and am still using my odd mish mash of Melayu and Indonesian. My command of Malay, which was never good in first place, is I think now, completely hopeless. Sometimes I inadvertently address Malay salesgirls here as "mbak"; words like "nggak" and "bisa' keep rolling out from my tougue; I'm always worrying whether I can find "parkir" rather than parking and I ask waiters for the "bon" instead of the bill everytime.

No matter how bad my Malay has become, at least I'm better than some of my Singaporean friends who don't even understand what the lyrics of their national anthem, Majulah Singapura mean. The older generation of Singaporeans could at least speak some pasar Malay; but they are a dying breed, which I think is quite sad.

Malay is a beautiful language and one that is not difficult to learn, as many foreigners would testify. I often find bules in Indonesia who had the benefit formal bahasa classes speaking the language quite flawlessly, albeit with an accent.

No one would have blamed Sukarno had he chosen Javanese as the national language of Indonesia; but he made the wiser choice of choosing Malay instead, which is more egalitarian, easier to learn and had for centuries been the lingua franca for trading in the Malay Archipelago.

Does the Malay language have a future? Our Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka would certainly like to think so. Let's say that the language will still be around in 300 years time. Now, if we are able to travel forward in time to the 23rd century and happen to bump into someone who speaks the Malay tongue, somehow I have a strong feeling that the person will most likely address you as "Pak" (or "Ibu") and greet you with a "Selamat Siang".

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Stolen Moments

Stolen Moments

Whenever we say that we don't have time to read or to do certain things we like, what we actually mean is that we cannot find a major chunk of time to accomodate them. In a typical day, we have meetings to attend, reports to write and phone-calls to make. That takes up our whole workday. It doesn't leave us much time to indulge in the things we enjoy doing.

But have we considered making better use of those bits and pieces of time that we have in between our major tasks? Most of the time, we waste them by surfing the Net aimlessly or by over-indulging in idle chit-chat with colleagues. Those odd fifteen or twenty minutes can cummulatively amount to quite a lot over time.

These tiny but precious chunks of time are often discarded like those 1 and 5 cent loose change that clutter our pockets and purses. But if we take the trouble to accumulate and use them, we'll be pleasantly surprised by how many extra cups of coffee they will buy us.

You don't have to learn knitting or crochet to make full use of them, there are many tasks that fit in very well into small time-chunks. Blogging for instance is one. Reading is another. Which is why I always carry a book with me wherever I go; whenever I have to wait--for my food to be served, for someone to show up for an appointment or for my turn in a queue--I can always use the time productively by reading my book. Do not under-estimate the accumulative power of time.

That way too, one is never bored. There's always something to do. Sometimes I'm even happy to wait because to me these are stolen moments, time you are not supposed to have--like finding a dollar note on the sidewalk.

Like now: I'm back in KL and I'm supposed to meet a friend at KLCC; but she called up last minute and told me that she's going to be an hour late. No problem. I opened up my notebook, sat down at the nearest wi-fi hotspot and started typing my blog entry for the day...and I'm done!

Monday, December 06, 2004

Diversity & Differences

Diversity & Differences

Celebrated sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, who made Colombo his permanent home, described Sri Lanka as "India without the hassle".

From impressions garnered during brief stay in the country, I can perhaps understand a little bit of his sentiment. The capital city of Colombo is not as congested as Delhi or Mumbai. Unlike in India or even Indonesia, pitiful sights of abject poverty are also not so evident.

The other major difference between India and Sri Lanka is religion: Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist. In Colombo, one can see many stupas and statues of Buddha adorning various parts of the city. Sri Lanka is in fact the center of Theravada Buddhism--one of the three main branches of Buddhism (also known as Hinayana)--that is also practiced in the Indochinese countries, including Thailand.

It is not easy for casual visitors like me to distinguish between the Buddhist Sinhalese--who form three quarters of the population--and the minority Hindu Tamils; it's a bit like how non-Indonesians are not being able to tell the Sundanese from the Javanese. To me, the interesting part about knowing a foreign country is learning these subtle differences. The irony is that the Sinhalese and the Tamils don't see these differences as subtle--the two ethnic groups spent the last twenty years waging a bloody civil war over it.

In any South-East Asian country, I would be able to blend into the masses and pass off as a local, but unfortunately not so in Sri Lanka. Even though I face no communication problems here, physically I stand out in the crowd like any Mat Salleh or bule in an Asian country, which makes me an easy target for touts, who are forever offering themselves to be my tour-guide. I cannot walk a few meters alone outside my hotel without someone approaching me: Hello sir! Are you from China? How do you like Colombo? You want to see temples? You want girl?

I'll need many more trips to Sri Lanka before I can thoroughly appreciate the soul of this beautiful country. Despite the hassle of having to constantly fend off touts in the streets, my first impressions are good. Even my more xenophobic Singaporean friends (who were not so appreciative of India) have good things to say about Sri Lanka.

Sometimes I feel being born and bred in Malaysia ("Truly Asia") has its advantages--one is not so aversed to foreign cultures because growing up in a multi-cultural society, one is already accustomed to such differences.

Why would anyone want to live only among his own race and accept only one single culture? Diversity can be, and should be a source of strength rather than strife. Diversity makes the world interesting and enriches the possibilities for the human race. In an increasingly globalized world, it's diversity that makes all the difference.

The Soul of Colombo

The Soul of Colombo

I'm always attracted to the nostalgic charms of old hotels; and in Colombo, the Galle Face Hotel, established in 1864, ranks up there together with the grand dames of Asia, such as Raffles Hotel in Singapore and E&O in Penang.

On Tuesday, we held a cocktail reception for one of our clients at the Galle Face Hotel. I had earlier made a presentation in one of its huge echoey ballrooms. Standing there amongst its many ornate pillars and chandeliers, it felt strangely anacronistic to be talking about the subject of IT.

Located in the heart of Colombo city, to me this Grand Old Dame is also its soul. The hotel has a magnificent open-air terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean where guests can sit back with a cool glass of whiskey on-the-rocks and surrender to the gentle caress of the sea breeze under the golden evening sunset. One cannot imagine a more Maughamesque setting.

In terms of location, architecture and history, I think the Galle Face Hotel ("oldest hotel east of Suez") surpasses that of Raffles and E&O. Unfortunately, it too has fallen into a bit of neglect; the rooms I am told, are badly in need of a facelift. But then again, that can also be said of many of the business-class hotels in Colombo.

Colombo feels like a city that is just awakening; stunted by years of separatist violence, it has fallen behind the other capital cities of Asia. But a cease-fire is seemingly in place now and the tourists are arriving again; I could see that a new wing to the Galle Face Hotel is already being constructed.

Having survived the ravages of war and terrorism, can Colombo withstand this equally frightening onslaught of globalization without sacrificing its rich cultural heritage--its very soul itself? Only time will tell.

Friday, December 03, 2004

A Sojourn to Serendip

A Sojourn in Serendip

"You don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings ... serendipitously." - John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

I've been working non-stop since I arrived on the island of Serendip--that enchanted pearl of an island hanging like a pendant off the Indian mainland. After four days of continuous meetings, I finally have a chance to catch my breath and hopefully savour a bit of atmosphere of this quaint and charming city.

Most flights from South East Asia arrive here past midnight. When I landed at the airport, I was immediately reminded of our Terminal 2 in Subang airport--small, basic but functional and thankfully the immigration was also quite hassle-free.

As it was already 2am in the morning, the narrow road leading to the city was clear of traffic. I could see all along the way there were many one and two-storey shop-houses lining the road, which made me feel a bit like entering one of the small towns in Malaysia.

This is my first visit to the city of Colombo and before I came here, someone told me that Colombo is not much of a city--it is more like Seremban, which actually intrigued me because cities are becoming more and more alike as they become "developed"--like those kitschy coastal Chinese cities. But much to my delight, Colombo still has that small colonial town atmosphere.

However I do not think that it is due to good heritage planning that Colombo remains looking like Seremban or Penang 30 years ago (a more appropriate comparison, because Colombo has a beautiful harbour), the years of fighting between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers is the main reason for this hiatus in development.

However the past few years of relative peace has been extremely good for the country. The few international class hotels in the city are getting fully booked again. The hotel where I have been staying at--not unlike those grand hotels of the Sukarno era such as Hotel Indonesia or Hotel Sahid Jaya--has probably seen more glorious days. Despite its crumbling condition, it is still bustling with visitors (businessmen from Singapore and India, tourists from Japan) and activities (weddings, conferences, cocktails and of course, the ubiquitous mainland Chinese hookers loitering in the lobby).

I couldn't blog for the whole week because of my hectic schedule which left me completely exhausted every evening; the two-hour time difference and the early morning arrival on Tuesday had also upsetted my biological clock. This project that I'm working on has turned out to be a rather demanding one. There'll be weeks of hardwork ahead after this trip.

I had originally planned for a slow and relaxing end to the year and didn't expect to take up another project until the next year but sometimes serendipity strikes, and suddenly I found myself on a flight to Colombo. It's probably a good thing though--I get the chance to learn something about Sri Lanka and its rich Sinhalese Buddhist culture before it too gets swept inevitably by the homogenizing tides of global capitalism.

Monday, November 29, 2004

True Power

True Power

I'm blogging from KLIA. After almost two months in KL, I'm on the road again--this time to a country I've never been to before. Will write about my impressions when I'm there--that is, if I have no problems getting a good (and cheap) Internet connection.

I was all prepared to fly off today, nursing my "broken heart"; but what an unexpected and dramatic outcome it was! It's tough being a diehard fan of a football club--all that wild roller-coaster ride of emotions that one has to go through week in week out, is simply too much to bear sometimes.

I thought I won't be travelling again until the end of the year--I had planned to spend the last two months of the year cleaning up both my company accounts and the clutter in my room. I also needed a break after working non-stop since I left Jakarta for good early this year. But unfortunately (or fortunately, from a business point of view), people managed to track me down to my Bat Cave and asked me to embark on another one of those missions with vaguely-defined objectives in another violence-prone Third-World country.

Well, I suppose that's what I do for a living. Sometimes I feel like I'm not really doing a real job and I'm way too unambitious when it comes to making money. During the early days of my career, I was always short of money, no matter how much I earned. Then I realized that if your material wants continue to increase indefinitely, your earnings will never be able to catch up with it, and you will always feel poor.

The easiest way to become "rich", is to reduce your wants. It is "easy" because it doesn't cost you anything!. You see, there's fun in frugality. Being frugal doesn't mean being stingy--it means freeing yourself from having to keep up with other people; it means learning how to appreciate the simple life.

Like I've said many times before, the good things in life don't always cost a lot of money. For example, reading is a hobby that is a lot cheaper than yuppie pursuits such as golfing, diving and clubbing. You don't have to be a member of a fancy health club to get fit--just jog in the neighbourhood park.

I think we often pay way too much premium for class, style and prestige--all the trappings of wealth and power. One might ask: what's the purpose of living if you don't spend and enjoy life?

True, I agree with that. But has one tried experiencing that sense of triumph and exhilaration of knowing that you can afford something but yet choosing not to have it? That feeling is absolutely intoxicating. That is true power. And it's free.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

My Fragile Heart

My Fragile Heart

I'm bracing myself for a very painful weekend ahead when Liverpool meets Arsenal on Sunday night, or rather early Monday morning. With all the injury woes that the Reds are facing, it will be quite miracle if they could even manage a draw. If Liverpool does lose again, it'll be three consecutive losses in a row and my heart will definitely be shattered into smithereens.

How does one overcome a broken heart? Some people never get over it. Our lives are often shaped by the bitter experiences that we've encounter in the past.

I'm reminded of the character Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens' novel, Great Expectations--one of my all-time favourites. In the book, Miss Havisham decides to forever isolate herself from the world because her bridegroom didn't show up on their wedding day. She remains dressed in her bridal gown and spends the rest of her life sitting in the room where her wedding banquet was supposed to be held, with rats crawling all over her rotting wedding cake.

In that memorable scene where the young protagonist Pip is brought to Miss Havisham's house to play; the conversation goes something like this:

Miss Havisham: (pressing her hand to her chest) Do you know what I touch here?
Pip: (hesitant and shy) Your heart?
Miss Havisham: Broken!

Miss Havisham vows to take revenge on the entire male species. So she adopts a pretty young girl, Estella, and briings her up to be cruel and heartless to men; the poor little boy Pip--the one with "great expectations" is intended to be one of her victims. There are about a dozen adaptations of the novel for the cinema and TV and I've watched and enjoyed at least three of them. The last one was the modernized version set in present-day Florida (!), starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Will I wake up on Monday with my hand clasped to my heart? Broken!

Well, maybe I should have more confidence in my favourite team. Perhaps all of us should learn to emulate manager Rafael Benitez's spirit: "The good thing about football is that, if you lose, there's always a next match".

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Depths of Silence

The Depths of Silence

Most people find it very difficult to sit still and study or to do something that requires concentration. When we were students, we had to force ourselves to study because the pressure of examinations was very great and we were driven by our fear of failure. Exam season was a time of great mental pressure for most of us during our schooldays. When we finally left school, we vowed never to subject ourselves to that kind of torture again.

But still life is an endless series of examinations. Even if we do not have to mug for exams anymore, the everyday tasks that we do also requires concentration and clearness of mind. The inability to recognize that is actually a cause of a lot of our miseries. It is the cause of a lot of shoddy work and a lack of creativity in the corporate world. I even suspect that many executives have actually forgotten or do not realize what real thinking is.

We are so used to operating in this "degraded mode", that most of us forget what it is like being in a concentrated state of mind. We consciously recoil from getting into that state of stillness and clarity because our hyperactive minds abhor a vacuum. We must always have something--noise, visuals, random thoughts--filling our mental screen. When the mind is blank, we are scared. We think we have no idea what we are supposed to say or do. We think we are being indecisive.

Decision-making is not thinking. We should not confuse the two. We decide on something based on what we have learned and experienced before in the past; the level of thinking involved is usually very superficial. Sometimes decisions are even based on emotion. That's how most executives operate everyday.

When it comes to situations where real thinking is required--an original idea is demanded, something needs to be created out of nothing--very few can excel. And this is not due to the fact that we lack the ability to do so--it is actually because we have forgotten that there are deeper levels of the mind that we have not tapped. These deeper levels only reveal themselves when we are in a deeply concentrated state of mind. And most of us never ever bother to enter that state.

When is the mind considered to be "concentrated"?

When we can actually "hear" silence itself. When we can "feel" thoughts arising from the depths of our subconscious in a very granular manner. Only when all mental noise is completely silenced, can we drink from this wellspring of creativity deep within us.

But unfortunately we fear silence so much. We equate that to loneliness, boredom and dullness. And because of that we are forever wallowing on the surface of the water, being trashed about by random waves, when the real treasures of the ocean are lying deep down in the stillness of its bottom, undiscovered.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Work as Workout

Work as Workout

Everyday I ask myself the question: how do I use the day productively? And because I work for myself, the temptation to abuse the freedom is always great.

Everyday, I have to remind myself that I need to keep on learning, exploring new possibilities and driving things to happen. There must be a forward momentum all the time, a snowballing effect to all activities.

It is always very tempting to just indulge in things that bring me immediate pleasure--such as reading a good book, chit-chatting with friends, surfing the Net or watching a movie. But I've developed the habit of using these simple pleasures as tiny rewards for work done.

Work is easier if it is divided into manageable chunks with small rewards tied to its completion. Writing a hundred page technical report can be a very daunting and laborious task; if I imagine one hundred pages of blank paper staring at me waiting to be filled, then I might not even have the motivation to start at all.

But if I tell myself that for the next two hours, I'll complete the section on say, datacenter infrastructure and then reward myself with some teh tarik and nasi lemak at my favourite mamak stall, then I am more inclined to start work. Of course, I can always skip work and go straight to my nasi lemak; but I mentally reinforce to myself that rewards "earned" through hardwork always tastes a lot better.

Once a piece of work is done, there's a satisfying sense of accomplishment, no matter how small the work is. You know that it is good work if it has a transformational effect--either on yourself or the enterprise that you're working for, because creative energy has been released into the universe.

Good work will always do you good; it's like a workout session in the gym--you get rewarded immediately because it makes you feel fresh, energetic, relaxed and cheerful. A workout has transformational effect--your body grows healthier and your mind becomes stronger.

If you treat work like a workout, work will always work for you.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

To Err is Human, To Forgive...Practical

To Err is Human, To Forgive...Practical

I wrote about the difficulty of remembering people's names the other day. In certain situations however, the "ability" to forget can be a very good thing.

There are things that we want so much to forget but we can't. Usually these are painful experiences of the past, like a hurtful remark by a friend or loved one, an embarassing moment or an unwise act that brought about negative consequences.

Tell someone who has just broken up with his or her lover to forget about the relationship immediately--they can't because the emotions involved are still very strong. Forgetting is a process that takes time. Those who study physics can liken the process to the exponential decay of radioactive material: it will taper slowly towards zero over time but never ever reaching it.

In previous blog entries, I'ved discussed how we can deliberately use time to dissolve pain by thinking of pain as a drop of ink dissolving in water. Some stains are stubborn and will remain for a while, but if you are willing to let go, the force of time will be your ally.

How do we resolve to allow time to act on the things we want to forget? By forgiving--forgive yourself or the person who caused you that pain. True forgiving means completely absolving all blame or unresolved emotions associated with someone or something.

To forgive doesn't mean we do not take responsibility to rectify a wrong. We forgive because we do not want to be driven by negative emotions. We forgive because we have the wisdom to see things from a wider perspective and choose to act based on positive principles.

The moment we forgive, that drop of pain dissolves in the ocean of Time.

You see, it is very tempting to cling on to a hurt or a need to take revenge because it gives us energy and a sense of purpose to do things. It could work for a while but unfortunately these are negative driving forces, which will ultimately bring only destructive consequences. Nothing based on negative emotions has the ability to create lasting changes.

If we are driven by negative energies such as these, some other part of your life will have to end up feeding it: It will warp your relationship with your loved ones, isolate you from friends and colleagues or take a toll on your physical well-being.

To forgive and to forget are acts that are so creative because they free up trapped energy and allow it to pursue its true potential. To forgive does not mean you are being soft. It means you are mature enough to see beyond the immediate pleasure of blaming and latching on to easy excuses; it means you know how to use your emotional and mental energy productively to bring positive changes to the situation.

By choosing to forgive you do not allow your emotional bank account to be continuously drained by the past. Instead you cap your losses. You free up resources so that they can be invested in more lucrative projects. It is simply good, prudent emotional management.

You have to realize that you are also not responsible for making sure people who have wronged you get what they deserve. Punitive measures are His responsibility; and you should be grateful that there's Someone up there who's willing to do such a thankless job! For those who do not believe in God, there's this law of nature called karma. Same thing; works everytime.

Not only is forgiving divine, it is actually practical.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Remembering Names

Remembering Names

In our everyday interactions with people, It is common for us to forget people's names. Every now and then you'll hear people lament about how bad their memory has become, because they getting old.

I forget people's names quite often too but I do not believe it's because the power of my memory is diminishing. Instead I believe we forget things easily as we grow older because we do not bother to associate any significance to our everyday experiences anymore. Everything tends to be a repetition of similar events in the past.

If you look back on your week in the office, you will probably strain to remember what you did on particular day of the week, say Tuesday. This is because in a typical week, everyday feels the same and nothing stands out. But we all remember where we were on September 11 2001.

On each business trip, I usually use up half a box of business cards. When we meet so many people in our daily lives--casual introductions that hold no special significance--it is natural that their names would slip from our memory unless we make a special effort to remember them.

More often than not a person's name slips away instantly from memory the moment he or she is introduced to us--especially when there's a huge group of people involved. Usually that happens because we are too concerned with ourselves--our minds are preoccupied with the image that we are trying to project to the other person, instead of listening to what he or she has to say. The best way to remember another person's name is to try and use it immediately in your conversation with the person.

When I was teaching my class of around 30 students in the university, I made it a point to remember every one of their names by my second session with them. I took the trouble to talk to each and every one of them individually and I repeatedly addressed them using their names during my first lecture. I also had a habit of observing very insignificant details about people (ala Sherlock Holmes) such as the brand of cigarette that they smoke, the kind music they listen to and the type of stationeries they use. And whenever I needed to quote examples to illustrate a point in my lecture, I'd use things that are familiar to them.

Using people's names helps a lot if you want to buld rapport with them. It shows that you value people as unique individuals and that you are genuinely interested in them. Because I'm also an avid booklover, I sometimes like to think of people as books--mighty volumes of experience and wisdom which you can tap into "interactively". If you are also a bibliophile like me, maybe by looking at people's names as "book titles", it might actually help you to remember them better!

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Scalable Worker

The Scalable Worker

In the IT world, we often talk a lot about scalability as being a desirable systemic quality. If a system can scale, it means that one can easily add in more resources, or extend it to meet higher performance requirements without having to replace or redesign the basic system.

My friends in the industry also like to refer to certain types of workers as being "scalable". If a worker can adapt to change and is always willing to tackle new things, then he or she possesses "scalability". These are the type of people one would love to hire, especially in the IT industry where--pardon the cliche--change is the only constant.

The scalable individual always believes that he has the potential to tackle any kind of job that is assigned to him. Even if he is not trained to do it, he will take his own initiative to pick it up himself. He accepts that there will always be things that he doesn't know and he will have to continue learning throughout his entire career.

Young workers, or rookies who have just joined a company are usually willing to be scalable because they are put in a position where they have to prove themselves first. But once they have found a particular niche or comfort zone in the company, they stop learning and lose their scalability.

Furthermore as a person grows older, his energy and enthusiasm for work diminishes. He becomes more interested in mastering the intrigues of office politics and aligning himself with the right people in the company--because it is the easier thing to do.

Scalability implies change, constant and unrelentless change. It is extremely difficult and perhaps even unfair for a person to be constantly changing to meet the demands of his job. But a scalable person has to learn to be comfortable with that. There is no such thing as a comfort zone. Scalability requires one to accept uncertainty and to value learning as an end in itself.

Are there many scalable workers out there in the industry? The surprising thing is that, there seems to be a lot less of them in big multinationals compared to smaller companies. In large companies, a different type of "scalability" is evident--the ability to manoeuvre oneself up the corporate ladder. Sometimes that is all that matters for success in the corporate world.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Fisherman's Dream

The Fisherman's Dream

There comes a point in life when when we realize that there are only so much material things that we really need. Anything beyond that becomes either too costly to maintain or they begin to eat into other parts of our lives.

Material possessions always require maintenance. Books and furnitures have to be dusted; cars have to be washed and polished; jackets and gowns have to be dry-cleaned. Then we realize that after a while, it is quite difficult to manage and do everything ourselves, so we decide to hire a maid. We bank on the belief that if we earn enough money, we can afford to pay to overcome these inconveniences.

That's fine. But then another set of problem arises: you'll have to manage your maid. It is common these days to read horror stories in the papers about maids from hell. Though many are hardworking and well-behaved, every employer will still have to take the risk of entrusting his or her home and kids to a stranger.

Never mind if we have to go to ridiculous length of installing concealed video-cameras at home so that we can monitor our maids. I suppose these inconveniences are better than suffering the hassle of doing house chores or taking care of the kids ourselves.

But have we seriously considered whether we could do all these chores ourselves and do without maids?

Absolutely impossible, many would say. Both parents have to work. Only with double incomes can a family maintain their standard of living. We'd rather take our chances with maids.

But what is this so-called high standard of living? It's basically the capacity to acquire more and more material things in life--material things which we probably don't really need. It means getting trapped in the gridlocked traffic every morning to go to work, battling the same traffic in the evening only to come home and sit zombie-like in front of the TV to "de-stress" and spending weekends enduring shopping-cart jams at the hypermarket checkout counter. Is this a better life?

There are no right answers to all these questions. We choose the life we live. There are those who think that we should never chicken-out from the rat race and it is our life's mission to acquire material riches so that we can elevate our standing in society; there are also those who harbour the romantic notion that the happy life is one that is simple and self-sufficient.

I have a friend who used to wonder aloud if it is better leading the simple life of a fisherman. He spent a great of time in soul-searching, hovering between work and study, trying to decide what he wanted to do in life.

Today my friend is the founder and co-owner of a major public-listed company. He achieved all that through his own hardwork, self-belief, integrity and intelligence. I haven't met him for a couple of years now, but if I do bump into him one day, I'd like to ask him if he still harbours dreams of becoming a fisherman. Perhaps now, he can finally afford the "luxury" of becoming a fisherman.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Victim

The Victim

It may be strange but it's definitely true: many of us actually desire to be in an unhappy state. You see that kind of behaviour manifested in many ways, either directly or indirectly.

There's a reason why this is so, even though we ourselves may not consciously realise it: It's because we want pity, consolation or excuse. And when we find that this behaviour constantly elicits favourable responses from the people around us, we unconsciously turn it into a habit; our "unhappiness" becomes chronic.

This is what spiritual healer Dr Caroline Myss refers to as the Victim archetype. Everyone of us has a Victim lurking somewhere deep within us. Because failure is always painful, whenever we fail, we want to blame it on everything else but ourselves. We want to act the role of a victim so that we elicit pity; so that we are consoled; so that blame is immediately deflected from us.

We like to put the blame for our unhappy situation on the environment and the people around us: our bosses, colleagues, company policies, our upbringing or simply bad luck. The Victim subconsciously chooses to remain a victim because it wants to be in an advantageous position of not having to take responsibility for its own circumstance. So we are constantly wallowing in self-pity.

Being a victim is an easy way out from taking the challenges of work, life or relationships head-on. We are so afraid of failure, embarassment or chastisement that we'd rather suffer the lesser pain of playing the role of a victim. Yes, the Victim is always unhappy; but it is "harmless" unhappiness. It is an unhappiness that the Victim can constantly alleviate by attracting the pity and consolation of friends.

How do we subdue this Victim within us? First, we need to acknowledge its existence. Then we need to make a conscious decision of wanting to be free from it. I've written previously how personal change is one of the most difficult thing for anyone of us to do.

But in the end, it all boils down to choice: Victim or Victor, you decide.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Conversation with My Greed Self

Conversation with My Greedy Self

We all live in a world of abundance; if we live within our means, there's always enough for us.

Hang on. There seems to be a contradiction here: if there's abundance, why should we force ourselves to live "within our means"?

What I'm trying to say is that, beyond basic survival, scarcity is a condition which we choose ourselves. We don't feel we have enough simply because we always want more. Deep down inside, all of us are inherently greedy.

Hold on, isn't a bit of what you call "greed" necessary to drive people to excel? "Greed, is what drives the upward surge of mankind", says Gordon Gekko in his famous "greed is good" speech in the movie Wall Street. If greed is a motivation force for us to succeed, and we don't hurt anyone in the process, what's wrong with that?

Hold it there. We need to proceed carefully here because greed means possessing more than what we actually need. You have to ask yourself very honestly: will your desires ever be fully satiated? We all like to claim that we don't need to be very rich to be happy, We just need to be "rich enough". But when is enough enough? Why isn't what you already have considered enough? Let's say you have assets worth a few million dollars, is that enough?

(Gordon Gekko: "It's not a question of enough")

I would think so. With a couple of million, I should be secured for life. Like what Robert Kiyosaki likes to say, income from my assets will then pay for all my expenses.

Think again. Can you really be that sure? By then you would have acquired a taste for the kind of pleasures that cost a million dollars. You won't be contented with luxury holidays in Bali and or shopping trips to Paris, you would think of becoming a space tourist too.

No, no, I just want to have enough to retire.

Well, strictly speaking you can retire now if you want to. You just need to reduce your wants and live very frugally--like a peasant in the countryside. You'll be happy.

But that's not good enough. I won't be happy with that. No one will ever be satisfied with mere survival. I cannot do without a phone, a broadband connection, the occassional travel overseas and the pleasures of movies, books and wine. That's not too much to ask for, is it?

Let's say all that is covered, will that be enough?


Let's say, you are as rich as Bill Gates. Will that be good enough?

Of course!

Don't say that with too much certainty. If you have that kind of money, you would want to have even bigger dreams: Why not embark on a project to reengineer the atmosphere of Mars to make it habitable for human beings? You can probably afford it can't you? It'll be an interesting enterprise.

But why would anyone want to indulge in such megalomaniac pursuits?

Well, why do we want to build houses on landslide-prone hillslopes, turn coral sanctuaries into luxury marinas, chop down our forests to build theme parks and resorts for the rich?

Because we can. All these are reasonable luxuries. Human beings are entitled to enjoy their lives, are we not?

Why not terraform Mars? We need the space. We can reduce the congestion and pollution on earth. We can build a new and better world properly from scratch.

Hmm...maybe it's not a bad idea, but why not the Moon first?

I think we should plan for both. And after that, tackle the moons of Jupiter. Europa is a good candidate.

*Sigh*. Isn't life too short for us to do all the things we want to do?

Don't despair yet. If we pump our money into Longevity Research, we can do something about that too...


Sunday, November 07, 2004

Rivers of Mud and Humanity

Rivers of Mud and Humanity

Last Friday, during the heavy downpour in the city, I took refuge for a while at the Bangsar Village Mall. There at Starbucks, I sipped coffee and wrote in my journal, and also read a couple of pages from the book I brought with me.

It has been a long time since I had the chance to go out and read in a cafe; I've been spending the past couple of months working almost non-stop. Everytime I went outdoors, I had my notebook computer with me, roaming from one wireless hotspot to another, struggling to put in a decent amount of work each time.

But last Friday, I didn't even bring my computer because I'd finally completed my project report and I had scheduled a full day of social activities, meeting up with friends. Morning was spent in Klang, afternoon at the MidValley Mall and evening at the yuppie bars of Bangsar.

I was quite fortunate that I managed to avoid all the traffic jams and flash floods that day, despite having spent my entire day outdoors. Evening downpours in the Klang valley, accompanied by the usual flash floods, falling trees and landslides, can often turn the city into traffic chaos; last Friday, coupled with the people rushing home for buka puasa, it had all the ingredients of a perfect storm.

In many ways, I'm still getting used to life back in KL. For some reason, I always find KL a very stressful place, more than any other city that I've lived in. Over the last decade, I've seen KL transform into beautiful and modern city. KLCC with the Petronas Twin Towers is now the heart and icon of the new KL.

But my impression of KL has been formed during my childhood years. To me it will always be that dispassionate city, that cauldron of hope and despair which A. Shukur Harun describes so well in his short story Debu-Debu Kuala Lumpur.

And it is during those heavy evening downpours, like last Friday's, you'll see the real KL reveal itself again--when roads become rivers and all that mud and humanity intermingle--an inseparable mass, curiously locked in perpetual embrace and struggle.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

One Man's Heaven

One Man's Heaven

It looks like the English Premier League soccer dominates most people's weekends these days. Since ESPN and Starsport started televising these matches live, it has been such a boon to all the entertainment outlets in this region. The timing is perfect--primetime on weekends.

My weekend mood goes up or down depending on how Liverpool performs. Sometimes I can't bear to watch my favourite team play because when you have an emotional stake on a match, you simply cannot enjoy it objectively. If I'm busy working on a project, I'll just resort to taking peeks at live text commentaries over Internet.

"Fortunately" I can't understand why people like to bet on the outcome of matches. Maybe for some people, it increases the excitement of watching these live events. People often challenge me to take bets, but I always decline because I simply cannot fathom its pleasure. Seeing Liverpool win makes me happy but winning a bet does not intensify its pleasure--at least for me--because it is "expected". Of course Liverpool is going to win!

However a bet for Liverpool to win will only make my pain worse if they do end up losing. Betting on the number goals scored is to me quite a meaningless activity. Football is a very unpredictable game--which is also the reason why it attracts many punters.

In general, any kind of gambling bores me utterly. Why waste so much time over seemingly random events? So you'll never find me placing bets. Another "vice" struck off from my list (and I must say, the list is quite a long one).

By reducing my list of so-called "vices", one could argue that maybe I'm also missing out on a lot of "pleasures" in life. Life is short. One needs to enjoy it as much as possible.

True, but as you grow older, you begin to appreciate things you didn't find pleasurable before. A family man finds pleasure spending his weekends with his kids, when perhaps ten years ago,as a swinging bachelor, it would have been unthinkable for him to stay at home on a Saturday night. The family man does not feel that he is missing out on life because he has grown to appreciate the more subtle pleasures that life has to offer.

We will all outgrow certain pleasures in life, but life will always reveal fresh pleasures for us to savour. The kid thinks heaven is a toy or candy store but the virile young man thinks it must to be full of virgins. When you are on your deathbed, how do think heaven will be like?

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The Land of the Blind

The Land of the Blind

We often hear people say that in the Land of the Blind, the one-eyed man is king. It is used to emphasize the fact that, often enough you don't need to be the best to succeed, you just need to be better than the people around you. In a more negative sense, it can also mean that those who happen to have a slight advantage can easily exploit or dominate those who don't.

Now let us explore this Land of the Blind a little bit more. It is a very interesting country. Let's imagine that you are this one-eyed king or queen. Now, if the rest of the world is blind, would you bother to dress yourself up nicely everyday? Would you as the king bother to put on your official regalia when there's no one else in the world who would be able to appreciate its pompt and pageantry? Would physical beauty have any meaning all?

A lot of people, women especially, spend a lot time worrying about their physical appearance. Women spend hours preening in front of the mirror, deciding what to wear for a function or outing.

But men hardly pay any attention to what women wear--usally it's what's underneath that they are interested in. Still women fuss a lot about all these things, because it is often not the approval of men that they seek, it's the judgement of other women--their peers--that the are concerned about. Women are the harshest critics of other women's dressing.

It is amazing how much of our happiness is dependent on the approval of others. Many of us are afraid to speak in front of a large audience not because we lack any speaking ability but mainly because we can't bear the thought of having hundreds of pairs of eyes and ears judging us.

Humiliation and pride are all conditions of the mind that owes their existence solely to the assumption that the rest of the world are always there to judge us. But who are the people that make up the rest of the world? It's just people like you and me--people who are afraid to be judged by other people too. We are all in the same boat.

We all seek each other's approval. Perhaps in a magnanimous world, everyone will praise everyone else. But that doesn't work either because we all have egos. The ego wants praise for itself only. If everyone gets praised, then the praise becomes meaningless. The ego cannot be satiated by feeding it what others also possess. Its natural tendency is to want to be unique, to be above other people, or to at least belong to an exclusive group. That defines the ego.

Everyone should spend some time in the Land of the Blind; it can be a very therapeutic vacation. We'll all come back, seeing things a lot more clearly.

The Overflowing Cup

The Overflowing Cup

The following is a very popular Zen koan:

Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, "The flag moves." The other said, "The wind moves." They argued back and forth but could not agree. The Master said: "Gentlemen! It is not the flag that moves. It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves."

The Buddhist Zen masters resort to koans--a kind of riddle or parable--to jolt their students from their normal mode of thinking.

"What is the sound of one hand clapping?", is another one of those famous "nonsensical" koans. The whole point of koans is make the student realise the futility of searching for Enlightenment using the logical mind.

The intellectual mind, if we let it have free reign, can easily become a prison for the spiritual soul. But if we know its limitations and learn how to use it properly, it can become an instrument of salvation.

What are the signs indicating that the mind has become a hinderance to our mental and spiritual progress? The most obvious one is when the mind thinks that it already knows everything.

This is best illustrated by another popular (perhaps the most well-known) Zen parable:

Nan-in, a Japanese Zen master received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served his guest tea. He poured into his visitor's cup until it was full, and kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself and exclaimed:

"It is full. No more will go in!"

Nan-in stopped pouring and told the professor gently:

"Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

Monday, November 01, 2004

Love, like Sunlight

Love, like Sunlight

A friend of mind saw his ex-girlfriend with a group of her friends two weeks before his wedding ceremony; but he avoided her. He was afraid that meeting her would open all the floodgates of his emotions again.

I knew that he went through many trials and tribulations with his ex before they broke off. They obviously loved each other very much but somehow people deeply in love often end up hurting each other. Love is a force that once unleashed, is very difficult to contain. And if we are not mature enough to handle it, enormous destruction can result.

Love is an attractive force between two individuals--it has a tendency to bind, at least at the physical level. For a brief moment when the bond is forged, there is a sense of bliss and completeness. But it is only after this initial state of euphoria that the true test of love begins.

Once physical possession has been settled, there comes the stage of emotional negotiation. Sometimes we think that we love someone when in fact we are simply using that someone as a vehicle for filling a selfish need. Lovers cling to each other selfishly because each fills a specific void in the other. Each has something to give, and each wants something back in return.

This negotiation process is unfortunately not something that is acknowledged directly. Couples take years to negotiate--through daily quarrels, fights and very subtle emotional manipulation. Many are perpetually in a state of negotiation: they keep repeating the same arguments over and over again throughout their entire relationship.

Some people say that's normal. All marriages are like that. Lovers quarrel and make up. In the end, this emotional rollercoaster ride is worth it. Or is it really?

Expectations between lovers are always high. We want our partners to behave in certain ways and when they don't we get angry. But is that acceptable? We never quarrel in such a childish manner with our friends, do we?

With friends, we always maintain a respectful distance. We accept that friends might think differently from us. We will never think about trying to change our friend's behaviour to suit us--for the simple reason that we don't own our friends.

Parents have to learn this lesson of love too, often the hard way, when their children grow up and no longer listen to what they say anymore.

Perhaps that's a good basis to build a relationship.We don't own the people we love. Your loved one is just a channel for you to express your love--because love is a creative force that yearns for expression. Love is like sunlight. The sun does not seek anything in return when it shines. But it does get to enjoy all the beautiful flowers that bloom and grow through its nurturing light.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Prison of Words

The Prison of Words

Jesus taught using parables, which are basically simple stories to illustrate a moral concept. We understand something better if relate it to things that we know. Good teachers often give real-life examples to describe abstract concepts that he or she is trying to teach.

We often need to explain difficult technical concepts in layman's language to make ourselves understood. To do so, we need to use simple language that is familiar to the layman. But sometimes when things are put in simple language, certain nuances are lost. Worse still, it could even be misinterpreted.

A lot of religious texts sound very incomprehensible to people because these writings attempt to describe something that is beyond the realm of ordinary experience. A statement such as: "Suchness is neither that which is existence, nor that which is non-existence, nor that which is at once existence and non-existence, nor that which is not at once existence and non-existence.", will likely confuse more than enlighten people. Which is also why there's so much controversy over religion: it's often hijacked by people who think they have the absolute interpretation.

Science faces the same problem too when it comes to describing the nature of the universe. An electron exhibits both wave and particle properties. But it is quite impossible for us to imagine how something can be a wave and a particle at the same time because we can only think based on our own sensory experience.

As we explore the secrets of nature deeper, we find that our language is grossly inadequate to describe what we discover. Scientists have to resort to using the language of mathematics, which again is only comprehensible to a small group of people.

There's no way we can think of space in multi-dimensions without using mathematics. Even when we are able to describe it mathematically, no scientist can mentally visualize what space in four dimensions look like. Astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington said, "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine".

Words are only approximations, signposts to reality. But some of us get entangled with words, and think they are the real thing. We disagree over words, we argue over words--all the time, using the imperfect instrument of words. If only we can transcend this prison of words, we'll catch a glimpse of that Ultimate Reality, and be awed into absolute silence.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Elusive Present

The Elusive Present

Desire pulls us forward; pain holds us back. As a consequence we are always oscillating between the two. A mind dwelling on the future or the past will perpetually be unhappy. Happiness can only be found by anchoring in present.

Unfortunately we rarely live in the present--the ego drives us into thinking about what we want to achieve in the future and at the same time it is also fond of reliving the pains and pleasures that it has experienced in the past. As a result, the mind darts back and forth between past and future. This restlessness of the mind is the root of our unhappiness because the ego is constantly rejecting the present.

Even when we think we are preoccupied with doing what we are presently doing--like chatting with someone--we are constantly judging, comparing and reacting. Whenever we do that, we are actually using past and future as our frames of reference and hence, not living in the present.

Living in the present means accepting the fullness of the moment--what Eckhart Tolle calls, Entering the Now. Things happen, you acknowledge them and you act without judgement, without any selfish interest. This principle lies at the heart of every religion that preaches complete surrender to the Will of God. This is the true practice of spiritual mindfulness.

Wouldn't such a mind be very dull? Isn't such a state of mind equal to "mindlessness"?

Far from it. Being mindless means the person is not capable of thinking at all. Being mindful means that the mind is in tune with the natural flow of the universe. Every thought that surfaces on the mind is free from the drag of the past or the pull of the future. It just emerges spontaneously.

Thoughts that emerge this way are full of potency because they come from Nature's deep wellspring of creativity. An artist at work enters into such a state of mind instinctively. We know we are in such a state of mind when we have no awareness of time passing. This feeling of timelessness comes about because we have momentarily forgotten about our past and our future.

Peace of mind and and consequently happiness lies in focussing on the present. But strangely to most of us, it is the present that is the most elusive moment of all.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Limits of Selflessness

The Limits of Selflessness

I attended a friend's wedding dinner at a leading five-star hotel in KL on Saturday night. It was fun being able to catch up with a lot of my old friends and acquaintances again. Usually on such occassions, the happiest people are not the much-harried newly-weds themselves but their relatives and friends who get to have a good time at their expense.

So we had a good time, gorging ourselves on the sumptuous food but most of the time, we were drowning ourselves in the freely flowing beer and wine. While the womenfolk exchanged notes about baby nappies and day care centers, the men would whisper among themselves in conspiratorial tones about their latest extra-marital adventures.

Most married men like to complain to me that since they got married, they have no more time for themselves. But to me that is a given; if you get married, you have to be prepared to devote at least half of your time to your other half. Over time, the typical couple will work out an optimum balance between personal and family life. This "impedance matching" can only come about if there's no selfishness on either side. It fails when one party attempts to take advantage of the other.

But of course, we are all selfish creatures. The confirmed bachelor is selfish because he is not willing to give up his freedom; the married man is selfish because he thinks he can have the cake and eat it too.

Ultimately, we will all suffer in one way or another because of our selfishness. That too is a given. Learning to love someone is merely a first step towards total selflessness. But people in love often find themselves amplifying their selfishness even further, and thus intensifying the suffering.

Only when we are married, do we get to test the limits of our selflessness. And only then do we realise how innately selfish we all really are.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

The Only Constant

The Only Constant

In the business world, we often like to parrot the cliche , "change is the only constant", but when it comes to people and their attitude, change is often the most difficult thing to do. Businesses fail because of the inability of the people themselves to change and adapt.

Every now and then, through sheer effort, physical or external change is often achieveable. With the right motivation and discipline, someone can make himself say, lose weight through exercising. But if we were to encourage someone to change his lifestyle or behaviour--stop smoking or womanizing--it is extremely difficult because it requires a fundamental change to our basic character and mental attitude.

Why is psychological change so difficult? Why do we have this aversion to change if we know that it will bring good to ourselves?

First of all, human beings don't behave logically. We can only reason to a certain extent. Everyone has a threshold of susceptibility to reason. When someone is confronted with irrefutable logic proving the error of his ways--more often than not, he will react with denial, anger or even violence. In the case of women (and some men), they will resort to crying.

Secondly, we don't like pain. Especially pain that we have to suffer here and now. We'll rather choose immediate pleasure (even though it will bring us long-term pain). Everyday our choice is always, almost without fail, the instant and immediate pleasure. If there's an interesting book lying on the desk in front of me now, I'll immediately want to flip through it rather than continue doing my work. Discovering a new book is a great pleasure whereas work is very painful because you have to rack your brain for ideas and suffer constant self-doubts and fear of failure in the process.

We will go to great lengths to avoid pain. We are almost like automatons in the way we veer towards instant gratification of the mind and senses--no different from the way moths are attracted to bright lights.

For the smoker, the moment he feels bored, lazy or fidgety, he'll think of smoking. A cigarette brings him instant pleasure and gives him an excuse to avoid work. Years and years of such mental programming makes it extremely difficult to change. No wonder we become automatons. We all think we make intelligent choices in life but most of the time, we are just governed by the mechanics of pain and pleasure.

Is it then a hopeless situation for us? This is a huge subject to tackle--let me for the meantime avoid it by resorting to my favourite excuse ( and immediate pleasure :-)): I'll save it as a subject for another posting.

But let it be said that all is not lost in this battle that everyone has to face. The most important thing that we have to do first is to acknowledge the fact that we are creatures of our pain-pleasure programming. Most people will only change when they encounter a massive immediate pain--e.g. the smoker is diagnosed with lung cancer before he is willing to accept the lesser pain of not lighting up cigarette.

We can only change if we want to change. Wanting to change doesn't mean saying yes today and going back to your old ways tomorrow. We must desire change to the point that we feel it in every fibre in the body. The desire to change for the better must be a motive force driving us forward, everyday, every second, every moment of our lives.

If we can't even make that strong conscious decision, then let's forget about the whole thing altogether. Let's wait for that massive pain to come someday to finally make us change.

Well, we like to think that massive pain might not come. We'll take our chances. Life is to be enjoyed. Which is absolutely fine. But we don't realise that we still suffer in various other subtle ways. Only when these are pointed out to the person as "suffering per se" then, perhaps he or she will realize that there's actually an imperative to change. It's like discovering that you have been paying way too much for your telephone bill simply because you did not bother choose a better subscription plan.

Recognizing and understanding the dynamics of pain and pleasure is that essential first step. Then we need to ask ourselves: Do we really and seriously want to change?

If the answer is in the affirmative, then there could be a glimmer of hope...