Saturday, February 07, 2004

The Middleclass and the Marhaens

The Middleclass and the Marhaens

Being in KL, it is inevitable that I will miss blogging every now and then. Last night I was with my friends at the yuppie bars of Bangsar. Though it was fun to meet some of my old friends, I felt a bit reluctant to be part of those late Friday night revelries again. But I guess I won't have much of a choice, now that I have to immerse myself and reestablish contact with the local IT scene.

Had I been in Jakarta last night, I would have had a quiet evening in my hotel room with a nice bottle of red wine, writing in my journal or preparing some lecture slides. Life is different now, and I'll have to get used to it.

The most common question people ask me when they know that I've worked in Jakarta before is whether the city is a dangerous place. I'd jokingly answer that besides the occassional bomb or two, it is generally peaceful. The truth is, I've never had any bad experience during my two years there. Thinking back, I can only recall gentle and courteous people and their great resilience in the face of hardship.

You see the struggle for survival everyday in the streets of Jakarta. My experiences there make me better appreciate the good life that we the Malaysian middleclass enjoy. It injected in me a certain variness about plunging into a lifestyle of excess and decadence.

The good thing about Malaysian society is that there's less of a divide between the rich and the poor. We do not realise what a great achievement that is until we see great disparity among these two groups of people in countries like Indonesia.

The rich in Jakarta live in a super-terrestrial world of their own above the hot struggles of the poor. The poor continue to breed uncontrollably, condemning generation after generation to further poverty. When I met Marhaen's descendants in the outskirts of Bandung a couple of months back, I saw that their lives did not seem very much different from their great-grandfather's. Sadly, even after six decades, Marhaen is still an apt symbol of the common Indonesian man.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

The Drama of Life

The Drama of Life

My errands today brought me to places I have not visited for a long time: Old Klang Road, Jalan Gasing, Jalan University--places that I used to frequent when I was staying in PJ during my student days. Every street corner brought back memories of yesteryears.

I had spent portions working life in Damansara Jaya, Damansara Utama and Section 13 PJ before. Those were the good old days before the dot-com boom. We worked hard but we also had fun. It was those years that built the foundation for my career now.

And now that I'm back for good, I have to get used to the life here again. My friends are all older now and most are saddled with family and kids. I as usual, remain a wanderer and a vampire--observing the passing of time, swooping in and out of everybody else's lives.

As I drove past rows of suburban middleclass houses, I saw how each home is like a stage for the enactment of human dramas--each family's unique play of happiness and suffering, hope and despair, birth and death.

Sometimes I think I approach life a bit like a Kundera novel: Kundera is fond of detaching the reader momentarily from the story to launch into a philosophical discourse about the characters and the plot. In coming back here, I will not have the luxury for such detachment and analysis. Events often happen far too swiftly for that. I'll be plunged into the thick of the action; I will be embroiled in my own unique drama. May I possess the instinct to conduct myself with courage, integrity and wisdom!

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

The Science of Religion

The Science of Religion

There's a spiritual dimension to our lives and even though I do not subscribe strictly to any religious persuasion, I think I am a rather spiritual person.

It may be strange, but my spirituality actually stems from my education in science. People who are trained in the sciences often become atheists because science as a discipline works on the assumption that everything can be explained without the need for supernatural beings or some higher power.

In my case, my training in science planted in me the belief that every phenomenon in nature can be explained by simple and elegant laws, even supernatural ones. There's order in the universe because there are laws of nature. In a previous blog entry, I describe how we can view a human being as a four layer stack. The science that we learn in school happen to describe the laws that govern the lowest or the physical layer. The upper layers are not measurable by any physical instrument and are hence often dismissed by science. To me that is but a temporary state of affair as science still has a lot more to discover.

Our understanding of the universe, despite our tremendous technological achievements, is still at its infancy. Things that we currently attribute to the realm of the divine or supernatural are actually govern by "natural" laws. It is "super"-natural now because we have not fully discovered those laws.

Religion--any religion--if we bother to study them carefully, all attempt to express the laws that govern the higher realms of our existence. Because they describe the intangible, the language is often metaphorical or allegorical. For example, the law of karma is but a natural extension of Newton's Third Law of Motion into the higher layers of human existence.

The foundation of science itself is built on axioms--Newton's Laws of Motion are examples of such--that has to be taken based on "faith". Based on these axioms, we build theories which we can subsequently verify through experiments. Axioms are starting points of exploration--we have to start with something that cannot be proven to see if the consequences of those beliefs can be verified through experiments. For as long as they are not proven wrong, we take them as "truths".

Science is self-correcting because no truth is considered sacred. Newtonian mechanics, undisputed for centuries was reduced to mere "approximations" by Einstein's discovery of the Theory of Relativity. Unlike the people who practise them, Science as a discipline has no dogmas. No theory is beyond questioning. Our fondests theories can be struck down overnight by a new discovery.

My interest in religion is a scientific one; I am always attempting to figure out the "axioms" by which each religion builds its foundation upon. The more I analyze them, the more similarities that I see across the different religions of the world. At a superficial level, we see many differences because each religion emphasizes different aspects of these "natural laws". Some of these beliefs may seem naive or perverted because the so-called guardians of these religions hijacked them for their own selfish ends--often without they realising it themselves.

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Religious awakening is a psychological state not unlike that of falling in love for the first time. The feeling is so sure and overwhelming that we immediately jump to the conclusion that we have finally found the truth.

The actual fact is, we have probably caught a glimpse of that Infinite Truth and are awe-struck by its beauty. Little do we realise that, there is still a long journey to go. Like what I described in a previous blog entry entitled "Forever Children", we are constantly climbing a mountain and every now and then we see the breath-taking view beneath us and think we have already reached the top.

The true scientist is humbled by the grandeur of the universe and knows that his mastery of nature, though impressive, is but child's play. If every religious person takes this scientific attitude, then his path to salvation will be a much swifter one and the world will enjoy a lot less conflicts.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

The Wisdom of Football

The Wisdom of Football

I used to play a lot of football when I was a teenager. I started playing rather late compared to some of my friends but I think I picked up the game better than many of them because I bothered to learn the right techniques from the beginning. It might sound strange but I actually picked up football from books!

I read a book on the elements of soccer by the legendary Pele and one by former Manchester United star George Best. Through these books I learned how to kick the ball correctly, something which I realised many of my peers did not bother to learn. As a result I became a better footballer than many of them.

I used to play a lot as a left-winger or striker; if I am still playing today, my heroes, I think would be Chelsea's Damien Duff and Liverpool's Harry Kewell. I was a very left-footed player; I enjoyed beating defenders on the flank and crossing the ball, often scoring regularly too.

To score goals consistently, a striker must have the uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time. How does one achieve that? I realised, a great deal of that has to do with your ability to anticipate how the ball is going to be played by your team-mates and where it is most likely to fall. A striker must also time his runs perfectly so that he is not caught offside. A lot of information have to be computed in an instant: the flight of the ball, the position of your team-mates, the distance of the nearest defender.

In other words, a good striker knows how to "feel" the game, and choose the best position and adjust the timing of his runs precisely so that he is always at the right place at the right time. Everything must happen instinctively as there is no time to think or calculate. At every instance, there is a perfect move.

A man of wisdom is like a good striker. He must be able to "feel" the situation that he finds himself in and be able to choose the best course of action. Wisdom is instinctive intelligence and it is honed through years of experience. One of the things I realised from all the spiritual books that I've read is that wisdom is inherent within us: If we know how to clear our minds of doubts, fears or other other unwholesome intentions, we will naturally know what's right.

The purpose of meditation and prayer is to anchor ourselves back to our inner core and let our natural divine wisdom shine through. A striker suffers from lack of form when he is wrecked by self-doubt or when he is over-anxious to score. In that state of mind, he cannot feel the game and be at the right place at the right time. He must relax, and immerse himself into the flow of the game.

Like a good striker, we must know how to extract ourselves from the turmoil that seizes our mind sometimes when we are embroiled in our everyday interactions with the world. Sometimes life's situations are so complex that there is no way we can "figure out" a right course of action. The person who is anchored to his divine self would instinctively know what is the best thing to do. We make mistakes because we are driven by lust, greed or fear--in other words, when we are not playing our natural game.

At any point in the game of life, there's one right move or position that will maximize our scoring chances. We must tap into that inner wisdom of ours to find out what is that best move. Trace the motive of your actions. If what you do is deeply sincere and is guided by conscience, then you are playing your so-called natural game. Do not worry, goal-scoring chances will inevitably come.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Calibrating the Moral Compass

Calibrating the Moral Compass

What comes to mind when I think of my years of working in KL and PJ are the late nights, the gluttony and the endless traffic jams. My lifestyle has changed a great deal since then. Working in Singapore and Jakarta gave me an opportunity to reengineer myself. I think I'm a healthier person now; but being back here puts every good habit that I have successfully developed at risk. It'll take a great deal of discipline to maintain them.

In Jakarta, the sight of poverty everyday reminded me to lead a simple life and be grateful for everything that I was blessed with. I have grown to despise excesses and all the trappings of yuppiehood, perhaps sometimes to the point of being extreme. Now I will strive to find the right balance.

Certain lessons in life have to be learned the hard way. Why do we keep on doing things that we know are wrong? Usually it's because we have not learned our lesson. We will only stop smoking when we are confirmed to have lung cancer; or when one of our close friends die of one. Any other lesson will not be effective enough.

I do not despise people who smoke; I even admire the camaraderie that smokers enjoy among themselves. I used to indulge in a social puff or two whenever I am in the company of smokers; but for many years I have resisted the temptation to do. I have successfully associate pleasure with resisting a cigarette. It makes me feel powerful to know that I am not at the mercy of such weaknesses. Freedom from cravings is a great pleasure and I have to keep reinforcing this sense of "pleasure".

Smokers fail to quit because they keep on mentally associating pleasure with the taste of cigarettes. We can reverse program ourselves if we choose to. But we have to first make a conscious mental decision to do so.

Many married men cannot resist chasing pretty girls. It is a harmless thing to do most of the time but when the other party shows positive signs, one thing leads to another along a very slippery path. Before one knows it, it is too late to extricate oneself without hurting anyone.

We do not learn our lesson until we have suffered enough pain. Somehow pain is the best teacher. If we keep on doing what we know is not right, then obviously we have not suffered enough pain for us to correct ourselves.

No action is without consequence. If we know the subtle effects of every tiny action that we take, then we can conduct ourselves wiser at every step of the way. Often we forget the pain that will inevitably greet us at the end because we are too enamoured with the immediate pleasures of our action.

Sometimes we are embroiled in situations where it is difficult for us to see the consequences of our actions. We just react. In such instances we have to rely on our instinctive moral compass.

Religion, if correctly practised, helps us to constantly recalibrate and realign this moral compass of ours. But when the instrument of calibration itself is faulty, serious consequences can result. We always have to verify our readings against other instruments around us. A good scientist does not take one reading--he takes many, using many different ways of measurement.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

The Mastery of Thought

The Mastery of Thought

I flew back to KL from Jakarta via Singapore. I like the Changi airport--I always feel very relaxed there. It is also the airport which I frequented most often during those four years when I was based out of Singapore.

I'd have loved to stop by overnight in Singapore but I had to rush back to KL to get a few things going. I promised myself to take the Senandung Malam train down south in the near future to catch up with old friends there. I haven't been there for over a year now and I miss taking the night train.

I still haven't figured out when is the best time of the day to blog in KL as I haven't settled down to a routine here yet. In Jakarta I used to blog during lunchtime or first thing in the morning on weekends. Here in KL, I always end up blogging at night. Sometimes it is quite exhausting for me to do so after having spent the whole day driving around town.

I like to spend some quiet moments at night to let the thoughts in my mind subside. Patanjali's second Raja Yoga aphorism defines Yoga as being the "cessation of all modifications or activities of the mind" or in Sanskrit: Yoga citta vrtti nirodha.

To me, it is very important not to carry any residual thoughts from one day into another. We must try to digest each day's thoughts and observe their reverberations; only in quiet reflection at night can we fully comprehend the momentum of our thoughts. Learn each day's lessons. Sometimes we are driven by pride, lust, ego or fear--unwholesome thoughts result from it. Their consequences have to be checked. A clear mind allows our inherent divinity to shine through.

In a previous blog entry, I likened thoughts to bubbles rising from the bottom of a pond. At the end of a hectic day, the mind is like a cauldron. Once we let the heat die down, the mind reveals its inner nature. We can then examine the bubbles that rise from its bottom, tracing their sources, unravelling their origins.

If we do not allow our thoughts to die down, we risk complicating the karmic consequences of our actions. All actions are but ripened thoughts. Our lives are determined by our actions, which germinated from our thoughts. The mastery of thought is the mastery of life.