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...