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.