Saturday, January 22, 2005

A Self-tuning System

A Self-tuning System

A good day in KL for me is one which I'm able to do the following:

- go for my morning jog
- put in some productive amount of work
- catch up with friends and acquaintances
- read and/or blog

Even though I try not to label any day as bad, I think I would feel a bit dissapointed if I fail to accomplish at least one of the four activities. Usually that's not too difficult; even when I'm on the road, travelling all day and not being able to do any work, I could still read and sometimes even blog.

Sometimes meeting up with people, either for leisure or work takes up my whole day. But that's still a fruitful day because you always increase the creative possibilities of life through interacting with people. I've written many times before how people are like books, you always learn something from them.

"Productive work" is something that is difficult to quantify. We could be spending the whole day in office, but sometimes the amount of work put in is very little. They may not even be very useful work. At the end of the day, I always try to step back and see if whatever work I've done on that day has advanced me a step further. If it has, then the day is a productive one.

The morning jog helps me to erase any vestiges of sleep and torpor, carried over from the previous night. It helps me to start the day fresh and invigorated. I see it as my "sharpening the saw" activity. Furthermore, jogging is also a kind of meditation, which helps me to calm my mind, allowing a lot of interesting ideas to bubble up.

In giving priority to these four groups of activities, certain things have to be sacrificed. I watch very little TV (except for the occassional EPL soccer match--which I also avoid sometimes, for fear of heartbreak) and even less movies these days. Which is a bit sad. TV and movies, provided there's no excessive indulgence, are "sharpening the saw" activities which can also be very educational too. I get a lot of good ideas and inspiration from watching movies.

Sometimes I think I give too much priority to work--it is a balance that I am still striving hard to achieve. But I'm working on it (oh no, work again!)

In KL, it is a bit difficult for me to find time to relax, I don't know why. Maybe it's the frustrating inefficiency of having to drive around; it could also be the stiffling heat. But I'm fine-tuning it.

Well, I'm trained as an engineer, so I can't help thinking of myself as a "system", with well-defined functions and measured by input, output and efficiency. A system requires maintenance and fine-tuning. I even devised an "architecture" for this four-layer system of mine. But enough of convoluted pseudo-scientific philosophy for this week, I'll (thankfully) save that as a blogging topic for the future!

The Artist and the Scientist

The Artist and the Scientist

Poetry is a condensation of thought. You write in a few lines a very complicated thought. And when you do this, it becomes very beautiful poetry. It becomes powerful poetry. The equations [of physics that] we seek are the poetry of nature.

Chen Ning Yang, 1957 Nobel Prize Winner for Physics

I've always loved science because, like art, it is a quest for beauty. The artist attempts to capture the beauty of nature through various physical media--colours, shapes, sounds, movement, or a combination of these; the scientist seeks to unveil the beauty of nature little by little, through the rigorous discipline of observation, experimentation and analysis.

What the artist captures is an interpretation or a derivation of nature; what the scientist unravels are ever more perfect glimpses of the Grand Masterpiece--our universe. Both attempt to grasp the mind of God but fall short in the process; but yet the rapturous beauty that is glimpsed draws them on, luring them to penetrate deeper into the heart of nature's secrets.

The true artist and scientist are no different from the yogi who sits in meditation to reach God consciousness, or the priest who devotes his life to the service and contemplation of God. The driving impulse is the same--it is a longing to return to the Source.

Deep down inside, we all are driven by this longing. Some realize it more than others. And those who realize--the artist, scientist or monk--can unfortunately be derailed from this quest by the promptings of his ego. He starts to think that the insights, intelligence and talent that he possesses are his, and are due to his personal ability; or that he is somehow "chosen" to rise above the ignorant masses, to dictate how the world should be run, and how others should behave.

Such men and women fall by the wayside, they are perpetually caught in the petty tussles of the ego and forget the original quest of their souls. So much time is wasted mired in little trifles and petty pursuits, so much pain has to be suffered for the puerile pleasures that the ego yearns for, so many unnecessary quarrels have to be endured.

And drowned in the din of these human dramas, is Nature's poetry--that divine Voice of God--which premeates our soul in soft undertones, of whose beauty waits to be revealed by the artist and unravelled by the scientist.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Virtues of Uncertainty

The Virtues of Uncertainty

There are many things that I remember from my teenage years, because they have inspired and influenced me a lot...

I remember watching the last episode of the documentary series, The Ascent of Man, on local TV, perhaps when I was seventeen. This marvellous show was narrated by the late scientist Dr Jacob Bronowski, who also wrote the book based on the series. It was a very educational and inspiring series about the rise of mankind, civilization and knowledge.

In the final episode, entitled "Knowledge and Certainty", I recall this very touching scene which showed Dr Bronowski, a Jew himself, standing ankle-deep in a dark muddy pond at Auschwitz. Here's a transcription of what he said during that scene, which I managed to find from the Net (the marvels of Google!):
It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false: tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. *This* is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality--this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
After so long, I still remember that scene; it got etched in my mind because it fortified my belief that certainty has to be treated with great caution, always. Certainty is the mother of all dogmas.

Hitler believed that the elimination of the Jews were the Final Solution to many of the ills of Europe. So he acted based on the absolutely certainty of this belief. His beliefs were not based on any misguided religious dogma, but were "intellectual" in nature--or at least Hitler himself believed so. He saw himself as an "intellectual" trying to find a solution to the many problems that had plagued his homeland. One can trace the very interesting development of his demented thoughts in his autobiographical book Mein Kampf (My Struggle).

I get very worried whenever people take a lot of pride and certainty in their intelligence; especially when they start labelling other people who don't see things their way as "stupid". An ignorant person can also possess the same kind of certainty too. Certainty is not a measure of correctness. This feeling of certainty which often makes us feel so bold inside, can be very very misleading.

I've learnt to be perfectly comfortable with uncertainty. To me, we can never be hundred percent certain of anything. We can only judge things with the imperfect knowledge we have at hand and then we act based on certain assumptions and hypotheses. We never stop checking, verifying and reformulating new hypotheses if earlier ones prove to be less accurate or downright false.

All true scientists work that way. And scientists know very well that future generations might prove their theories wrong. That's the spirit of science.

Like science, life too is a constant process of refinement. You don't latch on to one single intellectual insight and tell yourself: That's it, that's the Final Solution, simply because it feels so right inside. And more dangerously so, when it appears to be intellectually elegant.

We must learn to accept and respect uncertainty. For it is uncertainty that drives the progress of humankind and promotes tolerance among fellow human beings. The alternative has brought death, destruction and untold suffering.

But then again, I could be wrong.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Next Problem

The Next Problem

There's a popular apocryphal story about a farmer who went to the Buddha to seek help with his problems. This farmer brought with him a long list of problems--failing crops, nagging wife and disobedient children among others--and wanted the Buddha to give him some advice on how to solve them.

After the Buddha listened patiently to the farmer, the conversation subsequently went something like this:

Buddha: "I can't help you".

Farmer: (astonished) "Why? I thought you are the wisest teacher in the world?"

Buddha: Well, everybody's got problems. I've even categorized all the different types of problems that exists out there--there are eighty-three of them".

Farmer: "Then, I'm sure you can suggest some ways to tackle these eighty-three problems?"

Buddha: "It's not possible, because when you solve one, another one pops up in its place".

Farmer: (furious) "Then of what use are your teachings if they can't even help me solve my problems?"

Buddha: "Well, maybe it can help you solve the eighty-fourth problem".

Farmer: "What's the eighty-fourth problem?"

Buddha: "You want to not have any problems"

Problems in life will always be there. Expect them to come. When we learn to accept them as they are, they become less of a problem.

Accepting problems as they are doesn't mean sitting back and not doing anything about it. We just deal with it, without complaining about our misfortune, without blaming anyone or pushing the responsibility to someone else. We take it with equanimity.

Problems in life are not like the mathematical problems that we learn to solve in high-school--with answers to be found at the back of the book. There are no perfect solutions to our problems. We just do the best we can and move on.

Isn't that a difficult thing to do? It sounds so hopeless...

But what other options do we have? Any other response would be counter-productive. We can cry all we can, bitch about it to the entire world or lash out in anger at the people around us. Still the only productive response to a problem is to just deal with it. We can pray to God but still God only help those who help themselves--that is, people who are willing to face their own problems.

What if there's absolutely no way out of our problems?

Take the pain. Accept it. Learn from it. Move on.


Monday, January 17, 2005

The Happiness of Small Things

The Happiness of Small Things

Sometimes when I'm lazy to drive down to town, I'd take the KTM Komuter train from Subang Jaya to KL Sentral; and from there I can either take the Putra LRT to KLCC or take the KL Monorail, if I'm heading towards the Bukit Bintang area.

If you avoid the rush hours, these train rides can be quite enjoyable, especially on the Komuter. It's good that I don't have to join the mad exodus to work everyday; I always try to time my appointments and activities to avoid the rush-hour crowd.

When I was working in Singapore, I used to enjoy stopping by at Orchard Road on my way home by bus. Shaw House and Borders were my favourite haunts for movies and books; and sometimes I'd have a beer or two with my friends at the Europa Cafe, next to the Thai Embassy. Life in Singapore was good; it was only when I moved there that I managed to reorganize my chaotic life and introduce some balance into it. Singapore provided me with the space, clarity and peace of mind to do that. And I'm forever grateful for that.

Prior to that I had been working for many years in KL. I cannot imagine how my life would have turned out had I remained here. Life was breathlessly hectic and stressful. It was like being trapped in a whirlpool, where one struggles continuously to stay afloat. It was only when I was able to leave this city, that I got to see things in a better perspective.

I've worked before in Penang too, a long time ago when I was fresh from college, and was longing for all the excitement in life. I made a lot of friends in Penang and learned a great deal from my experiences there; Penang was nice, but it was a bit too dull for me then.

But nowadays I tend to think back of my Penang days with fondness. I remember that I used to enjoy taking the ferry instead of using the Penang Bridge whenever I wanted to cross to Seberang Prai. Looking back, those ferry crossings were the best part of my stay in Penang.

But you move on in life. Every place and every moment is unique and one tries to make the most of it. We define what we think is meaningful to ourselves and we go about in search of it. What is happiness to me could be something utterly depressing to another person. We define our own happiness. These days, happiness to me is just a simple and quietly fruitful life.

Like this moment: being able to type these words on my notebook, here at a cafe in KLCC, in that strangely quiet hour when everyone else is rushing home, gives me enormous joy. And later I'll take the train back home, when the the crowd is no more, and there'll be lots of seats available. These small things are enough to make me happy.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Will the Will be Willing?

Will the Will be Willing?

It's Sunday night, the start of another week, so it's time for some self-motivation. If I don't motivate myself, who will?

Sometimes we all fall into the habit of needing a lot of support from family and friends before gathering enough courage to do anything in life. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield has this to say about support:
Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed. It's nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye.

At some point you must realize that, no matter how much you enjoy the support of family or friends in whatever you are doing, ultimately you youself will have to face your challenges alone. In the end, everything comes down to an effort of will on your side: Do you or do you not have the willpower to do it?

And what is this thing called Willpower? Physiologically, isn't it just another deep intake of breath, a quickening of the pulse, a certain pattern of firing in your neurons? Why then do you cower in fear whenever you are confronted with certain challenges in life, when all it takes is this "simple" effort of the Will?

That too, only you yourself would know. The friends and mentors who give you support can wish you luck, preempt you of certain pitfalls that you might encounter down the road, but they will still not know what's inside you that's preventing you from moving forward. You, will have to honestly ask yourself what it takes to cross that hurdle.

Everything takes an effort of the will before it can happen: to wake up in the morning and go to work, to resist another helping of dessert during lunchtime, to slog through that tedious proposal that you promised to deliver to your boss yesterday, to tell that someone, enough is enough.

You are the only one who can will yourself to do or not to do it. No one else can, or will. But, will you?

Soul Consciousness

Soul Consciousness

Vivekananda wrote in his commentaries on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras:
If a red flower is put near a piece of pure crystal, the crystal appears to be red; similarly the appearances of happiness or unhappiness of the soul are but reflections. The soul itself has no colouring. The soul is separate from nature. Nature is one thing, soul another, eternally separate.

The soul, like a piece of crystal is by nature untainted and eternally pure. It is our identification with the world and our worldly experiences that makes us suffer. You are not your body, nor your material possessions, nor your occupation in life. If you are none of these things, any changes in them will not affect you. You are free, for you are pure spirit. And when you are pure spirit, the bullets of pain and pleasure pass right through you, as if you are not there.

We must therefore learn to have the strength and wisdom to deal with the material world, making use of its laws to help us advance forward--like a ship harnessing the winds and the currents of the oceans--but never identifying ourselves completely with it. The world is our stepping stone, a ladder for spiritual progress. Our origins are divine; it is where we came from and it is where we will return to.

In the end, every religion tells you the same thing: you are not the body but the soul. And some will go a step further and tell you that you need to transcend even the soul. But it is good enough to use the soul as a starting point--that intangible and hard-to-define thing that you know is there but somehow don't really know how to relate to.

Start by knowing thyself. Listen to that inner voice. Reach deep inside and touch your own soul.