Saturday, March 12, 2005

Therapeutic Travel

Therapeutic Travel

Last year during this time, I was spending a lot of my time in Bangkok. This year it looks like Sri Lanka will be my frequent destination. And of course, Indonesia will always be there in my itinerary whether for business or for pleasure.

The thing I like about being on the road is that you always arrive at a new destination with a renewed enthusiasm to work. When you stay in one place for too long, you tend to get lazy and your bad habits start to take over you.

A friend asked me yesterday, if I ever feel bored or lonely whenever I'm travelling. Very rarely so. There's always something to do. I'm always interested in the local people's culture and habits. I look forward to wandering the city streets alone, whenever I get the chance. If I have my camera with me, I also try to capture some of the interesting sights along the way. And one is never short of people to chat with--even beggars can be interesting people to talk to.

The opportunity to be alone is good, even therapeutic, because you get to reflect on a lot of things. Back in KL, life is often very hectic: you are constantly occupied by family, friends and errands. Sometimes you cannot see things in its proper perspective. I often see people getting caught up with their emotions, being angry and agitated over very insignificant things. Only when you get some distance between yourself and your regular life, will you know how to differentiate what's important and what's not.

For people who are in a relationship, short periods of separation can actually help to enhance it. Absence can make the heart grow fonder, provided both parties are commited to each other. We tend not to see our partner's good points when we meet them too often. The quarrel of lovers is very tiresome because it is usually over very petty things. Smart lovers know how to maintain a "strategic distance" between each other so that the strength of their love becomes evident: you can only feel the strength of a rope when you stretch it out tautly.

Travelling alone is good. It can help keep your relationship with your loved ones back home strong and alive. Of course, for some married men, travelling for business is also a great opportunity for them to fool around a bit. But that's another story for another blog entry :-)

Friday, March 11, 2005

The Regular Life and the Quest for Meaning

The Regular Life and the Quest for Meaning

Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino): So you never wanted a regular type life?
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro): What the fuck is that? Barbeques and ballgames?

- Heat, directed by Michael Mann

To some people, the so-called "regular life" is pure bliss and happiness: a stable and well-paying job, a suburban home filled with the boisterous activities of kids growing up. To others, it is a depressing middleclass nightmare.

In the movie Heat, Al Pacino played a burnt out, twice divorced cop who is totally consumed by his quest to hunt down a big-time robber on the run played by Robert De Niro. In one memorable scene at a cafe, the cop and the robber sat down to have a rather civil conversation together over a cup of coffee. And they both realized how similar they are to each other--only that they are on different sides of the law. "I do what I do best, I take scores. You do what you do best, try to stop guys like me", said De Niro's character.

They certainly do not have the "regular life". It is as if they are cursed to go through a life which they know will not bring them the regular type of happiness but still they cannot escape from "doing what they do". Both are hunters driven by the mysterious thrill of the hunt.

Some of us are like that too. We know we are born to do something with our lives. We feel a primeval urge inside that drives us to pursue things that we feel we are destined to do. It probably won't make us happy in the conventional sense but it certainly would give our lives a whole lot of meaning.

What is this "meaning" that is so important to us? Why would we rather have "meaning" than a "regular life"? Isn't a regular life meaningful in its own way too?

I might not be inclined myself to lead a regular family life, but yet I do not think people who choose to do so lead a life any less meaningful. We all define and find our own meaning in life. And it is the quest for meaning that drives us on.

In Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, he recounted how there were some prisoners who actually died not because they were wounded or ill but simply because they couldn't find any reason to continue living in the horrible conditions of the concentration camp anymore. One day, they just "decided" to die.

A family man can certainly find meaning in building a happy and harmonious home. It is a task that is as noble and challenging as any other more "romantic" quests: The householder is no lesser than the painter who strives to produce a masterpiece work or a scientist who seeks to formulate a breakthrough theory that would be the crowning achievement of his life.

Sometimes we might not even know what kind of meaning we are looking for because the quest for meaning is a journey rather than a destination. All we know is that this journey would consume our entire lives.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

I don't Eat Grapes (They are Sour Anyway)

I don't Eat Grapes (They are Sour Anyway)

Thinking back, I've been quite lucky that I've always been employed by companies that gave me a lot of freedom and lattitude to do my work. Working for IT vendors rather than for end-users also helped in a way. I would have found the end-user environment a bit too restrictive for my taste.

It's always fun when you are working for a vendor that is still small and growing. You define what you need to do and you go out and get the job done. In a sales environment, you are more externally focussed, going out to win deals and projects rather than being preoccupied with internal processes and procedures, and the inevitable office politics.

Of course, one can never escape from politics in any working environment. We like to say that we hate office politics but we do not always realize that we all, consciously or unconsciously, participate in it. The moment you think you deserve recognition for your work, you have already planted the seeds of politics.

Sure, we all want to be recognized and rewarded for what we do. We want to move up the corporate ladder, earn more money and enhance our standing in society. If we desire all that, we have no choice but to take the politics that come with it. The alternative is to be a hypocrite and pretend that we do not care about all those things and end up sulking or complaining whenever our achievements are overlooked.

Being the idealistic person that I am, I've never bothered to work myself up the corporate ladder. Perhaps there's a hint of sour grapes there :-) But my philosophy has always been that, one's standing and prospects do not only depend on one's performance as seen through the eyes of one's superiors. If you do good work, you will always be recognized and respected by your peers in the industry. You don't have to stab or manipulate people to move your way up. Neither do you have to be an ass kisser. By producing quality work, it is inevitable that you will be rewarded, directly or indirectly, sooner or later, tangibly or intangibly, if not in the present company, elsewhere.

Again, I am putting complete faith in Nature's Perfect Accounting System. Yes, I'm naive and foolish. And I probably deserve my lack of success in the corporate world.

You see, if you care not for the things that other people crave for, you are unassailable. Nothing touches you. To borrow a famous phrase from the Bhagavad Gita, "weapon cannot cut it, fire cannot burn it, water cannot wet it, wind cannot dry it". Despite my "lack of success", I can still pay my bills and I certainly enjoy life as much as anyone else, if not more.

I pursue the life I choose, and I'm willing to pay the price for it. In the end, don't we all?

The Sweet Lightness of Being

The Sweet Lightness of Being

I am glad that I have this habit of scrawling the date on every book that I purchase. I was flipping through my yellowing paperback copy of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being when I realized that I bought the book almost thirteen years ago: 14 April 1992. I remember the book touched me deeply when I first read it.

Of course, I had also watched the movie version starring Daniel Day Lewis, Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche in Singapore roughly around the same time. It was one of the first "R" rated movies shown there and it created quite a sensation then. If I remember correctly, it ran for a long time, almost a year in the theatres!

I enjoyed the movie very much but the book, understandably has more depth. The story centers around the philandering lifestyle of a surgeon, Tomas and his relationship with two women of very different personalities, Tereza and Sabina. It is a book that's worth a reread because Kundera has a very unique way of writing. He has a peculiar fondness for stopping his narration of the story midway to pursue a philosophical point. You are being forced to listen to a philosophical lecture, but you don't mind, because Kundera is so illuminating.

I'm not interested to do a book review here but I want to quote a passage from it (Part 5, Chapter 10):
Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories. Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world.
Well, I suppose I don't belong to either category because I don't have a habit of pursuing a "multitude" of women. But of course I know many men from both categories.

The former wants to find his dream woman, and every relatioinship that he's involved in would leave him unsatisfied because the subjective ideal of a dream woman in reality does not exist. So he is never happy.

The second category of men would not refuse any opportunity to bed a woman--no matter how unattractive she is. These men are the happier ones because they are never disappointed. Every woman is the promise of a new experience and a different adventure. Variety to them is the spice of life.

Men of the first category are the more troublesome ones. He will marry alright, but the one he chooses as wife is a compromise. He knows that she doesn't fit his vision of the ideal woman, but on certain key areas, she does. So on that basis, he marries her. But still he will not give up his search for his dream woman. The moment he sees some woman outside who appears to fit the bill, he falls for her. He declares his love for her. But again and again he finds that no single woman can meet his standard of perfection--all of them carry a small piece of the jigsaw puzzle. So in the end to be happy, he has to love them all.

And surprisingly, the ones that you find happily married are men that belong to the second category. They will usually end up choosing a woman whom they they think they can accept on a daily basis as a life partner but will still continue to look for variety outside. Those extra-marital liaisons would be purely for sex and nothing else. They wouldn't be so stupid as to fall in love. What's the point? You only need one wife; so keep her barefoot and pregnant back home and keep those mistresses at a safe distance, purely for pleasure.

Now, since I claim that I don't belong to either category, where then do I stand? Browsing through Kundera's book, I found the passage (in Part 1, Chatper 14) that has somehow lingered in my mind these last thirteen years:
His love for Tereza was beautiful, but it was also tiring... Now what was tiring had disappeared and only the beauty remained.

Saturday found him for the first time time strolling alone through Zurich, breathing in the heady smell of his freedom. New adventures hid around each corner. The future was again a secret. He was on his way back to the bachelor life, the life he had once felt destined for, the life that would let him be what he actually was.

For seven years he had lived bound to her, his every step subject to her scrutiny. She might as well have chained iron balls to his ankles. Suddenly his step was much lighter. He soared. He had entered Parmenides' magic field: he was enjoying the sweet lightness of being.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Right Moment

The Right Moment

"I am all right, right now" - Gurudeva, Merging with Siva
Perhaps some of us could be feeling very miserable now--facing deep financial problems, trapped in an unhappy marriage, hating our work, feeling lonely and demotivated. But if we analyze it carefully, our lives only become unhappy if we continue regretting the past and never stop worrying about the future.

For most of us, we are actually quite "alright", right now. The present is "perfect" because we are alive, we are thinking and we can make choices. If we are convinced that this particular moment is alright, why should the next moment be any different? Or the one after that, and so on?

Well, one could argue that this is simply blind optimism. Perhaps. But then we could also ask ourselves: how else should we live life? By complaining perpetually about how miserable life is? By blaming the world for all our problems? By cursing how unlucky we have been in life?

We fear a lot of things about the future because it is full of unknowns. Those unknowns could hurt. But then again, those unknowns could be filled with goodies too? Why should we be so pessimistic? I suppose we are pessimistic because we are bracing ourselves for the possible pain that could hit us. We dare not hope too much for we fear that we will not be getting them and then the pain will be too much for us to bear.

So we would rather choose to start suffering future pain now. At the same time, we are also dragging with us the burden of the past. Hence every second of our lives is filled with fear and apprehension because the moment it arises, it is already contaminated by the past and threatened by the future.

We cannot change the past. We do not know what the future will bring. But we can control the present. We own the present. At the moment, I feel perfectly alright. Everything is right. I am in no mortal danger. I am typing these words, and I am at peace. (At the same time, you are also reading these words, and you are at peace).

The present is all we have. All we can experience at any one time is this moment. Gone. Yes, this moment. Gone. And we only know one thing: everything about this moment seems right. No? Gone. Right? Gone. Hmm... Gone. OK... Gone. Right... Gone. Right. Gone. Right. Gone...alright, alright! I'm all right, right now!