Friday, August 10, 2007

The Music of God

Are you always conscious of your own mental processes? Do you completely identify yourself with them? This is a crucial question that you need to answer as a spiritual seeker.

In our everyday lives, we think, act and react. We become the thinking and acting. Acting and thinking, are merely two ends of the same spectrum. Is that all life is about?

You have biological, emotional and intellectual needs, so you think and act in certain ways to fulfill them. Your entire life is spent doing that--fulfilling your needs: the need to eat, to procreate and to gratify your senses.

A need arises, which triggers a thought, which leads to some action being taken and the need is temporarily satisfied. The cycle repeats itself ad infinitum. That's your life.

And then you realize that you only feel happy when the needs are met. And when any of these needs are lacking, you feel unhappy.

Then you ask yourself: Whose needs are these? Does it come from the body? Or the mind? or both?

Can these needs ever be completely satisfied? If not, does that mean I can never ever be truly happy?

What then is there, if not the activities of the mind? When the mind is quelled of its "waves", what do you see? When there is no thought, is there still consciousness? Is there still "intelligence" as we know it?

Why are there so many questions and no answers?

Answers are created to satisfy the mind. If answers exist at all, they are merely brief resting points -- a comma or a semi-colon, rather than a period. After a while, you will realise that all intellectualization has to stop at a certain point.

You don't attempt to understand music; you listen and you enjoy the sheer pleasure of its melody, harmony and rhythm. Perhaps even dance to it.

If you want to truly appreciate music, you will maintain silence and try not to ruin the experience by talking at the same time.

Do you want to know what's behind the mind? If you do, then let the mental noise stop. 


And listen.

When the mental noise stops, there is music. And the entire universe dances to it.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Karmic Lessons

A thought arises in the mind and subsides, like a ripple on the surface of the pond.

Another thought arises. More ripples.

The amplitude of some ripples are so huge that they manifest themselves as action or speech. Mental ripples become physical "ripples", producing consequences in the world outside.

No thought is ever lost. Its energy is merely transformed, stored or transmitted into another medium. The energy of several thoughts could be merged into a larger throught-front, creating a thought-tsunami, capable of sweeping away every obstacle along its way.

An obsessive man channels all his energy into a few focussed stream of thoughts. An obsessive man is often "successful", because all his actions are focussed and channelled towards the object of his desire.

All self-improvement books teach you techniques to be focussed. When you are focussed, you do not waste energy on things that do not contribute towards your goals; everything you do is a "right action" that leads you closer to your destination. Every move you make is either an advancement, or a correction from a deviation.

Anything that you desire in your life comes with a price. Why? Because it requires you to control the world around you. You need to act in specific ways to produce specific effects, specific results, which you yourself define as "desirable". Remember, this is your definition of "desirable", and hence whatever pain or pleasure, goes directly into your account.

Like what people say: you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs. An egg does not transform naturally into an omelette like how a pupa morphs into a butterfly. An omelette is an artificial construction, produced by the human desire to satisfy its palate. It requires "force" for it to happen.

The force that you apply on the world to create your vision of an ideal life requires you to expend a lot of energy. It requires you to go against the current sometimes; it requires you to sacrifice time, to kick asses and to take blows. You might not mind doing all this, but that's the price you'll have to pay.

Your so-called ideal life also requires constant maintenance, because everything in the world is subject to decay. What is ideal now never remains ideal indefinitely. Furthermore, what is ideal for you might not be ideal for the people around you--your spouse, your children, your colleagues and friends. Lots and lots of energy is required to maintain it. That's another price you'll have to pay.

Ask yourself, why do you want these things? Where do these desires come from? What deeper part of the soul does it satisfy? Are you going to spend your entire life's energy attaining and maintaining this "ideal" state?

If you have decided that what you desire is worth it, then by all means go ahead. Take the pain and the pleasure that comes with it. Take it on the chin.

What's important is that you know what you are paying for and you yourself consciously take responsibility for your actions. Only then is the loop closed; only then do you learn your karmic lessons.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Reclaiming Silence

Life has been noisy lately.

The challenge for me has always been to remain engaged in the world without getting entangled in its myriad intrigues. One must learn to swim in a world of noise, without getting drowned.

Underneath all the noise is the ever-present silence; this silence is a sanctuary. It is the bedrock of one's sanity. And so I shall continue to write for to write is to reclaim one's silence, and hence one's sanity.

The mind knows when it is losing its inner silence. Judgement goes haywire; instinct misses its mark. Sloth and torpor creeps in. The mind needs recalibration. The body needs purification. The soul needs rediscovery.

How does one handle this constant assault of noise?

Understand its underlying structure of entanglements--the sources and sinks in this continuum of energy. Realise the fact that some of the noises come from yourself. Know your own contribution to this world of noise. Noise equals inefficient usage of energy. The perfect machine generates no noise.

No noise comes out from a purified mind. Everything that comes out from such a mind is music. This music lives in the air as if it has always been there, as if it belongs there--like the evening breeze and the sweet scents from garden flowers.

To produce music, one must have a sense of rhythm. The rhythm of the ticking clock; the rhythm of night and day; the rhythm of human affairs. Master this rhythm.

Life is perfect when work has the effortless quality of music. Work is produced naturally from the instrument of the mind and body. Like music from a jamming session. We are totally immersed in a beautiful world of rhythm and harmony.

Music springs from silence. And silence is a part of its orchestration. Once you have silence, everything else falls into place. Words will have the sound of music.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Challenge of Relationships

Living together with one's spouse requires enormous tolerance and understanding. The moment either party forgets that, resentment will inevitably creep in. This resentment typically starts small, often triggered by daily events that to outsiders appear trivial; but they accumulate, day by day, until argument errupts. This release of anger allows the resentment to subside a little, but only temporarily. Resentment soon builds up again, leading to anger and sometimes physical violence. The cycle repeats itself ad infinitum.

A marriage is stable when the oscillations of this cycle of resentment is small. Everytime it builds up to a certain critical mass, it is released. Hence the relationship remains intact. Mature couples know that this cycle well. They either consciously, or unconsciously allow it to happen. And this keeps the relationship alive.

Some couples make their relationship work by avoiding conflicts early. Through years of relationship, they would have understood what each other's sore points are. Some kind of compromise is worked out: as long as they agree not to encroach into each other's sensitive territories, everything is fine.

In most marriages, you'll have a bit of both. There'll be occassions where small fights serve as an outlet for the release of pent-up resentments, and they'll also be occassions when such situations are prevented from arising through a well-honed early-warning system.

However a marriage requires more than these two conflict-avoiding strategies to be successful. The foundation of a relationship is held by shared interests, beliefs and values. People get married because they want to share their lives with their chosen life partners. If they have nothing to share, they shouldn't have got married in first place. Remember the places, food, books or movies that both enjoyed together during those early days of courtship? Sadly, couples tend to forget that. A relationship starts to degenerate when commonalities are not emphasized and differences are allowed to be unnecessarily amplified.

How does love fit into all this? Isn't love what brings two people together in first place? Isn't love the true foundation of a strong relationship?

First, let us differentiate love from dependency. Dependency is the result of fear. We fear loneliness. We fear old-age. So we cling to our loved one to ease that pain of fear. That fear becomes a "shared value". We love our spouses because we love ourselves more: we want them to be around so that we don't feel lonely; so that we'll always have someone to be with in our hour of need. Dependency at its worst is a form of addiction.

True love has to transcend addiction and selfishness. Is this possible at all? Yes, but not immediately.

Love is an ideal that one strives for in a relationship. It is not the starting point; in the beginning there's a lot of physical attraction and emotional attachment, fuelled by the fear of loneliness. Temporary relief can be attained in the companionship of one's "loved one"; but inevitably selfishness rears its ugly head and pain results.

There's no relationship without some amount of pain. One should never be deterred by pain. Your partner could be the one in the wrong, but even the party at fault suffers pain. Pain is nature's way of pointing out our imperfections. Understand it. Trace its source. From what depths of fear did it originate? Why did anger arise? Why did such a seemingly trivial matter arouse such strong emotions?

Tracing the source of pain is like debugging a piece of computer software. No commercial application out there is bug-free. Bugs are constantly being traced and fixed. It is a neverending process. The more "bugs" that are eliminated from a relationship, the closer a relationship is to this ideal called Love.

Bugs can never be discovered if an application is not used. Only through the daily ups and downs one faces in a relationship can the sources of pain be traced and eliminated. If all couples adopt this debugging paradigm in their relationships, imperfections can be slowly rectified without resulting in catastrophic system crashes. That way, a relationship grows and matures with the passing of time.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Chinese in Me

It's that noisy time of the year again: Chinese Lunar New Year. I don't usually care much about such festivities but this year's celebration is a much welcome break from a hectic year of work. Last year's CNY holidays was a very productive time for me, as I managed to take the opportunity to rush off a lot of outstanding work.

There's no need for me to do the same this year. But of course, out of (bad) habit, I'll still do my usual routine of making sure that every piece of software is running as it should, batch processes are executed on schedule and no extraordinary events are detected--basically making sure that "God's in his Heaven...all's right with the world!".

The good thing about public holidays is that, other people are not working; so I can be sure that I won't be troubled by urgent phonecalls and e-mails. This allows me to do my "real work" in peace.

Everytime such yearly festivals approaches, people lament how fast time flies. Of course, time flies. But time is also our ally. Our purpose in life is to make sure that time does not fly aimlessly. If it seems to fly fast, and as long as it is flying in the right direction, it also means our hardwork is bearing fruits rapidly too!

The CNY celebrations is all about reaffirming good thoughts. There's much that we can learn from the Chinese ethos. It is a culture of positive-mindedness, prudence, hardwork and success. The Chinese are always forward-looking. During CNY, we wish each other great wealth, prosperity and good fortune.

Ah, but you also see the Ugly Chinese: the kiasuism, the greed, the over-eagerness to hit it big ("the Chinese are incorrigible gamblers -- Lee Kuan Yew") and the culture of crass materialism.

When anything--even good values--is pursued to the extreme, you'll see ugliness. That is why most of the victims of Ah Longs (loan sharks) are Chinese. Of course, the loan sharks themselves are also Chinese.

Am I then the typical hardworking Chinese, driven by dreams of social and material success?

How I wish I am!

A person exercising in the gym is not "hardworking". He's sweating and puffing because he wants to shed off extra fat and also to keep himself fit. Being physically fit is a great feeling.

That is what drives me to work hard: The desire to be mentally and spiritually fit. The world is my moral gymnasium (to use Vivekananda's words). That is the true reward of work. The rest is just bonus.

Happy Chinese New Year! Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sea of Samskaras

Samkaras is a Sanskrit word, usually translated as "past impressions", commonly found in Yoga and Hindu texts. Of course, "past impressions" or samkaras for these spiritual practices include all tendencies and experiences generated from the sum total of one's past lives.

OK, before I dwell deeper into this subject, I'm aware of the fact that some people do not believe in reincarnation and any talk about past lives smells like superstition. Well, it doesn't really matter: we don't have to believe in reincarnation or past lives to discuss about samskaras. Samskaras to me is a natural phenomenon which obeys natural physical laws.

In an earlier blog entry, I mentioned that the same external experience will not be perceived in the same way by different individuals. We interpret sensory input based on past experience (which need not necessarily have to be from a previous life) and the natural tendencies of the mind--which are shaped partly by nature (genetics) and partly by nurture (culture, upbringing, education and life experiences).

Even when a baby is born, he or she, already has certain inherent mental characteristics. A baby has not much experience and education yet, but still each newborn child behaves quite differently from one another. Why is that so? Genes? To an extent, yes.

Even when the foetus is in the amniotic sac, it already senses the world--the heartbeat of the mother, sounds and vibration from the external world. A continuous pattern of action and reaction has already been set off, which does not cease until he or she dies.

Everytime an external stimulus is fed into our minds, we react in a certain specific way. Because our starting conditions--the "boundary conditions"--are different, each one of us has a unique sequence of action and reaction, beginning from the very moment that we came alive in our mother's womb until now. Reactions can come in a passive (thoughts and emotions) or active form (spoken words or actions).

Our samskaras are coded in our hardware (genes), firmware (subconscious mind) and operating system/application (culture and education). How we react to external events continuously shapes and reshapes our samskaras.

Whenever there's no external stimuli, or whenever you attempt to limit the range of external stimuli (like in meditation), you'll be able to perceive your samskaras. Why do certain thoughts seem arise spontaneously? Why do your thoughts have a tendency to veer towards certain directions? If you observe carefully, samskaras are behind your entire personality.

Like it or not, the "background noise" of samskaras is always there. There will always be this tendency in the mind to react in its own peculiar way to every situation in life. And this is due to the influence of samskaras. If that is so, how do we deal with it?

If you have an awareness of your samskaras, then you'll be able to redirect your focus and energy to or away from certain mental impulses. The control of one's breath is the starting point of this ability. The breath is the lever of the mind. That is why most spiritual traditions have some form of breathing exercise or meditation.

Samskaras can be disolved in the light of understanding. The many virtues that religion preaches--love, compassion, forgiveness--have great transmutation powers over one's samskaras. These virtuous actions redistributes energy in the most harmonious way and irons out all kinks. When we act with understanding, love and compassion, the pattern of action and reaction--one's karma--are immediately dissolved. No fresh karma is generated, resulting in the store of samskaras being reduced.

When we have mastered what Buddhists call "Right Action", every action of ours will be like the movement of a fish in water. We swim ever so gracefully and efficiently through life, which is this endless Sea of Samskaras.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Tales of Survival

Two full meals a day is just right for me: brunch and dinner. My ideal routine for the day would be: wake up early in the morning to kick off the day with some work, then take a break during mid-morning to run errands and do brunch, before resuming work in the afternoon and early evening.

The early morning work session is great--it allows me to put in 3 solid hours of work before other people even begin their day. I reserve this 3 hours for "real work"; this includes any task that require a high degree of concentration, such as writing, analysis, coding, researching and planning. Thinking work. The rest of the day, I know I'll be constantly occupied with phone calls, meetings and e-mails--"regular work" or work that does not require deep thinking.

My ideal daily routine is broken whenever I have early morning meetings in town. Then I'd have to start off early to join the rush-hour procession of cars to the city. Usually I'll use the one-hour drive to enjoy a good audiobook or listen to my favourite podcasts.

Driving is never dull when I have my iPod with me. My current "read" is Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. This is an exciting account of Sir Ernest Shackleton's famous expedition in 1914 to the Antartica, to attempt an overland journey across the icy continent. On their way there, their ship, the Endurance was trapped and crushed by the frozen sea. It is a nail-biting (frost-biting?) tale of survival in the harsh sub-zero temperatures of the Antartic seas, a gripping saga of men forced to stretch to the very limits of their endurance. Even when I was trapped under the hot KL sun in a traffic-jam listening to the audiobook, I shivered and froze together with these men, as they overcame every obstacle that Nature threw at them--blizzards, stormy seas and treacherous ice floes--to rescue themselves from one of the most treacherous and inhospitable places on Earth.

Tales of adventure and exploration like this are such wonderful reads. A couple of years back, I read an exciting account of Magellan's journey to circumnavigate the globe--it was a satisfyingly thick hardcover book which I had lugged together with me during one of my projects in Bangkok. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I recently found an audio version of the book and so I intend to "reread" it again soon.

These tales are also very inspiring; they demonstrate to us the strength of the human spirit in overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. We sometimes think that we face similar situations in our lives too--intractable personal problems that bother us day and night. But tell yourself to find comfort in the fact that no matter how difficult the challenges are, it is nothing compared to what these explorers had to face.

In fact, hardly any of the challenges that we face in our humdrum middleclass existence is a matter of life and death. I haven't heard of a yuppie starving to death before. Most of the time, it's just the ego that needs to suffer a bit of bruising. Compare that to losing a leg to frostbite.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Soul of a Traveller

Tunner (Campbell Scott): We're probably the first tourists they've had since the war.

Kit Moresby (Debra Winger): Tunner, we're not tourists. We're travellers.

Tunner: Oh. What's the difference?

Port Moresby (John Malkovich): A tourist is someone who thinks about going home the moment they arrive, Tunner.

Kit Moresby: Whereas a traveller might not come back at all...

- The Sheltering Sky, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

We are all travellers, because there's no turning back in life. You only pass this way once. Every experience in life, no matter how small, changes you in subtle ways. If you are conscious of each momentary change, then you'll learn to distill the lesson behind every experience, behind every sight and sound.

We all experience life in different ways: Each one of us could be looking at the same painting, but our impressions will be very different. There's no experience that's common to all.

We could all be watching the same soccer match and supporting the same team, but the effect of the experience--be it the ecstasy of victory or the humiliation of defeat--produces different karmic consequences, different lessons, to each one of us.

If you have the mentalilty of a tourist, you'd treat each sight and sound like a photographic snapshot to be permanently stored in the storehouse of your memory, to be recalled and savoured again as and when you choose to.

But if you are a traveller, each experience is like a death and a rebirth. You are no longer a collector of memories; you are a soul in continuous transformation.

Your life at any moment in time is the sum total of all your past experiences. At any moment in time, you are a new person, reborn from the previous moment--the fulfilment of your past karma.

Sometimes, we mistakenly think that we are tourists: we meet a friend, go to a movie, enjoy a good meal and then go back to our regular lives. We will only bother to pause and reflect when we encounter an accident or something unexpected. And we call that a "life-changing" experience.

If we'd care to observe, every experience in life is a life-changing experience simply because we can never go back to the previous moment anymore. You are not the person you were when you first started reading this blog entry. If you have the soul of a traveller, you'll understand what I mean.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Life of Leisure

I've finally managed to complete my long overdued upgrade to the new Blogger template. When I first started blogging in 2003, Blogger didn't have a lot of the features which come standard with any blogsite today: things like comments, tags/labels and blog titles were not supported.

Only paying pro-Blogger users were allowed to upload pictures to their blogs. We had to integrate comment services and picture-hosting from other free service provider sites; blog entry titles had to be hardcoded in HTML. That is why you still see these ugly double titles appearing for all my old posts. And also, now that I'm using the Blogger commenting feature, all old comments are not displayed anymore.

Even though I have been blogging less and less frequently lately, I don't intend to stop doing so. I'll blog whenever I find those bits and pieces of time in between more "important" tasks. There are so many things vying for my time, but this year, I hope to allocate more time for leisure activities such as blogging.

Despite my hectic work schedule last year, I'm quite surprised that I still managed to read quite a number of books. Among the books that I thoroughly enjoyed last year were Chin Peng's autobiography, Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History; Marquez's Memories of my Melancholy Whore, Theroux's Hotel Honolulu plus all the 3 volumes of Ted Miles's diaries. In general however, I'd usually go for non-fiction, unless there's something interesting from Marquez, Kundera or Theroux.

One of my many eccentricities is a fondness for reading musical scores. Classical music is one of my major passions, and I find my enjoyment of the classics greatly enchance if I am able to read and listen to the music at the same time. Hence I also collect musical scores. Whenever I go to Borders, I'd try to check out their collection of music books. Among my most treasured possessions in my library now is a wonderful five-volume set containing the complete piano works of Beethoven, which I'd chanced upon in Jakarta.

The Internet is a great place to download sheet music and so many of them are available free. I also find musical notation visually and aesthetically pleasing--it's like calligraphy. (Calligraphy is also one of my many interests).

I must admit: I have way too many hobbies to pursue! That is why I am always reluctant to take up things like golf or diving--they are simply too time-consuming and not to mention, expensive. There are only so many hours in a day, and so many days in one's lifetime. I have no choice but to prioritize.

I've always believed in the healthy formula of 8 hours sleep, 8 hours work and 8 hours leisure in a day. If we manage our time well, we should have sufficient time to enjoy our favourite leisure activities, and also to blog about them too!

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Sum of All Spiritual Laws

Having to suffer two Liverpool defeats in one week is too much for me to bear. Sometimes I think my irrational attachment to the Reds is something that I purposely inflict on myself so that I can experience a bit of emotional excitement every weekend.

Maybe we all need a bit of drama in our lives simply to feel alive. Being attached to the outcome of a soccer match is a kind of harmless suffering. Yes, it can be very painful at times when your favourite team is defeated, but you are also comforted by the fact that, at the end of the day, it's only a game and no one died because of it. (Bill Shankly will certainly not agree with that).

When your favourite team does triumph in a major tournament, the joy you feel is beyond description. You earned the right to feel so because you've gone through the whole emotional journey together with them. Joy can only be earned through suffering.

That's why romantic relationships are usually turbulent. Lovers are addicted to the emotional high they get whenever they feel that they are receiving all the love and attention from their partners. But when such feelings wane--as all emotions do--they inadvertently create a drama by introducing an emotional trough ("you don't have time for me anymore"), so that an equivalent crest can be created ("Of course I do, honey. You are the most important thing in my life") . That's why you see lovers quarelling and making up all the time. It's what lovers do.
Some of us are addicted to love--or rather to the process of falling in love. If we are not in a relationship with someone, we feel that life is boring. Life is meaningless.

How do we overcome this feeling of emptiness and restlessness? And loneliness?

If you want drama, go watch a soccer match. If you need companionship, go get a dog.
Isn't love important? Yes. But what is love? Take a lesson from Gurudeva.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Passing By

Including the notebook which I'm using to type this blog entry, there are four computers in my bedroom. At least two of them are servers. By the end of next year, I hope the number reduces drastically. It's not healthy to share a room with so many computers. Computers belong to the data center. Bedrooms are for sleep and meditation (or sex, depending on your lifestyle).

The older I get, the more I long for a simpler life. A life without cars, computers and credit cards. Technically, I don't own a car and I certainly don't intend to buy one too in the future. Credit cards, I have too many of them. Why am I still keeping my Singaporean one? And the Indonesian one? That's definitely another 'C' that I want to reduce. Certainly doable.

Career? I don't have one. What I'm doing now in the IT industry, I don't really consider it a career. It's just the best way to work out my remaining IT karma. At some point, it will be exhausted, and I will get to move on to the next phase. I'm very conscious of the karmic effects of all my actions. Maybe karma should be spelt with a 'C'. That way, I can just focus on getting rid of all the 'C's in my life.

Condominium? OK, I admit, that's one 'C' that I cannot get rid of yet. Even though at present I'm not living in my condo, I need the place to store all my junk--books mainly. Someday, I'll have to get rid of them too, by giving them away. Only then will I be free. To be free from everything, including books.

Then what's there to live for?

Well, that's the whole point of life. To live is to experience and let go. Only then can one be truly free. Live life to the fullest; let go without regret. We are all just passing by. Smell the flowers along the way, but down pluck them.

Goodbye 2006, hello 2007!