Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Letter 698: Meditations on Wellness

At Changi airport, when hubby wanted to buy me the Prada saffiano lux tote I've been lusting after as a honeymoon-slash-passing-exams present, I looked at him like he's had too many magic mushrooms in Bali. When I actually said no and said I wanted this furry little monster instead, he looked at me like I've forgotten to take my sanity pills. Some of my friends think I'm crazy for giving up a Prada bag, but here's the thing: I may not be one of the girls who own a Prada bag (or a Chanel bag for that matter), but I'm infinitely happier than some of them who do.

We are always hungry for more: More time, more energy, more money, more shoes, more bags. Once you have a Prada bag, you'd want another one. In a different design, in a different colour, in a different size. Then, you'd want a Chanel bag, and a Celine bag, and a Louis Vuitton bag, and so on and so forth. When does it end, this needless cycle of greed? It ends with the realisation that no matter how much money you have, it can never fulfil your endless wants. It ends with embracing the wisdom of impermanence.

A calligraphy my dad commissioned his friend to write in the Spring of 1995, and it has hung in our living room since, a constant reminder that a man who is contented will be happy.

A dear friend of mine went to Vanuatu recently and remarked how it definitely is the happiest nation on earth despite its poverty level. On the flipside, the modern society, with all its wealth and growth and wonders and technology, is plagued with so much dysphoria and the pathological obsession over the search for happiness. It comes as no surprise, for we are consumed by the culture of materialism. Many people equate material things acquired through monetary purchases with happiness, but it's not an everlasting kind of happiness. To quote Joe Mihalic, "No material thing can ever bring somebody a lifetime of happiness."

A schoolmate commented about the effects of social media on happiness, citing that by comparing ourselves to others on sites such as Facebook, we run the risk of being more depressed if we feel our lives are not as exciting as our friends'. He also mentioned that happiness is "scientifically shown to be built upon others' suffering". Now, I don't know what scientific study that is, but if it's true, then either that study, or that "happiness", is flawed, because which decent human being feels "happy" when comparing oneself to the less fortunate? It's an act of self-deception, and this "happiness" is actually a sense of smugness. True happiness comes from a sense of inner peace within oneself, an awareness that no matter how shitty the world is, you can still choose to be happy with a positive mindset.

Which brings me to the subject of inner peace. I am now 2 months shy of 30, and I must say it doesn't really feel as scary as I'd thought it'd be. In fact, I may secretly be looking forward to celebrating it, because I think it is within the last 6 months of my 20s that I've reconciled with myself. I don't know what's changed, because I used to be plagued by the incessant need to find meaning in life. I thought if I found happiness, then I would understand life better (hint: type "happiness" in the search box on this blog, and you'll find numerous writings on that subject). And, like most twenty-somethings, my happiness was partly cultivated from many sessions of retail therapy, and partly culled from immaterial experiences like spending time with family and friends. And what I have discovered is that, surprise, surprise, no matter how unhappy I was, talking to a friend for 5 minutes was almost always infinitely more comforting than spending 5 hours in the mall.

Hanging out at food courts in Singapore instead of the malls.

And here's another thing: That sense of inner peace comes from knowing when to stop working. Those who know me will say I'm a workaholic. I work too hard. Maybe that's because I'm a prototypical Asian, but maybe that's also because I liked my job, and it felt great churning in a good chunk of income each fortnight to be able to afford things my mother could only dream of. That workaholic mentality came to a halt when all those extra hours I put in hit me to the ground. It made me realise the incredible importance of looking after my own health (the biggest irony that emerged was that I'm a primary care physician-- I should know what's more important!). That was how I took a month off work after my exams and focused on yoga (scientific paper here if you're interested-- not that I took up yoga because of evidence-based medicine), which really grounded me to the significant concept of wholeness.

Yoga, doggy style.

Social researcher Hugh Mackay on the concept of wholeness (because he puts it better than I can): "I actually attack the concept of happiness. I don’t mind people being happy-- but the idea that everything we do is part of the pursuit of happiness seems to me a really dangerous idea and has led to a contemporary disease in Western society, which is fear of sadness. Wholeness is what we ought to be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration, failure; all of those things which make us who we are. Happiness and victory and fulfillment are nice little things that also happen to us, but they don’t teach us much. Everyone says we grow through pain and then as soon as they experience pain they say “Quick! Move on! Cheer up!” I’d like just for a year to have a moratorium on the word “happiness” and to replace it with the word “wholeness”. Ask yourself “is this contributing to my wholeness?” and if you’re having a bad day, it is."

We live a cluttered life-- too many unnecessary possessions, too many plug-ins to a broad social network with too many friends that have become strangers because of the irony of connectivity (we stopped seeing or speaking to each other; rather, we stalk each other in the privacy of our own homes). I recently cleared out my closet and much to my own chagrin, I had 5 big bags worth of clothing and 2 bags of shoes to give away. And when I thought about people who probably don't even have a decent jumper for winter, it made me re-examine my life choices: I had been living a life of excess. It's time to de-clutter, both physically and spiritually.

My cousin-in-law took this photo of me at The Gardens 2 years ago, because he was so amused by the shopaholic in me. Obviously his wife doesn't shop as much as I do.

I am not a religious person, and neither are my parents nor my husband. But in my household, there are two bookshelves dedicated to religious texts such as the Bible (I lost count of how many versions we have), the Quran (again, in various translations), and assorted books on spiritualism and other religions of the world. Paradoxically, my life has been deeply entwined with religion: I hung out at Christian bookshops with my dad, attended Sunday school sessions with neighbourhood kids and read the entire children's Bible from the Old to the New Testament, trailed alongside my grandmother whenever she fumigated the house every week with her pot of holy ashes, followed my uncles and aunties to various temples to give offerings, took a class on world religion in college, and have the occasional discussions on God and Buddhism with one of my bosses whenever we run a theatre list together. Lately, I've also been reading a few things: Anne Rice's Called out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession (in which she writes about her Catholic upbringing, her deviation from the church, and her subsequent return to her faith), Dharma Master Shih Cheng Yan's Life Economics (a contemplative work about time, space and interpersonal relationships), Christopher Hitchens' God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (self-explanatory), and a few blogs by Muslim writers who write about their faith. What I concluded from my readings and from my own experiences is that you don't have to be religious in order to have a sense of inner peace, the kind that gives you a calm mind to understand yourself and your place in this world. But once you sought to understand this, nothing will faze you anymore, certainly not money, and not material possessions (or the lack of it).

At the pop-up bookstore on Rundle Mall, Adelaide.

I also picked up a book by Arianna Huffington over the weekend. I bought it because it struck a chord: In Thrive, she wrote about her realisation at the importance of well-being after collapsing from exhaustion in 2007, two years after founding The Huffington Post. In the chapters on "Well-being", "Wisdom", "Wonder" and "Giving", she explores meditation, mindfulness, unplugging, and the act of giving, and talks about her own challenge of being a career woman and being a mother. In reading her experiences, I am hoping it can teach me a thing or two about making the most out of my career while being mindful of the needs of my body and soul. So far, reading a few pages every night before bed has given me a whole new insight into re-defining success: Success traditionally defined within the confines of wealth and power are no longer sustainable to our souls, because as we work longer hours to achieve these two criterion, our body risks suffering the effects of burnout. There is so much more to life than money and power, and if we can re-examine what it means to live a good life without focusing on these 2 traditional pillars of success, perhaps we are already halfway to leading a successful life.

My tea set + dad's calligraphy tools. The ceramic figure of Chinese writer Lu Xun looks on.

As a Western-trained medical doctor, the concept of "wholeness" doesn't appear in the curriculum. But I think it is important to talk about this, because without being cognizant of this concept, we may go through our lives searching for that which has always been there all along. Whatever it is you're seeking may be different to mine, but when you've found it-- just like I have-- you will know, because there will be this sense of tranquility that floods your heart and clears your mind.

Sunset over Jimbaran Bay, Bali. #nofilter


kai said...

meaningful post. thank u. :)

Jun said...

you're welcome. thanks for the feedback :)

Bariah said...

I love this post!!!! Welcome back and don't worry, Bali will always be there waiting for you to come back k :)

Jun said...

thanks! i hope so cos there's so much more of bali i wanna see!

Bariah said...

Revisiting a place I've been before is like rereading a book - do I go back to it or should I just go visit/ read somewhere or something new? I liked Bali..well, parts of it but would have liked to visit the northern part of the island more if I have the time..but then if I have the time, why don't I go check out Raja Ampat or the Gili Islands or even Lombok? Or just fly to Solomon Island which is a lot closer? I don't really have answer or know even if there is a right or wrong but I suppose it is like rereading a book..why do it? why not read something new and unpredictable? I have thought about this a billion times (and apparently I have waayy too much time on my hands).
B :)

Jun said...

because sometimes when you re-read your favourite books, or re-visit your favourite places, you might discover something new :) but yeah, i also think you have waaay too much time on your hands :PPP