Be Still Every Day

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As important as it is to move every day, making time to be still is of equal importance. It is the quiet yin to the yang of activity, the vessel that holds the fire of creation. Without stillness you can only hope to achieve half your potential.

The modern world is antithetical to cultivating mindfulness. The Internet tempts users with unbridled access to unlimited information: images, videos, games, information, with no limiters and every opportunity to get even more. Many games–especially mobile games–are Skinner boxes that draw the player in with bright colours, instant gratification, and just enough frustration to keep the player wanting to keep playing in, for a small, small price. Social media lets you share your thoughts on anything an everything, peek into the lives of people you want to follow, and deliver and receive instant gratification through like and share buttons and quick comments. Web articles with clickbait titles stir up your passions and suck you in, then drive you on to even more clickbait. Devices ring with notifications every hour of the day, and with constant connection comes the constant demand to keep working, keep doing, keep seeking more.

Much of the modern world, deliberately or otherwise, induces a quasi-permanent state of insatiable desire. Whenever you think you are fulfilled, something new comes along and stokes the flames once again. This state of constant rushing about to do things and get things leaves people exhausted, sick and unsatisfied. With so much activity, and brains entrained to keep acting, there is no space to breathe, to recharge, to remember.

In a world that demands constant activity, learn to be still.

But stillness is not the destination. A statue is still, but it is not alive. A man can stand in an empty room and stare blankly at the walls all day, but he’s more likely to be insane or addled than self-realised. Strive for mindfulness. A total acceptance of everything around you, with your mind completely engaged in the present. Yet to achieve mindfulness, first understand stillness.

Meditate Every Day

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Every day you are becoming your tomorrow. What you do now, in this moment, influences what you will do next. Do something enough times and it becomes a habit. If you are habituated to seek sensory pleasures, to seek more work to do, to keep moving, your mind will fixate on opportunities to do so. If you are habituated to be mindful, to be receptive of everything around you, to appreciate the present exactly as it is, your mind will free itself to be one with the moment.

Earlier I’ve written about taking back your mind. Now we take things to the next level.

Meditate in the morning. After you wake up, meditate. What you do first thing in the morning sets the tone for the rest of the day. You don’t want to be irritated, distracted with emails and thoughts and the latest media scandal, or otherwise emotionally upset. There is always time for that later. You want to be calm and focused. Find it through meditation.

Find a quiet spot, sit or stand, breathe, and relax. Pay attention to your body. Does something ache? Is your back bent and your head hunched forward? Is there tension in your muscles? Are you fidgeting?

Let your body go completely liquid. Perfectly at ease, perfectly relaxed, yet perfectly unified. The old adage is to be like water. In Cheng Hsin: The Principles of Effortless Power, Peter Ralston explains how to achieve this state when standing upright. Rest your weight in the center of your soles, pressing down into the earth. Align your knees, hips, torso, spine, shoulders and neck so that each successive limb or joint is stacked upon the one below it. Imagine that there a thousand-pound weight hanging between your legs, and stand so that the weight won’t pull you into the ground. Think of it like stacking a series of ever-smaller plates one atop the other. If you need help, press your back and the back of your skull against a wall, and maintain that posture.

Completely, consciously and totally relax every muscle from your toes to your neck. It may feel wrong, especially for people who unconsciously carry tension in their bodies all day long, but it is worth it. Your pelvis and shoulders may feel unnaturally wobbly, limp or useless. That is perfectly natural. The key is to remain completely balanced. If you are balanced in a neutral position, able to maintain your posture without swaying back and forth, you are doing it right.

Adapting these principles to a seated position is relatively simple. Sit upright, soles flat on the floor, legs relaxed. Your weight should be focused on your coccyx, directed into the floor. As with the thousand-pound weight analogy, sit so that the weight won’t pull you down. Should you try more advanced position like the half-lotus or full lotus, always keep your back straight and your body loose.

You probably won’t get this right the first time around. Or even the first hundred times. That’s okay. The key is to keep at it until you do get it right (though engaging a coach or therapist to check out your posture won’t hurt). When your body is aligned and loose and free, so too is your mind. Take your posture–seated or standing–and begin.

Clear your mind. Whatever it is you may be thinking, let it go. Simply cease paying attention to that stream of thought, and pay attention to a complete silence. Let this silence engulf you. In that silence, take in everything around you. The feel of your clothes, the temperature of the air, the rustling of leaves in a breeze, the gentle light of the morning sun. Drink in the moment.

Don’t force it. This is not a state of work. This is a state of rest. You know how to let your body rest; simply let the entirety of your being enter a state of repose. And should you find your mind distracted by a random thought or some strange sensory input, simply let it go and return to the state of stillness.

Yin and Yang

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Stillness is the stepping stone to mindfulness. Once you are familiar with the whole body sensation of mindfulness when you are still, apply mindfulness in motion.

When speaking to someone, grasp his body language, tone of voice, gaze, tone, content of speech, assumptions, emotional state and implied meanings. When walking in the wider world, study the environment, people, ongoing events, traffic flow, weather, geography, your posture, physical sensations, weight distribution, fatigue, pain. When working, let your mind be completely absorbed in it and allow nothing to disturb your state of being. Be completely in the present, exactly as you were when you were meditating in stillness.

Mindfulness is a state of being. Of receiving and parsing all the information around you, acting in the most relaxed, calm and efficient manner, and appreciating the entirety of Creation. By moving every day you become healthier and learn to be disciplined, creative and efficient; by combining motion with mindfulness you eliminate distractions, receiving useful information, and seeking the most fluid way of doing things.

Achieve synthesis of action and non-action, decisiveness and thoughtfulness, yang and yin. Be as immovable as earth, as free as the air, as focused as fire, and as mutable as water. Balance these traits to suit your current situation.

When apprehending something new, approach it with complete openness and curiosity, seeking to understand everything about it. When acting upon it, do so with complete resolution. If you encounter an obstacle your first thought may be to blast through it. Seek instead a way to flow around it and reserve your energy for powering to your goals; if there isn’t one, identify the path of least resistance and blast through. When faced with a thousand and one things to do, root your mind in place, identify what must be done, and act with complete calmness and pinpoint focus. At the gym, relentlessly engage mind and body. Seek the most efficient and effective ways of working your muscles, preventing injury and enhancing performance.

Always remain mindful of your actions. When you find yourself straying, return to that state of stillness and presence.

Be still every day to achieve mindfulness. Then leave stillness behind and be mindful in what you do.

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The Price of Iron

If you wish to get stronger through the gym or the blade, the iron will demand its due.

It is inevitable. You must take every precaution you can to avoid unnecessary injuries, but if you want to grow you have to operate at the furthest reaches of your capability. You need to test and push your limits. Inevitably, error creeps in, muscles fail, and the iron bites.

I’ve practiced martial arts for the past three years. Followed a semiregular gym routine for the past five months. I’ve experienced blisters, blisters upon blisters, and calluses ripping off to expose naked flesh and nerves. I’ve been struck in the head, legs, fingers, wrist and groin more times than I cared for. I’ve bled upon my training grounds and my tools. As I type this freshly-torn skin on my left hand continues to remind me of its presence, as do the patches of battered flesh on my other right hand.

Pain for most people is one-dimensional. A tactile sensation, no more. For me, it combines with synaesthesia, flashing into two or three. The pain in my left palm is a curvy yellow lump, distant but insistent. When I touch my protocalluses, they are bubbles of white. I’ve experienced red pain, hot and, furious radiating down my limbs, cooling into gold and white as it poured out my fingertips and tongue. I’ve had pain that manifests as a solid white wall of sharp icy edges tearing into my brain, slamming into the entirety of my being, overriding sight and sound, smell and touch.

And compared to the other martial artists and warriors I’ve studied, this is nothing.

The iron is a cruel and uncaring teacher, but through pain it transforms you. To grow muscles, you must first tear them down with heavy labour. Repeated rough trauma hardens and toughens soft skin. Through familiarity with pain, the body learns its limits and the mind understands that an undefeated will can overcome pain. Endurance is developed through pushing through in spite of non-debilitating pain. If you are still functional, if nothing is broken or deranged or bleeding profusely, you are still good to go. When you are accustomed to minor hurts, you can face future ones with a smile and a laugh; when other pains come upon you, be they heartbreak or offense or rage or sorrow, you know in your bones that you have endured similar hurts and mastered heavier iron, and you can endure these too. And when the pains of training grow lesser, you know you are harder — and ready to take on greater weight.

But pain is not an excuse for self-destruction. It is a call for self-awareness. When training you have to be mindful of your movements and your capabilities. If you do not train with proper form, agony awaits. If you dare the iron more than your body can take, it will smash you. In the gym, this means pinched nerves, blown backs, broken bones. On the field, sticks and fists will find unprotected joints and flesh. On the street, you will to the hospital or the morgue. Sharp or throbbing pain is a sign that you’re doing something wrong. A sudden loss of sensation is a symptom of impending injury. Pain in your bones or joints and loss of range of movement requires immediate attention. In the gym, if you hit the weights with bad form you will hurt yourself; if you dare weights heavier than your body can handle, you will hurt yourself even more. If you keep getting hit during training, you must re-examine your defence and your footwork. If you do not correct your mistakes, you will destroy yourself.

The iron does not care about you. Only you can take care of yourself.

The iron is a harsh teacher, and its price is pain. Through the pain you become harder, tougher, stronger, more like iron in mind and body, better able to cope with the wounds and insults of life. The pain also teaches moderation and awareness, demanding you to perfect your form, keep yourself healthy and do only what you are capable of. If you want to grow stronger, more capable, better able to take the slings and arrows of life and return the favour tenfold, then pay the price of iron and be transformed.

Take Back Your Mind

The world is filled with noise. Talking heads spewing propaganda disguised as news. Clickbait sites screaming for attention. Outrage mongers twisting your heart to become more like theirs. A never-ending stream of pop-ups and notifications and messages, all urgent, all demanding your time and energy. In the face of such madness, there is only one thing to do.

Take back your mind.

The Art of Stillness

Digital noise is like a tempest, blowing your spirit one way, then another. It wears you out, scrapes down your soul, leaving you with nothing. A steady diet of clickbait grinds down your ability to focus, to read, to think deeply. It short-circuits your brain, triggering your amygdala instead of your neocortex. Instead of embracing the rationality that is the birthright of all humanity, it leaves you mired in a cesspool of anger, fear, sorrow, outrage, a whirlpool of negative emotions like a tribe of ever-chattering monkeys.

The antidote is stillness.

Silence the monkey mind. Let no thought touch you and no-thought pervade your consciousness. With a still mind and calm heart, the stress of ever-rioting emotions fades away. Here, you can reclaim your soul and transform your mind into a clear spring. This state of being allows you to immerse yourself fully and deeply in life. With constant practice, you can ease your stress, sleep better, digest well, and move with grace.

There are many ways to meditate. Mine is simple.

Find a secluded time and place where you will not be disturbed for the next ten to thirty minutes. This could be your bedroom, a yard, a park, someplace that is reasonably quiet and free from people. Take no distractions with you: no phone, no computer, no television, nothing.

Sit upright. Spine erect, head upright, hands held upright on your lap. Beginners may choose to sit on a chair or cushion. More advanced practitioners can sit cross-legged on the floor, in the half- or full lotus position. The object is to place yourself in a neutral state that your body can hold for a period of time.

Now, half-close your eyes and breathe into your belly. If you need to, place your hands on your stomach and breathe. On the inhale, your abdomen should expand and your hands move. Breathe gently but smoothly, going as deep as you can go, then just as calmly, breathe out. This is a calm, unhurried motion: there is no need to pant like a dog.

As you breathe, find your rhythm. My preference is to breathe in for four counts, and out for four. Others may prefer different rhythms. Find one that suits you best and keep to it.

And now, just breathe.

Focus on your breath. Be aware of the air rushing through your nostrils, reaching into the depths of your lungs; feel the movement of your diaphragm, the rise and fall of your belly. Should stray thoughts away, return to your breath. There is no forcefulness here, just the deliberate direction of intention. Instead of squashing stray thoughts, focus your attention completely on breathing.

If you find your mind wandering, that’s all right. The objective is to develop mindfulness. By detecting a stray thought, you are cultivating mindfulness. Simply bring yourself back to the neutral state and carry on.

Beginners should try to meditate for five to ten minutes. When you find you can keep a clear mind, expand your practice by a minute. If you can meditate for at least a half hour, you’re well on your way to becoming an advanced practitioner.

You can mark your meditation progress by examining the intensity and volume of your thoughts while meditating. The softer and more indistinct they become, the better.

In the beginning, your thoughts might sound like this: Bread milk eggs is the kettle on boil i need to answer an email wonder whats for lunch work is…

Later, they may go: Bread…eggs…kettle boil…answer mail…lunch…

With consistent practice, they become increasingly muted: Bread…mail..work…

At more advanced levels, all you’ll feel is the impression of a thought, the incoherent firing of random neurons. It may feel like this: ?

When you are ready, all you will sense is this: …

When you have reached that state of emptiness, grow your capacity to meditate.

The Wakeful Mind

In the waking world, strive to hold that clear state wherever you can. It won’t be easy, of course, or desirable. There are plenty of activities that require you to think. But what you should strive for is the conscious direction of intent, the same way you consciously focused on breathing and a clear mind.

When thinking through a complicated math problem, this means applying one hundred percent of your thoughts on cracking the equation instead of drifting off into unrelated tangents. When driving, you’re focusing on the wheel, the road and your vehicle instead of a random butterfly. When talking to someone, you’re focusing on what he is saying and how your words affect him. This is the state of the wakeful mind.

Buddhism teaches that there is a gap between the creation of a thought and your perception of it. Meditation teaches you to find it. It is something to be experienced, not read about. Once you find that gap, you are better able to respond appropriately instead of reacting unthinkingly. If someone bumps into you by accident, this allows you to smile and shrug it off instead of flying into a furious rage.

At a higher level, you may find your thoughts circulating around fixed themes and ideas. No matter how you try, these ideas colour the way you think about something. This could be things like “I am ugly” or “I am a victim”. These thoughts come up again and again everywhere you go.

These sticky thoughts are attachments. They stir up your emotions, making you feel a certain way. Every time you touch it, you will get the same emotional response. Such thoughts prevent you from fully living in the moment. Here, apply meditation to dissolve these thoughts. Calmly examine these thoughts, digging deeper as you go. If you mind that these thoughts are baseless, apply the same mind-clearing process to dissolve them. If these thoughts are not without merit, you can reframe them.

For example, someone may think “I am fat”. If an examination in the mirror and weighing scale reveals a perfectly healthy body, then the thought is obviously a delusion and can be released. If evidence suggests otherwise, the thought can be reframed as as a catalyst for action: “I am fat now and I do not like it. I will find a gym and sign up for personal training.” While you don’t need to be a meditator to do this, meditation makes it easier.

In a meditative state, there are no positive or negative emotions. Only a calmness as serene as a peaceful lake. In this state of perfect serenity and awareness, you can act without hesitation, without mental roadblocks, without fear. This is the state of a wakeful mind.

Feeling emotions is not wrong. Every normal and healthy person will feel emotion. You should neither shun negative emotions like anger, fear or sorrow; nor should you flee from positive ones like happiness, joy or pleasure. By sealing off emotions you seal off your heart to life, the opposite of what we want to accomplish. What you want to do is simply feel them in the entirety and let them go when the moment passes.

Emotions should come and go like a meditative breath. They should be experienced fully, then released completely. Imagine yourself to be a cup. A steam of emotions pours in, filling it to the brim. So long as it is full, it cannot hold more or different liquids. Empty the cup of your heart like you empty your lungs; let your breath carry out the emotion from the world. Holding on to emotions means holding on to something longer than is appropriate, leading you to self-harm.

Emotions are like snowballs. Small ones can pile up into an unstoppable avalanche. Here is a story about a famous warrior chief who decided to feed a flock of birds. As he scattered grains among them, he noticed that the grains were like the farms of a valley downstream of his village. Farms in lands he had taken from his former enemies as spoils of war. His enemies must surely be eager to take them back. He had to stop them! He must! So he gathered his men and marched to war.

This applies equally to positive emotions too. A woman decided she would never feel sad or depressed again. She went out with her friends, going to clubs and parties all the time. But she was never satisfied, graduating to drinking parties, hard drugs and one-night-stands with random men. She’s trying to numb herself by chasing highs, but all she’s doing is spiralling into self-destruction. This is the story of Tove Lo’s Habits (Stay High).

Thoughts control emotions. A wakeful mind can sever emotional attachments, preventing the avalanche before it begins.

(I should point out at this stage that meditation is not a replacement for psychiatric treatment. People with mental health issues should seek help from a professional instead of attempting to self-medicate with meditation.)

Final Thoughts

There are many ways to meditate. Some traditions use extensive visualisation exercises, taking the meditator on a journey to the inside of their minds. In analytical meditation, one attempts to investigate a topic deeply with the power of a focused mind. Another practice requires you to observe the flow of your thoughts as they wander in your head. Yoga and qigong demand absolute focus, calmness and relaxation, like meditation in motion.

Find the method that works for you. There is a plethora of benefits associated with meditation that make the time worth it. To start, all you have to do is dedicate five minutes a day, every day, just for conscious breathing. This is only one-third of one percent of your day — and the payoff is spectacular.

For further reading, please see the following links:

Get Up and Ruck

Life is not lived sitting down behind a screen. Life is lived outside at the edge of your comfort zone, at the borders of your day-to-day experience. When everyday life grinds down your soul, when you weary of staying indoors and experiencing the same routine over and over again, there is a simple solution.

Get up and ruck.

Rucking is simple. Carry weight on your back and go out for a walk. Go solo or go with friends. Go as far and as fast as you can. The important thing is to get moving and keep moving.

To go rucking, you just need two things: a ruck and a destination. When preparing for a ruck, you need to manage your weight and bulk. Pack everything you will need first, followed by everything you may have to use in an emergency, and lastly things that are nice to have but not necessary. In the above photograph, my ruck was packed with the following:

  1. 40 oz / 1.18 litre Hydroflask
  2. Necessities pouch containing flashlight, spare batteries, medicine, stationery, packets of tissue and band-aids
  3. Umbrella
  4. 2 granola bars
  5. Coin pouch
  6. Kindle

These were packed in order of importance. Water is critical, followed by medicine and hygiene. Should an emergency strike, you need to be able to deal with it there and then with the tools you have on hand. While illumination, shelter and food are also important, in urban environments they can be found nearly everywhere. The coin pouch and the Kindle are the nice-to-haves, so light and small they go with me wherever I go.

There’s so little packed in the ruck that it makes the bag look floppy. That’s deliberate. Pack light, go fast. The less you carry, the more agile and mobile you are, and the more things you can do when you get to wherever you are going.

The point of rucking isn’t just to go from point A to point B. It’s to experience life. Keep your head up, your phone down and your legs moving. If you see something interesting, go explore. See someone interesting, go talk. Going light lets you do all this without losing your breath or acting awkward around strangers. And if you find yourself picking up or buying stuff, you have plenty of empty space inside your ruck to keep them, leaving your hands free.

This is not to say you shouldn’t carry heavy stuff. If I have to get work done on my computer, I bring it with me. If you want to challenge yourself by carrying more weight, go right ahead. But everything you carry in your ruck should serve a purpose. The heavier something is, the more the weight has to be justified. If that weight is not used somehow, it has to go.

Once you have your ruck, you need somewhere to go. Both a starting point and an endpoint. There are many areas of attraction everywhere in the world. The trick is to find them.

Many locals consider Singapore to be the most boring place in the world. In a sense, that is true. Everywhere you go you see the same thing: high-rise flats (apartment blocks to Americans) clustered next to private estates, a shopping centre at every major train station, offices and industrial buildings at designated business zones.

But life is lived outside day-to-day experience.

Rucking in the big city is simple. Pick a neighbourhood, preferably someplace you haven’t been before. Study a map of the area. Plot your route if you want, or not at all if you prefer to go rambling. Call up friends if they’re interested, or go solo.

That’s it. Head up, phone down, go ruck.

Here are some photos from my latest ruck:

Shophouses from the colonial era.

This side of the Singapore River, you’ll find fancy restaurants, pubs and massage parlours.

It’s quiet now, but come nightfall, this place will be packed.

Skyscrapers by the water. The building in the distance is the Fullerton Hotel.

The most important bar in Singapore’s modern history. Here, sociopolitical activists, bloggers, lawyers and politicians used to meet, discuss their latest plans, and carry out events.

Hotel Park Royal at Upper Pickering Street.

Lime restaurant inside the Hotel Park Royal.

The signature red truck of the Police Special Operations Command.

East and West: Green tea chiffon cake, paired with warm kaya dip.

Rucking is simple, yet challenging. It’s an opportunity for exploration and adventure. It’s a chance to go see what is in your patch of Earth. Immerse yourself in what you find, and share them with the world.

The next time you feel that you need to do something new, the prescription is simple.

Get up and ruck.