I Remember

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I remember a dream of an airplane, falling sharply through the sky. I remember carts barrelling down the aisles and the floor falling sharply beneath me. I remember the screaming.

It was the night of 10 September 2001.

The following night, I understood what the dream meant.

I remember the phone call from a friend that night, claiming a plane had struck the World Trade Center. I remember turning on the television to see the Twin Towers burning, the news casters frantic rehashing of events halfway across the globe, repeating them every few minutes. I remember the face of Satan in the smoke.

I remember the fall.

I remember the smiles, the laughter and the cheers of many people who had seen the collapse of the towers. This was my first brush with naked evil, and my first encounter with those who wish nothing more than to watch the world burn.

It’s been 16 years since then. A lifetime. There is an entire generation of children who have never seen the Towers fall, but have lived with the consequences. A decade and a half of war, fathers and mothers leaving home for war and returning crippled or in coffins, regular reminders of terrorism and national security threats, the steady erosion of necessary liberties for temporary security.

To the generation after theirs, 9/11 would be something they read in history books or learn from their parents. They will never experience the consequences of that day, only the second- and third- and fourth-order effects. When the day comes, what should I tell my children?

I was born in the shadow of a nuclear apocalypse. The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a generations-long cold war, every word and gesture backed with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over. A few years later, the Soviet Union suddenly ceased to exist.

My generation was promised a brave new world and the end of history. We merely enjoyed a brief respite before the war of our generation crashed into every television, every computer and every radio in the world.

While a War on Terror beats nuclear annihilation, it demands a new way of living, a new way of thinking, and the recognition that things never become better all by themselves — we must make them so, or hurtle into the abyss.

Being born in Singapore, I was sheltered from the shock. 9/11 was a tragedy, but not a personal one. None who died were my countrymen, much less people I know. We never had to go to war—though we were, and still are, targeted by terrorists. I could have been born in America and experienced far greater loss; I could have been born in Afghanistan, and forced to choose between the Taliban and the West.

There but for the grace of God go I.

The psychic wounds have healed over, faded to shallow scars. The rage, the grief, the horror, they have bled out long ago, leaving little more than a cyst of sorrow. Now that I am a man, I have shouldered greater responsibilities, and prepare myself for greater ones still.

Now, not so long after 9/11, there are new challenges. The never-ending War on Terror. The culture war between the social justice warriors and those who would face them. The Control-Left versus the Alt-Right. The clash of civilizations—not just between Islam and the West, but between everybody and everybody else. Corporations who arrogate to themselves the power to decide what speech is acceptable on social media. Governments who use all number of excuses to shore up their own power and take away everybody else’s rights. I have no doubt that my children will face challenges of their own.

What shall I teach them?

I will teach them of the boundless resilience of the human spirit and the breadth of the human heart. That sovereigns come and go, but ethics endures through the ages. That kith and kin matter more than the political fads of the day. That evil must be met with courage and righteousness and that all lies are sundered by the truth. That rulers and bandwagons must always be watched with a suspicious eye. That the triumph of evil comes simply from silence, but the triumph of good demands unbending virtue lived day after day. That they are the latest link in an unbroken chain stretching into the mists of antiquity, each generation building upon the achievements of the last, that for civilization to endure they themselves must be ready and able to bow their backs to the task and lay the groundwork for the glories of the next age.

Most of all, I will teach them to remember.

Cover image by Chris Schiffner.

Stand Tall, Speak the Truth, Never Let Your Enemies Drag You Down

To endure is to win. To endure is to be patient. To endure is to shelter. To endure is to cultivate. That which endures, survive. The inner spirit is untouchable and unbreakable.
-Ivan Throne, The Nine Laws

Last week my fiancee wanted to write a post about her struggles with eczema. But she was afraid. Afraid that people would mock her and laugh at her and tear her down. This is what I said to her:

They don’t matter.

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How far are you willing to go to stand at the roof of the world?

I started blogging when I was 16 years old. I was young and dumb, moved more by hormones and ideals than principles and reason. Even so, I didn’t let self-doubt or fear of consequences stop me. I began blogging and never looked back.

It was the epoch of the Singaporean socio-political blogger. The government promised a ‘light touch’ towards new media. New blogs sprang up all over the place, roundly criticising the government for its failures and shortcomings. Bloggers became the Internet celebrities of our time, with socio-political bloggers billing themselves as the alternative to state-controlled media. They were the people of the Internet age, young enough to be comfortable with the Net, yet old enough to remember a time when the government ruthlessly dealt with even the slightest hint of dissent.

And then, there was me. The youngest blogger of them all, a kid in his first year of Junior College.

We spoke out, gathering allies and contacts in academia and elsewhere. We discussed ideas, organised events, held protests. We formed group blogs: New Asia Republic, Wayang Party, and the one I co-founded, The Online Citizen. The state didn’t stand by, of course. The local press called us cowboys and the lunatic fringe. They said we wanted an online free-for-all when all we wanted was to set up a citizens’ consultative committee to discuss controversial speech instead of reaching for censorship and police powers. When we reached out to government organisations, politicians and ministers for comment, we were met with the same response: silence. And for bloggers who crossed the line of defamation or hate speech, they were on the receiving end of lawyers’ letters and midnight knocks.

We didn’t let them stop us. We carried on.

In school, people learned who I was. I became the Benjamin Cheah, the blogger, the rabble-rouser, good for a laugh since he was the only guy with skin in the game and to him fell the brickbats. Schoolmates mocked my blog on theirs. Trolls descended on my blog, insulting visitors and impersonating me. People talked around my back, getting my schoolmates to relay messages to me. People cheered when I spoke, but otherwise they would never say a word in my defense. One of my teachers liked insinuating that I enjoyed flaming people online. My own parents said it was too dangerous to blog, that the only thing I could do online was praise the government.

I was alone.

I didn’t let them stop me. I continued blogging and writing.

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You wanna git gud, you have to put in the time.

When I entered National Service, I toned everything down. For one thing, I just didn’t have the time and energy. For another, it was against a military directive. During my time, I required a security clearance to carry out my duties. It was completely routine, normally granted to regular people. Instead, the Military Security Department denied my clearance. No reason was given. At that point, I was a model citizen. No criminal record, no history of harassing anyone, just a teenager who maintained a blog about politics. Nobody saw a reason why I was denied. But the message was clear: we cannot trust you.

I kept writing.

After National Service, I went back into blogging more regularly. I wanted to get back into the game, help the local alt journalism scene grow, maybe even create a viable alternative to the news media. But the days of the light touch were over, and few people wanted to support the group blogs financially. The government gazetted the group blogs, slapping on paperwork and legal requirements on what was previously a loose network of bloggers. Fundraising became a significant concern. The government continued its policy of suing people who defamed them and arresting people who spread hate speech.

We carried on. Until they turned on me.

Singapore’s government is centre-left. Its approach to economics focuses on monetary policy and free trade, but its model of governance is reminiscent of democratic socialism. Social engineering is everywhere, from public education to National Service to public housing, and the government exercises de facto control over critical national functions from public transportation to the unions to the press.

However, every dissident I can name labels the government as ring-wing. And they responded by swinging even further left.

When I critiqued the idea of rape culture, I saw the first hint of the divide between me and my former colleagues. Bloggers I thought were rational thinkers started spewing buzzwords, nonsense and insults instead of discussing things calmly. When I criticised SlutWalk Singapore, the social justice warriors came, shrieking and spitting hatred and vitriol all over Facebook. For the first time The Online Citizen had to issue warnings to tone down. When I addressed arguments from feminists on social media, the SJWs returned.

I didn’t start the flame war, but it found me.

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Give them nothing.

Here I learned the truth: the Control-Left does not care about free speech or debate. If you do not toe the party line you are a heretic and you must be crushed.

I also learned another truth: nothing trolls, haters and SJWs say matters.

I have never been aware of their opinions before they announced their existence with a shrieking cacophonous swarm. Every time they swarmed me, they demonstrated why their opinions don’t matter. All the sound and fury signifies nothing. They have exchanged reasoned argument for empty rage. All they have done is to show the bitter, blackened depths of their hollowed hearts. People like that don’t matter and never will.

People like that bully others by manipulating a social script. Most people are conditioned to want to get along. This is natural; this is how civilizations function. So when someone walks up to you, screaming and yelling and denouncing you, it feels like you have somehow offended them, that you are somehow in the wrong. The easy way is to back down and apologise.

But if all you have done is to express a contradictory opinion, you have nothing to apologise for. If all you have done is to speak a hard truth, you have nothing to apologise for. If all you have done is to talk to people who hold different views, you have nothing to apologise for.

These harpies want you to tear yourself down by your own hand. Never give them the satisfaction.

I’m still here. I’m still writing. Nothing they have said will stop me.

People have criticized me for signing with Castalia House and supporting the Rabid Puppies, simply because they don’t agree with the politics of Vox Day, editor of Castalia House and head of the Rabid Puppies. They lied about me again and again. One person even declared he will no longer buy books from CH. They don’t matter. The people who supported me–Vox Day and the Rabid Puppies–matter. Their opinions matter more to me than the opinions of strangers, much less strangers whose only interaction with me is to attempt to drag me down.

With NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, I wrote a novel that could never be published in Singapore. It isn’t set in Singapore, so local publishers won’t be interested in it. Even if they were, the novel touches on the triple taboo of race, religion and politics. As the series progresses, I have no doubt more SWs and concern trolls will crawl out of the woodwork and try to stop me.

They won’t. They can’t. For people with no skin in the game, people I have no relationship with, people whose values and behaviours are antithetical to my own, their opinions have never mattered and never will.

If you dare to stand and live your truth, petty people will come to drag you down. They lead empty lives and can’t make anything for themselves, so they glory in convincing others to surrender their dreams. They are worth nothing. Success comes to those who endure. Those who weather the storm of backbiting, mudslinging and bullying, those who refuse to let their enemies do their work for them. Develop the capacity for endurance and you develop the capacity for success.

For over a decade I refused to listen to the naysayers, the trolls, the social justice warriors. Now here I am, Singapore’s first Hugo-nominated SFF writer, one of the few Singaporean bloggers of my generation still in the game, and quite likely the most prominent Singaporean on Steemit.

And I’m only getting started.

As for my fiancee? She got over her fears, and wrote and published her post here.

If you want to know more about the book no Singaporean publisher would touch, you can find NO GODs, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store. The novel has 23 reviews on Amazon, with an average rating of 4.5 stars of 5. If you think it’s excellent, do consider nominating at for the 2017 Dragon Award here under ‘Best Alternate History Novel’. Thanks for your support.

5 Life Lessons for Autists

I won’t call myself an autist. Not yet. I don’t have a formal diagnosis. Nonetheless, I display many of the classic signs of autism: deficits in speech and communication, repetitive behaviours and rigid rituals, hyper-focus on areas of interest. And the Big Three: poor verbal and non-verbal communication skills, impaired social skills, hyper-reactive senses.

I have experienced the same challenges many autistic people have faced. Many of these challenges persist. Even so, I have met many people along the way who have illuminated the path and provided sage advice, people who have helped me make life a little brighter, a little more bearable, a little more worth living.

For National Autism Awareness Month, here are five lessons I have learned along the way.

1. Endurance

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You ready to go the distance?

The measure of a human is how he endures the unendurable and continues to function.

The world is a noisy, swirling, chaotic kinetic maelstrom of sound and motion and odour and tastes and textures. My synaesthesia marries them in unions of audible colour, tactile light and visible smells. Couple them with hyper-reactive senses and the weight of the world is too much to bear.

The slightest human caress was fire against my skin, a pat on the head needles in my mind. Singlish, the true lingua franca of my country, is an ugly irritating spiky blob on the best of days and physically painful at the worst. The screech of train brakes emits painful yellow sparks and a lingering metallic aftertaste. Every clack of a mechanical keyboard is a sharpened sledgehammer to the brain. When I took up kali training, every clash of stick on stick was an explosion of brilliant white spikes.
And the people. People yammer on and on and on, creating floods of inconsequential noise, suddenly touching others and assuming it is benign, holding people to unspoken and unarticulated standards of conduct.

There is only so much the brain can process. So much energy a person has. There will come a breaking point, when the bulwarks fail and the world comes crashing in. When every sound is a stiletto to the ear, every sight sandpaper scraping against the eye, every texture the scratching of a thousand ragged fingernails in the imperceptible space between flesh and bone. It is a sensation that is there and not there, firing nerves in places without them, an infiltration and corruption of the interstitial places between skull and cerebrospinal fluid and brain. It is the corrosion of sense and reason and the descent of chaos and pain.

Humans call it a meltdown.

Running is easy. Secluding yourself in your room and hiding under the covers is pleasant. All too often it is the only sane option left in an insane world.

But there will be times when that option is not available. If you’re in a boardroom meeting, suddenly leaving will jeopardise your career. If you’re standing in a military formation, breaking discipline will lead to collective punishment. If you’re in a crowded elevator frozen between floors, you have nowhere to go.

There’s only one option.

Endure.

Even if you feel that the world is closing in on your mind, you must endure. If that is the least of bad options, endure. Success goes not to the man who quits at the first sign of discomfort, but the one who endures and pushes through pain to the other side.

Autists can—and should—armour themselves against overwhelming sensory experiences however they can. I wrap my sticks in heavy tape to blunt the noise of impact. I carry Flare Audio Isolate titanium earplugs all the time. I choose clothes and accessories and equipment with an eye towards minimal sensory impact. I work in quiet rooms and stay away from noise.

But there is only so much you can do. If you wish to interact with the world, much less leave your mark on it, you must engage it fully. You must open yourself to the unceasing pandemonium that is life in the modern age. If you will not blind or deafen yourself, life will seep through in all its wonder and chaos.

You must endure.

And in enduring, you learn that it is not a fixed capacity.

As you expose yourself to greater and more frequent sounds, you desensitise yourself to them. You learn how to mitigate them, how to cope with them, how to keep functioning. You learn to recognise the signs of an autistic meltdown and either head off the symptoms or leave the area. The truest test is to function at the ragged edge of your abilities, to keep thinking and talking and responding on the threshold of a meltdown—or in the middle of one.

It is not easy, but it is necessary if you live in a bustling city like I do.

To achieve great rewards one must endure great hardships. If you would do more than merely exist, you must push through pain and suffering to achieve your goals. You must develop the ability to endure.

2. You Are Not Special

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Snowflakes melt. Don’t be one.

If you’re autistic, chances are you have an all-consuming interest. It could be anything: prime numbers, train schedules, memorising pi, baking pies, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the complete genealogy and medical history of a flock of sheep, the search for a Grand Unified Theory.

It doesn’t matter.

Your special interests do not make you special. If you can’t find a way to contribute to people’s lives through your special interest, you are not special.

Writing remains my singular focus in life, but I also pursued knowledge in other fields, moving from one to another in days or weeks or months. In primary school I could discuss atomic power, King Arthur and the human immune system. As a teenager I could hold court on terminal ballistics, the discography of the Bee Gees and epistemology.

None of it mattered.

Nobody was interested in such arcana. Nobody benefited from my discourses and lectures and writings. Ergo, no value was delivered through these obsessions.

It’s fine to pursue these interests as a hobby. But if you can’t find and manifest the intersection between your interests and what people desire, nobody will care about them.

Autistics will feel distressed when they cannot pursue their interests. It is tempting to drop everything to focus solely on them. But that is attachment, and attachment is the root of suffering. If you deliver no value to others, people are not going to support you or pay you or otherwise help you continue existing so you can continue to pursue your interests.

The ideal, of course, is to make a living through your passions. To get there, you must act. You cannot limit yourself to stuffing your head with information or delivering lectures to unreceptive audiences. You must act. You must be the best in your field, identify missing needs and fill them. You must be give people a reason to give you money. In my case, there is a resurging demand for excellent fiction, specially science fiction and fantasy, and I intend to fill that gap. Likewise, there is high demand for articles about self-improvement, travel, life hacks, martial arts, the craft of writing and more—and my record on Steemit speaks for itself.

It is nice to imagine that one can make a living from one’s interests, but it isn’t always so. I would love to be a professional fiction writer, but that’s not on the horizon anytime soon. There was a time when I could simply write all day and not worry about anything else, but those days are over. I have bills to pay and responsibilities to uphold. I had to scale back my writing, again and again, to accommodate reality. There will come a day when I will be a professional writer, when I can support myself through my interests…but for now, life demands its due.

Your special interests do not make you special. What you do with them does.

3. Scripts Rule Society

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How much of this scene is on autopilot?

If you will not take holy orders and seclude yourself in a hermitage, or live by yourself alone in the wilderness, you must interact with people. It is an inescapable facet of life. If you want friends and lovers and children, if you want to buy goods and services, if you want to live in the modern world with all its trappings, you have to talk to people.

Social interaction is the chief weakness of most autistics. You don’t have to be a social butterfly, but you can at least be functional in society.

Fortunately, society runs on social scripts.

Social scripts are predictable and expectable responses to specific circumstances. People who know each other exchange greetings when they meet. If someone does another wrong, the wronged party expects an apology and the offending party issues one. Societies enforce taboos and teach their members how to behave in public and private. Organisations have specific procedures and jargon so everyone is on the same page.

Imagine an intricate machine filled with uncountable numbers of enmeshed gears rotating in unison. That is society. Social scripts, especially codes of etiquette, are the lubricants that keep everything turning smoothly. They allow complete strangers to interact each other, and intimates to predict what the other party will say or do.

Social scripts enable mutual understanding and minimise conflict. Most people are unaware of these scripts. Autistics cannot afford to be—and, at the same time, can craft scripts of their own to pre-empt difficulties. For example, when buying groceries, the standard script takes six steps:

  1. Set groceries on counter
  2. Wait for cashier to register every sale and declare the price
  3. Check the price and make payment
  4. Receive change or card as necessary
  5. Double-check all items and gather them up
  6. Leave

To regular people, buying groceries is a simple, mindless transaction. It took me years to figure out how to do it smoothly. A neurotypical person may see groceries as an undifferentiated mass of stuff. For me, every bag, every good, every coin, every card, every person, every gesture, every sound, every perceivable action and object and event is a discrete item that must be logged and tracked and moved into appropriate positions or otherwise accounted for.

For autistic people, the mere act of buying groceries is a recipe for mental congestion. And that’s before accounting for off-script events.

It’s the little things: the cashier talking to you, children chatting behind you, dropping coins, incorrect change, a cash register noisier than usual, a bellicose customer. Neurotypical people may not have a problem with it, but autists with their minds busy processing the transaction will not be able to respond effectively.

If you can break down a script, you can pre-empt it and create your own scripts to your advantage. On the way to the counter you can start calculating the bill. As the cashier keys in the sales, you can prepare payment. When you pay the cashier you can take the time to check items. This frees up cognitive capacity to check items and prepare to go.

A script allows you to work with minimal cognitive load. It is a reliable heuristic governing human behaviour. Life is difficult enough; no need to make it worse

4. Empathy is A Skill

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If you can talk and think you can do this.

Neurotypical people instinctively learn social skills through everyday interaction. Autists are challenged to consciously learn them.

Empathy is a skill. Charm is a skill. All kinds of interpersonal communication are skills. Skills can be learned. If you are not brain-damaged, you can pick up the ability to communicate effectively in society.

Social scripts are useful, but they only apply to specific contexts. When events go off-script, you need to respond smoothly and appropriately. Social skills allow you to respond with a minimal of disruption. They allow you to broaden your horizons and spontaneously interact with people in multiple environments. To be an integral part of society, you must know how to talk to people. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.

There are hundreds of books and websites out there that teach people, specifically autistic people, social skills, empathy and charm. After learning them, put them into practice. Start with social scripts, then graduate to unplanned encounters. Work your way up to ever-increasing levels of difficulty.

To highly introverted autists, this is extremely difficult. It requires obsessive study, the willingness to put theory into practice, the recognition that failure is inevitable and the will to get back up and try again anyway. It requires endurance and courage and sheer bloody-mindedness to keep trying. It is exhausting, but this is why you manage your energy and develop endurance.

And the rewards?

Friends, family, a career. The ability to be a functional member of society, to share your thoughts and aspirations and emotions, to find companionship, to divide sorrow and multiply joy. To live, fully and completely, in the world.

It is difficult, but it is worth it.

5. Change Yourself, Change the World

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Start with the man in the mirror

The world is not made for autists.

It’s simple demographics. Most people are neurotypical, ergo they shape society per their thought patterns, their quirks, their foibles. Many of them don’t know how to interact with autistics, many don’t want to, many don’t even care.

It’s nice to call for autism awareness. It’s nice to call for neurodiversity. It’s nice to call for autism rights. People who want to be nice will try their best to accommodate the needs of autists.

Not everyone will.

Nobody can change the world. Not by themselves.

Nobody can force people to change. Not without guns and concentration camps and the tools of dictatorship. People who demand that everybody change to accommodate them without themselves being willing to compromise are little more than bullies and petty tyrants.

You can’t change people without coercion but you can always change yourself.

You can choose many things: how you feel about events, how you act in response to stimuli, whether to change or stand fast.
Choose growth. Choose change. Choose to be the best person you can be. Choose to surround yourself with people who bring out your best.

Do this, and the world will change with you.

Summing Up

I lied.

These five lessons aren’t just for autistics. They are for everybody. Autists need them the most, but they apply to neurotypicals too.

No matter where you stand on the autistic spectrum, if you are on the spectrum at all, you are as human as me and everyone else. Growth is universal to all humans. All I have done is lay bare a few aspects of growth and placed them in a frame. Frame them a different way and the lessons still apply.

Life awaiting.

Embrace it.

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.

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