What’s a good death?

I recently went to a talk on The Art of Living and Dying by venerable Sogyal Rinpoche, one of the most highly regarded and world-renowned Buddhist leader of Tibet. The concept of death is the subject of much contemplation in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, although not so much in the Theravadan tradition in Thailand. It is said that one’s state of mind at the moment of death has a major impact on one’s future lives.

Beneath the fear of death is the fear to face ourselves. The moment of death is the moment of truth.

As someone with Buddhist influence, I’ve talked about death pretty openly on this blog before. In fact, it’s even in the title of my first spirituality essay. Death is something I think about often, not due to the morbidity but its effect as the reminder of how I can live the rest of my life.

I want to die a good death. By that, I don’t mean to die without pain or die quickly, as are often associated with dying well. A good death to me simply means a good life–an intentional life filled with passion, purpose, gratitude, and love. One of my spiritual mentors once asked me: “If you’re on your deathbed, what would be the one thing you wished you have accomplished in life?” This, in my opinion, is the prime question that we should keep asking ourselves.

Dying well means living well. It means remembering to be mindful of every breathing moment and the limitless potential of the human mind. It means remembering to care, to love, to laugh, and to cry when we need to. It means not wasting our times on things that don’t matter to our physical, emotional or spiritual health. It also means letting go of things that hurt us.

A good death means being ready for death, because you never know whether your death or tomorrow will come first (according to the wise words of a Tibetan teacher). A good death is a good life.

May we all live well this 2016 and beyond.

May we all die well when our time comes.

 

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What’s my ideal city?

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Bangkok. While there are some positives like the food and low cost of living, I’m not a fan of the pollution (be it noise, light or air), lack of access to green space, extreme heat, traffic jams, lack of concern for environment, high corruption rates, … Okay, you get the idea. The list goes on.

This brings me to a fun question: What’s my ideal city?

The OECD Better Life Index runs a pretty neat customizable index tool that lets you rate cities based on the relative importance (decided by the user) of each of these topics: Housing, Income, Jobs, Community, Education, Environment, Civic Engagement, Health, Life Satisfaction, Safety and Work-Life Balance. Check mine out here. According to this, the top 5 countries for me are Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Australia and Switzerland. No surprises here.

However, I find it rather backwards that you have to rate the importance of topics like life satisfaction and health, since these are the goals you strive for, not the basic characteristics of the city. Anyway, it still makes sense that if one of your main goals is to have a high life satisfaction, you look for cities where the citizens report high life satisfaction. They still seem counter-intuitive to me though. Here’re the things I look for in an ideal city:

  • It’s walkable: Extensive public transportation system, bike lanes, large footpaths, low traffic jam
  • It’s not so chaotic: I suffocate in overly crowded cities. If I have my way, my cities will have an open and orderly feel.
  • It’s green: The city should be dotted by large (and well-maintained) green spaces, with plenty of room for R&R
  • It’s civic-minded: The citizens should be actively engaged in the state of affairs of their own city and the betterment of the community and beyond it.
  • It’s safe. Self explanatory.
  • It’s got a good welfare system: Healthcare for everyone, sufficient vacation days, flexible working hours, safety nets for the low income community. Yes, I’m willing to pay a 50% tax for this.
  • It’s not so hot like Bangkok 🙂

Too much to ask for? I don’t think so. Although it’s a far cry from where I currently reside, I believe such places exist in the world. I hope to eventually make my way to one of them.

Winston Churchill once said this: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” In a similar way, I believe that we shape our cities; thereafter they shape us. Although my true destination is to find the happy place for my soul, being in a city that’s more aligned with what I consider to be ingredients of a good life will make the journey smoother.

What’s your ideal city?

The price I pay for my fleeting happiness

Here’s another glimpse inside my head.

I am currently addicted to a mobile game called Summoners War, along with millions of other people in this planet. (To date, the app has over 10 million downloads on Android alone.)

I’ve been trying to figure out what makes this game so addictive. Maybe it’s the chance to disconnect (ironic as that may sound) from the world around me. Or an actually reasonable set of missions to complete, unlike in real life. Actually, the very fact that I know my goals in the game make me feel good too. The truth is… it’s probably all these things. The game is so good to me because it aids me, in those fleeting moments, to forget about my worries. The game is good to me because it makes me believe I can solve the problems. The game is good to me because it gives me agency, something that I despairingly lack in real life. I’m sure you have your own version of Summoners War. There’s something that just gets you to forget about everything else and allows you to be happy, however long it may last. Hopefully, the price you pay for it is not too high. But my point is this: This happiness is and will always be fleeting.

What was the price I paid for this game that keeps on giving? $0. Well, the game is modeled like most other games: free to download with optional in-app purchases. I’ve been tempted several times, but so far I haven’t spent a dime on it. One could then say that perhaps the price for my fleeting happiness is nothing, but that’s not entirely true right now.

The price I pay is not zero. The price I pay is guilt.

I view pleasure disdainfully. Despite scientific evidence of the positive effects of pleasure on other aspects of life, I still believe it to be an inferior form of happiness to eudaimonia. I feel it an unaffordable luxury considering how many problems there are on this world. This really is my main argument: What have we done to deserve pleasure? I think most of us believe we’re born with this sense of entitlement over everything the world has to offer. I don’t believe so. I believe that we have to earn the right to our air we breath and everything that we do. We don’t deserve happiness unless we work for it.

Perhaps it’s my Buddhist ideology (life is suffering) that brought me to this belief, but regardless of wherever this view towards pleasure came from, I know better. I know that pleasure has its positives. I know that pleasure can help my body function more effectively and hence pleasure can help me do my life’s work better. Alas, this is yet again another prime example of how difficult it is to rewire the brain. It is a work in progress; a part of my letting go process. This one is to let go of judging myself for spending too much time on pleasurable activities. I really am weird. Who else in the world actually has this problem?

The price I pay for simple pleasures should be zero, but I can’t stop myself from slapping a tax on my very own pockets of joy.

0318 – Depressed in Spirit: Existential Depression

I recently came across this article on my Facebook feed, which introduced me to a new concept: Existential Depression.

And I have an official name to call what happened to me my entire life in the last few years of my life.

After I found the article, I immediately went online to find out more about existential depression. That led me to this page, entitled “Being Depressed in Spirit: Deeper than Psychological Depression.” Huh. Intriguing.

In short, there is such a thing called spiritual or existential depression, which is distinguishable from psychological depression. There are many differences between the two, but one that caught my eyes is  the fact that existential depression cannot be directly traced to a cause. This quote captures how terrible it (existential depression) felt:

“Spiritual or existential depression is a helpless feeling of being drained and depleted, dying, decaying, going away.

One common image is the hole.
We seem to be falling or sinking into a bottomless blackness.
The goo into which we sink presses on us from all sides,
but it gives no support from below.

We stand hip-deep in a hole in the ground. We can see the world around us, but we cannot relate to it. We want to crawl all the way down into the hole and cry. When we are alone, we don’t have to keep up a happy front. We don’t have to submit to being ‘cheered up’ by well-meaning people.”

Boy I don’t know how many times I’ve used the words “abyss” and “bottomless” to describe my feelings.

Another fact: Existential depression is “permanent–always present in our selves, altho [sic] repressed [emphasis mine].”

As a passionate supporter of positive psychology and well-being indicators as tools for public policy, I like reading, learning and talking about happiness. I like feeling happiness too–all of us I’m sure. But I echo the words I heard from Dr. Chris Peterson, one of the forefathers of positive psychology: that positive psychology is never meant to replace or displace conventional psychology. Rather, it should work together. Previously, nobody was studying how to get from “ok” to “well,” but we will always need to get from “unwell” to “ok.” My point is that depression is. a. big. deal. There is no discounting the excruciating pain of depression, including–if I can say so from my own experience–the pain of existential depression.

So I know that there is a chance some of you with existential depression may be doing a search for the phrase “existential depression” or “spiritual depression.” So this below is for us:

You We are not alone. We. Are. Not. Alone.

You may feel like many people don’t understand you. You can’t figure out what’s wrong with you. You feel like it’s dark all around. You’re sinking further into this bottomless abyss. And you don’t know why.

We’ve asked the same questions. We’ve wondered the same things. We know how awful meaninglessness feels. We’ve looked many places to find our passion, our meaning, our purpose, our goal. Goddamnit if only we can just find that spark.

“Just forget about it.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out someday.”
“You’re thinking too much.”

We’ve all heard them before. Well-intentioned words that are rendered stone cold as it travels through the shallow air of the abyss that is spiritual depression. Those don’t comfort us. We get even more frustrated hearing them.

But we’re not crazy.

And we’re not alone.

We care. Too much at times. But we care because we only get to live once. We care because we don’t own the planet and we want to make our lives worth the resources we’re taking. We care because there seems to be something so inexplicably and frustratingly incorrect about our society and that’s gotta change. Now.

I wish I can tell you the formula to feel better overnight. I mean… we’re not really about that, are we? Because sometimes “the journey is the treatment.” I’m still looking for my passion. I’m still looking for my dream job. I’m still fighting every damn day to not feel useless. And noone–I mean noone–can convince me otherwise. And I know you feel the same way.

I’m 23, and I’ve been in this for over six years. And I don’t think it’s gonna end soon.

I can’t offer you a solution, but I can offer you this: Have hope. Cling on to hope. Hope that the world will change. Hope that you will find someone who truly understands you. Hope that you will find your true you one day. Hope that it will be all right. Hope that we will make impact. Hope that we will find our meaning. Not because we will, because I can’t promise you that either. Hope, because along the journey you will grow and you will start to understand why things are the way they are and you will start to grip why you feel this way. And most importantly – because you will make an impact one day, even if it’s to one person or one area. I know you don’t believe me now. Because I didn’t believe myself. Here’s the catch: I’m speaking to myself as much as I’m speaking to you. But I’m hoping.

Let’s fight together. We can.

0308 – Small Act. Simple Happiness

When I was in Hampi, I ran into a group of middle school students on a field trip. Hampi, India is a UNESCO World Heritage site, filled with ruins, temples and rock formations to marvel at.

Our tour of the city brought us to a place called Queen’s Bath. At the entrance, we saw the huge group of kids lined up next to the front gate waiting to go in. I thought to myself, “Uh oh. S.O.S. Chaos to follow.”

Chaos did ensure.

There were 10 of us in Hampi at the time. All foreigners. And if you have been in India before, you know that most locals like to stare at foreigners–out of curiosity. They also like to say hello, shake hands and take pictures. And if they’re kids, they shout and run after you too.

So this place, Queen’s Bath, is literally a place with a giant bath in the middle, like this:

Guess who was in the bath itself when the kids ran it. This guyyyyy.

Oh, shit.

They swarmed in strong and seemed really excited to see us. I was a natural target, being the sole foreigner trapped in the middle of a giant box.

Yup. Right at the middle of that. There's only one way up...

Boy it was mayhem. By the way, I’m saying all this in good fun. I love kids, and I like to see them happy. Foreigners are, quite literally, foreign to them. For some reason, they love seeing us. They wanted to shake our hands, be in pictures with us, or even just to be near us. We felt like superstars, with out little fans following us around. Here are some pictures:

They were just… happy. It was the highlight of my trip. And we really didn’t do anything much. We just spent some time with them and took pictures. That’s all we needed. Small acts, big happiness. It made me happy too. And their teacher was happy that he got photos of us with the kids, and perhaps also because the kids got a chance to see us. Interesting thought.

It really is true that happiness is relative, and it all depends on one’s expectations. This really puts life in perspective. You don’t have to accomplish everything or be the luckiest person in the world to be happy. Sometimes, joy comes when you  least expect it. Sometimes, joy comes from simplicity.

0303 – My conversation with Dr. Vandana Shiva

I was in New Delhi a couple weeks ago and took the opportunity to meet Dr. Vandana Shiva, truly one of the most inspirational environmental activists in India, if not the world. I first met Dr. Shiva at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference in April 2012. She was a speaker in one of the plenary sessions, and I remembered being captivated by her passion and ability to carry the message. You can watch it here.

I really wanted to talk to her because I identify with so many things she said in that session, and also because she’s involved with Bhutan–a country that I just love–in an effort to turn it organic. Sadly, it shouldn’t be just a cool thing that some people do; it should be a common thing. Dr. Shiva also seems to… get it. She seems to have figured it out–what she’s here to do, what her role is, and what life is all about.

After almost an hour of searching and sweating in the 42-degrees heat of India’s capital, I arrived at Dr. Shiva’s humble office in the southern part of Delhi. Dr. Shiva was hard at work when I arrived, gave me a big smile and kindly asked me to wait a few minutes. The 30-minute conversation that transpired afterwards was definitely worth all the wait. She gave me many pointers to ponder. One of the things that stuck with me the most was her take on socialism. I asked her what her thought on socialism is, and here’s what she said (or what I recalled of it):

“If socialism is about equality, then I’m all for equality. If capitalism is all about maximizing our potential, I’m all about capitalism. But if socialism is about more power for fewer people, then I’m against it. Likewise, if capitalism is all about consumerism, I don’t agree with it.”

Dr. Shiva has a way with these things. I was surprised at how at ease she was about our world. She said that her quantum physics background shaped her philosophically as well, which perhaps has helped her to understand uncertainty and the constant flux that we exist in.

But it is her seeming happiness that pleasantly surprised me. Dr. Shiva greeted me with a big, genuine smile. Not one of those ones where you obligatorily force out for guests, but one that made me feel like she’s actually happy to help another soul. It was really nice to see. The world needs more happy people like her.

I kept asking her whether she felt angry or sad or depressed or confused–emotions that I’m feeling–about this whole thing called life. She served as a living example of how one need not feel negative about the mess that we’re in, and small steps can make a difference. With the work that I do, I hope that many generations to come will have a chance to smile, and a chance to be happy–a chance to live.

Soon, I’ll be doing some more soul searching to shift the attitude that has brought me much negativity. Dr. Shiva has shown me that there really is a way to work in a challenging and at times hostile environment and still be truly happy. I encourage you to check out her work. It’s really one of a kind.

0300 – Engaged, but not attached

300th post!

Purposefairy wrote in her wildly popular inspirational post “15 Things You Should Give Up To Be Happy” that we sometimes have to embrace change and let go of things that are holding us back from happiness. This notion is something I’m very familiar with as I was raised Buddhist. “Attachments”–that’s what we call them. Attachment to worldly things is part of the cause of suffering–a fact of life, one of the Four Noble Truths.

I actually don’t consider myself Buddhist anymore. Little-known fact: When I was young, I was ordained as a novice monk in a forest temple for two weeks in 2009, right before my arrival in the US. That experience, unfortunately or otherwise, was the pinnacle of my Buddhist pursuits. The experience aught me a lot and I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t do it again if you ask me right now. I could definitely see why heading down this path would lead to ultimate happiness, but I felt like it wasn’t right for me.

Monkhood, in my very limited understanding then, seems like removing oneself from the world–an act I was not ready to commit to. As I’ve said many times, there’re things that I’d like to see in the world, and I still yearn to make a valuable contribution. In a nutshell, I still have attachments in the world that I was and am not ready to let go of. I still hope that one day, I can make a contribution. To me, in order to make a contribution, I need to remain very committed (synonymous to “attached” to me then) to my dreams. And this belief of mine seems to not fit into the Buddhist scheme of things.

Earlier this year, I was introduced by my friend, Mr. Eric Weiner, to the concept of “Engaged Buddhism,” which captivated me. The phrase engaged Buddhism seems oxymoronic at first, but this emergent interpretation of Buddhism is saying that one can be engaged, but not attached. Huh.

I found this video:

 

Fascinating.

The beauty–and sometimes point of contention–of Buddhism (and other religions as well I suppose) is that its interpretation and translation into actionable items in everyday life can be largely subjective. There’re different ways to adopt the teachings, and I am always interested in hearing about one that I can apply to my life. Engaged Buddhism is pretty intriguing and plausible in that regard.

Engaged Buddhism is pioneered by the great Thich Nhat Hanh, whose teachings have reached millions both in the East and West. I resonate very well with this interpretation, and m really glad to see that I learned about it. Yet, I won’t consider myself a Buddhist again.

Our society is obsessed with labels, from grades, nationality, age, race, religion, college major, etc. Some of them we have no control over, but some we do. Regardless, we seem to be very interested in learning about others’ labels, which I think is not right. In my refusal to choose a single religion, I have been free and able to internalize the teachings of various religions. Why must we choose a single label, when one is unique and a single label doesn’t really define who you are?

I’m not saying that I don’t believe in Buddhism anymore. I still do, and I still draw comfort and peace from the Buddha’s teachings often. But I no longer see the reason to call myself a Buddhist, when many other teachers have also found the Way, the Truth and the Light.

0298 – The art of bargaining, and the opening of eyes

So… I’m kinda broke right now. I’ve been spending so much money on all my past and planned travels over the weekends that I’m now out of money. O.o Waiting for my next paycheck to come out in a few days. It’s a strange feeling, this living paycheck to paycheck thing. It’s a rather new sensation for me–fortunately. It’s kind of stressful but also refreshing in a way; to be able to really experience the harsh reality of money’s role in our society. This year’s been rather woeful financially. Lots of unexpected expenses, not that much income. But those unforeseen transactions are bringing me to India, then Bhutan, and then Liberia, so I’d say it’s probably worth it (or so I hope). Nevertheless, it’s really never healthy to have to think about money all the time, so my heart goes out to all the honest souls out there trying to make ends meet. I’m starting to realize that my impending adulthood really won’t be easy.

India also makes me think about inequality. It’s pretty apparent. There’re people struggling every day, and there’re also people who make more than enough. A new state-of-the-art building can be located right next to a run-down settlement.

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Some of them really know how to bargain. Here’s my recollection of an encounter with a beggar in Mumbai:

Beggar approaches the taxi stuck in traffic.

Him: “10 rupees sir.”

Silence.

“20 rupees.”

Silence. I was confused.

“50 rupees, 50 rupees.”

We started to chuckle.

My friend said, “You’re not very good at this, are you?”

At this point, the taxi driver was laughing as well.

He continued.

“100 rupees!”

“1000 rupees!!”

He didn’t get anything from us.

This story, while amusing, also serves as a point of reflection. Beggars are everywhere in India. It’s not that I don’t give, but from what I know about philanthropy and donations, it is much better to give strategically, i.e. give to those who’re working for their living, or give to institutions that enable a change in their livelihood. But it also makes me think about this: how much money do we need to live? How about to be happy?

Daniel Kahneman’s research suggests that beyond a certain income, where we have enough to meet the necessities and simple needs, more money doesn’t really bring happiness (I really simplified that. Full article here.) Anyway, in practical terms, what does this mean? I’ve talked to friends and strangers who say that many people in countries like Laos, Cambodia, and India are happy, because they haven’t seen much of the world and don’t have many different lifestyles to contrast with their own.

Some Indian residents sleeping on the roof of a building outside my friend’s room. (c) Ana Carolina Leal Talarico 2012

My cab driver was happy. I asked him if he’d ever leave Bangalore, and he said no. But he’s happy here. He’s okay with it. He’s working earnestly–and with a smile–to make a living. It’s very respectable. Interesting to think about.

I wonder… is it because as I see more of the world, I see more choices and more variety, and so I become more… picky and persistent about the way I’d like to live? I’m now used to comfort offered in Westernized societies, but I could live without them, especially if I don’t know about them. So then, the question, in my opinion, becomes: What should I do with the life and experiences that have been bestowed upon me? My eyes have certainly been opening a little wider as I see a new place. We’ll see where I go with all this, but in the end, I just wanna find where I belong.

“You sometimes think you want to disappear but all you really want is to be found.” Anonymous

0294 – The Sound of Impatience

People honk like crazy around here. That drives me crazy. It’s the sound of impatience that drives up my frustration. Why do people need to honk? It’s supposedly the norm here, but is that necessary? Looks like I totally skipped over the honeymoon phase in this culture shock. Anxiety is in full effect.

But to say that’s the cause of my unhappiness is to mask a fundamental underlying problem: me. It’s really been quite a battle. Even as I work with The Happiness Initiative, even as I did an independent study on happiness and sustainability, even as I learn positive psychology, even as I try and try to be mindful of what makes me happy, happiness has eluded me. I would give myself a 2 out of a 10. And that’s terrible. I would like to take this moment to shout out to those who are battling depression right now. I cannot even imagine how hard it is. You are so strong. Keep fighting. Hang in there.

I’m probably not the only person who feels like he shouldn’t be sad because he’s so fortunate to be where he is today and have what he has right now. Yet, sorrow doesn’t vanish overnight.

As I plunge deeper into despair, instead of worrying about my health, I worry about my decreased productivity. Like a true workaholic.

Instead of taking the time off, I work some more. I still lack the courage to do what is best for me.

At some point in your life, you’ll get the feeling that you’re cornered with nowhere to go. You wish a door would just appear that would just take you on a path far away from this unpleasant place.

At 21 and entering my final year of college, I’m in the prime of my quarter-life crisis. Where do I go from here?

I think about my varied interests and how I see no direction. I always say that I now trust life enough that it will take me to the right places, but sometimes, I lose that trust. I’m vulnerable.

I wonder if I’m making an impact, and I tell myself that I am not. Sometimes, I look at the rockstar social entrepreneurs, the inspirational speakers, the thought leaders of our society, and those close to me who get recognition, and I wish I am one of those. Sometimes, I want to be popular. Sometimes, I wish I would just conform with the system and rise to the top in there. I betray myself.

I’m never here. Get me back here. Now. At this moment. At this place. In me. Around me. Beyond the human understanding of time and space.

I’m lost. I’m clueless. I don’t know what to do. I just want to be happy. I never listen to myself. Then I get frustrated at my purported regression.

But all this needs to end. And I will end it. I am in control. I am in charge. I know what I can do. I know what’s right for our world. I know I live not for myself, but for humanity and the planet. Even though the balance of life is and will always be difficult to find, I will continue to try. I will tell myself that I can be different. I will tell myself that I need to slow down. I will tell myself that all is not lost; it never will.

The door towards peace has to be built. And it will be built. I will make sure of that. I will get out of here. And you will too.

One day, the sound of impatience will become reminder of how we are not alone in this world. The sight of suffering will become a reminder of what a privilege our lives have been. And the touch of tenderness will remind us of love and compassion. May love and compassion fill the void of our world.

0288 – On Thailand + departure for India

It’s been really hard to get out of bed these days…

I don’t have to!!! Gotta love the summer break.

There’s been a lot to do though. Top of my list is to reunite my tummy with the favorite dishes it had been deprived of for oh so long. I didn’t take pictures this time, but I should’ve. My favorite food comprises of really simple Thai dishes that rarely highlight the best Thailand has to offer, but I’ll give you a glimpse anyway the next time I get back to Thailand.

Every time I get back here, I never know how to feel about the lifestyle change. In Thailand, we have less expectations about things running on time, there aren’t as big a dependency on technology everywhere, and people somehow walk slower here. It’s kinda nice, but also frustrating.

I went on a Thai river taxi for the first time this past weekend (Bangkok has a river running right through the city and many locals use the boat to get from place to place. Here’s a good video of a foreigner’s experience) and snapped this picture on the right. There are quite a few things that trouble me when I took this picture. 1) The Chao Phraya River’s water is really really… not clean. 2) The dichotomy between the out-of-place modern commercial space and the surrounding old-fashioned vicinity. 3) I had no idea where I was. ha. I did find my way at the end.

It’s kinda weird for me to think about how I’ve been switching back and forth between the two lifestyles. Is one better than the other? Or is one lesser of the two evils? The world is so different everywhere. Who knows what awaits me next. When I asked myself which would make me the most comfortable, I’d say  it’s probably the western lifestyle. But when I asked which would make me happy, I really can’t answer that one. But happiness isn’t really about place, is it? I don’t know, but @Eric_Weiner probably has something to say about that. Anyhow, this happiness dilemma is one that I will continue to think about for some time.

Now, I’m going to be adding one more lifestyle this summer. I’m flying off to Bangalore this Saturday to start my internship. All this traveling’s taking a toll on me, but I’m actually pretty excited about the gig I have lined up in India. Stumbled open this interview of Rohan Parikh, the head of Green Initiatives at Infosys (Apparently the nickname’s “Infy.” Sounds like a cartoon character.). Jokes aside, their efforts look pretty impressive on paper. Renewable energy, composting, education programs, green building, biogas, etc. I’m intrigued. We’ll see how my experience turns out. Anyway, I’ve been flipping through my friends’ travel blogs and decided that I really do need to take more pictures and better document my experiences. So I promise I’ll try to update this blog at least weekly.

Back this weekend when I settle down in India!