Warrior of the Soul Part 2: To See the Soul

Gushing water
To see the soul is an art that requires utmost patience. Indelible stillness, like the water’s surface, is your goal. And yet, a body of water is hardly ever still; the wind blows and it ripples forward, a vortex within churns, and the water swirls – currents deep beneath under the surface ebb and flow in endless undulations. There is always movement, whether seen or unseen. But – and this is where the secret lies – waters always move unhindered.

Look at the brook, the river, the sea; they are ever-moving in sync with nature. When there is no perturbation, water is still and unshaken – as in a quiet lake, a genteel pond. But as the world buzzes with motion, water follows.

And water is powerful indeed. At great heights, falling water can crush rocks. Over time, rocks are ground to pebbles, and then fine sand, washed away by the current. There is much to fear about water – while it is essential for life to flourish, in excess, it crushes, drowns, and kills.

Because of fear, our instinct is to resist. When we resist the moods of the soul, we place dams in the streams of our heart, and our emotions cannot flow as they normally would. Waves gush against the artificial barrier, and try to find another way around. At times, the waters ease away safely; excess seeps into the ground, a new outlet is found without much fanfare. But when the currents are too strong, dammed up rivers are trammeled dangerously against our walls. They pound with all of nature’s might, and when they finally break free, it is with an explosive burst that comes at great cost. At times like these, our bodies, the ones we love, and the life we live – these may be the first casualties.

About a week after I wrote the above paragraph, I got into one of those funky moods where I was being intensely self-critical and completely closed-up to all kinds of interaction. Just as I was at the peak of this emotional perturbation, a family member unintentionally spoke some harsh words – all of which were intended to release steam rather than to hurt anyone – and I took it too personally. In response, I reacted with an uncharacteristically angry outburst that stressed my body, distressed my family member, and upset myself further.

On hindsight, I realized that I was seething with self-critical rage, and instead of processing it properly, I suppressed it and tried to get on with my day. I was essentially constructing dams that impeded the natural flow of these powerful, negative emotions. If I sat myself down, if I stilled myself and felt my emotions, I would have been able to realize that all the internal discomfort simply came from my inner critic gone haywire.

With this knowledge, a number of options would have been available to me. I could call out on my crazy inner critic, taking the edge off its bite. I could rationally consider if some of its observations were sensible or just exaggerations. For the sensible observations, I could re-channel the anger I felt at myself to fuel productive pursuits.

Indeed, by understanding that torrent of uncomfortable emotions and feeling it instead of blocking it, I would have been able to transform it into power – power to change my circumstances by taking proactive measures. Instead of being crushed by it, I would have had a source of energy. Negativity could have turned into positivity, and frustration could have become fuel.

Armed with this observation, I decided to practice stilling myself, and then watching my inner turbulences during the weeks after that event. I was quite surprised to notice that there was a lot more going on under the surface than I was expecting – supressed anger, grief, anxieties. Being able to stay still and bear the discomfort and fear of dealing with strong emotions helped me to see deep beyond the surface. From there, I could begin to do work on the soul. So long as I practiced this discipline of seeing the soul, I noticed that I was better able to brush off my family member’s negative moods, or even diffuse it, instead of allowing it to affect me. By being still myself, I was able to help still others.

Inner Child Dysfunctions

Do I have a language for these things? These mindless, useless things that I indulge in but are no good for me in the moment – or at least I know that there’s a better solution to my funk but I do them anyway; either out of habit, or because I’m bored, or frustrated, or down.

Whatever it is, I need a language for it, so next time I do something silly again, I can say, “there – another one of those.”

List of silly things I do:
1) open up a phone game in the morning when travelling, and when I’m too tired to do anything else. I think taking some time to meditate or reflect upon the day will be so much more useful.
2) wasting time looking through albums for something to listen to, instead of having a go-to list of songs-to-learn, or at the very least mood-relevant playlists.
3) starting a game of starcraft 2 without a gameplan, a skill I’d like to practice, or a goal whatsoever, and being emotionally invested. Not very good when you lose, and not even particularly good when you win.
4) nibble some snack/make coffee/buy unhealthy food in an indulgent manner whenever I’m tired and need energizing. I’d rather go to fruits or juice or something good for my body but you know, my inner kid wants all that.
5) brooding in moody thoughts instead of doing something productive about it. I think exercising, musicking, or taking a stroll would much better alternatives, even if the ruminating commentary still goes on in the background.

All these things aren’t particularly bad in themselves, but knowing the opportunity cost of these petty indulgences sorta makes it pretty painful to reflect upon. I think I shall call them inner-child dysfunctions, mostly because they tend to happen when some vital part of me is not being taken care of. Either not enough food, rest, socializing, or play.

I think instead of willing myself to enforce better habits when dysfunctions occur, a more effective way is to build a life around taking care of these needs, and then it’d be much easier to make a better choice.

I suppose inner child dysfunctions are signs of poor management in the past rather than indicators of necessary !immediate action in the present – it’s way tempting to go “okay I’m gonna force myself to do exercise/eat better food/meditate instead of whatever” but the energy required to force yourself in the right here and now has to come from somewhere. Even worse, a sudden forceful will applied to an already malfunctioning aspect of the self might associate negative feelings to the activity in question, which damages future endeavours. Is rolling it right in the present so important that you risk your future development over it?

I don’t think so.

Of course it’ll be good not to let everything go south, the inner child also needs to be quite firmly disciplined. So perhaps a well-balanced way out of this predicament is to let yourself fail within limits, and institute placeholder habits instead of giving up entirely (indulge in some snacks, but also throw in a couple of fruits!). Ultimately to think long term and give myself space to fight another day will be on my agenda. Plus of course, to make sure that I am moving towards a better future instead of repeating old mistakes, otherwise I’m just buying time for more dysfunction.

All in all, I suppose these inner-child dysfunctions are quite a common place occurence to everyone. How do you deal with it? I’ll be curious to know.

Meanwhile, I shall attempt to regulate indulgences every now (an important step in avoiding plateauing of growth, or flat-lining of expectations), but an overall plan to take care of those deeper needs in a healthy manner is the right way to go.

Radical Joy

Garden Fountain

Having recently made a post about sadness, I thought it fit that I explore its emotional counter-pole. In my experience, grief and gladness can be likened to the cycles of day and night; one comes after the other without fail, and sometimes in surprising degrees. In darkness, the first rays of light delight us, in occupation of day, we are shocked by the quick passage of time – it is evening again. Likewise gladness and sorrow take over each other like the sun and the moon upon the night scape. But perhaps much like the oft-cited Ying and Yang symbol, even in stark darkness the sun’s light is reflected from the moon, and in the peak of day, shadows are its darkest; hence a measure of joy exists in overwhelming sadness, maybe in the form of hope, and a touch of sadness exists in exuberant joy, especially when we begin to acknowledge its temporal nature.

But a temporary joy is not near to our conceptions of True Joy, or what I’ll call in this post, Radical Joy. That which is radical diverges from the norm, splits itself off from the body of usual occurrences and constructs for itself a unique, and even isolated milieu in which to exist. If we were to equate joy with ordinary gladness, we would mistake its true potential with its diluted forms. Indeed, I propose that our usual experiences of gladness is far removed from the radical, as much as its radical form is furtively concealed away from the usual. Our normal notions of happiness requires the world to bend to our whims, but this Radical Joy persists in the midst of that eternal contradiction between reality and dreams. Our petty constructs of what will make us content cannot stand in the face of a peerless, ultimately unreasonable Joy, Joy that stubbornly digs deep into the crevices of our souls, and remains planted and firm, refusing to budge whilst all our petty notions of happiness get blown away by the vicissitudes of living, like burnt grass in the wind.

This is a Joy that I believe all of us may have had the fortune of experiencing at least once in our entire lifetimes: That moment when everything seems perfect even when we know it is not, when our entirety of experience and existence converge into the event-horizon of contentment. Nothing could escape that all-consuming Joy. No, we did not bubble in exuberant gladness, nor were we scattered and wild in our heart’s throbbing. Far from it; we were calm, collected, at peace, but all gloom and negativity burnt in the purifying fire of such a radical Joy. Worries could not co-exist in the same time-space of its transformative presence. Sad thoughts were even welcome and became fuel for that transcending fire.

Yet, as great as it seems, as powerful as that moment, or series of moments was for us, it appears that we often let it escape our grasp. From its hiding hole it emerged, back into its abode the creature slinks away. Even if the conception of such a Radical, Law-breaking Joy exists in our minds, or better yet, our souls, the majority of our experiences do not affirm the existence of this fabled unicorn – we forget, we deny, we blunder. We settle for a mediocre joy, one that is dependent on conditions, and satisfaction of wants, and as fragile as a dried twig under a school boy’s boot. We let go of the radical – at least until the next time, when something prods us, and we open up our hearts to let in the unicorn, the all-purifying fire, the great, imperturbable tree of life: Radical Joy itself.

Instead of waiting for reminders to catapult us into that state of divine, blissful contentment, I’d suggest another way to enter that brilliant mindspace as a matter of habit. One element of that mystical type of joy includes an all-embracing thankfulness towards every single mundane thing. It is not our default state to maintain a level of thankfulness; like water flows to lower ground, so our focus of attention tends towards the areas of lack in our lives. Do you remember those days where you wake up in a fantastically good mood, and it feels like nothing is going to get you down? Well, a few hours into work, a flurry of difficult challenges come your way, and ploof! The clouds you were walking on disappears – it’s back to ground zero buddy.

However don’t get me wrong. I’m not interested in advancing an ideology where we guard against anything that disrupts our state of mind, that is obssessed with maintaining a rigidly unrealistic form of happy-denial. Instead, we must first acknowledge the changing nature of the world, and the cyclic nature of our moods. We must let go and let our emotions be, feeling them thoroughly. But likewise we cannot be like seafarers overcome by waves – skillfully we must ride it and surf. Part of this surfing includes choosing to act and think in ways that gently nudges our emotions towards the direction that we so desire. To be angry, act angrily, think angry thoughts. To be sad, fill your mind with melancholic musings. To be joyful, the answer is as simple – in every single mundane thing, find a reason to be glad, to give thanks, to rejoice.

If you can read this, your eyes are working. Rejoice! Look at the beautiful shades and colours that make up this splendid world. Look at the pleasing forms and shapes that tickle the eye and give taste to the visual experience. Let your heart be delighted with the play of light and shadows in the material world around you. Then let your attention sink into the deeper emotional world within. Be glad that you have the space and time to reflect. Think about all the challenges you have faced so far, and how you have overcome them somehow. Recall how you have access to the simple mundane things that enable you to use the internet and make sense of this post. Food that you may at times take for granted, clean water that comes easily, electricity, shelter from the wind and rain, a hug from loved ones. Let all these little oft-ignored things form the texture of your experience; let it be the very air you breathe. In this mode of thankfulness, joy will descend upon you like a butterfly, and like a butterfly you will let it sit, knowing that it may lift from its perch and take flight at any time – and you will let it, with not one strain of resistance. Why grasp upon that which is ephemeral, and more importantly, a state which you can enter into at any time?

So I suggest, while we let the madness and sadness of life wash over us when they may, let us also choose, when we can, to enter into Radical Joy. All we need to do is to be absolutely grateful and gladdened by every mundane thing possible, an exercise that sounds simple, but is as challenging as can be. While we may never truly sustain that temporal state of mind, the fact is that our practice will enable us to build a deep well of imperturbable gladness within – whirlwinds may assault us, but still we can access its tranquility and rejuvenatory power. We can cry, or get angry, or go crazy, yet the fountain remains. That is the very essence of Radical Joy.

The Blessings of Sorrow

It’s been way over half a year since I last posted! No promises that I’ll suddenly start a blogging habit or whatnot, but I thought that at the very least, I ought to come back and sweep the writing mat clean.

Over the past half a year or so I’ve had a very tumultous change in lifestyle, general goals, and relationships. Some things have happened that may have left scars which will take ages to heal. Other things have happened that have made me joyous beyond fair belief. But life has been settling down recently, and so it’s probably time to dedicate myself to the arts once again; or at least, experiment and see what fits for now!

One thing that hasn’t changed though, is that I still have the full capacity for feeling sad; for falling down on my knees and weeping; for letting the harder things in life get to me; for being me. What has slowly grown overtime, I find, is my ability to take the palette of sad emotions as part of life’s enlivening colours. Perhaps like me, you may have also experienced that after the tears have fallen and the heart has been tenderly given its space to grieve, a whole new world of possibilities open up – together with a calm, clarity of vision.

A friend once told me about the valleys and mountains of life: at times there are mountains, where we feel at the height of our being; happy, unstoppable, brilliant and fully lovable. At other times we descend into inevitable valleys, wherein we feel completely horrible about ourselves, and those who have ever loved us were either sorely deluded, or fools. These valleys are opportunities to be humble, to take honest stock of our lives, and to see ourselves as we are.

But just as much as it is an impetus for returning to humility, I’ve found that it serves as a reminder – the highs and lows are both only temporal as much as they feel like overwhelming realities. Gladness fills my heart to the brim, and sorrow empties it completely; the world seems brighter, or conversely, entirely engulfed. Yet as time goes by, my heart rediscovers its gentle equilibrium; there will be days when I completely forget that sensations of such great ennervations have ever passed through my body at all. When I hold on to this truth in the midst of terrible sorrow, I realize that it is perfectly alright to let the wounds wound me, to let the sobs shake me – I will be alright in the end.

And furthermore, when the trembles are at its worst, there is a paradox to be found – the is a mountain in the midst of a valley. My internet-using, materially-comfortable, middle-class self is far removed from the basic threats and insecurities that plague those who are less privileged, but it is no less vulnerable to a broken heart, or misplaced expectations, or abuse of trust. Pain caused by this sort of rejections, even if only perceived rejections, is experientially equivalent to physical pain.

It will be disrespectful to equate my hurts with the hurts of those who suffer from a lack of food and water, or in the midst of war. But through the depths of terrible emotional pain, I am privileged to be connected to those who hurt, to those whose pain may not be as temporal as mine. My heart is opened to the common human experience. In my safe shelter, I am brought low, made as insecure as those who are shelterless, without a home. And in this lowness, the height of compassion is experienced. I am made aware of how trivial my hurts are, and I learn to accept my frailty with self-compassion. I am awakened to the common sufferings of man, and I learn to be thankful for the depth of my experience. And most of all, I am united with those who hurt greater than I do, whose pains are not temporal, who wake up to an uncertain tomorrow – and my heart is galvanized to right injustice.

All these are the blessings of sorrow (not to mention, of course, artistic insight and so on and so forth hehe). But it pays to be reminded that the One who giveth and taketh away giveth as much during sorrows as during joys – an open heart always has much to receive!