Waking Up in Shanghai Illuminated


A lot has happened since the last time I went to Thailand, met a teacher, and started meditation. First, I quit the Ironman rat race. I don't have the urge to please myself with such achievement anymore. Because I strive for freedom. I do not wish my life to be perpetuated by an entity. I wish to wake-up everyday with no attachment to self-identity or social pressure. Perhaps for others, it is hard to distinguish the difference between being a free person and slave - whether from themselves or others. But we all have our innate nature, just as there are people who are slaves for money, and there are those who are liberated from it. As Aristotle once argued, “Slaves have a ‘slavish’ nature whereas free people have a ‘free nature.’ And their status in society is merely a reflection of their innate nature.”

Second, I realized life is pretty good once I know how to transform my sufferings. Whenever my mother calls me, this is the first thing she says: “How’s the baby making going?” And I replied, “The soup is not ready Mom! You'll be the first to know when it is.” Many couples suffer when they're living a childless life. They have pressure from families and friends. Over time, I’ve managed to reframe the thought of "chasing" my urge to procreate. Instead of “wanting” a child, I “accept,” should I deserve one. And in the case when I'm not lucky enough, it's like how I always whisper to my wife: “We have everything we need. You and me. We can travel the world. Just the two of us. Grow old and watch the sunset together from every corners of the world.” There is always another way to think. You just have to know how and accept it.

Third, I learned to talk less and listen more. On more than one occasion, I would ask my students, “What shall we do today?” And of course the usual response would be “Play..play...!” And that’s when I start to put on my thinking cap and find something to do intellectually. But sometimes, children do come up with very interesting ideas. When that happens, I listen. And yes, we can learn from children. So, I urge parents to do the same with yours. You may just learn something new.

And so, I decided to go for another journey of self-discovery and learned a few more things along the way.


Beyond Simplicity


“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’” - Seneca


There is a distinction to be made when talking about poverty. The word is generally used to refer about people who don't have much materially, but there are others who describe poverty as a mindset and attitude that extends much deeper than simply what you have.

Thus, poverty can be described as a mindset, and as a condition.

Poverty as a mindset refers to a factor of believe system that there is never enough. From the most basic things - food, water, shelter - to the most glamorous things we lust after, we have to deliberately beg and fight our way through the world, and desperately protect everything we have.

Poverty as a condition is being willing to give up all the “riches” that you may have - even for just a couple of days at a time - and is impetus for remaining not only understanding what other people go through, but it allows you to change your perspective on material things. Seneca is famous for his practice on conditional property.

Part of my quest for self-cultivation is practicing conditional poverty. I travel to third-world countries, and stay in the village or sleep in a temple, with just enough fare to buy the cheapest food and water. Indeed, it is a dichotomy of never settling for less than the best, but also being willing and humble enough to make it through with as little as possible and feel content with it.

I know this voluntary act is not in everyone’s vocabulary. But when you do it, you will begin to have a tremendous feeling of gratitude over the condition that you presently cling to.

There is nothing easy about not allowing our means to dictate the way we live. But just as people abstain from food by fasting - as I do - choosing to fast from extraneous things helps us to remain fully aware in the way we approach life.


We All Suffer


 “I have suffered because I have a body. If I had no physical body, how can I suffer?” - Lao-Tzu

“If all the mountains were books and if all the lakes were ink and if all the trees were pens, still they would not suffice to depict all the misery in this world.” - Jacob Boehme


In this world, there is a great deal of suffering and unhappiness, ranging from abject pain, loneliness, anxiety, hunger, being with hateful people, and loss of those we love, to unpleasant states of feeling such as anger, disgust, tension, and boredom, to mild discomforts both chronic (e.g., “life is meaningless”) and occasional (e.g., a headache). We witness explosions of suffering in wars and natural disasters. But, we also see it flare up again and again in the daily commonplace of disappointments, frustrations, insults, and embarrassments.

The truth is, we all suffer. Even if you may not be suffering now, the potentiality for suffering, is always present. A woman may suffer from not being able to borne a child for years. Likewise, that woman, whom is now a mother, may also suffer from her child's disobedience, incurable health condition or death.

Someone said this to me once: “All this talk of suffering doesn’t apply to me. I have a well-paying, interesting job, a happy marriage, and good health. I sleep soundly at night and wake up zestfully, raring to go.” Just because his present conditions permits him to be happy it doesn’t mean his wife may one day stop loving him. Or he may wake up one morning realizing he no longer loves her. And the loss of job, health, or stability is notoriously common. The conditions of our happiness are always subject to change. So long as we are in this world, there is no state that will permit us to “live happily ever after”.

We suffer because we crave and get attached to things we need and want. It is true that certain necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter are indispensable for our living. At the same time, we need to have income to support our families to fulfill our duties.

Modern psychologists define two kinds of attachment: natural and unnatural. Attachment to one’s husband or wife and children is natural. But attachment to material things is unnatural. If we are unduly attached to material things, we will experience various problems. Fear, insecurity and suspicion will disturb our peace of mind. That is the price we have to pay for clinging to property. Because of this clinging, some people have become insane when they lost their property through natural disaster or theft. We should not to be so unreasonably attached to material things. After all, we cannot take them away with us when we die.

To experience peace of mind, the first thing we can do is to reduce our attachments. We can start by “caring less” about our intended outcome. Not striving to always win and become the best. And by the way, you don’t want to be the best. It is unsustainable. And when it’s time to lose that fame, you have to be ready to endure the sufferings to come.

We can also try to hand over our possessions to others who are entitled to them; alternatively, donate them to charitable or religious organizations. The famous author J.K. Rowling lost her “billionaire” status when she donated most of her wealth. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife decided to donate all of their wealth and keep only what they need. Warren Buffett will also hand over all of his money to a charity instead of his children when he dies. These examples clearly show that material possession is not the solution to all the world’s problem. Indeed, these great people have developed a way to release their suffering. And we can do the same as well. Of course we don’t need to give up our entire possession but start to give in small amounts. Because when we do, we free our minds from greed.


Nothing is Permanent


The ants were spending a fine winter’s day drying grain collected in the summertime. A Grasshopper, perishing with famine, passed by and earnestly begged for a little food.  The Ants inquired of him, “Why did you not treasure up food during the summer?” He replied, “I had not leisure enough. I passed the days in singing.” They then said in derision: “If you were foolish enough to sing all the summer, you must dance supperless to bed in the winter.” - The Ant and the Grasshopper, Aesop's Fables


When I was in college, I had the privilege to work with my uncle, a wonderful Orthodontist. I would assist him from prep-working the clinic and handling patients to managing routine follow-ups. One thing I'll always remember about him are these sage words: “Nothing lasts forever.” At the time, I thought he was referring to a patient's tooth. Of course, whenever we are in the process of learning, there is hardly any time to reflect about the things we are doing. But now, I understand he was referring to anything in this world.

Mankind have witnessed uncertainty for centuries. Let’s go back in time and dive into a story told by the Greek historian, Herodotus, writing in the 5th century B.C. Herodotus describes the rise of the Persian Empire, its conquest of Asia, and its wars with the Greek city-states. In the course of this epic, he tells a tale about Croesus, an incredibly wealthy ruler of the kingdom of Lydia, in Asia Minor (Herodotus, 1942).

Despite the enormous wealth and power of Croesus, his kingdom was successfully invaded and finally conquered by one of the Persian armies. Croesus himself was captured and was to be executed. The Persian commanding general decided to burn the king at the stake and to make a public spectacle of the execution. Croesus, brought in shackles, was tied to the stake. Straw was pushed around him in preparation for the fire. He looked heavenward and cried out woefully “Solon, Solon.”

As it happened, the Persian general was a student of religions. Failing, however, to recognize this name, he asked his aides nearby “To what God is he crying out?” When no one could answer, he had Croesus untied and brought before him. He commanded, “Tell us about this god, Solon, to whom you were just now calling out.” Croesus replied that Solon was not a god but a man, an elder statesman from Athens, long respected in that land. Croesus then related the following experience.

“Many months ago when we were still at peace and the Persian trumpet was distant, Solon had visited me. I personally escorted him about my realm displaying its glories and the luxuries of my surroundings. Proudly, I said, ‘Solon, you have lived a long life and have traveled widely. Who is the happiest man you’ve ever known?’ In response, Solon described an Athenian who was prosperous and whose sons, by their prowess in battle, brought glory to his name. I asked’ Well, then, who is the second happiest man you know?’ Solon described another in a far off island. I now asked him directly ‘What about me?’ Solon replied ‘Ah, your majesty. We in Athens have a saying: Never judge a man’s happiness until he has died.’”

“At that time, I dismissed the remark as quaint, but I see now what Solon was trying to tell me.”

The general was so touched by the wisdom of this tale that, according to Herodotus, he freed Croesus and enlisted him as an advisor.

As you can see, nothing is permanent. Love, wealth, fame, peace, even happiness are all impermanent. Remember the fellow, who earlier objected to the emphasis on suffering, who gave evidence for his own happiness? Here's my response: “You are fortunate, indeed. Enjoy this good fortune. Savor and relish it. But be like the man who, while enjoying excellent health, immunizes himself against the chance of a future disease. Be like the man who, though the days are now sunny, builds his house to weather the storms. You are happy. That is wonderful. But don’t drift in your happiness. There is work to be done.”

It is easy enough to be pleasant when life ows along like a song. But the man worthwhile is the man who can smile when life goes dead wrong.

A great monk once said: “We usually appreciate only half of the cycle of impermanence. We can accept birth but not death, accept gain but not loss, or the end of exams but not the beginning. True liberation comes from appreciating the whole cycle and not grasping onto those things that we find agreeable. By remembering the changeability and impermanence of causes and conditions, both positive and negative, we can use them to our advantage. Wealth, health, peace, and fame are just as temporary as their opposites.”

Perhaps, this does lead to enlightenment.


You Are Responsible

“Your sorrow is caused by yourself. Your sorrow is your own making. You are your own liberator.” - Anonymous


In ancient India, a common sport had been for men to fight barehanded against tigers. One sturdy fellow, the world champion of his day, could vanquish even the largest, most vicious tigers, with little hurt to himself. One day, a Hindu sage remarked to him, “It is a great challenge you have met, to be able to master tigers. However, it is a greater challenge to be able to master yourself. Conquer the beasts within. That is the more difficult task.” The champion's eyes were opened wide by this utterance. He took the sage as his teacher and started on the journey of self-transformation.

This story tells us that we strive for success and we fear failure. Like the little boy in class who waves his arm imploring, “Teacher, call on me,” we strive to show off. We seek praise and are pained by criticism. We’re vulnerable to insults and put-downs; we become depressed or feel guilty when we’ve performed badly. We strive to maintain and enhance a sense of self-worth, a striving that makes us vulnerable to mental pain. In short, we like to fulfill our ego-needs.

Problems arise when our ego gets fulfilled too much and we go into berserk. Sometimes to the point of harming the welfare of others. This is why it's important for us to manage our ego through self-cultivation. And I don’t mean by reading books - believe me, I know many who do such thing. Reading is one thing, doing is another. What I mean is by daily practice. I've shared a few lessons on how to do - in this essay or the past - should you choose to do so.

Of course, just as you learn how to cultivate your frame of mind, you must also learn how to protect whatever inner peace and calm you have managed to create within your mind. To preserve the inner peace, you must know when to surrender yourself; you must know when to throw away your pride, when to subdue your false ego, when to change your adamant attitude or false conviction and when to practice patience. You should not allow others to take away your inner peace, and you can preserve your inner peace if you know how to act wisely. Wisdom comes through the recognition of ignorance.