The Year That Was 2016.

2016 could have been a better year. Over hundreds of thousands of people are displaced from their own countries, in a desperate attempt to avoid persecution, famine, and war. To escape such horrible conditions, a lot of them ended up losing their lives, are stateless with nowhere to go, having no food, shelter, or appropriate clothing to brave the weather, and not an idea of what the next few days would be like for them. 2016 also saw the escalation of primitive rhetoric based around geographical location, race, religion, and gender, which stirred emotions of the masses and opened the floodgates to behaviors stemming from hate and ignorance, not fitting of this day and age.  In 2016, many people suffered.

2016: When happiness could have been found within the turmoil. Image from theatlantic.com

I am very grateful to be able to sleep on the same bed every night, safe within the four walls of my room, not needing to worry if there will be food to eat, or water to drink, or if I’ll still be alive. Despite the troubles that this part of the world is facing with the economy and rampant corruption, I am thankful that I have the ability to enjoy the next breath that I am taking, and to have the opportunities that presents itself to me at every moment. I am grateful to be living in a relatively peaceful neighborhood and country.

Despite this, suffering presents itself in many ways. From the people closest to me to strangers that I have met by coincidence, what became clear to me in the past year is that suffering is universal. Yes, they may be driving luxurious cars and live in big houses. Yes, they may be in good health and having enough rest and nutrients to be healthy. Yes, they have others around them to interact with and to go through these times together. And yes, they will still be very much alive in the foreseeable future.

But they are suffering. The unhappiness is clear from the frustration that they express. They believe that the story of their own lives are unique, that their suffering is something that no one else is experiencing. They believe that others often have it better, that what others are showing through their social media feeds, or from their brief exchange of pleasantries shows that life is great for everyone else. Everyone else but them. They feel alone in their own world of suffering.

How did we become so disconnected from others that we fail to see how others, too, are suffering? How did we become so unaware of our own blessings and instead blame or pity ourselves because of what we are lacking?

It seems that with advancement in how fast paced information could travel, and how much opportunities we have to consume new information, we started becoming greedy and impatient. Our greed and impatience caused us to consume knowledge of others in bite sizes, often wanting to only know what other people are like on the surface. We have many friends, but none that we really know.  Our greed and impatience caused us to fit in as many things to do as possible, in hopes that we could gain more enjoyment, but without having the time to do the heavy and time consuming stuff, like personal reflection, developing self-awareness, and addressing our insecurities. After all, everything is at the convenience of a click of a button, right?

In 2016, we started failing in understanding both others and ourselves. We end up covering a mile wide, and not a mile deep.

Did behaving this way bring us any happiness?

On a personal level, I am hopeful. I am currently in the midst of writing a book scheduled to be published by mid-2017 (fingers crossed). In my book, How To Live A Fulfilling LifeI hope to illuminate the fact and fiction of happiness, meaning, fulfillment, and the good life. Clearly, a lot of what we are doing are not working for our own good, and a lot of what we could do in order to improve our lives have not been done enough. I’m hoping that my experience in practice, the research that I’ve been doing to write the book, and my own understanding of human life thus far, could offer a small contribution in improving the lives of all of us who are suffering.

Although I am almost half a month late, I would like to wish all of you out there a happy new year 2017, and may the year bring you bountiful opportunities to grow happiness in your daily life.

Malaysians’ Mental Health According To The Health Ministry

New data by the Ministry of Health, Malaysia, revealed a shocking 30% of Malaysians experiencing some kind of mental health concern, such as depression.  These numbers even comes as a surprise to a mental health professional such as myself. Are you one of them? Do not suffer alone.

If you need someone to talk to, you may contact the Befrienders at 03-79568144 or 03-79568145.

Alternatively, you may drop me a message at hello@meetalvin.com.

Life is not meant to be lived in sorrow and anguish.

Time Management and How You Self-Sabotage In 3 Big Ways

Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.
– Jackson Brown Jr.

We’ve all done it: We have used the reasoning of having “not enough time” as a “get out of jail free” card from some commitment we have made to our friends, family, or colleagues at one point or another. Perhaps it is bailing on an evening out with your friends whom you’ve not met in a long time and promised not to lose touch. Or maybe it is a family dinner that you’ve set on your Google calendar but can’t make it due to an overdue report. In our fast moving modern world, time becomes such a valued commodity that we can’t seem to get enough of it. There’s just not enough time.

Does this speak to you?

It can be a nightmare chasing after time, and in the case of this picture, to be chased by time (source: Google images).
It can be a nightmare chasing after time, and in the case of this picture, to be chased by time (source: Google images).

Being a person takes some hard work. There’s many aspects of our life to juggle: family, friends, career, health, solitude, leisure, love, and the list goes on. When one aspect of life has a sudden demand for more time, other areas suffer. And to a certain extent, that is accepted and understandable to most people. People would understand if you have just fallen ill, or that the machinery at the factory you work in has malfunctioned and require immediate attention. These are natural indicators of you needing to temporarily invest more time into it, and to take off from your more routine standards of behavior.

However, if having “not enough time” becomes usual (and expected) of you, then it is most likely a reflection of character rather than circumstances.

And here are 3 big reasons why this behavior needs to be addressed:

1. Your reputation suffers 

Nothing leaves a dent more to your reputation than when you are known as the person who is unable to deliver. When juggling multiple commitments at a single time, you become less reliable and your output wouldn’t be the best that you are able to produce. When something is required of you, the thought that might pop up in a person’s mind would be “Can *your name* be trusted with this responsibility?”.

Indeed, there will be times when you find yourself being placed in a position where expectations are beyond what you’re able to deliver. Be self aware of your own capabilities and circumstances to arrive at a decision to take steps in either improving your delivery or to understand if the external culture that you are currently in does not resonate with your abilities or your current position in life (and as such, perhaps warrants an exploration of a more suitable environment). It is better to be focused on less than to over-commit and compromise on your reputation.  This is because a loss of reputation is a loss of opportunities. 

2. You hurt others around you

Have you been in a situation where you’re feeling excited to meet someone (like a date), only to be stood up at the last minute? How does that feel like? That is the same feeling that you produce in others by trying to cheat time. What you’re essentially communicating to others, be it in your personal or professional life, sounds something like this:

“My time is more important than yours”
“I matter more than you”
“I prioritize my own interests than the commitment that I’ve made with you”

If the target of these statements are your loved ones, these only makes them feel small and unappreciated. If these are directed to your colleagues or superiors, then you’ll eventually get to know of how such gestures are not reflective of the real world (refer to point no. 1).

3. You are not at peace. 

How does it feel like needing to be at two places at the same time? Is your heart pacing really quickly? Are your thoughts scrambling about? Chances are, you’re feeling more stressed and anxious than usual. Not only does this have drastic effects on your health in the long-term, but it also significantly reduces your quality of life. If you think you’re achieving more by over-committing to your time, you are actually accomplishing the opposite. This is because instead of living in peace and happiness, you are behaving in ways that contributes to anxiety and dissatisfaction.

In a nutshell 

Although allowing the notion of not having enough time to define your character may appear to benefit you (especially in immediate circumstances), it is on the contrary a damaging attribute that does not help you in your journey of self development and success. The fact of the matter is, we are all governed by the same laws of time, and it is up to us to use it mindfully. More can be accomplished by being aware of our capabilities and to be fully present in the commitments that we make, than to be the boy who cried wolf. You never know when would be the next crucial moment when the help and support of others are needed, only to not receive it, because all along you did not have the time. 

3 Simple Steps to Life Mastery.

Hello everyone! This is my first attempt at recording a video of myself. I figured that this could be another way for me to put out helpful content, rather than just writing. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m pleased that I got around to doing it. Looking forward to putting out more videos!

I think, therefore I am.

It’s been more than half a year since my last post on this blog. Much has been lost, and much has been gained. The most significant of losses would be  the sale of the cafe that I used to operate. One year of caring for something can bring about a kind of emotional attachment and feeling of loss. However, with the sale of the cafe, there were significant gains too. I have gained:

1) Good experience in running a business.

2) Good experience in running a business… as a sole owner (trust me, this is really tough. But also in my experience a necessary step to develop to the next level).

3) The necessary capital to start on my next business venture (this time, with more confidence placed on me by others due to my experience) with other business partners.

4) Knowledge of what works and what doesn’t for the product and applying it in the next business.

5) Fond memories of staff, family, friends, customers, and the struggle of making something work.

6) A new appreciation of doing business and what is required of me as a person to operate one.

Me in the cafe: our last picture together.
Me in the cafe: our last picture together.

The sale of the cafe was a business decision that I felt was the best step forward in order to grow, both for my self as a person and the business entity. It sits well in my heart because it was the right time and the right move.

How is this small snippet of me and my (ex) cafe related in any way with the title of this blog post?

For the past few months, I have been reciting gratitude before I sleep every night (i.e. 10 things that I’m grateful for today). While I cannot tell for sure if it provides a direct, positive effect on my mental health, it sure did develop a habit to think in a more positive way. And with that habit, came improved mental health.

To me, it is a fact of life that the bad and the good are inseparable. Sometimes, it may appear that there is more bad than good, and vice versa. Deep sadness comes from thinking that life is all bad, and overwhelming anxiety comes from wanting things to be good at all times. Such psychological disturbances, I believe, comes from a projection of  personal expectations, thoughts, and beliefs, that do not reflect how life is supposed to be.

The mind is just like a muscle; it needs to be regularly trained and fed with the right nutrients in order for it to grow. Among the many things that can be done for good mental health, practicing gratitude in daily life is one of those that I highly recommend. This is not a way to gain instant happiness, but instead to develop the habit to be happy and to allow ourselves to be fed with the positivity that we require in daily life.

A philosopher by the name of Descartes once came to a conclusion that he exists based on the principle of “cogito ergo sum”, which means “I think, therefore I am”.  To me, this carries a personal meaning of “how we think defines who we are”. As I end this blog post, I implore my readers to ponder: What kind of person would you like to be, and how do you think in order to be that kind of person?

Do you still keep the Yellow Pages?

We had someone literally throw a Yellow Pages book at us and tell us “Do you think you’ll ever replace this?”

– Kimbal Musk (Elon Musk’s brother) in co-founding Zip2, an online directory which was then bought over for 307 million US dollars.

Do you still remember the Yellow Pages? For the uninformed, it is a very thick book (usually yellow in color) which contains contact numbers that you may need: products, services, corporate offices, etc. I am very sure all of you do not require such a book anymore. Any information that you’re looking for are now at your fingertips and is acquired within seconds, thanks to the technological advancements such as the smartphone, access to the Internet, and the plethora of complementary applications that can be used to fulfill our need for information.

So what is the point of bringing up the Yellow Pages?

Unexamined beliefs are similar to the Yellow Pages. Despite society moving forward and finding new, more efficient, and more effective ways of doing things, there are many of us who do not want their own version of the Yellow Pages to be replaced. As a consequence, many of us lead a life which is deeply unsatisfactory, inefficient, and ineffective. You see people using their Yellow Pages everywhere you go. You see it still being used by the grumpy old man who thinks his ways are right, the chronically depressed woman who thinks that all men are cheats, the socially anxious teenager who believes that others will think he’s stupid for speaking up, or the unfulfilled employee who thinks he is not worthy to make it to the next step in his career. The examples are endless.

Fun fact: The existence of the Yellow Pages is older than the formation of my home country, Malaysia.

You can probably relate to those fairly common examples because you see it in everyday life. I see it even more with clients in therapy sessions and the consequences that they suffer from as a result of relying on their Yellow Pages.  It is a rare occasion (and perhaps your lucky day!) if you have gone through a day without encountering a character who still brings a Yellow Pages with them wherever they go. As you are reading this, I would like to invite you to take a look at your inner self. Do you bring along a mental Yellow Pages with you too?

Here is a dose of reality for you: if you find yourself living a life that is unsatisfactory, inefficient, or ineffective in some way, that as a result causes you to feel depressed, anxious, or chronically angry, then that would mean you are carrying with you a belief that is (surprise surprise!) unsatisfactory, inefficient, ineffective, and most importantly, outdated

Was the Yellow Pages useful at some time in the past? Yes, it was. Similarly, your outdated belief about yourself, others, or the world was also useful in the past. Perhaps the grumpy old man needed to have a strong sense of self-belief to achieve a significant amount of success in his younger years; maybe the depressed woman had to believe that men are cheats to protect herself and let her wounds heal after a nasty break up; the anxious teenager might had  needed to keep quiet due to harsh punishments that he’ll suffer from voicing his opinions in his strict family, and maybe the unsatisfied employee had to believe that he is not worthy to be in a higher position as he had to share limited resources with other siblings in a modest family.

Your Yellow Pages served you well when it was needed the most. As you grow and experience more of life, your needs change. As a result, your beliefs have to change too in order to address those needs and to live a quality and fulfilling life.

Do all old beliefs need to change? No, as many of these beliefs may still prove to be useful. I still need to drink water from a cup, or to write with a pen. On the other hand, I definitely do not need to lug around a heavy Yellow Pages book to know which number to call. I have a smartphone for that.

It is now 2016. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that 307 million US dollars is worth way more than a copy of the Yellow Pages. It’s time to put that Yellow Pages of yours in the recycling bin.

 

5 Personal Lessons From 2015

Time is a great teacher, only if the student is willing to learn. 2015 hasn’t been an easy year, but many lessons were learned throughout that time period. Here are mine:

1) Always practice gratitude. There were many times when I felt like I do not have the necessary resources to go on. Whether it was resources (encouragement, understanding, finances, etc.) I felt I needed from my family, friends, business-related associates, or that I did not have enough money, network, mental and emotional strength (and the list goes on), I tried my very best to focus on the resources that I do have and expand from there. Every night, I review my day by being grateful about 10 things that had happened during the day. At times, I might practice this before I get started on my day. It helped me to move from perspective from a mentality of scarcity to an mentality of abundance. Believe me when I say that we often take very important things for granted, such as the air that we breathe, or that we’re able to sleep on a bed at night (these come up rather often in my gratitude exercises).

Despite having very limited resources, I managed to start up 1 failed business and 2 sustainable businesses in one year. Not too bad, eh? In fact, I’m rather proud of my achievement. The bonus here is that I live my days feeling rather positive and motivated, because I have all these awesome things in life to be grateful for. The air feels and smells great!

2) A life well-lived is a life of purpose and passion. A big lesson that I’m continuously learning is that life feels full when I am living it in accordance to what I believe is purposeful and what I feel passionate about. I have to be aware of this, and to maintain continuous effort to ensure that this holds true in my life. As of now, I do not think that I’m able to define which part of my day is work or leisure anymore. Life does not feel segmented in a way that I am supposed to dislike a part of it and to like another part of it. How I live daily is just that: I live my life. It doesn’t feel like work when I find a purpose from doing what I do. It’s instead a pretty awesome feeling.

3) Start doing, as the time is nowIf I had spent my time constantly building grand plans in my mind (which was a mode that I was in for a period of time), rather than to execute based on whatever little resources that I have (note: it isn’t as little as you think if you do practice lesson number 1), I would still be stuck earning a salary which will never be enough, not feeling fulfilled with my job environment and what is derived from it, living a cycle of workdays and weekends… basically, settling for crumbs in life.

They say the graveyard is the richest place on Earth, because in it are all the unfulfilled dreams, ideas, and plans, which are worth way more than what is actually available in the physical world. And the reason is this: Nothing was done about it. Nobody cares or puts value in an idea that is not executed. They certainly will not reward me, let alone provide me with an opportunity to sustain my livelihood, just because I believe I’m the next “big thing”. The only thing that matters is that I started. All others will follow.

4) Time is limited. If you had one day left to live, how would you live your life? This is the reality of the life we are living, except that our time to go remains (for the most part) unknown and perceived to be in the distant future. With every second spent on things that makes us unhappy, it takes away those precious seconds that can be lived otherwise. We will all eventually die, but very little of us take this as a definite fact rather than an abstract idea. We live in a constant slumber, as if life will begin some time in the future when our worries and goals are achieved, when actually, life has already begun, and it is waiting upon us to live it now. 

I find that living as best as possible in the present makes my time spent in the best way. The little conversations that I have, the heat of the sun, the gust of wind, the smell of coffee, the flickering of light from my laptop, the pleasure of trying something new… it becomes all the more meaningful if only I am present to experience it. As such, I prioritize and take active effort in managing the biggest life-sucker of the universe: worry. 

5) There will be resistance when moving forward. When practicing lessons number (2) and (3), there will be resistance to your effort. You may be surprised that this will come from not only strangers, but the people who are close to you. It is just the way it is, as people have the tendency to believe that their aspirations, dreams, and/or how they wish to live their life should also be reflected in how you live your life. It is a projection (onto you) of their inner desires and fear that maintains their own reality.

What I have learned is that practicing (2) and (3) requires me to be an individual, rather than to submit myself to a reality that I may not necessarily be comfortable with. Being an individual also means that I am unique. It means that I have to find my own voice and to live my own story. It requires me to practice (1) constantly. What follows is an indescribable feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment that money cannot buy.

Thank you 2015 for the many lessons that you have given me. Welcoming the new year with much enthusiasm!

 

One of the same.

Just last night, I had a dream in which I was unable to reach out to my ex-lover no matter how hard I tried. The struggle felt real. I then woke up with a hollowness that numbs me as I lay on my bed for a good 10 minutes. I’ve recently developed the intelligence to bring headphones whenever I’m at my cafe, and I’ve spent the afternoon listening to songs that awakens a surreal feeling of melancholy. I have to admit, there are times in the past year when the feeling can get rather intense and overwhelming.

In most recent years, my appreciation for experiencing pain and suffering have grown a whole lot. I found that I, too, have grown a whole lot from allowing myself to experience such pain. When examined more thoroughly, the feeling of pain makes me a complete person. I am, as a whole, a person who is capable of feeling sadness, anger, happiness, anxiety, and disgust, and value them (as best as I possibly can) all the same.

There is a deep sense of comfort in accepting myself, which leads to an appreciation of my own life and the experiences that comes with it. Even in moments of pain, I feel like there’s so much to love about my own life.

I no longer believe that pain is to be avoided or treated like a dirty word. And I’ve found myself loving my life more and more each day.

How to embrace change and transform your life.

When this is, that is
This arising, that arises
When this is not, that is not
This ceasing, that ceases.

-Law of dependent origination (source: Buddhism)

When I was younger, I found it difficult to overcome the profound feeling of emptiness upon experiencing the loss of a romantic relationship. If I were to self-diagnose* (and to also subscribe to the idea of mental disorders as having an organic origin), I had went through two episodes of major depression, each lasting for a period of about 6 months.  During those times, there was a feeling of gloom that felt indefinite over the most sunny of days, in which I felt completely helpless over the situation, whilst having not a single ounce of hope for a favorable future. It didn’t feel like there was any other life beyond the misery that I was feeling during those dark moments.

Things were mostly fine when I was growing up. I was a person who possessed a satisfactory intellect, and was also fairly active. I did not have difficulties in relating to others, and was adequately liked among my peers. As life habits changed for the better and as I matured as a person, it became clear to me that despite having no significant cause for concern in my day-to-day life, the struggle that I was really having with depression was mostly contributed by the high amount of external validation and acceptance that I required in order to maintain my functioning as a person.  What better way to derive validation than to receive it in the context of a romantic relationship? However, once the relationship is gone, the crutch that I have in order to continue moving forward no longer exists, and as a result I cease functioning.

Much has changed since then, and I am quite satisfied with how much I’m utilizing my own inner resources to feel fulfilled as a person, and being better able to manage relationships more competently. That is not to say I do not feel negative emotions nor do I not engage in behaviors that in hindsight were not beneficial to me. However, life as a whole is more satisfying, even with the presence of life challenges.

So what actually changed?

In my pursuit of understanding human nature, I have come across differing educated opinions on what makes good mental health (“educated” because there is solid research evidence in application of such opinions) which are often times in contrast with one another. There was considerable debate on whether unconditional acceptance regardless of ‘problematic’ behaviors or a specific system of reward and punishment of behavior would lead a person to improved mental health. In both research and practice, both methods provided considerable improvement for clients experiencing emotional and behavioral difficulties. The list goes on with regards to contrasting methods of therapy, each “one-upping” the other in promoting it’s efficacy in treatment. It is unusual for proponents of a method to agree with a proponent of another.

In my own experience, what was most helpful for me were not specific methods towards good mental health, but an overall desire to improve (hence leading to improvement) of both internal and external processes. Yes, developing an understanding of how my childhood experience shaped me did help. So did developing more awareness and experiencing of the emotions that I’m experiencing. Cultivating positive behaviors helped me as well. So did investing in relationships. There was no one method that provided me with a solution. A change in behavior made changes in my emotions, thoughts, and relationships, while a change in thoughts was followed by changes in emotions, behavior, and relationships, ad infinitum. In short, any effort made towards change will lead to overall change, however minute that may be.

A spider web is often used to illustrate the nature of life: an interdependent system in which a small change in the web will lead to overall structural change.
A spider web is often used to illustrate the nature of life: an interdependent system in which a small change in the web will lead to overall structural change.

At the present moment, the habits that I have found to be most helpful for myself are meditation, physical workouts, writing (in a journal and now on a new blog), solitude, developing new skills, and nurturing relationships. It took me a while to find what were the behaviors that I would like to retain and benefit most from. I’ve come to embrace the belief that doing something about it, even with unknown results, is always worth a shot (most times, in the dark). There is no opportunity for any sort of improvement if there are no attempts to change. If you find yourself suffering from the pain of thinking that a change you want to make “will not amount to anything”, think of Nike’s slogan, and instead embrace the uncertainty with “why not?”.

Life is just too brief to stay unhappy.

*please seek professional mental health services with regards to diagnostics.