Soul Topics

Build momentum (or lose definition of yourself)

A man twice my age once told me that once you hit a certain age, energy inevitably runs out. Reality snaps at you, and there goes the drive, motivation and physical capacities you once had. When that time comes, all you have got to sustain your life and keep it going the way you want comes down to this one thing: momentum.

For the young go-getters who believe that ‘the sky is the limit’, this sobering grain of insight re-introduces one back to Earth and the harsh grounds of our fundamental humanness. We are not so ‘special’. We have limits.

Age, to the zestful and spirited young, is something that seems irrelevant, almost foreign in character and impossible to fathom. To a person in the early twenties, middle-age seems like a distant land, very out of reach.

Nevertheless it is a beautiful concept, an important one that has much to offer. Age constitutes experience, insights and memories that form and become parts of the individual – these fragments add up, and through them, self-definition happens. Through these fragments, one builds upon them and gains momentum, further cementing one’s dominant characteristics into his/her consciousness.

This is why an alcoholic finds it extremely hard to quit alcohol; the memories, habitual patterns and experiences surrounding alcoholism over the years have become deeply ingrained in him. It has become who he is, his identity.

In contrast, a successful middle-age businessman could undergo a rough patch, but he has years of experience under his belt, years of doing things “right”. Much like activating muscle memory, what is called upon to get him out of trouble is his experience. The successful businessman has known of himself to be disciplined, shrewd, decisive and capable of overcoming adversity. He possesses an internal character that distinguishes himself from the rest who do not have “what it takes”.

Clearly, momentum is not derived from a vacuum. It is built upon experience, which is internalised in a person’s character.

Building Momentum: Gathering the best fragments of you

We do not become the best versions of ourselves by default. We need to take the right actions and establish momentum.

Unfortunately, the ill and conditioned patterns we have learnt and incorporated into our lives have become attached to us like a drug; they essentially become “us”.

To unlearn them is possible, but it requires an art of discipline – to dig up and remove these layers of dirt bucket by bucket. These are essentially the flaws in our character, we need a hard look in the mirror and a resolve that they shall die to be replaced by positive virtues.

A lot of people have tried to find themselves by trying all sorts of different things. Not many of those things are useful. Some are momentary, brief, and serve only to elevate the ego, or to make one feel good. Not many endeavours last. After all, people default back to square one.

These are the times that call for deep soul searching.

What are the best fragments of you? What do you know you are capable of?

And what matters most?

The saving grace is that beneath the layers of dirt we have filled in our psyche – our mind, body and spirit – there is something that is of innate value, that shines effortlessly. Fragments of the best version of ourselves buried down below that we need to uncover, rediscover, and gather, and through them establish momentum to redirect our lives.



Soul Topics

Rites of Passage: Growing Up into Adulthood (Manhood or Womanhood)

There is something sacred and divine about the journey of growing up into adulthood.

Here and there, there are striking incidences, trials and hardship, along with tangibly felt moments that provoke and inspire. Every now and then, the individual – whether a young teen or an older man – experiences subtle yet authoritative messages that are deeply personal.

Such moments could be easily lost and forgotten, but their subtle messages could otherwise serve as a doorway into another world. These messages, when heeded, potentially guide the individual on a journey to separate from the ‘unthinking masses’ and embody a distinct personal identity.

Thus in growing up, as with every other transition phase in life, we are called to make important decisions; responsibility befalls us as a curse and a gift. Whether or not we choose to encounter this sense of numinosity – i.e. the call of the sacred or what Joseph Campbell terms as the ‘call to adventure’ – would crucially define who we become.

Yet, what does it mean to encounter and pursue the ‘sacred’? This is intimately tied to the question we all inevitably ask growing up: What makes us a man or a woman?

Initiation, Mentorship and Ancient Wisdom

In ancient wisdom literature, one is initiated into adulthood by the elders of that society who are wiser, more mature and experienced. They would provide essential mentorship through initiating certain ceremonies – what are known as rites of passage – for the younger ones to pass through as they transit into adulthood.

For example, this could first involve a clean break from the parents, whereby the novice boy ventures into the wilderness, followed by a wound given by an older man, a scarring of some sort such as the knocking out of a tooth. Far from inflicting meaningless pain, these initiations carry deep meaning; the boy would forever associate his broken tooth with a living connection of some sort, such as a highly revered or respected hero or teacher of that community who has similarly lost a tooth. These ritualistic ceremonies are purely symbolic, but under the guidance of the wise, the messages and lessons they carry are heavily instilled upon the younger ones.

Of course, the situation is different today. The challenging ceremonies of the past requiring endurance and pain are commonly reduced to many mainstream religious ceremonies today, symbolic but nevertheless highly sanctioned and softened. Arguably, the mentorship we need for soul growth is severely lacking, and we are more confused than ever in a highly abundant and stimulating technological age.

Creating Our Own Rites of Passage

However, a teaching we could adopt from the ancient rites of passage is that in the key transition phases of an individual’s life, there are rituals, carefully designed and deemed necessary for the individual’s transition.

These rituals involve a process requiring a certain mental, emotional and physical toughness. Not everyone could be successfully ‘initiated’ into adulthood; only the ones who are ready would make that transition, bypassing a certain threshold where something in the psychology and character shifts.

Rituals done consistently and purposefully are associated with discipline.

Hence, we could create our own rites of passage by constantly – ritualistically – subjecting ourselves to the training of our mental, emotional and physical faculties, through a dedicated course of action that is personal to us and our growth.

A writer might find a very different set of rituals from an athlete who cultivates with weights, or a programmer, businessman, salesman or construction worker. A daughter from a dysfunctional family severely abused from a young age would find his/her path indeed very different from the average woman. The testosterone raging young man moves toward hope and progress, whereas the old man is discharged by death of ambition, and embraces a process of letting go and spiritual renewal.

The decision to undertake a particular chosen course of action lies upon the responsibility of the individual to decipher life’s messages and what his/her personal ‘call to adventure’ is. It is essentially greater than oneself and has all to do with the mysterious, invisible and sacred.

Through the committed undertaking of ritualistic practices, a transformation in the psyche is imminent. One eventually makes that transition into manhood or womanhood. The art of discipline instills into the individual a unique and spirited identity, and empowers one to become capable of meeting the intensity of life’s many trials and tribulations.

What is your call to adventure? What are your rites of passage?

Soul Topics

Walking dark alleys for a purposeful existence

[Image credit: Geylang Adventures]
While we might love adventures, we are unwilling to venture into scary places where the unknown or ‘other’ exists, and we unfortunately deprive ourselves.

Darkness has a negative connotation. Darkness provokes an instinctual aversion, representations of some place best left alone, buried and unexplored. It engulfs the road less travelled.

Buried deep within our individual unconscious, darkness is rendered voiceless, as we seek to portray our most desirable face. If outward manifestations of life mirror our collective consciousness, by extension, we live in such a divided world. Poverty exists alongside wealth, but they are simultaneously worlds apart, seemingly distinct entities. Races and nations terrify one another, as if common grounds of our fundamental humanness have been usurped by colour and identities. The world is as fragmented as our individual selves.

The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with(in) himself.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

The world is vast. Some of us could care less. Still, it provides a mirror reflection – through everyday interaction with it – of ourselves, and where we need healing. But, healing is a ‘feminine’ word, one that only the broken and withered down would associate with, we suppose.

Yet, in healing, we must do battle; we must acknowledge and confront our dark side. Therefore, it is more associated with purpose than we think. Purpose, a ‘masculine’ word carrying intent and direction. Something we’re all figuring out. Something that matters for a meaningful existence.

We have all heard of stories of people with a dark past, who have healed, fought, and now claimed to live stronger, purposeful lives. What we aren’t normally acquainted with is knowledge of how to work with forces in the nourishing dark, to tap into potency.

Geylang: Dark alleys and “white knights”

Geylang. A neighbourhood notorious for its less than glamorous red-light district. Where migrants, street sellers, gamblers, and sex workers gather.

Now a highly regulated place where the illegal sale of sex drugs and sex solicitors are increasingly driven out of sight, by surveillance cameras, stepped up police patrols and occasional raids. Even bright lights now light up most alleys – darkness disappears.

At least, on the surface. Geylang seems more cleaned-up. Do these problems really go away?

They don’t. A cleaned up neighbourhood does not indicate a safer sex industry. Physically wiping out the ‘dark’ elements never resolves, but relocates these problems into underground spaces. Now, partly due to law and policy enforcements, sex work is increasingly driven into online spaces, private apartments and the heartlands where they become less visible. The consequence? There is greater danger of abuse behind closed doors, and the struggles of sex workers – merely finding a way to live better – go unheard. They continue to be cast in the shadows.

Geylang, however, is not an exception. Problems concerning marginalised communities manifest in countless neighbourhoods across the world. Why do educated politicians fail to appropriately tackle these issues?

Robert Bly offers an interesting perspective of how each individual lives through the evolution of ‘red’, ‘white’, and ‘black’ stages in one’s lifetime. ‘White’ stands for the fight for the good cause. ‘Red’, however, stands for the expression of anger, aggression and a fight for what is his or hers – what matters to the individual. The ‘red’ happens on a more selfish, personal level, and is lowly, unglamorous, disdainful and uncultured.

Yet, it is necessary to not bypass the ‘red’ stage. One who bypasses the ‘red’ knows not what he stands for, nor what he truly wants to fight for or against.

The danger with the white knight stage in our culture is that he is often insufferable because he has not lived through the red. 
If a man hasn’t lived through the red stage, he is a stuck white knight who will characteristically set up a false war with some concretised dragon, such as Poverty or Drugs.
– Robert Bly, in Iron John

Politicians – in general – are white knights fighting for the common good. Intellectually and positionally, they are our representatives, advocates, and the moral crusaders. They are expected to be, and have to look ‘white’. Yet, not many politicians have walked the dark alleys, where trouble brews and voices count. There remains a disconnect between policies formulated and the realities of everyday living. Formulating policies from comfy walled offices neglects much of the actual transactions and conflicts that happen on the ground, or underneath. Voices go unheard, and trouble only grows silently darker with resentment.

Differences persist. The neighbourhood stays fragmented. Me vs You. Us. And Them. Dawn does not come before the night.

Ironically in Geylang, the ‘light’ of religious institutions co-exists with the ‘dark’ of brothels; they contradictorily co-exist as the religious institutions provide outreach to sex workers, engaging them on occasions or religious events. The dark aspects could not be eradicated, but are to be embraced and integrated.

Using the nourishing dark to know what we stand for

Clearly, it is through walking the lowly terrains of life that enable us to extend appropriate help to those in need, by essentially seeking to understand difference. To relieve suffering, its experience must first be understood.

Likewise, the metaphorical ‘dark alley’ refers to the suppressed places within us, where fear lingers. The suppressed ‘dark’ which was unbearable is now given permission to be felt, so that the self might eventually experience goodness through darkness rather than by fighting against it – this goodness is now of a different quality, that of deliverance. Herein lies the opportunity for transformation of the self, and by extension, the world.

Service comes with knowing with a better idea what we would truly stand for, after having experienced the lowly Earth. This is a process of stretching and nourishing the depths of one’s spirit, akin to exercising a muscle by breaking it down and building it up stronger.

Tapping into the potency that lies within the dark, its potential is unleashed; the ‘dark’ becomes a nourishing force that now drives us forward with purpose.