An incomplete book on shamanism

“The Heart of the Shaman: Stories and Practices of the Luminous Warrior” by Alberto Villoldo

This is a whole other world, a seemingly bizarre practice that at first defies modern logic but could potentially make sense once we dig deeper under the surface and understand it well enough.

The book is written by Alberto Villoldo, a medical anthropologist dubbed by the New York Times as “the Indiana Jones of the spirit world.” He earned this nickname by looking for an alternative to cure age-old illnesses and found it in the deep jungle of Peru by befriended Q’ero shamans (including his main source for this book, Don Manuel) or by actions like accessing Machu Pichu’s citadel at night.

While he was already accustomed to the Afro-Indian healing tradition practiced by his nanny during his childhood in Cuba, it was during his doctoral years at San Francisco State University when he really explored about mind-body medicine and neurophysiology of healing, though his travels to Southwestern United States, the Andes, and the Amazon. He then stayed for 4 decades in Peru, blending science and spirituality, teaching about shamanic energy medicine while producing 17 books about shamanism.

Hence, it is not an exaggeration for having such a high expectation for this book. But I’m afraid this is where the honeymoon period stops.

The book continuously written in the borderline between a coverage about shamanism, his own semi-autobiography, and one of those self-help books that based themselves in the law of attraction. It has the feel of “The Secret” element to it, where tapping the creative power of the universe means “when you hold a sacred dream, the universe begins to actively conspire on your behalf to make the impossible doable.” Which is fine if this is indeed a form of practice by shamanism, but Villoldo rarely clarify whether what he’s specifically writing about at that instance is a shaman practice or a personal view.

This makes the book quickly turned from the exciting prospect of teaching us everything about the mysterious shamanism, into one that “borrows” some of the ideas from it and then expanded using the author’s own judgement and experience outside shamanism. But I read on.

To keep the focus on the subject matter, this is what Villoldo wrote that is actually inline with shaman belief: he argues that we’re more than just flesh and bone, that we’re also made of spirit and light surrounded by a Luminous Energy Field (LEF), which is an unending source that exists in every cell of our bodies. And in this book he teaches us how to tap into the creative power of the universe. Sort of. “When you find your sacred dream,” Villoldo remarks, “the creative power of the universe, known by the shamans as the Primordial Light, becomes available to you to create beauty in the world, and to heal yourself and others. You become a luminous warrior.”

So the key question is, what is a sacred dream? There are 3 types of waking dreams: the nightmare, the daydream, and the sacred dream. Out of the 3, only sacred dream can help you fulfill your mission in life.

While a nightmare does not offer you much hope for things to change (such as poor health, growing old, frustrating job or failed marriage), a sacred dream “encourages you to explore the mysteries of life and of love, to glimpse a reality beyond death and discover a timeless truth for yourself. It demands that you act boldly and courageously, and not collude with the consensual—that which everyone agrees on and no one questions—even though it is a popular story that traps us in daydreams that become nightmares.”

So, how do we find our sacred dream? As explained by Villoldo, “[y]ou find your sacred dream by transforming three common dreams many of us are convinced are true and cannot seem to wake up from. They are the dream of security, the dream of permanence, and the dream of love that is unconditional.”

And what do the Shamans do to transform these three? “The shamans do not practice prayer as we know it. They do not meditate. Instead they go on vision quests and practice journeying. They go into nature and fast, drinking only water. After a few days of not eating, once they have burned through all the sugars in their system, they slip into that state between sleeping and waking, where reality ceases to be objective and becomes fluid. In this realm time seems to stop, to warp and fold onto itself, just as it does when we are dreaming.”

“You could be at the foot of a mountain one moment,” Villoldo continues, “and next magically on a beach, the warm sand beneath your feet. An ordinary person might experience this as a mild hallucination induced by starvation. But shamans retain their awareness and focus in these states, so they can meet masters devoid of physical form who offer their wisdom to them. These beings are made of light, since their nature is identical to that of the Primordial Light, and they offer their boundless generosity to anyone seeking help. The closest image we have of these beings is that of the angels we read about in the Bible—numinous, translucent, heavenly.”

If all of these look vague and confusing to you, you’re not alone. At this point, it is vital to point out the importance of the plant hallucinogens that the shamans consume as a key element of the ceremony, a somewhat LSD-like transcendental experience. Which would make this whole seemingly bizarre experience a perfect sense. But Villoldo omitted this massive detail entirely from the book, which was baffling and even misleading.

This incompleteness can be found throughought the book, which creates knowledge gaps between the many different lessons and a difficulty to see the relevance between shamanism and other topics such as his failed marriage (which you will read a lot about in the book). So much so that after reading the book I still have an unclear idea about what shamanism is about. It is such a missed opportunity, given the calibre of the author on this subject. 3.5 stars out of 5.

The fascinating history of the Sikhs

“The Sikhs” by Khushwant Singh

This is a story of a religious evolution in the Indian sub-continent, where the growing Sufi Islam influence of Shaikh Ibrahim Farid merged with a Hindu school of thought by Bhakta Kabir in the form of the teachings of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhsm.

As the author, Khushwant Singh, remarks, “[t]he Sikhs were the most outstanding example of Hindu renaissance produced by Islam – an edifice built as it were with Hindu bricks and Muslim mortar.”

Naturally, due to Hindu polytheist influences the religion seemingly have an abstract quality about its monotheism, but there is actually nothing vague about their believe in the unity of God and equate God with truth, thanks to the influences from monotheist Islam.

Also unlike Hinduism, Sikhism do not have a caste system. But they do not entirely reject Hinduism’s beliefs, as they accept the Hindu theory of karma and life hereafter.

In fact, they are increasingly pivoting towards Hinduism, where Singh remarks, “Within a hundred years of Guru Gobind Singh’s [the tenth and last Guru] death, rituals in Sikh gurdwaras were almost like that in Hindu temples, and more often than not were presided over by priests who were usually Hindu rather than Sikh. Sikhs began to wear caste marks; Sikh weddings and funerals followed Hindu patterns; ashes of the dead were carried to the Ganga and offerings were made to ancestors.”

Moreover, the Sikhs do not believe in the worshiping of human beings as incarnations of God. The gurus themselves also insisted that they were ordinary humans like others and were on no account to be worshipped. And instead, “the form of prayer is usually the repetition of the name of God and chanting hymns of praise. This was popularized by the Bhakti cult and Sikhism is its chief exponent today.”

However, while praying is central to the lives of the Sikhs, they uniquely do not have priests, as they believe that all adults (both men and women) are competent to perform religious ceremonial. And they also do not have a pilgrimage destination, although the Golden Temple in Amritsar is as good as any pilgrimage sites.

Furthermore, alongside the main features about Sikhism above, the book leaves no other details untouched either. It is complete with the biography of each of the important ten Gurus, the backstory behind the iconic turban and beard, the meaning behind the steel bangle, the origin story of the Khalsa, and the reasoning behind the name “Singh” as a surname.

It even covered the corruption cases within the community, the story of the infiltration of communism during the Cold War, their involvement in Indian politics, their emigration away from India (predominantly to Burma, the Malay states, China, Canada and the US), and the transformation of the religion from a pacifist to buffing themselves up with self defense and war expertise due to their oppressed circumstances by the Mughal rulers.

Indeed, the community has had some challenging days throughout history, such as the partition holocaust, or when a brutal attack towards the Sikhs (including the assassination of its then leader) forced them to respond with a political uprising that saw chaos in the Punjab region (where the Sikhs mainly resides), which at one point resulted in the building of the kingdom of the Sikhs (and the eventual demise of it).

But perhaps the most challenging them all is the infighting within the Sikh community. While a definition of a Sikh is “one who believes in the ten Gurus and the Granth Sahib [their Holy Book]”, there are those who, as Singh remarks, “do not believe in all the ten Gurus, e.g., followers of unsuccessful claimants to the title like Adasis, Minas and Ram Raiy as noted in the family tree of the ten Gurus. There are others who believe that the line of Gurus continued after the tenth and follow the precepts of a living Guru, e.g., Nirankaris and Namdharis. Similarly, some Sikhs challenge the authenticity of certain passages of the Granth Sahib, while others insist on including extraneous writings in it. Besides these, there are numerous subsects distinguished by allegiance to one or other Guru or claiming that the real Guru had been overlooked in deciding the succession.”

But nevertheless, despite these discrepancies the belief in the ten Gurus and the Granth Sahib remains the basic factor of the Sikh community, which covers the vast majority of them.

Today there are around 26 million Sikhs worldwide (0.3% of world population), 24 million of whom live inside India. They are largely little-known and often misunderstood (although not in a bad way), apart from their distinguishable attributes. But thanks to this book the many aspects of this fascinating religion just got a lot more clearer.

A complete introduction to Kabbalah

“The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism” by Daniel C. Matt

Daniel C. Matt had studied Kabbalah for 25 years, and it shows in how he can describe such a complex religion into a relatively simple narrative. He also curates some of the most essential teachings from the huge trove of Kabbalah, translated himself the passages from the original Hebrew and Aramaic texts, alongside adding contextual explanations on the translations.

The result is this compact book filled with all the essential knowledge on Kabbalah, broken down into several neat short themes that make it easier to digest. The book finishes at about 59% of the way, with the remaining pages reserved for the explanation notes and a substantial list of “suggested reading”, for those who decide to read more about it.

But still, even with the clarity and neat organisation, any novice in Kabbalah could find it a little overwhelming, due to the unique style of the religion, the many beautiful descriptions of Ein Sof (the Creator or the Infinite), and especially with the sophisticated structure of the ten Sefirot and the many different meanings that contains them.

But this is a testament to the completeness of the book on the subject. And no need to worry, as the book patiently guides us step by step to introduce the many parts of this fascinating religion, in a tone that is easy to understand even to a complete newbie.

The mystical side of Islam

The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition” by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

This book is 50 years in the making. It comprised of scholarly studies and existential participation in Sufism, where the author, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, also paid a respect to the predecessor books on Sufism and each of their strong points, which eventually contributes in shaping this one ultimate book on Sufism.

Like classical Sufism texts, the book is filled with Quranic citations, Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet (PBUH)), and poetry. And the title of the book refers to the traditional Islamic symbolism of the garden, where Dr. Nasr explains, “[t]he Quran refers to Paradise itself as the Garden. Moreover, the Sacred Text speaks of levels of Paradise. The Sufis have drawn from this symbolism and speak of the Garden as designating not only the various levels of paradisal realities but also the Divine Reality beyond Paradise as usually understood.”

And there are two main gates to the garden of truth: knowledge and love, in which Dr. Nasr remarks, “in Sufism the highest form of worship is knowledge of God, which is always combined with love”, and that “[t]he Prophet of Islam said, “Whosoever knows his self, knows his Lord”; that is, self-knowledge leads to knowledge of the Divine.”

Dr. Nasr then continues, “[a]lthough there is no way to enter into intimacy with God save through knowledge and love—which also require faith—action remains, therefore, of the greatest importance on the path to the Garden, action not in itself but in how it affects the soul and how it reflects its intentions, both hidden and manifest.” This, is ultimately the core approach of Sufism.

And according to Sufism, the first steps on the path to this Garden of Truth consist of “detachment from the world and surrender to God, which means attachment to Him. By world we mean here not theophanies and signs of God that surround us even in this terrestrial abode, but the world as the veil that covers the truth and disperses our soul.”

As you may have noticed with the last paragraph, Dr. Nasr has a certain writing style that, let’s just say, is not really my cup of tea, as I find it difficult to navigate around the main points wrapped under poetic words that distract us from the core messages. Another example, in other chapter he writes “[t]he book of the Sufi is not the black ink of written words, It is none other than an unblemished heart like snow.” Which is beautifully written, poetic, but with vagueness of what it actually means.

Moreover, for a book of everything about Sufi, one would think that its history is vitally important, but we only get to read about it at the very back of the book, in the appendix. Weirdly, the distinctive feature of the Sufi order and the Sufi gnosis (its codified philosophy) are also put in the appendix by Dr. Nasr, where he extensively cover the many orders spread across Iraq, Persia, Central Asia, Indian subcontinent, Arab East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, South East Asia, China, and perhaps most iconically, in Turkey.

Had these 3 core features of Sufism written at the front, the book would’ve been much easier to read, with the essential background knowledge and the mapping of the spread of Sufism could give us the necessary context to proceed with the contents.

But perhaps the vagueness in the words is indeed within the Sufi nature, since in its core Sufi strips down all the power structures within Islam and focused directly on the spiritual (and we cannot really measure spiritualism). Hence, it may never intended to be something set on stone, but instead, just like Rumi’s poetries, they are a bunch of beautiful passages filled with possible multiple interpretations.

And to be fair, it’s not all blurry. The most fascinating revelation from this book for me is how the author shows Sufism is similar with other metaphysical religion like Buddhism, Hinduism, Kabbalah, or Christian metaphysics, with the language of love, compassion, and above all,
truth. Which reiterates that famous saying in Rig Veda “truth is one, the sages call it by different names.”

Sufism, in the end, is a beautiful spiritual fraction of Islam, one that are both mysterious and enigmatic at the same time. And this book gives justice to this, with its poetic words a true reflection of the religion.

Life begins today

Now answer me, sincerely, honestly, who lives past forty? I’ll tell you who does: fools and scoundrels – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Well, this is it. It finally arrived. The big upgrade to 4.0. Life in your 40s is like, I dunno, season 5 of Game of Thrones: nearly half of the people from your childhood have either disappeared or passed away, while you’re marching on with half the battle already done. Because, if I’m lucky enough to live until my 80s, I’m half way there! Holy crap!

Being 40-ish is rather like being a teenager, you’re not young anymore but not yet THAT old. You can still go out pub hopping all night, paint the town red, and ended up in a 24-hours dim sum place at 3 in the morning with strangers that you’ve just met. But you do it while drinking Tolak Angin beforehand and slip hot tea every once in a while to balance it out. You see, life is all about growth.

Being halfway there also means I’m getting closer to the finish line, if I’m really being realistic (it’s not dark, just memento mori). That’s where the no-bullshit phase comes kicking: I don’t have that much tolerance for bullshit anymore. You either meet me halfway down the middle, or I won’t be bothered to make an effort on you. I don’t have time for building a FIFA team from scratch either, like I used to back in PS1 era. So instead, I go straight to edit and “transfer” all the goats into my team LOL, all the Messi and the Ronaldo, and screw it, Manuel Neuer as a 3rd goalkeeper.

Anyway, do you know what’s the number 1 thing that suddenly comes up a lot when you’re at your 40s? Health issues. They say the best time to think about our health is many years ago, but the second best time is now. Sure, most pro athletes have already retired by the time they’re 40, due to their declining physical abilities. But some of them can turn like Fernando Torres (google image him real quick, what he’s like now. Right? Goddamn). What I’m trying to say here, it’s never too late to start living a healthy life. And there’s no better inspiration for this than – no no, not Fernando Torres – the people who live in the so-called “blue zones” spread around the world where the majority of them live until way pass 100 (google “the ten rules of Ikigai” to see what the formula is).

But being healthy is of course not only for your body, it’s also for your mind. Let me refer to one of Dr. Robert Lustig’s main theses: Happiness hormone = serotonin. Pleasure hormone = dopamine. Money triggers the release of dopamine in our body, not serotonin. Hence, money can buy us pleasure but not happiness. We often get the both mixed up, and thus make us chase the wrong things like seeking happiness by indulging in pleasure (yeah, science biatch!). And here’s the kicker: too much dopamine down-regulates serotonin in our body, in other words too much pleasure will make us unhappy. Hence, the sad millionaire/billionaire phase where normal stuffs can no longer give them satisfaction, which led them to do stupid shit like ended up being in Jeffrey Epstein’s black book.

I mean, sure money solves the vast majority of our problems, but in truth they only solve money problems. They won’t fix our health by itself, won’t buy us real friendship or love, won’t instantly give us knowledge, won’t heal our bruised ego, won’t really give us a peace of mind (mo money mo problems), won’t automatically win us that public approval, or can’t change the fact that when watching Doraemon you suddenly realise that Nobita’s mom now looks like “your age.” Indeed, the most important things in life are earned. This is why some of the happiest people on Earth are like the people in Fiji. Tanned, carefree at the beach, with a big smile on their faces, despite some of them have almost no money.

You know that famous story, right? It may be fake for that matters, but it’s a good one. Something like an entrepreneur wants to work hard to build a company, grow it big, then automate his business, generate a lot of passive income, so that he can retire and buy a property in a paradise like Fiji, so he can spend his retirement days on the beach relaxing. But then a random Fijian dude says to the entrepreneur, ya man (I don’t know Fijian dialect, why does it come out as Jamaican?) I can just wake up everyday and do the same exact thing on the beach right now whilst being poor, young, and without any stress.

Indeed, life can look a little different when we step out of the rat race every once in a while and see how other people in this huge planet live their lives. Like Joey from Friends would say, ambition? Good. Money? Good. But peace of mind? Goooood.

This was the core message of an article that I once read in Medium (I totally forgot what article and by which author, but the message sticks), that the way we live our lives largely depends on 2 things: our interpretation and narration. Yes, it’s not so much what happens to us that is important but our interpretation of that event (and how we respond to it), and how it fits in the narration we have for our lives.

For example, getting rejected can be a good learning process, or it can be a disaster if it doesn’t fit the “flawless” narrative that you’ve created. Going vegan can be seen as fantastic by those who have a green-conscious life narrative (or have watched enough Netflix documentaries), or a douche by those who don’t. Weight lifting and healthy eating can be pointless if you don’t see the need for it and consider yourself more of a foodie. Or indeed some can lie down on the beach doing nothing right now with little money, while others need to have the business success first in their narration before they can do the same exact thing, lie down on the beach doing nothing.

For me, my narration is this: life is an adventure. And like any exciting adventure movies – from Forrest Gump to Indiana Jones to the Motorcycle Diaries – the narration needs to have a balance between triumphs, tragedies, and the chaos in between to make it interesting and worth living. Because life is colourful if we get to enjoy all the spectrum of colours of emotions, all the different music genres for different moods. After all, we can’t possibly appreciate the good things if we’ve never experienced the bad things as a contrasting comparison, or we cannot fully understand happiness if we’ve never felt sadness.

Or in the analogy of censorship, what we need is not censorship on the offensive or dangerous ideas from the past, but more explanation on the context of the era so that we can see the big picture and the evolution of ideas. In other words, what we need is not being protected from harm, shielded from bad experience, or being given half truths due to censorship, but we need more exposure on everything good and bad, accompanied by their contextual explanations so that we can understand the real world much better, can truly adapt ourselves in any circumstances, and can be happier as a result.

Which brings us back to that Ikigai thing. You know what the number 1 cause of happiness for the people in the blue zone is? A sense of purpose. The “why” behind their actions. Because, as long as you live your life inline with your purpose any obstacle can make you grow stronger, any hardship can be seen as a redeemable price for a spot in the after life, any pursuit of 10,000 hours of hard work will be worth it when we achieve our mastery in the end. In other words, we tend to be able to endure the hard times in order to earn better things for our purpose, just like a single mother working 2 crappy jobs to feed her beloved baby. Indeed, happiness comes in many forms and sometimes hardship is part of the process.

So, what’s your purpose in life, what’s your Ikigai? Here’s a little secret, it doesn’t have to be one massive goal, or a noble goal for that matter. You can even have the simplest purpose like to spread kindness or live up to your values, or to just going where the wind blows, enjoying the small things, and be content with it. And that’s the key word: contentment. Because if we’re slave to our greed nothing will ever be enough. There’s a good reason why the Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad (peace be upon them), and other religious leaders all preach the same simplistic lifestyle that teach us to avoid the “worldly” materialistic urges.

Contentment also means making the right decisions in your life to ensure that there will be no regrets. The sins you didn’t do, the tattoo you didn’t make when you were drunk, the ex you separated with, the high risk/high return opportunities you just have to take (or don’t take but instead opted to take the longer road with more stability). Contentment also means appreciating what you have, and don’t take them for granted. Because sometimes what you don’t realise that you have is the number one thing that other people ultimately want. Like Confucius once said, “a healthy man wants a thousand things, a sick man only wants one.”

To me, life is beautiful when I spend it with my wife and kids, reading books, listening to music, running and playing football, doing a job that I love, meeting with many different friends, laugh a lot, and doing many, many adventures. I’d also like to tick everything in my long bucket list, taste almost everything at least once, be the spark of joy for my surroundings, sometimes doing the difficult things just because it’s the right thing to do, and above all enjoying the ride while being healthy and always staying true to my core principles (because if I wasn’t, it would be eating me alive).

And so, here I am. Walking halfway to somewhere, trying to strike a balance between becoming the entrepreneur and the Fijian. My values are as solid as ever, my priorities are becoming clearer, my conscience is clear, and I feel content. And while I may not be like Rich Roll – who transformed his unhealthy life filled with drugs and alcohol at 40 and ended up clocking top finishes at Ultraman World Championships by the age of 42 – I could do with a little more discipline with health and fitness, you know, a wiggle room to grow. So I guess this is it. Never thought that I would ever arrived at this point, but hey-oh, here I am, and here we go life’s waiting to begin.

Indonesian history from the vantage point of its eccentric intellectual

“To Remain Myself: The History of Onghokham” by David Reeve

Onghokham is arguably one of the most important Indonesian intellectuals that I have come across, but most likely the most unknown today. I first stumbled upon him when someone very smart gave me his 2003 book The Thugs, The Curtain Thief, and the Sugar Lord, a book about what’s life really like in Java during the Dutch occupation, which shattered my new-order indoctrinated perceptions on Indonesian history and an eye opener towards the complicated truth.

But apart from his excellent writing, I did not know much about the author. And as it turns out his life’s story is even more interesting than his work.

Onghokham (or Ong) was born in 1933 in Surabaya, he grew up in the Dutch occupation era, experienced the brutal Japanese regime, the turbulent decades of Indonesian independence, was closely involved with the disruptions period of liberal democracy in the 1950s as a student in Universitas Indonesia, got caught up in the post-1965-coup era, and became part of the intellectual scene of the country in the Suharto era, especially after coming back from finishing his PhD in history from Yale University in 1975.

Furthermore, he lived to see the eventual fall of Suharto’s New Order regime that he never liked, the brutal riot of 1998, another chaotic times in the reformation era, and wrote about them all alongside several books on history, before a stroke in 2001 left him in a wheelchair until his death in 2007.

Ong speaks fluent Indonesian, Dutch, English, French, German, and Javanese. He is well read, and greatly influenced by the many social justice movements in the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s during when he was at Yale. Ong became prominent in the 1970s and 1980s, even earned a celebrity status for his capacity as a historian (perhaps the best that Indonesia ever had) with his writing in the likes of Star Weekly, Tempo, Prisma, Kompas, the Jakarta Post, as well as through other numerous articles and books where in total he managed to produce 300 writings in the span of 50 years of career.

But apart from his intellectual evolution, what makes this book so interesting is how his life is never shy from controversies. He is a multi-minority member of society, being a mixed Indonesian-Chinese blood (peranakan), Dutch-educated, gay, hedonist, atheist, and alcoholic, in a much conservative Indonesia back then. His intellectual integrity also means he honors truth above anything else, which drags him into trouble several times.

For example, as the New Order regime of Suharto tried to hide the truth about the PKI massacre in the aftermath of 1965 coup, Ong suddenly found himself becomes the enemy of the state by trying to reveal the truth from his capacity as an investigator of PKI archives, and ended up jailed by being framed as a PKI supporter, an event which caused him to have a nervous breakdown.

Another example is his involvement in the terrible feuds between Indonesian historians in the attempt to establish a historical standard for the country, where the author David Reeve commented “[t]here was something of a division amongst those who thought about Indonesian history. One side thought that historians should start at the bottom, doing their own basic research, and build upwards towards a theory or a philosophy of history. The other side had the opposite view, that the philosophy of Indonesian history should be finalised first, and then developed downwards into the research.”

Indeed, the book is first and foremost a testament of Ong’s brilliance as an intellectual, and his influence in academia. It also analyses his writing style, the unique methodology for his research, how chaotic his notes are, how disorganized his thoughts are, but despite all of that messiness, when that spark of genius comes out it is world class. The book even presents some of the sentences from Ong’s selected works to illustrate this point.

But the charm of the book is the way it portrays the human side of Ong, how he is a good cook and a witty, mischievous, man famous for throwing legendary house parties. He is also known for being friends with artists and celebrities, frequently appearing in embassy dinners, while still going everywhere by public transportation. Moreover, the book tells the many travels he’s had and the friends he’s met along the way, from the US, to the Netherlands, England, Thailand, India, Japan, Singapore, China, and many more including the many places within Indonesia. It also shows the other side of his personality as a legendary “killer” professor at Universitas Indonesia, an eccentric one at that where he embodied the stereotype of a scruffy professor with short fuse.

Perhaps more humanising than the rest is the way this book shows Ong’s struggles and adventures in sex and relationships, where Reeve commented “[i]f the inner life is largely missing in Indonesian biography, sexuality is even more so. Ong’s struggle with his homosexuality during the 1940s to the 1970s adds a missing dimension to that sporadic history in Indonesia. His mature acceptance of his sexuality, and his creation of an original and idiosyncratic lifestyle, is a story itself.”

Moreover, the book also has an interesting angle for historical occurrences, from the vantage points of the ordinary citizens. Such as how people reacted when learning that the Japanese was defeated, how the declaration of independence 17 August 1945 was not heard in Surabaya until few days later, and even then the people didn’t believe it at first and it did not make any difference in the daily lives, or what did Ong do during the night of the slaughter of the generals on 30 October 1965. Indeed, the book can get very impressively detailed with information that are not really related with Ong’s story, but that’s part of the appeal as we get to “taste” the many different contextual environments from Indonesia’s past.

In fact, through this book we can witness the development of Indonesia from the ground up, where we can see, for example, how the Dutch colonial legacy is still very much present in Indonesian society today (both in the law and the structure of society), or how the political climate in Indonesia was initially shaped by the game played by parties that are no longer exist today.

But perhaps the most intriguing historical angle for me is how the book shows the rare glimpse of what’s life like as a Chinese peranakan during the many decades of Indonesian transitions: How Chinese Indonesians’ role in the country’s history is almost completely erased, the dilemma of citizenship for the Chinese after independence (to choose between Indonesian, Dutch, or Chinese citizenship), or the pain of always become a second class citizens, the stigma against the Chinese, the feuds they have with pure Chinese immigrant blood, against other ethnics such as Arabs or the locals, and what’s it like being Chinese during the dark days of the 1998 riot.

As Reeve remarks, “[h]is life story also adds another dimension to the many biographies of Indonesian Chinese and their successes and failures in finding a place in the modern nation-state, often a long and painful road, sometimes ending in departure overseas. Ong was a leading public figure in debates over the better path to participation into the modern state at the end of the 1950s, and he continued to write on the theme for another 40 years.”

All in all, Onghokham is a very mesmerizing character, a combination of intellect and extravagance, a true encyclopedia of Indonesian history, society and culture. He is an idealist caught in the wave of constant changes of a country, which makes the title of the book, I suspect, fittingly reflects this struggle. And David Reeve makes such a good job stitching them all together in one narrative, through gathering plenty of Ong’s previously scattered or inaccessible writings – as well as many hours of interviews with his surrounding and with Ong himself – into one book. It is an important piece of puzzle to understand more about Indonesia, from the vantage point of one of its enigmatic intellectuals. cannot recommend it more.

When the price of time is set at nothing, finance becomes absurd

“The Price of Time: The Real Story of Interest” by Edward Chancellor

Interest rate is so misunderstood. So much so the bunch of people who were among the firsts to master it and made it their vocation – namely, the Jews – get a bad reputation for greed, from their role depicted in the Bible as a usurer to the global finance conspiracies. But what is really an interest?

This book covers the 4000 years of evolution of interest. Using many intriguing examples from history, economics, politics, even religion, it tells the many trial and errors of using it, the debate over its function and its legal limit, the exploitations of it, the usage of it for a natural selection, the benefits of it, all of which serve as the foundations for the core thesis of the book: “when the price of time [aka interest rate] is set at nothing or turns negative, and central banks print money without limit, finance becomes absurd.”

It is written by Edward Chancellor, an award-winning financial writer whose role in the industry includes working at Lazard Brothers in the 1990s and serving as a senior member of the asset allocation team at GMO between 2008-2014. His book on financial speculations, “Devil Take the Hindmost”, remains in my top 10 favourite even today after nearly 2 decades since the last time I read it. And in a way, this book is similar with his first book, where Chancellor uses the familiar stories we found there but he illustrates them with a different (complementary) angle: the interest rates rather than the madness of the crowds, the trigger rather than the reaction.

The book argues that the crisis from 2008 is far from over, only delayed and prolonged, and that we’re in the prospect of having a colossal meltdown as an effect of the policies implemented since the downfall of Lehman Brothers: the cause and effects link between low interest rates and inflation, the problems arise in the easy credit environment, the “zombification” of corporations from Japan to Europe to the US, and the many spillover effects ever since, like the Arab Spring 2011, the collapse of Brazil in 2013, Greece in 2015, the crash of Turkish Lira and Argentinian Peso, the political chaos in Italy, the boom and bust of China, and indeed the global inflation since 2022.

And along the spectacular example stories, Chancellor inserts the intellectual debates behind the decision makings by those in charge, including the citations of original thinking from past legendary economists – from Bastiat and Smith, to Marx, from Keynes and Hayek, to Schumpeter – combined with the zeitgeist of each example’s era, which filled the book with a front row seat in witnessing the battle of ideas that have shaped today’s global financial environment.

For example, It is fascinating how eerily similar today’s global economic situation is with 1700s France. While the bailouts and interest rate cuts down to zero by the Fed in 2008 subsequently led to the inflated global asset prices and the battle against high inflation today, France began their economic woes after the wars since the death of Louis XIV left the country with mountains of debts.

Orchestrated by John Law – an outlaw in England that managed to escape to France and climb his way up to practically become a finance minister/financial manipulator – France then went into a similar pattern of pushing down interest rates and printing money by buying government debts, which was tied to the Mississippi Company that Law created. Long story short, it didn’t end well in 18th century France after it eventually triggered an inflation (23% at its height) alongside the inflated share price of the Mississippi Company, which then culminated in the crash of the Mississippi Bubble in 1720.

Moreover, from other examples such as the Roaring Twenties, Railway Mania 1840s, and Japan in the 1980s, Chancellor shows that when interest rates get too low investors usually become restless, looking for other investment vehicles that have a higher return, and that market unrest always follows a period of low interest. “Easy money fostered credit growth, and credit growth fostered speculative excesses”, argued Chancellor, a remark also echoed by legendary investor Warren Buffett when he said “interest rates basically are to the value of assets what gravity to matter”, once this gravitational force is removed (i.e. becoming zero interest rates) all sorts of speculative assets – from stocks, to bonds, property, commodities, to crypto currencies – were free to float into the stratosphere.

A 17th century economist Richard Cantillon provides even more accurate descriptions of the current global situation when he said back then “when a national bank turns on the printing press and buys up government debt, the newly created money is initially trapped within the financial system, where it inflates financial assets rather than consumer prices, and only slowly seeps out into the wider economy.” This thesis is evident in how covid relief measures (rate cuts and bond buying/money printing that doubles the Fed’s balance sheet from $4 trillion to $8 trillion) exacerbates the inflation firstly towards financial assets in 2020-2022 and then eventually spillover to the economy in a form of severe inflation, which, according to Chancellor, “the acceleration of these tendencies brought them closer to an endpoint”, a potential disaster that never ends well for any of the examples from history.

This is where we are at the moment, on the verge of another catastrophe. As I write this review Signature Bank shuts down, First Republic Bank’s share price is collapsing, UniCredit’s shares halted, and Credit Suisse’s CDS hits record high, while the stock price of other US regional banks are enduring a sell-offs, after the US government just bailed out Silicon Valley Bank the previous day (the second largest bank failure in US history after Washington Mutual Bank in 2008), as a ripple effect of the change of environment from decade-long zero rate to the aggressive rate hike by the Fed.

This makes this book very timely, a strong warning of what may come in the near future. And as you can see we’ve been warned, even by long-dead economists centuries ago. But we just never listen.

Sprinters are born, but endurance athletes are made

“1:59: The Sub-Two-Hour Marathon Is Within Reach – Here’s How It Will Go Down, and What Can Teach All Runners About Training and Racing by Dr. Philip Maffetone

This book has a simple goal, but a highly ambitious one: to reach a sub-2-hour marathon. Unlike his other “general theory” books, in this book Phil Maffetone uses the tools and tactics directly as an action plan to develop our physique and mentality to be able to run the marathon in just 1 hour and 59 minutes.

Now, as I write this almost a decade later since publishing date in 2014 the sub-2-hour marathon has finally been achieved in Vienna 2019 by Eliud Kipchoge, one of the main contenders expected in the appendix to break the barrier. So, 1:59 is humanly possible.

But of course the rest of us mortals are not a pro runner and won’t likely to reach 1:59, but it’s the effort and science behind it that makes this book so interesting, as we now have the ideal benchmark if we choose to train and live like the pros. Or at least close to it. And for a running geek like me, this is a goldmine.

The book neatly covers all the most important subjects on running, from vitamin D, to running economy, slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibres, recovery and rest, lactic level, aerobic and anaerobic, heart rate variability, VO2MAX, cortisol, addressing over training, stretching (or why you shouldn’t do it), nutrition and diet, glycemic index, massage therapy, on the right shoes, barefoot running, cadence, altitude training, to how he use time (not miles) for training, and many more, including a special analysis of the Kalenjin people in Iten, Kenya (the de facto Mecca for running) and why they produce so many pro runners.

“Sprinters are born, but endurance athletes are made”, Maffetone remarked. And this mindset indicates that although it is far from easy, we don’t really need a special talent to become a distance runner and that everything written in this book is actually trainable for anyone.

The blueprint of seduction

“The Art of Seduction” by Robert Greene

Sexual desire is a big part of human emotion. It can also be a tool, which was first used by powerless women in history as a power play that does not need physical strength but only psychological strength. And this, is what seduction is all about.

As Robert Greene remarks, “[i]n the face of violence and brutality, these women made seduction a sophisticated art, the ultimate form of power and persuasion. They learned to work on the mind first, stimulating fantasies, keeping a man wanting more, creating patterns of hope and despair—the essence of seduction.”

These techniques were then slowly adopted by men who saw the potentials in this so-called soft power. Starting from the likes of Duke de Lauzun, the Spaniards who inspired the Don Juan legend, Casanova, and Ninon de l’Enclos. Seduction techniques also began to be implemented within the ranks of the military, by men like Napoleon who saw the techniques valuable for diplomacy and political edge, until today in our lifetime where seduction has become a common tool for persuasion for men and women alike, in politics and business.

“But even if much has changed in degree and scope,” Greene commented, “the essence of seduction is constant: never be forceful or direct; instead, use pleasure as bait, playing on people’s emotions, stirring desire and confusion, inducing psychological surrender. In seduction as it is practiced today, the methods of Cleopatra still hold.”

Seduction also works by filling a void inside, fulfilling a dream or fantasy, enhancing some part of them that they wanted to be recognised, helping them to achieve something, creating a festive environment where everything goes, or sometimes become the risk that they are craving in their steady and boring life.

And this is where Robert Greene brings out his Midas Touch once again and lives up to his reputation for being a modern-day Machiavelli, as he dissected the anatomy of seduction and dives deep into the archive of history to illustrate the key points in action, using stories and their interpretations.

The stories varies widely from Cleopatra, to Bill Clinton, JFK, Cora Pearl, Queen Elizabeth I, Krishnamurti, Mao Zedong, his Mrs Mao, Lenin, Moses, Sigmund Freud, Charles De Gaulle, Marilyn Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Andy Warhol, Chiang Kaishek, Fidel Castro, Napoleon Bonaparte, his Josephine, Benjamin Disraeli, Rasputin, Elvis Presley, Joan of Arc, Malcolm X, Duke Ellington, Henry Kissinger, Evita Peron, Oscar Wilde, my boy Soekarno, even Charlie Chaplin, which amounts to 10 types of seducers and 18 types of seducers’ victims.

In a way, the book feels like a sequel to Greene’s first masterpiece, the 48 Laws of Power, where in the first book he describes the 1st type of power and in this second book he describes how to use the 2nd type of power (or what Greene refer as “the ultimate form of power.”)

But as usual with all Robert Greene books, I’m reluctant to spill any more “cheat code” in life. So, if you want to know more you just have to read the book. Or not. You know what, it’s not really that good, I only gave it 5 stars and tagged it under the “favourite” folder.

When compounded, the smallest things can make such a big difference

“The Compound Effect: Jumpstart Your Income, Your Life, Your Success” by Darren Hardy

This book is brilliant and awful at the same time. It’s very inspirational at some parts, but cringy at many others.

At first impression, the book is one of those cliche books that tries to stand out from the rest of the cliches. It promises to go back to the basics, to clear the clutter of unnecessary information and instead becoming laser sharp focus on the core fundamental principles that truly matter: how to become successful through step by step guide that are measurable and sustainable. The author’s guide, of course.

In fact, Darren Hardy has “the only process you need for ultimate success”, which he obviously learned himself personally through trial and error, which made him rise from nothing to becoming the CEO of his own goddamn company at the age of 24. Yes, he has this principles that have since been perfected and codified so that he can share it with us in this book, the same lessons he teaches entrepreneurs and executives in his coaching class!

To put the cherry on top, if you listen to the audiobook version it is read by none other than himself, in a pump up voice that could probably make you hyped up. Probably. Because, his role model and mentor just happens to be Tony Robbin’s role model as well: Jim Rohn (Of course, who else?). In fact, you will stumble upon a lot of Jim Rohn references in this book – like the way Robert Kiyosaki keeps referring to Napoleon Hill – as well as quotes from his aptly named (and with all capital letters) SUCCESS Magazine. This, ladies and gentlemen, is peak self-help.

But then, without further ado he proceeded right to the main points of his theory, the compounding effect. And it was actually pretty good. Good enough that the book was mentioned in the “must read” list in one of the many book review articles that I’ve read. Which sucked me into this.

The key thesis of his theory is this: Small things if done consistently over the long run will generate something good. Or bad. Indeed, the ripple effects from doing small things consistently over time can either be a virtuous cycle or vicious cycle. It can add small calories into our body or subtract less calories. The little money we didn’t spend on meaningless things become the big savings we have for the future, or dwindling our savings with us not realising what had happened. It can mean one small progress in our work overtime, or small leaks that will lead us down hill. Or small progress in our stamina or fitness ability overtime, or the deterioration of them.

That’s it, that’s chapter one, “the compound effect in action.” The rest of the book is some form of supporting arguments or elaborations for his main premise, which is fine but they are filled with humble-brags and name droppings that suspiciously look as if he’s trying a little bit too hard to boost his credibility (which is unnecessary).

But ignore the ego and you might learn one or two more things, like his take on habits, triggers, his friend the “big mo” (momentum), clean environment, sticking to our core values, identifying our “why”, proper goal-setting, getting rid of the inefficient habit (such as reading news a little too much), “vice test”, or how the attitude that the path to ultimate success is not through winning a lottery or a jackpot but through a continuation of mundane, unexciting, and unsexy daily disciplines that compounded over time. Like I said, supporting arguments or elaborations, which at this stage are nothing new but nevertheless good for reminder.

Having said all of that, this book will definitely be one of the first self-help books that I slowly introduce to my young kids, as it neatly compiled (or copied?) all the wisdom I’m familiar with from the work of Charles Duhigg, Simon Sinek, Tim Ferriss, Marshall Goldsmith, and of course Tony Robbins. Yes it has an abundance of cliches, but for any newbie at self-help? It’s a good starting point.