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How I tripped in a Vipassana retreat and realized that its a cult

On 20 Dec, I decided to embark on a Vipassana 10 day silence meditation retreat.  It’s quite an unusual activity; you surrender all your valuables, make no contact with the outside world, take only 2 vegetarian meals each day and weren’t allowed to talk with anyone. (Yup, that included eye contact) Did I mention that you have to wake up at 4 am every day, meditate for about 10 hours and weren’t allowed to have your cell phone, any valuables or writing materials? Oh and you are to abstain from killing any beings. Yup, that included ants, mosquitoes and bugs.

 Photo by fcscafeine/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by fcscafeine/iStock / Getty Images

Founded by S.N Goenka, the Vipassana group has centers all around the world. Financed by donation and ran by volunteers, the group claimed to be secular but it’s mostly Buddhism, interpreted and delivered by a man, S. N Goenka, recorded on a camera. Males and females are segregated in this retreat and each meditation sessions progresses with instructions from a DVD and recordings. There is a meditation teacher on site but he doesn’t do much except to observe and delegate a teaching assistant to remind agitated students to close their eyes and etc... They do this via a written sign. The teacher and course manager are the only two you can establish verbal communications with. Students who have questions must request for an interview that happens daily, after lunch.

 Photo by selimaksan/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by selimaksan/iStock / Getty Images

I first heard about the Vipasana retreat from my friend Karla when I was in Thailand.  She has completed one a while back and I jokingly told her that I was interested. As my interest in mindfulness developed, I grew fond of attending a more extensive meditation program.  Vipassana came up and I did some research. Even though things sounded extremely cultist, I decided to give it a go.

 Photo by CREATISTA/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by CREATISTA/iStock / Getty Images

Here’s my experience and thoughts in sequence. I have travelled to many places and this is the first time that I am away from my sketchbook. Admittedly, this has also been one of the toughest things I ever enrolled into.

Day 0-

 Took an ATR from Singapore for the first time

Took an ATR from Singapore for the first time

Took firefly ATR prop plane from Singapore. I signed up for the program at Malaysia’s Dharma Centre. It’s located in Kuantan and the site was donated by a wealthy family that ran a plantation and hotel next to it. Met two volunteer servers at Kuantan airport and we shared a cab to the Centre. Paul and the other lady have attended Vipassana more than 6 times. I asked them about the retreat and they both told me that it’s going to be painful.  Paul later turned out to be our course translator who helped translate questions from English speaking participants to the teacher. Our teacher was a Chinese man, maybe in his 70s with white beard and white hair and he spoke mostly Mandarin.

Before the commencement of noble silence, we signed an agreement form and were reminded that if we can’t comply with the rules, we should leave now. We surrendered our ‘contrabands’ (phones, passport, money, wallet and etc) and were each assigned to our rooms. The room was small and basic. There’s a thin mattress, a pillow and there’s a toilet with cold running shower. Hot water can be fetched outside with a pail. There’s also a meditation seat in the room. Each day, the program outline is written outside the cafeteria. There were times you can remain in your rooms to self-meditate. Other times, you needed to be in the hall with other students for instructions.  

 The hall we meditated in

The hall we meditated in

 Rooms we slept in

Rooms we slept in


Day 1 –
I was pleasantly surprised that I could sleep the night before and was awoken up by this rather annoying siren at 4 am. The siren is a loud ‘Gong’ that lasted about 10 times, every time it's activated. Every time it went off, it meant that a meditation or meal session is to begin.  It’s hypnotizing after hearing this for more than 10 times a day.

The first day, we were taught Anapana. Basically, we sat and observed the breathing sensation in-and-out of our nostril.  The area that we had to observe this sensation will be reduced over the next 3 days. 

Whenever I closed my eyes to meditate, my monkey mind would kick into high gear and I would drift into various thoughts, ideas, and fantasies.  The thoughts were extremely random and I wondered if I was going crazy. By the end day 1, I was mentally exhausted and developed a raging headache. There was pain everywhere.

I thought about leaving but wanted to give this a little more time.    

Each day, before the end of our last meditation session, there would be a discourse and we would watch a recorded video of S. N Goenka teaching Dharma. They were mostly entertaining but it slowly progresses into witty mockery of others religion and beliefs in the next few days. Goenka is quite a charming person and with his well-integrated humor into various Buddhist teachings, the room of quiet attendees quickly erupted into a room full of laughers. Was laughing considered a violation to noble silence? I wondered

Day 2 -
My sleep degraded. I was back to the boxing ring and today we narrowed our breathing sensation to the area around our nostrils to the upper lips. My monkey mind didn’t show up. Instead, whenever I developed calmness and focus, my mind would drift into a subconscious or a light non-REM sleep state. It’s quite hard to explain this transition because it happened so smoothly. Frustrations developed and I wondered why my will-power often cannot correlate with my wants. Once, I drifted into my subconscious, only to realize that I was in a dream state with imagery of myself stirring a spoon in a cup. I woke up to realize that my physical hand was actually moving. It was quite a trippy experience.

By the end of the day, I had a slight headache and couldn’t sleep at night. Whenever I felt like I have fallen asleep, I am still alert. It’s hard to explain this but imagine how one’s breathing tends to be super long and slow during a sleep... Well, I was having that except that I was wary of every single breath. It felt like my conscious mind and subconscious mind has flipped their role..

Day 3 -
I woke up to barely any sleep.  Was super tired but was not really sleepy. Today’s meditation instruction was to focus on the sensation on the area around our upper lips.. I kept drifting into my subconscious and felt that things have gone hay-wired. I asked the teacher how to continue and he advised me to take breaks, wash up and to fight things off. My willpower was on full throttle but I can’t seem to exercise sufficient control. When asked about my sleep deprivation, he said that meditators don’t have to sleep so much and told me not to worry. I grew increasingly frustrated when I kept dozing off merely minutes into meditation. Once, I saw in my sleep with synchronized breathing that I was walking a dog that was leading me to nowhere. When I snapped out of it, I realized that my subconscious in control. There was another participant behind me who was equally frustrated and he started to hit his head repeatedly really hard whenever he dozed off.  I wanted badly to talk to him but would later learn that he have left the retreat on maybe on day 5 or 6.  The management made people’s exit quietly so others aren’t influenced into quitting. There seems to be manipulative and psychological factors designed into this retreat.

Day 4 -
We officially completed Anapana and the real Vipassana mediation begins. According to Goenka, the first 3 days were merely preparation for our ‘mental surgery’. The concept is simple:
1) We lost our sense of the subtle vibrations that is happening on our changing form. I believe some may call this Chi, others may call this chakra and in the case of Vipassana, Goenka term this as sensations.  According to him, Buddha traced the root of sufferings to our attachments to pleasures and aversions.  Equanimity according to him is the answer
2) We meditate and re-conditioned ourselves to eventually feel these sensations.
3) We don’t place any label on these sensations because of label = fully developed concepts that we become attached to.
4) Once we can feel these sensations throughout our body, we were supposed to observe them as what they are and not label them as good or bad. This is an analogy to the acceptance of our ever-changing realities.

Today was a turning point in my meditation. We were supposed to go through 3 sittings without moving our pose for an hour. The ritual was supposed to awake our senses and eradicate all our past bad deeds. I didn’t think it was possible to sit still and was still losing to my subconscious. Before lunch, I realized that I have been projecting my breathing onto an imaginary self.  This happens so naturally and I almost didn’t catch it. Every time, I close my eyes, I instinctively picture the image I see of myself in the mirror. I mean, most of us probably never realize that the image of ourselves is a one revealed to us via the mirror and it’s always laterally inverted.  When this revelation happened, I thought about the way I treated my subconscious and realized how brutally abusive I been to my other self. Perhaps its time I be kind to myself… 

When I got back to the meditation seat in the afternoon, I finally managed to meditate without falling asleep. I was still distracted by pain all over my body but my subconscious was finally working with me. Later in the afternoon, we were taught to shift our focus somewhere around the top of our head. The accent was quite hard to catch and I thought we were instructed to move focus to the top of our hip.  When I did that, I felt this cooling sensation that swept across to my hip.  It was quite intense and the day ended well with me feeling that I have achieved something.  I slept better that night.

Day 5 -

Today, we were to sweep the focus from the top our head to the bottom of our feet; to observe but not to react to these rising and dissipating sensations. Incredibly, I managed to feel these sensations, stayed equanimous and not moved an inch during the 3 lock-down sessions of an hour each. It was my first experience of mind over matter. My horrifying pain in my legs and back all turned into mere sensations that rises and passes away.  Once, a mosquito landed on my finger, drew a bunch of blood from me and all I could feel with my eyes closed was a strong sensation. Without registering these as pain or pleasures, I had no clue what was happening until the session was over.  That night, I developed a raging headache and when I lay down to sleep...  I also felt an incredible pressure on my face. I surrendered to the stretching pain and fell asleep somehow for a few hours. These unpleasant sensations during sleep persisted and intensified over the next few days

Day 6 -
The meditation went on well and I felt that something was wrong but couldn’t pin down what it might be. Was I still projecting my imagination into my practice that was causing problems? I pushed on with the meditation with increasing instructions to mobilize focus on the body. At night, I felt the same stretching sensation on my face and I could only fall asleep for a few hours by lying down on my back. It was also getting scary because I felt it being asymmetrical and I worried that it may be a warning sign of getting a stroke.

Day 7 -
I realized that to register the movement of scanning my body parts, I was still projecting some kind of imagery in my mind. I wondered if that was imagination and asked my teacher. He told me to not look for sensation but to sense them.  I explained to him that I wasn’t and asked how one can know where the arm is if one doesn’t imagine it first.  My teacher later told me that if the eyeballs are moving during the practice, it was not the right instructions and may have caused my headache and stretching pain. I explained to him that I was an artist and there was just no way for me to stop my eyeballs from moving in my mind when I have to scan from head to toe….. At that point in time, I realized that no matter how hard I try, it was impossible to stop my eyeballs from searching for a placement.  I wasn’t frustrated. In fact, I was quite glad to know about this but wished that my crazy headache would go away. The stretching sensation on my face intensified during the night when I relaxed my face. I wasn't able to breathe well.

Day 8 –
I made up my mind that I would leave the retreat today.  The teacher was insistent that I should stay and felt that the sensations were great news and merely the effects of Sankharas or past bad deeds that get eradicated when you practice Vipassana meditation. (Cult alarm)  Another theory according to the teacher is that when you practice Vippasana, your senses become so sensitive and these sensations may also be a warning sign of underlying medical ailments.  If that’s the case?  Should I be concerned that I may get a stroke soon instead of completing some retreat? Nope, apparently, the folks were so ‘into’ this ‘Sankharas’ thingy that they felt that I would get the full benefit of this retreat if complete the retreat. I explained to them that I am neither disappointed nor upset and my departure was merely my full understanding of equanimity.  The teacher kept insisting that I was giving up. I concluded that these guys are defiantly in a cult and needed to get out. They reluctantly comply with my request, allowed me to pack up and instructed me to wait in my room until the rest of the students get to the meditation hall so they won’t see me leaving.  I packed up and left with a cab at 1 pm. Before I left, my neighbor, Hiroshi noticed something different in my dressing and we secretly walk to a far end of the property to talk. We laughed as we both break the noble silence and we started discussing how crazy this experience was. He was also from Singapore and is a scientist in a research facility.  Interestingly, I didn’t know that he been suffering from bug stings all over his body. I have jeard him sprayed stuff and I thought he brought an air refresherner to the retreat. Little did I know that he has actually been suffering in silence?  I told him about my entire experience and jokingly said that I will skip lunch and have KFC. We bid farewell and the cab came at 1 pm and drove me to Kuantan Sentra Terminal.  The management returned all my valuables but I have forgotten to shut down my cell when I surrendered them in.  With a flat batter, I was kind of lost in the middle of nowhere. Eventually, I found my way to Kuantan city, checked into a hotel and took a warm shower. Once checked in, I couldn’t fall asleep and decided to walk around.

 My only sketch done in Kuantan

My only sketch done in Kuantan

 8 hours of bus ride back to Singapore !

8 hours of bus ride back to Singapore !

That night, sleep didn’t come easy and I only fell asleep at around 11pm and would wake up at 4 am. Somehow the retreat must have programmed my sleep patterns.. The next morning, I decided to travel back to Singapore. My flight was supposed to be 3 more days away but I figured that an early departure equals to help in Singapore.  I took the unpleasant bus trip back and eventually got home after more than 8 hours on the bus. The spastic asymmetric stretch on my face didn’t go away and I visited a Doctor that night.. he took my blood pressure , hear my heart beat and prescribed me with some sleeping pills and I passed out.

 Photo by cyano66/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by cyano66/iStock / Getty Images

What did I learn from this experience?

  • Dangerous to mess with mind activities for a prolonged period of time without proper guidance.
  • Our mind is delicate and complicated. It processes our thoughts and allows us to generate perceptions for just about everything; including our emotions and sensations. 
  • Breathing is not so simple. Though we need air…. how we breathe, the movement, rhythm, speed and even accompanying food, thoughts or ideas form the recipes to our very own well-being.  Some people even managed to create alternate realities from these concoctions.
  • Silence is a great way to hear ourselves. During the silent retreat, I had on many occasions realized the kind of blind judgments and assumptions I had of others just by the way they look, walk or even eat. Silence amplified our own voices and if we form negative concepts to all our voices, we can stay attached to these concepts for a long time and cause suffering not just to ourselves but also to others.
  • Addiction is hard to admit to. During the retreat, I didn’t get to read any news or check up any one’s social media. Though I didn’t miss social media when I was in the retreat, I realized the sheer amount of time I have lost to it.
  • Though I didn’t subscribe to the religious, pseudonym scientific claims, reincarnation values from S.N Goenka teachings. I didn’t fall into a state of an adversary. As a matter of fact, I agree with him on equanimity. Part of the biggest reason why I left the retreat… I am not attached to any of the things he preached and I think a polarized way of devotion =100% suffering.
  • I think humans are ingenious when it comes to discoveries and creations. Religion to me is the pinnacle of creativity and Art; its conceptual, intangible and command the greatest unity to create and also to destroy.  This is the true force of nature.
  • Finance is relative. Though I brought enough clothing to last for 10 days, I ended up doing laundry with just 3 sets of clothing. Clothing became my economy. Since I only had 3 long sleeves shirt and pants that would prevent me from getting brutally stung by the mosquitoes, I needed to plan. When it suddenly poured, I would clean the clothes again and sun dries them. Without entertainment, I grew fond of doing laundry. I loved the entire process of cleaning and the scent of sun-baked clothing brings a profound sense of joy to me.
  • The shower is as close to God as you can find on earth….  The retreat felt like a prison and though we have some places to walk around, exercises weren’t allowed. The biggest joy I found at the retreat beside laundry was the shower. Whenever I took a shower, I felt relieved with a blissful sensation. If there’s a force that’s 100% kind and purifying?  It would be water. When you take a shower, you know it’s going to clean you. A priest, a monk, a prostitute, a Doctor, a Murder, a soldier, a child running through dirt, they all need a shower. Water doesn’t judge, water cleans anyone and everyone.
  • Be kind to yourself and I don’t mean eating and consuming the physical world. The image you see in the mirror daily is who you project your mental well-being to on a very regular basis.It’s our greatest partner and it is eternally married to us. Treat it well because a subconscious mind can register everything we throw at it and it can manifest into so many different things. Treat yourself well and you may find that the world we live in is a lot more tolerable and susceptible to your kindness. Kindness matters.
  • Everything changes and everyone changes. There’s no need for us to lock others in a box and think they are this and that way. How we perceive realities and people can influence a positive change in our life.
  • A milk bottle falls to the ground. Half the milk spilled. 
    Child A picked up the bottle and declared that he lost half a bottle of milk
    Child B picked up the bottle and declared that he saved half a bottle of milk
    Child C picked up the bottled and declared that he lost and saved half a bottle of milk.
    All 3 reflected reality and they are all right and true. Your life is a choice given the circumstances you are put into.
  • SN Goenka teaches a Vippasana technique that is not the same as other Vippasana. Though this is mostly a benign cult, He injected his own theories about science which I felt can be dangerous for some attending this course. I may have actually been led into trance and hypnotized from the intensive instructions from his recordings. E.g : feel for sensations for 40+ hours with sleep deprivation and a discourse that suggested all sort of questionable stuffs. 
  • Commitment is not the same as an attachment. You can commit to running a marathon and despite the outcomes, you can still enjoy the run. If you are attached to beating the clock, getting to the finish line, you may miss every bit of the run and build yourself the biggest prison. 
  • The whole experience felt a little like watching Black Mirror on netflix without a super horrifying ending. 

The song I unconsciously been whistling to when I was alone in my room. 

Maybe its time to try some hypnosis ?

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

                                                                                   

 

4 days of sketching and cycling Taiwan

Took part in Taiwan's Brompton World Championship racing event last weekend at Chang Hua.
Went a few days early and did a little bit of sketching and cycling here and there.

Tools:
1) My Brompton
2) A pocket sized Accordion Moleskine.
3) Clutch Pencil, Kneaded eraser and a sharpener

Day 1:
Started from my hotel, near Taipei Main Station to Dihua Street. Was planning to sketch some of the beautiful buildings there but ended up cycling aimlessly.... until I stopped at a beautifully lit building.

 The lights falling off this building and trees caught my attention.

The lights falling off this building and trees caught my attention.

 Sketch of a Street Scene near Dihua Street.

Sketch of a Street Scene near Dihua Street.

Rode up north and cycled along the river near Shilin. 

 Saw a dead bird when I cycle back to Taipei Main Station.

Saw a dead bird when I cycle back to Taipei Main Station.

 Stop by Yuan Shan to attend a figure drawing session. Model switch poses like clockwork. 5 minutes, clock vibrates and she switched.  There's a rather distinctive Taiwanese feature on her and I couldn't pin down what it is. 

Stop by Yuan Shan to attend a figure drawing session. Model switch poses like clockwork. 5 minutes, clock vibrates and she switched.  There's a rather distinctive Taiwanese feature on her and I couldn't pin down what it is. 

Stop by CCH Studio to attend a figure drawing session. It was a great gathering and I sat beside a retiree.  The studio was packed and the instructor was very welcoming and friendly. I really dig it. 

Day 2 : I woke up early to cycle along Tamshui and check out the market. 

tamsui.jpg
 My Sketching Companion & Tools 

My Sketching Companion & Tools 

 Stop by Jian Tan and noticed that the shops have changed from a few years ago. New bicycle shops and this Louisa Coffee Cafe

Stop by Jian Tan and noticed that the shops have changed from a few years ago. New bicycle shops and this Louisa Coffee Cafe

Day 3:
Taipei drizzled a little and its time I escape to Taichung via HSR. When I got to Taichung, I have assembled my bicycle again and got some Milk Tea at a local 85c Cafe. Sketched some scooters here before I cycle my heart out just to Taichung Confucius Temple. Only 30 minutes to sketch this scene. 

 Taiwan's national commute = The Scooters. Their daily dosage of hugs and snuggles.

Taiwan's national commute = The Scooters. Their daily dosage of hugs and snuggles.

confucious.jpg
 Got to rest early before I take part in the cycling race tomorrow at Chang Hua 

Got to rest early before I take part in the cycling race tomorrow at Chang Hua 

 Gotta look sharp when riding a bicycle in Taiwan. 

Gotta look sharp when riding a bicycle in Taiwan. 

Day 4: Brompton World Championship day at Chang Hua

 Didn't bring a cover and was hoping to not get caught in the Train.. hehe lucked out 

Didn't bring a cover and was hoping to not get caught in the Train.. hehe lucked out 

I woke up early to take the local train to Taichung HSR but jumped on the wrong train. Instead of one-stop south to Changhua, I went on an express train and it shot passed all stations and reached Zuoying. I love the HSR and actually didn't mind this incidental round island affair. Jumped onto the next train North and got to the race, on time. Nope. they didn't charge me extra .... this is probably the trick to get a total HSR ride down and up for a fraction of the real cost :P 

 I made it to the race on time, after all !

I made it to the race on time, after all !

 Race of 12 Km and the fastest guy finished in about 19 minutes. 

Race of 12 Km and the fastest guy finished in about 19 minutes. 

 My entire trip in a piece :) 

My entire trip in a piece :) 

Overall, a great trip. 
Thank you all my Taiwanese friends who came out to spend time with me.
 

Cycling from Seoul to Busan ( 4 rivers cycling pathway)

 

Sept 5.  2017
I packed my tiny bicycle and flew to Korea. 

 Needed to discard more stuff for the trip.  Excess baggage is bad.

Needed to discard more stuff for the trip.  Excess baggage is bad.

This was a rather spontaneous trip and a much needed one for me to clear some matters off my head.  Besides, I enjoy being out and about, getting lost and figuring my ways around. It’s something I always wished I could do in college but was never financially capable. Given my present good health, a bit of saving and plenty of down-time from work, I thought it was high-time I complete these to-dos.

 Brompton all packed and ready 

Brompton all packed and ready 

 Flight to Seoul. Quite a pleasant flight.

Flight to Seoul. Quite a pleasant flight.

Not really a sketching trip:
Since I wanted to pack as little as possible, I only managed to bring a tiny sketchbook and broke a few decent brushes to fit them into a small hard-case.  To shrink everything down, I brought 2 tiny plastic cups and used them as water containers. With two set of cycling attires, some washing detergent, I am off to Korea’s 4 rivers cycle path way.  My goal is to reach Busan from Incheon via her dedicated 600+km cycling path. I had about 7 days to do so and did not plan much. Fortunately, I found someone’s itinerary on google map and it was super nifty. Thanks John Graham
 

 Map I found online that got me through the entire trip.

Map I found online that got me through the entire trip.

Day 1:
I woke up around 8/9 am and took the airport train to Cheongna In’t City Station. Inflated my tires and proceeded to the starting point at Ara West Sea Lock. I also bought a mini passport to collect all the stamps along the way.

 Journey of a 1000 miles began with one step. Starting point at Ara Lock 

Journey of a 1000 miles began with one step. Starting point at Ara Lock 

Today, I rode more than 60km to Seoul and stayed overnight in a motel near Gil-Dong. It rained a little but thankfully not too heavy and I managed to arrive safely.  Daily routine of washing clothes began...

 Rained a little but I got to Gil Dong.

Rained a little but I got to Gil Dong.

Day 2:
Rode about 100 Km today towards Yeoju and passed by the city of Hanam to arrive at Sun Valley Hotel in Yeoju. It’s a water theme-park hotel and costed a little more but I thought there would be a nice view for me to do some sketching. Passed by numerous tunnels built specially for cycling today; It was spectacular.

 Check into Sun Valley hotel with a super nice view of the river and did a sketch 

Check into Sun Valley hotel with a super nice view of the river and did a sketch 

Day 3:
Woke up super early today at 6 to start my ride at 7.  It was a little foggy and I met Gaith from Canada and Mangi from Korea during today’s ride. We rode about 100km to Suan Bo. At first, I was feeling ambitious and wanted to try for 150 km.  Mangi laughed and didn't think I can make the distance. I forgotten that I will be facing some serious elevation pass Suan Bo until Gaith busted out his maps and discussed about the journey ahead. We reached Suanbo and I checked into a hot spring hotel.  Suan Bo was a quiet town with a bunch of restaurants and hot spring motels.

 Met Gaith and Mangi along the way. Mangi was super nice and paced down to accompany me all the way to Suan Bo. I felt bad slowing him down.

Met Gaith and Mangi along the way. Mangi was super nice and paced down to accompany me all the way to Suan Bo. I felt bad slowing him down.

 Checked into Suan Bo

Checked into Suan Bo

Day 4:
Woke up at 6 and started my ride a bit before 7. It was super foggy and the climb started right after away. There were a few teaser climbs before the eventual climb…500 metres over a stretch of 5km. The down ride was superrrrrr fun.

 Climbing is always a struggle and more so if you are fixated with the thought of pain.

Climbing is always a struggle and more so if you are fixated with the thought of pain.

 I reached the peak eventually :) It was gorgeous. 

I reached the peak eventually :) It was gorgeous. 

 I eventually made it to the top.  It was a really pleasant feeling and I wanted to hang out there for a little more but have some serious distance to go .

I eventually made it to the top.  It was a really pleasant feeling and I wanted to hang out there for a little more but have some serious distance to go .

It took me a while and I struggled a little with my tiny bike. Since I don’t know where I am going and how far it will take, I throttle ahead.Eventually I reached the peak.

 This stretch from Suan-Bo toward Mueng Yong is the most beautiful . It also happen to be the most strenuous. I don't know if they planned it that way. 

This stretch from Suan-Bo toward Mueng Yong is the most beautiful . It also happen to be the most strenuous. I don't know if they planned it that way. 

100 km later, I reached Nakdong-Ro at about 5pm and check into a small love motel. Those funky lights they had in these love motels were awful. Accidentally, I flipped them on a few times and thought I entered a haunted house. It was funny.

Day 5:
Mega foggy day. Though I intended to ride down to Hyeongpung-Myeon, I realized from the weather forecast that I may be cycling into a thunderstorm. The forecast indicated 95% rain. Decided to jettison today’s destination and cycled into Daegu. Checked into a nice hotel and will take the KTX (bullet train) to Busan tomorrow. That way, I can spend an entire day in Busan. One free day in Seoul too.

 Checked into a hotel in Daegu and got upgraded to a suite.  Super good sleep

Checked into a hotel in Daegu and got upgraded to a suite.  Super good sleep

 Best sleep through the journey. No funky lights in this hotel :P 

Best sleep through the journey. No funky lights in this hotel :P 

Day 6:
It poured in Daegue and the forecast was right. It rained all through Busan. Managed to jump onto the subway, then KTX and kept myself mostly dried.

 Haedong Yonggunsa is so sublime. I paid my respect to the Buddha here and thank everything for the safe journey. I got lucky and saw the storm from the distance. 

Haedong Yonggunsa is so sublime. I paid my respect to the Buddha here and thank everything for the safe journey. I got lucky and saw the storm from the distance. 

When the rain stopped in Busan, I hopped onto the subway and cycled to Haedong Yonggunsa, a 14th century seaside Buddhist temple. It was magnificent and I speed sketch a little of the coast.  Fukuoka (Japan), from what I remembered is just about a boat ride from Busan.

 A quick sketch in The Perfect Sketchbook pocket

A quick sketch in The Perfect Sketchbook pocket

 

Spend the night feasting sashimi at Jagalchi Market. Kind of crazy to be chewing down moving octopus.

 Checked out Gamcheon Cultural Village before I set off to Seoul . I envy artists from abroad having spaces to work their craft. I read that there are lot of artists who lived out here. 

Checked out Gamcheon Cultural Village before I set off to Seoul . I envy artists from abroad having spaces to work their craft. I read that there are lot of artists who lived out here. 

 

Day 7:
Took the KTX back to Seoul. Cycle a little through the city to stayed near Hongdae. Lots of hills in Seoul but it was quite fun to cycle through the back alleys and narrow streets. Eventually, I reached my hotel room and explored the nearby universities and fashion streets.

 Finally got to sketch Seoul a little. 

Finally got to sketch Seoul a little. 

Day 8:
Time to ride back to Incheon from Seoul. Today I got more time to sketch along the way and did a few tiny sketches before eventually resting in a hotel at Incheon. My cycling trip is finally over.

 Finally some time along the cycling path. 

Finally some time along the cycling path. 

 Farewell Seoul :) 

Farewell Seoul :) 

How to make use of fresh pigment to paint on-site.

Perhaps the most useful technique by watercolor plein-air artists.

This technique allow you to complete a painting on-site without getting bugged down by details or with too many glazes.  Theoretically, you can complete within 3 layers. However, apart from time constraint, there aren't any rules to why you should limit yourself to just 3 layers. Bear in mind that this method is most appropriate when you use fresh pigment from a tube.. 

Here's how you work the magic. By the way, I am demonstrating with just two colors. Why ? Because beginners too often have problem managing colors . If you can't even work with 2 ? Reduce it to one. There's no prize for the artists who uses most colors.  


At the most fundamental level, one just need to ensure that that the correct sense of color temperature is in place. Excessive colors rarely enhance an image when the temperature shift is nothing but a chaos. 

Important things to remember when painting: 

  • Shapes + Composition (Simplification and design is key. It is literally impossible to paint everything)
  • Value structure / Good drawing / Chiaroscuro (extremely important for watercolor since it rely extensively on light versus dark dramatic structure )
  • Soft versus hard edges
  • Color temperature (warm versus cool) . There is no need to score accurate color. A painter merely depict a color's relationship to its surrounding. e.g does the color have more warmth (Red or orange) or cool (Green or blue) in it ? 
 Think about the density of tea, milk or cream to assess how thick or thin your paints are. Maximum coverage is made with the thinnest layer, mid tone and shadow mass are all connected with milk layer and details are left in for for thickest coat of paint. (error - Tea layer was yellow orche and not burnt sienna as written above:)

Think about the density of tea, milk or cream to assess how thick or thin your paints are. Maximum coverage is made with the thinnest layer, mid tone and shadow mass are all connected with milk layer and details are left in for for thickest coat of paint. (error - Tea layer was yellow orche and not burnt sienna as written above:)

Putting it all together: (two colors)

The technique sounds all easy but can be quite a challenge when you are on-site and overwhelmed by the gamut of colors and details that mother nature throws at you.

The truth is, no one can paint everything on the spot. A good painting isn't a good photo and how you capture the essence creates the impression that mattered the most. (Paint language)
A few things to note:

  • Things will change.
  • You are painting an illusion and it doesn't have to include everything. 
  • A quick thumbnail study is exceptionally useful for a complicated scene. I often make the mistake of painting without preparation, only to regret after I lay down the first wash. 
  • Resolve your value structure before you paint. Changes in light cannot affect your vision if you have this road mapIts also a whole lot easier to focus on other aspects of painting if you have this. 
 An illustration of how this works. Putting it together for a scene . Note that you want to cover as much as possible with the first lay-in wash.

An illustration of how this works. Putting it together for a scene . Note that you want to cover as much as possible with the first lay-in wash.

 The watercolor clock as illustrated here and taught by the famous water colorist Joseph Zbukvic. On this clock, he documented the way to assess pigment's consistency versus the result on the various degree of wetness on the paper. His book however is out-of-print but this remained a crucial technique for anyone trying to paint on-sight.

The watercolor clock as illustrated here and taught by the famous water colorist Joseph Zbukvic. On this clock, he documented the way to assess pigment's consistency versus the result on the various degree of wetness on the paper. His book however is out-of-print but this remained a crucial technique for anyone trying to paint on-sight.

Can Drawing be Taught ?

Every time I tell people that I teach drawing.  I am faced with this assumption that it cannot be taught. 

portfolio_workshop_students2.jpg

Half in jest, I often joke about artist profiles that stated how young they were when they started or how long they have served as apprentice to famed artists. These profiles seem to incite a sense of head-start, discouraging others from joining if they have discovered Art later in life.  It is also worthy to note that romance occupied the arts. 

Many love this notion that an artist is born, never made. To me, that’s a little ludicrous. Imagine a baby born and the next thing you know, picked up a pencil and started drawing ! A true and natural talent, ya ? I would personally run if I witness such prodigy ! (traditional arts we talking about here BTW)

 Many Asians have this tradition that 'predicts' the future of their kids base of items they would pick during their birthday . This baby shows an affinity towards money. (image from Japanupdate.com)

Many Asians have this tradition that 'predicts' the future of their kids base of items they would pick during their birthday . This baby shows an affinity towards money. (image from Japanupdate.com)

Dramatic, I know…but that also seems to be the romance fantasized by many.  Interestingly, this is also how many artists are commonly evaluated or marketed for his/her monetary worth. 

 Dali, clearly understood the importance of being perceived as a born-Artist and introduced himself as the divine Dali and informed his audiences that he was born with the blood of Gala. No kidding.

Dali, clearly understood the importance of being perceived as a born-Artist and introduced himself as the divine Dali and informed his audiences that he was born with the blood of Gala. No kidding.

Are Artists are born?
Well..... Though I can’t dispute that some are born with better hands and eyes coordination. The same can be said for driving, flying or even walking. Some of us just have peculiar motor-skills but we can all learn to be better drivers, swimmers, runners or pilots.

So,.....Yes ! drawing can be taught and everyone can draw.  As far as how well one can draw.. It all boils down to the level of interest, effort and determination.

Personally, I have taught drawing for close to a decade and here are what I have observed:

 Sketch of my students during studio time. 

Sketch of my students during studio time. 

  • Improvement and progress are always the most dramatic during the first few weeks of drawing classes.
  • Students are thrilled when they learnt that there are actually proper instructions and technique to drawing/ they would pick up pace on hands and eyes coordination and their observational drawings would improve dramatically during the first 4 weeks. 
  • Depending on the group’s size, progress usually tapers off around week 4 when students noticed the development of their peers. When students notice that others can obtain better results, many start to lose interest and reduce effort. (risk adverse strategy) This is often challenging since it’s hard to justify for the additional effort required.
     
 Sometimes, students get so competitive over drawing that they openly criticize outstanding students for spoiling the 'market', guilt tripping them, in collective effort to stop the better artists from widening the gap. (This is a very common scenario in Singapore schools/society)

Sometimes, students get so competitive over drawing that they openly criticize outstanding students for spoiling the 'market', guilt tripping them, in collective effort to stop the better artists from widening the gap. (This is a very common scenario in Singapore schools/society)

 Some competition is good but excessive competition and insecurity is death to motivation. 

Some competition is good but excessive competition and insecurity is death to motivation. 

So do I think drawing can be taught?

Well... My conclusion is that it can be taught but only some can accept or afford the necessary effort required. I have also personally come to believe that it’s a lot healthier to learn drawing when you approach it like Yoga, instead of O-level Mathematics.

When you don’t have to reside livelihood on drawing, you won’t be pressured to compare your effort and with less anxiety, you can definitely achieve better results.

 You must enjoy art to learn it. 

You must enjoy art to learn it. 

 


I am currently conducting a sketching tour (For beginners) to Bhutan in Jun 15-June 21. Join me and rekindle your love for the arts. Limited to 10 particpants. Visit www.drukasia.com for more information. 

James's Gurney Vol 1 , The Living Sketchbook

I was pleasantly surprised when James Gurney invited me to review his latest app, Vol 1 Boyhood Home.  James Gurney lives the life of a painter/illustrator and shares his work extensively on youtube. He is also the artist and author of the book ‘Color and Light’ and Dinotopia.  Yup! I am a huge fan of his work.

 His latest app, Vol 1 Boyhood Home. 

His latest app, Vol 1 Boyhood Home. 

When I found out about his app, I thought to myself: “Why didn’t I think of that?”  It embraces technology and allowed user an opportunity to get closer to an artist’s sketchbook.  The app functions as an ebook with the option of voice narration. Some pages also included videos to his painting process. Imagine a talking sketchbook with videos.
 

 Finally, a sketchbook that talks to you :) 

Finally, a sketchbook that talks to you :) 

The only 3 buttons in this app. 

Unlike a physical book, there were few words to read and users can zoom into every painting for its brushstrokes and details. Each painting is also accompanied by a voice narration and James carefully recorded the ambient sounds of each setting to give us a better sense of the actual environment. With sights and sounds, he takes us through his decision-making processes and introduced us to his painting tools, techniques and materials.

 I mean, real details. Something analog books can't offer

I mean, real details. Something analog books can't offer

The app was really intuitive and easy to navigate. To go to next page, you swipe the image.  To zoom in, you pinch outwards. Last but not least, there are buttons that brings out the voice narrations with occasional videos of how he has painted on-site. Though most of his fans may have seen his paintings videos on his youtube channel, this app presented a uniquely seamless and comprehensive experience to peek into James Gurney’s sketchbook.  

 Video process of his work. One click away. 

Video process of his work. One click away. 

I love how James is constantly improving his work and exploring new avenues to showcase them. This app is a great example of how traditional art can co-exist with technology and deliveries

 The first volume of the Living Sketchbook app will be available March 20 for $4.99 for both iOS and Android phones and tablets (go here for updates).

How to Commute Sketch like a ninja

SECRET UNVEILED !!!!!!!

 The Secret Manuel to Ninja Sketching in the commute. 

The Secret Manuel to Ninja Sketching in the commute. 

Step 1 :
Find a good spot to draw
 If you can find a seat, perfect . Otherwise. look for somewhere you can lean against to secure that support. A hardbound sketchbook is crucial and  Its imperative to bring a small sketchbook.  Simple logic. Something huge = attention grabber. If you want attention and want to be invisible, this may not be  for you.  Really. 

Step 2:
Tempo
Since your hand and the train are often moving in opposing directions, it is wise to gauge the speed of the vehicle before you push ink around. When the vehicle stops, it is the most stable. When it accelerates, its not wise to lay in intricate lines . When its at optimum speed, its stable again. Finally, if it stops abruptly, be ready to stop. In short, gain a sense of the tempo and movement. 

Step 3
Be invisible:
Its really easy. Don't lock eyes with anyone no matter how cute he/she is, Don't smile or try to wink at them ,  avoiding wearing something loud and try to blend in as normal person, sitting still,  pretending to take note.  Always keep a 45 degree tilt and look at sketchbook, with occasional peek at your subjects.  If he/she is really cute, alone, and you did a fantastic job ? Consider parting that precious piece of drawing for his/ her number. Remember to assess risk versus reward. This is all well within the code of ethic in my ninja book. You go !

Step 4:
Overlap and fore shorting:
To draw fast, you need to be economic with your strokes, Its absolutely imperative to master foreshortening . Take mental note of overlapped shapes with that magical "T" . Allocate sufficient white spaces to secure foreground/backgrounds shapes.  You don't have to draw with pen, pencil works great as well. Pen is just another one of those ego boaster for people who can draw.  No kidding  !! STOP IT, Mouthbreathers who brag about your ink drawings. 

Step 5: 
Chose easier subjects if you can't deal with that kid who has ADHD. Life is stressful enough and a ninja don't get promoted for catching Flash on the subway . Consider the following subject if you are just picking up Ninjatsu :
1) Sleepers- duh
2) Phone drones -double duh
3) Reader s-Triple duh
4) Back View. ( i know what you're thinking but hey its a start)

Step 6:
Montage:
A montage is a great way to get into the flow of just drawing. Once you gather more confidence and speed, you can sketch an entire row of commuters without breaking a sweat.

Step 7
Ethics:
If someone notice ? You can either stop or ask for permission. Obviously, its riskier if you ask for permission. However, you will be surprised by how many nice people there are on the commute.  At any given rate, if they get real mad at you for drawing their cute husband or wife ? Be prepared to give them that piece of drawing, and bounce.  Really, its not worth fighting for Art. The last time I saw someone fighting over who use  some ABC pen first versus who drew triangle before there is even squares ? I almost cut myself.  

This is it. Its that simple/ Have fun sketching on your commute :) 

PS: if you are a transit company and wish that I can teach my Ninjastu to your customers ? Holler !  POOF*

Commute Sketchers

I started the Commute Sketchers Facebook group a while back to gather and discuss about commute sketchers. Recently, I approached local transit companies, SMRT and SBS to see if they would be interested to showcase our work. Both companies expressed interest and SBS transit was most proactive. This is a trial run and we managed to get our sketches into Bedok, Bishan, Boon Lay and Clementi Bus interchange. SBS is currently pending approval from LTA to exhibit our work in the MRT stations of their downtown line. 

 Commute Sketchers at Bishan Bus Interchange 

Commute Sketchers at Bishan Bus Interchange 

The media took this news well and we were featured on all the major newspapers in Singapore. 

 We were in The Straits Time. Zao Bao, The New Paper and even Channel News Asia

We were in The Straits Time. Zao Bao, The New Paper and even Channel News Asia

 Chee Chew's take on our sketches :P

Chee Chew's take on our sketches :P

Here are some challenges that I faced when it comes to getting the commute sketches onto the transit system:

1) Territory:
Art is undeniably territorial.  In Singapore, the Artwork in MRT stations are commissioned and selected by a committee that determines who deserved to be in the stations. The MRT stations are also governed by LTA (Land Transport Authority).  In short.  LTA elect a committee who will select the artists and commission them to make Art for the station.

 Art in Transit -  An Art Commission by the LTA in our MRT Stations.

Art in Transit -  An Art Commission by the LTA in our MRT Stations.

2) Red Tapes:
Apart from territory, there are always bureaucracies. Some of the train companies’ staff I communicated with expressed concern about privacy and influences. They worried that by showing our sketches. It would mean that they are promoting a less ‘safe’ environment. Some were concerned that if they showcase our work, others would approach them for visibility and they would not be able to justify these. (Bear in mind , I emailed their CEOs and it is ALWAYS their CEOs who would instruct them to explore possibilities.)

Having sketched in the trains for so many years, I am certain that no one can recognize anyone from my drawings. The train cabins are installed with an insane amount of security cameras. If there is any concern about privacy? It would be the train companies' CCTV and the numerous smartphones commuters carry.

3) Art for Art Sake:
We wanted to showcase commute sketches. Unfortunately, one company couldn’t conceive this notion of showing the real landscape and suggested that we sketch what they feel would be ‘beneficial’ in terms of promoting their company’s cultures and value.  I found this ironic because what we drew was genuinely what they offered and delivered. Shrugs*

4) Money:
I am blessed to have gathered a bunch of friends who were willing to share their work and are just happy to see them in the public. Right from the get-go, we didn’t expect remuneration unless the transport company commissioned us to do work tailored to their needs. Of course, all of us would be happy if remunerated for our talents and contributions.
 Making money from art is a tough nut to crack.

5) Group:
Coordinating a group can be challenging but I am very fortunate to have work with a really responsive group.  They all submitted work when I asked and there was no politicking. Everyone was fun, enthusiastic and understanding. I reckon the key is to work with a small group and to be ultra transparent.  Our group included: Alvin Mark, Francis Theo, Benedict Tay, James Tan, James Lim, Pocholo Issa Estremos & Ken lee. They are the founding members. 

Congratulations to everyone involved and hoooray to the commute sketchers ! Special thanks to SBS transit Limited for partnering with us. 

To join us ? Visit our facebook group at
https://www.facebook.com/groups/commutesketchers/

 The commute sketchers !

The commute sketchers !

https://www.facebook.com/groups/commutesketchers/

 

In Transit 2016

In-Transit

Sep 01, 2016.
One month in America.

During this trip, I caught up with so many friends and held a show at Curt’s new tattoo shop, Enso Tattoo.  My flight was delayed in Hong Kong due to the weather. When I reached Dallas? I missed the connection to Ohio… Luckily, there was another flight scheduled for CMH and I reached at about 2am. (Thursday night)

Jet lag consumed me and I couldn’t sleep… Awake the whole time, I proceeded to set up my show with Curt until midnight on Friday. I was completely destroyed on Friday night but In-Transit was scheduled to open on Saturday and we have 29 paintings to frame and hang….  
 

 Eventually we succeeded and put everything up right before Gallery Hop !

Eventually we succeeded and put everything up right before Gallery Hop !

 It came as a nice surprise when one of my backers, Cassandra for The Perfect Sketchbook notified her mum to visit my show on Saturday. What's interesting is that Cassandra who now lives in France was actually from Columbus, Ohio. Her mum bought a painting that day before the show opened!!

Framing and putting up 29 paintings within 48 hours wouldn’t be possible without my amazing friends. Special thanks to these amazing friends: Daniel Painter (Decal) Curt Everitte (everything) Joe Galati (Cutting Matts and frames) Nathaniel Wood (Cutting Mattes and frame).

 

 Professor Hiroshi an Jonathon with his wife stop by my show :) 

Professor Hiroshi an Jonathon with his wife stop by my show :) 

 Marshall Shorts :) 

Marshall Shorts :) 

 Nate and Dr Yu with me

Nate and Dr Yu with me

 Randy Liu from 1GR Builders

Randy Liu from 1GR Builders

 Charlotte Belland = Best Animation professor !

Charlotte Belland = Best Animation professor !

 Taught a watercolor workshop to a bunch of Tattoo Artists and Enthusiast at Enso Tatto 

Taught a watercolor workshop to a bunch of Tattoo Artists and Enthusiast at Enso Tatto 

The show successfully opened on Gallery Hop night. Unfortunately the traffic wasn’t that great since there was an Ohio State game. However, I was super stoked to have caught up with many of my college friends and professors. It was defiantly one of those moments where I felt a genuine sense of belonging.  Realizing that I haven’t done much to promote my show, Professor Hiroshi suggested that I email the Columbus Dispatch to notify them of my show. I thought it was harmless and emailed. Interestingly, the Columbus Dispatch responded and wrote a full front page feature on their life section in the papers. A few more sales resulted from this feature.  Thanks to Charlotte, I was also given a chance to speak to an audience of about 100 students in the Cazani auditorium at The Columbus College of Art. 

 Interview by The Columbus Dispatch 

Interview by The Columbus Dispatch 

 Speaking at CCAD 

Speaking at CCAD 

There’s so much I wanted to write here but the most important things really aren’t my paintings or my crowd funding projects. It’s actually my amazing friends in America who saw me through the toughest time in college and life; they are my family’. Mad thanks to Dr Chilin Yu for always sharing her wisdom with me and not forgetting the Yue family and CaregiverUSA for providing me with shelter in Columbus, Ohio again.

 I didn't have much advertising. So we printed a bunch of cards and we just try to plaster as much as possible, wherever possible. (bad idea).. Here's one at CCAD. I didn't get approval because I was out of time. 

I didn't have much advertising. So we printed a bunch of cards and we just try to plaster as much as possible, wherever possible. (bad idea).. Here's one at CCAD. I didn't get approval because I was out of time. 

 The Yue Family provided shelter and cycling ! Thank you 

The Yue Family provided shelter and cycling ! Thank you 

 We cycled to the zoo to sent Nora away. 

We cycled to the zoo to sent Nora away. 

 Then one day, I just rent a car and gun it all the way to Canada to see this. 

Then one day, I just rent a car and gun it all the way to Canada to see this. 

 Went Plein-air with Curt at The Hocking Hills. Listened to radiolab on the roads.

Went Plein-air with Curt at The Hocking Hills. Listened to radiolab on the roads.

 My painting at Hocking hills. 

My painting at Hocking hills. 

 Got to join Nate, Hiroshi and a bunch of real top notch artists in figure drawing at the Ohio Art league.

Got to join Nate, Hiroshi and a bunch of real top notch artists in figure drawing at the Ohio Art league.

 Pretending to be serious = looking like a kungfu master

Pretending to be serious = looking like a kungfu master

 she was an amazing model .

she was an amazing model .

 Cleveland Musuem of Art is one hell of an impressive musuem 

Cleveland Musuem of Art is one hell of an impressive musuem 

 Met a gentlemen who works for a major eCommerce store when I was sketching here. He offered some freelance work. 

Met a gentlemen who works for a major eCommerce store when I was sketching here. He offered some freelance work. 

After Ohio, I took a flight to California and spent two weeks there to catch up with west coast buddies. I finally managed to visit Yosemite. It was amazing and I am so thankful. Thank you Youn and Hao for making it all possible. pd thanks to Janice and Pencil Cafe for convincing me to visit them.  I love you all.

 So lucky to know yall !!!

So lucky to know yall !!!

 Yosemite is for real. 

Yosemite is for real. 

 Pencil Cafe is my Favorite Cafe. 

Pencil Cafe is my Favorite Cafe.