Cultivate Your Own Garden

Toronto, 2015
Toronto, 2015

Dear friend,

I want to share some meditations and thoughts that are currently on my mind– and perhaps tell some stories. Thank you for being a good friend and listening :)

Okay, so I woke up today, lied in bed, and suddenly this thought came to my head:

“Cultivate Your Own Garden”

I woke up naturally in bed, and am still pretty jetlagged, so I knew it was probably pretty damn early. It was pitch black, I slept last night at around midnight (compared to around 8:30pm the night before), so my body was pretty exhausted. But at the same time, I knew that I had to write this article on this concept of “cultivating your own garden” — it felt like my moral duty.

I dragged my wretched body to the shower, took an ice cold shower (feel much better now), looked in the mirror, and saw the deep, black bags under my eyes. God, for a 27-year old I look like a fucking old man.

Regardless, I felt a great sense of privilege and duty. I have a stronger calling in life, than just lying around in bed and sleeping. Here was a thought that came to mind, one of my favorite passages from Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” (one of the 3 books I would have on my deathbed). It took me a bit flipping around my personal (paperback) book copy to find it, but here it is:

“At day’s first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that ‘I am rising for the work of man‘ Must I grumble at setting out to do what I was born for, and for the sake of which I have been brought into the world? Is this the purpose of my creation, to lie here under the blankets and keep myself warm? ‘Ah, but it is a great deal more pleasant!’ Was it for pleasure then, that you were born, and not for work, not for effort? Look at the plants, the sparrows, ants, spiders, bees, all busy at their own tasks, each doing his part towards a coherent world-order; and will you refuse man’s share of the work, instead of being prompt to carry out Nature’s bidding?”

I walk out into the kitchen, prepare a nice espresso, and look at the clock: 5:00am. Not bad.

Cultivating your own garden

So friend, I want to share with you a story. Currently my younger sister Anna is having some difficulties in her life; in terms of finding what her life’s passion is, what makes her happy, and how to live a fulfilling life to contribute to society.

As a follower of “Stoic” philosophy, one of my main tenets in life is to live my life for others; for the good of others and society. So at first, I gave my sister advice in terms of asking her: “How can you best use your God-given talents, to contribute to the most people of society, as a whole?”

I quickly realized that this was the wrong answer to give her. Because she didn’t know what her talents were, nor did she know a way she could apply her talents to help “society at large.”

It is a pretty difficult concept to think about how one can help hundreds, if not thousands of people out there. I am lucky in the sense that I know that I can reach a large audience with this blog, as I have the stats that show me that I am doing it. But at the end of the day, I write this letter for you, my dear friend, not for the many. It is easier to try to help one individual, than try to help millions (and much easier to visualize too).

But before one tries to help society, another person– I believe that one needs to help themselves.

This is where this concept of “cultivating your own garden” comes from.

Another philosopher I greatly admire is Epicurus, a Greek philosopher (341-271BC) who made one of the most influential schools focused on the pursuit of happiness. He was born on the Greek island of Samos, and he operated “The Garden” — a school devoted to philosophy and communal living, which was based outside of Athens.

I first came across this concept of “cultivating your own garden” from a book written by a scholar on Epicurus, titled: “Reclaiming Epicurus“. Here is a nice quote from the book:

“All that is very well but let us cultivate our garden” – Voltaire

The whole philosophy of Epicurus was this; to seek “pleasure” by seeking “absence of pain”. The 4 tenants of Epicureanism were distilled into these concepts:

  1. Nothing to fear in God;
  2. Nothing to feel in Death;
  3. Good can be attained;
  4. Evil can be endured.

In other words:

  1. Don’t be afraid of God
  2. Don’t be afraid of Death
  3. Realize you can be happy with little
  4. Don’t be afraid of bad things happening to you (because you will be able to have the strength, courage, and tenacity to endure it).

What made the philosophy of Epicureanism highly criticized was that it sounded like it promoted the values of social detachment, as it encouraged individuals to retreat from society, and seek inner-solitude, peace, and contentment (rather than interacting with the public world at large). This is why the Stoic philosophers criticized Epicurus and his followers, as they thought them as selfish, navel-gazing good-for-nothings who simply lived for their own pleasure.

The early philosophy of Epicureanism is very similar to Buddhism– to seek happiness in life, first rid yourself of stress, anxiety, desire, and frustration. Then you can reach out to help others.

Don’t think you’re selfish

Okay friend, so I know a lot of people who want to seek happiness in life. They are frustrated with their own lives. They are dissatisfied with their jobs, their family lives, their lack of time to do what they are passionate about, their lack of money, and deal with a lot of stress and anxiety in their lives.

So what is the first step to living a fulfilling life?

I think it is by starting to cultivate your own garden.

Imagine you have a garden. To cultivate your own garden is to take out the weeds, insects, pests, and other shit from your own garden (before attending to and helping out the garden of others).

So imagine your garden which is infested with aphids (eating your delicious tomato plants), with snails (little fuckers who also like to eat everything), with your plants wilted and dying (they need more water, light, attention, and love), and weeds growing out of control.

Before you just add water and sunlight to your garden, you need to first start by removing the pests. You need to kill the aphids (pesticide or attacking them with ladybugs), you need to kill the snails (take them off your leaves, and toss them into a garbage bag with salt– no that is cruel, I did that as a child and it mentally scarred me), you need to also make sure you don’t have random wild animals eating plants from your garden in the evening (perhaps cage off your plants with some wire).

Secondly, you need to start nourishing your plants. You can start off nourishing your plants by starting to add water, fertilizer, light, and love.

Then and only then, can you start having a healthy garden. And then and only then, can you start attending to the gardens of others in your neighborhood and helping them out. After all, it makes no sense for you to try to help tending the gardens of others (if your own garden is a fucking nightmare).

I think this is a good philosophy we can apply to life.

So to restart, our own garden infested with pests and insects is like our own lives being infected with negative people, with back-stabbers, with shit-talkers, gossipers, and other people who drain you of mental energy, physical energy, and emotional energy. You need to start off by eliminating all the negative people in your life.

“But they are my friends! What will they think of me? Isn’t that me just being selfish? But I know they’re not perfect, but who is? I just want to help them out!”

Let me bring you a real-life example:

My father is someone I have cut out of my life recently, and it is something that I did that pained me a lot. Long story short, he was a mentally and physically abusive father to my Mom, compulsive gambler (would sometimes gamble away our rent money, and even gambled away some money I lent him as a 16-year old), and leech to the family. I don’t blame him; I honestly think he had some serious mental issues that he just took out on the family. Now I have nothing but love for him, but I have made the conscious decision to cut him out of my life, because he was like a cancer, a tumor, or a black cloud that was sucking out energy, life, and joy from my life.

The problem was this: because he added so much emotional guilt and blackmail to my life, I couldn’t be of help to others. I was constantly thinking negative thoughts in my life, and that would deeply affect the lives of those close to me.

First of all, I would take out all this negative emotions and thoughts on Cindy. This would then cause her more stress and anxiety (if she didn’t have enough). Not only that, but I would tell my personal issues regarding my father to my mother, who would also feel guilty for not being a more supportive mother.

I tried to essentially “save” my father, by trying to spend more time with him, by trying to console him, and trying to be a “good son”. Part of this was me trying to be a good human being, part of this was this sense of “filial piety” (Asians feeling indebted to their parents), and part of this was a feeling of guilt– that I somehow owed him something (when in reality I didn’t).

But anyways, the more time I spent with him, the more his negativity, brainwashing, and cancer of bullshit ideas started to permeate my thoughts. The only way I can describe it is this: imagine if someone threw you into the sewer, and suddenly you were covered with shit, piss, and imagine how you would smell. No matter how hard you try, you can never really scrub off that smell from your body.

Similarly, spending time with negative people is the same way. Once you are exposed to their filth, stench, and negativity– scrubbing that shit off can be near-impossible.

So anyways after about a year of trying to re-connect with my dad and help him, I realized that before I could help him, he had to help himself. And if I truly wanted to dedicate myself to help the “common good” of society as a whole, I needed to cut him off from my life, to remove his negativity– to cultivate my own garden.

So I cut of all ties with him. I blocked his phone number, his text messages, his emails– any sort of way he could communicate with me.

In the beginning it was so fucking painful and difficult. I would seriously get nightmares that he would suddenly die, and then I would feel extreme guilt and remorse that I didn’t do more to help him out while he was still alive. I would feel like a bad son, and feel like a horrible, selfish human being.

But as time went on, I finally started to have some clarity of thought. I started to feel more positive, and less negative. I felt like the dark clouds from my mind’s sky were starting to part; and I could see the light.

Seeing the light

There is a Taoist saying that in order to see the light, you need to take away the dark clouds from your mind.

So to continue, life and happiness is all about removing the negative people, influences, and thoughts from your life.

To use the garden analogy again; it is more effective to remove pests from your garden, then to start using fertilizer for your plants.

Going back to my Dad, I still feel guilt and remorse for not reaching out to him. I talked to my sister Anna about this the other night, and honestly at the end of the day, some people are “unsaveable” and that is just a damn shame. But c’est la vie. That is life. Life goes on. And the only thing we can do is trust God (or whatever super-being or universal will you may believe in) that everything will turn out okay in the end. In Taoism they call it “wu-wei” — not forcing things, and letting the intelligence of the universe guide you through life.

Life is fucking hard

Yeah, it is true– life is fucking hard. I know friend, life is really fucking hard. As Seneca once said, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.

But if you really want to help others; you need to start off by helping yourself.

So don’t feel bad or guilty, start off by helping yourself.

Let me share some more personal anecdotes and stories of how I learned how to cultivate my own garden, before trying to help others. I don’t mean to share these ideas as a way to say that I am somehow better than you or “enlightened” — because I’m not. I’m just another wretched and psychologically troubled human being trying to rid my mind of negativity and bullshit, in order to live a “happy”, “fulfilling”, and “productive” life.

1. Be selfish with your time

The most valuable currency you have in the world isn’t money, but time. Time is the ultimate non-renewable resource. If you lose $100, you can easily earn another $100. But if you lose a year of your life, you can never “gain” another year of your life. Life is a ticking death clock, and everyday you are living one less day of your life. Death approaches one day at a time.

The ironic thing is that we are so stingy with our money, but (overly) generous with our time (to a fault). This is because money is a tangible thing, whereas time is intangible. Therefore we don’t value our time.

So the first thing that I learned is that in order to cultivate my own garden, I need to be stingy, frugal, and selfish with my time.

I said this before, but one of my new goals for this year is to (as little as possible) go to “meetings”, especially partake in this beastly thing called “networking.”

At the end of the day, it is a huge waste of your time. Apparently the way that Seth Godin is able to be so prolific as a writer, blogger, and author is that he doesn’t go to any meetings.

Not only that, but every “meeting” can fuck up your entire day and schedule.

For example, I have been to a lot of “networking meetings” in San Francisco. It takes me an entire day. I have to leave my house, either drive into the city (now I don’t have a car, I would have to take public transportation for 1.5 hours), wait for the person, try to contact them, have a coffee, and then maybe have a lunch, eat a little too much, then get food coma, want to take a nap, go home, and end the day not feeling productive at all.

Another personal rule I have been trying to institute in my life: I don’t schedule anything before noon. Why? The morning is my golden time to read, write, and do things that I feel truly make my “heart sing”. I am the most productive in the mornings, so I need to be as selfish and greedy with that time as humanly possible, in order to help the greater good.

So also for you my friend, learn to be more greedy with your time. Don’t have an “Atlas Complex”– feeling like you need to hold the weight of the entire world on your shoulders. Give yourself some space, time, and energy for yourself (before giving it to others).

For example, be selfish with your time after work. After 6pm, make your default answer “no” to any sort of extracurricular activities you aren’t passionate about.

The funny thing is especially with a lot of introverted people, they feel constantly pressured by extroverts (people like me) to go out, party, hangout, and have a good time. They are constantly criticized for being “loners” and there are billions of self-help books that teach you to “never have lunch alone”, to always go out and network, to always build new connections, and to always say “Yes” to every single opportunity that comes.

But no, fuck that. Say no. If you want more time to shoot street photography, you need to CUT from your life. You need to cut extracurricular activities. You need to cut those pre-scheduled gym classes or 7pm Yoga classes you aren’t passionate about. If photography is the most important thing in your life (or you want more time to shoot), say NO to having dinner or a beer with friends or people you don’t really care about. And even if they are someone you care about (but shooting photography is more important than having dinner and chatting about random stuff), have the courage to say NO.

What else can you say “no” to in life to find more “free time”? Some ideas:

  • No to Netflix
  • No to smartphone notifications (either set your phone on mute, turn off notifications, uninstall apps that bother you, or do what I do; uninstall one app from your phone a day)
  • No to networking meetings
  • No to dinner or drinks with people you don’t really care about
  • No to “side-projects” from your boss at work
  • No to checking email after 6pm and you’re done with work
  • No working on the weekends
  • No playing video games
  • No reading newspapers
  • No reading magazines
  • No surfing the web (reddit, Facebook, other social media sites)

Be selfish, greedy, and protective of your time– it is the most valuable thing in life you have.

Then use that spare time to cultivate your own garden, however it makes you happy. Use that time to shoot photography, visit exhibitions on the weekends, read photography books, meet other photographers, have your work critiqued by others, sit at home and edit your shots, sequence new projects or series, print your photos (either on a home printer or in a darkroom), develop some film, watch a photo documentary (make sure to watch “Salt of the Earth” by Sebastiao Salgado), or cook a meal for a loved one (everyday I am trying to cook a new fancy dinner for Cindy).

And realize at the end of the day, photography isn’t the most important thing in life. The most important thing is your personal happiness; which you can derive from photography, any sort of other creative pursuit, friends and family you truly care about, and living a life in accordance with your own personal values and ethics.

2. Disassociating yourself with others

I have a problem: I cannot say “no” to people. I am a total push-over. I have always been one of the kids who have been easily peer-pressured into doing things against my own will. Even now as an adult, I have a hard time saying “no” to my good friends, especially when they peer pressure me to drink alcohol (I prefer not to drink alcohol anymore, as it makes me feel shitty, gives me hangovers, and ruins my sleep), when it comes to going out late at night (I prefer to sleep early now, so I can wake up early and write), when it comes to eating unhealthy food (I don’t like excess fat on my body, and unhealthy food makes me feel like shit). I am so easily influenced by others, and don’t want to disappoint others.

Here is some wisdom that I have learned from Epicurus (another Stoic philosopher) who has helped give me some peace of mind when it comes to ignoring what others think of me, and following my own heart and path:

“You should be especially careful when associating with one of your former friends or acquaintances not to sink to their level; otherwise you will lose yourself. If you are troubled by the idea that ‘He’ll think I’m boring and won’t treat me the way he used to,’ remember that everything comes at a price. It isn’t possible to change your behavior and still be the same person you were before.”

Epicurus continues:

“So choose: either regain the love of your old friends by reverting to your former self or remain better than you once were and forfeit their attention.”

Sometimes when you pursue some new passions and directions in life, you will be ridiculed, tempted, and detracted by friends, colleagues, co-workers, family members (who might be jealous of you):

“Formerly, when you were devoted to worthless pursuits, your friends found you congenial company. But you can’t be a hit in both roles. To the extent to cultivate one you will fall short in the other. You can’t seem as affable to your old cronies if you don’t go out drinking with them as of old. So choose whether you want to be a charming drunk in their company, or dull and sober on your own. You can’t expect the same reception from the group you used to associate with if you don’t go carousing with them regularly anymore.”

It is really fucking hard, but we need to value our own beliefs and virtues over what even our close friends might think of us:

“You have a choice: if you value dignity and restraint over being called a ‘sport’ by your old mates, then forget other considerations, renounce them, walk away and have nothing more to do with that crowd. If you don’t like that, then commit to the opposite course with all your heart. Join the [wretched] set, become one of the degenerates– do as they do and indulge your every impulse and desire. Jump around and yell at a musical performance, what’s to stop you now?”

Sometimes we let the dregs or mental residue of the past hold us back.

If you have ever moved away from home, and going back home and visiting your old friends, it might feel awkward and strange. You have moved on a lot mentally and life-wise as a human being, but it seems your friends are stuck in the same old place, doing the same old shit as before. They haven’t really “grown up” in the same way you feel like you have.

Another problem that I have is that I feel indebted to my friends, because they were my friends in the past, and I feel like I need to be close friends with them now.

But in reality, you aren’t the same person you were a year ago, 10 years ago, and certainly not 20+ years old.

So don’t feel bad breaking ties with friends that you no longer associate with, with friends that no longer share similar life-goals and visions as you, and feel some sort of “obligation” towards them.

Be selfish, but for the greater good. Learn how to cultivate your own garden, your own beliefs, your own values, your own morales, and know that you do carry the risk of being called an outcast by your (former) loved ones.

But that is the price of freedom, and remember as Epictetus said, “Everything comes at a price.”

3. Disappoint people

In cultivating your own garden, you will disappoint and perhaps piss off some people.

For example, I find one of the things that screws up my clarity of thought the most is answering emails. To be frank, I don’t get a lot of emails anymore, and most of them are lovely emails from past students, from friends, that are giving me thanks or words of encouragement. But then again, there are a lot of emails that I get that are “work-related”, that distract me from my pure passion in life; writing, reading, teaching, and helping our my loved ones.

Whenever I want to get into the “zone” of writing, I need to abstain from checking my inbox for at least 2-3 days. I want to share another story from “The Second Book of the Tao” of a master bell-maker, who was able to focus his mind and create the most beautiful bells (after emptying his mind, and going into seclusion):

After three days of meditating, I no longer have any thoughts of praise or blame. After five days, I no longer have any thoughts of success or failure. After seven days, I’m not identified with a body. All my power is focused on my task; there are no distractions. At that point, I enter the mountain forest. I examine the trees until exactly the right one appears. If I can see a bell stand inside it, the real work is done, and all I have to do is get started. Thus I harmonize inner and outer. That’s why people think that my work must be superhuman.”

Similarly, my problem is that I am easily distracted. I am like a pigeon, if I see something shiny, I totally go off-course.

So my deepest apologies if you are reading this, and I haven’t answered your email yet. Trust me, it is for the greater good.

And honestly, at the end of the day, nothing is really that important in your email inbox. Nobody is going to die. Nobody sends you an email and tells you, “Eric, your mother has just passed away.”

Furthermore, any information that is really important somehow finds its way to you.

But once again, my fear is that I am afraid of disappointing people, of letting people down, or being “irresponsible.”

But once again, you need to learn how to disappoint people, let people down, and be “irresponsible” for the greater good. By focusing on your life’s task, you will (unintentionally) hurt the feelings of others.

So when pursuing your passion in life, let’s say it is photography– you are going to have to make sacrifices. Perhaps on the weekend, and your primary concern is to shoot. But a good friend invites you to some party, and you don’t want to go. Be honest and tell them that you already made plans. Your friend might be sad and disappointed– and that is tough. But it is the price you need to be willing to pay to “cultivate your own garden.”


Okay, it is now 6:42am, I am starting to feel my throat do that weird swelling-up thing (had 3 espressos), and my body is feeling pretty fucking exhausted.

To sum up, learn to first cultivate your own garden before trying to help the garden of others. Start off by cutting off the extraneous bullshit of your life, by cutting out negative people and pests from your life, and then finally having the space in your garden to give your plants light, water, fertilizer, and love– in order to grow.

Your photography is like a garden. You need to give it time, attention, and love to grow. You can’t expect to simply water it every once in a while, let it become overgrown with weeds, if you want your little seedling to become a juicy strawberry plant. And the strawberries (or fruit) is an analogy for the work that you produce.

Don’t feel guilty by focusing your time and attention on yourself before others. If you’re barely paying the rent, don’t burden yourself by trying to donate $100 to help starving kids in Africa. If your mental state is not good, don’t burden yourself by trying to relieve the suffering of a friend. If your photography is suffering, learn to first cure yourself of your mental ills before you go out party and have beers with friends.

Cultivate your own garden, then help water the gardens of others.


Written at Saturday, September 5, 6:46am, in my beautiful home in Berkeley.

Plans for today

So some random stuff– I will probably crash, take a nap on the couch, read a little bit more Stoic philosophy, and today I am really excited to visit Dolores Park in the Mission in SF with Grace and Justin, two of my closest friends. We will have a nice picnic, enjoy a nice lazy lunch and day, and have the time to catch up with them after being on the road for two months. I am so blessed to have wonderful friends like them.

So also don’t forget friend, sometimes cultivating your own garden is to spend time with loved ones. Because at the end of the day, fuck our art and photography and whatever. It is the relationships that (ultimately) matter the most, at least for me.