Sharon Lam has dived in the deep sea and danced with the middle-aged, but none of those attempts at diversion brought the happiness she recently found in an unlikely place.
I have devoted my life to a never-ending procession of half-arsed hobbies. German classes, deep sea diving, clay life modelling, contemporary dance courses aimed at 50-year-olds, I have all the hobbies of a retiree and am completely addicted. It’s very nice to have a place to be that’s not your house once a week, it’s very fun to be part of a transient motley gang of semi-strangers, and it’s very satisfying to go through the motions of learning. It all feels novel, each class offers a new identity, a new performance. There are no stakes. You can float around as an amateur archer for an hour and miss every time, sketch biologically stunted human figures, fail to win a single indoor soccer game in the D league, whatever!
I have stuck to absolutely none of these hobbies. In fact, I probably can’t even call them hobbies, they’re more like the trailers for hobbies. There were people in my modern dance class who had been going for five years, saw grandchildren be born, walk, talk, and I didn’t even stick around for a trimester. Despite the patient induction by a friend into a trading card game, I played a whole three times while she went on to play competitively in the States. The only thing that has stuck in my brain is, for some reason, German stationery vocabulary, a field that I took to synesthesiastically. Of course an eraser is a radiergummi! Of course!
Sometimes there have been practical reasons for giving these things up – I moved, fees increased, class times changed. But almost always it has been because the sheen and promise of something new wore off and the ceebs (the plural of CBF) came creeping back in. And despite my idiot’s hope, I have never stumbled into a natural calling, never fulfilled the dream of having the teacher ask me “are you sure this is your first time?” And so each class, sport, instrument, becomes nothing more than a five-minute dilettante distraction, and none of them transcend into an actually fulfilling pursuit.
Until now. A few months ago, while eating instant Nissin noodles and scrolling through Google Maps, the way many important discoveries are made, I found something in my neighbourhood. I went to a couple of by-donation – i.e. by-awkward-smile-and-donation-of-zero-dollars – sessions, and ended up on a full six-week intro course. For the past three Mondays, I have been running from work to make it to class on time, where shoeless chit chat with my fellow intro-ees starts the night. Even before class begins, I already feel better. The centre is peaceful, instantly welcoming. I think I could really be onto something here. Community. A new framework for life. A life where I say things like “framework for life”. This one feels different. I know that this is exactly how I felt about Korean fan dancing and the alto saxophone but no, this one, this could really be the one that sticks.
For one, in the category of indoor public places, the peacefulness of where the classes are held is unmatched. Cosy, smells good, warm when it needs to be and cool when it needs to be. The people are all super nice and welcoming, even the woman with a casual $10k Van Cleef and Arpels necklace, even the guy who had a Pfizer logo face tattoo which I definitely did not ask about, though if there ever was a space safe to ask, that would have been it.
There is a lot of meditation, something that in a western city I had thought only existed in Tinder bios of tech bros who just downloaded Headspace, but turns out is actually a real doable thing that is instantly beneficial. There is storytelling and reflection over herbal teas, incense and candles, and despite all of this – no white people with dreadlocks.
The friendliness belies an underlying seriousness that says this is nothing without daily work and practice. Here, more than in any other class I’ve taken, the difference between performative and genuine participation is obvious. The teachers and long-time regulars have a different air, one that’s exclusive and inclusive at the same time. And no, I am not talking about a yoga class at Soho House, although perhaps that would be better, but the big R itself – religion.
I was brought up as secular as a lamppost and have always felt a bit uncomfortable with worship. Faith? Don’t know her. Belief? As in life after love, Cher 1998? A complete devotion to invisible and long-dead things has often felt unscientific and childish, and at my most judgemental, an “easy way out”. In other words, I am completely spiritually ignorant. Even in the course, where there is a bit of chanting and bowing, I feel awkward, even rude, like I am a greedy outsider making fun of it all. But in this introduction, everyone is coming in from the outside, and for the first time, religion seems inviting instead of alienating.
There has long been a trend of injecting spirituality into self-care and exercise – Goop, SoulCycle, ‘self-transcendent’ ultramarathons. I am too poor, too unfit, and not yet out-of-touch enough for all of those. Why not go directly to the source? As it turns out, I really get a kick out of sitting in silence in a dimly lit room with other people who also enjoy sitting in silence in a dimly lit room. And other than in a religious setting, I don’t think there is another place to do so, at least not so holistically. I feel genuinely curious and interested in the teachings, which with their millennia-old origins, hold up better today than Friends. While still a bit clunky, I can see how the acts of worship can be straightforward, and is just the act of bringing attention to yourself and the practice, and not some huge almighty gesture. I am not sure if I will ever tick anything other than ‘none’ in forms asking for religion, but for now, I do know that I want to keep sitting in silence in dimly lit rooms.