I’ve Let Go (Or have I?)

I’ve Let Go (Or have I?)

TLDR: As “spiritual people” we might go through difficult events thinking we have transcended them – but actually, it may have just been spiritual bypass. To truly let something go, we must first find a way to meet ourselves and our suffering.

A phenomenon I’ve often observed within me is spiritual bypass. According to clinical psychologist John Welwood, this is the tendency to use spiritual explanations and practices to avoid facing unresolved emotional issues and psychological wounds.

Why It’s Problematic

With spiritual bypass, we may go through something traumatic and then pick out a line of Dhamma and think, “Yeah, the Buddha said this and he’s right, so I should get over it now.” 

For example, say someone close to you has passed away. Spiritual bypass in this situation may look like telling yourself that “everything is impermanent” and that “death is natural, it happens to everyone” so “I shouldn’t feel grief”.

 You use the Dhamma to rationalise the grief away – but without healthily processing the emotions that naturally arise.

This is problematic because externally, it may appear like you’ve been able to transcend the suffering, completely unaffected – but you haven’t actually done the real work of processing the painful experience and unpleasant emotions that come with it. 

Without properly taking the time to receive these things and truly let them go, they might stay repressed, festering away until they come back to bite you in the a** later on.

I’m Buddhist, so I Should Just Get Over It

Something that can make this tendency worse is a strong attachment to “being Buddhist”. You may hold yourself to very high standards, putting pressure on yourself to “be strong” and “get over it”, thinking you need to be unfazed by suffering. 

“I am Buddhist, so I shouldn’t be angry. Instead, I should be contented.”

“I am Buddhist, so I should be beyond such petty emotions.” 

“I am Buddhist, so I should be able to let go of suffering.”

From my experience, this can be a kind of conceit. It’s a deluded expectation stemming from a heavy attachment to a “Buddhist identity” – an idealism about how your practice “should” look like, instead of working with what actually arises.

 You may feel guilt or aversion around the unwholesome thoughts, intentions and desires that inevitably arise. And because of the shame, you want to hide them away, from others and even from yourself.

But what happens when you don’t allow yourself to process all that? 

It doesn’t just disappear. Instead, it gets buried in the heart and resurfaces later on.

In my late teens, I experienced several traumatic events and at the time, spiritually bypassed them and then left to study abroad (which was a niceee, biiig distraction). 

Years later, when I returned home during the pandemic to familiar conditions with lots of quiet, idle time, many of those unresolved negative emotions and thought patterns began to resurface. 

It was surprising because for the last three years I thought I was “fine” for the most part. But evidently, I had just swept things into “the basement of unawareness”. Now that they’d reappeared, it was time to clear out the basement – to finally meet myself and deal with the repressed suffering.

This was important because, as Pema Chödrön says, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know”.

So, How Should We Approach Suffering?

We know that everything is impermanent. We know that everything decays and dies one day. 

We often know the Dhamma very well on an intellectual level. 

But if intellectual understanding was all it took to let go, then everyone would be enlightened, wouldn’t they?

How do we apply the Dhamma beyond just a conceptual level?

In Thai, one of the terms for the mind is jit jai – “mind and heart”. There’s an ambiguity in the language that likens the mind to the heart. To me, this seems to say that processing things up in the head is not enough – we must also deal with them on an emotional level.

One of my favourite authors, Yung Pueblo, says “Manage your reactions, but do not suppress your emotions.”

Certainly, if there is, say, anger in the heart, we should take care to ensure that it doesn’t leak into our actions and speech in a way that harms ourselves and others. We might have to suppress it for that little while, but then we should make sure to process it healthily later on – this is necessary so that it can really be let go of. 

Of course, this sounds straightforward in theory, but it takes a lot of skill to acknowledge these emotions without indulging in or avoiding them. 

One way I practice receiving negative emotion is by being mindful of how it feels in the body. Focusing on how anger physically feels and changes helps me to receive it without indulging in it or denying it. However, I find this difficult to do for certain emotions (e.g. depression, which tends to lure you in and make you want to wallow in it), if I have a strong attachment to the issue at hand, or if my mindfulness is weak at that time.

Apart from mindfulness, the Buddha recommends five ways to remove distracting thoughts, which you can read about here. What works for you may depend on your temperament.

Letting Go of Repressed Dukkha

A process I find effective for dealing with old negative emotions is this:

1. Returning to familiar conditions in which the trauma took place can cause these old emotions to resurface. So if a situation is too triggering, remove yourself from it to prevent unwholesome speech and action.

2. Find a way to calm down. Interestingly, Ajahn Munindo suggests that meditation might not be that helpful at this time. If you’re completely agitated but try to meditate, you might just be mentally proliferating the whole time. Or you might just be tranquillizing yourself and not feeling your emotions – making it a form of spiritual bypass! What has worked for me is doing something physical with that energy, such as taking a long walk.

3. When you’re calm enough, receive the emotion. Let yourself feel all of it. If you need to cry, cry. If you need to vent, do it with a trustworthy friend. I remember a story by Ajahn Sumedho, who had so much aversion towards a particular visitor to the monastery that he sat down one day and just began writing out all his anger –completely unfiltered, not trying to be nice or reasonable or “a good monk” – until there was none left. This is acceptance and release.

4. I find that receiving the emotion comes hand-in-hand with developing insight around it. When your mind is calm enough to look at the situation, you may develop new perspectives and understandings. These “paradigm shifts” are the real good stuff that helps to create lasting “liberation” from the issue. Bit by bit, they help you make sense of the experience and let go of it.

For me, this process usually takes place over a few days. You may also find that you have to go through it multiple times. That’s because, after some time, these habitual mindsets that we carry can become cemented in the psyche, becoming our “default mode”. Reframing these thoughts can thus be very challenging – so don’t be afraid to even seek guidance from a therapist.

To quote Yung Pueblo again, “If the pain was deep, you will have to let it go many times… Letting go is not a one-time event, it is a habit that requires constant repetition to become strong. Sometimes the reaction to the pain is so deep that you will have to observe and release the tension repeatedly to fully cleanse the wound.” 

With each cycle, you might find that you let go a little bit more.


Wise Steps:

  • If you realise that something within your heart is unresolved, the first step is to let it come to the surface. Practice loving-acceptance.

  • Recognise your triggers and set boundaries for yourself. If certain situations are too much to handle, remove yourself from them. When you feel stronger, you may test the waters further in the future – but for now, protect your mind.

  • Having to deal with old trauma may feel like you’re regressing, but it is actually progress. Be patient and kind with yourself throughout this (often painful but rewarding) process.
3 Ways to Always Find Happiness

3 Ways to Always Find Happiness

TLDR: Do you want to feel more happiness and less anxiety and worry? There are 3 practical ways you can try to always find happiness in the little things in life.

Would you like to experience consistent happiness on a daily basis compared to worry, anxiety and stress? I think most sane people would answer yes to this question. But despite the many books written on happiness, why are we not getting happier but instead feeling more depressed? It seems our happiness is easily toppled. Just take away travel, social gatherings and nightlife, like what we witnessed during the pandemic, we tip over to mental dis-ease away from well being. Is consistent happiness really attainable? Here are 3 ways to always find happiness. 

Changing Our Perception

If the title of this article sounds too good to be true – it is! Happiness, like attaining wealth, comes with work. Happiness does not come on a platter given to us by someone. All of us do not want to suffer. But yet we do. The culprit, or, the cause of our suffering is our mind’s constant clinging to feel secure. Security is finding safety from death and being loved unconditionally. 

This article does not deal with finding security from death or unconditional love. Instead, suggestions are made here to help us change our perception in our daily life, so that we can continuously find opportunities to lift our minds. 

Some of us cling onto perceptions that keep us suffering. Such as being upset at having our plans thwarted to feeling righteous and annoyed whenever we are challenged by another.

If we can change our perception little by little, we begin to feel that nothing is thwarting our life plan and it is not always necessary to have everything go our way.

1. Stop Comparing

We make comparisons everyday. We compare restaurants, the weather to fashion, movies and people. Making comparisons causes us to accept one thing and reject another. Although acceptance and rejections are of varying degrees, we nevertheless make up our minds about something and reject its opposite, unless we already have an open mind. 

Making comparisons can make us miserable. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been difficult to visit the public pool as and when I like. So I joined a club pool and was very happy to bring my nephew along. I jumped into the pool, grateful. But my nephew was gloomy. The reason? The pool isn’t up to his standards compared to other pools where there are toys and slides for children to play with. He was happy he could sneak out of the house to play in the pool but yet was unhappy at the pool. Does this make sense?

My nephew is not behaving weirdly, rather he is only showing the reason for the constant lack of contentment in our hearts.

If he had remembered his fortune at being able to sneak out for an hour to relax by the pool, rather than to be stuck at home submerged in schoolwork, maybe he would be happier. He was making wrong comparisons.

Discern Wisely

Being wise is the ability to make sensible decisions based on experience and knowledge. To discern wisely is to be able to have good judgment of the quality of your own thoughts and those of others.

If we can discern wisely instead of making endless comparisons, we might be grateful instead of feeling discontented with our lives. Not comparing others’ characters does not mean we befriend everyone who could be a bad influence. Being able to discern wisely means we can judge others’ character and qualities with compassion. Instead of comparing if this or that person is good or bad, we can instead help those who are willing to listen to adopt good qualities such as kindness and love instead of indifference and anger. As for those who already have good qualities we can also befriend them to incline our own minds towards joy.

Being able to discern also means we are grateful for the food we are offered or we choose to eat, even if it does not meet the taste and standards of another restaurant.

2. Accept Things as They are

Look at your life so far. You may find that most of your expectations were not met (unless you have a very contented mind). We get married and expect to be happy-ever-after. But how many people find that? We may have pictured our lives to turn out a certain way, but did it all turn out as we had visualized?

What you plan in a day may not even turn out the way you expected. You could be planning a lovely day for your partner and his or her level of surprise or happiness may not match your expectation. You may think doing something for your child today makes him/her happy but they end up sulking.

Truth is, everything that comes our way can be joyful.

Learn to change your mind

One of the weekend mornings I was looking forward to meditating for 3 to 4 hours. I did manage 1.5 hours but found my helper unwell. She was hired to help out with looking after my father who has dementia. I stopped my meditation and went out to buy the day’s necessities. When I came home, I found my father ill as well. It turned out I went out too early and the food shop had not yet opened. So I made 2 trips to buy food. I also realized my father was having diarrhoea, so he could not eat all the food I bought. I could have been upset that my plan to meditate was upended and that I spent more than I should.

But I have learned through mindfulness that happiness does not come from outer events but from what I think about them.

Ayya Khema said, “Don’t blame the trigger,” and this has made a deep impression on me. It means that if I no longer have anger within me, it is not possible for anyone to trigger this state of mind.

We need not keep anger, discontentment, or sadness in our minds if we keep replacing them with joy and happiness. Instead of being upset that my plan is not going accordingly, I was grateful to be able to serve my helper and father. It made me happy.

3. Everything is Already Broken

The third way to always find joy is to realize that everything is already broken. A beautiful flower is already on its way to wilt. A sunny day does not last forever. Civilizations rise and fall. Our minds are mostly joyful at new things. From a baby to a living flower, to a new star or a new home. We hide aged and dying people, and quickly repaint or mend a crack in our homes to cover the ugliness.

Most of our lives are spent covering up the fact of life – that death is already within everything around us, including our own bodies.

No one likes to grow old and sick, because we know how society treats decay. Read the news and see how our society abhors death. Death is always perceived as unfortunate, when the fact is, we all know, no one can live forever.

Treasure What is and Let Go

Knowing that everything is already broken does not mean we become indifferent. Indifference is not joy.

Seeing that everything is fading teaches us to be present to whoever we are with. It allows us to appreciate the flower that has not yet decayed.

But when it dies, we are not sad as well because we have given it the attention it needs.

Understanding that everything is coming apart also allows us to accept things when they are broken – from relationships to a favourite broken antique vase. We know the lively home we have now will not last forever. This helps us love everyone (including the unlovable because they are a part of our lives) and everything for that moment, with mindfulness to let go of every moment. There is nothing we can hold onto, not even the universe we live in because it is changing and moving towards a black hole to be devoured.

Our world and the universe are always changing.

Our bodies are heading towards decay, but it does not mean we cannot always find joy in the little things in life.


Wise Steps:

  • To change your perception, it is helpful to meditate for at least 10 mins a day.
  • Be grateful for what you have, so that external factors have lesser control over your moods.
  • Learn to see that doing things for others is the same as doing something for yourself because serving others can bring joy to your heart.
Lessons from Poison Ivy – Fulfilling our desires and wants

Lessons from Poison Ivy – Fulfilling our desires and wants

One of the things we need to educate ourselves is the nature of wanting. Because if we don’t understand wanting, and we are directed by the misunderstandings around wanting, then, the results will be suffering.

Studying the nature of wanting

If we understand wanting, and understand the nature of wanting, then, we can liberate the mind from suffering. Studying something means you have to reflect, and studying something is not the same as believing something. If you believe that wanting is wrong or bad, that’s not study. That’s just an opinion that someone has maybe given you. Or if you think that just by following all your wanting is going to give a result, and you don’t watch cause and effect, then, that also wouldn’t be study.

The capacity to study is also the capacity to reflect.

Not only can I do things in the world, participate in the world, I can notice how I am participating in the world.

Not only can I feel inspired, I can notice that I feel inspired.

Not only can I feel disappointed, I can notice that I feel disappointed.

Without awareness and reflection, we are simply reactive animals. We get some stimuli, like and dislike, we react to that. There’s no real freedom. But reflection isn’t the same as just thinking about something. I think it’s more profound. It’s actually observing cause and effect, and the flow of things.

What are we seeking?

So, the question would be:

  1. Are we seeking the fulfilment of our desires?
  2. Is that what we are seeking and can that ever work? And are we looking to always have what we want?

Well, I would suggest that what we are looking for is the end of wanting rather than an object. You notice when you get what you want, is it the object that is bringing peace or is it the end of wanting? I would suggest that it is the end of wanting and the object is actually a distraction. 

So, you get the object, the experience, the emotional experience, or the relationship or whatever, and for some moment, wanting falls away, and you think it’s the object.

Because you think it’s the object, you try to pursue the object again, but then you can’t get it.

Wanting that stems from ignorance

Wanting can be intelligent or it can be ignorant. Like my body, it is body with wants. Its biological nature is that it desires comfort, it fears pain, it needs food, and emotionally, it likes companionship and love. That’s the kind of biological make up. So, wanting is not wrong. But wanting, of course, has its limits. So if I think that my fulfilment comes from fulfilling my wanting, then what do I do with the reality of life? I’d feel frustrated. I’d feel averse, or fearful, or whatever.

But if I study wanting, how it works in the mind, how it operates, then you become a witness to Dharma — the Dharma of wanting.

One of the analogies in the text, which I found useful is the analogy of a skin disease. It is about ignorance.

Say, in Ontario where I’m from in Canada, we have a plant called the poison ivy. The ivy has a chemical, liquid form, that comes on to your skin. When it comes on to bare skin, it creates a toxic reaction on your skin, and you’ll get rash. When you scratch it, it rips open the blisters, and the blisters spread, and you get more rash, and it will itch even more.

So, I’ve had poison ivy, and it (my skin) really itches. Then, I try not to scratch it. When I have a shower, it would drive me nuts, and I would scratch it. And you know, it felt so good.  Of course, after the shower, I looked. Oops! Now I’ve got more of the disease; now I have more itching than I had before.

So, I made the determination, I put some calamine lotion on  I said, “I’m not going to scratch.” Of course, an hour later, I forgot.  And then, I scratched again.  “Ah, it’s so good.” At that time, my desire was fulfilled. I was getting what I wanted – I got the end of itching. But! Oh, oh. Now it’s all on my arm.

At some point, in this little drama of the itching and scratching, I have the insight that I need to forgo short-term satisfaction and pleasure, for long-term end of the disease. I have to forgo, the short-term pleasure of scratching, if I am going to put an end to the disease.

And that takes determination, and intelligence. Now, the itching is still there. That’s the problem. Just by saying to myself that I will not scratch, it doesn’t put an end to the itching. So, the temptation is to scratch, scratch, and scratch. “Come on. Just a little bit.” But the insight, and the renunciation of that would say, “no, I’m not going there.”

True freedom

Now, the thing about wanting that is not based on wisdom is that the mind is always  going out into objects. Thoughts, emotions, gadgets, relationships, memories, and the desire mind then, seeks fulfilment and satisfaction in objects.

And I would suggest that objects can never satisfy desire because their nature is transient, and they are out of your control. They arise depending on causes and conditions. So, then you have the insight that true freedom must be the end of wanting, not by getting what I want, but by forgoing the pursuit of wanting for the long- term end of the disease and that we’d call Nibbana.


The above is a transcript of a snippet of the talk given by Luang Por Viradhammo in 2018 at Nibbana Dhamma Rakkha Singapore. The full talk can be found on BuddhaDhamma Foundation’s Youtube channel.

Luang Por Viradhammo is the most senior Thai Forest monk in Canada and currently the Abbot of Tisarana Buddhist Monastery in Perth, Ontario. He was ordained as a monk in 1974 by Ajahn Chah at Wat Nong Pah Pong monastery and became one of the first residents at Wat Pah Nanachat, the international monastery in north-east Thailand.

What Really Matters In Life

What Really Matters In Life

TLDR: Everyone has a different take as to what they think is important in life. Three things that matter most to me are love and kindness, personal growth and development as well as purpose.

Disclaimer: my answer to this question is based on my personal experience and reflection. Everyone has different takes on this matter. Please treat it with a pinch of salt. Thank you:)


Once, I asked my dad if he had ever blamed my grandparents for not sending him to university. Out of the eight siblings, only my Ah Pek (paternal elder uncle) was given the support to pursue higher education. What made me feel indignant was that my Ah Pek did not take the opportunity to complete his degree. 

On the other hand, my dad had to give up his dream of becoming a doctor. He had to take on the role of an ‘oldest’ son (Ah Pek was the oldest). This gave Ah Pek the opportunity to further his studies. My dad was a smart boy who always scored first in his cohort despite having to work after school and during the weekends when other kids were playing.

He was also a kind brother who always gave in to his siblings. I just found it such a shame that he did not get the opportunity he deserved. However, his answer to my question was a no. I was perplexed.

As a young girl, I grew up feeling jealous of my older sister. She was always the priority. From the presents that my parents got for us to enrichment classes she was sent to, she always had the best. 

Even the main reason why I was sent to study in Singapore was to accompany her (we are from Indonesia). We are only one and a half years apart but she seemed to always have more than me. I drew so many parallels between my dad’s life and mine but why did he respond so differently from me?

He explained to me: “there is no reason for me to blame them. The condition just was not right.”

“I was glad that at least your Ah Pek had a chance to go to college.” He shared. 

“He had good kamma. Think about it, if it was not for our family’s financial difficulties, do you think I would work hard to be where I am right now? I could pay for your Ah Gou’s (aunt’s) education, help to build the temple, and send you and Jie Jie to Singapore. Life is about making the best of what you have and being purposeful with it.” He added.

Going back to the topic of this essay, what really matters in life?

From this short story, we could derive three main lessons:

1. Love and kindness

My dad’s love for his family was the strength that kept him going despite all the challenges that he faced. It was definitely not easy to combine work and study at such a young age. Yet, he did not complain and remained hopeful.

He did not see his choice of helping the family as a sacrifice, but rather, a privilege to show his love and care for his family. 

Because he sees life from the lens of love and kindness instead of hatred and resentment, he lives with contentment and peace. He also gained people’s trust as well as love and respect from his children.

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” Lao Tzu

2. Personal Growth and Development

No one is born perfect and that is the beauty of it. When we are aware of our weaknesses, we learn that there is no reason to be conceited and proud.

Looking back, the reason why I was often jealous and dissatisfied was that I held on to the fixed view that I had to have more to be happy

I blamed everything on the outside world, thinking that everything was unfair. My life was in a downward spiral as I held on tightly to my victim mentality.

After learning about the Four Noble truths, I came to understand that the source of my suffering was craving. Not getting what I want to result in so much anger and hatred. The mind’s nature is to always seek a more pleasant experience. However, the more things that I wanted, the more pain I got. That is why drug addicts find it challenging to overcome their addiction and need higher doses over time.

Meditation is so helpful in training the mind to be more mindful, peaceful, and aware. Although I am new to meditation, I put in efforts to be a better practitioner. After all, personal growth and development is a work-in-progress right? *Wink wink*

“Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet he indeed is the noblest victor who conquers himself.” – Dhammapada 103

3. Purpose

We may seek the meaning of life, but there is actually none. That is why as Buddhists, we practise working towards the end of Saṃsāra (cycle of rebirth).

However, it does not mean that we live a dissipated life. Instead, we create our own meaning of life. 

Meaning in life can include developing kindness, compassion, and love. In other words, we make peace with our lives by having good relationships with ourselves and with others. We can practise this anytime and anywhere.

“Better it is to live one day strenuous and resolute than to live a hundred years sluggish and dissipated.” – Dhammapada 112

Thank you for reading my reflection on what matters in life. I hope you gained something out of it.

With Metta,

Selvie


Wise Steps:

  • Learn to not confuse perception from truth. This is because perception is subjective and may not depict the story accurately. Clinging to perception causes one to become infatuated, leading to more craving and suffering. (MN 149)
  • Practise the four brahma-viharas (loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity) to lead a happier life.
  • Be patient with yourself. Every process takes time and there is no timeline for you to follow.  
The Unspoken Conversation: The Mental Health of Teachers

The Unspoken Conversation: The Mental Health of Teachers

TLDR: Teacher burnout is a real risk. The mental health of teachers also has a significant impact on students. Besides relying on their peers and official support channels, teachers can practise meditation to promote greater mental wellness for themselves and their students.

The Missing Conversation

“What’s missing from the conversation in schools is the mental well-being of teachers.”

So goes a comment from a former secondary school teacher, as quoted in a CNA Insider post, which highlighted the challenges that teachers have faced. As netizens generally agreed, teachers have it tough. 

Struggling to cover content while keeping up with new policies and coping with safe management measures, answering multiple stakeholders like parents, colleagues, and supervisors. Teachers may find it all rather overwhelming. 

If a common refrain of critics is to ask who guards the guards, can we ask in turn how we can care more for the caregivers? 

How should we take better care of teachers’ mental health, especially from a Dhamma-based perspective?

Burnout and Brownout

The issue of mental wellness has preoccupied the nation’s collective imagination in recent months. Reports have noted that, in comparison to their peers globally, Singaporean workers experienced higher than average levels of burnout: around half felt exhausted, while almost 60% felt overworked. For professions as demanding as teaching, the risk of burnout seems particularly acute. 

Aside from ‘burnout’, more workplaces have observed increased incidence of ‘brownout’ — akin to the reduction in voltage which results in the dimming and flickering of lights — in the workplace environment. This would refer to the stage before the point of burnout, as a loss of interest in work and life, in general, threatens to slip into depression. 

I’m reminded of the five hindrances in Buddhism: perhaps experiences of burnout and brownout constitute a toxic mixture of states of torpor, intensified by restlessness, worry, and doubt.

Some have raised the deeper question about the role of teachers and the scope of their responsibilities. In a widely-shared video by RiceMedia, artist-musician and former teacher Chew Wei Shan recounts what it was like to be marking on weekends and juggling multiple obligations like managing a CCA, managing parents’ expectations, and so on. 

She movingly describes her experiences at school, which included dissuading a teenager from jumping off a roof at 2 AM, having chairs and scissors thrown at her, and male students cornering her while “eating [her] worksheet in [her] face”. 

At the same time, she observes how emotionally invested teachers can be in the lives of the hundreds of students they meet every year. 

As she reflects, it’s hard for teachers to avoid bringing back home worries about the students, or to prevent themselves from evaluating the little choices they make daily.

More than to ‘Just Teach’

As an NIE lecturer of mine once quipped, “If you want to just teach and only teach, you should be a full-time tutor.” 

To be a teacher, however, is far more than just to teach. 

It also means being a confidant, ready to step in when the need to counsel students arises, in addition to being an event planner, community organiser, safety officer, and a myriad of other roles. 

I’m reminded of the figure of Kuan Yin, the thousand-armed bodhisattva in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, whose numerous arms deliver aid to all suffering sentient beings, and who tirelessly offers blessings in the spirit of boundless compassion and wisdom. 

Perhaps teachers, who have dutifully coached and comforted students despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, are akin to modern bodhisattvas, selflessly devoting their time and effort to the welfare of their young charges.

But unlike Kuan Yin, teachers generally don’t have infinite energy and knowledge. Many teachers have also gone out of their way to ensure that programmes and lessons can proceed uninterrupted. 

For instance, as described in a TODAY article, as mass assembly programmes had to be halted due to safe management measures, teachers had to equip themselves with new skills such as how to record or live-stream performances to be presented via video-conferencing tools for events like Racial Harmony Day. 

The work involved in preparing for such events, in addition to other preparatory work needed to create resources for home-based learning or other activities, may have taken a toll on teachers over the past two years.

No System is Perfect

In response to concerns about excessive workloads as a result of duties apart from teaching, the Ministry of Education has clarified that the appraisal of teachers is such that their contributions are given recognition in all aspects of work, taking into account their efforts in aiding students’ holistic growth. 

As for administrative duties, there has been significant progress made to minimise teachers’ workloads by incorporating technology like the Parents’ Gateway app, as well as the evaluation and furnishing of manpower support. Furthermore, the ministry has reminded schools to review their systems of management so that teachers’ responsibilities can be better managed. 

On the ground, much depends on individual schools, school leaders, and colleagues, but at least official clarifications signal purposeful angling of priorities and directions for future educational policies. 

In a world governed by Dukkha (dissatisfaction), no system is perfect, but teachers can still refine and shape their sphere of influence to promote greater awareness and understanding of the roles that they play, and the effects they have on others. 

Interdependence: Teachers & Students

As former nominated MP, Anthea Ong, was quoted to have observed, “A student who is not well affects the well-being of a teacher—and a teacher who is not well affects the students. These two things need to be looked at in totality.” 

This reminded me of the concept of interdependence, or interbeing, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh would put it. 

When we understand how all phenomena exist concerning one another, we develop an awareness of the welfare of one is contingent on the other. Teachers and students are inextricably interconnected.

Such interdependence also explains why teachers play such a critical role in modelling to students what mental health entails. Students mirror their teachers in many ways, and the effect of teacher modelling can hardly be underestimated.

If teachers are calm and steady, students naturally sense this and develop a similar composure. If teachers are anxious or worried, students also succumb more easily to such fearful states of mind. Students are extremely observant towards the emotional tenor of their teachers, and they can quickly spot any discrepancy between teachers’ words and feelings. 

Getting off my Treadmill of Suffering

All this is based on personal experience. I remember how, amid one particularly difficult period in school, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. All the work involved in teaching graduating classes, setting examination papers, managing a CCA, coordinating committee work, organising events, responding to parents, and so on—with the cycle repeating every semester—had left me feeling like I was on a samsaric treadmill that could not stop.

I hardly realised it at the time, but without adequate strategies to cope with stress through skilful means, the atmosphere of my classes had been compromised. Even though I thought I kept maintaining my encouraging and reassuring classroom persona in front of students, my students shared privately after school with me that they noticed how I was often worried and anxious in class. 

My micro-expressions and other body language cues must have revealed my sense of tension and unease, which had invariably filtered into my students’ consciousness as well.

Fortunately, after my students alerted me to this, I began a process of self-reflection and lifestyle adjustment. I went through all my duties to reschedule or de-prioritise whatever I could. I blocked off time for sleep (instead of marking into the wee hours) and time for regular meals (instead of skipping lunch). 

In the evenings and on weekends, I set aside time for spiritual reading, and often I would also be listening to Dhamma talks like those by Ajahn Brahm. I made a conscious effort to shift my default state of mind from restlessness and agitation to calmness and equanimity.

This shift paid off—my students noticed that I was more ‘alive’ and present during class.

It was a testament to the importance of self-care, which far from being selfish, is essential for long-term flourishing. It means setting boundaries and respecting one’s own physical and psychological limits. 

The Power of Mindfulness

As Venerable Thubten Chodron observes in her book Good Karma, “Giving up self-preoccupation does not entail making ourselves suffer. We must take care of ourselves… this human body is the basis of our precious human life that gives us the possibility to learn and practise the Dhamma.”

Meditation can also be a powerful means of promoting greater mental wellness. When my school counsellor conducted weekly secular guided mindfulness practice sessions for the whole school via the PA system, I noticed how helpful it was for my students to begin the day with such a dose of calm. 

This practice signalled how mindfulness could be beneficial for the mainstream. Through mindfulness practice, students could increase their attentiveness, reduce test anxiety, and develop greater impulse control. Teachers in turn could cultivate a greater sense of balance and become more responsive to students’ needs.

Naturally, this is not to suggest that mindfulness alone is a panacea for all teachers who experience burnout. For teachers experiencing mental health issues, support from colleagues and official channels (such as counselling services offered by the Academy of Singapore Teachers) would be crucial. 

Seeking such professional help should also never be a cause for stigmatisation. We can continue to develop a culture in which self-care is safeguarded, and access to affordable therapeutic care is normalised. 

Perhaps we could learn from therapeutic circles of care, such as those established in other countries that have leveraged community partners like trained grandmothers to provide affordable mental health support. At the same time, mindfulness can help to enhance teachers’ abilities, while ensuring that they can care for themselves in ways that allow them to care better for others. 

If “wisdom springs from meditation” (Dhammapada v. 282), teachers are in a unique position to cultivate life-changing qualities of wisdom and compassion through the practice of mindfulness for the benefit of their students.

By championing and foregrounding the importance of mental wellness, teachers can better empower their students to learn, grow, and pass on the light of mindful living to others.


Wise Steps:

  • Develop a sense of purpose and meaning in the work that you do. Minimise the risk of burnout by prioritising tasks, based on discussions with colleagues and superiors.

  • Never be too busy to take care of your physical and emotional well-being. Schedule time for regular meals and sleep. Reading or listening to Dhamma talks can also promote your mental wellness.

  • Engage in mindfulness practice as a daily habit to ground and centre yourself during difficult times. Remain motivated to practise by staying connected to like-minded spiritual friends.
How to be in the present moment – it’s not what you think

How to be in the present moment – it’s not what you think

When the Buddha does talk about being in the present moment he never says to just hang out in the present moment, be fully present to the present moment.

It is always in the context of death contemplation — death could happen at any time and there are duties that have to be done. If you don’t do them now, they are not going to get done.

The duties

There is one famous poem in Majjhima 131. It starts out saying that:

you shouldn’t chase after the past or place expectations on the future.

What is past is left behind.

The future is as yet unreached.

Whatever quality is present, you clearly see,

right there, right there,

not taken in, unshaken.

Ardently doing what should be done today,

for — who knows? — tomorrow death.

So, there’s this concept of having a duty that should be done. We focus on the present moment because we are creating suffering in the present moment, and we want to learn how to stop. It comes from our actions so, it is important to understand the Buddhist’s take on what exactly are we doing in the present moment, how does it shape our experience. 

What to accept

The Dharma teaches us what to accept — There are the influences that are coming in from the past. We can’t go back and change our past karma, but we also have the ability to do something about this raw material coming from the past and shaping it into our present experience. So we have a choice in how we are going to shape that material. And that’s something, also, we have to accept – that we are playing a role in this.

So, we have to look in to see what is that role that we are playing.

What not to accept

Things that the Buddha tells us not to accept in addition to what we are doing that is unskilful — he says he doesn’t accept the lazy and defeatist attitude.

Suffering does have a source, but it doesn’t always come from your past actions. It comes from what you are doing right now.

When you look at the images of the Buddha people on the path, there’s never an image of somebody sort of sitting back and just accepting. It’s always images of people who are searching, people who are engaged in battle people who are trying to develop a skill, always trying to learn to be more skilful, and how to shape the present moment.

He actually calls the Eightfold Noble Path the unexcelled victory in battle. So, there is a battle to be won; there’s work to be done.

Daily contemplation

The Buddha gives you another example: every night, when the sun sets, remind yourself –

“I could die tonight. Am I ready to go or are there any qualities in my mind that would make it difficult for me to let go?” 

And if so,  focus on working on those qualities, abandoning those causes of suffering.

The same thing, in the morning, when the sun rises,

“This could be my last sunrise. I could die today. Am I ready to go? If not, there’s work I got to do right now.”

The Four Noble Truths

These duties that the Buddha was referring to here, of course, are the duties that come under the Four Noble Truths.

There is suffering.

What is the suffering? You want to comprehend it.
There are a lot of things we do that create suffering, but we just hold to them. And the Buddha wants you to look carefully at that. Do you see (that when) you’re doing this, you’re causing yourself suffering. Is it worth doing it? That’s the duty with regard to the First Noble Truth.

The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering, which is craving.

That should be abandoned. When you see the cause of suffering that’s what you let go. And most of us get these duties confused.  We try to let go of the suffering.

First, you (have to) understand what induced you to cling to begin with. What was the desire that you had? That’s what you let go of.

Otherwise, it is like going into a house seeing the house is filled with smoke, and you put out the smoke. As long as you keep putting out the smoke,  it’s not going to stop. You got to find where is the fire. Put out the fire, then you’re done.

The duty with the Third Noble Truth, which is the cessation of suffering.

It is to realise when you finally do let go of the craving, there is a moment when the suffering ceases. But the Buddha says, ultimately, there is a point where you stop the craving entirely. And that’s the end of suffering. You have dispassion for it. So, you try to realise that. 

And then, there’s a path.

The path is to be developed. By engaging in the present moment in a more skilful way, we create better conditions for the future.

There is hope

And also, we are not stuck here. We are not stuck in this house.

The house is constantly burning. You can’t stop it from burning, but the Buddha says there is a fire escape. And so, we look for the fire escape; do the practice.

Ultimately, there is freedom that is not flammable, that will not burn us, and it’s outside of past, present, and future entirely. Because it is outside of time, it’s not going to be touched by anything. 

Once you gain it, you gain it for good.