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.
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.
“Depression Is Not A Personal Failure.” A Social Worker Reflects On Managing Depression

“Depression Is Not A Personal Failure.” A Social Worker Reflects On Managing Depression

TLDR: It is okay not to be okay. Being on the constant drive to be perfect can wear you down. Ching Wi recommends taking an incremental approach to generating kind thoughts to yourself and to see the little sparks in the darkest of caves.

Foggy spectacles from wearing masks. Forest fires. Social strife. Long socially-distanced queues for bubble tea. How can we keep calm & happy in a distressed world? A smiley social worker might have an answer. 

Ching Wi has been a social worker for years. She helps elderlies people in her day-to-day job. With her joyful ‘hello’ given when we met, it is hard to grasp that she has suffered from depression. For six years.  

Her journey into the darkest cave 

Perfection. Competition. Ching Wi’s life was previously characterised by these two things. This led to a life of anxiety and self-doubt. She found herself responding to everything with anger.  

Everything that she and others did previously needed to be up to her standard. She mentioned, her characteristic is like the boss that you don’t want to work with. It is fierce and scary.  

These loads of negative emotions eventually piled up inside her heart. The three factors of depression: biological, physical and social aspects are mixed up. Anxiety and depression hit hard.  

In a blink of an eye, she realised that everything becomes heavier, the negative thoughts towards herself and the world trapped her inside a dark cave. 

In such darkness, it felt impossible to see any light. 

Seeing the flicker of light 

Upon seeing the sparks, Ching Wi placed great effort in developing mindfulness, taking refuge in the Triple Gem, trying to change for the better from her old version. Buddha’s teaching mentioned that hatred can’t be overcome by anger. Hatred can only be overcome by love. This is an eternal rule.  

She recalled, ‘It is a very difficult process of healing. Changing from the 1.0 version to 2.0 is not easy. There are processes of 1.1, 1.2, 1.3,… etc. It is and will be a roller coaster ride of ups and downs.’ However, having trusted friends, families and the courage to believe in the power of truth in the triple gem is really helpful for the recovery process. 

It can be very scary to experience depression and she found courage from “hiding” in the power Triple Gem’s truth. When she could not trust herself, she knew she could trust the Triple Gem, especially in stopping her suicidal thoughts. At moments when the suffering got really unbearable, she would imagine taking out all the negative emotions and believe in the Triple Gem, the teaching about the truth of life. 

In times where she lacked confidence, she sought comfort in the Buddha’s compassion and practiced the Buddha’s teaching of loving-kindness. Even if she could not generate loving-kindness for herself yet, she kept trying. She found it easier to wish others well and at peace so she kept doing it. Slowly, the spark of positivity helps to calm her mind and she begins to feel kindness for herself too.  

‘Take time to slow down every process. Be mindful of everything and start wishing others and yourself to have a blissful mind.‘ The advice she has taken to heart whenever she senses the darkness creeping in. Seeing how Ching Wi struggled and going through the hardest moment, was there any advice she had for others facing dark times? 

She smiled, ‘learn to be kind to yourself, you too can see light’.

Helping others see light 

“Learning to be kind and accept yourself, and being honest with yourself is very important to get out of suffering. Remind yourself that you too deserve a happier mental state, and depression is not a personal failure.” She advised.  

Also, it is always better than letting the negative thoughts repeat over and over again. As it could be destructive to your mind.” She continued.  

“But….what if you can’t do that?” I asked. 

“Keep trying different ways to solve problems’. Ching Wi reckoned that it is very hard to move through hard times if our mind is not open, stuck in cycles of suffering.  

Ask yourself: ‘Why am I so resistant to making myself peaceful and free from destructive thoughts?”  

She suggested being open with your trusted people around you. It can be friends or family, or someone that you are comfortable to talk with. ‘Sometimes, they see our blind spot and help us to find confidence in ourselves. And could also bring up a new perspective that offers courage too.’  

Even though it is not an easy journey to embark on with, it will be rewarding in the end.’ She grinned.  

Lighting a candle in the darkest cave 

“Lighting a candle in the darkest cave is not an easy task to do. However, it offers warmth to the cave. You may not still see the whole cave, but as the flame lights up, you will feel comforted and help to jumpstart your process of recovering.” She explained. 

“As the candle continues to glow, the surroundings (mind space) will affect how bright will the candle be. If we could slow down and calm our thoughts, the warmth will brighten up the cave. A cave with even walls will enhance and reflect more light. Conversely, if the surroundings are jagged and wavey (full of worries), the glow will be shaky and unfocused.  So pay attention too to the environment for the flame to continue shining.’ She cautioned. 

Ching Wi calmly mentioned that even if you can’t see the full cave with your candle. Generate gratitude for that little flame, as it has at least helped you kickstart your process of recovery. To gain strength to face the world. To offer an opportunity to be happy again. 

May you be inspired by this writing to light your own candle in tough times and offer strength to others. 


Wise Steps:

  • Gratitude goes a long way. To both ourselves and others, it is a great daily practice!
  • Seeking help never hurts! From professionals to friends to family, finding that support helps guides you through the storms of life.

Need help? It is one call away 

SOS 24-hour Hotline: 1800-221-4444 

Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019 

Institute of Mental Health: 6389-2222 (24 hours) 

Tinkle Friend:1800-274-4788 (for primary school-aged children) 

Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800 

Resources for applying Buddhism to depressive mental states

How does a meditator deal with episodes of major depression?

The Dalai Lama’s Advice on Depression

Popping Pills for Depression: A Buddhist View – Inquiring Mind

The triple gem

Toxic Positivity: When Always Looking On The Bright Side Is Harmful

Toxic Positivity: When Always Looking On The Bright Side Is Harmful

TLDR: Burying our friends and ourselves with positive quotes when we are down can hurt. Active listening is one way to avoid toxic positivity

Heard Or Said Something Similar?

“Everything will be fine.”

“This too shall pass.”

“Good vibes only. Stay strong, jia you*!”

Social media rewards us for positively curated stories. This has created new challenges in how we manage the emotions of others and ourselves.

Toxic positivity: The forced blanket positive response to all difficult situations. The firm belief that keeping positive is the sole way you and others should live your life.

Though being positive is important. It is also important to let yourself experience difficult feelings. Here’s why toxic positivity is an issue and how we can be part of the solution.

Positivity Is Great.. So How Does Toxic Positivity Harm Us?

Positivity is important to keep us going in life. No doubt. ‘Focusing on what is good, will bring good’ we are taught. But like all things, e.g. Pandan Cake 🍰 , too much of something is not desirable.

Positivity becomes toxic when one rejects anything that triggers negative emotions and replaces it with positive motivational quotes or ‘vibes’. This habitual response to negativity has been found to create anxiety, depression or physical illness.

Ever tried to tell a panicking person to ‘stay calm’? I hope you didn’t!

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Wisdom from Twitter

Toxic positivity is not just an issue for your mind and body. It is an issue for others. Pushing it on others also makes you seem tone death.

The receiver of your ‘positive vibes’ comments may even start to feel bad about feeling bad. The last thing they need.

When we deny unpleasant emotions, we tend to make them bigger. Avoiding all negativity also reinforces the idea that we need not pay attention to it. This leaves it unprocessed in our psyche.

We slowly forget that emotions are not inherently good or bad but rather a guide in how we should make sense of things.

Signs of Toxic Positivity

These are some common experiences of toxic positivity to help recognise them in yourself and others.

  • Trying to ‘snap back to reality’ by saying (e.g., “it could be worse”) instead of validating their/ your emotional experience
  • Telling someone off for expressing frustration or anything non-positive
  • Hiding your true feelings and wanting it to be ‘over asap’
  • Attempting to “just get on with it” by dismissing strong emotions
  • Feeling guilty/ angry for feeling down.
  • Responding to people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements about positivity

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An apt meme. Refuting reality 101.

Detoxing The Toxic Within Us

“To stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge — that is the path of true awakening.” Pema Chodron

It is easy to accept the pleasant people and situations of life. However, being able to accept the difficult people and situations is the path of spiritual growth. We find a place for deep healing and peace within ourselves.

Here’s what we can do for ourselves.

  1. Give yourself permission to feel negative and positive emotions.
  2. Journal about the emotion or sit with the emotion (if you can!).
  3. Slowly uncover the cause and see what can you do to support yourself better in the future.
  4. Talk to friends about it unreservedly.
  5. Take a walk in nature to breathe in the fresh air

Detoxing the Toxic Towards Others

Being a lover of excel tables, this is a cheat sheet to help improve the ways we talk to others having a bad time. Being an “ex-serial toxic positivity promoter”, this table saved me dozens of time!

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A table to fight Toxic Positivity

Summary

No one can be a bursting ray of sunshine every day and every hour. Accepting that it is only human will help you acknowledge the setbacks faced by yourself and others. Paying attention and processing negativity will help you better understand yourself and those around you.

*A popular Singapore term for encouraging others in difficulty


Wise Steps:

  • Memorise the chart of toxic positivity and avoid the traps you might fall into
  • Do not be afraid to acknowledge the negative emotions within you!

Practical Mindfulness Through Depressive Episodes

TLDR: 2 mindfulness based tools to help you survive depressive episodes. To anchor & to breathe.

There is so much more awareness around mental illness, and people are much more willing to say ‘I’m depressed’. However, the conversation pretty much stops there.

People don’t usually divulge the dark, contorted details of what goes on in their head during depressive episodes. I mean, how do you say, ‘Hey, I’ve been visualising me stabbing myself for the past hour’ over dinner? It still is a very lonely uphill battle, and there’s still a lot of work to be done to bring depth into the conversations around mental illness. Meanwhile, here’s some things that I’ve found to be useful when it hits me.

I will be using the term ‘depressive episodes’ instead of depression because it is important to understand the distinction. Depression is a mental illness. One with the mental illness of depression experiences depressive episodes that are significant enough to impair quality of life, relationship with self and others. Yet, there are still pockets of space in a depressed person’s life that is void of these depressive episodes. Hence, it is important that while we acknowledge the experiences of depressive episodes, we are careful to not reduce the person to their illness.

1. Anchor in the present moment

In a depressive episode, the body feels so heavy and tired. It’s as though there is not enough energy available to even exist. But there is a whole flurry of activity going on. Thoughts are accelerating in every direction, and emotions change track from misery to hopelessness to pain in split seconds. There is actually a huge amount of energy being expended.

The emotional energy depletes rather than nourish and rejuvenate the mind, resulting in the feeling of “I can’t even move.”

Understanding this has been a life-changing moment. This understanding reminds one there is potential for the energy to be used in other ways. This prevents the energy from sucking up whatever remaining willpower you have.

Identify the low hanging fruits

Choose something that you naturally feel like doing and more importantly, doesn’t feel too forceful. Be attuned to how you feel- even if that means you can only muster the energy to look out the window, choose that.

Ground into the 5 senses
Whatever you choose, slow down and really immerse in the experience. Intentionally sink yourself fully into the feeling of aliveness-the antithesis of depression.

What 3 sounds can you hear ?

What 3 things can you see?

What smells can you inhale?

What 3 sensations you can touch?

What taste can you experience?

As much as you can, rotate through these questions repeatedly till you feel better. Anchoring into the present moment helps you to keep a safe distance from your thoughts temporarily.

2. Breathe

Reactive is impulsive.

It is going with the first thing your brain generates: “How dare he insult me, I’m so gonna YELL at him and let everyone know what a scumbag he is!!!” The amygdala (emotional center) is at play here.

Being responsive , on the other hand, is being calm and rational.

Responsive is acknowledging the emotional reactions, but not letting that take center stage. The forebrain (logic and rational processing) is at play.

In a depressive mind, the mind is reactive. It jumps on every single thought – every thought of destruction, every thought of hatred, every thought of anger.

Every single thought is taken as an unequivocal conclusion. Hence, we get pulled in every direction and eventually become asphyxiated by the weight of our very own thoughts that are ironically, fleeting and unreliable in nature.

Deep breathing activates the forebrain processing which helps to regain responsivity. Responsivity helps to slow down the mental proliferation. It give us space to acknowledge the negative thoughts as merely passing clouds of a thunderstorm.

The 4–2–6 Deep Breathing Technique

1. Put your right hand at your abdomen and left hand over you chest.

2.Inhale for 4 seconds

3. Hold for 2 seconds

4. Exhale for 6 seconds.

Repeat till you feel a wave of relaxation.

Wishing all who are going through difficult times, love, strength and hope.


Wise Steps:

1.Arise your awareness of the five senses while engaged in an activity
2. Deep breathing to activate the Responsivity mindset


Need help? It is one call away 

SOS 24-hour Hotline: 1800-221-4444 

Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019 

Institute of Mental Health: 6389-2222 (24 hours) 

Tinkle Friend:1800-274-4788 (for primary school-aged children) 

Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800 

Resources for applying Buddhism to depressive mental states

How does a meditator deal with episodes of major depression?

The Dalai Lama’s Advice on Depression

Popping Pills for Depression: A Buddhist View – Inquiring Mind

The triple gem