TLDR: Having a set of goals to work towards gives us a sense of direction in life. Our society prizes this go-get-it attitude as a self-improvement hack; many of us strive for this mindset. However, there could be a risk of doing something just for the sake of it and we may end up beating ourselves for getting lost in the pursuit of excellence.
Many of us have been conditioned to chase something, consciously or unconsciously. We race with others to prove our worth, ever since birth – to be the first to crawl/walk/run, the top rank in class, the one to get into a famous university, the first to be office management level, the one who found ‘the one’ and have family……The list continues.
The neverending chase has been fuelled by the comparison trap we adopt from our parents, society and ourselves.
Have we ever pondered what is the source of our chasing mindset?
I was so used to the chase that I rushed from one achievement to another, not sparing time to truly soak in whatever I was doing and its outcome. After landing my first job as an accountant, I quickly enrolled on a professional certified course.
Upon completion, I thought, ‘what’s next?’. Before long, I was looking to register for a postgraduate degree.
I must admit those learnings were not in vain. I gained something out of them – both technical skills and soft skills like time-management, relational skills, self-organisation. These skills have been helpful to me in my personal and professional life. But whether or not I could use the effort on a more targeted outcome, that’s another question altogether.
To outsiders, I may look like someone with a thirst for knowledge (or paper certificate, for that matter).
Little did I know this chase was masked as self-improvement; there would always be a better thing to go for next if I don’t consciously define the outcome that I want to achieve.
This deceptive ‘self-improvement’ is not limited only to the worldly chase – I realised that I wanted to keep improving myself spiritually too. While spiritual advancement may be a sensible goal, my underlying intention was warped, at least initially.
I kept myself immersed in spiritual talks one after another. I sat meditating even when the heart refused to – just to prove that I, too, can evolve in my spiritual practice.
This spiritual chase resulted in resistance between the mind and the heart, not to mention the sense of dejection when I didn’t see the improvement I expected. Definitely not a fun experience!
The source of my chasing mindset was a sense of lacking self-worth. I wanted to prove myself a deserving human being by reaching the level that is deemed ‘good enough’. And we know that ‘good enough’ is a subjective measurement and may not serve as a good gauge.
Comparing myself today with who I was 3 years ago, for example, I can honestly say I have grown into a different and (hopefully) a better, more mature person. This is probably a better use of the comparison mind for improvement measurement.
Be kind to ourselves and others
I chanced upon an apt Dhamma talk by Venerable Ajahn Brahm on how we often hold on to ‘I need to be better’ thoughts just because everyone else thinks or expects so. Ajahn Brahm further taught that this ‘I’m not good enough’ mindset is neither kind nor helpful to ourselves.
Of course, we need to carefully distinguish between accepting ourselves with kindness and not growing out of unconstructive habits.
There could be a risk of not improving the mind under the false pretence of self-acceptance. Learn to be at peace with what we already have, then improvement would flow naturally.
Many of us may be performing good deeds and consciously express kindness to others. Doing so not only keeps the mind at peace but also elicits joy during and after the act. I identify with this definition of living a blessed life in the spirit of Mangala Sutta, when I can share and contribute what I have with others. However, with the chasing mentality, I might have forgotten about the one person who would benefit from such good deeds as well – myself.
How many times do we speak harsh words inside our head when we act less than ‘perfect’?
‘Why did you do that silly thing?’
‘How could you forget about that important event?’
‘What is wrong with you?’
I probably would not say such things to my close friends or even strangers, so why do I say them to myself? Am I unworthy of the same kindness I have so freely and joyfully shared with others?
Nowadays, I decide to contemplate my pursuits with an objective mind, even if it seems like an improvement on the surface:
‘Does this course/workshop feel aligned with the heart or is there another reason why I want to join?’
‘Do I feel joyful in learning or is it another medal on my chest to show the world?’
Suffering arises when we don’t get what we want and when we get what we don’t want
I recently read separate teaching from Venerable Ajahn Chah1 on “wanting with right understanding”. The teaching explained that desire towards and away from something can arise from us as worldly beings. I find resonance to this gentle outlook towards self and am aware that setting goals can start off my self-improvement actions – but blindly chasing and grasping the desire tightly is not right either. Instead, taking action accompanied by gradual and reflective practice would be more helpful.
For example, I started this article with the intention to write about chasing struggles. It has developed into deeper contemplation of my underlying beliefs and expanded thoughts that I am sharing now.
Trying to be mindful of my wanting and not-wanting, I do my best at the moment and allow the outcome to unfold.
I realise that telling myself to let go of expectation, is an expectation by itself – another debacle to untangle!
Rather, it is much more peaceful to put in my best effort for the situation; watch the result arise and take the next step from there.
When a learning experience concludes as expected or not, I try to take time to settle down and truly embrace the event. When another learning opportunity comes, I will then be able to jump in wholeheartedly. Even if I failed, I could learn from it. Failure is just another piece of feedback! With this outlook, I hopefully lessen the suffering created for myself.
I conclude that having a goal is necessary, especially for myself and many others who are just entering the ‘real’ life of the professional and social world.
Clarity of true motivation is essential as we take on the path, paired with conscious kindness towards ourselves when the comparison mind takes a negative turn. The next time I look at others and start to put them on the pedestal with an unreasonable expectation of myself, I will remind myself: ‘remember how far you have gone’ and ‘we all have our own path to take’.
Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.
Earth day is approaching! Climate change, going electric, buying sustainable products are all aspects passionately discussed on Earth day. Buddhists are commonly nudged towards being more environmentally friendly… so what does the late zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, have to say about our attitudes to the earth?
1. Can you fix climate change? Answering it is harder than you think
2. The astronaut & the Dhamma lessons on earth
Can you fix climate change? Answering it is harder than you think
What’s going on here
Kurzgesagt, an awesome youtube channel and writer of Immune, explores how we can solve rapid climate change. He explores deeper into how individual responsibility is not enough to turn around the tide of climate change. Instead of feeling hopeless, Kurzgesagt explores what we can actually do.
Why we like it
“Go vegetarian! Buy metal straws!” We are often told to make personal lifestyle changes to save the planet. However, there are also more ways to create a deeper impact. This video shares our current impact and why it is not enough to solve climate change. The mixture of narrative and statistics makes this video super enjoyable.
“Can’t some technology save us so we can continue to drive our big cars and eat meat every day? “
Education is our first step. The next goes towards advocacy at the level we can to help some of the greatest issues facing earth and humanity. Doing our part and helping others/ industries do a little better can go a long way!
Read our review of a Buddhist Environmentalism movie (psst. we enjoyed it!)
The astronaut & the Dhamma lessons on earth
What’s going on here
Late Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, shares on we can approach caring for the earth and our minds. When we are mindful, we are able to see the beauty of the earth and can start caring for it. Oh yes, he mentions legendary Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.
Why we like it
His short and impactful sharing between the first moon landing and earth is unforgettable. We sometimes think of different miracles being something extraordinary. Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh challenges to see the miracle in the simple. Simply earth.
“Mindful walking means you touch the ground of the planet earth mindfully, you touch all the wonders of life”
When is the last time you walked in nature? Taking yourself out to walk and be in nature (no airpods/ no phones) could reconnect you with the earth on earth day!
Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.
When someone says that our work sucks, how do we feel? How can we better receive feedback when our work ain’t up to someone’s standard? We explore filtering feedback and improving our interactions with others. We also draw wisdom from Will Smith to show the other side of him beyond the slapping incident.
1. Filtering good and bad feedback like Harry Potter
2. Meeting someone for the last time
Filtering good and bad feedback like Harry Potter
What’s going on here
Brian, from The Tiny Wisdom, uses Harry Potter’s interaction with Voldemort to teach us creative lessons on receiving feedback. This fun and creative comic strip covers ways we can better deal with feedback that we may not like. Sometimes, our best might not be enough for the world. Harry Potter teaches us how.
Why we like it
As we navigate through work-life, we often find our work being criticised or scrutinised. This can make us question our self-worth and quality of work. This is a nifty way to figure out whether the feedback should be taken or cast aside.
“When someone told you something about your work — good or bad — you ask them: why?”
Taking feedback non-personally. We often attach strong ownership to our work and get emotional swings through praise or criticism. Building the feedback muscle makes us take a pause before engaging with the feedback.
Read more on the science and art of receiving feedback here
Meeting someone for the last time
What’s going on here
Will Smith, a famous actor (also infamous now for the oscar slapping), shares one of the most important lessons he learnt and how he applies that to everyone he interacts with.
Why we like it
This video is short but impactful. It makes you think deeper about the relationships we hold and the way we interact with others.
“Tomorrow is not promised to any of us.”
Try to greet every being as if it is the last time you meet them. Because tomorrow is not promised never go to bed hating someone or saying nasty things. Had an argument? Internalise, forgive, and re-engage with one another.
TLDR: Learning to be okay with not feeling okay can help us recover better when an unexpected illness happens
It was during a meal that Celeste, in her 20s, began to feel some slight discomfort. Her throat was dry and her nose was runny after having Tom Yum soup.
At 4 am, Celeste confirmed that her discomfort was not from the Tom Yum but something worse.
Her test result showed she was positive for Covid-19. It was something that she never expected to contract as she had taken many precautions.
Fever and body ache struck her quickly. This shocked her as she assumed that after being fully vaccinated, and keeping a healthy lifestyle, it will pass like a breeze.
That was far from the truth as she entered Day 2 of home recovery.
Rotten food & rotten plans
Celeste felt that being a swim coach, playing tennis & yoga, coupled with healthy eating would provide a strong trampoline for recovery on Day 2. Covid had other plans installed for her. It was not going away.
“I lost my sense of smell. Everything tasted like rotten food”, she recalled.
Fear arose when she Googled and found that some people stopped eating even after recovery as their sense of smell never recovered fully. They had lost interest in eating as it was no longer enjoyable.
The fear then morphed into self-blame for falling sick.
“I didn’t realise it was unkind until the anger and fear clouded my mind. It made me afraid of Dukkha (Suffering)”, she recalled.
Her meditation practise helped make her aware of the unnecessary self-criticism and blame she was laying on herself. However, the fear and anger grew in her mind.
Soothing Fear with Dhamma
As the fear paralysed Celeste, she decided to use piano music to calm herself as she lay in bed. However, the mental proliferations filled with fear did not go away.
She then recalled a playlist of talks recommended by her Dhamma friends from her young working adult Dhamma group (DAYWA). Being new to Buddhism, she was unfamiliar with whether it would help but decided to give the playlist a try.
“Be okay that you are not feeling okay”, Ajahn Brahm, the monk on the playlist, advised. This struck her hard.
She was always trying too hard to be healthy. Covid was something beyond her control. Despite being fully vaccinated, she still fell deeply sick. Acknowledging that it is okay to fall sick was a great relief to her heart and mind.
“90% of my worries never came through. I spent so much time worrying about things that never happen”, recalled Celeste as she was recovering.
After the one hour Dhamma talk, Celeste felt at ease and fell into a deep sleep.
Returning to senses
Celeste, having heard numerous mind-soothing episodes of Dhamma talks, was ready to accept a life of no smell. She reflected that she had taken her 5 senses for granted and realised that they did not belong to ‘us’ strictly as we could not command them as we like.
“We don’t own these senses, senses are merely borrowed. Not Mine, not myself.” she reflected.
Celeste was internalising and seeing first-hand what Buddha talked about non-self. We do not control our body and mind as much we would love to. For if our body was fully ours, it wouldn’t lead to dissatisfaction and we would have full control.
This brought to mind Buddha’s teaching to monks in the following dialogue:
What do you think, monks? Is form (body) permanent or impermanent?”
“But if it’s impermanent, is it suffering or happiness?”
“But if it’s impermanent, suffering, and perishable, is it fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self’?”
As Celeste was coming to peace with her lack of smell senses, it came back to her. She was beginning on her upward path to recovery.
Associating with the kind
As she slowly recovered, she found that body aches and pain remained. However, she avoided the trap of feeling unhappy with her body.
“Wanting things to be perfect feed the monster within you. Pain reminds you that your body is not perfect…and that’s okay”, Celeste shared.
Beyond the Dhamma talks, her loved ones were pivotal in lifting her towards full recovery.
Her in-laws delivered her favourite vegetables that she loved to eat even when the Delta variant was a real threat to their health. Her yoga friends delivered herbal tea and cooked for her.
This difficult period also made her appreciate her husband more (who was also infected and had to be hospitalised). Life and death became very real for her when her husband heart rate dropped drastically which landed him in the hospital as she lay at home infected with Covid.
“These moments made me count my blessings and not take them (loved ones) for granted”, Celeste recalled.
Life lessons from covid
This episode made Celeste rethink the way she was living her life. She decided to cut down on some overindulgence she was partaking in, such as midnight movies and sleeping late. Maintaining health was a crucial component of her life that she wanted to strengthen.
She then aspired to dedicate more time and consistency to her meditation practice which tide her over this tough period. She found herself meditating less when times were going good for her and hence, aspires to build a consistent habit of meditating regardless of the times.
“Be patient and be unafraid” she advised those who may face such an unexpected infection.
“For your friends infected with Covid, ask them how you can help them. Delivering food and checking in on them really lifts their spirits”, she encouraged.
In our darkest and lowest times, recollecting the Dhamma is one way to rest our minds at peace. This allows our body and mind to be okay at being not okay, paving the way for deeper healing.
Create a playlist of your favourite Dhamma talks that you can listen to in times of trouble
Every hardship we face is an opportunity for us to turn towards the truths of life or remain in our perceived truths of life
TLDR: Once you fall in love with suffering, you won’t have to suffer anymore. Here is why and how to go about doing it.
What? Have I read the title wrongly? Fall in love with my suffering? Why would I ever want to do that? Well, to begin with, we have misjudged and misunderstood suffering.
Recently, I was invited by the Singapore Buddhist Mission to speak on How Buddhism has transformed my life? Throughout the 45 mins, I noticed most of what I talked about was how I overcame my sufferings.
Sufferings come in many forms.
“Lucky” for me, I’ve experienced many from the grief of losing my father, the guilt of not seeing my father for a year before he passed away due to my medical condition, go the physical and mental pain of my cancer treatments, I could go on and on, but that would make this article too depressing. So, why don’t I turn my sufferings around?
Suffering does not discriminate
If you take a closer look, suffering is an inevitability in life. I have not heard of anyone who has not suffered, whether it is physical or mental, we all suffer. It is bound to happen, and I’ve not heard of anyone immune to it as well.
All existence is Dukkha. According to the first noble truth in Buddhism, there is dukkha, often translated as suffering (though a sense of dissatisfaction is a closer meaning).
I simply thought it’s true, and it makes sense, but I didn’t heed the advice as a warning. I mean, I have had my fair share of sufferings, and I dealt with them promptly. But I neglected to pay attention to the second noble truth, which said that our constant wanting and resisting causes suffering.
What I failed to understand is my resistance to suffering when I’ve been warned. Can accepting the fact that bad things do happen in life reduce suffering? Apparently, it does.
It’s ok to not be ok.
Acceptance does not mean you are ok with it. But by reacting against the pain—resisting or rejecting it—we create unnecessary suffering. It doesn’t mean that you’ve chosen or agreed with what has happened to you.
It doesn’t mean you like panic attacks, the side effects of cancer treatments, or suffering an injustice that has happened to you or someone else.
Rather, you’re choosing to allow it to be there when you can’t change it at that moment. To make space for it. To give yourself the patience to understand what’s going on, feel what you feel, or have experienced what you’ve experienced without creating unproductive anger or anxiety.
The pain might still be there, but some of the “by-products” of the suffering will be alleviated.
Sufferings are to be embraced.
One of my strengths, or I personally like to think of as a strength, is I have the ability to go deep into my experiences and examine what is truly happening to me. My life experiences are like a school; I attend to each experience like a student in the class, waiting to see what is going on and what I can learn from it.
What I have learnt is that I haven’t become stronger after much suffering. I just feel more exhausted and weak, but I also feel more resilient towards suffering.
It’s like if I embrace every suffering, wouldn’t I get better at dealing with the unavoidable? Wouldn’t it make sense to embrace it rather than detest it?
Whenever I face any bad situation or problem that happens to me willingly and enthusiastically, it eases me into making better decisions. I feel less stressed out in dealing with it.
Suffering can be a valuable teaching.
Most of the time, we misinterpret suffering, thinking it comes from the world or the people around us. But it’s impossible for the world to cause you suffering if you don’t allow it. Also, suffering is a good thing, a kind of nourishment.
In order to be happy, you have to first find the meaning of happiness, and suffering becomes a catalyst for you to define it. It’s like using the dictionary – in order to understand happiness; you need to read up the definition of the word.
You can treat suffering as nourishment, a kind of tonic for your life that activates your willpower and allows you to discover your own strength and clarify your doubts.
For instance, the side effects I suffered from cancer treatment reminded me to stop procrastinating and postponing the things I really wanted to do. It also helped me focus on the present and discover the meaning of life.
Pain is certain, but suffering is optional.
External forces have always caused us much suffering. Although they can trigger our negative emotions, we forget that peace in the heart is also there. Our lack of awareness might be the cause of many of our sufferings, but it’s not like we can’t do anything about it.
We might not be able to control what has happened to us, but we can choose how we respond to it. So, my point here is that no matter how horrible a situation may seem, we can still stay focused in the present moment.
Being in the present moment helps us to become aware of our peaceful mental state within. We shouldn’t let bad situations rattle us into a corner and face defeat, thinking there is no way out of it.
A bad situation could be an opportunity for something good.
Sometimes, things aren’t as bad as we think they are. It just so happens that we’re conditioned by society to get what we want, and if we don’t get it, we automatically feel disheartened or disappointed.
Bad things in life can also be a stepping stone towards good things that may happen in the future.
I remember desperately wanting to secure a job which I was rejected. But that allowed me to apply and secure another job opportunity that was far greater and better than what I had expected.
Suffering doesn’t belong to anyone.
Suffering is only as bad as you want it to be. If I remove “me” from my problem, it will just be a problem and not “my problem.” Suffering no longer becomes personal; the problem is as it is.
There are no good or bad experiences. An experience is an experience if you see it for what it really is. It only becomes good or bad when we judge it.
If I know something will be bad for me, it will be bad for me. I choose to suffer; then I suffer. It all depends on how we look at things.
When we stop owning our sufferings with our egos, our sufferings will end. In Buddhism, phenomena are characterised by impermanence, no-self and dissatisfaction (dukkha). Suffering as taught by the Buddha, only occurs when there is an “I” (Self-identity), “Me” (Self-ownership), and “Mine” (feeling of a Self) due to our erroneous belief.
No-Self, or anatta is the hardest to comprehend because it is a deep-seated belief that we own our thoughts, feelings and body when in fact we are more a slave than a master to these impermanent phenomena.
We tend to attach ourselves to problems due to our egos. As a result, we make suffering a problem, my problem.
Every suffering will be worth it.
Suffering can be valuable if we can understand the underlying truth that suffering is the gateway to enlightenment. Although it does not mean we pursue suffering, it can help open the door to awakening if we become aware of it.
Pigs can eat rotten food and still find it delicious. Lotus cannot grow without the mud, and enlightenment cannot be attained without becoming aware of the causes of suffering.
Only when we are aware, can we change suffering.
By accepting that sufferings are inevitable and can’t be avoided, we can learn to embrace them as a catalyst for happiness.
Treat sufferings for what they are; they don’t belong to you or anyone.
Not every suffering is bad; we can choose to look at it differently and turn it into an opportunity leading to something better.
Sufferings are worth having only if they lead us to our own awakening.
“… But then the insecurities creep in, and you start with a slight exaggeration. Still you, just a shinier version. But you like it. So, you tweak it just a little more until the real you, which was probably pretty great, to begin with, is unrecognizable.
But here’s the thing. You’re not just fooling yourself. There’s someone else on the other side of that lie falling in love with a version of you that doesn’t exist.
And that’s not fair, because the only way it ends for them is disappointment. And the only way it ends for you is heartbreak. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that love doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be honest.”
[After the movie, everyone probably just goes back to sprucing up their own dating profiles]
For most of us, we are living in a physical world that has two extended worlds:
1) A digital world we create to show the best version of us (including the ideal version we paint for others and ourselves that doesn’t exist) to impress people who don’t matter.
2) And a visceral world we avoid from accepting and embracing; a world of imperfections and mistakes that we beat ourselves into numbing and escaping.
We all seek the perfect partner whose conditions and features tick all our checkboxes. But do they exist? Well, we all know the answer deep inside of our hearts.
I’ve never tried online dating but my recent experience on Bumble and CMB dating platforms gave me a deeper realization especially after watching this never-too-far-from-reality and meaningful movie.
Everyone is trying to make the best impression and show the best side of themselves. In a stereotypical society, everyone tries to play their roles well like a grand theatre. For example, the ‘best’ side for a man could be the money, career and the lady he gets, the lady shows her ‘best’ facial or bodyside (sometimes her backside as the best side). The law of procreation never fails us, isn’t it?
That the man gets the best pool of genes for his offspring while the woman gets the security. Even I fall for that. Damn.
Nothing seems wrong with that. However, when we take away all the shine and glimmer, we are left cold and dark to the side we never dared to face or even have a look at. The side of vulnerability where our deepest fear and darkest history lie; the societal, family and peer expectations or bitter experiences we had while growing up. Acknowledging that we may not be the smartest son that our parents wanted us to be or to get that dream job that everyone talks about, shines a tiny light of growth for us. We step out of our pursuit to be ‘perfect’ and instead shift to be ‘better’.
While seeing things as they truly are exposes our vulnerability wide open, it also gives us a brief moment to gain confidence in who we are.
Without acknowledging our inner vulnerabilities, it is a vicious cycle that people continue covering instead of excavating the reasons for their vulnerabilities that keep their social anxiety escalating.
Even pretty girls and handsome boys that get all the fame and gain fear losing what they have gained at the first place. The eight worldly winds are in play all the time (Pleasure & Pain, Gain & Loss, Praise & Blame, Fame & Disrepute). The girls will ask “What if I lose my beauty as I age?” and the boys are not spared from “What if one day I lose what I’ve built and gained?”
Perhaps, we should come back to knowing and loving ourselves before knowing and loving others.
Perhaps, we should be honest about being ourselves before wanting others to be honest about themselves.
But what if people run away after you show them your vulnerabilities?
Well, I don’t have answers for that.
I’ve tried using the wrong ways, weird ways, not-following-the-sequence ways, you name it. And I still fail. The fact I can write these proves I’ve mustered enough courage to show my vulnerabilities to the world, thanks to this movie.
‘Setting my standards too high’, ‘don’t sacrifice the whole forest because of a tree’ and ‘belum try belum tau’ (Malay for “Never try, never know”) are the usual responses I hear, even for those who are close to me and know me well.
I don’t have answers for that, too. I guess time will tell.
Perhaps, the best way is if I love myself enough, I’ll make decisions that will make myself loved, by myself. Yeah, easier said than done, but let’s learn to do it anyway.
At the end of the day, if we love ourselves enough, I believe we don’t have to find love the hard way. It comes to us the right way.
When using dating apps, pause and ask ourselves if we are creating a profile that portrays the ideal or real versions of ourselves
Reflect on the ways we can share and be comfortable with our vulnerabilities (height, weight, hobbies)