Ep 21: How to deal with loneliness (Ft Teo Heng Soon)

Published on Jan 11, 2023

About the guest

Soon is a final year student at the University of Melbourne studying towards his passion of becoming a human capital consultant. Passionate about people, he has been a leader with multiple volunteer organisations like the Dyslexic Association of Singapore.

Buddhist Fellowship Youth has been his Dhamma home for 12 years. Honing his leadership skills, he has learnt to give Dhamma talks and conduct workshops and sutta discussions.

On a personal level, Soon is passionate about the arts – from Karate to Photography.


Kai Xin  00:00

Hey friends, it’s me Kai Xin. Welcome to another podcast where we bring you Practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life.

Kai Xin  00:09

Whether you’re surrounded by lots of friends or none, I’m pretty sure that you have felt the feeling of loneliness at some point in life. It’s ever-pervasive, and we might not necessarily pay attention to it. It can show up in a form of trying to distract ourselves so that we don’t have to sit with our own thoughts, feeling anxious when we have to spend time by ourselves (alone), or even life having the fear of missing out.

Kai Xin  00:39

In this episode, I’m joined by my co-host, Cheryl and Soon to talk about this topic of intimate fashion. We share our personal life stories, as well as reflection for such as not fitting into society norms,  struggling with dyslexia, dealing with bullies, not knowing what to do with life (when everyone else seem to have it all figured out), breaking up.

Kai Xin  01:03

Soon also shared his journey of being a monk for two weeks and how he wrestled with his restless mind, and the insights that came out of it.  The stories that you’ll be hearing from this episode might give rise to some unpleasant memories or even emotions. If this is a sensitive subject for you, it’s recommended that you take 3 deep breaths to ground yourself before tuning in. Do stick till the very end as Soon shares a very practical framework on how to deal with intense emotions and dissociate ourselves with our thoughts.

Kai Xin  01:43

Alright, so let’s begin.

Heng Soon  01:54

Yeah, hello. A pleasure to be here. Super happy to be here today.

Cheryl  01:58

Looking forward to speaking with you as well. So, Soon, you started learning and practising the Dharma at quite a young age. And most people think that Buddhism is for the old folks, but your journey proves otherwise. Can you share more with us about yourself and what made you walk this path?

Heng Soon  02:13

I’m 25 this year, I remember going to a Buddhist camp and they wrote a quote for every kid on a Frisbee, and the quote that I got was, Soon loves everyone and everyone loves Soon.” So from a young age, I love people.

Kai Xin  02:28

How old were you when you first started Buddhism?

Heng Soon  02:30

Geez,I was primary three, I think I was like 9 or 10 or 11. My first brother Bin, brought me to Buddhist Fellowship. And yeah, just met the community, loved the people, loved the lessons, love the insights. But I must admit, you know, I went to Buddhist Fellowship because I had crushes. Just like during the Dhamma talk, when you were giving, like very insightful Dhamma talks, I would just be thinking, “Oh, is my posture good? Am I sitting good? Do I look like a very devout Buddhist.” That was like my main motivation for many years, actually for a good six years. And I always like to tell people and I’ve been learning Dhamma for over 10 years, but only four to five years was actual Dhamma, where I go in there with the intention not for something external, like, people or finding a girlfriend or crush, but more about my personal development.

Heng Soon  03:29

The trigger was in secondary three when I had to make a decision. I was in a principal’s office, sitting there with my parents, and the principal was like, “You gotta make a decision. Do you want to retain and retake Sec 3 again? Or you can still go to Sec 4, but your fundamentals are not strong, and you might struggle in ‘O’ levels.” And that was a triggering moment. That was the moment I started to realise that life is not as “fun and games” as I thought it was. So I grew up at a very young age, because I struggle a lot with school, and school is our life as a kid. And when you’re not good at studying, then what’s your life? And that’s when I started to feel lonely and have a lot of questions. Yeah. So since then, since secondary 3, I’ve been really going to Buddhist Fellowship Youth and retreats to really understand more about myself, my mind, and seeing how I can give back to the community that has given so much to me.

Kai Xin  04:22

Just now, you mentioned about loneliness. And I think many people have a very different perception when it comes to this word. What does it mean to you?

Heng Soon  04:29

When you mentioned the word loneliness, I think (it means) to fit into societal norms is what comes into my mind. And I think that’s what links with, being young, being susceptible to a lot of different external perspectives, and then you’re told, okay, this is how you fit in, right? You fit in by drinking, perhaps you fit in by going into camps, you fit in by dressing a certain way. You fit in by dancing on Tiktok, you know, and all these things to fit in, so that you feel less alone, you feel less sad, like an isolated individual on an island. So I think Dhamma has come and shown me that all these things matter, but there are things that matter more, like morality like virtue, like being a good person and being recognised for that, making people feel safe, respecting people. I think that has done far more good than following trends constantly for me. So yeah, the reason why I’ve stucked with with the Dhamma really stems from seeing its value and being willing to put it to the test. To me, it’s about experimenting and understanding and seeing different perspectives. And yeah, but that’s a whole another topic.

Cheryl  05:39

It seems that you actually took a different path, right? You turn towards Dhamma, when the world goes on with the ignoble search of pleasure, of being cool, of being in trend. Was there a point where you felt that it was very lonely before you started to see the value in Dhamma?

Heng Soon  05:55

So I think that loneliness was really tied to that consistent feeling of being lonely in school. And just now I mentioned you know, as a as a child, studying is your life. If you’re not good at studying, then what are you in life. And school is  a very unpleasant place for me, which I think led me to, to seek other alternative, feeling safe, and that was a Dhamma community. So just a little bit of insight, I got bullied a lot in school, in secondary school, some instances where I was like, kicked in the balls, my phone was stolen, someone spat on me, someone threw my bag in dustbin and I was called many names for different people. Yeah, so I didn’t fit in into the normal setting. And I realised my whole life, I’m not fit in, I’ve not done things the normal way, and I’ve started to embrace that, and that’s why I don’t feel lonely doing things slightly differently.

I remember I was at graduation ceremony, and someone said, you know, people laugh at me because I’m different. And I laugh at them, because they’re all the same. I was at a dyslexic conference, dyslexia is a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds, and learning how they relate to letters and words. To put into context, an average dyslexic has 33 times harder than a normal person. So a lot of the times when people are having holidays, I was studying; when people are studying, I was studying; When people were doing something else, I was studying. So my life was very different from how a normal person lives. And I learned to embrace that aspect of myself. And it was really not easy.  I think that pushed me to, to hone my craft, and to really understand my strengths and weaknesses early on. Because if you’re not good at studying, which is your life, then you better get your act together and find what you’re good at. Many people start feeling lonely later in their lives, I guess, when they started realizing, but for me, it was a kick, very early on that. “Hey, I’m not the same!”

Heng Soon  08:03

Going back to how I define being lonely, right? It’s about fitting the societal norms. And I did not fit into many of the societal norms as a kid, so I had to start finding my own path. And then I found that path in in the Dhamma community.

Cheryl  08:20

I relate a lot to your story, but I think how it played out for me is very different. But first,sorry to hear that you were bullied, and I’m glad that  you found your way and you found your unique strengths and really embraced that. So I was also bullied. I came to Singapore to study, and I think a lot of the podcast people here, if they are regulars, they will know this story.  I was also bullied and isolated. I think it really helped me to embrace loneliness in the sense that I started to know what it means to feel alone and to do things alone without other people.

But at the same time, I think the opposite side of that coin was that I become hyper afraid of being alone. So I feel that when I’m alone, it just reminds me of that time that I was rejected and abandoned by everyone. In my secondary school, I would get very scared of loneliness and sometimes I will call people out to go out with me just because I’m scared to go out alone. One way or another, I found a lot of comfort in Dhamma as well. But I think it’s still that weird balance where I feel that yes, Dhamma sometimes nourishes me, but a lot of times I feel it’s just making me more different than everyone else around me and turning me into this weird person again, especially when all around you you see people partying, enjoying the material life, you can seem to stand out like a sore thumb from my personal experience. So how do you reach that good spot in life with loneliness? Kai Xin I think you have also done a lot of different things. So feel free to share your comments as well.

Heng Soon  09:46

I think it was a process of constantly being with Buddhist Fellowship Youth for multiple years. So you know, a lot of people say that when you go to poly that’s when people start drinking and everything and there’s the hype. I was part of the hype actually. So I was lucky to be one of the mascots in the business school and that’s kind of the big thing where like a lot of people know who you are. I was invited to a lot of different things like parties, groups, and camps, but I would just find myself rejecting them. Growing up in secondary school, I was forced to be lonely. And I was forced to find myself, so I found myself at a very early stage.

I think this relates back to the Sutta, about essentialism. Basically, it’s called the Simsapa Sutta. Buddha was walking in a big forest, and a lot of the leaves were dropped on the floor. And then he picked up a handful of leaves. And he said, which is more plentiful? The leaves in my hand or the other leaves on the ground? And and the monks are like, yeah, obviously, the leaves on the floor? And Buddha said,  Yeah, I agree that the leaves on the floor are what’s more plentiful. But the leaves in my hands are what you need for this practice, and this is what I teach.

So there are so many things in the world to achieve the experience, but the main thing that the Dhamma practice teaches you is how you understand your mind. So in my mind, after knowing my strengths and weaknesses, and knowing my likes and dislikes, I had a very clear perspective of how I would approach the world. So when people say, oh, let’s go drinking, you know, my self-worth was not like,” oh, no, if I don’t go drinking, or if I say no, then they’re gonna see me less.” I didn’t really care at that point in time. I was like, I know that this is good in the short term, you’re making friends with these people is good. I’ll be seen as more favourable. But what about my long-term? So when I make friends with this, I didn’t want them to continue asking me to drink. So it’s important to set the precedent at the first meeting.

Heng Soon  11:52

People are very scared when they first meet someone. They have to act as a certain way. But Like I don’t care. I’m just myself. And if you like me, sure, let’s vibe, let’s hang out. If you don’t, that’s fine. I don’t hate you for it. That’s just your preference, right? Your perspective, what interests you is this, and for me, it’s a completely opposite side. That’s fine. Yeah. So I didn’t really face like, oh no, people don’t like me, it was more subtle.

I think what affects me on a more lonely basis, it’s like how close ones view me or perhaps, being a leader in the Buddhist community for so long, you know, you give a lot. And you really want to support the community. And sometimes that kind of isolates you because people start to view you in a certain way. I remember when I ended my term with the Buddhist Fellowship Youths and I was supposed to  fly to Australia, I asked a couple of peers, what do you think of me? Because I was giving for so many years, and I didn’t know whether what I’m giving is good or bad, and no one tells you sometimes. You can see the smiles on their faces, you can see you know, the wholesome experience. But there’s that self-doubt.

And I think that’s where the loneliness kicked in. For me, it’s not about all these like, stuff like social events, and whatever  that kind of affected me . It was, more intimate in terms of how the people I care about, that I’ve let in my life view me, instead of this general public of people.

Heng Soon  13:22

I’ve seen a lot of people view, the perspective of Dhamma and the material world as two separate things. But to me I see it as a three in one. A lot of people’s like, oh, Dhamma is Dhamma! Okay, so Saturday is a Dhamma day. And then Sunday is a family day. And then Monday to Friday is the work day. And it’s just not the way Dharma works. It’s not how the teachings are expounded. It is day to day present moment, moment to moment. And I’ve seen  how not drinking,  not lying, not obviously having conducting sexual misconduct, like cheating, not stealing has provided a lot of comfort for myself. And for other people that are around me. So I’m having a long distance relationship with you know, my beautiful girlfriend Adhika, beautiful in a sense of her heart, and obviously her look.

What attracted me was really her heart. Keeping the five precepts has created this bubble of security, and trust and respect between the two of us. Yeah, so we talk about short term, long term. Short term, I can drink and have fun with friends. But in the long term, I want people to trust, I want to be the person that they go to for advice, because they know that you know, I won’t spill secrets. I think it all boils down to personal choices. A lot of things give pleasure, right? And the more worldly things gives pleasure as well. But how long is that pleasure as compared to you know, kindness, compassion, support, and respect. How lasting is that? So it’s about choice at the end of the day.

Kai Xin  15:04

I really like what you say. Firstly, Dhamma is 24/7. And you can see it everywhere. In fact, there’s a quote by Ajahn Chah, when people ask, what is Dhamma? Nothing isn’t. Everything is Dhamma.

Heng Soon  15:15

Yes. Yeah,

Kai Xin  15:16

But then when I felt slightly lonely a couple of years ago, it was actually very interesting, because the trigger point wasn’t so much that I was alone. But it’s because I felt misunderstood. And I realised a very big part of loneliness is really wanting other people to understand us, right? So wanting to fit in, because we want people to accept us. We want to feel like we are cared for, we are understood, at least that’s from my own perception and assumption. And the moment when I notice people, like especially just now you say, you don’t feel lonely, apart from when your loved ones were to do something or to say something to you, it hits home. Because it’s always the dearest people whom you have that set of expectations that they will understand. But when they fall short of your expectation, then that’s where you feel, wow, all my life, I thought we were in this together, then suddenly there is a shift in terms of the dynamic. So I personally, I felt that was an interesting insight. And I think it’s also a lot about reframing. It’s funny, because while sometimes you want to fit in, we also want to be different.

Heng Soon  15:16

Yeah. Yes.

Kai Xin  15:16

I think it’s very wise of you to see the long-term happiness versus the short-term gain. So what I get in response to Cheryl’s question of how to cope is twofold. Number one is not seeing being alone, as being lonely. You might be at the party, maybe just drinking soda versus everyone getting drunk to see that it actually, it’s not really worth it, in order to indulge in all this very fleeting pleasure. And then on the other hand, I think it’s about recognising what is essential and what is useful to liberate our hearts from suffering. I can also share some of my perspectives because I never felt lonely until two years ago. So it’s very strange because people always say, you know, I feel lonely, I can’t really resonate. Since young, I’ve been kind conditioned to be very independent. And even though my parents are, you know, very hardworking, they’re hardly around. Because of their work. I never really feel like I’ve been abandoned. Or sometimes I also feel like my worldview is very different from that of my friends’. And even when I sit on the fence and I’ll get into argument, like, “why don’t you take sides, and then also get penalised for that.” But I just think, okay, like I’m different, but it doesn’t make me feel lonely.

Kai Xin  15:22

Yeah, so if we’re similar also, then we’re just average; then when we’re too different also, we cannot fit in. So I think sometimes taking a step back to see okay, what is the purpose? And what is the ultimate happiness that I’m trying to achieve?

Heng Soon  18:00

Yeah. What is essential to you? What do you want? And from there, a lot of choices become much clearer.

Cheryl  18:06

What if that is not clear that what you want, what is essential to you? Both of you are my therapists today. Thank you.

Kai Xin  18:16

I think it’s also letting go of the expectation that you give to yourself that you need to answer every single question in life or have everything sorted out. I think it can be quite pressurising, right? But I’m very goal oriented. So when I don’t meet my goals, or I don’t set a particular target, then I feel a bit directionless and aimless. And that’s where I can feel my mind is very doubtful. So I think a very, very big part of Dhamma practice is to let go of that wanting, more wanting to become, not to become, just go with the flow, still set goals, but not to be too harsh on ourselves. Soon, what are your thoughts?

Heng Soon  18:49

Exploration, curiosity, perhaps me and Kai Xin are on the same boat in terms of, you know, learning to be independent from a young age. And I think that independence came about by exploration, right? We knew that we were not good at something, or perhaps, we knew that we were different. And hence, we had to start searching. So when I was at my internship at a consulting firm, a lady was like, “Oh, wow, you’re so lucky that you know what you want at a young age.” And I was just like, I’m 25 this year. Right? So this is the quarter life crisis, I tell people, my quarter life crisis was when I was freaking 14 years old. Yeah, because that was the moment I realised,” Oh man, I’ve been trying so hard to study and like, I have not gotten anywhere.”

Heng Soon  19:31

And that’s when I started to think more deeply about where I fit in and where I can be a contributing member of society. So that started my path of exploration and just testing a lot of different things here and there. So I think when you know we don’t have our foundation is because we don’t know what we don’t know. And the only way to step forward when we don’t know what to do know is just try. Yeah, just test.  I think my travels to Australia, which has built another form of independence has taught me that Singapore is very structured, in a sense that okay,one thing after the other. So there’s not much wiggle room to explore. Everything is like a competition. You know, I have to be better, I need to show my results. What school are you in and everything. So everything’s like, oh, I need to do this.

Cheryl  20:27

It is almost as though death also has a queue number in Singapore.

Heng Soon  20:35

Exploration is key. And when we view our life as binary, for example, if I don’t get this internship, I’m a failure. If I get this internship, I’m successful. If we view our life like that, (which we in a sense, have been bred to think that way), then it leads to a lot of suffering. And it also leads to very little wiggle room to explore.

Heng Soon  20:56

I slowly changed my mindset to more growth mindset, seeing experiences as experiences. It doesn’t matter whether it’s failure or success, just take it as an experience, and learn.

Heng Soon  21:08

My boss told me at my age, I should be a sponge. Whatever shade people throw at you, take it, and do it. I’m starting to realise that a lot of stuff that I have taken along the many years have added to my capabilities, my skill sets. And so I’m rarely saying no this year, and I think that has been my resolution that I’ve been successful at, where really having an open mind and just saying yes to a lot of things. A lot of new challenging things.

Kai Xin  21:36

There’s actually this quote that says, if you throw shit at the wise, (sorry for cursing), it would turn into flowers.

Cheryl  21:44

It turns into fertiliser!

Kai Xin  21:47

There are phases in life where we have to say yes to everything and keep that exploratory mind. But it’s also about striking a balance. If you ask me, I will say yes to everything, but it burns me out, then learning to say no, becomes then a process of learning and relearning. So it almost seems to me that dealing with loneliness is kind of like wanting to seek certainty. Because Cheryl, your question was, I don’t know what I want to do hence, should I fit in? Or should I be unique?

Kai Xin  22:22

If we can maybe start from the point of why is there a need to be certain in the first place. Even when we explore, it doesn’t mean that  after we go through the adventure of exploring, we will be certain about what we want.

Kai Xin  22:34

So is everything certain? Nothing is certain. So just go with the flow. Perhaps you can share your thoughts? Like, what do you usually grapple with when you feel lonely? What runs in your head?

Cheryl  22:45

I think for me, (when I feel lonely), it’s just instinctual (for me) to run away. I think it’s the worst feeling ever on Earth, like for me, so I just really don’t like it.  (When I feel lonely), it’s really just about how do I get out of this, how do I find pleasure to replace this? Or how do I numb it with something else. And it’s always very disappointing because you don’t take out the root, everything that you do just leads you back to this form of loneliness, which can feel a bit empty.

Cheryl  23:17

So I’m not sure. Because I contemplate on like, Soon’s side, right, or like the wholesome side, or maybe I don’t practice enough or whatever. But I feel like even the wholesome things like kindness, gratitude, all the stuff, they’re also very fleeting, and I feel like loneliness is the base that I come back to. And so I really don’t like that. But at the same time, I feel a bit hopeless because I feel like even if I fill my time up with things, it will still be there. So it’s like a pervasive loneliness if you get what I mean. Oh, my God, so real. I gotta hide in a hole now.

Heng Soon  23:52

No, this is really good. This is really good. I think this is exactly what I realised in my monkhood. And in my my first ever breakup. I will share more later. But yeah, I can totally resonate with that Cheryl. So you don’t have to hide or if you want to hide, we can hide together. Okay.

Kai Xin  24:09

Spill the tea. What about the breakout? Sorry, I very “Kaypoh”.

Cheryl  24:12

I think that is a good time as well to talk about it.

Heng Soon  24:15

Yeah. So I was together with my girlfriend for three years. She is a really great, great girl. And we broke up on very, very amicable terms. There was very, very little fighting between us. But it came to a point of time where we realised that we just weren’t meant to be together in a sense that – we had different directions. We had different interests, and even though we had love, as we were in love back then, it just was not enough. And so we decided to part ways.

Heng Soon  24:50

I remember like a few weeks after our breakup, I was alone in my room and that was when I felt so isolated. I was just sitting on my bed over there. And was thinking to myself “oh man, why?”

Heng Soon  25:04

In Buddhism, we believe that there are Gods around, not only one, but many Gods. And in that moment, I didn’t want to feel lonely. I was like, “Ah, can any of these beings just come down and just be me, you know, just help me take on this pain. Why?” Because that was my identity for three years, right? I was someone’s boyfriend, and she was my girlfriend. And yeah, so that moment, you know, my identity was shaken. And we talked about fitting into society. Right? And now I’m no longer with someone. I’m just alone. So what am I?

Heng Soon  25:39

Once again, my consistent feeling of “What am I?” in dyslexia now has been changed to “what am I?” as a single person, and that took me a good one plus year to really heal from that. And I think there’s a quote by Pema Chodron who is a nun from the Tibetan tradition, and I have made it my wallpaper now. She said, “Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” And I think that goes back to you know, how me and Cheryl have been feeling right now, we do a lot of things to distract ourselves from our baseline of loneliness. But it’s always there. And one day, we have to face it and say, enough is enough. I want to take control of my life. I don’t want to be owned by this loneliness.  I want to be able to sit in a movie theatre enjoy myself, and I’ve done that multiple times now. So I think after a breakup, I started to go watch movies alone. Beautiful. I’m just like, “Hey, I’m alone. Nice.” I like it.

Cheryl  26:37

No more anxiety?

Heng Soon  26:38

I had anxiety in Poly because people roughly knew me. And I was like, “Oh, what would they think If (they see that) I sit alone and eat? Like eating Subway all alone, oh boy! Yeah, but now I don’t really care as much. Because when you realise that a lot of everyone else are thinking the same thing. What do people think of me? So they will judge you for a few seconds, and you’ll go back to thinking about themselves again.

Kai Xin  27:03

Maybe they will think it’s really cool that you actually have the courage to just be alone.

Cheryl  27:08

Too optimistic.

Kai Xin  27:11

I tell you in Poly, there was this insurance agent who was roaming around in the Polytechnique. She saw me was eating alone. And she thought I was very pitiful, but I was actually enjoying just being alone because all my other friends were either in the gym or like going for other co curricular activities. She asked me why I had no friends and why was I eating alone here? And I was like, what’s wrong with me eating here?

Kai Xin  27:32

I don’t think we should make eating alone a problem. And yes, I think if you’re listening to this podcast, you need to comment in telegram to say that Soon being alone in the movie theatre is very courageous .

Heng Soon  27:47

Yeah, I think I learned to love nature more because of, my girlfriend, Adhika, because she’s in the Netherlands. And you know that distance is quite a big thing. She recharges by going into nature, watching ducks and feeding ducks is what she loves. And I think that’s how I feel connected with her as well, like doing something that she’s doing from 1000s of kilometres away. So I’ve learned to be my own person while committing to someone as well, which is like, the ideal state that we hope to be. Two wholes coming together instead of like trying to find someone to fill that gap inside of you. Yeah, so I think it’s taught me a lot as well, with long distance relationships.

Kai Xin  28:32

It’s very interesting and romantic. But I’m thinking more on the other side, where if we think about doing the same thing, or our similarities, it will make us feel less lonely, then we can reflect on how similar we are in this Samsaric cycle.

Kai Xin  28:47

I know it sounds very gray. But we are all on the path to search for happiness, right? So it doesn’t make me any different from you or from somebody else who might be more successful or less successful. The rich, the poor, the young, the old, all of us have something in common. I’m not so sure whether that brings comfort, or is it just the same?

Heng Soon  29:10

No, it’s not sadistic.

Cheryl  29:11

I perceive it as quite sadistic though, like, oh, life is a shit show. Everyone’s in this show together. And Nibbana doesn’t feel so attainable by most people. So we’re gonna see each other next episode.

Kai Xin  29:25

The drama that never ends. Yeah.

Cheryl  29:29

Okay, I’m just very, very pessimistic at this point.

Kai Xin  29:32

Soon, could you say something to lift her up? (haha)

Heng Soon  29:36

But perhaps not, not to lift Cheryl up directly. But sometimes we feel lonely and that’s where we get into depressive states. You know, a lot of times people face this mental states and they say, no one understands me or the world does not understand me. Perhaps we don’t understand the world. We don’t understand that everyone else is also suffering. And when we understand that everyone else is suffering, we feel less alone we feel less isolated. We feel part of the community working together towards Nibanna. And we need to recognise that we don’t do it alone, we have people that check on us, that we have people that support us. Talk to people as well, find a good community where you can bounce ideas with, they can check on you. It might not solve the inherent root cause of loneliness, but it helps you shift towards a better mental state. And when you have a better mental state, you’re able to deal with that loneliness much more effectively.

Kai Xin  30:28

Yeah, that is so beautiful. And I think we always see loneliness as a form of suffering. I mean, nobody is going to say, “Yeaaaah, I’m lonely!! :)” And it’s usually associated with something that it’s not so pleasant. And there’s another quote that I would like to share by Ayya Khema, a Buddhist nun. She has many nice quotes right that are concise and thoughtful. So she said that, when we look at suffering in the Buddhist context, a lot of people think that, “Oh, if we are enlightened, there’s no more suffering. But then it’s actually not the case! Suffering, it’s still there. It’s just that the person that suffers is no longer there.

Kai Xin  31:10

 So I think it’s goes back to your whole thing about “Where do I fit in?” It’s all about identity. What do people think of me? Will people think of me as like, “oh, now, I’m single,” or  “I used to have a girlfriend,” or “I was a monk.” And now I’m no longer a monk, or I’m dyslexic, etc. It’s all about this identity, of who we want to be, and what other people want us to be. So when she said, It’s not that suffering is no longer there, because it’s conditioned phenomena, it will definitely give rise to suffering. If we don’t understand the workings of nature, it’s really about letting the person who clings on to suffering go. So I thought, like, wow, that is so profound.

Cheryl  31:48

So deep.

Heng Soon  31:49

That reminds me of another quote. Letting Go does not mean you own nothing. Letting go means nothing owns you. So yeah, we can be of this world, and we can interact with the world, but we’re not chained down by the world. I think the lotus is a flower that represents Buddhism, you know, because water drips, and just slides off. Yeah, so you can be part of this world but not be affected by it. You know, it’s not about being indifferent to the world. But it’s just having a balanced, equanimous view towards the world.

Kai Xin  32:24

I’m actually quite curious, because we talk a lot about loneliness. But in both your interpretation, what is the opposite of loneliness?

Heng Soon  32:34

The first word that came to my mind was contentment. Because if you are contented with what you have, you won’t feel lonely, or there’s no more wanting (that’s more craving, like, I need this, I need that in terms of status, in terms of job, in terms of how people view you). If you are the way you are, you’re not tainted by the world, anything that comes and goes just slide off, because you’re contented.

Cheryl  32:55

Just adding on to what you share, I think it’s a lot also about this desire to be liked, this desire to be seen a certain way, and this desire is always working at every level.

Cheryl  33:06

For example, like when we are at work, it’s almost that you need to be liked to a certain extent, for your progress. And the idea of being liked, is important for our survival as well from an evolutionary perspective. So it’s almost like, yes, the ideal state is to be contented and super secure and stable within yourself, you know, so having any validation or no validation really doesn’t affect you.

Cheryl  33:30

But at least I think where I’m operating is, I feel it’s still very in flux, and dependent on the world, and on external validation as well. So I guess it’s interesting to see how loneliness ties in with the desire to be accepted, to be liked, and realise that it is important to find a balance in understanding that you cannot always be liked and accepted by people, and loneliness will always still come up.

Cheryl  34:00

But it’s how you’re able to find peace with that. And I really liked what you said just now, to not let loneliness own you.

Kai Xin  34:07

Yeah, it’s interesting that you mentioned it’s kind of tied to external circumstances and that you can’t be perfect. You know, there will always be people who might dislike you, no matter how perfect you are. Even the Buddha, had people who hated him, come on. If the Buddha had people hate him, then like, who are we?

Cheryl  34:22

Even in different religions, even Jesus, also had people hate them. Yeah, I agree. Exactly.

Kai Xin  34:29

So I think contemplating that for me, at least it gives me a reality check. To say that perhaps there is a very unrealistic expectation that I set for myself in terms of how I want people to like me or accept me is just impossible. So fine tune a little bit and perhaps also changed our relationship with ourselves. If you think about loneliness, and solitude, circling back to the whole concept of becoming a monk. Soon, you have been two weeks monk. I am just very intrigued as to how monks can be so at peace with themselves.

Perhaps you can share a little bit about how that two week ordination has helped you to kind of reflect on loneliness as well as build a healthy relationship with yourself.

Heng Soon  35:16

Monkhood to me was a lot of seclusion. On the third day, I wanted to disrobe.

Kai Xin  35:25

Very normal.

Heng Soon  35:26

It’s very normal, right. But what I realised was that I was a slave to my mind, because there was so many cognitive dissonance moments, because I was sleeping like 2am. And waking up at 11am. And then when I went to monkhood, is like 4am wake up and then you sleep at 10. And I was like, with friends, my ex-girlfriend, my family, and then nothing of that sort, you know, I was just alone. And my roommate was a 66 year old man, right. And he only mainly speaks Chinese. And for those of you who don’t know me, my Chinese is no go, I’m an English speaker. So there was like, from a huge amount of interactions that people to nothing.

Heng Soon  36:14

And I was just stuck in a room doing meditation, reading suttas, having interviews with my teacher, to meditation, to clean the house to meditation. Meditation was a big part and I had to sit down. In my practice of Dhamma, meditation has been the thing I’ve tried to avoid the most, because I don’t like being alone in my mind. So you asked me to go to Dhamma talk? Sure! You asked me to read suttas? Sure. You asked me to reflect on life? Sure. I love that, I love reflecting on life. Ask me to meditate? We’ll see about that. Yeah, and it forced me to sit down and on the third day, I just wanted to give up.

Heng Soon  36:56

There was this sense of discomfort coming from my chest. On the fourth day, I keep telling my teacher maybe can I get my SIM card back? I think he knew inside a mile away. So he was like, Nope, okay. Yeah, but after that was when the insights start to come in, right. I realised that when the moment I wake up, and I think a lot of Gen Z and millennials face anymore, the first thing that we touch is our phone, we start opening social media, we start checking messages.

Heng Soon  37:24

So from baseline, suddenly, we shoot up with like dopamine and whatever. And then like our mind is stimulated throughout the day. And even in public transport, listening to music, even though I’m in the toilet, I’m listening to music. And if I’m not talking to someone, I’m listening to music, and then when I come back home, I want to rest because my mind is restless. And I have to play a Dhamma talk to you know, cool and soothe, soothe my mind down. And that’s only when I can sleep.

Heng Soon  37:50

 And then the next morning, I wake up again, the first thing I’m touching my phone. So it’s that consistent cycle and I couldn’t touch my phone, there’s no SIM card, what could I do? Look at photos, I don’t know. So that was when I finally understood what baseline was.

Heng Soon  38:02

And that was when I became restless. And when I started to observe the restlessness there was when the insight came in multiple times. I thought I was 100% pure heart when helping people. Wow, the urge to help people sometimes and I realised, that didn’t come really from a good state. That it was not 100% Pure. It was because I was restless.

Heng Soon  38:24

So let’s say I feel restless and I have nothing to do. Let me text Kai Xin and ask Hey, do you need help? Or let me check in on you, you know, how are you doing, Kai Xin? So it’s not pure, I thought like, Oh, I’m trying to help people but actually it’s because I was restless. I could not stand being alone. But when I had no SIM card, I had to be alone.

Heng Soon  38:40

 I was getting restless for what, 20 over years, but I only finally was able to see restlessness in the eye. So that was when I realised Yeah, the mind is the forerunner of all things. You know, a lot of things are mind made.

Kai Xin  38:55

So beautiful. It almost seems like you need to go through the whole process and be patient with yourself and your restless mind. For listeners, if you’re like Soon, you know, always pushing formal meditation practice aside, ask yourself if you are doing so because you’re afraid to be alone with your thoughts.

Kai Xin  39:14

And if that’s the case, let’s challenge you to maybe after this podcast just sit for five minutes and see what’s going on. And don’t judge. I think don’t take on a judgmental mind. Just embrace the experience. And I think this actually very nicely sums up our entire chat as well in terms of loneliness and how to deal with it. So I would say some practical step would be to see what exactly is loneliness to us. What is the flip side to it, like you’ve rightly pointed out, it’s really contentment, and how can we develop the contentment rather than how can we stop being lonely?

Kai Xin  39:50

Because we have different coping mechanisms that might not be so healthy, like social media or maybe it’s food, our relationship with people always trying to be. So just work on contentment. And then the other thing is also to understand, do we always pressure ourselves to want to become somebody to fit in, then perhaps let go a little bit, bit by bit of that. And just embracing that sometimes it’s okay to not figure things out. Sometimes it’s okay to be not anybody. Life is a process.

Kai Xin  40:20

Finally, to be comfortable with being alone, say, if we always hang out with friends, then can we watch a movie alone, just to be comfortable with our own company? So I hope this offers listeners with lots to think about. Now on top of whatever we have discussed, Soon, is there anything else that you want to pop it up? To wrap up the session?

Heng Soon  40:44

Yeah, I guess finding a supportive community in place was something that helped me through my multiple years of feeling lonely and Buddhist Fellowship Youth was that outlet for me to build on how can we have strong mental mechanisms.

Heng Soon  40:57

And I learned this in my positive psychology subject, called cognitive diffusion, having the ability to coexist with unpleasant feelings by identifying the discomfort as is.

Heng Soon  41:08

So we try to dissociate ourselves from that thought, because the thought is just a thought. So when it starts, I feel lonely. We take it one step further, and say, I had a thought that I feel lonely. And then we break it down one more. I noticed that I had a thought that I feel lonely. And finally, it’s interesting that I noticed that I had a thought that I feel lonely.

Heng Soon  41:32

I think this cognitive diffusion technique allows us to coexist with discomfort in any situation. Next point of mental mechanisms would be to arise positive mental states, through understanding that we’re not alone. So it could be gratitude, compassion, can be loving kindness, in understanding that we are all part as a collective group, and our suffering is not singular.

Heng Soon  41:59

And that’s really powerful I feel, because when we start judging, and we start saying, “Oh, this is my suffering, this is their suffering. And my suffering means more.” That’s when we start isolating ourselves. And that’s a choice. Right? But to some of us, we don’t think it’s a choice. We just feel like I am suffering. I feel bad. I feel lonely. But being lonely is a choice as well. And to some, it’s harder than others, but it’s always possible to slowly disassociate with that, by understanding that there are a lot of good things that are happening in our lives, especially living in Singapore. There are some things that might not be right, which is normal. But there are a lot of things to be grateful for. Even the chair we’re sitting on right now, right? How many people had to bring, and piece together that chair, had to design a chair, had to deliver that chair to our house, just for us to sit down and just enjoy? There are so many things that we can be thankful for, but we miss it.

Heng Soon  42:54

 And I think just to tie it back to the spiritual aspect, and the material world. Recognizing that everyone is suffering, if you really understand it well enough, you can speak to anyone. And I think that has been really helpful for me. I’ve spoken to multiple founders of different companies. And a lot of times people say, Well, you’re so young, but you’re able to connect with all these older people. And I realise this because I’m not talking to a CEO. I’m not talking to a leader, I’m talking to a human being. And I see their suffering. I see what makes them happy. I see what makes them sad. And because I’m reaching out to them on a human level, not based on their status, or who they are. They’re able to actually give back more to me and they’re more willing to help me. Yeah, so it’s not singular. It’s not either or, the Dhamma practice and the material world are together, in the sense that we can work on the spiritual practice and you can benefit from our material pursuits as well.

Cheryl  43:55

Thank you for summing it up very beautifully soon and on all the different levels. I think this is a beautiful wrap up for our conversation today. And yeah, I hope all our listeners have found a gem that speaks to them at whatever level that they are facing loneliness and know that we are all together in this boat of Samsara experiencing loneliness and trying our best to work with it and to be the best that we can hope this episode was helpful. And if you like it, please rate it five stars and share it with someone and may you stay happy and wise. Thank you!

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