Ep 30: The Overachiever Mindset ft. Venerable Damcho

Published on Jul 5, 2023

About Our Guest

Venerable Thubten Damcho is a Buddhist nun residing at Sravasti Abbey, one of the first Tibetan Buddhist training monasteries in the United States. Born and raised in Singapore, she graduated from Princeton University in 2006 and worked as a high school teacher and public policy analyst in the Singapore government before returning to the U.S. to take novice ordination in 2013. She tells her story in The Straits Times Singapore.

Venerable Damcho’s monastic life is rich and varied. She serves as assistant to Sravasti Abbey’s founder, author and well-known Buddhist teacher Venerable Thubten Chodron. Her other responsibilities range from translating Chinese texts into English to removing weeds from the Abbey’s 300-acre property. Venerable Damcho has given Dharma talks in Spokane, Idaho, California, India, and Singapore. She was the Chinese-English interpreter at a full ordination program in Taiwan in 2019, and has studied Tibetan through Maitripa College and with other teachers since 2017.


[00:00:00] Kai Xin:

Hi everyone, it’s me again. Welcome to the Handful of Leaves podcast where we bring you practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life. I’m Kai Xin. I started a business at the age of 19.

[00:00:12] Cheryl:

Hi, I am Cheryl. I started my anxiety, which is my best achievement from the age of 15.

[00:00:19] Venerable Damcho:

Hi, I’m Thubten Damcho and I graduated from Princeton on a Public Service Commission scholarship.

[00:00:27] Kai Xin:

And today we are gonna talk about the overachiever mindset, hence the introduction. We are gonna share more of our overachievements in this episode and how to balance that with our Buddhist practice. Venerable, for listeners who haven’t heard of you or listened to the previous episode, which was fantastic on sex and the Buddhist, can you share with our listeners a little bit of your background?

[00:00:53] Venerable Damcho:

So I was born and raised in Singapore. I went overseas on scholarship and I was on track to have a very good career in civil service. But along the way I met the Buddha Dhamma and that really got me questioning my priorities in life. And eventually, I ordained here at Shravasti Abbey.

I live in Newport, Washington, in the U.S. We’re on the West Coast and I’ve lived here for 10 years now. I received my novice ordination in 2013, and then I received higher ordination in Taiwan in 2016. So it’s always a delight to reconnect with everyone in Singapore. So thank you for having me here again.

[00:01:26] Kai Xin:

Thank you for being back. On the topic on overachievers, I just wanna ask all of you, do you consider yourself an overachiever?

[00:01:35] Cheryl:

I think so. From young, I’ve always had that mindset that I need to be the best at what I do. When I went to school, I got a scholarship to Singapore. I’m from Malaysia. And when I went to Singapore, I had to go to the best school, the most elite school. I won’t name it, but it’s one of the top elite schools. When I went to uni, it had to be the best in some sort of field. When I start work, it had to be the best in some industry. When I have my anxiety, I need to have the worst critic, the most overachieving critic to beat myself up. So yes, overachieving in all different senses. What about you, Venerable Damcho?

[00:02:09] Venerable Damcho:

I love this question because I’ve never thought of myself as an overachiever because I’m always number two. I’m just never good enough. So how could I be a real overachiever? I think for me, underneath that need to achieve is a strong sense of I’m just never good enough.

The first time I ever heard someone call me an overachiever was Brother PJ. He was actually my next-door neighbor, and we reconnected after I came back from the U.S. and so did he, and he was just casually saying, “This is how overachievers behave”. I was like, that’s not me. What are you talking about? So it’s actually been a slow revelation of what these behaviors mean because to me it seemed very normal or I guess I was placed into student groups where everybody behaved that way, so it seemed very normal.

And then your whole idea of what is success or failure is so skewed. I remember for the mock PSLE in my class, I got 91, which is still A* and I felt very proud of myself because my math is very poor and the class average I think was 94. So, 91 was below average. So because of that, I don’t see myself as an overachiever. And some of that is a lack of self-cognizance, self-awareness, I think.

[00:03:22] Kai Xin:

It’s interesting you say that because I can relate. I am also not number one, but somehow people call me an overachiever, so I scratch my head just like, yeah I’m quite average, right? I mean, I didn’t go to elite school. I didn’t even finish or pursue any further studies or get a degree. My highest education is a diploma in Business Studies. I think it’s maybe the accolades or track record that I’m associated with, that people say, “Kai Xin, you’re so smart, you’ve achieved so many things”. But deep down inside, I’m just struggling.
If I were to look back, I did exhibit overachieving behaviors and mindsets. I have to study really hard, get good grades and just keep being very restless in striving and striving. So, I literally can’t sit still. I have to go for electives, CCA, partake in competition, win some medals. I have all these things on my shelf and I still don’t feel really good about myself. There’s still this imposter syndrome that’s like, am I really good?

There’s just never an end to the chase until I met the Dhamma, which brings us to another part of this conversation. I think the whole mode of striving, if it’s kind of misdirected, it can be unhealthy and not very conducive to the practice. So I’m actually quite curious to know, Venerable, when you became a nun, do you see any of these tendencies change?

[00:04:47] Venerable Damcho:

Yeah, slowly over time. I think first of all to even recognize the tendency. I moved here 10 years ago. The first time I sat a long three-month winter retreat, I had some goals. What are you gonna do with yourself if you don’t have goals to achieve? We’re talking about realistic goals, so Stream Entry, right? I wrote it out. So I was like, okay, let’s be real. Stream Entry can be done. Name what those things are. I actually really had a thought, maybe by the end of three months I will be able to walk through a wall. Yes, that’s how deluded I was. I was like, it’s possible. You just have to put the effort in. That’s how it’s been your whole life.

We have the Nine Stages of Sustained Attention or something like Nine Stages to Cultivating Serenity. Sometimes in the Tibetan Thangka’s you see a person with an elephant and a monkey. And it’s all symbolic of the stages of moving towards Samādhi. Then you have to combine that with insight. The first time I read this, I was like, oh, there are these nine steps. Now with clear instructions, sometimes you find the object, sometimes you are able to stay on it longer and longer and then you lose it.

Throughout the retreat, I was constantly asking what stage am I at? Is this stage one? Is this stage two? After a certain part I was like, oh, I think it’s really hard to even get to stage three, which is more sustained attention on the breath or whatever object it is. And I just really started to push. I would sit extra long sessions. I was so disappointed somewhere in the middle of the retreat, realizing I’m not gonna get past stage three or you’re gonna be stuck here. Even stage three itself is amazing to accomplish. But then I didn’t see that as an affliction at the time. It’s just how I’ve lived my whole life. So at the end of retreat, I realized, this is how I approach everything, with a lot of, let’s just push and make it through.

So just that slow recognition and then to see that repeat in so many areas of my life here at the monastery. I think it’s just having that space where I start to recognize these things. So, the next year I thought, okay, we’re not gonna push a retreat. Then I found myself distracted and I created some huge projects outside of the retreat. I’m sitting five sessions a day and then I’m gonna go and translate this very complex thing in all my breaks. I’m not gonna achieve it in the retreats, I’m gonna achieve it somewhere else, again, and again and again.

Venerable Chodron was instrumental in helping to point out these habits to me. She’s my teacher and the Abbess of the monastery. These are some habits and they don’t serve me. I really have to rethink how I approach my life. So, yeah, it’s been a slow process.

[00:07:17] Cheryl:

Two things that are particularly interesting to me. One is that you didn’t realize the afflictions that you were in. I think that’s the problem that a lot of us have. We just don’t know that we are in pain or we don’t know that we are suffering, and then we just continue with the same lifestyle until one day, either you have a terrible breakdown or your body just stops functioning. Then you’re like, I’ve been living life in a horrible way. I have inflicted so much pain on myself. That’s where you start to look for a way out and think, maybe I should change a little bit.

The second thing that was very interesting to me was the idea of how very strong habitual tendencies, if you don’t work with it, it can always change the object. First, it’s the meditation. Second, it could be some other project that you’re interested in. I thought that was very interesting and very relatable as well because I also never really understood my anxiety. Like I never really understood what is it for, what is it trying to protect? And it was kind of a pain. I was like, it’s good, if I’m not anxious, if I’m not critical of myself, I would just be a sloth and my whole life will just crumble. I never really saw how painful it really was to myself.

Just reflecting on my meditation practice as well, I realize I bring that into the cushion, the overachieving tendencies. It manifests in terms of so much tension because you must control how the sit is like. I need to experience that calm, and the calm cannot just be short, it must be long. It must be vision and brightness and everything like that. I just wanted to point out.

[00:08:42] Kai Xin:

Totally. There was once during Wesak Day, there were so many things going on. I was volunteering then I committed to sitting overnight and that was the worst overnight sit that I’ve ever experienced because I keep opening my eyes. It is starting at 9:00 PM then it ends at 4:00 AM where we do the morning chanting. Every single 10-minute block is just excruciating. And I keep telling myself, I’ve a lot of things that I need to do tomorrow. Am I able to do it? Here I am, having inner critics. I’m supposed to be peaceful, I’m not feeling peaceful. Why is everyone sitting so still? How long is this gonna last? I was so in pain that at 3:00 AM or so, close to 4:00 AM, I really just gave up. I went back, I took a cab and I was in tears.

The funny thing was, my mom knew about my intention to sit overnight and she discouraged me from doing so. I had this sense of ego, right? Ah, I’m gonna go back. My mom is gonna find out that I didn’t sit through the night, and she’s gonna say, “See lah, I told you already, don’t push yourself so hard”. I can’t stand that. So, my plan was to be very quiet, open the gate, and before she wakes up in the morning, I would wake up first and then go to the Wesak Day to volunteer. But lo and behold, I forgot to bring my house keys. And I tell you, I felt so lousy about myself. I really felt like a failure. I have no choice but to ring the doorbell and gonna get all these nagging.

At that point in time, it was quite an aha moment for me. I’m like, Hey, I’m suffering, you know? The practice is supposed to lead me out of suffering, but here I am clinging on to this idea of, I have to commit to my intention. I have to feel peaceful. Everybody else can’t know what’s going on inside me.

I was just wondering, from a Buddhist perspective, what do you think is the root cause of all this desire to achieve and how do we know when it is bringing us pain? How do we know when the pain of striving, which is sometimes good, can actually lead us to the end of pain? There are two parts, right? Pain leading to more pain. Pain leading to less pain.

[00:10:41] Venerable Damcho:

That’s a really powerful story actually. Your recognition of all those things going on in your mind, especially the I’ve gotta look like I have it together. I think that’s a really good clue.

From a Buddhist perspective, all our afflictions arise on the basis of ignorance functioning in many ways, right? First of all, thinking, here’s this real person in this body who has this mind, a possessor of it who is the mind, and so there’s someone here that achieves things that all these external things relate to. Here’s my achievement, my trophy, my accolades, and they reflect on me. Even just seeing ourselves in that way, seeing the external world as objective things separate from me and my mind that I have to obtain to be successful, or control. I want certain things. How am I gonna get them? Control the external world, which is very different from just creating the cause and seeing things in terms of dependent arising. On the basis of that, we get fixated on trying to organize everything.

And I think with achievement or this kind of painful striving, what’s at work is what we call the eight worldly concerns. That’s one of the teachings in the graduated stages of the Path to Awakening that we study in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It’s craving for material success or material wealth and aversion for poverty or lack of wealth. Attachment to sense pleasure and strong aversion to unpleasant sensory experiences. Especially with the achievement piece, it’s attachment to your good reputation and complete aversion to having a bad one, and then attachment to praise, wanting people to say nice things about you and aversion to blame. It could vary for each person, which is the main driver. So sometimes we’ve had discussion groups here, look at which one is the main driver in your daily life behavior.

For me personally, it’s very much about attachment to praise or blame, especially from people I consider very important.

[00:12:41] Kai Xin:

You mentioned the root cause of the painful striving, is ignorance. Just to help our listeners here, you mentioned the Eight Worldly Winds, right? So there are four pairs. Praise and blame. Pain and pleasure. Gain and loss. Fame and disrepute. And because it comes in pairs, that means either side, we would suffer. Then how do we find the balance?

[00:13:03] Venerable Damcho:

I would say we have to step out of that framework completely. That’s the problem with these kinds of dichotomous frameworks. You get stuck in this, it’s either this or that. For a start, recognizing their disadvantages. Is this way of thinking serving me or not? Does it bring about benefits? Does it benefit other people? Does it benefit myself? And really making examples from our own experience.

Especially with the eight worldly concerns, what’s helped me so much is coming back to my motivation for what I’m doing, and focusing on what’s happening internally. With overachievement, it’s what am I getting outside? What’s this external thing? Whether it’s sense pleasure or some material thing. But now I come back to, why am I engaging in this activity? What kind of internal benefit is it going to bring for myself or for others?

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If I’m very, very clear about my motivation for doing something and that it’s a long-term motivation, it brings benefits now and in the future. It might be painful in the short term, but I know it’s going to be beneficial in the long term, then it’s worthwhile. Then no matter what happens, people criticize me or whatever, I can come back to, wait a second, the starting point is good, my motivation is clear. That’s helped me a lot. Just coming back to that, taking time to really get clear about my motivation.

I’m thinking of when I used to teach. I really wanna benefit these students. But along the way, could this also be about my job performance? Because I’m a school teacher and how they do at school reflects on my teaching skills and the bonus I’m gonna get. Is that creeping in? I want this to be about the students. How do I make sure I pull that back? If it’s really genuinely about the students, then I always have the energy to keep going. It doesn’t fall into, you have to perform, everyone, on this test by the end of the year. I don’t care what you’re going through. I’m not looking at you as human beings. I wanna see those grades, which is really awful.

[00:14:54] Cheryl:

It’s so important to routinely check with yourself and remind yourself, what’s your motivation, what’s your intention? When we do that as well, it can help us to fixate less on the outcome goal and start to take note of the little progress throughout the journey as well, which can help us to take a more relaxed attitude and a more open and exploratory approach to wherever we want to get to.

[00:15:19] Kai Xin:

That’s interesting, and it almost seems like the achievement is the result of our good intention and effort, versus how originally if it’s misplaced, it would be the desire to overachieve driving us. We might not necessarily get the result that we want and that’s where our whole world crumbles because it comes from external sources, which is beyond our control. We can’t even control our own minds, what more what other people think of us or how other people would like to recognize us or reward us, et cetera. I find that to be very, very powerful.

I also wonder, because sometimes people might have this saying, don’t try so hard. I literally had Dhamma brothers and sisters come up to me and say, Kai Xin, I think you’re trying very hard. Maybe you should let go a little bit. But then I’m thinking, is it really about not trying hard or is it about trying hard the right way?
If I were to recollect, the Buddha did try very hard. He touched the earth and he’s like, may the earth be my witness until I attain enlightenment. And he literally had to fight his defilements in order to realize what he realized and have the compassion to teach us. So it’s not dualistic per se. Then again, how do we reconcile? Are there certain signposts that you would look out for beyond the inner intention? How do you know you’re trying too hard, not trying so hard?

[00:16:46] Venerable Damcho:

Yeah. But before that, to really look at what is this drive to overachieve before we get into the setting a good intention part. When we start to recognize some of these behaviors are perhaps perceived as excessive by other people. True or not true? What is my motivation behind this? Sometimes people come to tell us these things because they are our friends and they’re concerned.

When I first moved to the Abbey, people are like, you should take a break. I’m like, what are you talking about? Or you’re not getting enough sleep. I’m like, sleep is for the weak. I heard that as judgment. Like you said, you don’t like people to tell you, just relax. I’m like, leave me alone, I run my own life.

It took me a long time to even hear, okay, there’s some concern there. People are perceiving that I’m not balanced. You’re so fixated on the external achievement, you don’t see, oh, maybe I’m neglecting my relationships. Maybe that’s what my friends are saying. Or I’m losing my temper with them. The people who care about us are seeing something out of whack. Yeah. I will say that was the chief motivator in me, pausing and rethinking all these behaviors.

We had a community workshop here where we wrote feedback for each other. And mine was around, people are just concerned that you spend so much time working. This is taking you away from the community. I thought, wow. And that was the first time I actually started to listen to feedback and really look inside and see, yeah, what is driving that need to overachieve?

Because like you said, if the need is to feel better about ourselves, no external thing is gonna accomplish that. And that’s the painful setup, right? No matter how many trophies you have, I still feel lousy. Yeah. So if the striving is to heal some kind of internal sense of lack, make sure you’re not barking up the wrong tree. That’s right striving, right? It’s first of all, checking up on what is driving the striving, what are you actually trying to accomplish.

There was a young woman who came to the Abbey, who grew up with a lot of trauma. She was abused but externally presented as so incredibly successful, making tons of money in Silicon Valley and all that. And it was very interesting for me to watch her journey here. Letting go of the career was terrifying, right? She saw that the whole overachievement was like a shield. To protect her from a world that was abusing her, right? It’s like, if I have this career, if I have the money, if I’m independent, nobody can trap me. Nobody can bully me. This is my defense.

So, you know, I don’t come from a background of abuse, so it was interesting to see that’s one thing that can drive the overachieving. What is it for me? So for me, a lot of it was hoping to have love. Thinking having all these external things is going to bring love. And the moment I recognized that, it was like, oh, I don’t need it from outside. I can love myself.

So, yeah. I don’t know. Your thoughts? What’s driving that need to achieve?

[00:19:34] Cheryl:

I have so many thoughts on this. Is it true that it’s completely internal? Only we can give ourselves a reliable sense of happiness and love. Is it bad if we outsource it on external? What’s the balance? 50% external, 50% internal?

Because I was having a conversation with a friend who’s not Buddhist, I was like, you know, I’m camp internal. It’s all inside you. You can control that, you can generate it, you can train that right, purify your mind. And they were like, oh my God, you Buddhists are horrible. We need validation. We need people to love us and let us know we are worthy. That’s nice. That’s pleasant. That’s fun. So what is the balance that we should be ideally striving for in a healthy way?

[00:20:15] Venerable Damcho:

My goodness. I love our overachiever vocabulary. I just need to step back and say, is it right, is it wrong? Should I be doing this? What is the percentage? We need data.

[00:20:25] Kai Xin:

Oh yeah, that’s so true.

[00:20:28] Venerable Damcho:

This invisible world of standards that is shaping you that you don’t even know.

Yeah. It was a counselor who pointed that out to me. You might wanna look at some of the standards you have. And I looked at her like, what do you mean standards I hold, this is the way, the truth, the life. The world’s like this. I’m like this. You are like this.

Anyway. I think we come back to the principle of dependent arising, right? Multiple causes and conditions. In Buddhist practice, a lot of the emphasis is on what we can cultivate internally. But of course, yeah, you’re influenced by your peer groups, right? So sensibly, if your practice is not very strong, don’t hang out with people who are going to make you commit non-virtue, support you in committing non-virtue. It’s a balance of both, I would think.

Listening to advice from wise people. It’s who you trust to help you understand who you are. Do I trust the friends who are encouraging me to do things that are not beneficial or do I listen to my teacher, whom I trust is wise? If my teacher is disapproving, I will think carefully, not necessarily judge myself or feel poorly, but think, okay, something’s up here that I really need to look at.

[00:21:35] Kai Xin:

Yeah. It seems like there’s no black and white, like 50-50, 80-20. And it’s just about sitting with the uncertainty that maybe there is no right answer.

I think for my personal experience to answer Cheryl’s question is to also have the discernment to understand, okay, at this point in life, do I have the capacity to accept myself? And if I’m honest and truthful, I know, maybe I need to lean on somebody to offer me strength first before I can then offer strength within for myself. But to eventually realize that we can only rely on ourselves till the end, but we need somebody to walk the journey with us.

[00:22:15] Venerable Damcho:

From a Buddhist perspective, what can be shocking to your friend who’s non-Buddhist, is that refuge is the Dhamma. It’s not a human being. The refuge is in our realizations. It’s in the compassion and the wisdom that we’re realizing in our own mindstream, and it’s the compassion and wisdom that’s in someone else’s mindstream.

Like right now, what’s very big in our community is that a major teacher just passed away. Lama Zopa Rinpoche passed away suddenly, and people are shocked, or grieving. Venerable Chodron has been giving talk after talk about how the physical manifestation of your teacher passes away but what he has left with you is the teaching that you have every single day. That’s what this person was trying to impart to you.
Same with the Buddha, right? He’s like, don’t cry or grieve. The Vinaya is your teacher. You’ll always have the Dhamma with you. The most important thing is to actualize it in your own mindstream. I think what I respect in my teacher is recognizing, they have certain ways of thinking that I want to emulate. They have behaviors that I think are really admirable, but I can cultivate them too. They do not rest in that person. They’re teaching me how to do it for myself and then I have to do that for other people.

[00:23:30] Cheryl:

It’s so beautiful.

We will go back to the question, what are the drivers for our overachieving tendencies?
For me, it comes from a place of lack and unworthiness and it’s because growing up I was surrounded by relatives who basically did really well, and had full scholarships. And in terms of the family tree as well, my father was always the odd one out. And within my family, I was the smarter one compared to my sister. But at the same time, seeing all my relatives who were better, I always had that sense of lack. And I always had to prove that my family was not that weird. So I had to overachieve in that sense.

But because it comes from this place of lack, it is a very, very painful striving cause the whole insecurity, and uncertainty about myself, the doubt is always there as I tried to head towards a place of worthiness through external achievements.

[00:24:24] Kai Xin:

I think for me subconsciously, it’s about the proving part as well. I grew up never really wanting explicit external validation from people. In fact, I do feel quite lousy since young, because I’m a bench player in basketball. I feel like, okay, I have all these medals, but I don’t really contribute to them. So it’s a part of me that says, I need something that I can call my own that I have achieved for myself to prove to myself and also to other people that I can do it. I’m independent. I don’t need to rely on anybody. This is something that is mine, not shared.

And I think it comes very subconsciously. Also, the restless mind wants to just fill my mind with things so that I don’t really have to sit still and address the inner critic and the voice. So it’s about doing, doing, doing. And it comes off as overachieving, right?

But when I started learning the Dhamma, then really looking within, Hey, what’s the driving factor? I realized, okay, I don’t need to prove to anybody. But do I also have to prove to myself? What is it that I can really call my own?

So when I had a long retreat, one and a half months in Amaravati in the UK, I was kind of searching and also asking myself about the identity. So if I were to forgo the business, do I still call myself an entrepreneur? Because that was the identity that I was tied to for two, three years. It was very, very prominent. And I feel a sense of pride and people are like, how do you achieve so much?

Then having to let go of that thought was interesting because what do I call myself then? Who am I? Then, I realized it’s really the fundamental things about my virtue that are what I’m gonna take with me when I die. The memories of the good that I’ve done. It’s really not so much about the act of doing or the act of achieving anymore. So there’s a little bit of recalibration there. Again, outwardly it might seem like the same thing, but then inside, there is a shift in how I show up to day-to-day life and the driving force, which is much healthier.

I wouldn’t say that it’s always on point. Sometimes I still lose my way and I have to have friends to call me out to say, Hey, I think you’re working too hard. What’s your priority? What’s driving you then? I take a step back, recalibrate, and it’s a constant process.

[00:26:47] Venerable Damcho:

Yeah. I just remember Venerable Chodron telling us, balance is like walking. You’re just constantly shifting your weight. It’s not some kind of magic steady state and it will forever be the same. Impermanence, remember?

What you both shared reminded me of two teachings I received from Venerable. Earlier on, she told this story about how her brother is a doctor and so she also had this whole high-achieving life. She went to college early and she’s on track to be a school teacher and has a good husband and so forth.

And then she becomes a nun and her whole family’s like, what? So she met up with her brother and he was just like, what do you want to do with yourself in the next five years? Have you just lost all goals and direction in life? And she said to him, I want to be a kinder person.

I was just blown away by that answer. I just sat there with that for a long time, and there’s a part of me that’s like, that’s all? That’s all you wanna be? But Venerable Chodron, you’re like super successful in my mind. It’s like, no, she just wants to be a kinder person, and that’s what matter. So yeah, just convincing myself or coming to it on my own terms, right? Actually, what genuinely matters is our virtuous attitudes towards ourselves and other people.

[00:27:59] Kai Xin:

I’m wondering whether it’s realistic for us to have this balance of sorts, whatever we perceive of it. Cause there are so many external forces, especially from society, right? In the capitalistic and materialistic world, you must strive hard, to get an A. And then we have tiger moms and parents. Then our academic system kind of only rewards those who are at the end of the bell curve. How do we then live in this world where we have this balance and say, yeah, I’m content. It’s good enough. I don’t really have to strive so much. Is it really realistic?

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[00:28:33] Venerable Damcho:

There are two things. One instruction Venerable Chodron gave me very early on drove me almost insane. Because we were talking about a high achiever, you want some specifics, right? Like 50% or whatever. She kept telling me, you have to find your own center. I was like, what kind of new age nonsense is that? What do you mean find my own center? Like where is it? Can you be more specific? So I thought about it for a long time now, what is this center?

Maybe if I retranslated her instruction, it’s how do we learn to evaluate ourselves? And that’s really hard. You are conditioned from a young age. Cheryl, you had a great example of how your family conditioning shapes so much of how you see yourself. My family is seen like this. I am this person in my family. This is how we relate. So based on all this storytelling from other people, you can decide whether you accept the story or not. As a responsible family member, I must prove that we are not weird.

Or Kai Xin, then you’ve made your own story. What is an entrepreneur and what does that mean in society? I didn’t follow the conventional route of getting a degree, but you know what? I know better than you college people and I’m succeeding. There’s that whole story based on what other people tell us, how we wanna accept it, and to know that we can undo that as we get older.

Maybe as a kid, there’s a lot less agency, right? You’re dependent on your parents for survival. You live in that house. It feels like life and death at that age. Then you get older, it’s like, I don’t have to follow everything my parents taught me. I can be an adult and look back and see what is useful, what is not, what’s true, what’s not.

I always think of those Chinese fighting serials. You are from the Pan family. Then the Lee family disgraced us, so I must now kill everybody who is Lee. That’s the purpose of my life. I spent my whole life training in sword fighting. Then I go and kill all the Lee’s. Then I write poems in Chinese, why did I do this? I don’t want my life to be like that.

[00:30:31] Cheryl:

Especially in Chinese New Year, right? Where everyone compares who does what?

[00:30:35] Venerable Damcho:

Yeah. But I don’t wanna spend my life living out my parents’ expectations. Thank you. That’s your idea of happiness, but that’s not mine. So that’s one piece. And then like you said, looking at what society expects. Is it true that getting good grades is the ticket to success? Maybe you challenge that strongly. What are you telling me about conventional education? Why do I have to believe this?

But I found that maybe the last piece I wanna add is just, if I’m driven by anger, when I need to prove myself, I need to fight you, fight your expectations, fight to show you who I really am, underneath that there’s a lot of anger and it’s exhausting. As opposed to being centered, I know who I am, a genuine sense of self-confidence, these are my values, these are my motivations and that’s what drives my life. I don’t need to prove myself to anyone. You can have your story about who you think I need to be and I don’t need to buy into it. I can give it back.

[00:31:31] Kai Xin:

There’s a tipping point also, right? Sometimes tip into the aspect of I’m more superior, I know what I want, I’m gonna challenge your assumption. Society doesn’t know what it’s doing. Then again, I know it’s overachiever to have signposts and frameworks, but how do we know that we have tipped over to the other side?

[00:31:50] Venerable Damcho:

So it’s learning your own internal signposts maybe. So that’s the internal achiever, maybe. That’s just learning to evaluate yourself. Only you know your own mind. I think that’s what our meditation practice helps us with. It’s just learning how every single affliction manifests in my own experience.

In Buddhism we have all these lists, right? Attachment, anger, and you spend time with that. So how do I know when I’m being driven by anger? Whether it’s physical, taking the time to see what kinds of thoughts are running in the mind and driving my behavior. And that’s how I find my internal signpost.

And so you’re right, the external behavior can be totally the same, but I’m, as you said, learning to calibrate internally. For me, some of the signs are that I’m actually happy doing what I’m doing. I don’t get burned out. I don’t get frustrated. There’s a lot of joy. And that’s when I know, okay, we’re going on a good path.

[00:32:43] Kai Xin:

So it’s less greed, less hatred, and delusion, the reduction of the three poisons, right?

[00:32:49] Venerable Damcho:

Yeah. Guess what? That actually frees up a lot of energy.

[00:32:52] Kai Xin:

It does, it does. Cheryl, do you have any thoughts on that?

[00:32:56] Cheryl:

I’m just thinking it’s very hard because at the start where you mentioned that we always see things as like my achievements, my accolades. So that sense of self is very strong. It’s also very easy to fall into the whole conceit of feeling superior, feeling inferior, and feeling neutral. It’s almost like a very strong, automatic narrative in your mind.

Can you speak a little bit more about that comparison in relation to overachieving?

[00:33:24] Venerable Damcho:

It’s such a painful state of mind. It’s so encouraged in society. I remember when I first decided to move to a monastery, one of my old friends from JC called me up and said, we need to talk. She was very concerned about my life choices and when we sat down for lunch, she was like, how can you live without competition?
I mean, she was working for Lehman Brothers, and then Lehman Brothers collapsed. But she’s like, no, it’s cool, I’ll find another job for sure. She’s working 12, 16-hour days in a fancy apartment with no time to do anything except eat, sleep, and exercise and go to work. And she’s telling me that competition’s very important, that if I don’t have competition in my life, I will not improve myself.

I’m like, oh, okay. At least I could sit there and be like, I hear that you’re very concerned for me, but that’s just not what I feel is helpful in my life. But I think you’ve nailed it. Just even naming the thought, I’m better in whatever way. So you don’t actually have any realistic sense of how you are in relation to others. Yeah. That’s the definition of arrogance, thinking you’re better than someone who is actually better than you, thinking you’re better than someone who is not as good as you, thinking you’re better than someone who is equal to you.

When I looked at that, I was like, oh okay. It’s just that thought, I am better. It doesn’t matter externally what the actual situation is. And what’s helped me a lot is just looking at how that has damaged a lot of my personal relationships. It sounds like this is resonating, but it’s only something that became very clear to me when I moved to a monastery. Maybe cause in the monastery we’re all supposed to be equals on the path, just driving together and supporting each other. I can’t stand you because I think you are better or I should be better. Like, wow, this is how I relate to people my age. I don’t compete with the older nuns because they’re older, they’re seniors, and I have my own story about them. It’s like, oh, I’ve related all my friends like this. Oh, so painful. So just seeing that and really rethinking, how do I relate to people in a way that’s kind, that’s not based on measuring.

It just comes back to a sense of lack I think. You have something I don’t, I better have something you don’t.

[00:35:37] Cheryl:

I noticed that in a 10-day retreat in Thailand, my mind was having a lot of fun judging everybody. But the thing that I noticed was that it is a complete seesaw. So one day I will walk around, be like, oh, I’m sitting the straightest. I’m sitting there longest. I’m better than all of you. Then the next day when I’m feeling sleepy or when the mind is just not getting together, I’ll be like, I’m the worst here, I’m never getting enlightened.
It’s really torture because when I’m down then all the critical thoughts and the anxiety, everyone must be looking at me knowing I thought that bad thought. But then when I’m feeling good, that whole narrative of, everyone should be looking at me, look at how I sit, look at how I walk. The aha moment really came in, I realized this up and down is really stupid. What am I doing? If I feel great and I hold onto it the next moment I’m gonna feel shitty. It was very helpful when I just realized that it’s so pointless to cling on either of that good or bad, because it’s gonna change anyway.

[00:36:32] Kai Xin:

I think it requires a lot of introspection to even see that. But most of us don’t get to even quiet our mind for just one minute and we don’t have the opportunity to see what exactly is insight. When I’m hearing both of you, it seemed to me that it’s not so much about not having standards because the Vinaya is a form of standard, right? We have certain guidelines to uphold in order to support us in our practice. So it’s not so much about forgoing the standards, but it’s about clinging to the standards. Then it becomes a fetter, where we cling to rites and rituals. We cling to a specific framework or how things should be done, or should not be done. Then when it causes us suffering, that’s when we have to let it go.

Similarly, it’s also not so much about not having competition at all, but perhaps it’s okay to have healthy comparisons. We rejoice in other people’s good effort, right? If friends share with me about their amazing meditation experience, I shouldn’t be like, how come I don’t have?

Cultivate sympathetic joy, Mudita, to say, wow, good for you and use them as a source of inspiration. So then that’s where healthy comparison comes into the picture rather than oh, I’m not good enough. You’re better, or I’m better. You’re not good enough. It’s very interesting because when we stop looking at things from a dualistic perspective, not clinging on to, it has to be this way or that way, then a lot of all this affliction would just fall away. Like there’s really nothing to cause us suffering anymore.

[00:37:57] Venerable Damcho:

Yeah. Like you said, rejoicing is a very powerful antidote to the competitive jealous mind. I think a lot of it’s just recognizing the affliction to begin with, what we’re describing. Yeah. I definitely got to see my inner critic very clean, clear at the first retreat I sat. Then years later, you read these texts that have these definitions of mental states, right? It’s like, oh, that’s arrogance. Duh. That is the different types of arrogance. Yeah. I think I’m better, but “I think I’m the worst” is also arrogance. It’s the flip side, right? Everybody’s so good. I’m so special. I’m worse than the worst everybody can attain. It just comes back to that. Anytime you’re thinking I’m special or I’m better, that’s you, arrogance. You’re not realistic. Go away. Doesn’t help.

[00:38:41] Kai Xin:

I’m worst of the worst reminds you of, you know, how we have a culture of who sleeps later at night because they’re working. It’s a form of ego and conceit, I suppose.

[00:38:52] Venerable Damcho:

No, it’s amazing. You can get arrogant about everything. We’re the Overachiever Club. You should have the podcast for the Underachiever Club. Who’s worse and who’s more gangster, who has served longer in jail or whatever. You can get arrogant about that too. That’s very nice.

[00:39:07] Kai Xin:

All right, we’ve covered a lot. Unfortunately, everything has to come to an end, but we hope this is just the beginning of our practice in terms of introspecting. Cheryl, any salient points that you took away from our chat?

[00:39:22] Cheryl:

Yeah, definitely. I think it’s really about going back into our drivers, our motivation and our intention. Especially when we are feeling kind of out of whack. That’s a clear signpost for you to just really check what’s going on. Am I moving away from the reason why I started?

[00:39:40] Kai Xin:

For me, what stood out most is about catching myself when I need certainty. It was an aha moment when you say, all these vocabularies that we are using, the frameworks, the percentage, and just learning to sit with, what if I don’t have the answer? How does that feel like? Yeah, I think that that’s my greatest takeaway. How about Venerable?

[00:40:02] Venerable Damcho:

Yeah. I love that you said this is just the beginning of our introspective journey, cause you touched on some really important things that really are at the heart of our suffering situation. Anytime our sense of self gets overly puffed up or we are holding onto some identity or story too tightly, that’s really causing us a lot of pain. And it’s very empowering to recognize that, oh, hang on, it’s actually just thinking about things in an unrealistic or inaccurate way, and I can take time to shift the way I think. And that’s what changes everything. It’s not about having to get something outside, or even go for some multimillion-dollar workshop. It’s really just how am I thinking about this and how do I slowly train myself to shift how I’m thinking about it?

Yeah. In the definition of joyous effort, I guess skillful striving might be another way to put it. It might be Venerable Chodron’s translation of Viriya, I’m not sure. But it has four aspects. There’s aspiration, right? So that comes from you already doing that inner work and reflecting, okay, what are the benefits of this? Why do I want to accomplish this? And then that very naturally drives your behavior. You don’t have to push, you don’t have to like must wake up at X time. It’s like, oh, I’ve thought about the benefits so it’s naturally going to arise and then keeping it stable over time. There’s joy in the mind.

But most important, the last piece there’s rest. I was so shocked when I received that teaching. It’s like, ah, part of joyous effort is rest? But that’s for lazy people. No, it’s knowing, this is my capacity and I need time to recuperate. I’m an ordinary being with body and mind. I want to keep going so I rest with good motivation and then I come back when I can. And that’s it. Yeah. It’s not that you become a slob. That’s two extremes. Either you’re the rabbit or the turtle.

That’s my sense of recognizing my limitations and I have aspirations and how to keep going and a steady, sustainable way.

[00:42:03] Kai Xin:

Thanks. Very beautiful way to wrap up. And I think it also ties back to how we started that it’s really gradual how we let go and shed all these habitual tendencies of over-striving or unskillful striving.
So thank you once again, Venerable, for being on the show. And to all our listeners, if you like this episode, please do share it with a friend. Hit the five-star button on the review section and till the next episode, may you stay happy and wise.

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Editor and transcriber of this episode: Tee Ke Hui, Cheryl Cheah, Koh Kai Xin

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