About Our Guest
Mr. Ng Yi-Xian oversees the operations of the EtonHouse International Education Group which runs schools from infant care to high school in 11 countries across 120 campuses. As a second-generation entrepreneur and son of founder Ng Gim Choo, he is driven to take the group to the next level — he has been instrumental in the creation of new brands such as the Middleton International School, a revolutionary niche of affordable international schools in Singapore and The Eton Academy, that provides inquiry-led academic enrichment programmes from Nursery to Primary 6.
Prior to joining EtonHouse, Mr. Ng worked in a Hedge Fund in the United States. In his free time, he enjoys the outdoors, adventure sports, and pursuing mindfulness as he leads the culture of mindfulness and well-being in the organisation. A father of twin boys and a girl, Yi-Xian is experiencing the joys and challenges of parenthood while he also oversees the education and well-being of more than 20,000 students in the EtonHouse schools.
[00:00:00] Kai Xin:
Hi there. Welcome to another episode of the Handful of Leaves podcast where we bring you practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life. Today we have the CEO of EtonHouse, Ng Yi-Xian, and my cohost, Cheryl. We are gonna ask a lot of questions regarding how mindfulness can influence leadership behavior. And if you haven’t heard of EtonHouse, it is an international institution with 120 schools worldwide headquarted in Singapore and specifically their aim is to provide high quality international education for K-12 students. As of today, there are about 20,000 children globally, it’s a very, very big portfolio that you’re handling and we are curious about how you manage that and how mindfulness kicks in. So perhaps you can share a little bit more about how long you’ve been practicing mindfulness and what’s your relationship with it and how does it affect your leadership style?
Thanks, Kai Xin, and hi, Cheryl. So I discovered meditation about eight or nine years ago, right when I stepped into the portfolio of EtonHouse, prior to this I was an investment banking analyst and a hedge fund analyst. I stumbled into a meditation center in Boston, my roommates asked me to go. I meditated for the first time there. And I remember asking the most bizarre questions to the facilitator. I think I asked him, when I meditate, do I go to enlightenment, or like why do people do this? I was probably 27 or 26 years old then, and I probably walked out even with more questions than I did have answers. When I came back to Singapore about eight years, nine years ago, I stumbled upon meditation because a friend sent me a YouTube link.
It was a mantra-based meditation, and I did it and I found myself in Samādhi. So I’m blessed to be able to fall into very deep states naturally. I would confess to say that when I first started without proper instructions, I would fall into deeper states easier than I did with proper instructions. So I experienced a world where there was a void. Honestly, it was an altered state. First time I meditated and I experienced this feeling. I kind of realized like, oh, that’s why everyone’s talking about this whole mindfulness thing. Then when I discovered that that was the exception and not the norm, and I myself began to discover what so-called normal meditation is, I realized that, oh gee, how do I get more of what I used to have this deeper state?
So, I ended up discovering craving and suffering for better meditation through meditation. That led me to a multi -year adventure with discovering more about meditation and I say religion. So I started, I started on a whim and it also helped me deal with the day-to-day struggles of leading an organisation.
Being CEO is quite a tough job. In fact, a good friend of mine, a mutual friend of ours actually discovered what I did for, he kinda looked at me and said, well, you have a really tough job. And I remember I had a good laugh at that and he said you know, a CEO’s job is to handle the poop that no one else wants to deal with. In a healthy, so-called healthy organisation where people make decisions below you, only the real poop comes to the top. If you get good news or easy decision, that means that people didn’t bother to make the right decision below you. And I would say that as a young man taking over an education group with so many students and feeling very awkward because I wasn’t the founder myself.
And 100 of these schools are preschools. I think I definitely felt all kinds of feelings from imposter syndrome to “I don’t really know what I’m doing here.” And I would definitely say that mindfulness and having meditation practice really helped get to grips with my reality and how to actually look at it very impartially as an observer and really helped me grow.
[00:04:05] Kai Xin:
Yeah, I think it’s a really big shoe for you to fill right? Because your mother is quite a legend. I’ve read her profile, mad respect for how a single woman can build up this entire, I would say, almost an empire of sorts and benefit so many kids. So I am quite curious, was there a particular instance where you felt like, “wow, this is the most challenging period of my career in EtonHouse?”
How has your mindfulness practice kicked in to help you with that?
So, well, my mother is quite literally The Woman of The Year in 2022. The joke was that when she was given the award, my father made a quip cause there’s a Young Woman of The Year and there’s the Woman of The Year. So my father said, “Well there’s a young woman of the year. You must be the good woman of the year. And my mother, to her credit, actually said, “You know, I’m 70 years old. I waited 70 years for this honour. so if I’m the old woman of the year, so be it, which I thought was really cool. So yes, my mom’s a pretty cool lady.
And I, for better or for worse very soon after I joined the organization. I was pretty much left with Singapore schools and we weren’t doing very well cause we had overexpanded at that point. So I walked into a situation where I thought that I could take several years to learn the ropes, to understand what we do.
I previously worked in an investment bank, a hedge fund, which is an institution and the other is a bunch of people trying to make sense of the world on their laptops. I think I really expected what you would call a training period, I guess onboarding and I didn’t really get that.
And I was thrown to the fire and in a way that was very difficult for me cause I had never fired anyone before. I had made tough decisions that impact not just one person’s life but many people’s lives. The responsibilities I had after the Army and before coming to Etonhouse really revolved around spreadsheets, numbers and concepts not real people.
So it was very daunting to me. And I would say that what helped me is you know, I mean now that I have children, I understand the concept of the red zone. So when you are, you’re in that red zone, your anger really flares up and you, you say things that you wish you never said. And I think I mean I personally can say that probably the worst things I’ve said in my life have been in that zone.
Luckily I don’t go to that place very often. I probably have gone to that place less than a couple of times. I would say that I, I’d have to thank mindfulness and my meditation practice for this. The vast majority of our team members are women. So big emotions are a commonplace in schools, and also commonplace with our team.
And as a male leader, I think yes, I had to figure that out very quickly and, and now I’ve got to a point where it’s the norm. Recently I hosted a session where people were trying to understand what’s it like to lead an education organization, and they kept saying, “What’s it like to work with so many women?”
I said, I don’t know. Haven’t worked in the world. unlike this for a long time.
[00:07:17] Kai Xin:
And just now you mentioned when you first started out meditation, it’s like, oh, you know, is it for enlightenment, what it is? So if now you were to look back at that time again, how would you have answered your own question?
Well, I think like most experiences in life, it’s really what you make out of it.
And like anything else, I would say that experientially meditation has so much to offer. I like the analogy where oftentimes our minds are muddy water that’s in a glass that’s shaken. And over time the mud and the dirt kind of settles down, and then we begin to actually see your clear mind.
I think that’s a pretty accurate description. I will say that that’s just the beginning and you can experience infinite space. I’ve heard of people who have experienced the infinite consciousness. I have not. But I would say that it’s, it’s a very fascinating experience.
I personally felt intense emotions of love towards the entire world and towards all beings. It was very brief and very fleeting. And I got into an argument with my sister right after that and it went poof, it disappeared. But I, I have felt all these sensations with great intensity.
I think on some layer we’re all searching for the answers to the mysteries of life, and I feel like meditation kind helps speak just a little bit about what’s behind that cover. So it’s something that I wish I had more time to do. I now have three young children under age of three, it is not advisable for your health or career to do this.
Sad to say, you know, on a good day I only do about 15 minutes in the morning. Once in a while I can squeeze in a longer block of half an hour here and there. But yes, yes it’s a lifetime adventure for me, and I do hope that with my dying breath I do hope to be in a state of meditation when I go.
[00:09:16] Kai Xin:
I hope so. For you too.
Well, unfortunately, yeah. I also have a passion for extreme sports. So, a year ago I found myself in a cave. I’m a cave diver and I was exiting the cave and Long story short, I felt an intense sensation of pain and I, and it grew to a point that was so extreme that I actually thought that I, might die of some kinda gas poisoning cause it picked up so quickly and I can confess to you that I was not anywhere near the meditative state and what I felt was eventually a ‘poof’ and then something in my ear coughed out some blood underwater and then realized like, “Oh, I’m ok!” Well, no lasting damage. I think just a blood vessel somewhere that wasn’t working right. But yes, I, I, thanks to my extreme sports, I have come close and this wasn’t even that close. And I think I know how hard it’s to say actually to really endeavor to to be in a clear, a clear mind when you go.
Yeah. I think that’s why a consistent practice is so important, because at that moment where you revert back to autopilot. All the habital tendencies of fear, anxiety can just overwhelm your mind. And if that is the last mindstate that you have, it could be quite an unfortunate cause that could also lead to your next rebirth.
Well I just think it’s a very bad way to go. When I was traveling around the world, I had a misfortune to actually be a first responder to a fatal car accident. There was a man that I was giving First Aid to that passed away, right front me.
And I think when, when you see life disappear like this, I, I think it’s, it’s something which you know, if it’s so hard to meditate on a good day or a bad day, And most of us don’t meditate when we’re sick. You can only imagine what it feels like on probably the last moment in our life, so lifelong practice maybe a fraction of us succeed. But it’s ok, you can try again the next round.
The journey continues. Also you mentioned sometimes you try to cut out, 15 minutes or 30 minutes in your day. I guess it’s extremely difficult with three kids under the age of three and 20,000 other children under your care. How are you being intentional with it? Do you set it as a daily routine?
Yeah, so for me I wake up and it’s probably one of the first things I do.
I have my cushion in my study next to my bed. And I go to my cushion and it’s quite funny when your children barge open the door and then they kinda like swandive into your lap, but I feel like it’s important to make a routine. As much as you love something like this, it’s just so difficult to keep things up if you don’t make it a process that you follow every day. And I’m lucky that I fell into it this way.
I think another practice that I tried to do, I did it before I had children, is to go to annual meditation retreat. And you know, the, the Tibetans and Theravadans do this a very different way. So you compare the Vipassana style retreat where there’s noble silence and then compare it to a Tibetan style retreat where everyone’s talking all time.
And you know, I guess you can just choose your own fancy, whatever works for you. But I do feel like a good friend of mine gave me this advice very early on. He said, put this on your calendar one year in advance and so you have no way of getting out of it, and so you can just block them. When the time comes, you just go.
And I give this advice to people very often and I personally try to do it. But when you have young children, you have to seek clearance from multiple parties in order to go. So yes, I just returned from one and it’s probably my second one since I’ve become a father. And I’m very thankful to my wife for actually giving me the time to do it.
[00:12:59] Kai Xin:
Sadhu, I’m very curious, how do you convince multiple stakeholders to let you go on the retreat?
Well, the story of how I went to my very first one was because of burnout., So I had set up two schools back to back in Singapore. The last school I did without power and water in 55 days, and it’s a large school with more than a thousand students.
And it really took a lot outta me. And after it was done, I couldn’t feel joy. So I had parents coming up to me thanking me for setting up the school. And it, it is probably one of the schools I’ve set up that I know have really made a big impact on society. And to me, I just couldn’t take in any more joy.
I was just out. So a good friend of mine, he had sent me this link to this, retreat in the US and said, “Hey, by the way, there’s this guy doing this retreat next week, you can consider it. And I booked it, flew off, did it, came back, and then when I met up with this friend after that, I said, “Hey, remember that thing you shared?
Yeah. I actually went for it. He said, really? I hadn’t expected you to.
So I fell into this cadence that way. With regards to stakeholders, I think the first time you do it, the people around you have this whole myriad of, of emotions, right? I think some of them think that like your boss is weird. Some of them think boss is running away. I’m sure alot of them think thank God, boss is not in my face.
When I came back from my first one. So I actually got to a place where I could hear my heartbeat at every moment, which was fascinating. I haven’t been able to hear that ever since. And to my team members I seemed Very out of it in a way, in reality, I had discovered what it feels like to experience everyday mindfulness. So they actually said, I felt lost and different, because I came back so different from what I was used to, and as time goes by, you revert back to your usual self. It is the way of the world.
The second one I went to was on a concentration meditation. One of the insights I had from it was the realization that it’s my life’s purpose to run Etonhouse, to run this international education group, and that’s why I’m in this world. So that realization came to me, and like all good realizations it’s, it’s very tiny part cognitive and it’s a much larger proportion knowing with your whole being.
And so when I came back, actually I had a lot of thoughts and ideas and the team came back very surprised. Cause, you know, the first time boss comes back very Zonked out, and second time the boss comes back fired up and actually a few came up to ask what exactly were you doing over there?
They’ve come to realize that it’s an important part of me and the first time I went, everyone felt I needed a vacation.
The second time I went, they realized that it was almost like it was gonna be good for the business. I think that’s the way how my boss, my mother, looked at it. Maybe. I think for my team members, they realized that it was my way to get greater clarity on what we were doing.
[00:16:17] Kai Xin:
Hmm. So they saw your transformation and they felt like it’s not so much of an obstacle for the business, but you going and coming back actually brings great benefit.
Well, I can’t speak for what they say, but I mean, I do believe that, you know, it’s important for us to rest and recharge. We’re not machines and you know, this is important and relevant and it’s important for at least once a year we go for a longer break. How long is relative to everyone and it’s something I do encourage in my team, for my direct team members.
So yes, actually they do do that.
But I think what different about this is that you go alone and I haven’t actually spoken to them about being in noble silence. Cause one particular team member she’s incredibly talkative , and I’ve often joked to her. I mean, I thought to myself like, yeah, maybe you should go a meditation retreat cause you experienced the opposite.
So sometimes people ask me about this and I tell them that, you know, who are you when you strip everything away, where you can’t even express anything verbally. And who is this person left behind? And I get very weird looks when I, I say that to people, but I think for those of us that have retreats, I think we all understand.
That’s two very, very powerful questions. Who are you when you strip everything away? And who is this person left behind? And do you think you are close to finding the answer for those two questions?
Well, I think in another world I would probably be a very happy monastic, but I also feel like I’ll be a very impatient monastic. I think there’s a side of me that does wanna get stuff done and sometimes I’ve heard before, that the greatest suffering is actually in the walls of a monastery, so far yet so close. But to me, yes, I, I think I’m generally a very happy person. After passing the first four days.
Your mind takes that time to settle down..
[00:18:21] Kai Xin:
For me, I think day one is the most peaceful, cuz like, oh, finally I got a break. And then the last day is usually the most frustrating for me. Cuz like, it’s a form of escape, right? So I think it’s so important to be able to integrate that to the day-to-day life. And I wonder how do you do that?
Cause you run a school, a lot of people are under you. I think it’s good that you have the 15 minute a day practice. How else do you integrate mindfulness into your, your work or the way you lead?
Well, I don’t do this. I mean when I first met Chade-Meng Tan, he introduced the concept of the one minute meditation.
And I really wish I could tell you that A, I did this in my team very often, and b, that I do this very often myself. But both of these are lies, I don’t do that very often. I have that you can say grounding exercises that are secular at work and in these small groups that I’m part of. And I think personally, I believe that I have very secular beliefs in terms of religion and I think even today I would, I’m not entirely sure if I would call myself Buddhist.
And also there are very many forms of Buddhist, so I can’t actually pinpoint if I am Buddhist what exactly I am. But when it comes down to what I would call secular practices, I mean just breathing exercises, body scans, and you can say, call it positive psychology or whatever you want, just telling yourself that you’re safe, that you have everything that you need and that you’re loved. I think all these things are secular. So I do do these things in public settings.
In my own wedding actually. I led a loving kindness meditation it was my wife’s idea. Yeah, it was pretty cool. And I think I wish I did it more and I’ve actually been told that I should, and I do feel like there’s this side of me that I don’t want to intrude on other people’s religious beliefs or as a bit of like an imposter syndrome of like, who are you doing these things?
But yes, I, I do know that I should do this more. And that when a leader does this, it shows to everyone that, look, I care about your wellbeing and that we want everyone to be space. So it’s something which I think is important for me to role model. And I’m doing more and more of every year, but I do still feel very important.
And perhaps it’s because. What I do for a living influences directly the lives of young children, that it might have a very strong impact to them their whole lives. I think the secular part of this is still very strong in me.
I’ve been called a hypocrite about this because people have said like, look if Christian schools have chapel, and if you consider yourself Buddhist then why do you feel awkward doing this?
And I think for me maybe it’s because I know I’m not Christian and I went to Methodist College and I really didn’t like being a chapel and I couldn’t get outta it. So perhaps that’s why I feel very strongly about their respecting peoples boundaries.
[00:21:22] Kai Xin:
How do you integrate that to your work culture too, because I mean, people usually also would associate mindfulness meditation with religion and I think some is like, oh, you know, is, is this the back door or to Buddhism? And do you face any resistance when you’re trying to, you know, ground people through all this practices at work?
Oh, sorry Cheryl.
Oh, sorry. Just to add on, I think specifically also, cause I think you partner with Contentment Foundation to offer mindfulness, like formal programs. And with that context also, are there any resistance there?
Yeah, actually both your questions implementing something like this in the organisation.
There are many mindfulness programs out there for schools, most of which are completely secular, which was important to me. And when I was exploring the implementation of this in schools, I began to actually realize what some people’s boundaries are.
I would say that well for most people when they experience the practices themselves, and I always invite people like, look, if you feel that intrudes upon your boundaries, stop. You can stand up, you can walk away. I wouldn’t take offense at all. And it’s your decision, but I always preface this very clearly. I give them a bit of a mini briefing about what I’m going to do, and my practices aren’t very long. The maximum I would do at work is five minutes. And maybe I have a very sensitive hearing. You know, when people aren’t really involved, when you start hearing very long sighs. I, try to read the room while leading it.
I’ve had people come up to me saying they’re not comfortable and I say, look, it’s okay, you can step out.
And for this particular person, what happened is, she spoke to her pastor and she did a lot of research online and the answer that came back with her was, I’m OK with a guided meditation to do with my body or to do with instructions that would make me feel happier and better.
I’m not okay with sitting down and having a blank space because, it’s my relationship with God, and I don’t want you to be part of that. And I really appreciated her actually telling me that this is her boundary and I respected that. So yeah, we were able to cross that hurdle.
And for our schools, for the Contentment Foundation, it’s very clearly secular.
Mindfulness is just the first pillar of four. Community is the second one. The third one is I believe self-actualization and the fourth one is very, it gets increasingly complex and I’ve always appreciated that cause Yes, mindfulness is a very internal journey, but there’s obviously a part to do with interpersonal relations, especially loving kindness.
I think the challenge is really living this and implementing this. There are plenty of people who meditate a lot of hours in a day, but then, you know, they might not be very nice people to be around, and then I would say it’s a failure, and so I think it’s important for us to be able to do the practices, but also be able to have a healthy culture within the organization.
I don’t do the Contentment Foundations program in every school. I do it for schools which I believe are open to this in Singapore, I believe four schools doing it right now. And it’s something that I hope to progressively roll out.
[00:24:50] Kai Xin:
Yeah, that’s very skillful because I think personally, I feel like breath, you know, everyone has it, it’s secular, and Buddhism is not really a religion also, but that’s my perception. So it’s very skillful for you to open the conversation with people to step out and say, “Hey, I don’t feel very comfortable with this. Can we switch it to something else?”
And also going back to the intent: why do we want to bring such activities or practices in the school is really to benefit people. So if they feel uncomfortable, then perhaps it’s further away from a calm mind, they’ll get more agitated, maybe don’t feel so good at work also, and it can backfire.
So thanks. Thanks for sharing that piece. I’m wondering if you don’t have this mindfulness practice, who do you think you will be today?
I think anyone who’s been in a senior position and anyone who’s worked in a family business has thought about leaving. In family business, we have a joke about hotel California: you can check in but you can’t check out. and I, I don’t know if I would be doing what I’m doing now, and I think that might have taken me away from my life. So who knows? We just don’t know that it’s one of those unknown unknowns. I do think that I probably would’ve a more challenging relationship with my wife and I do think that I’m quite hard on myself to begin with and I think I might have be even harder on myself.
[00:26:26] Kai Xin:
Yeah. And I think people can be hard on you also. And it’s good that you do the loving-kindness thing. I think the, the wedding idea, it’s fantastic. Yeah. I would like to ask this question to Cheryl also, cuz Cheryl also guides meditation at work in different contexts. Who will you be, Cheryl if you don’t have mindfulness?
It’s a very interesting question, I think, cause I started meditation and mindfulness on the wrong foot actually. It started from a place of insecurity. So I was bullied and then it was kind of, I didn’t, I feel like I didn’t have any worth. Because being bullied. Yeah, isolated. Isolated, you’re different from everyone else.
So meditation, mindfulness was kind of an identity that I took on to protect myself. You know, I’m cool. I have something, this is my shield. So for many years I struggled with that until maybe like one, two years ago I realised that it was a form of escapism. And meditation is really not about that.
It’s about embracing the discomfort, embracing the unglam parts of yourself. And I think without mindfulness, I will probably be stuck in a very dark place uh not being able to become friends with myself, so just forever at loggerheads with my inner critic. But with mindfulness now, I think, I can put the inner critic aside and say, “Hey, thanks, thanks for your concern, but you know, you’re not exactly helping me out right now, so let’s change the narrative a little bit.”
So I wouldn’t want to imagine my life without mindfulness. I think it’s kind of part of my DNA now but not, not in the unhealthy way of it being a mask protection, but rather just a, I guess, a soft landing when life gets tough. So hope that answers the question
[00:28:21] Kai Xin:
Yeah, I loved it and I, I can relate to both because I am very hard on myself.
And also I think to some extent in the past without meditation, I’m just so busy and occupied with life and I thought that I’m living life purposefully, but I was just running away from my own thoughts. And when I finally was able to sit down, like, wow, you know, it’s so amplified, it’s so loud. I didn’t know I had all this maybe insecurities these worries and it really took a while for me to be courageous enough to look inwards and now even though outwardly I might be doing the same thing, but it comes from a very different place. And it is also my wish that I can die peacefully with the calm mind. Recently, I had a health scare and I thought I was gonna die.
And then it was quite interesting because that’s where the push comes to shove, and I know, okay, my mindfulness practice is not as good as I thought it is because I still had a fear and anxiety. And also like the how fleeting life is because I went to AnE and then I was asking the doctor how’s my organs?
And the moment the doctor said that, oh, your, your kidney is fine. Wow. I just went back to autopilot mode and started planning my week, my month, when’s my next appointment to rescheduling. And then when I look back in hindsight, it’s quite funny because the mind plays trick and there’s a lot of unconditioning that we have to do.
So yeah, mindfulness practice I think it’s definitely essential. It’s not really a good to have, but a must-have. And I’ve learned that if it is, like we see it as an essential part of life, we would find time to meditate.
Actually, I, I like to build up on that cause
I began to explore this element. I experienced this myself where there’s a criticism, especially in some schools of Tibetan Buddhism that like generic mindfulness makes people more compliant. And in a way I kind of understand what they mean because I went to a particular workshop, I don’t how to describe this workshop.
It was effectively systems theory in actions. And certain very provoking things occurred in the workshop where Yeah, so basically you could say that people were triggering each other’s poop that was triggering everyone’s poop. And they’re like, yeah, there’s a lot of poop. And my boundaries weren’t very strong then.
But I almost feel like, in a way, cause of my mindfulness practice, I was able to let a lot in and to let a lot sit with me. And I began to realise that actually, boundaries are incredibly important. And maybe it’s because of what I do, or maybe it’s because of the way I’m choosing to live my life, but I’m not a monastic who can care about every and all degrees of suffering all around me all the time. And with equal attention. And that sometimes I realise that, ‘look, this is your poop within you, it is not my poop’. And I think that’s actually, and that, you know, I know who I am and I am not that. And I, I think there was actually quite an important realization of me. So you could argue that maybe when you meditate a lot, and especially when you mix around the crowd of people who tend to meditate a lot, there’s a lot of love for everyone around you. I mean, no pressure for like, you know, love for all sentient beings, but then on the other side it’s just not really that possible. And you have to realize that if this is this person’s suffering, that person’s suffering shouldn’t become your suffering.
I mean, obviously we want the help, but it doesn’t mean that this burden is compounded on me.
So it was a realization that I’ve had and I feel like there’s something that it wasn’t easy for me to realize. It was actually my wife who pointed that out to me. Like, what’s wrong with you? because I went to this 5 day course I got a migraine for four days.
[00:32:17] Kai Xin:
Wow. It sounds really intense.
Yeah, it was really intense. But I think I have that course to thank for me to actually realize that, and yeah, just trying to process all of that.
[00:32:28] Kai Xin:
It’s interesting you call it poop, I guess because of your line of work, you can’t swear, so you tone it down.
Cause we have other podcast guests, they curse on our podcast.
Yeah. I guess there’s pg and there’s G.
[00:32:43] Kai Xin:
It’s interesting you say Buddhists are compliant, so are you suggesting that we comply for the sake of complying and sometimes don’t set boundaries? And that’s where we might get our internal emotions stirred up or not very beneficial. So that’s where mindfulness comes in to know, okay, when is the line to be drawn? Just so I interpret your sharing correctly.
Actually, I wasn’t applying this to Buddhists as a whole. When you’re taught generic mindfulness you’re almost taught to deal with and sit with discomfort and to sit with all these thoughts that come and go.
And to just, to sit through it. I mean, power hour is power hour, right? And I think a lot of us realize that that yeah, you know, all these things pass. Yeah. I think it’s something that we all realise and that’s great, but it shouldn’t actually build up, what I can call it stupid grit. You know, grit is good, but the same time, Yeah.
Yeah. Wisdom is very important. That’s why we do all this to achieve it.
Yeah. So don’t lose yourself while doing it.
And I guess that’s why mindfulness is always complemented with wisdom and loving-kindness. And loving kindness always starts with ourselves, making sure that we are full, we’re feeling good, feeling safe as well, and our boundaries are not overstepped, before we can then take on other people’s poop and, and help to reduce that.
But if we are not taking care of ourselves, it’s almost impossible to do that.
[00:34:14] Kai Xin:
Yeah, that’s so true. And I think to some extent you packing a bag and flying for a retreat is also setting boundaries, right? There’s a threshold and maximum amount of capacity that you can intake all these things that’s happening and sometimes, you know, hitting the reset button is good and you come back stronger.
I feel this is particularly important as an advice to Buddhist practitioners. Cause in the past especially, I would feel so lousy. You know, shouldn’t I be more tolerant? You know, shouldn’t I be kinder? Why am I angry? And then I take it upon myself, which is also not very good because that’s also moving further away from lessening greed, hatred and delusion.
So thanks for that.
I have a super curious question, and this comes from my reflection, talking with a lot of Buddhist friends who meditate and experience sometimes profound deep states that is very unusual and you cannot find this kinda pleasure in the world. So as you meditate, do you feel that sometimes you would have a disconnect with the world in general where you find yourself like one feet into the spiritual realm and one fit in the material world and you find at any point the divide is getting a little bit bigger, if you get my question.
Yeah. Actually, I get your question. And I think anyone who’s experienced states like this, the answer is obviously yes. I think the framework and I understand what I’ve experienced is I guess they call it the Jhanas.
The analogy I give people is You can use depth, ocean depth as an analogy here. So I guess the conventional mainstream Theravada as an institution, Theravada Buddhism would describe the Jhanas as like maybe 1000 meter version. I’ve, I’ve probably experienced maybe the 300-meter or the 500-meter version of that, and I’ve also experienced the 5-meter version of that.
I personally think it’s relative, and I think definitely when you experience the deeper depth I’m talking about, yes for sure It’s something that it’s totally unlike reality. It is a new reality or I dunno, really what to call it. And I think for me when I exit these states the real world actually feels, I hear a difference.
My emotions are different and it’s actually very strange because I almost feel like a robot for a little bit of time because emotions just hit very differently. And cause you’re so at peace and everything is like, oh, okay, it’s like this and you can deal with it like this. And I think you can rub people off the wrong way cause they assume that you’re angry cause you have no emotion in your body. And for me, I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep for hours after this. And, it’s very unfortunate whenever I encounter this in way, cause like I tend to do it at night and then like, then just ruins my sleep cycle.
Unfortunately, you can’t really watch this away, so you try to work like a good Singaporean and I was incredibly productive, and then I’ll play computer games and I’ll get all highest scores possible. So I play first-person shooter and then then this like challenge move and I’ll get this high score that I’ll never achieve in a non-Jhana state.
And so you know, when you discover this other sense of processing reality, there’s also this learning that you have to go, you have to learn that look, it’s not the real world. And from what I understand I think the first time I got there, I actually thought to myself, oh, this is what enlightenment feels like all the time.
But from what I understand, they don’t feel that way either. Like their sense of reality is not what I’ve experienced. So I’m sorry this is a great mystery. I still have, but I do feel like that yes, this is another box of suffering to open up and to explore.
[00:38:18] Kai Xin:
Cheryl is deep in thought. How many meters is your thought?
Do you feel like it’s something that you need to reconcile with? Because like Buddha, just ran off in the middle of the night to go and explore after seeing old age, sickness and death, he couldn’t unsee that. And, you know, he, he decided that, okay, I need to go off and find the answers.
But obviously we can’t just do that. Or I guess, you know, general people wouldn’t just throw everything away, especially in your case, family, business, three kids, your wife and, and all this stuff. So is it something where you just kinda accept that this is the state where, you know, it’s, it’s struggle, it’s where I would just have to be, stay in it for a while and then answers would just pop out on its own?
Or are you doing anything actively?
Actually, for me, I feel like I found my answer. This life my purpose is to run this school group to make the biggest impact possible. It’s very clear for me. And once it landed, I knew it. So my path is not enlightenment, this life or, and, you know, maybe never, maybe never life.
So I, I know that this is what I’m here to do and whatever practices that I know that are important to me in, and in a certain way I accept.
[00:39:47] Kai Xin:
I guess you can plan the seeds of enlightenment in whatever you do. That’s actually very beautiful and I think it also nicely wraps up the episode. We’ve covered quite a lot. I think when you first started, you also mentioned that you have this thing in you that, hey, you know, Etonhouse you wanna make the greatest impact.
You’ve talked about how it’s actually not so rosy, you know, like, oh yeah, mindfulness is putting work. Then what? Suddenly you become a saint, but it’s a journey. Sometimes you don’t react and respond so well, and that’s also okay. And however you try to integrate a routine in your day-to-day.
I think that’s very helpful and being able to identify boundaries. I think that theme came out quite a lot, be it whether it is kind of introducing mindfulness practice to other people, you know, what their boundaries are and our own personal boundaries when it comes to our capacity to help, to tolerate poop and to tolerate our own poop as well.
Yeah. I would like to ask if there’s anything else that you’d like to share before we officially end the episode. And Cheryl, as well.
No, I was just laughing to myself. Cause you know, when I share that philosophy that I know that like the enlightenment is not my path. Like, I guess I get very interesting responses from Buddhist and then they go like, No, no. You Go ahead, bro. It’s ok.
I mean, everyone’s journey, right? Yeah. Yeah. And I think for whatever way, shape, or form, like yeah, I know it’s not my yet.
[00:41:27] Kai Xin:
Yeah. Perhaps not this life. Maybe next, life you have a different, you know, intent and that’s also
or maybe next retreat.
Oh, yes, yes. True. Yeah. We’ll see.
[00:41:41] Kai Xin:
All right. I would like to leave with one note. I just suddenly thought of it regarding mindfulness practice in day-to-day, cause I think you’re so busy. You have proven that it is possible to integrate in day-to-day life. And even if you can’t do even the one minute breath. I’ve learned this from one of the monk, I think it’s called the Luangpor Sumedho method whereby every door you walk past, you would just be aware of your breath. So you know how sometimes we enter a room without knowing that we enter a room or like we shampoo our head twice, things like that. So I found that to be very helpful. I mean, we don’t need extra time to be mindful, but just passing the door and that can be our sign post.
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About Jhanas in Theravada Buddhism: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/gunaratana/wheel351.html
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Editor and transcriber of this episode: Tee Ke Hui, Cheryl Cheah, Koh Kai Xin