TLDR: Learning to be okay with not feeling okay can help us recover better when an unexpected illness happens
It was during a meal that Celeste, in her 20s, began to feel some slight discomfort. Her throat was dry and her nose was runny after having Tom Yum soup.
At 4 am, Celeste confirmed that her discomfort was not from the Tom Yum but something worse.
Her test result showed she was positive for Covid-19. It was something that she never expected to contract as she had taken many precautions.
Fever and body ache struck her quickly. This shocked her as she assumed that after being fully vaccinated, and keeping a healthy lifestyle, it will pass like a breeze.
That was far from the truth as she entered Day 2 of home recovery.
Rotten food & rotten plans
Celeste felt that being a swim coach, playing tennis & yoga, coupled with healthy eating would provide a strong trampoline for recovery on Day 2. Covid had other plans installed for her. It was not going away.
“I lost my sense of smell. Everything tasted like rotten food”, she recalled.
Fear arose when she Googled and found that some people stopped eating even after recovery as their sense of smell never recovered fully. They had lost interest in eating as it was no longer enjoyable.
The fear then morphed into self-blame for falling sick.
“I didn’t realise it was unkind until the anger and fear clouded my mind. It made me afraid of Dukkha (Suffering)”, she recalled.
Her meditation practise helped make her aware of the unnecessary self-criticism and blame she was laying on herself. However, the fear and anger grew in her mind.
Soothing Fear with Dhamma
As the fear paralysed Celeste, she decided to use piano music to calm herself as she lay in bed. However, the mental proliferations filled with fear did not go away.
She then recalled a playlist of talks recommended by her Dhamma friends from her young working adult Dhamma group (DAYWA). Being new to Buddhism, she was unfamiliar with whether it would help but decided to give the playlist a try.
“Be okay that you are not feeling okay”, Ajahn Brahm, the monk on the playlist, advised. This struck her hard.
She was always trying too hard to be healthy. Covid was something beyond her control. Despite being fully vaccinated, she still fell deeply sick. Acknowledging that it is okay to fall sick was a great relief to her heart and mind.
“90% of my worries never came through. I spent so much time worrying about things that never happen”, recalled Celeste as she was recovering.
After the one hour Dhamma talk, Celeste felt at ease and fell into a deep sleep.
Returning to senses
Celeste, having heard numerous mind-soothing episodes of Dhamma talks, was ready to accept a life of no smell. She reflected that she had taken her 5 senses for granted and realised that they did not belong to ‘us’ strictly as we could not command them as we like.
“We don’t own these senses, senses are merely borrowed. Not Mine, not myself.” she reflected.
Celeste was internalising and seeing first-hand what Buddha talked about non-self. We do not control our body and mind as much we would love to. For if our body was fully ours, it wouldn’t lead to dissatisfaction and we would have full control.
This brought to mind Buddha’s teaching to monks in the following dialogue:
What do you think, monks? Is form (body) permanent or impermanent?”
“But if it’s impermanent, is it suffering or happiness?”
“But if it’s impermanent, suffering, and perishable, is it fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self’?”
As Celeste was coming to peace with her lack of smell senses, it came back to her. She was beginning on her upward path to recovery.
Associating with the kind
As she slowly recovered, she found that body aches and pain remained. However, she avoided the trap of feeling unhappy with her body.
“Wanting things to be perfect feed the monster within you. Pain reminds you that your body is not perfect…and that’s okay”, Celeste shared.
Beyond the Dhamma talks, her loved ones were pivotal in lifting her towards full recovery.
Her in-laws delivered her favourite vegetables that she loved to eat even when the Delta variant was a real threat to their health. Her yoga friends delivered herbal tea and cooked for her.
This difficult period also made her appreciate her husband more (who was also infected and had to be hospitalised). Life and death became very real for her when her husband heart rate dropped drastically which landed him in the hospital as she lay at home infected with Covid.
“These moments made me count my blessings and not take them (loved ones) for granted”, Celeste recalled.
Life lessons from covid
This episode made Celeste rethink the way she was living her life. She decided to cut down on some overindulgence she was partaking in, such as midnight movies and sleeping late. Maintaining health was a crucial component of her life that she wanted to strengthen.
She then aspired to dedicate more time and consistency to her meditation practice which tide her over this tough period. She found herself meditating less when times were going good for her and hence, aspires to build a consistent habit of meditating regardless of the times.
“Be patient and be unafraid” she advised those who may face such an unexpected infection.
“For your friends infected with Covid, ask them how you can help them. Delivering food and checking in on them really lifts their spirits”, she encouraged.
In our darkest and lowest times, recollecting the Dhamma is one way to rest our minds at peace. This allows our body and mind to be okay at being not okay, paving the way for deeper healing.
Create a playlist of your favourite Dhamma talks that you can listen to in times of trouble
Every hardship we face is an opportunity for us to turn towards the truths of life or remain in our perceived truths of life
TLDR: With wisdom, we wake up to achieve our human potential. With mindfulness and metta, we rest our minds. Gathering the Buddha’s teachings, I reflect on waking and sleeping better.
Time flies. Days and nights passing away. How are we spending our time?
I pull overtime at my job almost daily. Time passes in a blur as if I were on a roller coaster ride. Exhaustion and sleep punctuate work; work thoughts disrupt my sleep.
Waking up, pangs of dread overwhelm the heart — the daily existence is a grind.
Despite the grind, an awareness that ‘Life can be better,’ nags on. The heart is eager for nourishment.
Two Important Moments Of The Day
If waking up and sleeping point to the start and the end of a day, they become two important moments. A question then surfaces, “What is a skillful way to sleep and to wake?”
What does the Buddha and the Sangha (the community of monastics) recommend? Tucking this question in mind, I sought for answers.
In a weekly morning podcast by Dhammagiri Forest Hermitage, I posed the question to my teacher Venerable Ajahn Dhammasiha. He is a German monk residing in Brisbane, Australia. His answer is simple:
“The Buddha teaches us to be mindful all the way to the moment we sleep.“
Lying down mindfully (on our right), we direct our minds to the time we wish to wake up the next morning. Intend to wake up by then. Thereafter, focus the mind on a suitable meditation object, such as loving-kindness (metta or thoughts of goodwill). Thinking:
‘May all beings be well and happy. May I be well and happy. May everyone be free from suffering. May all be safe and at ease…’
At the first moment of waking up, we develop metta within our hearts. We then radiate warmth and kindness in all directions.”
The Resolution to be Kind
Here, I recall a teaching from Venerable Ajahn Anan. Ajahn Anan is a Thai Forest Tradition master and the abbot of Thai Monastery Wat Marp Jan. He reminds us of the following:
“Waking up, be determined to not give in to anger and ill-will. Be resolute to be kind and compassionate to others because all beings are suffering.
Making this determination doesn’t mean that the mind will not experience anger or ill-will later in the day. We need to train our minds to let go:
‘What is the point of being angry when I am going to die? What’s the point of fear? We are all going to die- death is the culmination of our lives. It is inevitable that we will die.’ Knowing this, anger is a waste of our precious time.”
Fighting against the Sweet Nectar of Snooze
For some night-owl like me, waking up does not often translate to getting out of bed immediately. Zzzng zzng. Snooze. Just one more minute. Zzng zzng zzng. Snooze, repeat. Sounds familiar? All that snoozing conditions the mind for more sloth and laziness at our first opportunity for exertion.
There is simply too much inertia to overcome in the morning. This is evident if the day did not bring anything promising to look forward to. What can we do?
Venerable Ajahn Dhammasiha suggests automatic lighting that switches on with chanting, instead of a regular alarm. Now, that is creative. I wish my home had smart lighting. For those who use analog light switches, the next best option is to set your alarm tone with a recording of the Pali morning chant and spring up for the lights upon “Arahaṁ sammāsambuddho bhagavā…”
Is this challenge possible? What makes me so sure a perpetual snoozer would jump up at that?
Contemplating Hell to Roast Us Back to Reality
For monks in the Thai Forest Tradition, they sleep less and wake up earlier than most of us in the wee hours of the morning. How do they do that?
Venerable Ajahn Chah, the teacher of both Venerable Ajahn Anan and Venerable Ajahn Dhammasiha, had a curious way of training his disciples to wake up on time as the abbot of Wat Pah Pong, a Thai Forest monastery. I paraphrase Venerable Ajahn Chah’s exhortation as follows:
“When you are awake, think, ‘Should I return to sleep, may I drop to hell when I die.’ Really believe in this and you dare not return to bed.”
A fellow practitioner I know uses this method with much success for his morning spiritual routine. For those who are not ready to believe in hell’s existence or who prefer a gentler but no less serious reminder, contemplate death:
“Life is uncertain. Death is certain. I am grateful for being alive today. Death can come at any time. May I make use of what limited time I have as a human being. May I exert energy for the benefit of myself and others.”
Having tried these contemplations personally, the mind may still not be fully awake to gain physical momentum to get out of bed. During these trying moments, we must rely on our sheer willpower to pull away the covers:
Change the posture to sit up. Plant both feets to the ground. Stand. Head for the lights. Then, step out of the door.
The struggle is worth it. A day of opportunity awaits.
What is the Reward?
The still silence of the morning permeates our hearts as we go about our routine. For many practitioners, they allow themselves to soak up the joy and peace arising from the morning chanting and meditation (more on chanting in another article).
To rise early with a clear mind demands the discipline to sleep early. Hence, we cannot be greedy with screen time on our electronic devices.
To borrow the following wisdom from our Christian friends:
“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens” – Ecclesiastes 3
There is a time for us to rest; a time to wake.
With wisdom, we wake up to achieve our human potential. With mindfulness and metta, we rest our minds. Wishing all beings wakeful and restful moments, always.
Start your morning with feelings of metta, or goodwill, to all beings around you!
Know what can move you out of laziness in bed? Contemplating hell? Or contemplating Death?
Instead of simply battling to rise out of bed, explore what also encourages you to sleep early! (E.g. Locking your electronics away at 1130pm to reduce blue light exposure)
This teaching is extracted from the Q&A section of a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Brahmali at Buddhist Society of Western Australia on “Buddhist attitudes towards worldly problems”. View the full talk here.
The following is a transcript of the above video with edits.
There is no way that the disappearance of Buddhism can be stopped by war. War will make it disappear even faster. Buddhism is the expression of how we live. Defending Buddhism through violence is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Buddhism should be defended through how we live our lives. Our lives should be an inspiration to other people. This is how we are most likely to support Buddhism for the future.
So, there is absolutely no grounds at all for violence. Sometimes, you hear arguments like, “we have to get rid of all these people such as the Muslims because they are invading our country, they are degrading us.”. This is the wrong way to think. Acting on such thoughts is the fastest way to destroy the good name of Buddhism in the world.
Muslims are human-beings too. They have feelings like everyone else. They just have a different religion.
Is there anytime when violence is approved by the Buddha?
The answer is ‘yes’.
The Buddha said, “I allow you to kill one thing, monks. What is that one thing? Anger.”
If we eliminate anger in our lives, that is that one thing we are allowed to kill. Apart from that, stay away from killing, stay away from violence. Violence does not work.
If you read the discourses of the Buddha, one of the things that is prevalent is the integrity they have. There is nothing in those suttas that can be construed in any way as supporting violence. Nothing. The early Buddhist suttas are absolutely devoid of it. There is the integrity to the teaching that is absolutely astonishing.
That sense of integrity, which is so strong is one of the reasons why I have such incredible faith in the Buddhist path.
There’s a famous monk in Burma who said to the army that violence is okay according to certain scriptures. The scripture that he had to cite, to be able to say that, was a history book. It was the history of Sri Lanka.
It’s called the Mahavamsa.
And he pointed, “well, in the Mahavamsa, there was an ancient King in Sri Lanka, and he killed all of these people.”. Then he asked the monks and the monks said something in the lines of, “yeah, they aren’t really people. Because they aren’t Buddhists”. What a really awful story!
Then he (Burmese monk) said that that is the precedent and it (killing) is okay. It’s a crazy thing!
But these are not the words of the Buddha. It has got nothing to do with Buddhist doctrine. It’s a history book about what happened in ancient Sri Lanka.
It is not something we can use to justify these things. And still, that’s how desperate they become. Because there’s nothing else to use in Buddhism.
Buddhist teaching has incredible integrity when it comes to not oppressing anyone. Not harming anyone.
This is an interesting idea in Buddhism – not to be harmful. It means you should be considerate. You should not be ruthless.
You should be ruthful. Full of ruth, full of compassion. You should not be inconsiderate. Because being inconsiderate basically means that you prioritise your greed and your desires over the consequences of that those greed have for other people.
Do good. Avoid evil. Purify the mind. This is the teaching of all Buddhas.
The Buddha only encouraged us to kill one thing – anger. This is reflected in the Ghatva Sutta, SN 1.71:
As she was standing to one side, a devata recited this verse to the Blessed One:
Having killed what, do you sleep in ease?
Having killed, what do you not grieve?
Of the slaying of what one thing does Gotama approve?
[The Buddha:] Having killed anger, you sleep in ease.
Having killed anger, you do not grieve.
The noble ones praise the slaying of anger — with its honeyed crest & poison root
— for having killed it, you do not grieve.
Strive to destroy the anger within you instead of letting anger destroy you.
Learn to be considerate and compassionate towards others, recognising that all beings desire happiness.
Inspire others to practise the teachings of the Buddha through your wholesome conduct instead of brute force.
TLDR: When we are at the height of our career success and plummet into failure overnight, what do we do? Gather our courage to see things from a different perspective.
The Highs Could Only Go Higher Right?
2019 was an amazing year for my career. I achieved the coveted promotion by securing large revenues for my company, the bosses had only praise for my hard work, and I earned nearly 1-year worth of bonus.
Times were good, and when January of 2020 approached, I had only big plans for the year. This was going to be the zenith, I knew that I would achieve my second promotion, earn even more money and shine ever bigger.
In a natural turn of events, I knew nothing.
The moment COVID began impacting Malaysia, my career nosedived in a single day. All the deals I had lined up were halted, and the tumultuous journey began.
Long were the days of tough talk with the bosses; it felt almost like a consistent interrogation revolving around my presence in the company despite my lack of revenue. It was apparent how the company now saw me as a burden.
The Crash Of Change
I was entangled in a mass and mess of emotions; my mind alike to the sea that I so love, unpredictable. Fury, jealousy, melancholy, had a wonderful time consuming my waking thoughts.
Thoughts of “Why can’t they understand my difficult situation?” and “Why are they making things difficult for me?” only oiled further anger within.
To soothe this heat, I began plotting to create reputation damage to the company. Sharing this with a good friend, he merely asked “What is the point of harming others and oneself?”
Building Courage Again
That phrase gave my mind a sudden epiphany. For years I have heard the phrase ‘embrace change’, but now I am behaving like a temperamental child robbed of desires.
It is odd how I welcome change with a big hug only if it is in my favour yet loathe the tide’s natural turn when my desires are unmet. What I needed, was quite simply courage.
Courage to admit that success and failure are betrothed, there is nothing shameful about failing. Courage to refrain from blaming an external party for the source of my negative emotions, and instead to realise that I am still a lot of work in progress. Courage to embrace change, both positive and negative with grace.
I found the Dhamma quote on being unshakeable when the winds of life blow inspiring:
TLDR: Burying our friends and ourselves with positive quotes when we are down can hurt. Active listening is one way to avoid toxic positivity
Heard Or Said Something Similar?
“Everything will be fine.”
“This too shall pass.”
“Good vibes only. Stay strong, jia you*!”
Social media rewards us for positively curated stories. This has created new challenges in how we manage the emotions of others and ourselves.
Toxic positivity: The forced blanket positive response to all difficult situations. The firm belief that keeping positive is the sole way you and others should live your life.
Though being positive is important. It is also important to let yourself experience difficult feelings. Here’s why toxic positivity is an issue and how we can be part of the solution.
Positivity Is Great.. So How Does Toxic Positivity Harm Us?
Positivity is important to keep us going in life. No doubt. ‘Focusing on what is good, will bring good’ we are taught. But like all things, e.g. Pandan Cake 🍰 , too much of something is not desirable.
Positivity becomes toxic when one rejects anything that triggers negative emotions and replaces it with positive motivational quotesor ‘vibes’. This habitual response to negativity has been found to create anxiety, depression or physical illness.
Ever tried to tell a panicking person to ‘stay calm’? I hope you didn’t!
Toxic positivity is not just an issue for your mind and body. It is an issue for others. Pushing it on others also makes you seem tone death.
The receiver of your ‘positive vibes’ comments may even start to feel bad about feeling bad. The last thing they need.
When we deny unpleasant emotions, we tend to make them bigger. Avoiding all negativity also reinforces the idea that we need not pay attention to it. This leaves it unprocessed in our psyche.
We slowly forget that emotions are not inherently good or bad but rather a guide in how we should make sense of things.
Signs of Toxic Positivity
These are some common experiences of toxic positivity to help recognise them in yourself and others.
Trying to ‘snap back to reality’ by saying (e.g., “it could be worse”) instead of validating their/ your emotional experience
Telling someone off for expressing frustration or anything non-positive
Hiding your true feelings and wanting it to be ‘over asap’
Attempting to “just get on with it” by dismissing strong emotions
Feeling guilty/ angry for feeling down.
Responding to people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements about positivity
Detoxing The Toxic Within Us
“To stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge — that is the path of true awakening.” Pema Chodron
It is easy to accept the pleasant people and situations of life. However, being able to accept the difficult people and situations is the path of spiritual growth. We find a place for deep healing and peace within ourselves.
Here’s what we can do for ourselves.
Give yourself permission to feel negative and positive emotions.
Journal about the emotion or sit with the emotion (if you can!).
Slowly uncover the cause and see what can you do to support yourself better in the future.
Talk to friends about it unreservedly.
Take a walk in nature to breathe in the fresh air
Detoxing the Toxic Towards Others
Being a lover of excel tables, this is a cheat sheet to help improve the ways we talk to others having a bad time. Being an “ex-serial toxic positivity promoter”, this table saved me dozens of time!
No one can be a bursting ray of sunshine every day and every hour. Accepting that it is only human will help you acknowledge the setbacks faced by yourself and others. Paying attention and processing negativity will help you better understand yourself and those around you.
*A popular Singapore term for encouraging others in difficulty
Memorise the chart of toxic positivity and avoid the traps you might fall into
Do not be afraid to acknowledge the negative emotions within you!