Editor’s note: In conversation with Sayalay Sujata, a financial broker turned Buddhist Nun. Cheryl shares her learnings and insights from her chat!
TLDR: The chase, the corporate life, where can we find happiness? Sayalay Sujata, a Buddhist Nun, shares more about her journey and that you need not become a monastic to experience contentment in life!
The chase of travel, wine, food, and luxury
Sayalay grew up in a family where material wealth was not abundant, and she thought pursuing and owning material wealth will help to fill that lack and bring her happiness in life. And thus, the endless pursuit for the 5Cs’( this was in the 80s, 90s) began.
She worked hard in the banking industry and was living the “material dream.” With a high-paying job, her luxurious lifestyle was enviable to many looking from the outside – travelling, wine and dine, expensive exotic food were the norms.
However, as she filled her life with material pleasures, somewhere deep down, she was still unable to deny the sense of emptiness within her, and she was stuck in the state of, ‘having everything, yet not feeling happy.’
With a stroke of right luck and good timing, she went for her first seven-day meditation retreat without much expectations.
She followed the teacher’s instructions, and on the fifth day, she experienced a short but profound moment of peace, calm and joy in her heart. And she found the answer right then and there to her question: “Where can happiness be found?”
That was the start of her Dhamma journey which eventually led her down the path of taking up the robes of a monastic.
Her story taught me that thinking that happiness comes from outside – either from another person or some activities or achievement in our life, can cause us a lot of disappointment.
Perhaps happiness is not out there, nor in the next moment, but right here and now. We complicate happiness by adding on terms and sometimes impossible conditions – after getting a pay rise, after $X million, after the next social media post.
This perspective narrows the definition of happiness to become outcome-specific, as it is conditional upon getting what we want. By extension, when things don’t go the way we want, life becomes miserable.
Stopping the scrolling and grounding our attention
In Sayalay’s journey, it seems that the answer to happiness is to stop the pursuit. It was when she disconnected from the world and come into the present moment with no expectations, that she found happiness. Simply pause, and connect to our present moment – through the five senses. It was when she interacted with her experiences of the world through what she sees, hears, touch, taste, feel, that she was able to feel a deep sense of peace.
Maybe when you are next on the MRT, stop scrolling and just take a gentle in and out breath and ground your attention back to your physical body. It helps brings us back to the here and now, to take in where we are on our journey (pun intended), and for the possible first time, experience the abundance that we already have in our lives.
Happiness is simple, happiness does not ask for much and we can awake to that by remembering to be present in the here and now.
After 20 years as a nun, what is the path?
The conversation with Sayalay also took a deeper turn as she reflected on her 20 years as a monastic. We discussed the idea of renunciation.
Traditionally, most people will think that ordination (to become a monk or nun) is the only path for someone who chooses to practice Buddhism seriously.
But after walking through the whole journey herself, she realized that ordination is not the only path we need to walk towards to find true peace and happiness.
To find true peace and happiness, the answer lies in getting to know ourselves better. Reflecting on the ups and downs in our life can bring clarity to what contributes to a happier life, and on the flip side, what perpetuates our stress and restlessness.
This helps us to focus on the important areas in our lives, and relinquish the conditions for suffering. No matter what outfit you come packaged in, be it a monastic or lay person, “Theravadan”, “Mahayanan” or “Tibetan”, she reminds me that mental relinquishment is much more important than physical relinquishment and if done right, you can experience a sense of peace and grounding.
For example, relinquishing your bad habits and selfish thought patterns yields more happiness than clinging to the identity of “being a Buddhist,” and engaging in endless debates on which is the “best” Buddhist tradition.
Escaping the judging mind
Often, I get caught in the packaging rather than the contents – and project my expectations and ideals rather than focus on the heart of the teachings.
For example, when observing rituals or chanting ceremonies that I’m unfamiliar with, I notice that my mind jumps into the “judging mode” and I wear a sceptical lens.
Rather than appreciating the peaceful practice, my mind compares the experience and immediately labels it as “good” or “bad”.
Sayalay’s timely sharing on looking at what’s important, not just the packaging taught me to open my heart and invite curiosity into whatever I experience in the present moment, and more importantly, to take the opportunity to reflect on whether judging others contribute to my happiness.
If it doesn’t add to long-term happiness in my life, then use the experience as a lesson in “relinquishment” of my views.
Despite being a monastic for 20 years, Sayalay has a very humble presence that makes her easy to talk to and for me to open up to. I have learnt a lot from Sayalay’s inspiring journey and found many relatable aspects of her life that I experience in my own life. It reminded me that everyone is on their journey searching for meaning and true happiness in their lives, and the least we can do is to try to encourage each other on the wholesome path of seeking.
Finding pockets of time during your commute, to know what’s going on in the moment to breathe and just be with your breath
Whenever we are caught up in a critical mind, to pause our judgments and ask, does judging others make us happy?
TLDR: Having a set of goals to work towards gives us a sense of direction in life. Our society prizes this go-get-it attitude as a self-improvement hack; many of us strive for this mindset. However, there could be a risk of doing something just for the sake of it and we may end up beating ourselves for getting lost in the pursuit of excellence.
Many of us have been conditioned to chase something, consciously or unconsciously. We race with others to prove our worth, ever since birth – to be the first to crawl/walk/run, the top rank in class, the one to get into a famous university, the first to be office management level, the one who found ‘the one’ and have family……The list continues.
The neverending chase has been fuelled by the comparison trap we adopt from our parents, society and ourselves.
Have we ever pondered what is the source of our chasing mindset?
I was so used to the chase that I rushed from one achievement to another, not sparing time to truly soak in whatever I was doing and its outcome. After landing my first job as an accountant, I quickly enrolled on a professional certified course.
Upon completion, I thought, ‘what’s next?’. Before long, I was looking to register for a postgraduate degree.
I must admit those learnings were not in vain. I gained something out of them – both technical skills and soft skills like time-management, relational skills, self-organisation. These skills have been helpful to me in my personal and professional life. But whether or not I could use the effort on a more targeted outcome, that’s another question altogether.
To outsiders, I may look like someone with a thirst for knowledge (or paper certificate, for that matter).
Little did I know this chase was masked as self-improvement; there would always be a better thing to go for next if I don’t consciously define the outcome that I want to achieve.
This deceptive ‘self-improvement’ is not limited only to the worldly chase – I realised that I wanted to keep improving myself spiritually too. While spiritual advancement may be a sensible goal, my underlying intention was warped, at least initially.
I kept myself immersed in spiritual talks one after another. I sat meditating even when the heart refused to – just to prove that I, too, can evolve in my spiritual practice.
This spiritual chase resulted in resistance between the mind and the heart, not to mention the sense of dejection when I didn’t see the improvement I expected. Definitely not a fun experience!
The source of my chasing mindset was a sense of lacking self-worth. I wanted to prove myself a deserving human being by reaching the level that is deemed ‘good enough’. And we know that ‘good enough’ is a subjective measurement and may not serve as a good gauge.
Comparing myself today with who I was 3 years ago, for example, I can honestly say I have grown into a different and (hopefully) a better, more mature person. This is probably a better use of the comparison mind for improvement measurement.
Be kind to ourselves and others
I chanced upon an apt Dhamma talk by Venerable Ajahn Brahm on how we often hold on to ‘I need to be better’ thoughts just because everyone else thinks or expects so. Ajahn Brahm further taught that this ‘I’m not good enough’ mindset is neither kind nor helpful to ourselves.
Of course, we need to carefully distinguish between accepting ourselves with kindness and not growing out of unconstructive habits.
There could be a risk of not improving the mind under the false pretence of self-acceptance. Learn to be at peace with what we already have, then improvement would flow naturally.
Many of us may be performing good deeds and consciously express kindness to others. Doing so not only keeps the mind at peace but also elicits joy during and after the act. I identify with this definition of living a blessed life in the spirit of Mangala Sutta, when I can share and contribute what I have with others. However, with the chasing mentality, I might have forgotten about the one person who would benefit from such good deeds as well – myself.
How many times do we speak harsh words inside our head when we act less than ‘perfect’?
‘Why did you do that silly thing?’
‘How could you forget about that important event?’
‘What is wrong with you?’
I probably would not say such things to my close friends or even strangers, so why do I say them to myself? Am I unworthy of the same kindness I have so freely and joyfully shared with others?
Nowadays, I decide to contemplate my pursuits with an objective mind, even if it seems like an improvement on the surface:
‘Does this course/workshop feel aligned with the heart or is there another reason why I want to join?’
‘Do I feel joyful in learning or is it another medal on my chest to show the world?’
Suffering arises when we don’t get what we want and when we get what we don’t want
I recently read separate teaching from Venerable Ajahn Chah1 on “wanting with right understanding”. The teaching explained that desire towards and away from something can arise from us as worldly beings. I find resonance to this gentle outlook towards self and am aware that setting goals can start off my self-improvement actions – but blindly chasing and grasping the desire tightly is not right either. Instead, taking action accompanied by gradual and reflective practice would be more helpful.
For example, I started this article with the intention to write about chasing struggles. It has developed into deeper contemplation of my underlying beliefs and expanded thoughts that I am sharing now.
Trying to be mindful of my wanting and not-wanting, I do my best at the moment and allow the outcome to unfold.
I realise that telling myself to let go of expectation, is an expectation by itself – another debacle to untangle!
Rather, it is much more peaceful to put in my best effort for the situation; watch the result arise and take the next step from there.
When a learning experience concludes as expected or not, I try to take time to settle down and truly embrace the event. When another learning opportunity comes, I will then be able to jump in wholeheartedly. Even if I failed, I could learn from it. Failure is just another piece of feedback! With this outlook, I hopefully lessen the suffering created for myself.
I conclude that having a goal is necessary, especially for myself and many others who are just entering the ‘real’ life of the professional and social world.
Clarity of true motivation is essential as we take on the path, paired with conscious kindness towards ourselves when the comparison mind takes a negative turn. The next time I look at others and start to put them on the pedestal with an unreasonable expectation of myself, I will remind myself: ‘remember how far you have gone’ and ‘we all have our own path to take’.